The Curse of Hubris

By John Gilstrap

I received this in an email the other day from a writer who is frustrated in his efforts to find an agent:

“. . . I couldn’t get anything other than a form rejection letter, if that. My perfectly-spelled, perfectly-punctuated and personalized cover letters would earn me a form rejection from a flunky I’d never even written to. . . I know I’m not at fault here. My cover letter’s been tweaked (I even read your essay on to make sure I covered all my bases), I’ve written four different synopses for [redacted] and I know the fault’s not with the writing.” [Hotlink added.]

I feel his angst when I read this. The email vibrates with frustration. It also showcases astonishing hubris.

He spells and punctuates perfectly and is clearly not at fault when his work does not resonate with a prospective agent. Hmm. I’ve been in this publishing game for going on 15 years and I can’t think of a thing I have done in my work or in my life that I executed perfectly (trophy wife and perfect kid excepted). Perhaps his claims are true–I have no frame of reference–but even if they were . . . well, they couldn’t be, could they?

Writing is a two-way communication that requires an author to put words on the page and then a reader to appreciate them. I’m not even sure that spelling and punctuation count all that much. Think about it: while a chemical dictionary may be perfectly spelled and punctuated, it will never become a runaway bestseller in the trade fiction market.

If a query or manuscript receive consistent rejection, the fault must, by definition, lie with the author, mustn’t it? Is it reasonable to blame a reader for not liking the book he’s reading? It doesn’t mean that the author is untalented–I understand that Herman Melville was a terrific writer, but you’d never prove it by me–it just means that the writing, when judged by its own merits, didn’t seal the deal. It could be plot or characterization or voice, or any one of a thousand other causes, but the only solid, readily identifyable data point is that the audience rejected the offer. Absorb it. Deal with it.

But please don’t claim perfection.

This curse of hubris seems to be gaining wide acceptance on Internet boards where like-minded, frustrated writers-to-be rally around the fiction that the publishing establishment is united in excluding newcomers. They’re not being rejected because their work is substandard or unmarketable, you see. It’s the conspiracy. Given this widely-accepted “fact”, wouldn’t you know that there is an ample supply of publishers and editors and fee-agents who are more than willing to help introduce these people to the wild and wooly world of “alternative” publishing?

I guess for some people, anything is better than facing the truth. (And yes, I understand that there are a number of circumstances where self-publishing is the best way to go for certain nonfiction. Vanity publishing, not so much.)

Receiving criticism is hard. Rejection is even harder. As the market for novels continues to shrink, I’m dismayed that the ranks of published authors will shrink along with them. I just pray that I continue to make the cut. If one day I don’t, though, it will ultimately be my fault for not having provided the right story to the right marketplace at the right time.

The instant that anyone in any business begins to fancy himself a victim of his customer base, it’s time to change professions.

What do y’all think? Everyone knows that the industry and the marketplace are changing at a dizzying rate, but is it ever the reader’s fault when a writer does not “succeed”? (Succeed is in quotation marks because in a creative field, success is a word that defies definition.)

19 thoughts on “The Curse of Hubris

  1. It’s true, there is a conspiracy to exclude newcomers into the publishing world. What they haven’t discovered yet is the secret handshake among published authors that identifies us from the wannabes. Let’s hope that never gets out so we don’t have to face any real competition.

  2. A fairly well known literary agent (whose name eludes me at the moment) in an interview said something that struck me fairly hard with its truth. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “No one ‘deserves’ to be a published novelist.”

    No, granted, in my paraphrasing you can interpret that a lot of ways. But what he was saying was that publishing is a business and a business with a finite market and finite resources. When I was starting out writing novels unsuccessfully I figured “if I just get to be a good enough writer” I’ll get published and have it made.

    Well, although I think that statement is basically true for freelance writing (which I do for a living), I’m no longer at all convinced that’s true for novels. (Sorry, newbies, this might seem very depressing). There are many, many, MANY factors that go into getting a novel published, and even more that go into it being successful in the marketplace. Timing and luck are only two of them, but they’re significant factors. Good, as many of us are finding out, isn’t really good enough. Your manuscript needs to be somewhere between VERY GOOD and GREAT just to get published and even then, if you’re unknown, the publisher’s taking a chance on you.

    Perfect spelling, grammar, format–that’s a given. That’s such a given I don’t even think it’s part of the low bar threshold. Start thinking hook, freshness, marketability, largeness of concept, excellent story telling…

    And if you get all that in place, will you still get published?

    Probably, although… no guarantees. That’s just life. Great novels, great songs, great works of art… some just get missed and languish in a closet due to variables out of your control–a bad economy, a shift in the industry paradigm, bad timing, and lack of persistence. As they say about baseball, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose … and sometimes it rains.

    And once it gets published, does all that guarantee commercial success? Are you kidding? All you have to do is look at the number of great novels/films/etc that weren’t recognized (if at all) until after the artist’s death. If Shakespeare’s friends hadn’t collected his plays in folios, we’d probably never have heard of him; if Mozart’s wife hadn’t gotten a strong business-sense after his death, maybe we’d be thinking how great Salieri was.

    Okay, my rant’s almost over, but: nobody deserves to get published.

  3. I thought long and hard about this after receiving a round of rejections for my first attempt at a novel. I came up with a solution that works very well for me.

