I've learned a lot about how to take rejection by watching Top Chef.
Yes, I said Top Chef. God, I love this show; there's no other reality contest show like it.
It eschews (most of) the drama that weighs down other reality television while being a week-by-week contest that whittles down the chefs to the very best of the best, AND no other contest show, that I can think of, has such thoughtful, debatable and deeply subjective tastes (literally) to divide the great from the sublime. You often hear criticisms that split hairs between wonderful dishes.
The critiques are sometimes furious and always deeply personal. These chefs are craftsmen and women that have dedicated much of their adult lives to making food--a great many thankless hours have been spent in hot, sweaty kitchens to hone their skills.
One thing I've gleaned from the many seasons of Top Chef is that the chefs that win are consistently the most good natured, and handle criticism very well. Not always--Hung from Season 3 is a good example of the opposite--but more often than not, the winners have been at the bottom as much as the top, and they learn from their mistakes. They don't bitch and moan. They take their lumps, recognize their mistakes, and continue forward. Arguably the most talented and successful chef to come out of Top Chef has been Richard Blais, and he didn't even win his season, BUT he learned from his mistakes, took his loss (or rejection) in stride, and eventually returned on another season and WON.
To that end, writers get used to rejection.
Rejection happens. Any writer worth his or her salt has been rejected time and time again. Even those that have "made it"--that is, writers that have been/are traditionally published--have extolled on the realities of continuing to get rejected. I think most of us who have taken up the mantle of "writer" have realized that our work will be rejected over and over and over again.
Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes...and a writer getting rejected.
At the beginning, it's heart wrenching. You go through stages of denial, cry, scream, think about sending a scathing reply to that agent, editor or CP that got it oh so wrong, and then console yourself. Eventually, you blow it off and get back to work.
When your write long enough, it becomes part of the routine. It's normal. Those rejections keep coming. It's even funny at times. Lightly frustrating at others. But you grow thick skin. Callouses. And the rejections that once wounded you, bounce off like nerf darts rather than the bullets they once were.
There's one thing that still bothers me, cuts me open: when agents or editors try to pretty up rejection into something its not, like--as that old adage goes--putting lipstick on a pig. I often see literary agents saying something along the lines of, "I'm not rejecting YOU; I'm rejecting your BOOK. It's not personal."
Look, I understand the sentiment. I can't imagine being in the position of looking over snippets of people's lives--that's what a book, any book, no matter how fantastical, IS--quickly weighing the pro's and con's, and possibly wrecking that person's day with a rejection. It can't be easy.
But don't pretend it's not a rejection of the author, the PERSON, because it is, just as much it's a rejection of the BOOK. To some extent, they are one and the same, because after months, YEARS even, a writer has poured much of him or herself into that book, so much so, that that book is essentially an extension of that person.
There was an agent/former editor of a publishing house who recently tweeted that, "Rejection is a kindness," and then created a thread explaining why it's a kindness. I couldn't help except think that her explanations were nothing other than window dressing for the natural viciousness for the entire publishing process.
The reality is that it's not a "kindness." Publishing is cutthroat and difficult, and often without explanation. It isn't palatable. It isn't even fun most of the time. Sure, there are great friendships and bonds created throughout, but it's difficult, frustrating, and very, very personal.
While I understand the desire for agents and editors to explain it away as not personal or that it's a kindness, it just isn't and the attempts to do so seem somewhat insulting to our intelligence.
Saying all of this is not to excuse the sometimes vicious response from authors that have been rejected by agents. Being rejected should never turn into a debasement of the person who rejected. Rejection is an opportunity to learn, to change, even to adapt. It whittles you down to your essence. It makes you reconsider, reread and further edit.
Rejection isn't a kindness. It's a necessity. And it's always personal.
"Dreams are like roses: beautiful to look at, but clinging too hard will make you bleed."
With all the drama surrounding the Danielle Smith saga, another name has risen to the surface: Mark Gottlieb. I was conned by this schmagent. There. I said it. I've been embarrassed, surprised, fatigued and otherwise felt just about every other desperate emotion through my experience being "represented" by Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media Group.
I've had something akin to writer's block lately and I think it might (partly) be due to having never unloaded my feelings on being used by this guy.
