The Truth About Patience

Hey everyone. I don’t usually blog about my specific clients or deals I’ve made because, as is stated on the side panel of this blog, Glass Cases is a personal blog I run for writers and is not affiliated with my agency. That said, THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE by my client Jennifer Mathieu, was recently published and I wanted to share this particular publication journey.

The Truth About Alice, on paper, seemed like a quick, easy sale. I submitted it at the worst possible time, in retrospect: May 30 – a week before BEA and only 5 weeks before a holiday weekend. But despite the usually hectic publishing schedule, Alice was on submission just 7 weeks before it received its first offer.

If only all publishing stories were that simple. Unfortunately, this one isn’t either. The Truth About Alice‘s road to publication actually started back in 2009.

A timeline, if you will:

  • 2009: Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford signs a client named Jennifer Mathieu and sends out her smart, funny coming-of-age YA novel. And gets many “nice” rejections. Editors loved the voice, loved the story, and hated to say no, but… the rejections started piling up. Realistic YA was still considered “impossible” to sell in the post-Twilight paranormal craze that led into the post-Hunger Games dystopian craze. 
  • 2010: With Jennifer’s novel on yet another round of submissions, Nathan breaks the hearts of every aspiring author – and his fellow agents at Curtis Brown – and announces he’s leaving publishing.
  • Mid-2010: I start building a client list of my own. With three clients to my name, Nathan tells me he has a client whose voice I will love. I read Jennifer’s book and the voice blows me away. Like, laugh-out-loud, miss-two-subway-stops kind of love. I speak with Jennifer and we click immediately and I take on a brand new client. Everything is happy until Nathan sends me a very long list of editors who already rejected Jennifer book and a very short list of editors who “probably” will look at another revision. As a new agent with hardly any contacts of my own, I silently curse Nathan’s name.
  • 2010-2011: I work with Jennifer on a revision of that first novel and put it on submission to a small group of editors. Identical rejections from 2009. Jennifer works on a standalone companion novel, which I also put on submission. More “nice” rejections that think the novel is “too quiet.”
  • Mid-2011: Jennifer tells me about an idea she’s outlining that involves multi-POV versions of rumors about a teenage girl. I tell her to explore that idea and we shelve her other project after receiving a particularly painful rejection. (Not because it was mean, but because it was so overwhelming positive and full of regret. Yes, editors get rejected too.) 
  • 2012: Jennifer finishes her new novel, now called The Truth About Alice Franklin. After some tinkering, I put it on submission right before June. 
  • July 2012: We receive four offers on The Truth About Alice Franklin from major publishers, with a few more bringing it to acquisitions. I hold my first ever auction as an agent (and try not to have a heart attack in the process). After a very close auction, we accept a two-book offer from Roaring Brook Press, where it becomes The Truth About Alice.
  • September 2012: After two agents and almost four years of being on submission, Jennifer holds her book contract in her hands. 
  • May 2013: I decide Jennifer hasn’t had enough drama and leave Curtis Brown for a new agency. I’m overjoyed that Jennifer moves with me to Bradford Literary Agency!
  • September 2013: Jennifer’s editor, Nancy Mercado, also decides the drama factor wasn’t quite high enough and leaves Roaring Brook Press to join Scholastic. We panic until Jennifer is paired with new-to-us editor Katherine Jacobs, who we immediately love and who is an enthusiastic champion for Jennifer’s career.
  • April 2014: With The Truth About Alice not yet published and the “Book 2” of that two-book deal still being revised, Roaring Brook Press buys what will be Jennifer’s third standalone contemporary YA novel.
  • June 3, 2014: The Truth About Alice is published and Jennifer officially begins her career as an author. Not only that, but the book has become an Indie Next Pick for Summer 2014, an Amazon Best Book of the Month in Teen/YA, and has been featured in Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, and The Daily Beast, to name a few.
Yeah, so I threw those last links in there to brag a little because who wouldn’t brag after spending almost five years waiting for everything you know an author deserves.
There were so many times Jennifer and I both could have thrown in the towel. I could have taken one look at that list Nathan sent me back in 2010 and decided Jennifer wasn’t worth taking on. Jennifer could have gotten frustrated by a string of rejections, losing her agent, and getting stuck with some assistant who had barely made a sale. (Thankfully, she didn’t see me that way!) In other words, The Truth About Alice may never have been written, let alone sold, well-received, and the first of three standalone novels. 
I hope the moral of this story is clear. DON’T GIVE UP.

This should go without saying, but sometimes it’s easy to forget. Especially when it can feel like your publishing road is paved with Murphy’s Law. Especially when each new rejection stings harder and harder. Especially when it seems like it shouldn’t be this hard.

Jennifer didn’t want to go the self-publishing route, but I get that writers have more legit options now than she would have in 2009. Even still, those who want an agent and a “traditional” publisher shouldn’t give up on their career choice just because there’s a shiny back-up option.

