Trying to get a literary agent reminds me of dating. You contact the agent, you wait for a response, obsessively checking your email, your phone, your mailbox, wondering. It sucks, all that waiting, hoping and wondering and okay, also praying and maybe even throwing in some Buddhist chants for good measure, because you know, it can’t hurt, right? I’ve been so desperate that I swear I’ve considered witch craft. Do love spells work on literary agents? Can someone snag me a lock of hair at a conference or something?
But then, last year, I got a break. Fate stepped in, I believed, and intervened.
A very famous literary agent was coming to speak at my alma mater and one of my former professors, knowing that I’d just completed a memoir, called me up and asked if I wanted to pick the agent up at the airport and bring her to her lecture. Are you kidding me? Was this really happening to me? I practically hired a Mariachi band to welcome the agent at baggage claim and seriously considered maybe finding some hula girls to swath her with freesia leis as soon as she stepped off the plane.
The agent and I really hit it off. We had a lot in common and she seemed genuinely interested in my memoir. After I dropped her off at her hotel, she gave me her personal email and said to send her the manuscript.
Now, being a writer, I have a huge imagination and sometimes this imagination channels into elaborate daydreams, so by the time I got home that evening after the lecture, I was pretty much making hotel reservations for my booktour and scouting out real estate ads for the sprawling country home I was going to buy with the proceeds from my bestseller. Mind you, I used to do this with guys back when I was single. After first dates, I had a bad habit of planning weddings.
After sending my manuscript to the agent, my entire life fell apart. Devastating losses, family dramas, illness, legal problems, miserable cold weather, taking care of my daughter who was in the throes of the terrible twos – the problems just piled up and soon:
Depression seeped in the way melted snow finds its way into your boots to wet your socks and freeze your feet. Last winter, I just couldn’t get warm, inside or out.
I kind of stopped thinking about the agent and my manuscript. I didn’t hear back from her, so I assumed she didn’t like my story, but then on a Friday, she emailed me. She’d been busy. Her mom hadn’t been well, but her mom had read my book and loved it! She said it had gotten her through the aftermath of a difficult surgery! My book! The agent said that she hoped she would like my book as much as her mother did and she’d read it over the weekend and give me her decision soon. Hope had finally arrived. There was finally something positive to look forward to. I knew she was going to sign me. I knew I’d get a book deal. I figured I’d better start looking for country homes again.
Sunday night, after obsessively checking my email all day, the rejection came.
Who knew that a rejection letter could offer me the kindest words I’d heard in ages?
This agent’s rejection letter was the most warmth I’d felt in weeks and she inspired me to do something different. The agent told me it had been a hard decision and it was a close call but ultimately, though she loved my story, she just didn’t feel that she could sell it at this time. I got that. I knew the brutality of the publishing world. I understood that with memoirs you pretty much have to be famous already to even have a shot.
Her email was long, sincere and personal and by the end, instead of feeling crestfallen and worthless, I realized I felt proud and empowered. I was actually grateful for her rejection letter.
Because of it, I took a different path with my book. I decided to self-publish it.
My decision wasn’t based on avoiding further rejection. Instead, self-publishing was about taking control of the negativity in my life. I needed a creative, challenging project that could distract me from the sadness in my personal life, plus I’d been curious about self-publishing and wanted to learn everything I could about the process anyway.
My experience ended up being very positive and helped lift my depression. I don’t regret it for a second, though I still plan to pursue traditional publishing for my future projects. Maybe I’ll even contact the same agent. After all, her thoughtfulness and compassion shined a bright light into a very dark period in my life and if someone can do that with a rejection letter, imagine what she could do with a writer’s career? It’s no wonder she’s so successful, and one day, I will be too.