If I humiliate myself by sharing two book rejections I received this morning, I do it intending to be informative.
Thank you so much for allowing me to read Getting Lost to Find Home. Your story and your writing in this piece are lovely but…
Thank you for your query! Unfortunately, right now I’m not taking on any more memoirs as I’m currently shopping two. Memoir is tricky to sell without something that really sets it apart, eg written by someone of note/celebrity or sharing a story far beyond the norm or spectacularly culturally relevant now. If you take a look at Publisher’s Marketplace (subscription service I highly recommend), you’ll see that 98% of memoirs being bought are by someone with some kind of credentials.
Both replies are typical of those I’ve received in the past. The first response is a polite way of saying,” You aren’t a person of sufficient interest to make money in the commercial market. The second reply is more detailed.
“…going beyond the norm implies the work doesn’t titillate. To be spectacularly culturally relevant now means I’ve failed to address issues of racial hatred, sexual identity, or political scandal.
Getting Lost to Find Home does explore cultural differences but manages it with gentle humor and some pathos, particularly as I recount my memories of living in colonial East Africa– a point in history that bears on current events, though the connection is subtle.
Never mind. If I felt out of sorts by these rejections, I’d soon learn life wasn’t through with me. As I stood before my computer, ruminating on my failures, a new email popped up. A budding writer, someone who identified herself as the relative of a friend, sought my advice.
I am an upcoming senior in high school, and I’ve just recently finished writing a novel that’s targeted towards late elementary and middle school students. I am just beginning my forays into the publishing world and I was hoping you could answer a few questions for me.
Not one to discourage young lemurs, I felt obliged to reply, even though I doubted I was equipped to tutor anyone about book marketing.
By way of history, I will explain that when publishing houses stopped reading unsolicited manuscripts and made agents gatekeepers, they narrowed opportunities for untried authors. Formerly, the big houses took chances with new writers, using the profits from bestsellers to do so.
Agents, being smaller operations, can’t afford that luxury. They seek writers with immediate appeal, authors who are established, trendy, or surprising. That’s because what agents want most are contracts that come with an advance. An advance is upfront money paid to the author, and hence the agent, once a contract is signed. Few untried writers receive that kind of offer. They receive royalties that arrive once or twice a year based on actual sales. For an agent, that’s a long time to wait to pay the rent.
Unfortunately, an agent’s priorities have a consequence for readers as well as writers. As a friend recently observed in her email to me:
One of the luxuries of my working life was the “disposable income” that allowed me occasionally to walk into a bookstore and buy something I didn’t know about by someone whose name was new to me. Otherwise, I’d still be reading Winnie the Pooh in my tattered childhood copy. Again and again and again. Doing nothing at all for the Milne/Shepherd royalties account.
Though agents claim they crave innovative work, their hunger for advances forces them to follow trends. Good writing is assumed and not what they are targeting.
I’m not sure how to explain all this to my high school junior who believes she has written a book ready for prime time. Probably, I won’t. What she needs in encouragement. I’m not in the business of tossing stones in people’s way. If I am honest, I’m inclined to follow the yellow brick road myself.