All’s (Not) Fair in Love & Rejection

When I queried my first novel, I got rejected. A lot. Over 100 times in fact. I kept track of my rejections on these sticker charts, which hung on the back of my office door for over a year:

Was it fun? No, of course not. (Okay, well, the stickers made it a little fun.) But it was good for me, being rejected so many times. It taught me perspective and perseverance, and you need those things to survive in the publishing industry.

Querying writers often bemoan the seeming cruelty of agents, who dismiss years of their hard and impassioned work in just a few seconds. But here’s what I’ve come to understand about the querying process: it isn’t personal, and all of us who are book lovers know exactly how agents can cull their submissions so quickly, because we do the same thing all the time.

Think about the last time you went to a bookstore or library. Rows upon rows upon rows of books stretched out before you. How did you choose which ones to buy or check out? Well, first something has to make you take notice of the book. Maybe it’s the cover, or the title, or the author’s name. So you pick it up, you flip to the inside flap or the back cover and you read the marketing copy.

Or at least, you start to. Admit it: you can usually tell within a sentence or two whether the book is something that might interest you. If the marketing copy doesn’t grab you right away, back on the shelf it goes, and you’re on to the next book that catches your eye. Maybe when you read the copy for the next one, it manages to hold your interest the whole way through, so you turn to the first page.

Again, you can usually tell within a few lines whether you want to keep reading. There are plenty of great books, books that have won awards and been turned into Oscar-winning movies and made their authors boatloads of cash, which I put right back on the shelf because they just didn’t grab me. We’ve all done it. We can’t read every book, so we have to choose somehow. There’s an alchemy to it, a perfect storm of taste and quality and mood, that gets us to keep reading or plunk down our library or credit card. And it’s the same for agents going through their inboxes.

If an agent is going to sign a book, though, they can’t just like it. They have to love it. They have to feel passionate about it. They have to have a clear vision for editing it and pitching it and selling it. Think about the books you’ve read recently that you really enjoyed, the ones you recommended to friends or shouted out on Twitter or rated 5 stars on Goodreads. How many of those did you love enough to read them over and over again, to stick with them for months or even years with no guarantee that you’ll get anything in return for your time and effort? I read over 100 books a year, most pretty darn good, and I feel this way about, at best, a handful. And trust me, you want an agent who feels this head-over-heels, shout-it-from-the-rooftops way about your book.

So when you get a rejection, don’t think, I suck, this agent hates me, my book is awful. Think, it wasn’t a match this time – oh, well. And remember: every agent who puts your book “back on the shelf” is leaving it there for the right agent to come along and pick it up and maybe, just maybe, fall in love.

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Layne Fargo

Layne Fargo is a thriller author with a background in theater and library science. She’s a Pitch Wars mentor, a member of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the cocreator of the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets.

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