A Would-be Author’s First Look at the Publishing Industry

432 A.D. Starbuck’s, Yinshan Pass, Inner Mongolia.
Before beginning another day’s attempt to penetrate the Great Wall of the Northern Wei Dynasty, Qori Buqa (“Twenty Bulls”), and Mongke Temur (“Eternal Iron”) meet to tear flatbread and drink a yak-skin bag or two of fermented mare’s milk.

“Will that be ‘for here’ or ‘to go’?”, asks Bati, the perky green-aproned counter-helper. Qori sighs, “Let’s have it here, Mongke. I got another rejection at the Wall yesterday, and I need to talk. Attila’s going to have my head if this keeps up. Besides, those new stirrups are killing my instep.”

The morning’s sun still blocked behind the Wall’s impenetrable face, our two comrades huddle. Mongke tries not to burn his tongue with the first gulp. “You think you got a rejection yesterday?? I had to ride for my life from the base of the East Tower! One more lead-tipped arrow wound, and I’ll qualify for transfer to the Danube. Now, that’s a rejection with promise!”

Oori’s eyes bulgeâÂ?¦”The East Tower? Lead-tipped arrows?? A chance to die west of the Caspian??? No kidding! I would give my saddle for such a rejection as that!”

And so begins another day for Qori and Mongke, growing old together, tipping yak skins and sharing tales of rejection in the shadow of the Great Wall.

Is Your Yak Skin Half-Empty or Half-Full?
Though I have been writing for much of my life, I am a babe in the woods when it comes to finding an agent or being published. Now that I have become interested in “the business of writing”, I write not only for the joy of it, but in hopes that my work will meet with acceptance by those I need to help me “see it through”.

Like most unpublished writers, I have all the logical questions:

How do I get my work published (What’s the process)?
What is a literary agent, and what does one do?
How do I find a good agent and how are they paid?
What are my chances that a good agent will like my work?

I have known a number of fine writers in my life, some of whom have been published, others who have not. In some of these unpublished writers, I have observed a curious, almost studied expectation of rejection as “the way things are done”.

Is it my naivetÃ?©, or is there something odd about such an attitude? Is this the “fire in the belly”, the passionate assurance of success that agents and publishers seek in a writer? Or is it the mature and sensible recognition that “One must pay One’s dues” before ever being published?

In pursuing this matter further, I decided to log on to a number of writers’ exchanges to see how frequently talk turns to rejection. I found a lot…Who has been rejected? By whom? How many times? Is it a scam? What was the “best” and “worst” rejection? How many rejections might it take before I DO get published? Endless…

It’s almost as if, for some writers, manuscript rejection has become a kind of cathartic currency of exchange, complete with values and denominations (“I’d trade you one New Yorker for three Newsweeks”âÂ?¦).

Rejection Needs a Name
Somewhere early in my journey into the world of literary agents and unpublished writers, I started calling this phenomenon “The Wall”, in reference to “The Great Wall of China”. For me, “The Wall” represents what some writers see as inevitable rejection-incomprehensibly huge, foreign, ancient in heritage, possibly impenetrableâÂ?¦with a world on the other side that only a fortunate few will ever know.

As I write, I stand at “the Wall”-I just hadn’t realized it, because I had never needed to. Now, in order to begin my journey, I will have to devise a way over, through or around it. To do this, I first had to admit that the Wall exists, then become familiar with it as I never had before. What ironic coincidence that in China, birthplace of paper, the Great Wall was built in part with the sweat and blood of writers. Like many of the “artists and troublemakers” of their time, writers in ancient China were forced into Imperial servitude to spend their remaining days adding stones, bricks or pounded earth to the longest structure ever built by Humanity.

Nor did China’s Great Wall begin as a single deliberate vision, conjured up with grand design and cunning. Far from it. Beginning around 600 B.C. there began a joining of the many smaller walls-limited barriers built earlier and designed to keep out local invaders-both from within and beyond the Empire’s borders. Once completed, however, “The Great Wall” stretched more than 4,000 miles, from the Gobi Desert in the West to the Pacific Ocean.

For many of the anonymous souls on either side-conscripted Chinese literati or the hoards of Attila, the Great Wall became a way of life. For many, it ceased to be something to build or not-to-build, to scale or not-to-scale. Like the Empire itself, the Great Wall just WAS. Legends grew up on both sides about what the “world” was like “over there”, beyond the shadow, where only in the imagination could one envision the riches. But for many, resigned to the Great Wall’s shadow, life had become another day drowning the fear of death with horse’s milk, another day of adding stones to block the sun, another chance to share with comrades the expectation of rejection and defeat.

