After a long publishing hiatus, I just released a new novel! My sci-fi mystery Beat In Her Blood is now available in ebook and paperback formats. This novel challenged me in a lot of ways. It was my first project aimed at adult audiences, my first foray into the mystery genre, and a personal exploration of invisible disability. Of the three books I’ve written to date, this one prompted the most growth, as both a writer and as a human being. Despite some serious themes, what I love most about the story is its ebullient spirit. Bantering leads, homemade biotechnology, and a cyborg karaoke queen make for a fun read. I’m excited to share it with you.
All the more so because a hundred literary agents rejected it.
Self-publishing has always been a deliberate path for me, not a last resort. I didn’t query my first novel Blue Karma, or my Syzygy series. Instead, I reveled in the freedom to pursue my own creativity, unfettered by market whims. But I sought representation for Beat in Her Blood, because I wanted to earn some money for my sister, an Ehlers-Danlos warrior who inspired some of the book’s disability portrayals. A modest publishing advance would help with her healthcare bills. It seemed the least I could do for all her support as a beta reader, consultant, and friend.
So I studied how to write a good query letter, compiled a list of agents in my genre, and sent off the first batch. No takers. Okay, obviously the letter needed work. I revised it and tried a second round of agents. This time I got one partial request, which returned a rejection. Maybe my first fifty pages weren’t gripping enough. I rewrote the opening chapters and jumped back in the arena. One agent requested the full manuscript, but ultimately declined. Still more agents out there, right? I tried again.
And again. And again. I queried almost every available agent in my genre, at imprints large and small. Not one of them showed interest in Beat In Her Blood. I couldn’t fathom why. My query letter had developed into a strong pitch, equal to any of the deal-landing examples I’d reviewed online. I followed each agent’s submission guidelines. And the story itself had received positive feedback from industry professionals earlier in the year, when I’d submitted it to a small publisher’s manuscript development contest. Judges scored it 9/10, noting:
“The two main characters are very strong and have an interesting, if vitriolic, dynamic off the bat. The sci-fi aspects are portrayed very strongly without being exposited to the point of dragging a reader out of the story. Prose is excellently done, good descriptors abound. The plot is well set up and paced…Extremely well written in deep point of view”.
Even a group of objective industry professionals enjoyed the story. So why did it barely get a nibble? I’ll never know for certain. Form rejections—which I preferred to the implied rejections from unresponsive agents—gave no clue. Only one offered a personal comment, but I found it insightful: “You’ve got some very cool ideas, but…the mystery/sf combination has always been commercially tough for me.”
That, I suspect, was the kicker. Beat in Her Blood, like its author, doesn’t fit neatly into a labeled box. It combines the lyrical suspense of Tana French and the barely-speculative science of Michael Crichton in a character-driven murder mystery. I thought these fresh twists might attract agents seeking cross-genre projects, but perhaps we define that concept differently. Where I see an inventive twist on tropes, they probably saw a marketing nightmare. This book can’t be mainlined to audiences of a recent bestseller, nor can I boast legions of social media followers who guarantee sales. Publishing is a business, and product quality matters less than salability. I assess that my novel was simply too big a gamble in the competitive entertainment ecosystem.
I’m not the only author striking out in today’s publishing climate. Social media writing communities abound with frustration at the long agent response times and low request rates. Industry statistics confirm that it’s incredibly difficult to land a trad deal right now. Some authors are reluctantly shelving their novels in hope conditions will improve. That strategy might suit a historical or fantasy novel, but near-future fiction has a shorter expiration date. A few years’ wait risks the story becoming obsolete, or worse, true. (Recent articles about water shortages and theft in California chill me with their similarity to Blue Karma—in less than a decade, many of that story’s elements have become non-fiction.)
The more I learned about trad publishing, the less it appealed to me. A moonlight novelist who likes to experiment is better suited for indie authorship. Besides, I hadn’t written Beat In Her Blood for literary agents. I’d written it for myself, venturing into new creative territory on my writer’s journey. For my sister, who devours mystery novels but never gets to see disabled people like herself in starring roles. For genre fans tired of the same shallow sci-fi and hackneyed whodunits. I’d written it for readers, the only true judges of my book’s worthiness.
Rather than grovel for validation from industry gatekeepers, I chose to lay my tale before you, the audience. I hope you’ll give Beat In Her Blood a look. You can browse the first few chapters on Amazon’s preview feature. Hopefully I can hook you from the opening pages! If not, perhaps you’ll still mention it to a friend who enjoys science fiction or mystery books. Grassroots recommendations help ensure that despite the limited imaginations of mainstream publishers, fresh voices still have opportunities to be heard.