Up until about five months ago, I saw the process of bringing a book from some amorphous concept in an author’s brain to a glittering title on The New York Times’ bestseller list as bordering on magical. I don’t know exactly what I imagined went into creating a book, but it involved all writers experiencing their own fairytale ending emulating that of J.K. Rowling. But five months ago, whatever romantic notions I had of the book industry were shattered when I made my first attempt to enter the literary world.
I was hired as a virtual intern for the Carol Mann Agency, an established and prominent agency in New York. To me, the position held an untold amount of power and prestige: I envisioned editing manuscripts of the likes of Jodi Picoult and Paul Auster — both clients — being invited to glamorous book launch parties, contacting newly signed authors and making valuable connections.
Instead, my job was to say “no.” I was assigned to wade through the slush pile, an email account full of unsolicited query letters. Any with potential I would send along for an agent’s consideration, but the stipulations for “potential” were steep. Fiction queries had to meet incredibly high standards and even authors published in notable literary magazines were often swiftly rejected.
Nonfiction not only had to boast a completed, almost 40-page proposal, but the author was required to have their own fame and awe-inspiring credentials, probably the same fame and credentials they hoped to gain from publishing their book. Suffice to say, of the hundreds of query letters received each week, next to none received the response they were hoping for.
This summer, I decided to continue interning with a literary agency, although this time, I found a position where I got to experience the office dynamic instead of conversing via email. Going into my first day with Martin Literary Management — a Seattle-based agency that specializes in nonfiction — I expected the same routine. And I was right. I was given control of the email and the same task I received at CMA: crush a lot of people’s dreams.
But being in an office, working directly with the agent and founder — a woman altogether inspiring with a few books to her name, as well as a robust, Hollywood-studded resume — began to wear away at the cynicism I had previously developed. At first, all the rejections seemed a bit discouraging, and a bit overwhelming. So many people out there were passionately pursuing dreams of getting their books on shelves, but so many of them were all being turned down. It seemed to me that if every agency sent rejections at this rate, soon Barnes & Noble would be bereft of anything besides Kindles and SAT practice books.
However, with MLM, I started to see not just the process of finding the next book the company wanted to represent, but the process of bringing it from a query letter to a physical, and very public, object.
And that process is a very extensive one. The agent has to sell the book to a publisher. And then there’s marketing, and author photo shoots (which I still imagine are as glamorous as Carrie Bradshaw’s wedding shoot in the first “Sex and the City” movie), and editing, and setting up book tours and talks and coordinating with the author themselves But it’s all worth it, because when you’ve found a good book, it deserves all that time and attention and stress.
All those thousands of query letters rejected start to make sense, because sometimes you find something exceptional. The roughness and brutality of the literary world exists to showcase those remarkable authors. For all aspiring authors out there, don’t think that just because you received one (or 30) rejection, you aren’t able to meet those standards of young adult novels set by John Green, or literary/commercial fiction set by my nerd-crush Jonathan Safran Foer. The literary world is a tough one to distinguish yourself in, but it forces writers to work harder and think deeper and produce their most inspired work. And so the final products granted to avid readers are usually the best product available, a goal of most companies selling something to the public,.
So let me end this by offering my reading recommendations of truly inspiring authors: the hefty, three-volume “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami that will lead you to endlessly question everything you’ve read even a week after you’ve completed the book; “Dear Life,” the poignant, often sorrowful, always beautiful collection of short stories by Alice Munro; and Tennessee William’s short and ground-breaking screenplay, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Kim Bussing is a rising junior in the College. Top Shelf appears every other Wednesday at thehoya.com.