In Defense of the Form Rejection

I recently wrote a short story, my first in over a year. Inspiration struck and I listened.

Unlike novel writing, short stories are short-term rewarding because you reach “the end,” while you are still loving that muse whispering in your ear. I was particularly excited about this story, as I knew exactly which magazine I was going to submit it to. A few years ago, said magazine had rejected another story of mine, but with glowing praise and a request to see more of my work. I kept that in mind, because this magazine is a professionally paying market and one that would be quite a feather in my writing resume. Thus after some furious late nights, anxious waiting for the beta reads to come back, and a lot of editing, I sent off my beautiful 3k-word gem to this magazine.

Another rather sweet aspect of short stories is these days most magazines use submission software. This means you can stalk, I mean track, your submissions. And, at least in the SciFi/Fantasy professional market, many of them have fairly quick turn around times. This is in part because they don’t allow simultaneous subs in part because the stories are shorter. Altogether it’s a much quicker and less frustrating process than novel submissions.

So a week full of checking the website later, there it was, that email. I took a deep breath and opened it to find… a form rejection letter.

The range of emotions that followed is one every writer is familiar with. But there was one more. Understanding. Working for a literary agency, I’ve sent out hundreds of form rejection letters over the years. And recently I opened up my own inbox to queries. In the beginning I tried to make each response a bit personal, a note here, a comment there. I knew what it was like to be on the other side, and that experience pushed me to communicate personally as much as I could, especially if the writing had potential. However, I discovered, to my dismay, that the majority of personal rejections were not appreciated, in fact they were often responded to with a “could you clarify this?” or “can you take this further?” or “what can I edit to change your mind?”

My personal notes were not received as the compliments they were meant to be, but rather as an opening for an editorial conversation. One that I had to ignore. It made me feel guilty, not continuing the conversations, but there is not enough time in an agent’s schedule to answer every author question that floats through our inbox. I was also spending more time coming up with ways to make the reason I was passing on the project sound nice and encouraging and editorially useful, rather than focusing my energy on considering each submission carefully. Which made me reluctant to open my inbox. I had burned out. Thus more and more I found myself responding with a form rejection, both in the interest of time and clear communication. My defense of the form rejection:

  • It’s a clear answer.
  • You receive said answer faster.
  • It’s less emotional.
  • It helps prevent slushpile burnout, so the agent/reader can focus on what’s important, considering the submission itself, rather than coming up with something to say in response to it.
  • The form rejection helps to keep expectations in check.

I know most authors who don’t do their research don’t understand this, because they don’t see the other side. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard writers say, “it couldn’t be that hard to respond to a query!” Let me tell you, yes, yes it can.

Every once in a while, if the writing jumps out at me, or if I’ve met the author in person, I will still respond personally, but for the most part I’ve become a fan of the form rejection. Sure you could argue that if I hadn’t gotten that personal response back in the day, I wouldn’t have been as eager to submit to the magazine, but I also wouldn’t have had as high of hopes. At least you can take comfort in the knowledge that I’m getting them as good as I’m giving them. We all just have to keep on keeping on. My so-called gem of a short story is already sunk into another slushpile.

*All artwork by street graffiti artist Banksy.

Follow me on Twitter @Mary_C_Moore for more tips and updates on queries and the slushpile.

 

 

 

Self Publishing and A Literary Agent

“Do you accept self-published books?”