Patience is the first thing you learn in publishing. From querying to getting feedback to finding the right agent to revising to going on submission to sometimes going back on submission to getting an offer to finally waiting for publication…. publishing moves slowly.

If you’re a writer who’s on submission, something to keep in mind is that – like Jennifer – the first book you write may not be your debut novel. Your second book might not be either. In fact, that’s fairly common. An agent has to fall in love with your writing and your story, but sometimes the industry has other plans for you both.

Have patience and keep writing. Then write something new. Keep getting better with every book and don’t worry about where they may end up. Expectations, when had, are rarely met, but sometimes when you least expect it, they are exceeded. 

24 thoughts on “The Truth About Patience

  1. Compared to Jennifer, no, they don't wait this long. But keep in mind I got Jennifer as a client after she was already a couple years into it. I've been agenting for about 4 years, and the bulk of my list was signed in the last 2-3 years. I do have authors who haven't sold. All agents do. And I have clients who sell their 1st books fairly quickly. No two paths are the same. I also tend to be very editorial and am a firm believer that writers get better and better with each book, which is why I'm not quick to give up just because something doesn't sell right away. But, again, that decision is never My Way vs. Their Way. It's a conversation.

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  2. It hasn't been published yet, and to ALL of those editors' credits, it did need revision and will be a better book. I have no plans to shelve it and we both still see value in it, and I hope you understand that I can't say more than that just now!

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  3. Thanks for clarifying, and for being open enough to help your clients find what works for them. It still seems like a long time to wait. How many would you say of your clients wait this long or longer?

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  4. This post just made me really sad that a talented writer who has such an amazing voice missed out on SIX YEARS of being able to share that with readers. Good luck to Jennifer Mathieu. The Alice books looks great and I hope she's also able to publish the other one she wrote earlier.

    It's very odd to me that this story is related as an example of success. If anything, it's proof that the system is very harsh on writers. Think of all the potential Jennifers who ended up waiting forever, or gave up because life intruded. How many great unpublished books has traditional publishing lost by being so slow?

    Life is just too short.

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  5. As I said in the post, my author didn't want to pursue self-publishing. She has the option to, but she has no plans to do that. If that ever changes, I will help her do it in a way that makes sense for her career. My job is to get my clients published in the way they want, and the best way that suits what they write. Self-publishing is a viable option now, but that doesn't mean all writers want the same type of career. Traditional and self-pub are two different options, without one being “better” than the other. My clients, having queried me and pursued an agent, want traditional publishing deals. Some are open to self-publishing too, and I'm there to help them do that too.

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  6. With all due respect, self-publishing is not a “shiny back-up option.” It's a way for writers to take charge of their careers and not have their business held hostage by a parade of middlemen, as happened here.

    I know that you see this as a success story, and I don't want to diminish the work that you put into it, but frankly this six-year ordeal that your client went through seems more like a cautionary tale of how traditional publishing is fundamentally broken. To have to revise and re-revise a story that everyone says is perfectly good, losing six years (six!) of potential income in the process–it makes my heart break for this author.

    I hope that she still has the option to self-publish her other books, though many traditional contracts these days have non-compete clauses and rights of first refusal that make that almost impossible. It's hard enough to make a living wage in this industry without publishers trying to hamstring us with unconscionable contract terms.

    Self-publishing is much, much more than a “shiny back-up option,” it's a fundamentally separate publishing paradigm with its own learning curve and complex set of challenges. It isn't any easier than traditional publishing, but it is a much more efficient way to build a sustainable career. It's certainly more efficient than having your manuscript knocked around like a pinball for six years (six!).

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  7. There are a lot of comments over on the Passive Voice about this post: http://www.thepassivevoice.com/07/2014/the-truth-about-patience/#comments Mostly they see this as describing a kind of hell realm where a writer has to wait 5-6 years or more (it does not say how long it took to get the first agent) before she even sees her book published or a penny of income. We will never know, but if the book is so good, it makes one wonder how much she could have made in those six years if she had published her first book and the several others she has written in the meantime.

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  8. This feels so familiar. I signed with an agent 2 years ago. He shopped my book. All of the declines from editors included glowing praise for the voice and language, etc… Regretful rejections, because it is hard to sell “quiet” literary fiction in the YA market. After 2 years, my agent and I have parted ways, and I have shelved that book to pursue a new agent with a new project that is anything but quiet.

    I hope my journey ends as happily as Jennifer's. Thanks for sharing this encouraging timeline.

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  9. Wow, now that is a tale. A beautiful and encouraging story. Yay, for Jennifer, and to you, Congratulations. It's like children: sometimes the ones with the most difficulty grow into shining stars.

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  10. Great story, thanks for sharing that, Sarah.

    I will say, stories like this are both heartening and depressing at the same time. On the one hand, it's good to see people getting rewarded after sticking with it for so long; on the other hand, it's sad to see how long it can take (and to know it takes some even longer). As much as I recognize this is a looooong process, I admit to having a little bit of Veruca Salt in me–“I want it now!”

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