If that title brings to mind pictures of a preacher holding forth on the finer points of Ephesians 5…let’s reel that imagination back towards something that makes sense in an author blog:
Submitting to literary agents is difficult.
The difficulty is not in following agency prescription lists: query letter, cover letter, first three chapters, any three chapters, first 10 pages, first 50 pages, platform elements, writing experience, how you heard about us, brief selling points, sales handles, back cover copy… no. The difficulty is elsewhere.
The difficulty is in the waiting.
More so than even, I would say, in the rejection. The rejection is expected. I’ve accumulated dozens of rejection letters already in my brief non-career. Each one closes one door. One door that no longer requires my attention.
This week I’m blogging for the other aspiring authors out there. (Don’t they say everyone’s got a book in them?) Expect here no expert advice—that’s out there and necessary! appreciated! But I’ll be content for this to serve merely a breath of air. Think of my words as thoughts from someone just a step or two ahead on the publishing path. Thoughts from, Other Writer, someone possibly every bit as green as you are.
The submission process is looooooooooooooooooong.
Prepare yourself. If you are going to try getting a book published as a nobody, it is going to require a lot of your spare time (or sleep time) and a lot of patience.
Nor should you make the mistake of thinking self-publishing is the easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy shortcut to your dreams. You could pay others to do all the self-publishing steps for you (and put your project in a financial hole thousands of dollars deeper than sales of your book will likely ever match) or you could do all the work of educating yourself about layout, cover design, spine thickness, paper thickness, paper color, fonts, ISBN’s, e-pubs, PDFs, kindle formatting, registering a self-owned publishing company, on and on. Or you could hold your breath until mysterious, publishing-savvy new friends fall out of trees and do everything exactly like you like it for free (which has got to be the least reliable of the three).
I, myself, am not self-publishing, though many who ask, “can I read your book, yet?” ask why not.
I stuck my toe in the waters of traditional publishing, then slipped my whole cold self into these inky waters, so I can wait. Float here for a bit. Just how many times do you think I will get the chance to write and attempt to publish my first book?†
I know the odds are against me.
I might prune completely and still have nobody notice me floating here.
I’m still gonna try.
Back in January and February, I hired a company to make my submissions for me, and through them I queried 25-30 agents/agencies per month. That company’s services weren’t cheap, but I do credit them with showing me how it was done and getting me started, which is nothing to sneeze at. I call those mad days my “shotgun” submissions.
These days I’m selecting my own submission targets, calling these my “rifle” submissions since I research, rank, and particularly choose each agency/agent. Last week I queried three, which some experts say is quite enough at one time. For, should a full manuscript be requested, it’s very possible a several-weeks’-long period of “exclusivity” will be required as well, in which I’d be bound to not give the manuscript to anyone else.
Which seems a little like—if the logic indeed is to move me towards avoiding too many agents asking for my manuscript all at once—insisting we throw in just one fishing line instead of a dozen, plus a net and a stick of dynamite, when everyone knows the lake was all but emptied of fish years ago.
But such is the prevailing logic, I guess, so other than last week’s three and Jan-Feb’s shotgunners, there’s only been one other agent I’ve queried so far. I wrote her back in May, and the 8-week wait-window has just ended. Now, an agent can always reply after that window has closed, but when the website says, “You can assume after 8 weeks that we’re not interested in your project,” it doesn’t give a realist much reason to hope.
Plus, it was hard enough checking email during those 8 weeks—who needs to pile on the additional annoyance of nursing hope beyond the 8 weeks? Though I guess I’ve just now given myself three fresh reasons for barely-hopeful checking each morning, haven’t I? Just this morning there was an email with “Submission” as the subject line.
It was a soliloquy on Ephesians 5.
It was a rejection letter. A form letter, as most of them are. A leftover from my February shotgun submissions.
I wish everyone would send a rejection letter, though. It’s far easier to bolt a door shut than to, day after day, have your mind’s periphery jump at every squeak, every shaft of light, and forever be wondering if someone’s on the other side of that door about to push it open…
If I’ve learned one surprising thing on this journey, it’s that publishing books is about many things before it is about great writing. Of course compelling writing is fantastic, but it’s far from a necessity. Only one criterion makes it into that category:
If an agent can’t see “$$” when they look at your book, it frankly doesn’t matter how well it’s written. Agents weed through endless slush piles seeking the one or two or twenty manuscripts this week or month or year that might have a chance of selling well. Granted, that slush pile is largely garbage, or a few inches north of that, but it contains a lot of excellent writing that will never float its way to the top, either.
Rest assured, however, my certitude (just like absolutely every single author out there) that my own writing is not part of the garbage is unshakeable. Which makes me a little shaky. For I’ve read too many embarrassments who are convinced that poor writing comes only from “other writers, never me.”
But what if I’ve become one of “those” people? Reassuringly, just the fact that I asked made me feel better. I don’t think “those” people ever ask.
Anyway…so after an agent contracts with an author to represent their work, (s)he pitches it to (a) publisher(s). I recently read that some publishers publish 1 out of every 1,000 books they’re pitched.
And out of every 10 books that do get published, 9 will cost (lose) the publisher money.
So everyone’s on a mad search for that blockbuster which can make up for all the lost ground. And it cracks me up how many new authors believe they’ve already written it.
Oh, but it’s only the rest of all them that are crazy! If only I could be discovered, they’d realize I really have written the next [The Shack, Harry Potter, whatever].
The odds against an unknown, non-famous, regular, without-an-online-tribe writer getting published at all, let alone writing the latest bestseller, aren’t worth the mathematical effort it would take to calculate. Of course it happens; we’ve heard about it in the news. But there’s a reason (or rather, hundreds of thousands of reasons, a.k.a. writers) it’s news.
I’m still willing to be patient.
I can do some waiting.
Just not forever.
Eventually, I will self-publish. Of course I will.
Because I have no idea if the book I’ve written is marketable or not. I don’t know if it’s unique or not. If it’s too similar to some other story that’s been seen before…it doesn’t stand a chance of being picked up. In fact, unless my query letter jumps—screaming, yelling, and carrying sacks of cash—off a computer screen and into the retinas of an agent (who am I kidding? it’ll be one of their assistants), almost every agency I query stands to read exactly zero of my manuscript. Many won’t make the end of the query letter.
It’s a tough market. Countless writers more prolific and gifted than I have never broken in.
I still say to You, Aspiring Writer:
Write it anyway.
That book inside you that has never stopped knocking at your mind’s door? That story that never stops nagging you to get it out of your head and down on paper?
Go ahead and imagine the worst: that nary a soul beyond a few loved ones ever reads your book.
Still I say, write.
You’ll be glad you did.
I (non-published, unknown, unread, and unnoticed, too) wrote mine.
And I couldn’t be happier.
OK, a full-manuscript request from an agent would still jack the happiness levels out the roof, I admit.
But it isn’t a necessity.
†You were right to check, but it’s as you thought: one