My two year old son has developed a habit of doing impromptu status checks whenever he has an accident. He’ll stumble and fall down, for instance, not hard enough to make him cry, and ask “OK?” Translation: “Am I OK, Daddy?” His mother or I will always reassure him, “Yes, you’re OK.”
It struck me recently that this most fundamental of human desires follows us through life, in one form or another. Deep down, all of us, at one time or another, want nothing more than to be told that we’re OK. That everything will be all right. I feel safe asserting that if you’re human, you’ve felt like this at least once in your life.
What it really comes down to is a question of positive reinforcement. The need for positive reinforcement is particularly strong when you’re pursuing a career in the arts–or any goal that falls outside the mainstream American view of what constitutes an acceptable, “real” job.
Writers of fiction are a solitary lot by nature, particularly in this country, where the usefulness and relevance of any artistic pursuit is judged primarily by its profit margin. As such, it’s a brave decision to write, and to seek publication for what you’ve written.
The traditional publishing process, then, is ironically sadistic, as it requires of the aspiring author the complete opposite: a pathological resistance to rejection that borders on the inhuman.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer, an aspiring writer, or associated with the publishing industry in some way, and you undoubtedly know what I’m talking about.
Under the agency model of publishing, literary agents and the editors at established publishing houses are the gatekeepers to publication. They are highly selective, often to the point of absurdity, and not, generally, in a way that makes any sense. How do I know this? I know this because I’ve submitted work and dealt with agents and editors myself. But more importantly, I know this because of observation and logic. Agents hold the keys to publishing because of their supposed expertise about what is good literature and, more importantly, what will sell–except there are endless examples of great, hugely popular, world-changing books that only got published in spite of caustic rejections that completely undermined the writer’s work.
Moreover, there are books that are enormously successful that have no redeeming literary (or even grammatical) merit whatsoever, e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey. E.L. James got her book published because she marketed it effectively and worked very hard to get it out into the public sphere, and it filled a need people didn’t even know they had. The market was obviously in craving erotica at the time, and the rest is history.
The truth is, as much as agents and editors would like you to believe that they understand the literary marketplace and know better than you what sells and what doesn’t, they don’t. They might have access to data about what has sold in the past, but so do you, if you want to go look at it. An agent telling you they know by reading your book whether or not it will be successful if put to market is, quite frankly, having you on. Just as you would be wise to steer clear of any stock broker or investment banker that tells you he can predict the market, you would be equally advised to bring your work elsewhere if a literary agent says the same thing.
It’s important to note here that I’m not saying that literary agents are worthless, or that they don’t serve very important functions: the good ones do understand a lot about how a book gets from manuscript to hardcover and can help you in some very important ways once you’re at a point that point. They may also be able to assist you in getting your foot in the door with an editor who might otherwise overlook your work.
That said, not all literary agents are created equal. Unlike other professional agents, such as sports agents or talent agents (who usually have advanced degrees in business or law, and who are required by law to be licensed in most states), your average literary agent is simply an English major who got a job as an assistant at a literary agency out of college. He or she may or may not have any more expertise than you do about what good writing is, how to improve it, and whether or not it’s likely to be find a home commercially. Good literary agents, of course, are very qualified to be doing what they’re doing, either through experience or education, but the really good ones (a) generally aren’t interested in you unless you’re already successful, and (b) may not actually be accepting unsolicited new submissions.
And those are just the good ones. I haven’t even mentioned all of the unqualified agents out there, the ones who have less experience agenting than you do writing, may never have successfully made a sale, and realistically have as much chance of getting you a lucrative book deal as you would by standing outside of a publisher’s office building with a sandwich board that reads “Please publish my novel.” Then there are the outright charlatans, the hucksters who are charging reading fees and pretending to get you a “book deal” when in reality they are having your book printed by way of one of many self-publishing channels available to anyone who wants to pay for it. These “agents” are the reason that websites like Writer Beware and Absolute Write Water Cooler exist. (If you are interested in how to identify a good agent, a good place to start is here: http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/.)
This is all a long-winded way of saying that if you’re looking for positive reinforcement from the traditional publishing industry, you’re not going to find it. What you’re going to find is rejection, more rejection, hostility, and still more rejection. The winners, the authors who get published, are the ones who persevere (or get lucky). This is all presuming you have some talent, of course. There are a lot of talented writers out there who simply don’t have the patience or the stomach to accept the kind of rejection that the industry dishes out.
We started Evil Toad Press with these problems in mind, and in a way, one thing we aim to do for aspiring writers is to reassure them that they are, indeed, “OK.” While our own imprint is currently not accepting submissions, we do offer consulting services for ambitious writers looking to self-publish because we see a need for experienced assistance and high-level service in this area.
Self-publishing is available to anyone who can pay for it, but that doesn’t mean it is an easy or simple process. Which is where Evil Toad Press’s self-publishing services come in. We worry about the publishing process for you, so you can sit back and write. In other words, so you can do what you actually want to do while knowing that everything is going to be OK.