    The book wasn’t good enough.

    There are a million reasons books don’t get picked up. Maybe a different editor at one of the houses we submitted to would have liked it. Maybe the timing was bad. Doesn’t matter. The only thing I can control is the quality of the writing. I can pay attention to what I hear and adjust material accordingly to some extent (after enough people say Mafia stories are dead, don’t write any more of them), but even then, it’s the writing that’s the issue. Everything else is fog.

  4. You’re so right, John. There are a million variables that determine whether a book will get published. If you’re having trouble gaining traction with any particular novel, you could whine and moan about the unfairness of it all (and blame the readers–they’re an easy target), or you can sit down and write a better book.

    Not hard to guess which path leads to a greater chance of success.

    (I know of what I speak–I’ve written my share of crappy manuscripts.)

  5. There’s no guarantee of success, but there is one sure guarantee of failure: give up.

    Maybe two: don’t come up with ways to improve as a writer, trying every day to do so. You have to work at this, even after you’re published.

    And, as Andre Dubus said, “Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first ten years.”

  6. John, I have a slightly different take on this, for which some will no doubt brand me a heretic. Your writer friend was cold-querying agents, which is several huge steps removed from actually being published. And I think here, he has a legitimate beef.

    No, there is no vast publisher conspiracy to exclude newcomers. Yes, the quality of his writing may well be suspect. But one thing is for certain. Very few published authors started on their road to their first publication with a SUCCESSFUL cold query of an agent.

    I’m a firm believer that when it comes to agents, most authors get their first agent by some other means, most likely through connections or blind luck. And now, here comes the heresy.

    Cold queries of agents are, in my opinion, a waste of time.

    I know, I know, there are authors out there who got their first agent exactly that way and are now riding high, but I would submit they are the exception rather than the rule. Agents are, IMHO, generally uninterested in newcomers, especially those who creep in over the transom.

    Next time you’re talking with a group of authors (four or more), ask them how they got their first agent. And “first agent” is defined as someone who is willing to handle a previously unpublished author. You may be surprised.

  7. Hi, Mike. Thanks for your comment. I wouldn’t call it heresy; just counter to my experience. It would be interesting to poll my fellow Killzoners, but I got my start through a cold query. I had do endure 27 rejections first, but ultimately, it was a cold query that did it. In fact, as I’m composing this, I’m trying to think if I know of anyone who started out any other way.

    Well, I know of one who struck gold during one of those round-robin agent pitches at a writer’s conference, but I consider that another form of the cold-query.

    Speak up, team! How about the rest of you?


  8. Unless your uncle is the agent, I don’t know of any other way to get your first one other than a cold query. In my case, my co-author already had an agent, so I inherited her.

  9. Over the last 20 years I’ve had 3 agents–the first two didn’t sell anything (nor was my work ready, but they must have seen something in my writing worth supporting), although the second one really tried hard. I got all three agents through cold queries.

    Oh, and I should amend this. I actually acquired an agent to handle nonfiction last year for a project I was involved with. That was less of a cold query than I cold queried an agent who liked the project but it wasn’t her type of project, so she referred me to another agent, who I then queried, who then took me and my collaborators on. Does that count?

  10. Oh, and by the way, on a related topic. On my blog today I put a link to two agents who went through their 2009 submissions and reported statistics on why they rejected various manuscripts. I have to say, it’s probably the most illuminating thing I’ve ever read about what goes through an agent’s head.

  11. Having accepted the fact of my literary infallibility I have come to the realisation that the reason my books have not sold yet is simply the fact that they are so emotionally and psychologically advanced that the common man has yet to evolve to the point of being able to understand the depth of the work I put forth the world.

    The very fact that I sent in an action thriller written in Japanese calligraphy style Roman lettering, with purple ink, on a continuous roll of paper should have been a sign that it was very good stuff.

  12. I’m on my third agent.

    My first number three in a batch of ten agents whom I contacted at the outset of my search. They were among the first to respond, and immediately requested exlusivity (which I gave to them for far too long, in retrospect- three months).

    The second agent I met at a Bouchercon conference.

    And my current agent, ironically enough, is the very first one I ever spoke with, back when I was still working on The Tunnels. The first three chapters were reviewed by an agent scout at a conference, who kicked it up the ladder to this agent. She loved it, and asked to see the manuscript when it was complete. Unfortunately by the time I had finished it, she was out on maternity leave. Then when I was ready for a change, I contacted her- and she was about to go on maternity leave again with her second child. The third time was the charm.
    So in a way I feel like she was meant to be my agent all along.

  13. I got my first agent through a cold query. I had six or seven rejections first. My second came from a recommendation by an author to an agent he’d met at a conference. We talked and meshed and we’ve been together for many years. Now that author is with her as well.

    As for deserving to be published, I agree that nobody deserves it. One works toward it and perseveres and hopes. It’s hard to get published and much harder to stay that way. I think I may deserve to remain published, but I may be deluding myself. It’s ALL about the work in the end.

  14. I cold-queried my way to getting an agent. It took me about a half dozen queries to land an agent. Not once did I assume I’d get a personal response from any particular agent, not until the full manuscript was requested for a read. I was lucky to get a high percentage of requests for the full, but I certainly would never have considered my query to be “perfect”.

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