Throwing stuff at the wall

There’s that old saying about “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.”

I’m not quite sure what is being thrown there —  mud? spaghetti? Jackson-Pollock-style paint? a toddler’s mashed peas and carrots?

But whatever it is, that’s what I feel like I’m doing with literary agents.

A little background: I’m just starting to send out query letters for Novel # 2.  With Novel # 1, I queried about 15 agents. They were carefully selected, almost all of them people with whom I had a second-degree connection. So I could say in my query letter, “Hi, I was referred by your client so-and-so.” And almost all of them gave me personalized responses. They asked to see a full or partial manuscript. When they rejected it, they sent me nice rejections. Sometimes they offered constructive criticism. A lot of the time it was simply, “I didn’t fall in love with this.”

Novel # 1 is now sitting in the corner, nursing its wounds and sulking. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to put the final touches on Novel # 2 so it too can go out into the world. And this time I’m trying a different approach.

This time I’m sending query letters to a larger number of agents — some that I queried before, but a bunch where I don’t have a personal referral. This is more of a long-shot effort. Because email makes it so easy to submit queries these days, agents often receive 50 or more unsolicited queries per day. Fifty per day! This is known in the industry as the “slush pile,” and the vast majority of such submissions go unanswered or get form-letter rejections.

But one thing I’ve learned over the past year is that fiction publishing is subjective — more subjective than non-fiction. Editors won’t buy a novel unless they are really in love with it. Agents won’t represent a novel unless they are in love with it. And love is famously subjective — one person’s Romeo is another person’s Caliban.

I am hoping that Novel # 2 is more marketable and doesn’t have some of the structural issues that made life hard for Novel # 1. But even so, even if it is a perfectly viable novel, there may be 24 agents who simply aren’t grabbed by it. Then there may be the 25th who “clicks” and loves it.

Finding an agent and publisher has always been a bit of a numbers game, as attested by those wonderful rejection stories like Gone With the Wind being turned down by more than 25 publishers.

But the current economics of fiction publishing — where publishers are reluctant to take chances on anything that doesn’t look like a blockbuster — make it even more of a numbers game.

So…. out comes the mud/paint/spaghetti/peas. 

She winds up, pulls her arm back, releases the pitch — no, make that a dozen pitches —  no, two dozen pitches….

Will it stick?

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6 Responses to “Throwing stuff at the wall”

  1. Tom Moore Says:

    What’s it (no. 2) about?

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Very generally, it’s a story of first love, betrayal and redemption with a dollop of recovered memories thrown in. :-)

      I can send you a more specific description by email if you’d like. I’m reluctant to post details on the web at this early stage.

  2. Christina Baglivi Tinglof Says:

    I feel your pain. Although I’ve been very lucky with agent/publisher for my non-fiction books, and the ONE magazine editor that I know, it’s absolutely painful to send query letters to the BIG magazines. It’s as if they get lost never to be found again.

    Did you ever consider self publishing an e-book? The more I read about it, the more I think that’s the way to go. But you have to have your “platform” in place or it, too, will languish.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      The e-book option is on my radar. I still think there are advantages from a marketing and distribution point of view to go with a good traditional publisher, so I will try that, but if I reach a point where that is not happening, I’ll look at e-publishing or self-publishing via the net.

  3. Harriet Chessman Says:

    Ilana, if #2 is SAVING LINNIE, it SO should be published, tomorrow!! It’s a gorgeous book. How have we gotten to the place where genuine literary fiction can’t find a passageway into publication? I wish you the very best of luck with this.

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