by Matthew Broberg-Moffitt
Part 1 of this series focused on the importance of #OwnVoices stories and the representation of neurodiversity and the neurodiverse (ND) in modern media. Part 2 covers the business of traditional publishing and the unique challenges that the ND face when attempting to get a seat at the proverbial table.
For those who are less familiar with the process of becoming traditionally published, it often involves finding representation with a literary agent through a process known as “querying.” Then your literary agent submits your work or a proposal to acquiring editors at publishing houses (or the author directly pitches to the few publishers that accept unagented work). If the editor likes your work and thinks it has marketable potential, it goes through that publisher’s acquisitions process (which varies wildly by publisher and editor).
Each of those steps has a list of written and unwritten rules that can seem baffling, even for Neurotypical (NT) individuals. Not only does each step have rules and guidelines, each individual literary agent has their own set of rules and guidelines to follow. Let’s start with a closer look at querying, particularly with issues regarding the ND.
As a caveat, I would like to acknowledge that agenting and publishing is a business where professionals are largely overworked and underpaid yet continue to do it because of a love of books. Many of the practices below are a result of these individuals doing their best to keep up with their workload and are not intentionally meant to cause harm. In fact, we should also acknowledge that there are ND agents and editors that are unable to disclose their needs for accommodations due to fear of stigma or workplace disenfranchisement (along with a great many who are simply undiagnosed), and some of the following are coping strategies for the hazards of their work.
The process is slow, opaque, and painful in the following ways:
- Finding the literary agents to query often takes extensive searches to find the agents that represent the genre and age group that you write. For anyone this is difficult, but for people that struggle with executive dysfunction it adds an onerous barrier before you even are ready to submit a query.
- You must submit your work in the proper format. Sometimes agents/editors want ten pages of your manuscript. Sometimes they want the whole manuscript. Sometimes they want it copied and pasted into an email. Others are happy with you attaching a Word document. Others want you to use a web tool, such as Submittable. For a number of fellow Autistics there is a certain hyperfocus on adherence to protocol and stated guidelines. When there are so many permutations of process, the anxiety associated with compliance is staggering.
- Agents will sometimes ask you to provide “comp titles,” which are recent examples of successful published works that have similar elements to yours. A number of ND (such as some autistics) have difficulty with abstract or comparative analysis, and this process is entirely inaccessible to them, yet it remains a fundamental part of the querying and submission process.
- The response expectations also vary widely. Some agents are “no response means a pass,” others are “no response within so many weeks means nudge me,” others are “everyone gets a response eventually.” Some agencies state that “a ‘no’ from one is a ‘no’ from all,” so if one agent passes, don’t submit that manuscript to anyone else in the agency. Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD), for instance, is the extreme emotional and even physical pain that ND individuals can experience with perceived rejection. When no response comes, RSD never resolves. Instead of it being a “no,” it’s a “probably no” forever.
- A rejection response, when it occurs, almost always comes as a form response with boilerplate language that can seem inscrutable and leaves the writer wondering if it contained workable, personalized feedback or not. Boilerplate is a “necessary evil” when weighed against the RSD associated pain of never receiving a response; after all, agents and editors are people who have to balance their own mental health and work.
- There are web tools such as QueryTracker which allow you to see when users post submission dates and rejection times. However, these dates mean absolutely nothing since, for any number of reasons, agents may not review submissions chronologically. The human mind is given to pattern seeking, the ND mind especially, and will often agonize over what points of data are available. Unfortunately, the data is both incomplete and irrelevant (it relies on voluntary self-report and doesn’t reflect an objective system). While NT individuals also find themselves at the end of this torture, the ND has a tendency to hyper-fixate on perceived injustices (such as, someone logging that they received a response from an agent “out of order” in receipt of query) or illogical systems causing an extra layer of distress to the process.
- Oftentimes, especially in non-fiction writing, agents want the writer to have a successful social media platform. Due to the difficulty that ND individuals can experience in social interaction, this can be onerous, if not insurmountable. Plus, the term “successful” lacks an enumerative definition. There is a secondary concern of social media, and that is agents “sub-Tweeting,” or referencing in a disdainful manner a query where the writer made errors, without necessarily naming the work or individual who sent it. This increases the RSD anguish knowing that it’s possible that your mistakes might be aired publicly.
- The systemic issue present at each stage of the process is the requirement that one person loves your manuscript so much that they are willing to stake their livelihood or publisher’s capital on it. A prevailing theme among the ND is being misunderstood, communicating in a way that doesn’t fit within normative society. When we write stories, they are colored by our unique experiences. Our characters often think in ways that NT people don’t, which can leave some readers unable to relate to our creations. As with other marginalized backgrounds, ND agents and editors are few and far between.
Publishing serves as a mirror for society. When publishers give ND people a chance to be seen, it also validates those least seen within society. It allows ND readers and writers to pick up a book and see a bit of themselves reflected back at them, to know that they are valued, to know that someone out there in the human ecology is waiting for them to share their story and light. The system can change, it can adapt. If publishing professionals embrace a movement towards a less opaque process, with fewer unintentionally harmful practices that affect ND disproportionately, it would benefit everyone at every step involved in the business of making books.
The third installment of this series will explore some potential solutions to making traditional publishing more equitable to the ND and how we might measure our progress.
Part 3: Potential Solutions and Measuring Progress
Matthew Broberg-Moffitt is a writer of kidlit and non-fiction, with bylines in Thinknum Media. He contracts as a Sensitivity and Expert Reader with Salt and Sage Books. The majority of his projects are inspired by his experiences in life with homelessness, Autism, and chronic rare illness. He’s a classically trained chef, former substance abuse counselor, erstwhile computer repair tech, and one-time Buddhist monk. His fiction projects are represented by Hannah VanVels with Belcastro Agency. His non-fiction projects are represented by Heather Cashman with Storm Literary Agency.
Matthew has a son in college, and frequently hears, “How do you have a child that’s college age?” He is surrounded by a number of cats that don’t belong to him, but try telling them that. His hobby is collecting hobbies. He currently lives in Oklahoma City, OK.