It’s more or less the same in the publishing world: if you haven’t done the dance, it’s hard to believe how many doors are closed to an unknown. Thank god for the internet, or people like me would have no realistic chance of publishing their work in any form other than Kinkos.
The first fact of publishing as an unknown writer is that no publisher will review your work or accept a manuscript unless he/she receives it from an agent, a friend, a known author or some other personal connection. They all make this perfectly clear, in black and white, in the annual Writers Market listing of publishers and agents. It’s usually put “Does not accept unsolicited manuscripts.”
The second fact is that agents don’t like to accept unsolicited work either. They are in the business of making money by promoting sellable authors – and if you’ve never sold a book before, you’re a risk.
My Courtship with an Agent
I must first say that I entered the relationship a bit bedazzled by the layouts Peter had created of In Mr. Handsome’s Garden. If I could just ship the PDF file to someone, I was sure bells would ring. I was therefore understandably giddy why my friend Megan Matchinske offered to put me in touch with a friend of hers – a New York literary agent whose firm specializes in placing children’s books.
In his way and surely out of deference to Megan, he was kind to me but never attracted. I could tell that from the outset. He read the manuscript, with illustrations – both the first and second drafts – and had kind words about the quality of the writing. But when he said the book was “not sufficiently high-concept,” my blood cooled. “What does ‘high-concept’ mean?” I emailed. “That’s the million-dollar question,” he said, and suggested I have a look at Duck! Rabbit!
I’m sorry, but Duck! Rabbit! is not high-concept. Sellable: yes. High-concept: no. It’s about 30 pages long and is built around the single concept that, when rendered a certain way, a duck can look like a rabbit and a rabbit can look like a duck.
I saw this kind of thing in Boy’s Life when I was a kid. I’ve seen it in corporate settings. I assume that most people, if they haven’t seen the duck/rabbit image, have seen the one that begs the question,”Is this a vase or two faces staring at each other?”
What does it mean that an agent representing children’s books thinks Duck! Rabbit! is “high-concept”? I think he means “high marketing concept” or “high sellability.” Something slick that lots of people will find cute, amusing or maybe even interesting for three minutes. Like a new flavor of potato chips or a Duck Dynasty chia pet.
The trick is not to take these things too seriously. Not the doomed courtships. Not the judgement “insufficiently high-concept.” Certainly not the chia pets. I may not get the last laugh in, so I may as well self-publish.