I completed my novel, THE BOB DELUSION, earlier this year and more or less haven’t touched it since. That’s because “completed” and “finished” are two different things. I’m utterly convinced that it’s a good and in some ways inventive novel (if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have spent six years working on it.) Right now, it’s the best that I can make it on my own. I’ve got it out on submission to about 15 agents (although I’m not even totally certain that I am going to need one) and one publisher (the real point of this post), and though it’s been a while, I have heard from only two. Given that it’s still out there, you can guess what the response was.
It’s remarkable to me how much the publishing industry has changed in the years that have intervened between the time when I worked at Berkley Publishing, The Ellen Levine Agency, and later, Viking Penguin—this was the late eighties and early nineties, before you were born, probably. Before Putnam Berkley and Viking Penguin made nice-nice and merged, or whatever the deal was. Of course, a lot of this change has to do with computers, but mostly with the Web. When I was at Berkley, David Shanks was the only one who had a computer in his office. At Viking, I don’t remember seeing very many, except on the desk of people who set the type. But the biggest change for me is the submission process. I had my own Macintosh at home, but it was one of those early ones, the so-called “fat Mac,” that had a whopping 512k of memory and an onboard 400k floppy drive. I sold my Selectric 3 in Iowa City (I wrote my first novel on that thing, plus a whole lot of stories, some published, some not) so I could buy an external 800k floppy drive so I didn’t have to continually swap the program disk with the file disk. Didn’t get my first modem until the summer of 1990 or so, when I was doing some “slave labor” for Robert Altman, the filmmaker, researching WWI aviation, one of my favorite subjects because it’s so nuts. But I digress.
Back in those days, youngsters, the whole submissions process was pretty darned simple, and it cost you something. You didn’t pay the people you submitted your stuff to, but you did have to make copies of your mss, and you had to pay for postage, outbound and inbound. The submissions process was pretty slow, and by today’s standards, pretty inefficient in terms of how stuff was tracked, and the numbers of people it required just to open envelopes.
Today, though, it’s dead simple to write a story, essay or novel, push a few buttons, and send it to pretty much every editor on the planet. Call me old-fashioned, call me curmudgeonly, but I don’t like this new “efficiency.”
The reason is pretty simple. It’s not efficient. Or maybe that isn’t the right word. I thought carefully about whom I was sending my stories to. Most often, as time went on, I developed relationships with editors—most of the ones I preferred, Chip McGrath at The New Yorker, the great Lee Goerner, the lovely and smart C. Michael Curtis (whom I got to meet when I was a fellow at Bread Loaf and recently sent me a nice rejection, although by email) for example—always wrote me notes. I liked the ones that the always-fascinating Gordon Lish sent, which often began with, Yes, the answer is no.
In most cases, I’m guessing that most editors don’t have that much time these days because they’re likely inundated with submissions.
Just think about the sheer numbers. If I wanted to, and I don’t, I could send out one story to a hundred edtiors right now. Today it would take a few hours and cost very little, if at all. In the old days, that would have been ridiculous. Two hundred manila envelopes, one hundred copies of the story, and two-way postage. The sheer unmanageability of it would have dissuaded me instantly, not to mention the cost.
So I have tried to keep my TBD simultaneous submissions fairly minimal—and frankly, I think 15 is a lot—but targeted in the sense of choosing agents who seem likely to find some kinship with what I’m trying to do, a very slightly genre-bending combination of literary and commercial, with a base in realism, but some (I don’t really know the right word) surrealism as well. (The main character meets his doppelgänger.)
I realize that I’m not going to change the way that things are done—it’s evolved as it has. I’m just doing my best to adapt.