If you have made it all the way through this series, either reading it as I posted or in retrospect, please give yourself a big ol’ pat on the back. By committing to learning how querying and submission works, you can, I hope, avoid the most common mistakes that lead to rejection — and approach the process of finding an agent for your work not as a massive, ugly mystery, but as a professional endeavor that’s going to take some time.
You know how I’d like you to celebrate? Send out a few additional query letters this weekend. (Five is a nice number. Ten is better.)
Did I hear a few exasperated gasps out there? “But Anne,” some of you point out, and not unreasonably, “doesn’t the industry slow to a crawl between Thanksgiving and Christmas? If I haven’t gotten a raft of queries out by now, shouldn’t I wait until after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?” (That’s the third week of January, for those of you reading outside the US.)
I have to admit, that’s a pretty reasonable objection. I’m not going to tell you it’s okay to put the querying on hold, mind you, but I give you full points for a good argument.
Even this late in the season, the autumn is an excellent time to be looking for an agent, much better than the dead of winter. Not only are there always a lot of great new books hitting the shelves in the fall (including most of the year’s crop of literary fiction and culture books), but by querying now, you’ll also get a jump on the literally tens of thousands of aspiring authors who will suddenly decide at the end of December that their New Year’s resolution is going to be to query fifteen agents per month.
Since the average New Year’s resolution lasts only about two and a half weeks, January is when ALL of those well-meaning resolvers’ missives hit agents’ desks — right after a long holiday break AND in the middle of tax-preparation time for agencies. With the monumentally increased volume, agents and their assistants tend to get a MIGHT testy around then.
Since the vast majority of those rejected during that period will not query again until, oh, about twelve months later — if they try again at all — Millicent’s life calms down considerably toward the end of January. And wouldn’t you rather have your query under her nose while her joie de vivre is on the upswing?
The moral of the story: get your queries out now, and beat the post-Christmas rush.
Even with predictably slower turn-around times over the next month and a half, making a big push now, rather than after the New Year, will make it easier to keep up the momentum an aspiring writer needs to keep a query cycle going as long as necessary to land an agent.
Stop groaning. If your book deserves to be published — and I’m betting that it does — it deserves to make the rounds of the fifty or hundred agents that even the best books sometimes make these days. Yes, that’s a long haul — but nothing extends the querying process like taking extended breaks from it.
Query 5-10 agents at once — hey, your time is too valuable to query them singly — and keep that momentum going. The moment one rejection comes in, send out another query, so there are always a constant number in motion.
Why send out a new query on the same day as the last comes back? Because it’s the best way to fight off rejection-generated depression, that’s why: it’s something you can DO in response to that soul-sapping form letter. Recognize that rejection by an agent, any agent, is only one person’s opinion (or, more commonly, one person’s screener’s opinion), and move on.
It can take a lot of asking before a writer hears yes. Yes, even a very good writer with a great book. Remember, you don’t want to sign with just any agent, any more than you would want to marry just anyone the law says you can: a relationship with an agent is, ideally, a very long-term commitment.
You want to find the best one for you. Finding that special someone is going to take some serious dating around.
And that is not, contrary to popular opinion, necessarily any reflection at all upon your level of writing talent.
Oh, you’ll want to write a good query letter, as well as avoiding the most common writing problems that lead submissions to be rejected. That, like other matters of format and craft, can be learned. Talent, however, can’t — but you can’t know for certain how talented you are until you get the technical matters right, so you can get a fair reading from the pros.
Not to worry — I’m going to spend the weeks to come going over some of the more pervasive writing problems. But if you’ve been following this series, you already have the skills to write a professional-quality query letter, don’t you?
Get on out there and do it. At this point, you’re probably not going to hear back for a month or more, anyway. That’s plenty of time for us to work on polishing your manuscript.
I feel in my bones that some of you out there are still resisting my pep talk — I’ve been hearing it bouncing off your psyches like bullets off Superman’s chest. Okay, I’m going to pull out all the stops, and end this series with one last blast of kryptonite-laden truth, to help you see why it just doesn’t make sense to take the vagaries of this often drawn-out process personally.
Throughout this Book Marketing 101 series — originally intended to encompass only a couple of months of summer — I have been trying, in my own small way, to educate aspiring writers to the hard facts of the current literary market: it is, in fact, as difficult as it has ever been to land an agent and/or sign a publication contract. In my experience, understanding the basics of how the acceptance (and rejection) process works can save good writers time, chagrin, and wasteful expenses of despair.
Yet as I have been writing, even I have caught myself wondering from time to time whether it is really THAT hard to break into the biz. Oh, I certainly haven’t been exaggerating, say, how small, inadvertent mistakes can and do lead to instant rejection or the level of competition one must beat in order to sign with a good agency; by comparison with the conversation you’d be likely to hear behind the scenes at a top-flight writers’ conference, my rendition has been positively mild.
But still, I worry about scaring good writers away from trying at all. And then I read an article like this one in a trade journal:
Hachette moves to firm sale on backlist
Hachette Livre UK is taking the radical step of moving its backlist publishing to a firm sale basis for environmental reasons. The UK’s largest publishing group, which includes Orion, Hodder, Headline, Octopus and Little, Brown, told staff and authors this morning…that it intends for all of its trade publishing to be put on a backlist firm sale footing by the end of 2008, following consultation with retailers. (For the rest of this article, follow this link.)
