Anesa Miller

Agent Anguish

An Installment in the Saga of DRAWER NO MORE!
>> View all posts in this series.

As summer prepares its steamy descent on the northern hemisphere, I find I owe my friends an update. You may have noticed that publication of my novel, Our Orbit, which I was drumrolling back in February, has been delayed by several months.

First, there were setbacks with the cover art. Plan A called for a commissioned painting to show a scene from early in the story where the foster family watches a meteor shower on a summer night. That proved harder to arrange than I had imagined. It takes a lot of detail to explain the ambiance of a scene—more detail than even appears in the novel itself!

 I soon resorted to Plan B, which called for a simple backdrop of vintage calico with text in hand-lettered calligraphy. But there are a lot of options in fabric, and calligraphers must be recruited and schooled in the assignment. (Or not, as it turned out.) So Plan B also took more time than I’d budgeted.

Eventually, the cover got sorted out. I’m very happy with it.

Next came the editing issues. Our Orbit contains a good deal of dialect, namely, Appalachian English, also known as hill-country twang. The first editor I consulted found this troubling. True, words like ain’t and oncet may be considered incorrect, but try telling that to my characters! Concerned that new errors had entered my manuscript in the process of cleaning up the grammar, I turned to a second editor—this time, one with experience in the region where my story takes place.

Those complications set the schedule back a few more weeks.

But finally, my text was edited and proofed. The book was fully designed from cover to margins to page numbers. Everything looked terrific! Then, on the eve of clicking “Publish” at CreateSpace, I phoned my publishing consultant: a knowledgeable freelancer who advised me on my previous book. I wanted to make sure she’d be ready to assist again this time.

Alas—! Urgent family matters were calling her away from the office for the next three weeks.

What shall I do?

A more confident person than myself would no doubt shrug and go it alone. I tend to be nervous, however. A wee bit hyper-emotional. As I recalled a number of last-minute glitches in the formatting of my earlier book, I saw a nightmare waiting to happen. What if KDP didn’t like my conversion, and I had nowhere to turn for help? I decided I’d rather tolerate one last delay and wait till my consultant was back on the job to help me publish and promote Our Orbit.

That’s when she dropped a bomb on my comfort zone.

“If you’re going to wait a few weeks, anyway,” my consultant said, “you might as well use the time to apply to literary agents. Your type of book still tends to do better with a traditional publisher, rather than as a DIY.”

Firecracker ?!?!

This flipped me around 180 degrees. I had done the agent-search before. I devoted months to that time-consuming process with each of the three novels I’ve written. My first novel was too experimental—the main characters were inanimate objects. Agents nibbled, but none bit. My second, based on the Kosovo conflict, was too tragic. Only the likes of Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog) or Hubert Selby Jr. (Requiem for a Dream) are permitted to pen such things in our “happy” postmodern era.

For more thoughts on women writers and tragedy in contemporary literature, see my interview with Kim Barnes here.

By the time I finished my third novel, I had learned many lessons: nothing too outlandish or heart-wrenching! So Our Orbit should have been just right. Sadly, even after several complete revisions, my text was too long. I spent a full year querying agents, and most seemed to agree. It was too long by a substantial, and oddly specific, amount: 35K words.

Most of these agents were passing judgment without requesting a sample. Not even a 5-pager to check on my style! Eventually, I figured out the unstated backstory: my novel was not too long for potential readers, at least some of whom pride themselves on soldiering through War and Peace or Memories of Things Past. No, it was only too long for standard publishers’ formulae for marketing a novel by an unproven author. They prefer no more than 90K for a debut.

More of a novella.

I could list examples of longer books by unknown people, such as the wildly popular The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. (Also, coincidentally, an acceptable tragedy!) The system seemed rigged against me, but how could I appeal for an exception to the formulae, if no agent would take me on?

I think you get the idea that the suggestion of going back to the drawing board to query agents all over again was not what I wanted to hear. In fact, the prospect of never appealing to agents again had become the most delightful aspect of self-publishing! So it was a testament of respect for my consultant when, after a few days of peeving and moping, I bit down on my knucklebone and sent out a group of query letters to literary agents.

Other than my pride, I figured, it couldn’t really hurt.

Because, regardless of their kindly protests to the contrary, I find myself forced to take agents’ rejections very personally on behalf of my book. They say things like, “Your writing is lovely”—but, obviously, not lovely enough. “Your characters are intriguing,” but what difference does that make if readers don’t meet them? “Your story deserves to be told,” so why won’t anyone help me get it out there?

Fellow writers, have you heard all this before? How do you manage not to take it personally? And how do you keep from feeling that your cherished book just isn’t worth reading, after all?

The upshot is that Our Orbit will be delayed in going to press by another few weeks, minimum, while those rejections roll in. The hard part? Turning back to this drawing board has sapped my enthusiasm for self-publishing. I will no doubt wind up launching Our Orbit on my own, in the end, but where will I get the energy to promote it, now that I’ve admitted to myself I would really rather have a traditional publisher and an agent to help me along?


