Not long ago I read The Help. It really engaged me: it’s serious, funny, warmhearted, intelligent and written with great skill – and now of course it’s become a bestseller and has been made into a film. When I looked it up on Wikipedia I discovered that the author, Kathryn Stockett, tried sixty agents before she found one who would take it on. Yes, that’s right – sixty agents. (This was in America, where I imagine there are a lot more agents than there are here in Britain.) The nature of the book is controversial – a white person writing about black people’s experience – and I can see why the agents might have had reservations. All the more reason, then, to be awed by Kathryn Stockett’s persistence and refusal to give up. She knew she had a good book and was determined to get it out there, and somehow – goodness knows how – she managed not to get too discouraged by all the letters/emails saying ‘we’re sorry, but we don’t think this is for us’.
I’ve now had six rejections (four of them from agents called Caroline), which is precisely ten per cent of sixty. Two were for an earlier draft and four have been from my present round of seven submissions. So far only one agent has wanted to see the whole manuscript and of those who didn’t only one (or rather her assistant) was kind enough to say what she liked about the book and what she thought wouldn’t appeal to the reader. Most of the standard letters say the agent doesn’t have time to respond in detail, which I completely understand, but I did think it was bordering on insult to send a pre-printed letter with the recipient’s name filled in by hand. However, I know that’s what you get: a polite or not so polite message that ‘you’re no use to us.’
I certainly can’t claim that my book is in the same league as Kathryn Stockett’s, or even as the books by some of my friends that have already got agents or publishers. The more rejections I get, the more it tends to reinforce the feeling that actually my book is not good at all and I should give up my fantasy of being a commercially published writer. In fact I should probably give up writing altogether and feel ashamed for having the temerity to try. I don’t really buy into that – I am still writing, as you can see – but it’s hard to go on believing in something that keeps being batted back and not even taken seriously enough to be read right through.
That’s where taking it on the chin comes in. Authors get rejections: it’s part of the process. Even already published authors get rejections sometimes. And somehow they deal with it and survive it and still keep bobbing up again, like those toy people on weighted bases that you can never knock over. But, a little voice in me keeps saying, perhaps in order to do that you really have to know your book is good. And how can you know? On the one hand I’ve had encouraging comments from tutors and fellow writers; on the other hand I know as well as anyone that the book has plenty of faults, as does my writing. And of course whether it gets taken on by a particular agent is a subjective matter: what for one seems an insuperable obstacle may for another be a relatively minor problem that can soon be ironed out. The bottom line is that, as people keep saying, you need to find an agent who will fall in love with your book and help you to make it as good as it can be before they take it out into the world to face the next round of rejections – from publishers this time. As with finding a lover, some people get lucky with an agent and some people don’t, and the tendency for the ones who aren’t picked is to attribute it solely to their own deficiencies.
As I’ve said before, I don’t know whether my book will get anywhere with this round of submissions or with any future submissions. Right now it’s not looking good, but I know that if I give up at this point I’ll definitely regret it. My chin can take a few more hits yet.