When the Email From the Agent is Half-Empty

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February 7, 2011. The literary agent’s email had 211 words, but I couldn’t see beyond these eleven to the other two hundred: “At this time I am not able to offer your representation.” I could see that there were other words in the email, but I couldn’t seem to focus on anything other than the rejection.

This is it, I thought. I’ll never be a novelist. After several crying outbursts and venting to everyone I could get to listen, I was able to take in a few more words:

“I have several thoughts I would like to share with you. I found your plot to be intriguing…. I do think this is a saleable project- that it has the potential to be with some in-depth editorial work.”

So she liked my plot. But not enough to take on the book and help me improve it. She did, however, have a remedy:

“I would suggest that you consider hiring a freelance editor.”

And that was the crushing blow. I had already hired a freelance editor. In fact, I had hired two different editors to work on the book. One lived in the Pacific Northwest and was more literary, the other was in NYC had more access to the publishing industry. I had paid them both a fair amount, and they had both given me great feedback. The three of us had revised the book and worked on the query letter. I had queried fifteen agents, but the rejection email was from The One. I had several friends with this agent. I knew people who had worked for this agent. She was my dream agent. And she was rejecting my book.

This wasn’t the first book of mine that I had sent to this agent. But there were crucial differences: with the two previous books, I had never actually been rejected. Rather, the assistant had expressed interest but I had never pressed for a final decision, because I had another book in the works, one that would be even more irresistible. And here it was, my most irresistible book yet, the feminist heist book with the Robin Hood sex worker heroine. The most commercially viable book I was capable of writing. And the agent was telling me no.

But worst of all, in February of 2011, I had a baby just over a year old. I also had a teaching job and my baby wasn’t even in day care yet. I couldn’t do what I had always done: pour myself into making the book better, or writing a newer hotter book. I could barely find time to take a shower. I was cramming revisions into the hour when my baby napped. This was the hottest book I would ever write. It felt like my last chance. And I had been rejected. I was devastated.

I moped around and parented in a fog of dejection. Apparently, my decade as a spoken word artist would be the sum total of my writer’s life. The DIY chapbooks and CDs from my pre-baby years would be my final body of work. I did still have the video of my hip hop theater show, didn’t I? And while I am proud of that work, my deepest dream has always been to write novels. So when The Agent gave me the brush-off, I thought I had reached the end of the line.

Slowly, however, I began the grieving process. And as I continued to grieve for the loss of The Agent, I was able to get a more complete perspective on her entire email.

Several days later, I came out of the fog of crushed emotions far enough to read this crucial line from the email:

“Should you decide to revise, I would be happy to take another look.”

And then I realized: she wasn’t saying NO, she was saying MAYBE, but it needs work. I was even able to notice her encouraging words at the end of her email:

“best of luck with this exciting concept, and I thank you so very much for allowing me this wonderful opportunity.”

Once I realized that she was saying maybe, and that it needed work, then there was something I could do about it. I emailed her new assistant and asked if they could recommend a freelance editor. (I did not mention that I had already worked with two). They sent me to a few different folks, and I ended up going with someone who was a big hotshot: a former senior editor at a big five press, and a former literary agent. She charged three times as much as both the other freelance editors put together. But she ended up being worth it.

I worked with the freelance editor for three years. And then, with much trepidation, I sent the book back to The Agent. I sent her a chummy email, as if she’d been waiting for me for the past three years. I attached the manuscript. She sent a formal reply and asked me to submit just the first 25 pages. This did not look good. It wasn’t the I’ve been waiting on the edge of my seat that I was hoping for.

I received a response, three years later to the exact day, February 7, 2014:

“We have reviewed the revised material you sent and unfortunately our position remains the same, and we regret that we will not be offering to review your work further at this time….Please forgive this impersonal note.”

No encouraging sign-off, just the form letter and a firmly closed door.

I had a big meltdown, but I pulled up my big girl pants and continued querying.

Eleven days later, I got an email from the woman who became my agent. However, I will be forever grateful to the woman formerly known as “The Agent,” because her soft pass was the beacon of encouragement that I needed in February 2011. I had queried fifteen agents and the others had been flat-out rejections or non-responses. In that critical moment, she gave me encouragement, direction, and best of all, the referral to the editor who understood the project and how to place it in the market. I owe some of my success to the agent, and some to the editors. But most of all to my willingness to grieve and let go when things looked bleakest, but never, ever to give up.

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.

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