~ Having an agent isn’t everything
~ Guest blog by Samantha Gassman
In January 2020, I was flying high. After 5 months of querying literary agents with my picture book manuscripts, I had an offer of representation in hand and my first book on submission with publishers. But as the months dragged on, it became clear that my hope of seeing my book in print was not going to happen.
During the course of 12 months, my first manuscript was rejected by 30 publishing houses — big ones, small ones and everything in between.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Rejection doesn’t stop after you have an agent
When I received my first offer of representation, I was equal parts thrilled and relieved. I was ready to be out of the query trenches and into the big time! Instead, I traded in the “your work isn’t the right fit for me” rejections from agents for “It’s cute but I’m afraid it didn’t quite capture my attention as I was hoping. I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass” rejections from editors. Ouch!
Not only do the rejections continue after landing an agent, publisher rejections sting even more. When I was querying agents, I convinced myself it was “just to see what would happen.” Like a schoolchild picking daisy petals: maybe they’d like me, maybe they wouldn’t. But when a publisher rejects your work, they’re saying it’s not worth their time or money to publish your story.
On that note...
2. Acquiring a book is a risk
When a publisher acquires a book, particularly a picture book, the publisher is taking a huge risk on your book’s ability to compete and perform in an over-crowded marketplace. During the acquisition process, there will be a Profit and Loss (P&L) analysis performed by the editor or financial specialist. After all, publishing is a business, not a charity. While writing for children is often portrayed as a whimsical process, if your cute story isn’t worth the manufacturing, design or overhead costs, a publisher will pass.
In my case, the feedback from several editors was exactly that: “The energy is great, but the story doesn’t hit high enough to compete in the market right now.”
3. Agents have a really tough job
Agents get paid when the author gets paid. In other words, after your book is acquired, contracts are signed, advances are paid (or not) and royalties come in. Because publishing is such a slow industry, this means your poor agent doesn’t see any cash for 1–3 years AFTER they sell your book. They weren’t paid to read your query, offer their revisions, or go back and forth with you on edits. They do all of that in hopes that your book will be acquired by a publisher and fly off the shelves. Even then, most agent commissions are only 15–20%. On a $17 hardcover book, that’s only a few bucks.
I will be forever grateful to my first literary agent for her perseverance and patience as we received rejection after rejection. Especially since our agreement was based on her representing this one manuscript, and she had all her figurative eggs in my one basket.
4. Taking a critical eye to your work is important
If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: Read your manuscript like a publisher. Regardless of what kind of book you’ve written, you must be well- read enough in your genre, age group, etc. to know where your book fits into the market.
What is unique about your book?
Why does there need to be another book on your topic?
What value does it provide the reader?
After the doors to my publishing dreams were closed for this manuscript, I re-read it with the editors’ comments in mind. You know what I found?
They were right.
ARTICHOKIE KARAOKE (great title, right?) is a really cute book. The rhyme style is catchy (similar to Hip Hop Lollipop) and kids would appreciate the premise of being stuck in a boring grocery store with nothing to do. But, as the 30 editors noted in their own way, it is too “slice of life.” The conflict and resolution are too tame, and without the rhyme, the story falls flat. Maybe if I had considered these things before, I could have revised it to be more compelling. Upped the stakes. Increased the friction. Landed the deal.
Take a look at your story as objectively as possible and ask yourself those tough questions before it goes on submission. If you know in your heart it could be better, make it better. There is no need to rush.
Seriously. Don’t rush it.
Although my first attempt at being a published author didn't work out, I tried again with another agent in 2020. Just before my rainbow baby was born, my new agent and I received an offer of publication for my picture book, DEAR RAINBOW BABY. It comes out on National Rainbow Baby Day – August 22, 2022, courtesy of Clear Fork Publishing.
P.S. It’s also my rainbow baby’s second birthday that day – how perfect is that!?
After my first book was rejected by 30 publishers, I felt completely deflated. The contract with my first agent was terminated and even though there are still a handful of publishers who never responded, ARTICHOKIE KARAOKE will likely never be traditionally published.
At least, not in its original form. Knowing what I know now, I may dust it off one day and revise it, and try again. Or maybe, elements of the story will find their way into a completely new piece. Or maybe, I’ll borrow the rhyme scheme to write a new story. It doesn’t matter — the point is, we learn more from our failures than our successes.
Don’t give up!