(Warning: long post ahoy! Get yourself some chamomile and find a comfy chair. I hope you’ll stick with me till the end, even if it’s because you think I’m full of dookie.)
Especially when it’s followed by the phrase: “This is a subjective business, and I’m sure someone else will love it.”
There are a few reasons these are frustrating things to hear. First, publishing isn’t really a subjective business. Sure, groundbreaking books can be discovered by an agent or editor’s instinct, or a gut feeling. But a wealth of hard data available in the publishing industry helps professionals assess a book’s chances of being successful.
Second, and much more importantly, “I just didn’t love it” is frustrating because I don’t know how to fix that. Writers improve their stories by receiving feedback from readers—whether those readers are also editors, agents, writers, or someone who just loves to read. If someone can’t tell me why they didn’t love my story, then I don’t know what to change or how to improve it.
But writers have to be fair to agents. I’ve seen many comments online where writers complain that agents won’t give them feedback. Personally, as frustrating as I know those rejections are, I can’t for the life of me figure out why these writers would think an agent owes it to them—and to the thousand other people they reject in a month—to give personal feedback.
Every business has its frustrations, and in the writing business one of the biggies is unexplained rejection.
I’ve also seen several posts lately where agents talk about only taking on projects they love, and writers challenge them. The commenters’ position seems to be: “Agents are basically salespeople, and good salespeople should be able to sell anything, no matter how they feel about it.”
In any business where people from different disciplines have to work together to bring a product to market, it’s vital that everyone takes time to think about difficult issues from other perspectives. I’m not an agent; I don’t have an agent; and I’ve never talked to an agent about this subject. Excuse me if I’m being naïve, but I’d like to defend agents here.
So why does an agent have to love your novel before they can sell it?
1. Because they’re more likely to be successful if they’re selling something they love.
A good agent will work her or his ass off to sell their clients’ books. That includes putting in effort to make it more likely to sell; for example, by giving editorial advice to an author.
Any salesperson who says feeling passionate about a product makes no difference is full of it. Writers, have you ever tried to pitch a novel you felt *meh* about? Have you tried to fake enthusiasm for one of your projects? How did it go?
2. Because why shouldn’t they only choose projects they love, if they have the choice?
Let me shift the focus away from agents and onto myself for a second. For five years now, I’ve worked in digital marketing for non-profits. The nitty-gritty of my job can sometimes amount to a big ball of annoyance, as anyone who spends all day working with websites, social media and large organizations can understand.
But at the end of my day, I absolutely love what I do, not because I’m passionate about the internet (though I usually am), but because I’m passionate about the charities I work for.
At this point in my career, I’m lucky that I can choose who I ply my trade for. Could I conceivably do the same thing for a corporation? Sure. Why not? But if I have the choice of getting paid to do something I’m passionate about versus doing something just for the money, passion wins.
If an agent is successful enough that they can choose the projects they want to represent, why the hell shouldn’t they?
3. Because “salesperson” is only one of the hats they wear.
Editor, career advisor, therapist, negotiator…and if they own their own agency, then all of the skills that come with being a small business owner and manager, too.
A good agent will spend a lot of time dealing with each book, and if they’re not passionate about it in the beginning, then how likely will it be that they grow to loathe it by the time they finish dealing with it?
4. Because books are not refrigerators.
Agent Jenny Bent has a great post on her blog where she has a conversation with author Mike Wells about what it means to love a book you’re selling, and why it’s important. Here’s Mike Wells’ original post: What literary agents could learn from the Girl Scouts.
In her post, Jenny says:
I’m not selling a refrigerator, after all. If I’m selling refrigerators, I don’t have to love them: they’re pretty impersonal—I can judge them on objective criteria. And pretty much everyone needs to buy a refrigerator at some point. Everyone likes them. And with girl scout cookies, you don’t have to like them to know there’s a huge market. But the only way I can even guess if other people will like a novel is if I like it too. It’s completely subjective. Unless, of course, there has been market research in the shape of self-publishing.
There are lots of interesting things to pull out here, but for me the difference between a refrigerator and a novel isn’t one of objectivity vs. subjectivity. It’s one of necessity vs luxury.
It would be difficult for most of us to live without a refrigerator anymore. Refrigerator design might change a bit, but if your fridge dies then you’re going to bite the bullet and do your best to buy a new one.
Let’s face it: unless you stick it under a broken table leg, a novel is not a practical item. Passionate readers consider them a necessity, but our food won’t spoil without them. What agents are selling to publishers is a luxury item.
Jenny mentions having to guess what other people want to read. In other words, readers are not just the end of the publishing process—they’re the beginning. Their desires are what agents and editors are trying to fulfill (since that’s how the industry makes money), and if an agent doesn’t love a story how can they convince an editor that enough readers will want to buy it?
5. Because it’s a myth that a good salesperson can sell anything.
Like I said earlier, this seems to be the basis for many writers’ frustrations. “I don’t care if you love my work, I just want you to sell it.”
Sure, lots of salespeople have to sell things they’re not passionate about and end up having to fake enthusiasm over and over.
But I think there’s a pervasive myth that a good salesperson could “sell ice to the Eskimos” and other crappy clichés.
So what can writers do about it?
Keep your passion.
I don’t know about you, but by the time I query an agent, I’ve probably read my novel a dozen times from start to finish. It can be tough to keep the love alive. So do whatever you have to do to reignite your love for your story—whether that’s by starting a different book, or taking a break, or sending it off to a trusted reader for feedback.
Above all else, remember that you are the first person who has to sell the book. And if you don’t love it, why should an agent?
What do you think? If you’re a writer, does this kind of rejection frustrate you? How do you deal with it? How do you keep your own passion for your work alive, and show your passion when you’re trying to sell your work to agents and editors?