C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

Write and publish with love and fury.

Writers: Take a penny, leave a penny

New York City Serenade

Image by joiseyshowaa via Flickr

The agent talked about her latest sales: This fabulous author and that little debut. She called them her authors, her books. It sounded like such a glamorous world. The writer hadn’t seen any of it for herself, but she had a writer’s mind so she could imagine every tantalizing detail.

“Good for you,” the writer said.

“Well, it’s not all cocktail parties, you know. In fact, it’s not nearly enough cocktails. Sometimes I hate it. You should see our slush pile. Long nights. No down time. I’d love to read the latest good books, but I have so much to read, I end up reading more bad stuff than good. You know how it is.”

The writer nodded and smiled, but she didn’t know how it was. She only read the good stuff. She aspired to be one of those writers who get a book launch and get to gripe about not getting paid enough as they examine royalty statements.

She glanced down at her own manuscript in the middle of the desk between them. She had changed the title five times over the course of as many drafts. Now she thought the words on the cover sheet should read: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM.

The writer thought of the bills that had been piling up as she wrote and rewrote multiple drafts of her book. She wanted to ask, “What do you think we can get for it? Any chance of an auction?” The writer didn’t have dollar signs blinding her vision. Her family had been supporting her efforts to get published for a long time. She wanted to finally have some money to show for it. She thought of all those nights she said, “Mommy’s working.” Everyone else she knew who worked got a paycheck.

But the writer knew those questions would sound impertinent. Unprofessional. Instead, she acted cool and casual and nodded at her manuscript. “Is it any good?”

Is it benign? is what she meant.

Sure, it’s good,” the agent replied. Then, a deep breath and a furrowed brow. “A lot of people might even think it’s great.”

The writer’s shoulders relaxed.

“But it’s not just a question of it being good.”

The writer’s shoulders tensed again. “It’s not?” Uh-oh…

The agent picked up the manuscript, felt its weight a moment and then placed it back on her desk. Then she slowly slid it back toward the writer. “The landscape has changed a bit since we last spoke.”

The writer sat up straight in her chair. She didn’t want to pick up her manuscript. Not yet. If she took it back, it would signify something she didn’t want to see.

“There are a lot fewer bookstores. The economy isn’t recovering as fast as we’d hoped. E-books are really screwing things up, I can tell you. There’s a lot of flux in the industry,” the agent said.

“Flux.”

“Yes.” The agent pushed back from the desk and stood. “I tell you what,” she said. “The market just isn’t ready for this sort of thing right now. I could have sold this a year ago, maybe even a few months ago.”

A few months ago you told me to take another swing at it, the writer thought.

“But it’s just not hot enough with my editors—”

There it was again. My authors, my books, my editors. It was if her agent held the keys to the whole world.

“…and I’m not as enthusiastic as I’d hoped. If I take something to them which isn’t really double-plus ready for prime time, they’ll never let me in the door again. I have to love it to sell it. You understand.”

The writer thought of all those years her father sold Fords. He didn’t love every model, but he had sold a lot of cars. The writer refused to rise from her chair. And she would not touch her manuscript. Promises hadn’t been made, no. But the agent had always sounded so positive. It had taken her two years to find this agent. Everyone said two years was lucky.

“Can I…? What could I do to fix the draft?” She hated the desperate tone that crept into her voice then.

The agent shook her head, but she was smiling in a way the writer guessed was supposed to be reassuring. “I wouldn’t worry,” the agent said. “Eventually, with a stick-to-it attitude, you’ll be published soon enough.”

Soon enough? What did that mean? The writer winced.

The agent put up her hands in a soothing gesture. “Relax and persevere. Your writing shows so much promise.”

The writer had heard this phrase many times. She thought if she heard it again, she might just throw a very embarrassing, very childish tantrum.

“So what should I do?” the writer asked.

“Oh, I think you should start fresh, of course,” the agent said. She was still smiling that infuriating smile.

Fresh? The writer had begun this manuscript (her third unsold manuscript) four years ago! The weight across her shoulders felt like an ox yoke.

“Don’t be discouraged,” the agent added breezily. “This is how this business works.”

“This business doesn’t seem to be working for me,” the writer said. I’m not even sure you’re working for me. She thought it but she didn’t dare say it.

The writer took a breath, held it a moment and then let it escape between her teeth in a slow hiss. “I don’t want to hear about flux. Give me something I can chew,” the writer said. “What’s wrong with it? You were so enthusiastic about the pitch.”

