Last year I committed myself to doing whatever writing I could publish without having an agent

Hello everyone. I got my COVID booster a few days ago, and today I got dizzy and fell down several times. Not a pleasant experience. But I assume COVID is an even-less-pleasant experience.

I am also going through edits on another piece that is going to appear in the Chronicle of Higher Education sometime next week, and I wrote a piece too that I sent to the LA Review of Books that maybe / probably will appear next week.

Not sure what to say about the whole essay-writing thing. I’ve always wanted to try to write for periodicals—it’s something they seem to have endless demand for—but was never sure who to pitch or how to develop ideas. I had a bad experience in 2013 when I pitched an article to Salon and worked really hard on it, and it was not at all what they wanted, and they killed it. So I didn’t try again for a long time. In retrospect it was probably good for me not to get caught up in the hot-take production line, but at the time it felt like a major failure, and it seemed like I just would never be able to adapt my voice to what any periodical might want.

The whole thing is really obscure. You can pitch articles in one of two ways: either to some submission email or portal the publication has (in some cases), or by hunting down the relevant editor and emailing them. But when I went with the latter, it never quite worked somehow. I actually tried sending things to the LA Review of Books multiple times, and it turned out that the editors had left or were about to leave. Submissions got swallowed up without reply by their general submissions portal. Finally, with my classical education piece, I sent it to someone on their masthead who was like “I’m not a commissioning editor, but I’ll send it on to Boris (their editor in chief)” who liked it. But even then they were like, “We will get you an edit in September.” I had no idea what that means…did it mean the piece was accepted or not?

This is just how writing for periodicals is I guess! To be honest I have no idea. I have a bunch of friends who do it, and I could’ve asked them, but always felt too shy. I prefer to fail in private. With these things, stuff that’s outside my comfort zone, I wonder if I’m good enough or whatever.

But I’ve been really pleased at the success of the classical education piece! It’s been retweeted and included in all kinds of wrap-ups and substacks. Oh my god, there are a lot of literary substacks. Wow. Come on, guys, haven’t you ever heard of a good old-fashioned WordPress blog? It’s like a substack but people can also find it online. Anyway, I have no substack, but you’re certainly welcome to do an email subscription to this blog—there’s some kind of tool or doohickey for doing that on the left-hand side of the page.

I’ve gotten a few emails—not an outpouring or anything, but a few—praising the piece. One was from an editor at Chronicle of Higher Education. They asked for pitches. I gave them one.

Personally, I hate pitching. I prefer to write out a piece beforehand. I think I’m sensitized by the Salon incident. I just want them to be able to scroll down, read the article, and see right away if it’s good enough. So in this case, after being accepted off a pitch, I was on tenterhooks, worrying the piece itself wouldn’t make the cut.

I dunno. It’s a sideline. Sorry if this is scattered or disjunctled—I’m still recovering from the shot and the fall (the latter happened about half an hour ago). I started writing essays (again) around this time last year, when I was still hunting for an agent. I’d spent a year looking, with little success. I was working on a fantasy novel, and I abandoned it, thinking, “What’s the point? It’s just another thing that I can do nothing with unless I get an agent.” So I made a big list of writing that I could do and pursue even without an agent. I’m trying to remember what was on that list. It was definitely something like the following:

  • Pitch another YA novel to my editor
  • Sci-fi short stories
  • Literary short stories
  • Literary essays
  • Book reviews
  • Poetry
  • Self-publishing
  • etc

Obviously the biggest outcome of that decision to refocus my energies was that I wrote a proposal for my third YA novel, Just Happy To Be Here, which my editor took to acquisitions—which event finally found me an agent. But I also got short stories published in Gulf Coast and West Branch. I had poems appear in Cherry Tree and Vallum. I had book reviews in The Rumpus and The Bind. I self-published my cynical writer’s guide. and now I’m having these essays come out!

