For years, at writers conferences, I kept hearing the same well-meaning pieces of advice: keep writing, keep submitting, your book(s) will eventually find a home.
Though it’s meant to encourage writers to push through rejection, the advice doubles as a toxic literary theory of bootstrapping (bookstrapping?), which suggests that hard work and persistence will yield the reward of a book deal. That isn’t necessarily true. Through my 11 years of submitting multiple books, I wish one person had taken me aside and said, “Look, it’s a brutal business that oftentimes has nothing to do with talent. If it doesn’t work out for you, know you are not alone.” It might have saved me from years of self-blame for what I deemed my own shortcomings as a writer.
“The right agent is out there for you” was another common refrain. What isn’t as commonly known is how many agents some authors go through before they find one who is the right fit. Over 11 years, I signed with two agents from two top agencies. The first worked her tail off to sell one of my books but didn’t succeed. We parted ways, amicably, when she wasn’t interested in representing my third book. The second agent represented two of my friends. We hit it off. A few months after signing me, he disappeared. I fired him two years later, though he didn’t know it for a while because he rarely ever opened my emails.
I had been querying agents for more than three years for one of my seven books—my novel, The Parted Earth—when I received yet another racist rejection from a Big Agent at a Big Agency. “This book isn’t as strong as other books coming out of India,” I was told—as if “India” is some kind of genre and there is a quota for books set there. I had also received a string of rejections from agents explaining that they couldn’t “connect with the voice”—a painful reminder that so much about getting published depends on an agent’s familiarity with the protagonist’s experiences, not necessarily the quality of the writing or the significance of the story.
These rejections were the last straw. Aside from replying to the occasional random request from an agent to see my work—a few months after publishing an essay in the Atlantic detailing a decade’s worth of rejections—I quit looking for an agent. But then, the following summer, my nearly nonexistent publishing journey had an unexpected twist. A book contract appeared in my mailbox, in response to a proposal (unagented) that I submitted a year earlier to the University of Georgia Press for an essay collection. Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change would eventually make its way out into the world. My confidence returned full force, which led me to submit The Parted Earth (unagented) during Hub City Press’s open-reading period. Seven months later, I had my second book contract. Both books will be out this spring.
But let me be transparent. My advances from both books total less than what some writers earn from writing a single article. Subtract my out-of-pocket expenses for authenticity editing, line editing, page proofing, and hiring an independent publicist, and I’m considerably in the hole (though the sale of the audiobook for The Parted Earth has helped me dig part of the way out). My ability to go into this kind of debt is a privilege—one that most writers can’t afford. I only hope that both books sell well enough that my nonprofit presses can continue to publish minority authors like me, because if I’d had to rely on the Big Five houses, these books would never have seen the light of day.
I am currently in the throes of rewriting my first novel. I’m trying to focus on the experience of writing, on the soulful energy that comes from creation, the adrenaline rush when I uncover a fascinating detail during my research—all of the parts of writing I can control. But now that I have two books under my belt, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t crave a third ISBN. Slaying the publishing dragon twice has made me greedy for more, but it hasn’t made me invincible. I can’t submit books for another 11 years. I no longer have the steely stamina I once did.
Now that I’m on the other side, writer friends often ask me whether it was worth it. Did the book deals make up for the tears and the trauma? Of course it was worth it. I still can’t believe how lucky I am. But I wish I didn’t have to lose so much of myself to get here. Don’t we all deserve a way to engage in this process while also remaining whole?
Anjali Enjeti is an organizer, teacher, and the author of Southbound: Essays on Indentity, Inheritance, and Social Change (Univ. of Georgia, Apr. 15) and the novel The Parted Earth (Hub City, May 4).