The agent came around the desk and took her elbow, ushering the writer toward the door as she spoke. “It’s a combination of elements. Not loving it enough is the main thing. If you’re looking for something more concrete to work on, I’d say this draft turned into a bit too much of a cross-genre issue. We have to be sure which shelf the book will be on so we can market it effectively. Is it a thriller or is it a sci-fi? I’m not sure. I bet you don’t know. It’s not…” the agent searched for the right word, “definitive.”

No, the writer thought. She’s appearing to search for the right word, but she’s acting. She’d said this many times before. She said it the way human resources people spit out, “…and we thank you for your years of service.”

“Wait. I do know. It’s a thriller, but if they aren’t sure—whoever they are—they can put it on both shelves,” the writer said. “And if bookstores are disappearing and people are buying books online so much, bookshelves aren’t really such an issue anymore are they? Shouldn’t we at least give some editors the chance to say no?”

The agent’s mouth was a line now. “You have to trust me,” she said. “I know this business. I’ve worked in it for almost twenty years.”

The writer said nothing. She was angry, but she wasn’t sure she should be angry with her agent. She wished she knew who to blame. The agent’s answer seemed to be that she should blame market conditions. Or herself. She didn’t know, but she wasn’t so far gone she didn’t wonder if the agent’s twenty years of experience meant she was now twenty-years stale.

The agent’s hand was on the doorknob. “I have a piece of advice for you,” she said. “I have to share it with all my clients at one time or another. Are you listening?”

The writer nodded. She could hold back the big fat baby tears until later, but she cursed herself still. She knew her eyes were wet and shiny. She wasn’t looking like a professional writer just now.

“Pick up the pennies,” the agent said.

“Wha…whut?”

Pick up the pennies! My mentor always told me that and now I’m telling you. When you see a penny or a dime in the street, pick it up. It’s your message to the universe that you’re open to receive your fortune. You’ll get good things eventually if you let the universe know you’re open to whatever it will give. When you pick up a penny, you’re telling the universe, God, Fate, whatever…you’re saying, ‘I’m patient and worthy of your grace. I’ll wait for my time and my turn.'”

With that, the agent grabbed her hand and pumped it firmly twice. “Good luck!” She seemed almost cheerful. “Pitch me again some day when you’re really really ready.”

Outside on a bench the writer searched her purse for tissues that didn’t look too well-used. Somehow she had the manuscript in her hands again. The agent had slipped it into her grasp so smoothly. She looked at the cover again. She felt the weight of it. It had seemed so valuable.

And what would she tell her family? Worse, what would her writing group say? They hadn’t been fans of the story at first but she’d honed it and they had come around. The people she had trusted most had loved the story, but now, obviously, their opinions had been wrong. All wrong. Not even close to right by accident.

This, she thought, had been needlessly humiliating. She should have just waited for an impersonal email instead of making an appointment. What had she been thinking when she picked up the phone? When she had spoken to the agent’s snotty assistant, the writer had said, “I’m in the city and I thought, hey, I can finally meet my agent in person!” As if she ever just happened to find herself in New York. As if she didn’t live three states away.

She’d felt so good about that move. It seemed so bold then. She had pictured the agent taking her to lunch where they could plot strategy over gourmet coffee with cinnamon swizzle sticks. The agent, she knew from her blog, was big on planning her stable’s careers. She felt like such a rube now that she hadn’t even stayed long enough for a stale cup of office coffee with lousy powdered creamer in a paper cup.

The city street bustled on around her. Hundreds walked past and they all ignored the woman snuffling on the bench. How much older would she be before it was her turn to get noticed? How much patience was reasonable? Maybe it was time to quit.

She had always dreamed of being a published author, but it was a dream with no known origin. She didn’t have to do it. It wasn’t beyond the dictates of her own will. Would she always be held hostage to the whim of her eight-year-old self? This was like running a marathon with no known finish line. Why not stop? No one was making her do this. She couldn’t call this a profession after this. Now it was just a hobby.

She could do something else, too. She had talents. She loved to cook. It wasn’t too late for culinary school. Maybe she would write a cookbook one day. She didn’t like the hours and the time it would mean away from the kids, but she could go for that real estate license. If she saved enough, there was still time to go back to university, she supposed. But what, besides english lit, would interest her? And wouldn’t all those books be a terrible, daily reminder of the beautiful dream she’d abandoned?