I think once I started working on all those sidelines, I felt almost immediately much better, more in control, and more confident about my fate. I literally said to myself, “Okay, even if I never get another novel published, I can keep writing, and that’s what’s important.” It was a very empowering moment for me. I know that none of these forms is nearly as high-impact as having a novel come out from a major publisher, and none of them is as close to my heart as my literary novel (which was the book that was failing to find an agent), but I think what’s important is just that you work, that you have a meaningful outlet for your talents, and that you have some chance of seeing your work reach the world. What’s so corrosive about the agent search is that your life is just on hold until you find an agent—you can write another book, but why bother? In my experience the agent usually doesn’t like the second book. And anyway they won’t send out the second one until the first one sells! So you’re just left sitting there twiddling your thumbs, waiting for someone to read your manuscript.

Breaking through that cycle was really great and empowering, and I continue to bear its fruits.

3 thoughts on “Last year I committed myself to doing whatever writing I could publish without having an agent

  1. rrhersh

    I finished your cynical guide, approaching it as an interested observer. I discovered many years ago that I have no aptitude for writing fiction. This has spared me much distress. As I discussed in my email to you, I am working a very particular corner of academic publishing, which is its own world. I dipped my toe into trade publishing to the extent of querying an agent about a project I thought had commercial potential. In retrospect I realize I hadn’t a clue how to go about that, and in any case I am less confident of the commercial potential. Should I ever decide to try those waters again, your book will inform my strategy.

    I am curious what you think of self-publishing. You mention it a few times, but it is incidental to your subject. When I was first approached by a publisher I took a look at self-publishing, just to have some idea of the lay of the land. I concluded it didn’t make sense for what I wanted to do. I want to be part of the conversation within my area of interest. Going through a traditional publisher is the price of entry. There are some self-published books out there, and they pretty much disappear into the void the instant they are released. My sense of self-publishing is that it is a good option for commercial genre fiction. I’m not sure how YA fits with this. Did you consider going down that road? If so, why did you decide against it? I find self-publishing fascinating as a cultural phenomenon. I’m not sure how it will play out.

  2. R. H. Kanakia

    You can’t quite self-publish straight YA since teens don’t really read ebooks–there are niches that are very strong for self-pub, like romance, military sci-fi / space opera, and legal thrillers. I mean generally if there are other books that are similar to yours that’ve been self-published and done well, there’s probably a market. Like, there are other self-pubbed writing guides that’ve done well, which is why I self-published mine 🙂

    It’s definitely a good experience! Nice to have that total control and be able to put something out there without the immense lead time traditional publishing requires. It costs money though, both to advertise the book and to get a cover made, and you’re unlikely to make that money back–so it tends to be kind of a labor of love (at least for me)

    1. rrhersh

      Teens and ebooks: This is my experience as well. My fourteen-year-old is a reader, and much prefers paper. I have never figured out why. I wasn’t sure how general this is. They aren’t reading YA books, but rather are turning into a budding radical. I got them Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States when they were twelve. As for fiction, they read The Mouse That Roared based on my plot synopsis, and I got them the first sequel, The Mouse on the Moon. So their taste in reading is not typical for a teenager. I wondered if the preference for paper was idiosyncratic, but apparently it is pretty typical for the age bracket. I wonder if this will carry over into adulthood.

      Personally, I prefer ebooks for linear reading: a book where I start at the beginning and read through to the end. This is most fiction and some nonfiction. Anything where I am likely to flip back and forth, with multiple bookmarks or sticking my finger between pages, paper clearly is the way to go. Frankly, the big advantage of ebooks is they are easier for my aging eyes. Paper I need very good light to read comfortably.

      As for the relationship of traditional and self- publishing, I used to blog occasionally. About three years back I wrote a two-parter on the state of the industry. I just went back and reread it. It could use a round of editing, and there are a couple of dead links, but I think it holds up:

      https://ordinary-times.com/2019/01/23/the-state-of-book-publishing-part-i/
      https://ordinary-times.com/2019/01/27/the-state-of-book-publishing-part-ii/

Leave a Reply