You know what I like to do for fun? Sit around and obsessively analyze the thoughtful, detailed, eloquent rejections my agent and I have received from editors. It reminds me of when I was sixteen and I’d try to figure out what my boyfriend really meant when he said, “I love you so much that I want to carve your name in my leg.”
But this post isn’t about my high school beau. Nor is this post about me and my rejection. This post is about what my pile of thoughtful, detailed, eloquent rejection letters reveals about traditional publishing.
The nice thing about receiving loads of rejections is that it’s easy to notice the trends! (I say this when I’m wearing my Brightside Betty underoos.) But it’s true. When my agent and I can see feedback trends, we can learn from them. We have noticed two biggies. First, some editors don’t quite connect with the narrator of Book #1 or the protag of Book #2. That’s OK. They are both a bit quirky. Not everyone can be everyone’s cuppa tea.
The other bit of recurring feedback is more interesting: several editors believe I have written genre-straddlers. Stories with audience-identity issues. Books that, if there were still bookstores in the world, would end up on the shelf called, “Transgenre’d.” Even when an editor falls in love with a story, if she doesn’t know what to do with it, she won’t buy it. She can’t buy it.
Here. I’ll show you some snippets to illustrate the editors’ concerns:
As much as I admire the originality and daring of the narration, I confess I don’t totally have a vision for the best way to publish the book. As we discussed on the phone, the book has elements that are a little YA and then elements that are definitely not.
Sarah Callend[e]r’s warmth as a writer illuminated [the book’s narrator] and her adventures. I did have some worries; that the book fell into a gray area between adult and YA.
While reading, I couldn’t help but be reminded of E.L. Konigsburg and Madeleine L’Engle (excellent authors to be reminded of while reading), but it also gave me pause as to how best to position and publish this book.
Such encouraging compliments. Still, publishing is a business. If editors can’t identify the target audience, how do they market it?
With the feedback on Book #1, I worked very hard to make Book #2 fit into a single, identifiable genre-box. But perhaps the stories I have in me, the only stories I want to tell, aren’t so easily boxed?
I’ll show you:
Sarah is such an interesting writer—there are definitely shades of A.S. King and Gary Schmidt about her. I loved how original this character was, and all the different layers she brought together. Ultimately, though, I’m afraid I still have the concern about the audience and voice… [Protag’s] voice really doesn’t feel 100% middle grade to me, and the ending isn’t appropriate for middle grade, but he also doesn’t have a clear teenage voice.
Ooo, and another:
And while much of his internal narration felt decidedly middle grade, Ian’s dialogue and his thoughts about [his teacher] seemed much more YA. So, I’m afraid this novel would fall into the impossible gap between age groups for us. I see it as having more potential as a middle grade, but making it fit into that category would require significant revision of Ian’s character.
Finally (before you fall asleep):
This also strikes me as a novel that has a few trappings of YA but is really at heart a middle grade story—the things [the narrator’s] dealing with are adolescent concerns rather than teen ones.
Have you ever tried to gift wrap an odd-shaped thing–a construction cone, an orchid, a soccer ball? It’s a pain in the neck. I think that’s what editors must feel about my stories: they are just too hard to box and wrap.
Does this means traditional publishing is risk averse?
It’s certainly temping to think that’s the case, to say that publishing doesn’t recognize true art when it sees it. But I think it’s truer to say that publishers are not able to take big risks. They may want to, but they are not allowed.
(Or, maybe my books just aren’t good enough to publish.)
This New York magazine article illustrates the changes in publishing over the past five decades, explaining why the consolidation of the numerous, small (and nimble) publishers of the 1960’s created huge publishers that were forced to focus only on acquiring blockbusters. As the article states, “You can’t win big if you don’t bet big.”
Big publishers do, certainly, bet big. They are willing to take risks when the reward is potentially immense. But when you bet big on one book and win, you have to pass up on many smaller risks. Publishers are forced to focus their risks, their dollars, their time and energy, on winning the potential blockbusters, and potential blockbusters are not, generally, transgenre’d books.
(And maybe my books just aren’t good enough to publish!)
No one–not editors or agents, not Oprah or my mom–knows what’s going to be a best seller; the best an “expert” can do is take smart, calculated risks. Sometimes risks pay off (Harry Potter). Other times, it’s Flopzilla (James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning).
Smart, calculated risks? Enter Sarah Callender. Not only do I have two books with Genre Identity Disorder, but I (the writer) am as risky as my genre-wandering novels. I am totally unpublished. I am a no-name. I have no fancy (or even unfancy) MFA that would suggest commitment and experience and well connected mentors. If I have any post-graduate degree, it’s a PhD in Relentless Slogging, with a Masters in Choosing Really Good Writing Partners Who Help Me Get Better. And a kick-arse agent who believes in my stories. God bless that woman.
(But are my books good enough yet?)
Here are the facts: I am a risk. My books are risks. Traditional publishing feels unable to take risks on little fish. If I am to stay the course with traditional publishing, I must keep improving my craft. I must make my books seem like the smartest, safest risks ever. I must focus not on my rejection but on my tenacity. I must write a story that blows the socks so far off editors’ feet that it would be a risk not to publish my work.
I must write the stories that are in me–the construction cone, the orchid, the soccer ball of a story–that yeah, are a pain in the neck to wrap, but are well worth the time and effort.
Your turn! Have you seen or experienced traditional publishing’s aversion to risk? Or, do you see that traditional publishing still takes plenty of risks? How has your experience impacted or altered the direction of your journey to publication? If you write unwrappable, unboxable stories, how have they been received? Please share!
Photo courtesy of Flickr’s KagedFish.