Pub Rants

The Agony of Defeat

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STATUS: I’m really ready to read a submission that really excites me.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SHE TALKS TO ANGELS by The Black Crowes

Do you remember watching the Wide World of Sports and Bogotaj’s failed ski jump clip timed with the words “the agony of defeat”? I think that image is now synonymous with the concept of crash and burn.

Well, this is exactly how an agent feels when a manuscript he/she believes in doesn’t sell. (And I can’t imagine what an author feels like when this happens! Do they imagine that same vision?)

As a general rule, it’s not possible for an agent to sell every single project that is taken on. A lot of times the market isn’t quite right, the timing is off, the submission falls through the appreciation crack, who knows.

But not every project sells.

That’s a fact of life and not why I’m writing this entry. The toughest moment comes when an editor really believes in a project, when the editor fights for the project at editorial board, and then the unbelievable reply comes that despite the editor’s best efforts, he/she won’t be offering for the project. The work, already rejected from numerous houses, is at the end of the submission yet having come so close to almost making it through. So close and yet it might as well be a mile apart.

That, my friends, is the agony of defeat and let me tell you, agents do feel it as keenly as their authors. Well, I take that back. I really don’t believe it’s possible for the agent to feel as deeply as the author does for that lost opportunity. After all, it’s not quite as personal. I always feel incredible sad anyway (and for some reason I run that mental clip through my brain).

I don’t think I’m wrong. Why doesn’t the rest of the world see what I see?

And then I remember that it all comes down to timing and oddly enough, luck.

That can be the most frustrating part of this biz and about as graceful as tumbling through a failed jump.

31 Responses

  1. min said:

    Blech. Just yuck.
    In a year, how many projects might you pitch and how many get turned down? Maybe just percentages would be easier to reveal.
    Curious is all. I suppose we all know that getting an agent is not a guarantee of publication, but it’d be nice to know what our chances are.

  2. Cat said:

    It happened to me with my first historical novel and I was devastated. I found the best thing to get over it was to write another novel and “prove” myself that I could do it in spite of the rejection.

  3. Whirlochre said:

    What’s important, I suppose, is that in spite of the inevitable crash ‘n’ burn sceanrios, writers keep writing and agents keep agenting and publishers keep publishing.

    As Evel Knievel once said (he didn’t, actually — I’m making it up), ‘nothing beats the thrill of racing towards the flaming hoop…’

  4. Buffy Andrews said:

    I remember watching the Olympics and seeing an ice skater fall when she didn’t land the jump well. And I remember thinking about all of the hard work and years of practice it took to get to that point. And how awful she must feel to have her hopes and dreams crushed in a matter of seconds. And yet, she got up from the fall and continued to skate and do the best she could do. In life, there will be plenty of falls, plenty of failures. It’s how we handle the failures that count. I’ve learned more from my failures than I have from my successes. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s not. There have been buckets of tears. But I always remember the skater who had the courage and tenacity to get up and keep trying. Here’s a column I wrote on failure if anyone is interested in reading. And the failure just happens to be a manuscript rejection, something I know we deal with every day. To my fellow writers, keep trying and don’t give up. Believe in yourself and have the courage to persevere.

  5. Ryan Potter said:

    Luck. Yes, I think that’s a huge factor more often than not. It took my original agent 2+ years to sell my debut novel. During that time, I wrote a second that we both felt great about. In fact, I loved the second novel more than the first! I forget how many houses considered the second book, at least eight or nine. Anyway, the second novel remains shelved and unsold three years later.

    There is some good news here. The debut that she sold is coming out in 6 months! But, man, I still hope that 2nd one sells somewhere down the line.

  6. mb said:

    Thanks for admitting this. Sometimes I get tired of hearing editors and agents insist that “a good manuscript WILL get published!” which is clearly not true.

  7. Keith Schroeder said:

    You’re bumming me out, man.

    Luck always takes you further than skill, but without skill, luck doesn’t have a chance. Life can be tough. It is important to keep a good attitude. I remember a real estate agent once telling me, “The next home sold in this office will be by an agent that sold a home recently.” His point is clear. The momentum and positive attitude a sale generates carries forward. If in a rut, pull yourself up and get some positive momentum. The best way to clear the blahhs is to sell another book; for writers, create another beautiful story.

    Okay, Tony Robbins has left the room.

  8. Anonymous said:

    “Do they imagine that same vision?”

