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You need so many yeses
I appreciate the likely good intentions behind these two phrases, but I urge you to critically examine whether they’re actually helpful to you.
There are two oft repeated phrases in publishing that bother me: “write a better book,” and “you only need one yes.”
I’ve been trying to pinpoint for a while why I don’t like them, because both hit on some nuggets of truth. You do need to hone your craft to increase your chances of success. And technically you do need only one yes from an agent or editor to gain entry to publishing. But neither are helpful or the whole story, so let’s address them one by one:
Write a better book
Better is doing a lot of heavy lifting here. We know writing is subjective, so how can one book be “better” than another? It leans into a scarcity/competition mindset that pits your books against themselves and others. It feeds into the idea that publishing is a meritocracy—if only you write a “good” book, a “better” book, then you’ll make it in the industry. Keep going, keep writing, move forward at any cost—any rejections before then are because you’re not good enough.
But that isn’t true. There are plenty of books that get published that I think are…not great. That struggle with craft, bore me, or are flat out problematic. They managed to slip through all of the gatekeepers because someone along the way exercised their subjective opinion and said “this is good…this is what we need.” That’s the way the industry works—gatekeepers exercising opinion and determining what gets put out into the world.
So how do you write a book that all of these people—agents, editors, marketing teams— think is objectively “good?” You don’t, and can’t. Writers will drive themselves up the wall falling prey to this “write a better book” mindset that puts you in competition with yourself and fails to leave room to appreciate each individual book on its own merits.
I’ve written books that have much tighter pacing than others, more interesting characters, or a more commercial idea, but that doesn’t make them better. Some of my least saleable books are ones I consider my most beautiful, or best plotted. A confluence of factors need to come together to determine whether a book sells. Including a string of “yeses.” On that topic…
You only need one yes
You actually need a string of yeses in a row. Yes from an agent, yes from an editor, yes from an acquisitions team, yes from marketing, yes from readers. So not only is the phrase misleading, but I think sometimes people use it to deflect attention from themselves. You can’t insist that publishing is a business and should be treated as such and then insist actually you only need one yes. Products in every field usually need a team of yeses to reach the market, people agreeing with each other that xyz can be sold successfully. There’s no one cosmically ordained ‘yes’ that’s going to get your book published.
I wish we’d ditch this phrase in rejections, especially: “This isn’t for me, but you only need one yes!!” Okay, sure, but what if you were my last option? One no from you probably gets filed among a dozen other nos from other people. This isn’t to say you can’t say no, or shouldn’t say no, you definitely need to—I’m just saying stop pushing this singular yes idea.
I worry this you only need one yes makes space for the dangers of a dream agent. It makes it seem like there’s one agent out there for you, one editor, etcetera. That you’re trying to find that one single person who believes in your book and that’s all you need to launch a successful career as an author. But querying writers (or writers on sub!) can usually leverage themselves into better deals when you get more than one yes—this is especially true for marginalized writers. It’s a critical tool, getting more than one yes, and it can be a form of power for a writer.
There is no dream agent, I’m so sorry. There’s no dream editor. Your different books will appeal to different people. The only person who might be rabidly supportive of your work each time is you. You, the writer, are your only one true cosmic yes, and you alone cannot get your books published. You need so many yeses. That’s why this industry is so damn exhausting—leap one hurdle and there are a thousand more.
You have to go into things with your eyes wide open, with the understanding that one yes is just the start, not the end, and that destiny isn’t meddling in your querying journey—you are. Especially in the current (very slow) querying climate, you have to cast a wide net to catch any agent interest and try for those multiple yeses.
And if you do get that one yes, remember: no agent is better than a bad agent. You may only get one yes, but if it isn’t a yes that works for you, an agent whose working style and priorities match yours, then you should turn away from that yes. If you’ve already signed with an agent and it’s not working, you can’t be afraid to leave them because you think they’re your one yes. Same thing for an editor/publisher. The wrong yes, even if it’s the only one you get, can harm you and set back your career.
I appreciate the likely good intentions behind these two phrases, but I urge you to critically examine whether they’re actually helpful. Whether they’re actually true.
Beyond the fact that actually everyone would love to have a thousand yeses (again, this is such a critical tool of negotiation, especially for marginalized writers who are often lowballed and deprioritized) , these two adages can distract you from forward progress.
Instead of trying to write a “better” book, grow in your craft by trying to write a different book and have it succeed on its own terms. Take it slow, if you need to, because you have no true guarantees.
Instead of fighting tooth and nail for one external yes—a fabled single piece of external validation that’s going to hand you your dreams—shed the idea that this is an industry built on good wishes, passion, and dreams. Leave relationships that don’t benefit you. Take back some querying power. Aim for multiple yeses in a way that feels true to you.
Make beautiful, fascinating things because they are beautiful and fascinating and work for you.
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