My life is defined by rejection. My days are shaped by the steady, unceasing rhythm of no.
The term gatekeeper gets applied to me and my peers a lot. The idea that we’re manning the gates of culture, saying no to people who want to pass through is a pervasive one and I get where it comes from. I say no all the time. It sucks. I hate it. I see hundreds of queries a week and I say yes to a vanishingly small number of them.
Here’s the big secret about literary agents: we want to say yes. I spend time reading queries looking for that excuse to say yes to a project. To break with the monotony of no so that I can be excited about a project I love. I’m in this business for the moments of yes, not because I like turning people down.
One of the reasons I hate rejecting people is because I know too well what it feels like. The other side of my job is hearing no over and over and over again.
Sometimes it’s editors turning down a submission. Sometimes it’s film producers passing on a project. Sometimes it’s sales delivering bad news. Sometimes it’s marketing teams telling me they don’t have budget. And sometimes it’s writers telling me they’ve decided to go with another agent.
My days are filled with no. Even selling a project usually involves at least half the people you send it to passing. Some with kindness, some with indifference, some with casual cruelty. Even once a project is sold, getting it to market involves trying to get so many different people to pay attention, to be on board, to devote resources to a title, and many of those efforts, maybe even most of them, never go anywhere.
Learning to persevere in the face of a tidal wave of rejection is, in my opinion, the core defining trait of success in this business. To choose to make and sell art in a capitalist system means facing rejections large and small over and over again, from the tiniest snub of a reader deciding not to click a buy button, to the brutality of getting tagged into a one star review, to the gatekeepers turning you down.
I try to reject with kindness. Or at least to be clear and to the point and timely. I’m not always successful at these goals. Especially the timely bit. Every time I have to pass on a project, I close a door to possibility. I make peace with the likelihood that this pass is a lack of my own vision and not a failing of the project. I accept that I might be making a mistake. And sometimes that process, of accepting that something that is close still isn’t enough for me, takes longer than I want it to.
Rejection sucks. I hate that it defines so much of my day to day. But the moments where I get to say yes to someone, when someone says yes to me, are all the sweeter for it. Those bright high spots stand out in contrast to the grinding monotony of no and keep me going. Hopefully, you’ll find those moments for yourself and learn what helps you stand against the tide.