I get this question a lot from authors. The answer, unfortunately, is no. It’s not that I have anything against self-published projects, indeed, I’ve self-published myself. But as a literary agent there are two reasons why I do not consider representing self-published books. The first is a hard simple truth: I probably can’t sell it. Most of the bigger publishers are not taking the risks on self-published books as they once were. Even those books that were moderately successful as a self-pub, are harder to find homes for, as the publishers are discovering by the time they reissue the book, it’s already peaked. The second reason, which is by far one of the most frustrating and sad scenarios in my line of work is more complicated. Authors self-publish due to a variety of scenarios, many of them good reasons. I self-published because I had a manuscript, my second finished full-length novel, which I had written during my MFA program, turned into my thesis, and subsequently turned into a novel. It had been workshopped heavily, edited by two professors, and generally followed all the “rules” that are required of a polished manuscript. I was feeling pretty confident I could get this one past the gates.
I sent ANGELUS out to over 75 agents, researching each carefully, following all submission guidelines with a simple and professional query letter. Although I got the usual round of form rejections and no responses, I did get enough positive feedback that I remained hopeful. However, after the fifth or sixth, “I like your writing, I just don’t do angels,” I realized I was stuck. I had written a book that was within a trope that no one wanted to touch. (Side note, now as an agent, I’m not all that interested in angel books either, the irony.) I sometimes wonder what would have happened if, during my time in my MFA, I had written something different; perhaps I would have found representation. But then again if I had, I probably would have never ended up as an intern at a literary agency to discover I loved being a lit agent as much, if not more so, than being a writer. So after enough feedback telling me my angel-themed book was not going to fly, I self-published. Happy to report it was successful enough that I earned back the money I had spent publishing it, but not much more than that. But I’m glad I did it, so as an agent I understand how hard, how much work, and how emotional the experience is, and I can relate to those authors who approach me with their self-published work. But I also know that 90% of the time they are approaching me because they weren’t prepared for the experience nor was their manuscript. They were impatient to get their work out there, they were convinced by the few success stories that are constantly circulated online, they felt they knew better than the industry professionals, they believed that agents and editors were evil cackling creatures bent on never allowing them into the world of publishing.
Then they threw their book out there, and with bated breath, waited for the sales that never came. So now they are at a conference, or online, reaching out to me because, “they want to take their book to the next level.” And it is my heartbreaking job to tell them, how sorry I am, but that it is still up to them. Because I know their book being “not at that level” means it wasn’t ready for me pre-publication either, and now it’s too late for the traditional route. They have chosen to be the publisher of their own work, which means they have to be the one to take it to the next level, whether it’s hiring a cover artist to design a more professional cover, or an editor to revise it, or a proofreader to get rid of errors, or a publicist to help them navigate the market. Self-publishing is exactly what it sounds like, publishing by self. Alone. And it is one of the hardest things you can do. So think carefully before you self-publish, and make sure your reasons are not for fame and fortune, and be prepared for a lot of work. That’s not to say it won’t be successful, or that you won’t find that unicorn agent/publisher that would be willing to work with it post-publication. But it won’t be me. And yet, if I can give a little advice and hope, if you are not cut out to take your self-pub to that “next level,” then move on, shelve that book, let it sit online, or better yet, take it down. Because your story isn’t over, you are still an author. Write a new book, and using your newfound experience, make that book the best you can. Send it out to agents utilizing the hard-learned lessons to show them you understand the industry and writing from a professional viewpoint. Keep on fighting for your writing.

 

* For those of you who are curious, yes ANGELUS is still available as an eBook, still selling more or less, but I have moved on, writing and publishing short stories, novellas, and working on a new novel. I’d like to release a paperback version of it again, but it needs a redesign. I’d also like to finish and self-publish the rest of the series, you know, in all that spare time I have as a literary agent. Doing these things would certainly revitalize sales. But I have other priorities currently, and sadly as I am the publisher, it’s up to me to find the energy. However, I have no illusions that anyone else will discover it and do it for me. So I’ll keep fighting for it. Eventually.

Angelus by Mary C. Moore
Interested in reading ANGELUS? Click the cover.
*I have at last taken my own advice and unpublished it. Someday maybe, it’ll see the light of day again.

A Career as an Author: The Reality

sparkly eyes

As a literary agent, I see the starry eyes of newbie writers everywhere, their idea of what it means to be a writer skewed from the famous tales of authors who have made it big.

  • Did you know Stephenie Meyer had a dream about sparkling vampires and Twilight was published 6 months later?
  • Amanda Hocking made 2 million dollars self-publishing her series.
  • JK Rowling went from sleeping in her car to becoming a billionaire.

You hear these recycled lines everywhere on forums and in writing groups. The stuff of legends. The writers who did it. These anecdotes give hope with each rejection, fuel the fire, keep the dream alive. It’s like the waiters in Hollywood dreaming of becoming the next Brad Pitt or Halle Berry without the star-studded veneer. We need these stories to inspire us in this highly competitive industry.

