Caution signs: When to stop querying!

Have you been querying for a while and not getting any results? If you’re new to the business of book publishing, you might not be aware that literary agents (and acquisitions editors at publishing houses) are facing an unprecedented tsunami of writing. Along with that, the operational model for traditional publishing is as screwy as it gets, and there are a ton of problems. 

What’s so different about now?

  • The sheer volume of manuscripts being pitched to agents and acquisitions editors is rising every year as more people write, some of them boomers who have retired and now have more time, some of whom took up writing during the pandemic, some of whom would have been writers no matter when they lived.
  • Querying an agent costs nothing but time. There’s no barrier to sending out a query letter.
  • That would be okay, except that most writers query before their work is publishable.
  • There’s a lot of misinformation and delusional thinking about what it takes to get a novel published traditionally. 
  • Many writers are not researching adequately before they pitch to agents. 
  • [On the opposite end of the spectrum, I know some very good writers who have given up. They write novels but don’t want to self-publish, so those manuscripts sit in a drawer. Nobody feels good about it.]
  • The querying system is ridiculous at such high volumes. Non-fiction has a more streamlined system, with the submission of a book proposal to test “proof of concept”–quicker to read; easier to see if the writer is professional about what’s required.
  • Judgments about fiction are highly subjective. So even a great novel, one your agent or editor loves and works hard for, can go unsold.
  • The publishing industry (now the Big Four, since Penguin Random House bought Simon & Schuster), are big businesses that keep merging and conglomerizing (is that a word?), cutting editorial staff, resulting in fewer people able to make decisions about whether to purchase a manuscript. 
  • The norm for business communication in publishing is not to respond. That intensifies the soul-crushing aspect and makes it hard to know whether your work is even getting seen.
  • Plus in the last 18 months, there’s been a pandemic. New York was hit hard and an already overwhelmed profession (agents & editors) had their lives turned upside down.

OK, so what can you do?

What you do depends on where you are at with your writing project. 

If your novel isn’t finished, don’t query.

If you’ve completed a draft but have yet to get feedback, don’t query.

If you’ve gotten feedback but haven’t acted on it, don’t query.

If you’re sure your novel works but don’t know who publishes that type of book, don’t query.

If your novel works and you have some publishers in mind but haven’t studied which agents represent your type of book, don’t query.

If your novel works, you have some publishers in mind, but don’t have a strong query package (letter, synopsis, first 10-50 pages), don’t query.

If your novel works, you have some publishers in mind, have a strong query package, have researched agents, and know they’re open to submissions…query!

If you don’t hear back, don’t take it personally. Traditional publishing is a fragmented, screwy, strange business, but it’s full of people who love books. Everyone I know in the industry is running as fast as they can. 

Improve your chances of publication by doing the work, doing your research, and approaching the business only when you have done all the work that comes AFTER you write the book.

What are my book’s chances?

What are my book’s chances?

The question writers need answered

Recently, one of the novice writers I worked with (we did chapter-by-chapter editorial coaching through an entire draft of his novel) asked me to rate his chances of getting the book accepted by an agent or publisher, on a scale of 0 to 5. Five would mean I thought it “very likely,” and zero would mean I thought it had “no chance in hell.”  

Why there’s no answer

It’s a reasonable question, in some ways. But it’s impossible to answer because of the nature of the publishing industry. Even if I reread the novel again in its entirety (rather than chapter by chapter), I wouldn’t want to give a number from 0-5.

I can’t give a number from one to five on a book’s chances of publication, because those chances depend on a whole bunch of factors, some of which are beyond the writer’s control. 

The factors within the writer’s control:

  • understanding who their reader is (this particular novel was middle grade fiction)
  • making sure the story’s complexity and stakes are interesting enough for their readership–neither too complex nor too simple 
  • making the novel the strongest possible version of itself
  • knowing what the ‘comparable titles’ are so they can pitch the publishers and agents most likely to buy it
  • writing a description of the story that sparks deep interest
  • being aware that traditional publishing is an extremely tough, lengthy and competitive process
  • being prepared to spend time researching, querying, and waiting to hear back

The factors outside the writer’s control:

  • whether agents think they can sell the book to publishers
  • whether publishers think they can sell the book to readers

Unfortunately, the factors outside the writer’s control are the ones that dictate whether the book will be picked up by an agent or a publisher. 

How to work with things within your control:

If we look at the list of things under the writer’s control, they take some work. Over the course of my 10-month exchange with that writer I saw him really improve issues around the prose and scene dynamics–dialogue tags, showing vs. telling, adverbs, head-hopping (POV shifts), passive voice, distancing language–many of the things that would make an agent or publisher say no immediately. 

 What I didn’t know was whether and how thoroughly this writer had applied the big-picture suggestions I made from time to time: if the concept was as honed  and “high interest” as he could make it, if the premise was clear and interesting, if the stakes and complexity were on par with books his readership loves, if the cause-and-effect chain was strong, if the protagonist had internal conflict and growth as well as the external quest, if the emotional complexity in later packets had been woven in throughout in her POV… all that stuff.   If he had wrestled with all those big-picture suggestions and made changes accordingly, he’d be in a good position to start querying.  

If he hadn’t, he needed to go back and do those things first. (And that’s just one  or maybe two bullet points in the list of factors within the writer’s control–numbers 2 and 3,) He’d still need to do the following four bullet points before he’d be in a good position to start querying. 

The takeaway:

I’d love to see this writer’s book get out there and I thought he told a good story. But if you’re in a similar position and wondering if you’re book’s ready, remember that the amount of work it takes to get traditionally published is almost as much work as it takes to write the book, just a different kind of work.

┬áThat doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go ahead! It just means you should be prepared to commit yourself wholeheartedly.