    No; we blame our agents. That’s one reason you’re worth fifteen percent. We get to indulge in violent revenge fantasy clips instead of failed ski jumps

  9. Anonymous said:

    I don’t mean to rant but this is a huge pet peeve of mine — agents acting like they are in the trenches with writers.

    Post quote: “…I really don’t believe it’s possible for the agent to feel as deeply as the author does for that lost opportunity. After all, it’s not quite as personal…”

    “Quite” as personal?

    I’d venture to take that one step further and say it isn’t AT ALL personal compared to the writer’s investment. The writer worked on that book every single day for a year or more. Rewrote endlessly. Had her/his hopes inflated by being able to get an agent at all, and had it taken to acquisitions.

    Have you done work for that ms? Sure, but when added up it can be measured in a few days, not years.

    During this same time you’ve taken on new clients, and presumably sold other books/gotten royalty checks from other authors. You’ve got income and other sales to show for your year spent — even if it wasn’t that author’s book selling. The author has nothing except getting to start over from scratch, sans cash, and their instincts dulled.

    I’ve been there several times. I doubt my agent gave it two seconds thought. His/her email said, literally, “Oh well.” Not — I am sorry, or I feel your pain, or I can’t comphrend how frustrated you must be, just… oh well.

    The agent never even bothered to clue me in on how the acquisition meetings had turned out — I had to email him/her, after two months of waiting on pins and needles, to ask a meek, any news? Come to find out they’d passed two months prior. Oh those? Yeah, they didn’t want it after all. Oh well.

  10. Anonymous said:

    When something doesn’t sell, the agents pride gets hurt. They want to be a bad-ass, have things go to auction, so they can make fun blog posts and have their comments section filled with Atta-boys. So it doesn’t happen, for this one — they eat some chocolate or have a drink and wash the day off. It’s not that big of a deal because they’ve responses coming in left and right for other work (that is selling). Let’s face it, when you are selling other work, one that didn’t sell is easily forgotten.

    When something doesn’t sell for the writer, their entire ablility to create comes into question. They second-guess every sentence after that, every bit of minutia, every moment of the day while they spend a *year* writing their next book. There is no let up, no, “other sales.”

    I’d way rather have my pride hurt for a few seconds because I wasn’t quite the bad-ass agent I wanted to be, than to be stuck stewing in that fragile writer’s head. One is about pride, the other is a constant feeling of failure. That’s why it’s insulting when (some, not necessarily saying Ms. K, but not excluding her, either) agents claim how “hard” it is.

  11. Haste yee back ;-) said:

    Feelings of agent/authors when submissions don’t make it.

    Agent when a submissions dies…

    Pretend you’re a nurse on a maturnity ward and you’re rooting for a new-born to make it – but alas, no. That’s the agent’s involvement.

    Author… your child died – need I say more!

    Haste yee back 😉

  12. Anonymous said:

    Wow. Some raw emotional responses here and I can completely understand it. Especially the questioning your abilities after such a close call. But really, among the ashes should be an ember that glows brightly and that shines on your writing as worthy. That while this book didn’t quite make it, the next will. Like one commentor said about the skater. Get back up, brush yourself off and write another book. And believe in yourself. Don’t second guess. Write on.

  13. Marie said:

    I think you deserve a big hug, Kristin. 🙂

    Because you ARE in the trenches, and you fought hard for the book too, and unlike many agents, you keep your author at your side every step of the way.

    Thanks for all that you do. <3

  14. Rebecca Knight said:

    I read a statistic somewhere that said only about 60% of agented manuscripts get sold. I’m wondering if that’s a fair statement?

    How I think of it, is out of the 13,000 people using, there are only 178 success stories, which means that .01% of the people querying got an agent.

    After that, if my chances go from .01% to 60%, I’m stoked about that :). I’ve already overcome far worse odds. It is all about perseverance, and writing that next novel after that. You’re halfway up the mountain–keep climbing!

  15. Robin Mizell said:


    For some strange reason, I can’t help signing authors whose work I love, and with whom I know I’ll love working, even when there are obvious obstacles. Because this job is all about being able to convey to an editor my enthusiasm for a manuscript, as well as its commercial viability and the author’s talent, it’s sincerely troubling when a project proves difficult to sell. Perhaps the publisher’s sales in a particular category are dropping or a similar title didn’t do well in the past. A seemingly objective reason is little consolation.

    Admitting defeat is demoralizing—to the author as well as the agent—for very different reasons. I think many agents invest far more time in certain books than we can ever hope to be compensated for, just because we believe the books and the authors deserve to succeed. I’m sure you’ve found yourself refusing to admit defeat many times.