The writer looked down. At her feet she spotted a penny on the sidewalk. It was so soiled it was almost black. This, she thought, was one of those plot twists that would make an editor with a MFA scoff. She smiled and, without thinking, reached for it. Before her hand touched it, she froze.

What message was she sending the universe? Patience and openness and receptivity? Like her place could only be a gift? Like the universe was deciding whether she was worth a favor?

No.

That’s when she knew what picking up pennies really meant: If she stooped for a penny she was really telling the universe she’d settle for anything.

No.

She would not settle for a grudging gift. She would choose the dignity of earning her place instead. She would go get it herself.

The writer marched down the street with renewed purpose as she shoved the manuscript into her bag. She’d print off a new one as soon as she got home. She held her head high. Her step was fast and her shoulders light. A plan was forming. There was so much to do. She had to research ebooks and POD and formatting. She had to figure out self-distribution. She had to hire an editor and recruit proofreaders. When she got back to the hotel she’d call her husband and announce the great news. She wasn’t just an author anymore. She was a publisher now, too.

She knew she wasn’t supposed to smile at New Yorkers. You were supposed to look straight ahead, avoid everyone’s eyes and blend in. Instead, the writer beamed at everyone she saw. “Bright lights, big deal.”

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Filed under: agents, authors, Books, ebooks, getting it done, manuscript evaluation, publishing, Rant, Rejection, Writers, , , , , , , , ,

13 Responses

  1. I loved your story. It is all about having perserverence and a tough skin. It is amazing how a person can have those high expectations, just to have them torn into shreds by someone. That doesn’t mean you have to roll over and give up. I liked the way your character picked herself up and made another plan. Your story can help someone decide, I will keep clawing my way along. I will be a winner.

  2. Chazz says:

    Thanks Shirley!

  3. lgould171784 says:

    This story was spellbinding.

    • Chazz says:

      Really glad you liked it. I think it represents a lot of what goes through authors’ minds when evaluating which literary path to take. Many authors will choose both, I’m sure.

  4. Reena Jacobs says:

    Well done capturing the stresses of publication while providing hope.

    • Chazz says:

      Thanks! But you know what people say about publishing? Abandon all hope, ye who enter here…no, wait. That’s not exactly right…

      A beter explanation is, writers have more options now. hey can persevere with the traditional path or explore their options. I’m for pubilshing. I’m for self-publishing. Many of us will choose to do both. For instance, authors would do well to consider retaining their ebook rights and let trad publishers do what they do better. Of course, you’ll run into publishers who want none of that kind of deal. If so, they have to step up and show they can do digital better than they have been doing.

      But that’s another post for another time. Thanks for reading!

      (I’m particularly fond of this little post since it’s a departure from the usual. If you’ve read this and enjoyed it, please spread the word! Thanks!)

      • Reena Jacobs says:

        It’s awesome that technology has provided writers options.

        I swear it’s like the publishing industry changed overnight. Earlier this year it was self-publish and screw your writing career forever. Middle of the year it was, if you self-publish, just don’t mention it in the query letter. End of the year comes around and publishers are offering contracts to indie authors who in turn say, thanks but no thanks. Agents are representing indie authors, leaving the e-publishing business to the authors but working on selling foreign, translation, audio and other rights.

        Some times I’m afraid to blink.

        It’s a very empowering time for authors. And I think the changes will build agent/author and publisher/author relationships. I’ve noticed author resentment growing toward the publishing industry for quite some time now with the imbalance of power. With a viable choice to self-publish, there’s less pressure to enter into an unequal partnership.

        Options make a world of difference.

  5. David Wright says:

    Great, and inspiring post.
    There’s never been a better time to be a writer!

  6. […] While we usually like to summarize posts at Collective Inkwell, this might be a case where you’re better off just going to the post and reading for yourself. […]

  7. Claire King says:

    This is a fantastic post. It was just gutting to read it, the effort, the heartache and the ambiguity of the agent’s responses. I love the positive action at the end.
    I’m a penny picker upper all the same!
    We’re having a similar debate on my blog today, by co-incidence (but from the other side of the fence).

  8. […] Writers: Take a penny, leave a penny (chazzwrites.wordpress.com) […]

  9. […] Writers: Take a penny, leave a penny (chazzwrites.wordpress.com) […]

  10. […] On deciding to self publish – Robert Chazz Chute […]

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