An Author’s Complaint

In last Friday’s email, Harry Bingham quoted a disappointed author, Natalie Tay, who wrote:

‘As someone who has experienced endless rejection, frequently accompanied by notes assuring me that it was an “incredibly close call”, I simply can’t sit back and agree that a rejection means “you’re not there yet”.

I’ve spent years and months believing that [but] sometimes you get rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your work. I can’t even tell you how many agents I’ve had who have told me that my pitch was intriguing and the quality of my pages was excellent, but this “wasn’t the book for them”. And the thing is, because the world of traditional publishing is so fickle, this happens. Probably all the time.

I’m sure you could argue that my book must have been missing some sort of je ne sais quoi or needed one more draft or who knows what, and with some of my manuscripts I can agree with that assessment. But with others, I can’t. Not to say I’m done learning or above needing help, but at some point when I’ve produced multiple manuscripts that match the quality of existing published novels, I have to believe it’s not me.

So please, for the love of all of the souls who have been crushed one too many times, own up to the fact that luck is involved.’

Natalie Tay

Harry responded:

“And she’s right. Her writing has a crisp professionalism. There’s nothing in the pages I read that gives the book away as unsuitable for Big 5 publication. On the contrary, you could find any number of Big 5 books that are either of the same standard, or a shade less adept. (As a matter of fact, you could probably find some major bestsellers that were less adept. I can think of a few…)

So let me give you a somewhat more detailed view of how Planet Agent makes its decisions. As far as agents are concerned, books fall into roughly the following strata:

Nowhere close to good enough These books have obvious problems on the first page, and probably the query letter too.

Not good enough (manuscript) These books aren’t as bad, but the problems do reveal themselves – and usually on the first page.

Not good enough (synopsis)

A niche category this, and not a much populated one, but you’ll come across some manuscripts where the prose comes across as acceptable, but perhaps not quite compelling. The agent wonders whether to read on and turns to the synopsis. The synopsis, however, fails to deliver a convincing story arc and the agent is left feeling that the book is unsaleable.

Strong

Once you’ve discarded the books that are clearly not strong enough, you’re left with maybe 1-2% of the total slushpile, where the reasons for rejecting just aren’t that clear. The prose? It’s fine. The story? All present and correct.

But the agent is only going to take on perhaps 1 in 1000 manuscripts, so just 0.1% of what comes her way. That means she has to discard 9-19 of the 10-20 strong manuscripts she comes across. Some of the reasons for dropping those submissions would include:

  • Too similar to an existing client.
  • Submission comes when the agent is busy or stressed.
  • Submission arrives just when the agent is blown away by a genuinely stunning manuscript.
  • Submission fails for reasons of personal taste, rather than objective critical judgement.
  • Submission fails because when the agent is thinking of who to sell the manuscript to, and how she would pitch the sale, she can’t quite see her way to a compelling strategy.

Luck pretty obviously plays a part here – and for that reason it’s vital that you query 10-12 agents, not merely 3-4. That said, the fifth bullet point on this list is not to do with luck and we’ll talk more about that in a moment. Before that, though, there is a fifth category of manuscript to deal with …

The outright stunning

Any sane agent would pick that book up. Any sane editor would, at the least, be seriously tempted. Yes, there will be some luck-based rejections nevertheless (agent too busy, too stressed, no personal click, etc), but the author’s experience is going to be essentially one of doors flying open, rather than doors slamming shut.”

Harry then lays out three possible options:

1. Query a digital-first publisher.

Those guys accept more like 1 in 100 manuscripts than 1 in 1000. They’re hoovering up the almost-but-not-quite manuscripts from elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they’re second-best as publishers, however. There are some absolutely first-class publishers amongst their number … and I know people who have gone from a print-led Big 5 imprint to a digital-first one, and seen their sales go through the roof. They’ve also, nearly always, had a better outcome in terms of author care. In effect, those guys take some of the luck out of the question. They take the top 1% of manuscripts and let readers choose their favourite. It’s a brilliant model.

2. Self-publish.

I’ve made a more regular, dependable income from self-pub than I ever did from trad. I’ve had stronger relations with readers. I’ve had better marketing, better book covers, more flexibility, more control. As it happens, I made my biggest film and TV sale via self-pub not trad. What’s not to like? Self-publishing is an outstanding route to market and no one should feel embarrassed to take it.

3. Nail the elevator pitch.

The trouble with most strong manuscripts – the ones that get rejected – is that they ask, politely, to be admitted to Publishing Towers. The stunning manuscripts don’t ask: they kick the doors down.

Competent writing + a workmanlike premise = a book that might or might not get published

Competent writing + a stunning premise = a book that can’t be ignored.

The elevator pitch essentially does the agent’s work for them. How do I pitch this to publishers? How do I set out the path to sales?

With a book that’s merely strong, those questions have fiddly, failure-prone answers. With a kick-the-doors-down book (Crawdads, Gone Girl, Light We Cannot See), those questions have answers that are blazingly obvious.

That’s where luck stops being a factor, or almost. Yes, you might hit an agent who’s too busy or stressed or drunk to notice the bar of gold that’s just struck their toe. But go to more than a handful of agents, and one of them is bound to pick it up – and be delighted that they have.

I think Harry makes some very good points.

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