(or, The Author Complains About a System That Kicked His Ass and Continues To Do So)
If you'll excuse the indulgence, I'd like to take a moment to discuss what I've been doing behind the scenes these last few months. In addition to my work on Beneath an Azure Sky and the recently concluded Nerd World rewrite, I've also been attempting to get something else published. This is what I've learned about that process.
I wrote my first book in 2008 and, after half a year of rewriting and polishing, I started shopping it around. It didn't go so well. I can distinctly remember sending off my first batch of queries and receiving a rejection to the first one before I sent off the last one. I spent six months writing queries and was rejected over seventy times, not counting the agents who just blew me off, while receiving no positive feedback. I can't say I was shocked, given the nature and length of the project and my own inexperience, but it was enough to put me off the whole process for a good long while. After that, I started pursuing alternatives - self-publishing, serialization, screenwriting, whatever.
It wasn't until 2013 that I took another stab at it. The project in question was titled The Dragon's Heir, my fifth novel and sixth book. This was by far my most personal project, the kind of thing I might as well have written in my own blood for as much as it hurt. This project, I decided, demanded the respect and exposure granted by a proper imprint. I really wasn't looking forward to this, but with a lot more experience and a writing history behind me - and a marketable project in front of me - I figured I had a shot at this one.
So far, I've spent three months sending out queries, mostly via email but also several by post (actual letters allegedly turn over a greater response rate). As of this writing, I've sent a total of 184 queries to agents representing over 150 agencies. Four of those resulted in positive responses - the agent requested either additional pages or the entire manuscript (two of whom have since rejected). That gives me a response rate of slightly more than 2%.
In case you're wondering, 2% is terrible. A "serious" author (that is, one with a real chance at being published) is supposed to generate a response rate of at least 10%. The lower it falls below that threshold, the less likely it is that the project will see the light of day and, according to some sources, receiving one hundred or more rejections means that the manuscript is unpublishable in the present market. For the record, I'm presently sitting on 70 rejections, plus another 54 that I've marked as closed because the agent didn't respond for two months - these can be unspoken rejections, errors in message delivery, or a sign that the agent is backed up. I suspect that behind the curtain, I'm hovering around the one hundred mark.
Now, none of this means I'm quitting. After what I put myself through writing this bastard, it's getting published. It's getting published if I have to write to every agent in the listings, wait six months, adopt a pen name, change the title of the novel, write a new query and start again from the top of the batting order. And it's not like I'm taking it personally, either - a rejection doesn't mean that the agent thinks that the project is bad, but rather that she thinks it's unmarketable. There's an important distinction between the two, and understanding that distinction is key to understanding the industry.
The publishing industry - much like other entertainment and media sectors - is very risk-averse. That's a weird thing to say, as it suggests that The Dragon's Heir is somehow "risky." It's really not. There's nothing particularly experimental about the writing style, and the topics (generational conflict, ill-fated romance, office politics) are about as old as the tides and effectively ageless. In fact, it's probably one of the least risky things I've written. Next to, say, Nerd World - a novel I never even considered shopping around - it's very conventional.
The problem is that the industry is not willing to gamble even a little bit, and that means they won't take on any project unless it's a guaranteed seller. Here's a little something to keep in mind if you've considered pitching a novel through traditional channels: Many agents (especially those at large agencies) expect you to provide examples of books currently on the market that are similar to yours. Even if this isn't explicit in the submission guidelines, it's usually a major part of whether or not the agent will request more material. This is normally associated with the marketing plan demanded of nonfiction, but I can vouch from personal experience that it applies to novels and narrative nonfiction as well. And if you can't come up with any examples, and the agent can't think of any, then guess what happens to your query?
This is certainly not the only thing that's been holding me back, but it's a big part of it. I might still have a shot if I was writing in some kind of genre, but The Dragon's Heir falls into that realistic/mainstream hinterland that defies attempts to put it into a genre category (the genre being the first thing every agent wants to know). There are authors who are successful in this type of fiction, but they're all very famous and well-established, and there's just not that much room at the top. Absent a relevant world event or my becoming a celebrity for unrelated reasons, all I have is a project that an agent can't easily pitch to a publisher.
That, right there, is why alternative routes to publication are so critical. I'm not that sanguine on the "revolution" - most self-published or alt-published material is garbage that couldn't sell in any market. But there's plenty of quality material out there, as good or better than what's on the market today, that's never going to make it to a publisher because it's too unusual for the notoriously stodgy publishing industry. Get enough of that material around the gatekeepers and to a waiting audience, and we'll eventually have the pull to change the system to something that encourages creativity rather than obedience to a marketing plan.