Like the rest of us mere mortals, I’m waiting to see what the future may bring…

18 thoughts on “Agent Anguish”

  1. There’s a reason B&N will be closing another 2,000+ stores this year. There’s a reason indie authors are starting to out earn the “big 5” publishing houses. For all the potential benefits, traditional publishers are often guilty of being far too, well, traditional. As their profit margins dwindle, their client lists shrink as does their willingness to take risks. I’m not suggesting you race back to CreateSpace. I too have sent out and continue to send out dozens of queries without any real satisfaction in return. In the end, self publishing may be my best option. I still owe it to myself and my work to at least test the waters. When I feel the time is right, I’ll go my own way and consider it their loss. Don’t take the rejections personally. Instead, be thankful we can make our dreams come true even without the help of an agent or publisher. That wasn’t always the case.

    1. You cite some exciting trends that are good for all writers to keep in mind, Michael. Most importantly, you remind me that “we CAN make our dreams come true” even without industry assistance. Indeed, “that wasn’t always the case,” and it’s worth being thankful for. These are essential thoughts that I’ll be keeping in my arsenal of anti-nostalgia for the 1960s, whenever I get mopey that I’m not publishing in the days of TO KILL a MOCKINGBIRD. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your very fine perspective.

  2. The SEEKING system, in humans meets our top down cognitive functions and creates our Narcissism, our way of dealing with agents and publishers and other service professionals, and finally it’s that SEEKING system that will find what we want, and may even need. That future is almost here, time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream

    1. Between the dream we get lost in and writers dropping off for long naps (in Richard’s comment below), we sound like a snoozy bunch, indeed! Hopefully, I’ll wake up in time when the phone rings–Knopf calling?!?!

      You make a good point about SEEKING and narcissism: It takes a bit of arrogance to believe, “My book is good enough–I’ll send it to Random House/Penguin!” Maybe that’s a sign of inflated ego, but Random House can never say NO (and trigger a narcissism correction) unless we actually SEEK publication!

      Today, big publishers (and even many small presses) no longer look at manuscripts that aren’t delivered to them personally by agents, so the writer’s level of arrogance is free to reach spectacular heights of imagination, ie, “My book is good enough to win the Nobel Prize…for Peace!”

      Probably not a healthy situation…. (Just joshing, mostly–hope you can tell)

    2. Fascinating! Are you saying that this . . .watcha call it “SEEKING” system . . . is also a source of our narcissisms. . . and dreaming too? Where do we read more? How do we coax agents/publishers to listen more closely to our artistic urges/accomplishments, when so many are just “seeking” bucks these days?

  3. Now I see your path of publication, I am content with waiting for this next story. I look forward to meeting your characters.

    1. It makes me so happy for you to stop by, Lin. Thanks for leaving word. Most likely, this novel will go up on CS by middle of next month. Meanwhile–all those loose ends to gather! Wishing all well in he great state of KS–

  4. I have often wondered why there is no response to calls of “Author, Author!”.
    Have they fallen asleep in the wings, while waiting for their publisher’s reply?

    1. Fallen asleep, or maybe “gone to a better place”! Thanks for stopping by, RIchard, and sharing your sense of humor.

  5. While I know you have probably exhausted all possible publishers, I wanted to share my thought with you, not that I have ANY experience in this area.
    You talk about publishers commenting that your book on the Kosovo conflict was too tragic, and that struck a chord. A former colleague suggested, years ago, that I read S. : a novel about the Balkans. It was published in 2000 by Viking. It is not an “upbeat” novel but one that needed to be written and published-I’m glad I read it. It sounds like yours, while on a different topic also needs to be published, and I am looking forward to reading it. Just wanted to mention that and hope yours also gets published.
    Interestingly, I know that Dr. Daniel Siegel had difficulty publishing his book “Parenting From the Inside Out” because no publishers thought a book about parents looking at their own narrative would sell. The eventual publisher of that book was Tarcher. It’s a very important book in the process of helping children heal. He shared this information at a conference I attended over 6 years ago.
    All the best,

    1. These are good facts to remember, Sarah, when the demons of discouragement come calling. Many thanks for pointing them out. Sounds like I should definitely read S by Doug Dorst. I believe it’s a wide-ranging, experimental novel. Without the influence of filmmaker JJ Abrams, it probably would have had even greater difficulty getting published. I appreciate you recommending it.

      It’s also good to know that Dan Seigel had to struggle with small minds rejecting his groundbreaking ideas on parenting. Such good company to be in! I’ll try to use thoughts of future readers laughing about my #selfpub woes to detach from my negative thinking today!

      So many thanks for visiting the blog, Sarah!

  6. I think it’s good to remember that traditional publishers are looking for a very select few books that meet a very narrow criteria that may or may not reflect what READERS actually want to read.

    I spent years querying–oh, so many rejections. It was really hard to maintain a positive feeling about my novels. I think that’s why it’s so important to have the support of a writing partner of sorts–someone who knows and respects your work and bolsters you up when you want to throw in the towel. Even if you land an agent, don’t count on him or her to fill that supportive role. And landing an agent is still no guarantee that they will sell to a publisher. I think that’s a roller coaster that would be even harder to ride.

