Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I Can Handle the Truth! (or can I?)

Last week, I entered a query contest sponsored by a literary agent, mainly because she promised to respond to every query with her honest reaction (hence the name of the contest and of this blog post). I thought it would be a good opportunity to get some feedback, especially since she promised to respond to them all (which is quite rare, in my experience with querying). So today I got her response, and she said she would pass on my book. I can't say I was surprised, and I wasn't upset. Actually, I was rather encouraged, because her reason for rejecting my query didn't have anything to do with the writing.

But I do become discouraged when I think about what was her reason. Here it is in her own words:

I'm not sure how commercial a historical with a western feel will be for YA.

In other words, she doesn't think my story would sell enough copies that publishers would think it is worth the financial investment to publish it. If publishers are going to sell historical, it's probably going to be about royalty (think Tudors) or some high-profile historical event (like the Salem witch trials). She's not saying my book about early pioneers wouldn't sell at all, just that it wouldn't make enough money. So she's not going to waste her time trying to pitch it to editors (and getting no money for her effort) when she could be pitching another paranormal series of some kind for teens, which would be more likely to earn her 15 percent cut. Can't blame her for that, and I'm not bitter about it (really).

I'm not bitter, but I'm saddened a bit, as a reader as much as a writer. There's a piece of advice for writers that I see quoted frequently that says something to the effect of "write the book you would like to read. If you like it, there will be someone else who does." So that's what I've done - I wrote exactly the kind of thing I love to read. And now I hear from an agent that the kind of story I love to read isn't "commercial" enough, which means there will be less and less of it in the future.

With the end of the year coming up, I was thinking the other day about my year-end review of the books I've read in 2011. It struck me that there haven't been that many I've truly enjoyed. Let's see, off the top of my head I can think of three that I really got caught up in - The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, and The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner. Some of the others (including the one I'm reading right now, unfortunately) have been a real struggle to get through. I'm probably not going to make any friends here, but several of those I've struggled with (including the one I'm reading right now) have been self-published books. The problems I've come across are often things about the writing style that could have been taken care of with a good, tough editor - like the "sun-streaked hair" mentioned dozens of times in the romance novel I read last summer, or the sort of weird obsession with eye position in the book I'm currently reading (I'll talk about that another time). But self-published work usually doesn't get a pass through a good, tough editor. It's just too expensive to hire a freelance editor when you're probably going to barely make back enough to cover your basic costs (really, it is quite expensive - I've looked).

I guess my point is, if mainstream publishers aren't going to take a chance on historical fiction that falls outside of certain narrow parameters because it is too "niche," does that mean I'm going to be stuck reading work that is two or three drafts away from polished? That doesn't make me look forward to my future reading, to be perfectly honest. It also discourages me even more when I think that teens won't have choices to read good historical fiction. It's sort of like shopping for clothes when you are a "woman"; do women older than me really like those pantsuits with the big, gaudy, beaded flowers on the top, or do they buy them just because that's all that's available in their size? Do the majority of teens really want only vampire stories, or is that what they buy because it's what is in the bookstore? I don't know.

I guess I can comfort myself by remembering Ann Turnbull's next book in the Quaker series is supposed to be coming out next spring (I hope that's right), Nancy Dane has the last book in her Civil War series set to come out in 2012, and I haven't yet read the sequel to Chains. Those are things to look forward to. And I suppose I should quit being so picky and critical about everything I read. (But that sounds like settling.....)


Janet, said...

Hi. Lil Red Hen told me about your blog. I am a writer, too. I write chldrens stories, mainly PBs, but I also write MG. I love historical fiction. It is very frustrating trying to get our writing published. I have also found that a lot of self published books are not written very well. We need to be persistent and patient and I feel we will eventually get published.

Augustina Peach said...

Hi, Janet! Lil Red Hen had mentioned your writing to me. I agree, it is very frustrating, and I hope patience and persistence are the keys to getting our stories out to readers.

Thanks for stopping by!