Writing and publishing are not the same. They are two circles of a Venn diagram that occasionally overlap. And the truth is that even when you intimately know the ins and outs of this business, accepting how it all works is still hard.
I’m a writer who also works in publishing. For my day job, I acquire and develop nonfiction books for a few different HarperCollins imprints. A good chunk of my time is spent reading proposals and evaluating their potential, both commercially and artistically. What kind of books are popular? Does this book add to its genre or is it derivative? Does the outline need to be reworked? How have the author’s previous books sold? Acquiring, at its heart, is a balancing act between art and commerce. There are so many factors, and opportunity narrows at each stage: an author must successfully pitch a book to an agent, an agent must successfully pitch the book to an editor, an editor must successfully pitch the book to their publishing team, the publishing team must successfully pitch the book to readers.
In other words, I know how hard it is to sell a book to a publisher. I also know how hard it is for a publisher to make a book a success. Knowing this, though, hasn’t necessarily made my work as a writer easier.
I’m hesitant to even mention this, but I don’t have an agent. Intentionally or otherwise, writers can be split into the haves and the have-notes when it comes to literary representation. Often, the unspoken assumption is that having an agent is a badge of honor, while not having one is a sign of failure.
Several years ago, I went to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where each participant can set up two 10-minute meetings with agents and editors to pitch a project. My first meeting was fine, nothing special, but the second felt, in a word, electric. I shared with the agent my pitch for my novel and their eyes lit up. “I really have a feeling about this,” the agent said as we parted ways. The agent asked for some sample writing, and I gave them a short story of mine. Two hours later, I received an email from the agent: “Just read the story. Liked it a lot. Good meeting you today. I’ll very much look forward to seeing your novel when it’s ready.”
A year later—after countless drafts and long hours of bleary-eyed revision—I sent it off. The agent responded within minutes: “I look forward to reading. I’m a little buried just now but I’ll do my best to get back to you before too long.”
This was the last I would ever hear from this agent. I followed up a few times and checked my spam folder religiously for about a year before I finally accepted that the agent had ghosted me.
It was devastating, but at some point, all writers make a decision regarding how committed they are to pushing through the rejection, the silence, the doubt. How much does this dream really matter to me? I queried other agents, and several had beautiful and touching feedback after reading the full manuscript, expressing regret at passing on it. Their editorial vision for the book and mine differed too much; the novel they were looking for was too different from the one I’d set out to write. I felt like a failure—until finally, after a few years of almosts and not-quites, I placed the book with a wonderful independent press. Many of my writing heroes gave wonderful and generous blurbs, and I’m grateful.
I’ve been writing stories since I was eight years old, but even after all these years, I have to constantly remind myself that it’s the writing that matters most. What becomes dangerous is when I focus my creative energy on the publishing circle of that Venn diagram—thinking of what might sell or attract an agent’s interest rather than what I want to write. Comparison can easily consume the writing life; what began as a form of creative expression becomes a start-up business, focused on metrics and output and analytics.
We can get so caught up in the rat race of wanting to break out that we lose sight of what made us want to be writers in the first place. The lifestyle and trappings of art and artistry are a cheap substitute for the writing itself. We have no control over whether our work will be remembered or not, so we may as well have a little fun along the way. As life and work have grown increasingly complicated and complex, I find myself wanting to go back and tell the eight-year-old version of me this same thing: writing should be fun, damn it. I would tell him, “Worry less about being ‘a writer’ and just write. Write what you love, and let the chips fall where they may.”
Austin Ross is a senior editor at Harper Horizon, Harper Select, and HarperCollins Leadership. His novel Gloria Patri (Malarkey) was published this month.