Sunday, April 18, 2010

Impossible dreams

Last week Elana Roth at Caren Johnson Literary Agency wrote a blog post she called The Picture Book Problem. Kudos to her for taking on a tough subject. She outlined just how tight the picture book market is and why most agents don't want to take on picture books. Having been to yet another writing conference loaded with people who want to write picture books, she said she wished more people understood that the chances for success in picture books is "severely limited right now."

Roth wrote, "I'm all for congratulating successes and perseverance, but I also want to ask this question: How are we measuring success and what are we telling picture book writers at the conferences to do? Just keep trying no matter what?"

Her post got some thoughtful responses from serious writers about why they stick with picture books. Lots of us just love them. Most commenters tactfully avoided bringing up the fact that a sizable portion of the people submitting picture book manuscripts aren't serious writers -- they're people who suffer under the misconception that writing picture books is easy. (And possibly profitable.)

Having just gotten a particularly disappointing picture book rejection, perhaps I'm feeling unduly pessimistic. But I think it's healthy to face up to the truth about the extremely long odds of getting a picture book published, and even to ask the question about whether it's a reasonable thing to keep pursuing.

I know it's delicate to raise the issue of giving up on one's dreams. We live in a culture that likes to believe you can live your dream if you work hard and stay true to it. There's a lot of stigma attaching to "quitting," as it's usually called. But isn't is possible that sometimes it's the right thing to do? That being realistic isn't necessarily a failure of will, but a reasonable decision that allows someone to direct their energies toward something that's more likely to be satisfying?

When is it the right thing to give up on a dream that's probably impossible?

No one can answer that for someone else. That makes it hard for agents and editors to speak the truth. But it might be best for all of us if we realize that not everyone is a Don Quixote.