On April 30, 2005, I sent a letter to the president and publisher of one of New York’s more prestigious independent publishers, asking him to take a look at my novel. Two months earlier I had quit my reporting job in Southern California to go back to my parents’ farm in Nebraska and finish the book. Once I had a complete, workable draft and a polished query letter, I began the impossible process of cold-querying literary agents. I researched websites to find agents representing books like mine. Not finding enough to be satisfied, I found the contact information for agents that didn’t necessarily represent my kind of book, but had authors I respected on their lists. I sent out hundreds of emails and letters in the post. No one took.
Then, on May 2, 2005, the day I turned 25, I received a letter from an assistant editor at the publishing company explaining that the president had directed her to request my manuscript. The letter I had sent asked for the same chance at success the imprint had provided for other young writers like Bret Easton Ellis and Nick McDonell. I had no hope it would work; I figured the man didn’t even read his own mail. When the request for my book came back I had the manuscript in the mailbox and the little red flag up by the end of the business day.
Then I waited. Not idly, mind you—I continued to send out queries and partials and to write, but nothing excited me more than the prospect of this company publishing my book. They published great writers, alive and dead—they were one of those imprints where you could walk into a bookstore and not know what you wanted to read, but if you found a book with their mark on it, even if you didn’t know the author you could buy it and feel like you were in good hands.
I started to run out of money while I waited, so I took a job at the newspaper in my hometown working as a reporter. I wrote newspaper stories about the immigration problem, how Nebraska wasn’t using its potential for wind energy, and had my work passed around the state legislature to reform the practices of hog farms that were polluting trout streams. To this day it is the best job I’ve had—reporting in a small community, where nearly everyone gets and reads the paper, means you have a close relationship with an interested audience, and that’s what I have always wanted as a reporter. Yet, like many writers who get into journalism to earn a living, I wanted to find a way out, to make my career one of a book writer. On a journalism career level I was satisfied; as a writer I felt like I might be dying on the vine. The waiting to hear back was no small torture.
After about three months I received a letter from the editorial assistant. She was encouraging, said a number of people on her staff were reading the book, and while it wasn’t perfect, there was something there. She made a few suggestions to improve the manuscript and I went back to work on it. A month later I had a new draft in the mail.
Again, silence. No emails. Nothing in the mail. I continued to work hard at my job. Fell in love. Traveled all over the Midwest. Despite these distractions I waited for the call. And I was patient, until I wasn’t. I finally wrote the assistant a polite message:
Subject: Checking in.
I was just wondering how we were coming along. Let me know of any new developments.
I got this response:
Subject: Auto out of office reply
XXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXX is no longer employed at XXXXXX. She has moved on to pursue other career opportunities. Please direct all questions to assistant editor XXXXXXX XXXXXXXX.
OK, I remember thinking, this isn’t good news, but it’s not the end, either. So I sent the new guy a simple email asking him if he had my manuscript, wondering where we were, etc. His response was to say that yes, he had read it, but that he wasn’t comfortable going forward until I had an agent. I explained to him how long I had been working with the first assistant, and that surely I would have a better chance at getting an agent once I had a yes from them, but he refused to go any farther. He even went so far to recommend I get my M.F.A. I was back where I started and almost an entire year had passed.
With that unfortunate development, the rest of my life followed suit. I stopped liking my job, started fighting with my girlfriend, and began looking for a way out of Nebraska, which is how I ended up in Korea, but that’s another story.
For a while afterward I still tried to get an agent. I read agents’ blogs, went to the library and scoured the Publisher’s Marketplace, generally took all the advice I could get. None of it worked. The book still lives in my computer and in an email folder, but that’s as far as it’s gone.
Still, I’m not bitter. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been rejected and won’t be the last. And I don’t want anyone to think I’m blaming anyone. I’m sure editorial assistants, literary agents, and people in the publishing world would like to make it seem less impossible than it is. Their hearts are in the right place. They love books enough to make their lives from them. They probably even love some writers. And more than a few of them want what’s best for us. When a writer does well, the publishing company and literary agency do well, readers get good books, and everyone benefits.
We’re all out there hungry for good stories. Some of us even like happy endings, whether they happen in real life or not.