During the yearslong submission process of We Take Care of Our Own (available later this year from Montag Press), I found feedback on my work hard to come by. As a matter of fact, responses of any kind were kind of hard to come by.
What many people don’t know about the submission process is that rejection is nowhere close to the worst thing that happens. On the contrary, any day where I received a rejection was a good day, because it meant I could strike that agency or publisher from my “pending” list; any day where I received an actual personal rejection, one that called me by my name or referred to my work by its actual title, whoa, mama, that made my whole week.
Just as common as either kind of rejection was omission—that is, going either totally ignored or being ignored for so long that, when the rejection finally did come, months and months later, usually referring to me as “Author” and ending with deepest wishes for every success in my career, I may as well have been ignored. For instance, among the 136 queries I sent out to literary agents or publishers over the past 12 months, nearly half (63) remain pending. Let’s take a look at what that looks like in pie chart form:
And that’s keeping in mind that I haven’t sent out a query in four months, since We Take Care of Our Own was accepted. When will these 63 get back to me? Never, would be my guess, though it wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility that a couple trickle in over the next few months.
It should be noted that a handful of these pending responses ought to be assumed rejected, since these agents state that no response after four or six or eight weeks means a rejection. I appreciate that, though I would say that, of the 63 pending responses here, maybe 10 contain such a codicil. Far, far more simply haven’t responded. Why expend the energy of replying to an unknown author’s email? Just because you state on your company web site that you welcome unsolicited emails and make every effort to respond in a timely fashion? Pfft, get real.
OK, now is where I step back from a rant about why mainstream literary agents and publishers who ignore author submissions deserve placement in only a mildly punitive ring of Hell, and how these days I relish every scrap of news recounting the industry’s ongoing cratering. Instead, let’s talk about how I decided to start querying small and independent publishers, and how doing so made for a more satisfying submission process. Even if I were still at it, still trying to get that acceptance for publication or offer of representation, I would nevertheless recommend small and independent publishers as viable querying targets, particularly to those whose work might be considered outside the book club mainstream. Sure, small and independent publishers don’t pay as large an advance for the work, and their marketing budgets are often nonexistent, but guess what? What you give up in money is more than made up for in time saved not fruitlessly researching and querying people who won’t reply. As for marketing budgets, guess what? Mainstream publishers don’t have marketing budgets either, not anymore, especially not for first-time authors.
In any event, this was the query letter I had been sending out to mainstream literary agents and publishers:
Dear [Whatever Your Name Is],
I am writing to you because of you represented [SOME BOOK] by [Some Author], and I think my upmarket speculative thriller, WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN, is similar.
USoFA WorldWide, a conglomerate of the nation’s largest private military, technology, and media providers, has taken over management of the War on Terror from a dysfunctional Federal government. In an attempt to silence the anti-War movement, the company launches a project that grooms troubled veterans to take out select “enemies of the state” via mass shootings. Combining traditional prose with therapy session transcripts and news reports, WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN tells the story of psychology student Linda Held as she struggles to carry out company orders to their logical, savage end.
I hold an MFA in Creative Writing from American University, where I won the Myra Sklarew Award in Prose for my thesis collection of stories. My short fiction has appeared in the reviews Alligator Juniper and Folio. In 2013, I contributed a List to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency that was performed live at Sketchfest 2017 in San Francisco as part of “The Best of McSweeney’s.”
The first [whatever number was stated in the agent’s or publisher’s online bio] pages of my 100,000-word manuscript [this word count fluctuated, according to whatever draft I was working on at the time] are below. I look forward to hearing from you.
Short and sweet, no? I start with a simple sentence showing that I’ve done the research and have good reason to reach out, followed by a succinct pitch for the work, followed by a thumbnail sketch of my rather paltry literary accomplishments, blah blah blah, sincerely, and I’m out. The only way this doesn’t pass any agent or publisher’s muster is if I misspell the name at the top. Which I did, more than once.
I sent a version of this query to Felicia Eth of Felicia Eth Representation way back in March 2015. Six weeks later, having received no response, I sent a follow-up. A day or so later, Felicia got back to me with this:
sorry – in fact I know I read this because I knew Myra Sklarew a bit way back and noticed your award.
But as for the book, well it’s a pretty dark vision of where we might be headed. I think there is a market for this kind of fiction, in fact I know there is, but it’s just not really what I’m most in synch with and so I’m afraid I’ll decline. I actually wonder if this book would fare better with a smaller house rather than a major commercial one. It seems geared to making a statement about war, and our involvement in it and I can see this garnering the kind of reviews that places like Greywolf [sic] or Other Press get, without necessarily having the big financial draw that the Random Houses of the world are looking for. Just a thought.
Good luck as you push ahead. Sorry.
Check back for Part 2 of “Feedback,” coming soon…