Truth is, my "representation" only lasted about four months and it was about two weeks in (really, from the first minute, I had an inkling) that I became quite suspicious of Gottlieb's methods and lack of ethics. If you're aware as to why I'm using quotes around representation with Mark Gottlieb, than I'm sure you've already heard a multitude of heart-wrenching tales about Gottlieb's treatment of many authors and their work. Everything I've been privy to completely matches my experience--some a little better and others much worse.
I'll start from the beginning.
It was early September last year--2017--when a pitchfest event through Savvy Authors occurred. There were four agents representing my category at the time (MG Fantasy) and I threw up my pitch just to see what might happen. Why not, right? I actually forgot about the pitch over the next two weeks. An author colleague, from a small community formed out of a Manuscript Academy class, clued me in. I was ecstatic to find that three out of the four agents to whom I'd pitched requested additional material, one of which was Mark Gottlieb.
He requested my full manuscript. I promptly sent it over.
Like anyone in the writer community, I'd heard about Trident Media Group. TMG is on every top literary agency list and the owner, Robert Gottlieb, is a veteran of the industry--having led the NY literary branch of William Morris for decades and representing major talents like Dean Koontz, Tom Clancy and many others. The fact that Gottlieb's son requested material seemed like a big deal for me--I was (am) essentially a nobody in publishing.
After submitting to him, I looked up everything I could on Mark--Absolutewrite, Query Tracker, as well as googling multiple articles, and anything I could find about his publishing history. Everything seemed like gold. I followed (and still follow) so many authors and agents in the publishing community and nothing had ever come up as negative about the guy. Nothing. Not one thing.
So, only a few days after I sent my manuscript to Gottlieb, he messaged me back. I was surprised, but I'd seen on Query Tracker that he was a very fast read, so I wasn't THAT surprised. He really liked my book, he told me, but felt that it was a little long and could be "punchier." He asked if I could trim up the word count. My book was still out with a couple of other agents, but like I said, Trident seemed like the golden ticket, so I was nearly gasping at the possibility of being one of their clients. I did it. I took about two weeks and went through every line, paragraph, and chapter with a fine-toothed comb, cutting anything even remotely extraneous.
I returned the revised copy. And this is where things got weird.
Another two weeks went by before I heard anything from Gottlieb. It was an excruciating two weeks. Was my revision too fast? Did he like it? Did I cut the wrong things? Did I cut the right things? I went through every possible scenario about ten times over, and then I recycled them over in my mind again.
And then, finally, he responded:
"OK it’s out on submission. Let’s give it 3-4 months, at least."
I read this sentence more times than I can remember.
"OK it’s out on submission. Let’s give it 3-4 months, at least."
Was it code? Some sort of literary speak that I wasn't privy to? I'd never been represented before and had only written one other book at the time, so I wasn't the most connected writer, and I'm still not, but it seemed like he was saying that my book was literally on submission with publishers. I was certain that's what he was saying, but there was one problem. One, VERY BIG problem.
He wasn't my literary representative yet.
Everything up to that point indicated that he liked my book and I was feeling very positive that he might offer representation--but he hadn't actually offered up to that point. My book had still been out with two other agents at that point, so he was jumping the gun a bit.
Just to be certain I wasn't crazy, I emailed Gottlieb back with the most obvious, clarifying question:
"Does this mean you're offering representation?"
"Yes," he responded. "I was under the assumption we were already working together."
My mind was reeling. I had a couple of disparate thoughts right then. The fact that he submitted my MS prior to an official offer was a major red flag, BUT this was the son of an industry veteran at one of the biggest agencies on the planet. He wouldn't do anything to sully his reputation and birthright. RIGHT?
So I thought. So I thought.
I assumed a lot. Too much. And honestly, I should have demanded more from him, but there weren't the warning signs at the time that are now available all over the place. Right now, Query Tracker, Absolute Write, and Twitter are all littered with horrible stories of how Mark Gottlieb mismanaged books and careers. But then, in October of 2017 by that point, none of that was out there.
So, at that moment, in reading his message--"OK it’s out on submission. Let’s give it 3-4 months, at least."--all I could think about was TRIDENT and MY BOOK IS WITH PUBLISHERS. It seemed like a dream. After conversing with Gottlieb on the phone, I willingly retracted my book with the other agents who'd requested it and I started envisioning my book on the shelves of my local libraries and bookstores. I was certain that it would sell. Certain.
