05/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Agent's Prerogative and an Author's Frustration

It's been over fifteen years now since I've taken writing just for myself to the wholehearted level of seeking publication. I was driven to get my first novel written, which over time went through several necessary rewrites to make it what it is today: a novel of which I'm proud. Unfortunately, though, it is still an unpublished novel, but not for lack of trying. Back when I first began the frustrating mission, I had some idea how difficult it was to get a book deal, but didn't let the statistics discourage me, even after agents rejected me with their form letters, or worse, totally ignoring my query. It was soon apparent that these agents were allowed to call the shots while writers like me had to decide if we were in it for the long haul or should simply give up.

There's a saying that every person has one book in them, but I proved that axiom wrong when I wrote and then went on to independently publish a second novel, which won several awards, most notably ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year for Fiction in the silver category. Then I was hired to write, The Author's Guide to Planning Book Events, which also won some awards. This is gratifying, but until that first novel finds a publisher, I'm not going to rest. Like a parent with a reticent child, I'm too invested, while certain that she is capable of making something of herself. The thing is, I did have a publisher about twelve years ago for that novel, a small independent publisher, but had to back away when the editor wanted to play god with my characters instead of letting them breathe on their own. Then, I had one agent, a young, hungry agent, who wanted to take it on. I agreed, but several months later, after no return phone calls, I was informed that this agent not only left the agency, but changed career paths. She merely left the business, leaving my novel in limbo without doing the courtesy of informing me. And, yet, writers are required to play by agents' rules. So I put the first novel to rest for a few years, until a couple of months ago when I decided to try the traditional route once again.

From the queries that were sent, perhaps five are still out there somewhere, and it's quite likely they'll remain there without any sort of closure. But that's an agent's prerogative. There was one agent, however, who sent me the most lovely rejection, stating that she was "truly sorry" since she thought my novel had much merit, but that she didn't have any relationship with editors who might be interested. Instead of receiving the ambiguous reply of "This is not right for us," I was thrilled and appreciated her honesty. Then there was one hopeful reply from an agent who asked to see the entire manuscript. I was surprised since I hadn't pitched her directly because according to her bio, she focused on non-fiction works, but the query was forwarded to her nonetheless and she seemed genuinely enthusiastic, making me optimistic. Then, several weeks later, I received a glowing report, except for the fact that my novel didn't resonate with her and she sadly was going to pass. Sigh.

As discouraged as I was, I still dwelt in possibility because by then I already had another agent who asked to see the first three chapters to be sent regular mail. Fortunately, most agents now prefer to have the manuscript sent via email, but not this one. So, I went through the trouble of printing out the manuscript, synopsis and cover letter, going to the post office and sending it out priority mail. (There was no need to include a self-addressed stamped envelope for a reply since the agent said he'd use the Internet for that.) Thankfully, I didn't have to wait weeks on end for his response. This agent "loved the premise," but was going to pass; however, he felt another specific agent would be right for it and gave me her information, suggesting I contact her and tell her he recommended my doing so. Any writer who's been trying to find an agent for any length of time will know that once rejections go from that formal, laconic message to a more personal reaction it tends to mean we're getting closer -- closer to what, though, I'm still not sure, especially since I had not one, but two, high profile agents for my second novel and for reasons too involved to explain here they didn't work out. So yet again I was hopeful, even though after investigating this recommended agent's Web site, I wasn't too sure she'd be enthusiastic about my novel. The reason being, she handles mostly romance and Christian books.

That said, my novel does have a religious theme, but in reality it magnifies the hypocrisy and intolerance of that lifestyle more than it glorifies it. Yet, because this agent's bio stressed the fact that she was more spiritual than religious, I thought perhaps she'd appreciate the theme, one that exemplifies Henry Ward Beecher's quote: "Compassion cures more sins than condemnation." Therefore, I wrote and rewrote the query before I sent it off to her, letting her know that a colleague of hers had recommended I contact her. I was aware that this particular agent did not want to be queried if the author wasn't comfortable receiving a prayer card that would "soften the rejection." If that was what made her feel good then it was fine by me, but I was stunned when a few days after I pitched her she sent me the following curt email: "Pass but may God bless" There was no salutation, punctuation or courteous response, but simply those five words. Did I say that I worked and reworked on my email to this agent? I understand that these agents get many, many queries daily, but is there no time for being polite, for acknowledging an author's efforts, especially since this agent had an associate who recommended me? Even adding a "sincerely" along with her name, would have been appreciated, not to mention more professional.

So, I'm back to the drawing board, even after all the rejections I've received, the most recent one raising my hackles, making me want to persevere all the more. Why? Because my novel, Of Little Faith, is the story of a young woman trying to reconcile her fundamentalist upbringing with the fast-changing world of the 1960's. It is an entertaining story for the thinking woman who sees the world in color rather than black and white. Okay, so without a doubt that last "Pass-but-may-God-bless" agent wasn't the right agent for my novel, but there's something to be said for having a sense of decorum.

I'm certainly not alone in my frustration because every day there are hundreds of writers sending out pitches and every day they are getting rejections. Some will eventually give up while others brush themselves off and keep at it. Over fifteen years ago I approached this career path with a sense of wonder, and now, in spite of my accomplishments for which I'm grateful and the fact that I continue to write, it is with a sense of determination that I get my first child into print -- with or without some gatekeeper's discourteous blessing.