If this piece of news did not make you gasp spontaneously, I would guess that you are only dimly aware of just how many books are already pulped each year — that is, sent back to the publisher unsold for paper recycling — or how backlist sales typically work. Most bookstores buy new books from publishers on a provisional basis, with the understanding that they can send clean, unread copies back if they do not sell within a specified period of time. Often, the returns, especially paperbacks and trade paper, will be ground down into pulp to provide the raw material to print other books (thus the term pulping).
From a marketing point of view, this arrangement makes quite a bit of sense: with certain rare exceptions (think Harry Potter), it’s pretty hard for a bookseller to know in advance how well a book will sell. Stocking extra copies encourages browsing, which is potentially good for retailer, publisher, and reader alike. In recent years, however, books have been remaining on shelves for shorter stints than in the past. The length of time a bookseller will choose to keep a particular book on a shelf varies considerably by book and retailer — the same book may be allowed shelf space for a year at a small bookstore, yet last only a few weeks at a megastore like Barnes & Noble.
All of which means, in practice, that these days, a new book typically does not have very long to establish a track record as a seller before being subject to return. This, in turn, renders it more expensive for publishers to promote books, as the window of opportunity can be pretty small. (See why publishers might be willing to pay a premium to have their books displayed face-up on tables for the first few weeks, rather than spine-out on a shelf? Or why authors sometimes see fit to hire their own publicists for the first month after a book’s release?)
Backlist titles, by contrast, have been out for a while; they’re the releases from past seasons that the publisher elects to keep in print. Although they do not receive the press attention of new releases, backlist books have historically been the financial heart of most publishers’ business — and this, too, has tended to work to all of our benefits. How often, for instance, have you discovered a genre author three books into a series? Or fell in love with a writer’s latest book and went back to read everything she ever published? (As I sincerely hope you do; after all, if we writers won’t purchase the more obscure works of living writers, who will?)
Or, to take a very up-to-the-minute example, discovered a great writer who has been plugging away for years because he suddenly wins the National Book Award? (Well deserved, Sherman Alexie!)
If you’ve been able to find these books at your local bookstore, you’ve been buying backlist titles, gladdening publishers’ hearts and keeping the heartbeat of the industry alive. Because of readers like you, stocking backlist titles has been good bet for retailers: you might not move many copies of Clarissa in a given month, but when a reader wants it, it’s great if you have it to hand.
But if a bookseller has to buy those backlist titles outright, with no opportunity to return them, it becomes substantially more expensive to keep, say, the complete opus of Sherman Alexie in stock in the years when he is NOT winning prestigious awards.
Speaking as a hardcore reader of English prose, I think that would be a genuine shame. And since I hear that other UK publishers are considering implementing similar policies, I worry about all of those British writers whose work may go out of print before those of us on this side of the pond have had a chance to hear how wonderful they are.
Call me a worrywart, but this news also made me gnaw my nails, pondering the financial prospects of UK authors already in print. Just as increasingly quick shelf turn-around for a current season’s books have rendered retailers less likely to take a chance on new authors (how much word-of-mouth can a small book garner in under a month, after all?), it’s probably safe to assume that a policy shift like this will make it harder for backlist authors to remain in print.
“But Anne,” I hear some of you saying, “you’ve just spent the last week telling us that publishing trends change all the time — and that even if I get an agent tomorrow, it might be a couple of years before my book hits the shelves. Do I really need to worry about return policies now?”
Well, perhaps worry is too strong a word, but it is something to keep in mind when planning out your writing career in the long term. Working authors often rely upon sales of their backlist works to pay the bills. If backlist sales decline — as they well might, if such a policy is embraced industry-wide — it may be significantly more difficult to make a consistent living as a writer of books in the years to come.
In other words, this change may affect your ability to quit your day job after you’re published.
In the short term, however, I think it’s always helpful for an aspiring writer to be aware that there is almost always more to an editor’s decision to acquire a book — and by extension, to an agent’s decision to offer it representation — than simply whether the writing is good. During periods when booksellers are taking fewer risks, publishers have historically relied more upon their tried-and-true authors than upon exciting new talent.
Thus tightening the already tight market for what used to be called writers of promise, excellent authors who don’t catch on with the public until the fourth or fifth book. (Mssr. Alexie’s first book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was originally published in 1993. Fortunately, it’s still available as a backlist title.)
Do I think this change is cause for rending your garments and casting your hard-collected query lists into the nearest fire? No, certainly not. But I do think that aspiring writers who approach the querying and submission processes as though the book market had NOT become significantly tighter in recent years are more likely to give up when faced with rejection — because, unfortunately, there’s still a very pervasive myth out there that the ONLY reason a manuscript, or even a query, ever has trouble finding a professional home is because of a lack of writerly talent.
That’s just not true. Like the common fantasy of walking into a writers’ conference, pitching to the first agent in sight, getting signed on the spot, and selling the book within the month, that misapprehension makes too many good writers stop trying after only a handful of efforts. What is true is that the competition is fierce, and the more a writer learns about how the business works, the more she can hone her queries and submissions to increase their likelihood of success.
There is an immense gulf between the difficult and the impossible — and, as I have stressed time and again, the only impossible hurdle for a book to overcome is the one that confines it in a desk drawer, unqueried and unread.
No matter how tight the book market becomes, it’s not the industry that controls the lock on that drawer; it’s the writer. Never, ever allow the prospect of rejection to seal that drawer shut permanently.
This is your dream — give it a fighting chance. Send out those queries.
Thank you for your patience with my slow posting during my illness, and keep up the good work!