As a veteran of querying—I sent off my 701st submission on Friday—I’m glad that I’m returning to self-publishing. I’m preparing to launch my Cornish Detective novels this summer, which means building an author platform. Getting two blogs together and deciding how to post on social media doesn’t feel much like being a writer, but at least I’m getting a prompt reaction. Querying feels like throwing a message in a bottle into the sea, hoping to be immediately rescued.
This article in New Republic makes for salutary reading. It shows how it’s not what you know, or what you write, but who you know that determines whether you get published. If you already have an ‘in’ to the publishing world, then your submission is more likely to be given serious consideration.
But escaping the slush pile might be down to the whims of unpaid interns: if you think that your three chapter writing sample, synopsis and query letter is scrutinised by a literary agent or editor, then think again.
This heartfelt article describes what many of us know is involved in querying literary agents.
If you’re just starting out as a writer, yet to jump through an agent’s submission hoop, then what Glen Cadigan describes will give you a good idea of what to expect when you’ve completed your precious story.
I just received my 40th ‘No’ from 88 queries made in February, which brings my total of rejections up to 677 since 2013. I’m not upset by this, forging ahead with my plans to return to self-publishing, which, at the moment means adding posts to my Paul Pens blog in anticipation of it going live. To me, rejections are like flies splattering themselves on my windscreen as I drive onwards.
I found Glen Cadigan’s article via a link on the excellent Writers’ Services newsletter, which is worth subscribing to, that also featured an article from Jane Friedman who does a question and answer session with two literary agents, comparing and contrasting what they say with the reality that Glen Cadigan describes.
Before I started reading it, I predicted that both agents would stress the importance of good quality writing, which is what they always say, and that I’ve described here in an old post as the biggest fallacy about publishing.
The idea that your manuscript will rise to the top of the slush pile, glowing like an irresistible gold ingot because it’s well-written is nonsense. It certainly helps, for writing has to be coherent, at the very least, but from seeing what does get published to become best-selling, I reckon that it’s the concept of a story, something unusual, intriguing and exciting that can be marketed, which motivates agents and publishers to get behind a book.
It’s easy to become paranoid as a writer. After all, we work alone, hidden away from the world creating stories that we hope will be loved by the very people we’re shunning. But to do this, we need to make entreaties to mysterious wraiths—literary agents—whose websites appear to show them as civilised arbiters of taste, yet they’re also strangely silent when approached.
Querying takes on the feeling of throwing a message in a bottle into a tempestuous ocean: has anyone even read your submission, and if they have done did they immediately dismiss it or laugh their heads off at your ineptitude?
The old saying ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean to say they aren’t out to get to you’takes on a frustrating twist for writers: ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean to say they even know you exist.’
This state of disconnectedness and paranoia are well summed up in a poem by Phillip Lopate, called We Who Are Your Closest Friends. An excerpt appears in Anne Lamott’s Bird By Birdwhich is one of the best books about writing I’ve read.
We Who Are Your Closest Friends
we who are your closest friends feel the time has come to tell you that every Thursday we have been meeting as a group to devise ways to keep you in perpetual uncertainty frustration discontent and torture by neither loving you as much as you want nor cutting you adrift
your analyst is in on it plus your boyfriend and your ex-husband and we have pledged to disappoint you as long as you need us
in announcing our association we realize we have placed in your hands a possible antidote against uncertainty indeed against ourselves but since our Thursday nights have brought us to a community of purpose rare in itself with you as the natural center we feel hopeful you will continue to make unreasonable demands for affection if not as a consequence of your disastrous personality
Do any of you feel like you don’t exist, that what you’re doing is just a figment of your own imagination? How is it that mediocre authors get published when your immaculate manuscript can’t get a look in? Do you ever feel like there are more people who hate you and your writing than love it?
Should your paranoia follow you to bed and cuddle up with regret, then remember Fleur Adcock‘s poem Things:
There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public. There are worse things than these miniature betrayals, committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things than not being able to sleep for thinking about them. It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.
It’s an evolutionary quirk of the human mind, that we remember and focus on negative memories better than we do the pleasant events that happened to us. Partly, this is a hard-wired defence mechanism to keep us safe, but it can make your brain feel like it’s conspiring against you.
I smile wryly when I think back to my naive optimism in uploading a dozen short stories and novellas to Smashwords, hoping to make a little money in time for Christmas, 2013.
Whatever the worth of my stories, it wasn’t financial, and they disappeared like snowflakes in a blizzard of other writers doing the same thing.