    I don’t think there’s any harm in querying while you wait, and it’s hard not to take rejections personally, but bottom line is–rejections are NOT personal. Just use it as a training ground for developing thick skin, because no matter how you publish, when negative reviews roll in, it still feels like crap! But at least people will be reading your story! 🙂

    1. Your philosophical take on writerly woes is truly admirable, JB! Like I’ve said elsewhere, maintaining a healthy outlook on one’s creativity and sharing the products of creativity with the world—it’s a balancing act that requires a Zen-like detachment and discipline. You seem to achieve a fine equilibrium that lets you persevere in the face of discouragement. I’m sure some days or some moments don’t feel quite so sunny, but truly, you’re an inspiration to me.

      Yes, you’re probably right about the EVEN HARDER ride of handing an ms over to an agent who then must struggle to sell it to one of only a few paying publishers. As Michael Sova points out above, the industry has changed and continues to dwindle to the point that we may be much better off without them.

      Still trying to juggle all these variables—I haven’t given up! And am very grateful to you for moral support here on the blog.

  7. Juicy blog, Anesa, touching on what many authors are pondering. I’m certain I’ll have the current world of publishing figured out just as soon as I can pin down this drop of oil.

    First there was my disappointing, frustrating experience with an agent at ICM who repped me a few years ago. After this, a disappointing, frustrating, bizarre experience with a small publisher who published my mystery “Lies at Six” a couple of years ago. Finally, I brought the book out on my own…with a far better cover.

    These days, royalties and advances are paltry to nonexistent with traditional publishers, and most authors have to do their own marketing now. My book isn’t making much at all, but it wasn’t anyway, and that’s true of most books out there. I saw no reason not to control the project, keeping much more of what the book did earn, and maintaining the ability to keep it available for a long as I want. Besides, it suits my indy soul.

    Whatever path you pursue for Our Orbit, I look forward to what I know will be a worthwhile read.

    1. Many thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts, Sarah. I’d love to hear more about your travails and the decision to go it alone.

      Indeed, I’ve heard that even traditional publishers do very little for their authors these days in terms of promotions, to say nothing of advances, as you point out. Those facts (allegations?) loomed large in my determination to self-publish. The aspect that made me second-guess my plan is that literary readers (who should be MY readers!) may actually be swayed by a known publisher’s imprint to a greater extent than are readers of more “popular” styles.

      Of course, that’s just another guess! Meanwhile, I do hope you may tell us more of your saga. Thanks again for stopping by–

  8. I have read the exchanges on this page with great interest and one thing comes through loud and clear. We cannot entrust the veracity of our output to others at the risk of undermining our creativity and the expression of our own and unique expression of ideas.
    Publication of the printed word is in danger of collapsing under its own weight and readers in any number are disbelieving of the hype and false attribution which often prevents them from making any well informed choice of what they would like to buy for just a good read. That belongs, largely,to the popularist, the conspiracy theorist, the political intriguer and the plain sexy. Mass consumption is now in the hands of journalists, columnists and TV programme makers. ( this right?).
    My long time mentor and tutor is an eminent European Shakespeare Scholar, the successor to Sir Peter Hall and Director of the Rose Theatre at Kingston on Thames in London. He expressly forbids me to explore the jungle which is the world of agents, editors and self publication. He says the website is enough until he feels I’m ready. Mind you, he knows I have a private income or could it be that he’s saving me for himself? You see, he HAS invited to the Proms this summer and says he’d like to discuss with me the possibility of me writing a play for his theatre.
    Is it asking too much forfeit your personal ambition and rely on serendipity and good luck?
    That sounds a bit like entrusting the veracity of your output to other people – which is where I came in!
    My sincere best wishes to you all and thank you for the opportunity of making a contribution.
    Fred Webster

    1. It’s lovely to hear from you, Fred. I’m pleased you could stop by and weigh in. How exciting that your mentor is talking about commissioning a play! I certainly hope all works out to your satisfaction.

      Many writers do feel gratified with publishing their work on a website, or in web-based journals, and I applaud them. For me, however, this is not ideal because I still do most of my reading in physical print. How can I expect my readers to make do with a screen? The same applies to ebook publication: I just don’t feel like my work is “out there” unless people can access it in print.

      But maybe you take an attitude of detachment from any readership? That strikes me as a high-minded literary perspective, although for myself, communication remains an important part of literature…even if the agents and journalists only care about money talking.

  9. Of course you are right Anesa. Once again you have conquered me with your clear thinking and logical approach to the subject.
    My comments don’t necessarily reflect the views of the author. They are just exercises in writing styles, though whether that style accords with the ‘Chicago Manual of Writing Styles’ (16th edition) remains for others to decide. At the rate my attempts to gain a readership is progressing that might yet be down to posterity!
    On the subject of writing styles, (and at the risk of appearing to be grinding an axe), you might care to read ‘I.D. According to Manolo’. It’s on the website under ‘The Entertainer’ It’s written in the style of the 17th century English diarist, Samuel Pepys.
    I hope it gives you at least ten minutes of levity ‘cos that’s the way it was written.
    You know, I only do all this to amuse and entertain. I’ll never make any money, will I!
    Enjoy your weekend and good luck with the book.

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