Publishing Advice for Creative Writers
Fifteen rejections based on the query (meaning they didn’t read a word of the book)
Two rejections based on a full read
Three query letter revisions
One major meltdown
I finally, finally, FINALLY found an agent for my fifth memoir, The Summer of ‘72.
Robert Difirio of D4EO Literary.
Bob is an old-school agent with five-plus decades of experience in the business and a corral of intelligent, hard-working writers doing good work.
He spent 17 years at New American Library [Dutton/Penguin USA] in positions ranging from VP Sales to President and Publisher, Chairman and CEO. There he helped launch the paperback careers of Erica Jong, Robin Cook, Stephen King, Ken Follett, and Robert K. Tanenbaum.
With Odyssey Partners, he led the management team of NAL in a leveraged buyout of the company from Times Mirror in 1982, purchased E. P. Dutton a year later, and sold the combined company to Pearson PLC in 1986, which merged the company with Viking Penguin to create Penguin USA.
After multiple conversations, I learned that Bob is the opposite of every agent I’ve ever had:
- Shows up.
- A huge fan of me, first, and the work, second.
- Realistic about this business but not fatalistic.
- Refuses to meddle in my writing or change my work.
- Knows everyone in this business.
- About the business of writing, through and through.
An agent is as essential to a writer, and her career, as a life partner. And just like a bad relationship, you will never, not ever, be able to “lift up” or “change” the other with time and patience and perseverance. Emotional/psychological gravity assures you will be sucked into a lower vortex while forsaking your own.
This can be explained in many ways, but it has to do with the weight of dysfunction. You see this often in mob situations where the collective will commit stunning atrocities as a group they’d never commit alone.
Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.
While this is a quote from the Book of Matthew in the New Testament and goes to sharing certain teachings with those who will not listen, I’ve also heard it said by those wise souls who have tried to counsel me over the years: twenty-three years and seven literary agents to be exact.
Since the beginning, I’ve fallen into the arms of whatever agent would take me. As these people went on to treat me poorly, dishonor me and my work, and were inconsistent, erratic, and even out and out insane, I tolerated their behavior while beating myself up. Always, always, I would think: Is it me?? Then, I’d resolve to try harder only to watch the situation get worse, and still worse, until I’d finally give up.
My last agent was so erratic she would send me late-night voice memos telling me to include things like love letters in my book because, according to the New York Times, love letters were hugely popular with readers. Then came the barrage of texts with images she thought would be “great” to put into my book and several emotional tirades about the state of the world. Eventually, this woman set me up with a publisher who told me to rewrite my book without a contract and to get her an outline in a few days.
“What’s the problem?” the agent asked.
Amid this hell, one of my best “friends” told me: “Look, stop complaining and play ball. Do what (the agent) tells you to do. Don’t ask questions.”
All this is to prove that emotional/psychological gravity isn’t just about the wrong agent, but applies to our pals and inner circle, too.
As a creative writer, you will feel desperate about finding and signing with an agent. You will worry your work isn’t good enough and will be rejected. You will tell yourself, “It will never happen.” You will hear (and internalize) that the business is impossible and that you probably have a chance in hell.
Cover your ears and focus, focus, focus on what matters.
The Truth About this Process:
- Write a great book: This is the most important thing. Put all your energy here and stop after about two or three drafts.
- While writing a great book, write shorter pieces and submit them for publication. Do this when you’ve finished your first draft, and make it a regular practice.
- When your book is the best it can be, make your wish list of the perfect agent for you.
- Get a Publishers Marketplace and Query Tracker subscription and start researching agents that fit your genre.
- Write a kick a## query that follows each agent’s guidelines to the letter (these often include all your publishing credits, the names of your teachers, marketing ideas, and any other relevant contacts you have).
- Send those queries out. I suggest six at first, ten max, because this is a test run.
- If you are getting rejected immediately (meaning no one is asking to read the entire manuscript), it could be the query. Go back, look it over, revise it, or get advice from those specializing in queries.
- If you are being read and rejected, listen to what they are saying in those rejections: “It’s slow in the beginning,” “It didn’t hold my interest.” You might write back for specifics like: How far did you get into the book? What made you stop reading?
- Based on the feedback in number eight, consider a revision, and this could be a complete revision or as simple as a tense or POV revision.
- If you are getting standard rejections, don’t worry. Put out fifteen more queries now.
- Process your feedback through #’s 7-9.
- If you are still getting the same loop of rejections and all is well with query and book, bump to 25 queries, even 50.
- When agents ask to speak to you, interview them and ask them all the questions you have from your wish list.
- Think hard.
- Last, pick the best agent for you, sign that contract, and get going.
There’s much more publishing advice for creative writers to offer and toward that end, we’re starting a Publication Club at the Studio this fall. For now, I leave you with this truth: You can get an agent. You can. And you can get what you want from that agent.
When Bob and I met, and I told him of my many agent debacles (feeling a good share of shame for my complex history), he said, “Yes! I’m lucky number eight.”
He might be right.
I hope everything I’ve shared is helpful to you on your journey.