I received the rejection early yesterday morning, the last one, the one I’d been waiting on.
I finished my third novel, Badge, in late 2010, brimming with the confidence of having finally created something the traditional publishing industry might actually want. Ever since I cracked my first Vonnegut paperback when I was eighteen, I’ve fantasized about spending my life writing novels. Back then, such a dream required—and for the most part still does—getting an agent and a publisher.
I submitted my first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, to 25 agents in 2003, with no takers. When I finished its sequel, Ghost Notes, in late 2006, I decided I wasn’t going to sell myself short, and I sprayed queries like hose water on anything that might yield growth. I eventually stopped at 111 agents. All of my novels lean heavily on my experiences in rock bands in the nineties, and with the success of titles like A Visit from the Goon Squad, I’d hoped that the industry had come to appreciate what a rock novel might do.
This last rejection I received yesterday morning was from a publisher. I’d sent Badge to several indie publishers after sending queries to agents and receiving a pile of rejections. I was glad to be moving on to publishers. I was an indie publisher—having self-published my first two novels—and I felt an affinity for people who were brazen enough to publish books regardless of market expectations. This most recent rejection was the last possibility of something working out from the over 120 agents and twelve or so publishers I’d submitted to over the past two years. My plan for getting a partner for Badge was a bust.
It’s tempting at times like this to question everything about your vocation. Are my novels good enough? Will there ever be a market for my fiction? In my fifteen years of novel writing, I’ve never had an agent or publisher offer much more than a few encouraging words. Do I need to consider some other career? At 43, you could argue that time was years ago.
It’s also tempting to get angry at those in the industry, the people who can’t see that my project is not only good but marketable. I often want to go rogue, as I’ve done twice before by self-publishing. I have a micropublishing company, a small but loyal readership, a willingness to get dirty in marketing. Why do I bother with these people?
The main reason is that the writers I’ve loved during my life have all come to me via traditional publishing. There’s Vonnegut, Faulkner and Hemingway as an undergrad, Updike and Morrison as a graduate student, and Wallace and Wells Tower today. I can’t deny a sense that, should traditional publishing accept my work, I’d be chosen in the same way these great writers were chosen. Of course that doesn’t make my work comparable to theirs, but the transference is undeniable. Beckett was published by Grove. Miller was published by Grove. How can I not get a little giddy at the idea of being published by Grove?
On a logical level, I know the publishing world in which these authors thrived is long gone. With the advent of digital technology, the Internet, and perhaps most importantly all of big publishing being run like artsy Walmarts, wanting to have a career similar to one of my heroes is already out of reach. (And that assumes talent is a wash.) It’s not 1920—or even 1990—anymore, and I’d do myself a world of good to forget about the last century and run my writing career with the same shrewdness these conglomerates run their publishing companies. In the end, writing is about communicating to readers. It doesn’t matter where or how you publish. It doesn’t matter if literary agents or indie editors like your work. If your words communicate to a person enough to make her buy, read, and enjoy your book, you’ve won the game on every level that matters.
Or ought to matter. I remember once, while getting my degree in writing at the University of San Francisco, a teacher asked the twelve students in class to name the one thing they’d like their writing careers to yield. People mentioned getting a large readership, or making money, or getting reviewed in the New York Times. Then the teacher came to Sarah, who said, “I want to be interviewed by Terry Gross.” Everyone smiled and nodded. Yes, we all seemed to agree. I want that too.
It’s impossible to decide to be a writer and not want some of the superficial crap that comes with being a writer. We want to be published by a certain publishing company, or we want to see our title on the staff favorites shelf at our local bookstore, or we want to win a literary prize. As much as we love to write, part of the allure that draws—yes—every writer to this game is some bright shiny thing that seemed cool at the time. In other words, to be a writer is, at some point or other, to buy into the schtick.
Of course I’ve thought it would be cool to win the Pulitzer Prize, or to be published by Penguin, or to have a literary agent fawn over my work. I like to think I’m over those. Still, the idea of being published traditionally is one I can’t entirely shake, as evidenced by the mountain of query letters I’ve sent over the last decade. On some level, I need this.
And the funny thing is, at the very same time of needing it, I love self-publishing. There are plenty of great things going on in the DIY lit world, a world I entered in 2003, revisited in 2008, and could easily wind up in again. It’s fascinating to watch the perceptions of this market sect change. I can remember the prejudices I had to fight against in 2003, with my debut novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, out on the subsidiary press iUniverse. The concept “vanity press” could be dropped like a wrecking ball onto your fledgling house of a self-published book at any point, and that’s all the insight most would need to deem it unreadable. By the time I self-published my second novel, Ghost Notes, in 2008, lulu.com was in full swing, and writers everywhere were starting to understand the beauty of doing it yourself. 2008 was also the first year more books were self-published than traditionally published, a trend that will never reverse. In 2012, years after the success of Amanda Hocking—who turned her career as a self-published novelist into a seven-figure book deal with St. Martin’s Press—and with well-respected (Steve Almond) and National Book Award-winning (John Edgar Wideman) authors forgoing traditional publishing for self-publishing, the future has never looked more legit for the DIY publisher. Then there’s the Kindle phenomenon, which gives self-published writers a legitimate chance to compete against the biggies. I could do a lot worse than to offer my middle finger in the general direction of New York and once again go it alone.
But that would be disingenuous of me. I’ve been in the self-publishing trenches for about a decade, and it’s not all wine and roses down here. I’ve read or performed for less than five people dozens of times. Months have gone by with few royalties, little attention, or anything resembling positive news. And all this from a platform (national rock band experience, hit radio single, TV show theme song) many would envy. For all its upside, I know complete publishing autonomy has an equal and opposite downside.
And if I’m honest with myself about publishing Badge, I’d say I want an earth-shattering kaboom of acknowledgement. I want someone important to call me on the phone and say, “Art, I’ve just read it, and, well, we need to talk.” Self-publishing isn’t likely to make you feel like you just got called up from the audience on The Price is Right. It’s more like you just gave birth and now have to spend the rest of your life worrying about this little square thing out in the world.
Still, in the end, what’s more rewarding: having a child, or appearing on a game show? Maybe the better question is: Who can’t see the beauty in both?
And that’s the clincher. With my deep connection to elements of both traditional and self-publishing, why would I ever choose between them? Both offer potential avenues to success. Why would any writer—a toiler at one of the hardest professions at which to make a living—automatically disqualify a method that might yield income or readership? There’s no reason to. You can have both.
So, back to my last rejection.
As it sits fresh in my inbox, instead of worrying about how it will be published, I’m going to once again revise Badge. I still believe in it, and I’ve never had a novel get worse through revision. I don’t know how Badge will eventually find its way into the world, and right now I don’t care. I’m just going to thank the publishing gods for granting me this opportunity to make it better. Great writing can take a while. The rest is merely publishing.