I quickly learned, that half of the battle to get anywhere as a writer was gaining attention through self-promotion. Nobody knows who I am, so why should they want to read my work? Writers are part of a branding process these days. Reclusive authors are virtually extinct. It sometimes feels to me, that reading novels is a form of nosiness for some people. They want to find out more about the author through their work.
In this way, the book world has become more like the music industry and Hollywood.
2) Writing a book is actually the easiest part of the whole process. I love the planning, background research, specific fact checking and seeing a new story take shape.
For me, editing is quite the most tedious task I’ve ever done, confirming what Garcia Gabriel Marquez observed:
I had no idea how time-consuming and soul-destroying it would be.
Querying is like crawling on broken glass to the tradesman’s entrance of a fortified castle full of carousing gatekeepers, the literary agents who know what’s what…and they sure as hell don’t want to know me!
That leaves selling the book, the self-promotion, the flogging of my precious story as a commercial product—see point 1).
Learning that publishing, more than anything, is a BUSINESSwas tough. It’s not an arena for gently showing off how clever I am as an author, it’s more becoming the manufacturer of a commercial product. My book may as well be a new flavour of baked beans.
3) What sells best isn’t necessarily the finest writing by the most talented authors. We’re advised by writing gurus to labour carefully to produce a brilliant manuscript, an intriguing story that’s correctly punctuated and free of flab. I take a lot of care in creating my novels, devoting thousands of hours to each title.
It’s galling to realise that someone who’s already got a public persona (and piles of cash) can throw a story together and instantly get a publishing contract. Invisible ghostwriters will knock things straight. Had some nitwit celebrity submitted my novel it would have been published to acclaim.
Readers buy books by people they already know. They also buy stories that are so basically worded, that the language wouldn’t trouble a 10-year-old child. Bestsellers are often not highfalutin literature. Instead, simple yarns sell in their millions.
It makes me question why I’m trying to produce high-quality crime novels, when, if I want to make money, I should simply scribble off a piece of crudity that appeals to mouth-breathing, knuckle-draggers who move their lips while reading to themselves.
Dumbing down has won. That’s something that I didn’t fully comprehend before entering a new era as a writer.
4) Competition writing is an art. Another thing that I wish I’d known, in my early stages of creative writing, is a greater awareness of the rules of writing competitions.
In a burst of enthusiasm and naïvety, I uploaded 44 titles to Smashwords and Amazon in a short period of time. This was the best of my work, including short stories and poetry. Self-publishing in this way, making an ebook available for sale, means that it disqualifies the work from eligibility for most writing competitions.
A few competitions allow entry by stories that have previously appeared online, but not many.
In retrospect, I wish that I’d held onto them, and tried my luck by submitting to competitions. Even if I hadn’t won, being short or long-listed is a better way of raising a writer’s profile, not just to readers but literary agents who keep an eye open for potential talent.
Wise words from the first writer to become a billionaire from her work:
Since returning to creative writing six years ago, I’ve scrambled up several steep learning curves to do with thebusinessof writing. These include formatting, book cover design, marketing the ebooks I self-published on Smashwords and Amazon and the all-important lessons of how to write a synopsis and query agents.
I made another round of supplications to the ‘gatekeepers’, in February, after spending the previous two months editing my fifth novel. As any writer knows, that feels like wading through porridge, but there’s still a discernible feeling of achievement in having polished a manuscript.
I’m at a stage where I feel like I’ve created a potentially commercial product—which is how I’m increasingly coming to view my novels—rather than taking joy in them as a readable story. Despite this confidence, I know I’m a nobody, an unpublished author looking for his first publishing contract. Any marketability I have comes from where I live in Cornwall, which is popular as a holiday destination and from being the location of the successful television adaptation of Winston Graham’s Poldark stories.
I know that some bestselling authors are poor writers, but what makes me mad is that if my manuscript was submitted to the gatekeepers by a media celebrity (who’s already got fame and wealth), then it would be snaffled up immediately. Commercially, it’s the way of the world in publishing that someone with an existing high profile, a ‘platform’, will be more attractive a risk than someone anonymous who will take more effort to promote—but it still makes me mad!
It’s proof that no one cares what you’ve written. Would-be readers are more enticed by already knowing who the author is, than anything to do with the quality of the story. As an example supermodel/supertwit Naomi Campbell has ‘written’ several novels and biographies—I don’t know if she’s read them!
That’s what makes me angry—realising publishing is a business and has little to do with art.
