On August 2017, I decided that I was finally, finally, finally had finished polishing my first novel and wanted to try my hand at querying it with agents and then indie publishers. I never really saw traditional potential in my work (it’s a gaslamp fantasy novel with hints of zombie fiction and gothic flare; not a crowded field). Before I started this foray into traditional publishing, I came up with a few stipulations for my experiment:
-Only one year of querying and then I can move on with my book.
-I am querying for the experiment, and so ultimately plan on going indie with my work.
And so, I set off to polishing query letters and writing up a synopsis. I tried to hit every Twitter pitch event possible and kept both QueryTracker and Manuscript Wishlist handy while I sent everything out. Everything was perfect!
By the end of the year, I had sent out 80 queries, received over 40 rejections and then 11 full requests, most of which have come up in rejections at this point. I have two that remain out with unknown responses. This is, as far as I’ve understood now, not a bad way to start off one’s query adventures. Most people never even get far enough to get fulls, and yet… there was a rough point during the summer where the last thing I wanted to do was write. It didn’t matter how many agents had given me “almost” answers and explained that my work was worthy of sending them another book. It was a little heartbreaking: why not this book? I’d done everything right. I’d edited and gone through beta readers and run the book through countless early audiences. How could I get so very close and still not get an agent?
I realized then I had already broken one of my querying rules. I had gotten hooked on the idea that in order to validate my project, I must find an agent and get into traditional publishing. What a change- just a year ago, I had wanted nothing to do with traditional work. I’d always wanted to go hybrid or indie in the event I published at all. What had happened?
We all want validation. Every single one of us wants someone to enjoy our work and give it the proper treatment. We want to be the author that makes it- perhaps not to become uber famous, but just famous enough. Convention famous, “fanbase online” famous. “Cool signings at the bookstore” famous. “Respect from our peers” famous. And we hope, deep down, that we can become that great story of the nobody from a nowhere town who made something of their art.
And perhaps, less epic and star-studded, we simply want the space to call ourselves an “author.” Officially and seriously. We never say it out loud, because we love our indie friends and their books, but we always assume that we might just be better- at least good enough to find an agent. And we forget in our fervor, that publishing is a narrow space. Going through my QueryTracker statistics was telling of this: 35% of all queries were rejected, with another 49% simply going on without a response at all. Fulls were as rare as 4.9% of the general writing populace. For numbers’ sake, my personal rank for fulls came in at a tiny 9%, with the rest of that pie chart percentage rounding into endless rejections. That is a great deal of work for a tiny piece of pie.
This industry isn’t built for the faint of heart: Of the responses I received, 98% of them were forms of some kind. I did receive a meaningful one from an editor at Penguin (who had no business reading my whole novel with all she does), and she pointed out the exact point at which she felt the novel lost steam and compared it with the stronger spots. I have a similarly, very personal rejection from the first agent who read and loved my whole novel, but didn’t feel strongly enough about it to represent the project. A big motivator towards my indie goal was that many personal responses I received included some variation of “this is good, but I don’t know how to sell it.” Not a bad thing by any means, but I still felt more gutted than I had before. There is a faint illusion that nothing stings worse than an empty response (or no response at all), but I quietly learned that the closer you edge to the door of trad publishing, the worse it will sting when that door shuts on you.
Passion vs. publishing: Though writing by itself is a very heart-based, publishing is not… in a way, and we must acknowledge that. By all means, agents and editors pick from projects they know they want to invest in, and the industry would not be the same without the relationship agents, editors, and authors must form to create a project together. Passionless publishing often comes in the form of algorithm-based projects now; I have worked and tried to publish in that industry. It has taken two years for me to recover from that damaging space, both for my own self and for my work. I have seen that without the core of an industry that invests in projects based on personal interest, authors become nasty and competitive over numbers, and publishing constantly diverges into writing that is either trendy or easy to digest. Or worse, to those that can most easily produce the numbers in readership. Between the two, I would rather keep the human heart in publishing, flawed though it is.
To that end, writing is best served when you write projects and try to query them, rather than writing projects to fit a query. There must always be a passion behind a project for it to grow wings in the first place, and this industry really isn’t built for the famous and popular. It is a slow, revision-heavy, “right place and right time” process, and if you simply want to make NYT Bestsellers’ List, I suggest you step away from this profession. Its rewards are found in smaller spaces.
My first novel is now on track to be published in October, so I remain busy with proofing and cover art direction and ARC reader hunts. It is as fun to read as it was the first time. You begin to see more of its flaws- but aren’t flaws what make books unique? Or at least, this is what I try to tell myself before I try to hunt down every single typo left in the novel. It is these flaws that make it a harder book to sell, but that doesn’t make the book a failure by any means, just a step in the right direction. I am in the process of editing my second and third novels, and writing a new series right alongside all my other work. Which I suppose begs the question…
Would I ever query again? And yes, I will, someday. Not yet, but perhaps with the next series. I have fairly strong feelings, now and forever, that I will write first for me and then let the rest take its course. That is not always the easy route to a publishing deal, but then, nothing is the easiest route to a publishing deal. I would still write whether or not I found an agent, so onward writing I go! The querying process was a long, but educational experience that I feel a little tougher for trying out. Hopefully the book I wrote has come out just as strong, ready to face off with the rest of the indie world.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.