"Almost" is a dirty word. Particularly when one cannot move beyond it. Universally known is the pain of being almost there, just out of reach, of not quite making it. Close, but no Cigar. *
We all know what it's like to feel that sting, and it's easy to become bitter. I have.
I was once almost the agent for a very wonderful book with a very lucrative deal. All editors and agents have a story that begins with: I wanted that one so badly. So my story goes like this: I wanted to represent a book very badly, but I did not get to. It went to another agent who sold it for an amount of money that I still sort of believe is theoretical. I spent a not insubstantial amount of time calculating the ways in which I had been robbed, sabotaged, ignored and generally victimized. Yes, I'm being hyperbolic there, but quite simply: I blamed other people and I was bitter for a time.
I blamed the author for not seeing how right I was, how perfect my plans were for that book. How if she'd just given me a shot I'd have delivered. I blamed the other agent for being - I was sure - a thief and a trickster. I blamed a 3rd party for being a saboteur. None of this is accurate or remotely true. All the people involved are professionally responsible and rather delightful. But I constructed a narrative in which I failed because others could not see my potential.
The truth is much simpler: My potential didn't matter. Only my pitch did. If it wasn't enough to win her over then it wasn't. It was and is no one's job to see "potential" and raise it to "productive." It was my own job to do that. Kind of a kick in the gut, but there it was.
Aspiring authors can easily fall into the trap of constructing a similar narrative. One in which agents, editors, and publishers just don't get it. In which, if they'd only give it a chance, they'd see! And I truly get it. But if you're going to remain un-embittered, remember to be mindful of the jobs on the line here. Proselytizing on how Publishing fails to publish "real art" or doesn't encourage aspiring authors with potential is, well, probably wrong and definitely useless.
That author whose book I wanted badly? She had this job: to pick an agent who would best advocate her work now and in the future. She didn't owe me because we'd corresponded or spoken. Editors have this job: to acquire books about which they are enthusiastic, in which they believe will succeed both critically and monetarily (remember, to buy a book they have to convince other people that it will sell). They don't generally acquire books based on "good ideas" and "almost there." Publishers, as agent Brooks Sherman put it, "acquire your novel to make a profit."
Yeah, it's kind of shitty and certainly a burst to the glamorous culture bubble, but as my Dad once said "So? You gonna stand there or scrape it off?" **
There is often, especially, I think, in the adult literary world, this expectation of cultivating "potential," and when it does not arrive, when Publishers turn down work that has the potential to be a quality book, a subtle, but dangerous belief emerges: The Publisher (or agent, or editor) rejected this book because they lack either the balls or the brains to pursue it.
Maybe so, but Publishers are not there to dig deep into their proverbial balls and affect cultural change or awareness. They totally can and often do and that's why we love it, but it's no one's job. First of all, there's the whole chicken and egg argument about the culture of trends *** but mostly, there's the whole "you have to be in business next fiscal year if you want to publish a 2014 national book award finalist." Yes, they want to put out quality work, but it has to sell. Publishers aren't responsible for encouraging the books that almost make it. They will turn down books that might be good because "might" is not a strong enough word. Would you hire an assistant who had the potential to be competent or one who demonstrated they already are?
The good news: Sometimes it does turn out to be a mistake. Sometimes they're wrong. Many a rejected author has had their vindication.
You've heard the stories: Jane Austen novels submitted today get universally rejected. Orwell's ANIMAL FARM got turned down because "no one reads books about animals." In fact, Here is a cool article that features 30 now famous authors whose work was rejected repeatedly.
The even better news. The only tick is to take responsibility and keep working. Orwell did not spend his days lamenting how publishers didn't understand his work. He kept writing. He kept working. Until someone saw not potential, but success.
But Victoria, you say, There is so much terrible stuff that only gets published because it sells. It's ONLY about the money these days.
Yes, but rarely. First of all, just because you think it's trash, doesn't make you "right" in the definitive sense. No one opinion is more valid than another. Literary Fiction is not necessarily more "cultured" or "artistic" than YA or romance. Second of all, yes, there is a numbers game at play and it involves, for those of you stalwartly defending disdain for romance or fantasy, some necessary evils. For example, I thought 50 shades of Gray was a squeamish slog through miles of verbal horse-shit. But people I know and respect really enjoyed it. And more important to me personally, How many amazing books that I loved came out and will come out of Random House because they have the cash flow to acquire new work?
I can feel myself blathering. It's Monday. I've got that weird pre-fever neck stiffness thing going on, and I ate, like, a pound of poached eggs that are threatening reappearance, but my point is this:
If you're close but no cigar don't assume it's because people don't "get you" or don't want you to succeed. It's way more complicated that. And for the love of God don't stop working.
If you're just too discouraged to continue, you can always self-publish. The odds are against you, but this is publishing. The odds are always against you. But maybe you're the next E.L. James and then you can start your own publishing company with a vault downstairs so you can swim in all your money like Scrooge McDuck :)
Be stout of heart, friends. That's all.
*what does "close but no cigar" mean? I don't know the etymological history of this and I'd like to.
** I stepped in dog poo once when I was little and lost my little girl mind over how gross and awful it was. My father was not amused or manipulated by my tantrum.
*** do Publishers sell what Readers want or do Readers want what Publishers sell?