After spending five months at the beginning of 2015 researching the likes, dislikes, blogs, tweets and YouTube videos of literary agents, and querying 160 of them to a chorus of rejections and total silence, I’ve since run two more campaigns of querying, bringing my total of submissions to 690!
I’ve written five novels in my series featuring a Cornish detective, so can pick and choose which title to use to query. Most agents reply within six months, with the quickest taking only two hours! I have a hide like a rhinoceros, so take rejections philosophically.
I’ve learnt a lot about the querying process, for, like editing, creating a blurb and a synopsis or self-publishing on Smashwords and Amazon, you have to do it to appreciate the problems and refine your technique.
To my astonishment, two form letter rejections came in during the last week. I queried both agencies 16 months ago! It’s polite for them to eventually reply, though I now have an image of them buried under piles of manuscripts, their hard drives clogged with queries as they labour to say ‘No’ to legions of hopeful writers.
I’ve completed a third campaign of querying agents and I sort of got into it, in a masochistic way.
Initially, I fired off a salvo of 13 submissions, including a couple to newly promoted agents who are looking to add to their roster of clients. To my great surprise, one answered within 48 hours, which is the second fastest response I’ve had from 650 queries made in the last three years! It’s also only the fifth personalised reply I’ve received, the rest being form letters or nothing at all.
Her reply was polite, though contained a strange choice of words:
I’m afraid this isn’t for me. The writing didn’t quite pull me in and the plot seems a little too outlandish, for my tastes.
I’m unsure what she means by “a little too outlandish”—would slightly outlandish work? Or should I go for the opposite of outlandish, which is conventional? And, what’s a conventional crime plot anyway? Do readers want something predictable? Strangely enough, although the book I’m querying The Dead Need Nobody contains some strange incidents, they’re mostly based on real-life crimes that have occurred in Cornwall in the last five years. I worried that I was being too humdrum, not too weird!
I almost didn’t query this particular agent, as of her seven clients, only one has written a crime novel, but she said she was looking for “crime or thrillers driven by a compelling lead“, so I thought I’d offer her my mesmeric Cornish Detective.
This rejection had me wondering if there was some form of coded language used by literary agents, so did an online search, finding this amusing article, which ranks replies from agents on a scale of 0-10.
Digital publishers look to be more open-minded and flexible in their approach than conventional agents and publishers, who come across as hidebound. Ebook publishers are more hit and run in their marketing, whereas approaching a conventional operation somehow makes me feel like I’m a raw recruit trying to join an army who’ll slowly manoeuvre their ranks into a campaign to capture readers. I used to be dubious about digital publishing—why give away 50% of your royalties when you can self-publish and keep most of it? But, I’m coming around to their maverick ways.
Whatever option I choose, including self-publishing, I remain undaunted.
Have you ever received any peculiarly worded rejection letters?
I completed my fifth Cornish Detective novel at the end of 2018. Overall, I’m happy with the progress of my series, and though I queried 88 agents in February, I think it’s more likely that I’ll return to self-publishing for the launch of the first story this summer.
I had my 32nd rejection email this morning. What rather unsettles me about these, is that they often come with a signature of someone I didn’t submit to. I spend ages researching who is the best agent at an agency to query, as we’re advised to do by publishing industry experts—apparently, 85% of queries are immediately rejected as they are sent to the wrong agent. To do that, and then hear back from someone whose name doesn’t even appear on their website, makes me think that some work-experience flunky has been ordered to chuck out the last 1,000 submissions with a form letter.
It doesn’t put me off—just makes me feel even more jaundiced about the so-called expertise of literary agents. It’s hard not to get cynical when I look at the marketing side of selling books. Thanks to the huge success of three novels with the word ‘girl’ in the title—Gone Girl,Girl On A Train and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo—there’s been a whole slew of crime novels that have ‘girl’ on the cover. Perhaps I should alter one of mine to ‘Girly Girl Has Girl On Girl Action at the Gorilla Grill’, (I’m going for the animal lover and foodie fans too!)
Never mind. I keep reminding myself of novelist and screenwriter William Goldman‘s observation, that:
“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
I’ll just keep on plugging away while treating rejections from agents like the worms of the nursery rhyme.
Down goes the first one, down goes the second one, Oh, how they wiggle and squirm. Up comes the first one, up comes the second one, Oh, how they wiggle and squirm.
I’ll cut their heads off suck their guts out and throw their skins away Surprising how us girls can eat worms three times a day That’s how we get our wiggles.
