Rejected By Mainstream Publishers | A Bigmart Confidential Story

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I started writing Bigmart Confidential over 10 years ago, and when I began the project I expected it to earn me millions and make me a celebrity. Agents and publishers were going to fight over me at lunch meetings in swanky Manhattan restaurants. And all of the book contracts I’d be offered — why, I’d make the most powerful New York publishing houses beg to print my words.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. None of it. I finished the initial draft of Bigmart Confidential in eight months, and spent another year obsessively rewriting it after showing it to friends for feedback (something I’m happy I did, mind you). And then I read Elizabeth Lyons’ book Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write: How to Get a Contract and Advance Before Writing Your Book to build a strategy for publication.

Much like the manuscript for Bigmart Confidential itself, I obsessively created what I believe to be a perfect book proposal and began querying agents with it in 2010. Again, my youthful arrogance took over — surely agents would be begging to represent me out of the first dozen messages I sent out into the world. My reasoning was this: if someone like Tucker Max could get his junk published, surely I could get my vastly superior prose represented… right? On a side note, one of the initial agents I queried was Max’s, but he never responded.

But, once again, reality shut me down. I made organized lists of agents and the kind of writing they represented on white legal pads (the only way a left-handed person can write decent longhand) and would mark off when a submission was made. I’m sure I still have the pads somewhere for a proper count of how many queries I sent out.

Of all those queries less than 10 agents responded, and less than five wanted my proposal. Of those pitying souls, no one was interested in my work. I was told by two different agents that the book sounded more like a magazine article than a full book. These two agents in particular were polite, but I found their terse responses condescending. Yes, of course Bigmart Confidential could have been cut down to be a long-form essay ala The New Yorker. But it wasn’t that. It was already a book… and with sample chapters at that!

Through some good, old-fashioned networking when I was a writer for the comic-book news site Broken Frontier, I got the attention of an editor at Adams Media in November 2010 (which was acquired by Simon & Schuster six years later in November 2016). We had some pleasant email exchanges, but after I submitted my proposal and sample chapters to her the communication died out. Not wanting to be a pest, I waited a few months before following up. I didn’t receive a reply back. I waited another two months before sending another message asking if she had any news, even if it was to tell me she was no longer interested in the project. Still, no reply. It was my first taste of unprofessionalism in the publishing business. It’s understandable that not all slush-pile queries are responded to. But to this day, I still find it unprofessional that an editor — someone I was in continuous contact with and who requested my book materials – would decide to simply stop responding.

I shelfed the project for three years before taking interest in it again in August 2014. My partner did some networking on my behalf that got me in touch with an editor at Skyhorse Publishing. I was cautiously optimistic, of which the caution paid off far more than the optimism. Much like my experience with Adams Media, I had some warm exchanges with the editor until I passed along my proposal. After that, I never heard from her again. I waited several months before following up, but it was a wasted effort. I never received any response back, not even to tell me she was no longer interested in the project.

Writers, good and bad, endure a lot of judgement and rejection. It’s part of the job, and you have to have the thick skin of an alligator to keep at it. But when a writer makes it through the door — as I did twice — it’s the editor’s duty to show some common courtesy and respond to inquiring writers, even if it’s to quickly break the bad news. To not do so is grossly unprofessional.

It was after my brief (and one-sided) upset with Skyhorse Publishing that I officially decided I was done with shopping Bigmart Confidential around to publishing houses and agents. I was tired of the project; I worked on it for some many year and wanted finality with it. I wanted it released into the marketplace of ideas so I could move on.

I didn’t imagine I’d take such a passionate new interest in the book when I decided to take control of the book and publish Bigmart Confidential for myself. But I did. It felt good to be in control.

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About Author

Steven Surman has been writing for over 10 years. His essays and articles have appeared in a variety of print and digital publications, including the Humanist, the Gay & Lesbian Review, and A&U magazine. His website and blog, Steven Surman Writes, collects his past and current nonfiction work. Steven’s a graduate of Bloomsburg University and the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and he currently works as the Content Marketing Manager for a New York City-based media company. His first book, Bigmart Confidential: Dispatches from America’s Retail Empire, is a memoir detailing his time working at a big-box retailer. Please contact him at steven@stevensurman.com.

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