The other side of the coin though, is these anecdotes give rise to high expectations. I’ve met so many writers who believe by self-publishing they’ll be the next Amanda Hocking, or by finding a literary agent their series will be the next franchise. It creates an unrealistic perception of what it means to be a career author. And when a literary agent sees that idealism shining through a newbie writer’s pitch, they become wary (and weary). Because, writing is a career. And like any other career it takes time. On average it takes about 10 years to get your first book published. And that’s probably not the first book you’ve written. Following that, it takes about six successfully published books for you to start earning a living as an author. That’s potentially a few decades. Which requires a lot of patience and dedication. An author who doesn’t understand this, will put a lot of unnecessary pressure and unrealistic demands on themselves and their agent, and that is not the type of business relationship we want.

For every legend, there are thousands of writers who haven’t made it, whose rejections litter the pathway, whose debut novel was a dud, who gave up, because the dream was taking too long and was too much work. My favorite response to those who ask how long it takes to become a successful writer is to ask, “if you started a job tomorrow at an entry level position, would you expect to be the CEO within the year?” Not to say that it hasn’t or won’t happen. Just be ready to fight to keep the dream alive for more than a few years. So before you approach your next literary agent or editor or consider self-publishing, ask yourself, are you willing to do the time? Once you know and accept the reality of becoming a career author, the more likely you are to succeed.

And don’t forget to submit to me when you do have it figured out.

Mary C. MooreSeptember 24, 2015

My client, Sean Danker, has a fantastic military science fiction novel coming out in hardcover this spring. The buzz is high on this book, and Tor.com got the cover reveal. Head over to Tor.com to see the stunning cover for the first in the sure to be hit Evagardian series!

Click here for the cover reveal.

ADMIRAL is due to come out this spring with Roc Books of Penguin.

Such a long time! But you can preorder ADMIRAL now!

ebooks_amazon-button_feb-24-2014ebooks_bn-button_feb-24-2014 ebooks_ibooks-button_feb-24-2014

 

 

Genre Breakdown: Magical Realism

Welcome to the first post in the genre breakdown series. One of the biggest steps in the submission process is determining which genre your book falls under. It’s important in both worlds of self publishing or the traditional route. You need to know your genre in order to target the audience most likely to be interested, whether it be readers or agents or editors.

I’ve seen a lot of incorrectly classified submissions, but I’ve noticed the genre authors tend to get the most mixed up is magical realism.

Birds of America – At the Beach – Kevin Sloan

As an agent that represents both fantasy and magical realism, I find a lot of fantasy authors will submit under the genre magical realism, believing, falsely, it gives their fantasy novel more literary cred or makes it more unique. Or, they simply do not understand what magical realism actually is. I don’t blame them. Search the term, and a plethora of definitions pop up that don’t exactly make it clear. As Webster’s Dictionary puts it, “A literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” So does that mean Twilight is magical realism? No. Urban and paranormal still fall under the fantasy umbrella because even though they are set in modern time the reader is brought into a world that is indeed different than our own.

The Sun Sets Sail – Rob Gonsalves

What you do need to know is magical realism has a rich and varied history and is a separate genre from fantasy. If you’re not sure which genre your project falls under, than it is most likely fantasy. A boy from our world who finds out he’s a wizard and goes off to wizarding school to have all kinds of magical adventures, that’s fantasy. A boy from our world who believes he’s a wizard but whose story takes place in reality, that is potentially magical realism. Notice I said “potentially.” Magical realism is an elusive genre, not for the inexperienced or crowd-pleaser. The best way to get familiar with the genre is to read some of the classics, Like Water For ChocolateOne Hundred Years of SolitudeMidnight’s Children, and House of Spirits. You’ll find that even though there is a touch of magic, a bit of the fantastic, a sprinkling of the otherworld, these books are completely grounded in reality and the culture they stem from. Magical realism treats magic as if it were rational, just another aspect of our world, not as something otherworldly. Once you understand it, it will become obvious.