Back to The Proverbial Drawing Board
As I stated earlier, before even embarking upon my journey, I met my Wall. Talk about a show-stopper. I had previously dispensed with the option of self-publishing, and had no direct lines of introduction to literary agencies or publishers. In short, I had to learn everything I could about the Wall, and deal with it as best I could.

What is this massive thing?
Why is it here?
Who built it?
How does it “work”?

I commenced my research regarding the basis for rejection of manuscripts by agents, in part to determine how much of the Wall was an external reality, and how much exists in our minds as unpublished writers. I searched, I read, I surveyed. I brought all of my information together and merged it with my personal experience in business and research.

I have done my best to learn all I can about the Wall. Here is what I have concluded to date:

14 “Yin’ss” and “Yang’s” of The Great Wall

1. The Wall is in the mind. It only has power if I grant it power.

2. The Wall is in the outside world. It has been deliberately constructed by agents as a means to control the flow of information.

3. The Wall is good. The Wall protects agents and publishers from wasting their time and money. It mitigates the risk of signing up a first-time writer with inferior quality work, an undisciplined work ethic, or a lack of commitment to see the job through to the end. For unpublished writers, the Wall can be a source of good constructive criticism, which if taken, can result in improved work and possible publication.

4. The Wall is bad. The Wall can prevent me from meeting fine agents. This is mainly a function of the number of submissions with which the Wall must contend. The fact stands-as long as there will be more writers than agents, there will be the possibility of a great piece of writing going undetected, inadvertently declined, or erroneously rejected.

5. The Wall is dynamic. It is growing and changing every day. If I think I know the business of literary agents, I should beware-it may have already changed and I simply don’t know it yet. Just as the historical “Great Wall” has become a tourist attraction over the centuries, being replaced by technological defense systems required in today’s world, so the business of literary representation and publishing continues to evolve.

6. The Wall is penetrable. Writers and agents are meeting as this very moment, executing engagement agreements, reviewing submissions, readying presentations for publishers.

7. Few will penetrate the Wall. This is an inescapable quality of the Wall. Were it not so, the Wall would serve no purpose, and writers with poorly-crafted or uninteresting manuscripts, or those who fail to produce high quality submission materials will clog the system.

8. Not all who penetrate the Wall do so by using existing passageways. History teaches us that there is always a place for innovation, but it should never be confused with gimmickry. Innovation can be a two-edged sword.

9. The Wall is a Window. By studying the reason for the Wall’s existence, I can learn its structure and the forces that gave it birth.

10. The Wall is a Door. As discussed previously, agents have filters to permit passage, not to reject entrance. During the Ming dynasty, many sophisticated passages were engineered into the Great Wall to enable entry of individuals selected by the Emperor. Agents engineer their Walls to enable entry of those who stand the greatest chance of success in the business world.

11. The Wall is Hard. The Wall has clear limits and boundaries. Some of these are set by individual agents-others by the marketplace.

12. The Wall is Soft. Like the proverbial Willow, which bends with the wind, the Wall is not so rigid as to be inflexible to new, great approaches and ideas.

13. The Wall is a Wall. Like Qori and Mongke, some writers may always see the business side of writing as a barrier to their artistic talent. They define themselves–and their writing–by the Wall.

14. The Wall is a Path. To others, those who will continue this journey, the Wall points the way to its own opening. As McLuhan once said, “The answers are always inside the problem, not outside.”

Now I realized that half of my journey was an internal one, confronting the Wall (or Walls) within myself that might prevent me from my true destination.

Now I realized that there are enough “real” Walls out there along the journey-I sure didn’t need any extra ones “tagging” along for the ride.

So I made a deal with myself. I agreed that I would not be limited by my own low expectations. I wouldn’t accept my own poor writing as a reason to be rejected, and if I could improve as a writer, I would. Also, I wouldn’t assume that rejections are “par for the course”âÂ?¦that even the best writers must “plan” on receiving them.

I made a deal with myself that I would be rejected as few times as possible, because I believe I am a good writer, one (now) with his head at least partially around the challenge ahead, and one who doesn’t want to re-learn the lessons of those who sip yak’s milk and compare rejection slips.

I made an agreement with myself: To expect to be an author-to write like one, to submit manuscripts like one, to imagine like one, and to demonstrate to any who would listen a great respect for the business colleagues and the industry I was about to enter.

Now, facing The Great Wall with renewed vigor, the only question remaining was:

Where do I go from here?

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