This euphoria lasted maybe two weeks (although there was always this inkling that something wasn't right with the guy) until another author on Twitter, one who'd been represented by Gottlieb, posted a blog about how bad his agent experience had been.
Curious, I reached out to the guy and got more of the story. In short, Gottlieb was a nonexistent agent. He never helped with editing on the guy's book, sent it out to publishers without ever including the author on the selection or progress on the submission process, and never initiated contact. Gottlieb would always respond to emails--with very short, unclear messages--but wouldn't ever reach out first.
I chalked up that author's experience to a clash of personalities. That's what I told myself. But, as time went on, my experience with Gottlieb was exactly the same, the only difference being that I never "chose" my representation, although I went along with it. Sure, I thought about cutting it off with Gottlieb or asking him to withdraw my manuscript, but I felt in doing so, that I could possibly burn a major bridge and offend a powerful player in the publishing industry--and all for what? That one author had a bad experience?
I swallowed the information like washing down a shit sandwich with piss water, but I fooled myself into believing it was a filet paired with fine wine.
Over the next weeks, more and more stories like that author's experience popped up. I talked about everything that had transpired with several colleagues; they were all shocked and pushed me to fire Gottlieb. At the same time, Victoria Strauss posted on AbsoluteWrite.com that she'd been receiving many complaints about Gottlieb. I reached out to her, but she wasn't comfortable revealing anything specific to me, given that I was a current client at the time. I thanked her anyway and at that moment, I resolved to get specificity from Gottlieb--one way or another.
Since I was already two months into the process--it was mid-December/2017 by that point--and I decided I would cut everything off by the four month mark: by late January/early February, I resolved to hound him for specific publisher information until I fired him or he fired me. Come hell or high water, I wanted resolution.
So, in late January, I sent email after email to get publisher info, editor responses, a pulse on where we were at and he responded each time, but he was always too busy or out of town and didn't clarify when he would get me the information I wanted.
Finally, on the fourth or fifth message within a two-week span, he attached all of his, my and publishers' correspondence on my book, along with a "we should part ways" comment. Reading that last part definitely wrenched something inside me. It was like a dream breaking off like unrooting a blossoming plant. His treatment didn't rob me of my dreams or desires to publish, I knew that, but it was still painful. It was like cutting off an abusive relationship--there's so much pain that you didn't even realize that cracks open, palpable and real.
I even had a written statement prepared for the inevitable moment that I was supposed to fire him--he just preempted my side of the "break-up."
I still sent him my message. It felt good. To distill it down to its core message, I told him that he needed to stop gambling with writer's dreams. He was (is) in a enviable, powerful position and he treats manuscripts that folks have slaved over, for years, as if they were darts being thrown at a dart board.
That's honestly the best analogy I can think of for how Mark Gottlieb treats his "clients." Darts at a dart board. He hits the bullseye from time to time. In fact, there was a release just a couple of days ago that some writer he picked up inked a six-figure contract with Blackstone Publishing.
To that writer, Gottlieb is a GOD now. No doubt, to some extent Mark Gottlieb thinks of himself that way, but like the God of the Old Testament, how many perished so that a few could make it to the promised land? According to Query Tracker, there are dozens. I'm sure there are many, many more.
I'm one of them.
It was painful to read over his correspondence with various publishers. It was messy. He essentially put his name on my query letter and spammed it out to around thirty editors. No specific names. He treated editors in the exact fashion that all of us authors are instructed NOT to treat agents--it may as well have been to one editor with the other twenty-nine cc'ed. In all, only about five or six responded to him. I take solace that most of them didn't take the time to deal with him. Folks are aware and growing tired of his tactics.
So, after all this, how can I better protect myself in the future? Better yet, how can I help to prevent others from falling prey to Gottlieb-types? The short answer, not much. Like I've stated, there was literally no dirt on Mark Gottlieb when our relationship began. All available information was positive. So, if there WAS another agent like Gottlieb (or Danielle Smith, for that matter), I don't know what you could do to protect yourself from such an agent.
Luckily, there are very few people in a position like Mark Gottlieb. Very few who have parents that own literary agencies.
Most folks behaving the way he has (and does) probably won't have fruitful careers. With advents like Twitter, there's very little that people get away with anymore--information travels fast so keep your ear to the ground and keep channels open.
It would be nice if this post could signal a warning sign to some. I can only hope. To those writers, I say: Your hard work deserves better than a gamble.