Self Portrait With Necklace of Thorns – Frida Kahlo

Why is this important? Because the average fantasy reader is different than the average magical realism reader. The audience is different, thus the people you submit to will be different, the shelf in the bookstore will be different, the Amazon Bestseller category will be different.

I hope this post has helped a little to understand that difference.

Know Your Rights – Publishing Contracts

Most newbie writers believe that you get your book published and that’s where the publishing train ends. So when they seek out an agent or publisher, or they self-publish, they tend to overlook one of the most important aspects of publishing, the subsidiary rights.

Sub-rights are a great way to bring in more money and get more exposure for your book. If you are self-publishing then you have the responsibility to see if these rights can be sold. If you land an agent or a publisher, they should be taking care of these rights for you. An agent will be shopping these with your interests in mind, the publishers in their own interest. There are a bunch of subsidiary rights that you may not know or care to know about, even after you’ve published, but there are 3 major ones that you should be asking about before you sign anything.

Film/Media:

This is the obvious one. Most writers have already dreamed of that actor that will play their characters in a film. Most agencies have connections with film/media agents or have a relationship with a particular agent, which is their subagent. Find out what type of connections your agent has.

Audio:

Audio sales have seen a steady increase over the years, so much so that publishers are more often trying to retain these rights. With the advent of digital content streaming, companies such as Audible are carving out a place in the market. A savvy agent will attempt to keep these rights on your behalf and sell them later. Most agencies either have an in-house audio agent, or the agents handle these rights themselves.

Translation:

Where in the world and in what language your book is being published is determined by which rights you have signed away. Did you give the publisher only North American English or did they retain World English? What about the right to translate and sell it in different countries? Did you know that every year the world’s largest trade fair for books is held in Frankfurt, Germany? A good foreign rights agent attends the Frankfurt Book Fair to pitch the multitudes of international publishers that will attend. The agent may be able to sell your book to multiple markets in multiple languages, meaning more royalties for you.

If an agent has offered you representation, ask what their process is for retaining and selling these important rights. How does the commission percentage break down? Do they have a sub-agent or do they partner with an agency that specializes? If the publisher insists on keeping one or all of these rights, what sort of parameters does the agent set in order to make the deal worth it? Most agents should be able to answer these questions easily and happily.
If you went straight to a publisher, make sure you understand what is happening with these rights. If said publisher is keeping all these rights, there should be a time limit so if the publisher does not doing anything with these rights they revert back to you.

So before you start shopping your manuscript, know your rights.

 

 

Mary C. MooreJune 22, 2015

Interview with Mary C. MooreSee my interview with Geek on Record about the eBook publishing revolution here.

Reasons For Rules: An Agent’s Perspective

Having been an unpublished author seeking an agent, I know how daunting a task this can be. Each agent has different submission guidelines and there are so many RULES. It seems as if you break any of these sacred RULES your query will go right in the physical and metaphorical trash, never to be seen again and you as an author will be laughed out of any possible opportunity to be signed. And when those rejections start rolling in, you question yourself and your writing. What RULE did you break? Then you get angry and frustrated. Why are the RULES so dang important anyway? Isn’t it about the writing? Shouldn’t they see you for the amazing talent you are and brush all that other stuff away? You start reading about authors who have broken the rules and been hugely successful and you  lurk on online forums to commiserate with other writers that are feeling as bruised as you are. Pretty soon you are convinced that agents have too much power and that their RULES are just petty ways of making authors jump through silly hoops for their own amusement.

