It has often been observed that writing is a tough racket. Like, suspiciously so– people have been predicting the death of the written word pretty much as long as there have been written words, but particularly the death of the modern publishing industry as long as there has been a modern publishing industry, despite the fact bookstores tend to be full of people happily shelling out their hard-earned dollars for books even in this post-internet age and that book sales are actually up rather than down. The rates for writers are largely un-moved in decades, and editorial budgets are slashed, but book prices keep going up, so… that money has to be going somewhere.
However, for the time being at least, I am not interested in figuring out that mystery. Publishing for me is largely a giant black box where I put words in one end and, theoretically, money comes out the other. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Granted, I have not submitted that much for publication in the grand scale of things, being largely self-published or having worked mostly with editors who were also friends and colleagues already. But over the course of my writing career, I’ve had far more successes than rejections. In fact, I can only think of three rejections off the top of my head:
- A creature write-up sent to White Wolf for a Werewolf line “monster book” in 1989 or so. This was done hastily, because Bill (the line editor at the time) was in a pinch, and I basically threw together something that belonged in Call of Cthulhu instead. I’m not surprised he didn’t use it– in fact, I would have been more surprised if he had.
- Out In the Cold, my first full-length(ish) novel, sent to an agent c. 1996 in a fit of youthful enthusiasm. This was a cozy mystery, and it didn’t totally suck but it wasn’t great, either. It did at least garner me a very nice handwritten reply praising the narrative voice and depiction of the characters. I eventually decided that mystery writing was probably not where my strengths were and shelved it after that. And finally…
- Sky Pirates of Calypsitania, which as of yesterday has been rejected by one publisher and seven agents, and “soft rejected” by a handful more agents who simply did not respond (“If you do not hear in 4-8 weeks we aren’t interested.”). Of all these, yesterday’s rejection was the hardest.
The reasons why yesterday’s hit me so hard are twofold. First, this agent was specifically seeking steampunk novels– a genre which is notoriously tricky to get people interested in. I was very jazzed to see someone actually wanting steampunk, instead of having a subtext of “Okay, I guess I’ll look at it, but don’t you have any doorstopper fantasy or military SF we could check out instead?”
Second, after the initial query, the agent wrote back to me and asked for a larger sample, which was the first response of any kind on this book beyond a polite form rejection. I knew it wasn’t guaranteed that she would want to move forward after that, but I did think it was quite likely. She wanted steampunk, she liked the first chapter, and her agenting portfolio seemed like just the right fit for this particular book’s eccentricities. Alas, “After a careful reading, I am sorry to say that I don’t believe this project is right for me.” I sent her a thank-you note, and who knows, maybe something else will work later.
But in the meantime, we carry on. I really like this book– even if it weren’t my own it would be one of my favorites– and I honestly think it’s as good as anything out there. I know that steampunk is a long shot, and I know that first-time novelists always have a tough hill to climb. Yes, I’m disappointed, but I’m going to put it away for the weekend and then, come Monday, pull up the next three agents on my list and send it out again.
It is, as has been observed, a tough racket.