I recently came back from Costa Rica. It was a much-needed vacation, especially from the standpoint of finally being allowed to put things down and simply live in the moment. The trip was a field studies excursion in biology, which meant we spent much of our time exploring and learning about various ecosystems. It’s been a long time since I’ve nurtured that aspect of my brain.
The trip also gave me a lot of time to think about publishing and writing—though I have to say my brain was already circling around these ideas.
At this stage, I’ve queried about 35 agents for my story collection, which isn’t an extraordinary amount. What is unusual is that not one has expressed interest. Not one. Early on, an agent did write me a personal rejection where she said that the concept for the collection was “fresh” and “intriguing”—but not enough for her to actually request the manuscript. The majority of agents didn’t respond at all, which is fairly typical for the industry. At the same time, though, the complete lack of interest is concerning. For context, when I last queried agents with a book in 2017, the first four asked for the manuscript. One of them read the entire book before passing (she wanted it to basically be a different book), and another one asked for a revise and resubmit, which was amazing so early in the agent-solicitation process. On average and as I moved forward, I was getting a manuscript request for every seven agents queried. When the pandemic hit, I was worried that things might change, and I think this lack of interest in my current book is clear evidence that it has. The big publishing houses keep consolidating, which means there are fewer opportunities for new writers to emerge. In addition, publishing trends have shifted in terms of what agents are currently looking for from their writers. Meanwhile, you still have that influx of thousands of writers all scrambling to be seen.
So, what’s a person to do?
Self-publish is usually the first thing people suggest. To me, the drawbacks of self-publishing still outweigh the benefits. While I could immediately move forward with my book, and while I would have complete autonomy over how the book is formatted, illustrations (if I so chose), the cover art, etc., --ultimately, the entire marketing of the book would be on my shoulders. A bigger component is that literary fiction is not generally self-published, so it could close me out to future opportunities. Even though I have allowed myself to consider this possibility for the first time ever, I’m not there yet. To me, self-publishing is still too similar to vanity presses even though I know people can and are successful with that publishing medium.
But there is also the small press, which embraces literary fiction and has the potential to give me the metaphorical “foot in the door” when it comes to the literary world. These small presses are often tied to writing contests as well, which again, would give me a bit more leverage with my other writing. Ultimately, agents and publishing houses want to know if you are marketable. In this, I am an unknown because I haven’t been able to build up a resume of small, published pieces. Due to the nature of my job, I’m either 100% committed to my duties at work, or I’ve put it down completely to 100% commit to writing a book. While productive in that I’ve written several books at this stage, this method does not lend itself toward the composition of small, individual pieces. I’ve known this lack of publishing credentials was an area where I struggled, but at the same time, it never seemed to matter, especially as agents have always expressed interest in the past.
That said, I started submitting to small presses in May: One was specifically looking for story collections tied to either food or place. The other was tied to a writing contest. My plans for the summer are to continue the submissions. Because it doesn’t hurt, I’ll continue to query agents, but the true focus will be on small presses.
This is new territory for me, so wish me luck as I venture forward.
Image: Blue Jean Poison Dart Frog by Suki Fisher