    Thanks for your transparency!

  16. Madison L. Edgar said:

    I believe writing is absolutely one of the most difficult professions. I’m a newborn writer (just completed my first MS) and, after doing tons of research on the industry, I’m beginning to truly grasp the toll the publishing process takes on writers’ self-esteems. Rejection after rejection after rejection. There’s rejection in every stage in the process. It’s unavoidable! Sometimes I wonder if it’s truly worth it. I won’t ever stop writing but I wonder if it would suit my self-esteem better to simply keep my books to myself, close friends and to family. Do I believe in my MS? Of course. But does that mean I want to destroy my self-esteem and diminish my self-accomplishment for having completed a MS I’m proud of? I can’t bring myself to send out query letters for this sole reason!

    Even if I could score an agent, the chances of publishing still aren’t absolute.

    Writing is life. Writing is tragedy.

  17. Anonymous said:

    Kristin, you say “The work, already rejected from numerous houses, is at the end of the submission…”

    Can you give us an idea of what “numerous” means please? Five? Ten? How many months has it been?

  18. leesmiley said:

    I can relate to your sentiment, Kristin. Last year, I had several agents, including you, request the full of my manuscript, only to tell me that, while the writing and story were good enough for publication, it wasn’t sellable.

    While this was a crushing blow, it was also something I could build upon, knowing that the fault lay more in the tight market than in my own abilities as a writer. All the feedback I received was very positive and that, more than anything, convinced me that I should keep working toward my goal of representation.

  19. Jm Diaz said:

    Needless to say, this is that fear that lingers in the back of my mind. I doubt I am alone in this, but I tend to believe that even this fear can be put to good use. Use it to make sure that your MS goes that extra bit, give it that little umph that it may need to make it into to bookstore.

    And if not, well, just write another one, and another one. Write because you love to write. Not because you love to be recognized for it.

    I know that writing for love doesn’t pay the bills, but some other task might, while you focus on your art. Make your craft your mistress. Let it steal you away from your life, and maybe, just maybe, one day it will pay off the way you envision it.

  20. Anonymous said:

    Haste Yee Back-

    I can see what you’re trying to say, but it really irks me when people so flippantly compare inanimate objects to human beings.

    Second, I would hope that my agent would be a heck of a lot more involved in my book than the nurse was in my labor and delivery (they’re nice but they really are just “there.”) An agent on the other hand can have a big influence on your work and career for many years.

    If we want to carry on with the childbirth analogy, let’s think of an agent as the grandparent of your “baby.” No, they did not create it, but a good agent often has seen through several revision and helped it get to a place ready for submission. And like a good grandparent they are invested in the success of your “baby” going forth after it sells and is published, as well as any other “babies” you will have in the future. It’s to their benefit. It’s how they make a living. They don’t just throw it out there and say “Oh well,” when it doesn’t sell. No sale, no paycheck.

    Kristin acknowledged that it’s not the same as for the author. It’s not. But good grief if you’re going to use analogies make them equal to the situation. Books do not equal babies. Agents do not equal labor and delivery nurses.

  21. Anonymous said:

    Well said, anon. Kristin’s latest post puts this one in a different light. It may be her first real rejection from an editor, it seems.

    I appreciate hearing what her days are like.

  22. Anonymous said:

    Anon 7:58 — “It’s how they make a living. They don’t just throw it out there and say “Oh well,” when it doesn’t sell. No sale, no paycheck…”

    Based on this statement I assume you aren’t agented? Because there is a whole slew of agents that take on huge amounts of clients and ms, throw them to the wall, and sees what sticks.

    I hope you never get the kind of agent that says “Oh well” about your books, but many of them do. No sale, no paycheck, yes, but they have a ton of other clients, you aren’t their only “paycheck.”

    You don’t like comparing a baby to a ms, and I get that. But nor is it appropriate for someone who hasn’t been through the wringer with a bad or even mediocre agent telling others how agenting works. Wait until you get there. Seriously. You will take more crap than you can imagine just in the name of getting along.

    Writers never talk about their terrible agent experiences because the pub world is small, and they don’t want to be seen as a complainer. But trust me. Wait until its you. You’ll wish someone would have given you a heads up.I know three writers that had to leave their agent this year because they couldn’t take the lack of communication, the lack of follow-up on subs, the lack of reading their other mss, and the tiresome rountine of jumping at the sound of their agent’s voice, only to be ignored continually — in short, the general lack of respect.

    Do I think Kristin is this type of agent? Probably not. But she’s one agent, not all of them.