Talking of verse, it’s even harder to place poetry with a publisher. It’s worth remembering Don Marquis‘ advice, whatever genre you’re querying: “If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that’s read by persons who move their lips when they’re reading to themselves.”
Marquis made a number of pertinent observations about the process of writing and publishing, including this pithy favourite—which though it’s about poetry applies very well to what happens when you query literary agents with your prose!
As I neared the end of writing my fifth Cornish Detective novel last year, I had a rather sardonic thought—that I’m about where I thought I’d be five years after returning to creative writing in 2013. What prompted this bit of reflection was literally a reflection, for the screen of my laptop monetarily darkened, turning it into a mirror, so I had one of those ‘Aargh’ moments when you catch sight of your ageing self going about your business! Here was I, researching a fact about forensic medicine, for a crime novel that had taken me nine months to gestate—that may never be read by any fan of the genre.
It made me wonder how determined or maybe delusional an unknown author, in particular, has to be to keep their nose to the grindstone. Doing writing because you love it is great motivation: anyone who chooses becoming an author as the road to riches, in a J. K. Rowling way, is going to find it’s a rocky track with deep ditches either side.
All of this musing reminded me of something that noted writing guru Noah Lukeman has said several times in his books—that realistically, a new author should plan on it taking several years to get anywhere with their stories—to adopt a mindset that it’s going to be long haul. In answer to a question from a newbie author on how to query a literary agent when you have no proof of your writing ability, Lukeman advises:
You can attain major credentials on your own, but first you must prepare for a sustained effort. Instead of a three or six month plan to attain all the credentials you need, why not give yourself a three or six year plan? With that kind of time, you can attend writing programs, workshops, conferences, colonies; spend extensive time networking and build an endorsement list; get stories published in magazines and online; begin to build a platform; and most importantly, hone your craft extensively. This doesn’t mean you need to refrain from approaching agents before you accomplish all of this; on the contrary, as I said, there is nothing wrong with approaching agents with no credentials whatsoever, and you can work to achieve all of this concurrently with your approaching the industry. But you should always be working to this end, regardless. There are many specific, concrete steps you can take to help get you there (which I explain at length in my book How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent), but perhaps the most important step of all is your willingness to devote a sustained, multi-year effort to building your bio on your own.
Despite this salutary advice, I still harboured the hope that I could earn a few quid from self-publishing my early writing as e-books on Smashwords and Amazon. I was right—I made a small amount—about $40!
After foolishly querying about 350 agents with my first Cornish Detective novel, that was an unfeasibly long 179,000 words, I edited it down by 40,000 words. I also wrote a new opening story at the acceptable length of 80,000 words. I queried another 100 literary agents and publishers with open submission windows, getting more favourable responses and learning how to target specific agents, stalking them on social media to find their likes and dislikes. One large agency, that handles writers, musicians, television programme-makers and actors, asked me if my first novel was part of a series—as it would be easier to pitch to a publisher or television production company.
That had always been my intention anyway, to write a series of crime novels, with a view to them being adapted into a television drama, along the lines of Inspector Wycliffe—which is also set in Cornwall, though it pre-dates the computer age, making it rather creaky.
This sounds ambitious of me, but why not aim for the stars? As Michelangelo said:
The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.
Accordingly, I’ve now built a solid body of work, but in all honesty, how can I know whether it will appeal to anyone? Writing is full of uncertainty: no one knows what will work until it does!
Pride is an emotion I don’t exactly trust, as I’m more stoical in my approach to life, but I am proud of my Cornish Detective stories—and also of my bloody-minded determination to get them written—sacrificing most of what normal people consider essential, such as a social life and a love life. It’s helpful that I’m a reclusive old geezer!
The writing has been joyful to me, but what I’m not looking forward to is returning to the self-promotion trail. Navigating the world of publishing is like stumbling through thick fog with only a candle for illumination, banging the instruments of my one-man-band hoping to attract attention. That’s the feeling I get whether I’m chasing a traditional publishing contract or if I go back to self-publishing. No one else much cares what I’ve created—a hard fact of life every author should quickly realise—so it’s up to me to big myself up.
I’ve sometimes thought, that the best preparation for becoming a writer is to get everyone that you know to say “No” to you, when you ask them something, as it’s a word you’ll be hearing a lot when it comes to trying to sell your book. At least 500 times would be good preparation for growing a hide as thick as a rhinoceros!
How long have you been writing?
How thick is your hide?
Does being an oft-refused author help you cope with rejection is other parts of your life?
Do friends and family admire your determination—or think you’re just a bit mad?!