Now, being on the other side of the fence, I find myself spouting off RULES to hopefuls at writer conferences, online forums, on Twitter, and everywhere in-between. I have unintentionally become a gatekeeper, because on this side, the RULES have REASONS. Oh. So for your sanity and mine, I am going to explain the REASONS behind the seemingly random RULES. I’m sticking to fiction literary agent RULES to keep it short.
Rule #1: Follow each agent’s individual submission guidelines down to the letter.
Reason: Every agent has a different system for shifting through submissions. Their guidelines are based on what will help them get through the slushpile in the most efficient manner. By not following the guidelines, you are causing a disruption in the system, which means it will take longer for the agent to consider your submission and respond to you, in effect wasting their time and yours.
Rule #2: Word count, 55k-75k for YA, 80k-90k for most adult, up to 125k for historical or fantasy.
Reason: Word counts are a throwback from traditional printing. There was a standard specification for print book sizes, which meant if your book fell outside those specifications, it was less likely to be picked up. Because of this, readers got used to a standard book length. And although publishing mediums have since evolved, the standard has yet to change. Thus, your book is easier to sell if it falls within the word count parameters.
Rule #3: Classify your work as only 1-2 genres, plus age group.
Reason: We want to know what genre your book falls into, so we know which editors we would place it with. Do not say “it’s a unique new genre,” not only is this not true (trust me, after slogging through the slush, I can say with confidence, you are not the first to come up with whatever concept you have come up with) it shows us you do not read within your genre, and do not understand it. We are looking for experienced authors who grasp who their reader audience is.
Rule #4: Address the query to the agent you are sending it to.
Reason: Not only is this courteous, but it shows you’ve at least done a bit of research before querying us, which means you think we would be a good fit for your manuscript.
Rule #5: Only query agents who represent your genre.
Reason: We as agents, develop relationships with editors and publishing houses. If we specialize in a genre, that means we are experienced both in reading/selling said genre, but we also know exactly which editors would be right for it. That being said, there is no harm in querying an agent you are not clear on, especially those who list “commercial fiction” as one of their genres. Just try to avoid querying an agent who only represents thrillers and mysteries with your inspirational memoir.
Rule #6: Have your manuscript finished, edited, and polished before querying.
Reason: Although a lot of agents will do edits before shopping your manuscript, their time is limited. They are not going to be willing to do extensive edits on a project, so if you send out a manuscript before it is finished, you are essentially setting yourself up for rejection.
Rule #7: Do not mention how well the book will do, or what great writing it is, or how you plan to be the next JK Rowling.
Reason: The reality of publishing is much harsher than the success stories of JK Rowling and EL James. Most authors don’t start making a living off their writing until after their fifth or sixth successfully published book (this is true for self-published authors as well) and even then you’re probably not going to be able to buy that island. On average it takes years/decades to become financially successful as an author. We are looking for clients that understand that and are willing to put in the time and energy toward that goal.
Rule #8: Keep your bio to simply your experience as a writer as well as any relevant experience to your novel (i.e. if you’re writing legal thrillers and are a lawyer, mention this). Leave out the names of your pets, your dreams of stardom, your inner demons, and any other personal/professional background.
Reason: Agents are professionals, and they are looking for professional clients. Your query letter should have the same information that a cover letter for a job resume would have. Relevant experience only. Of course once we’ve signed you, then the relationship may evolve to a more personal level, but there will always be a professional line.
Rule #9: Keep the query short.
Reason: The slushpile is no joke. There are hundreds of submissions that an agent or agent’s assistant have to read on a monthly basis. If a query is too long, out of necessity, we will skip most of it.
Rule #10: Only nudge an agent if you have an offer of representation or they have not responded past their posted response time.
Reason: Again, the inbox is flooded already. If you nudge, odds are we won’t read the email until after we’ve seen your original query, (unless in the subject line are the words: OFFER OF REP), so you are just adding to the pile and possibly being annoying. However, things do slip through the cracks. Usually in the submission guidelines, an agent has posted their normal response time. If it is past this date, go ahead and nudge. If it’s a full manuscript, nudging after six months is reasonable.
I hope this post has helped you make sense of a seemingly random set of parameters and given you more confidence to keep going. It is good to remember that most agents are hopeful that authors will follow these RULES, but we are also human and understanding. We may reject you because you didn’t follow one of our RULES, but that doesn’t mean you are blacklisted and we never want to see your face (or pen) again. In all honesty, we are so inundated with queries, we probably won’t remember your particular RULE-breaking query in the first place. So don’t be nervous, just do the best you can. There are many more RULES that crop up in all aspects of publishing: formatting, grammar, design, editing, writing, contracts etc, even self-publishing, and I’m happy to give REASONS for these in the comments below. As for the RULE-breakers out there. You know what they say…