Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Querying Gambit

Do the math: landing a book contract is the equivalent of winning the lottery. No bombshell there. I'll use a recent rejection letter to illustrate. I have omitted the name of the agency/agent but acknowledge that he/she tried to write an interesting 'No thanks' response:

Well, it's finally happened: after over thirty years of answering every query letter that has ever come my way, I've been forced to finally acknowledge that a new era is upon us all.  Before the arrival of e-mail submissions, I used to receive perhaps one hundred queries a week.  That was a lot of queries but it wasn't frankly unmanageable.  The XXX Agency now receives more than twice that on a daily basis and it's becoming impossible to attend to much of anything else!  I'm so sorry for the impersonal response, I hate to do this.
And I hate to be the receiver of said rejection, but my skin is getting thicker, so let's move on to the topic at hand. The chances of getting noticed by an agent and then subsequently landing a publishing deal are extremely miniscule. If I actually did the math (hey, I'm a writer), I'd probably conclude that betting on horses is more lucrative. After doing a quick calculation in my head over my coffee this morning, I feel honored that I even get rejection emails. Two-hundred queries a day, equals 1,000 emails a week (1,400 if you count weekends). If an agent spends two minutes on each query (muy generous), that comes to (wait for the calculator), 33-46 hours of reading queries and writing rejections. (Hey, I did the math.) When do they have time to do much of anything else?

From blogs and Q&As online, I've read that many agents hand-pick perhaps five to six projects a year to champion. Chicken scratch. And of those, a good number of those won't see a contract. Doesn't make a writer feel too great about the prospects of publication the old-fashioned way.

I have come to appreciate rejection emails. More often than not, I just don't hear anything. After six months, no response means no. The up side is I've only stuck a toe in the query bathwater. It is tepid, but my tally still fits on one page. Ho-hum.

I've had more success in contests, and I don't submit to many contests. The odds are better. Fewer submissions, greater chance to earn recognition. Even if I don't win, someone may actually read my manuscript and comment. Comments are invaluable. I'm elated that my book has made the cut to the top 400 romances in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest this year. I can always wear the button: ABNA, I Advanced! And as a dear friend reminded me, I couldn't have entered had I not written a book in the first place.


  1. Economics and math, a mugs game to say the least.

    This is an important realization. The industrial process, the commercial process, of publishing, of "great houses" and gatekeepers, is a bygone idea that still holds our romantic dreams of "validation."

    But further, what is it for...the writing?

    What is the fulfillment sought?

    I won't argue against it. I write, I blog, I eke out poems, I record essays.

    All of my work is an attempt to be more of this thing I am. To not be the same "self" I was yesterday. To have more to go on and more to share.

    Beats me. I would love to be "published" but only out of what is surely a kind of weakness.

    Ezra Pound made literature. That is, he was a publishing house. Why do we seek the institutional imprimatur?

  2. I had a second and third and fourth thought (and more)...

    When I write something I think is intelligent, insightful, interesting, of course I want others to read it and agree with me! But, I also, because I am built this way, want others to disagree with me so that I might know myself in opposition (as Emerson said of Thoreau).

    Further, I want to TALK about what I wrote.

    And still further, I want folks I like to "read my mind" and share that with me. That is, I want to know them by them knowing me.

    Finally, and this is where publishing really has a draw...the approval of my perceived be part of the club. That is insidious and harmful I am sure. But what is a mentor, a master, a guide? Someone you trust to hear you and offer perspectives so that you may reflect from another height or greater depth.

    And here's where I try to avoid external judgement. I seek to let the dead think about what I write. What would Melville have to say about this? Why not write him a letter or a poem? What about Lawrence or Pound or Emerson. Why do I care about the marketers and office workers, the grungy gatekeepers?

  3. Sorry, I feel you here. And I want to say there are no rules, there are no gates, there are no lottery winners. There is you, and there is the work. There is deepening.

    "I love all men who dive."

    "Now, there is a something about every man elevated above mediocrity, which is, for the most part, instinctuly perceptible. This I see in Mr Emerson. And, frankly, for the sake of the argument, let us call him a fool; -- then had I rather be a fool than a wise man. -- I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he don't attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can't fashion the plumet that will. I'm not talking of Mr Emerson now -- but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began.

    "I could readily see in Emerson, notwithstanding his merit, a gaping flaw. It was, the insinuation, that had he lived in those days when the world was made, he might have offered some valuable suggestions. These men are all cracked right across the brow. And never will the pullers-down be able to cope with the builders-up. And this pulling down is easy enough -- a keg of powder blew up Block's Monument -- but the man who applied the match, could not, alone, build such a pile to save his soul from the shark-maw of the Devil. But enough of this Plato who talks thro' his nose."

    --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, March 3 1849

    "But I don't know but a book in a man's brain is better off than a book bound in calf -- at any rate it is safer from criticism. And taking a book off the brain, is akin to the ticklish and dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel -- you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety -- & even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble". --Letter to Evert Duyckinck, December 13 1850

    "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, -- it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches." --Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1851

    1. The words of encouragement are appreciated. I will continue to journey forth and discover where my work will lead me. In more ways than not, it is a joy.

    2. I hope you see them as such. Melville should be every novelists tutelary divinity. A man dedicated to his genius. Even though he birthed bitterness he also moved through it in his work to offer up the best poetry on the Civil War (take that Walt) and a GREAT poem of metaphysical searching. Not to mention the unpublished and unfinished Billy Budd, perhaps the greatest novella in the language.

      Not a single mother fucking person gave a fuck for Melville.

    3. Was it his writing they (who is they? readers, critics?) didn't care for or him as a person? You'll convince me yet that I need to give MD another try. Reading it feels to me like trying to run a race I haven't trained for. Should I try a shorter piece of his to break my mental wall? You get the prize for being the first to use the F word on my blog.

    4. Fuck yeah!

      I'm working on recording some of his short works now. Here'a link to The Piazza.

      As a person, Melville was the life of the party and desultory...the ups and downs of the man who needed a sparring partner but never could find one--and ultimately just fought with the great dead.

      After Moby he never "scored" again with a novel though he did have a brief and successful period writing short fiction, that isn't very short--HM needed "sea room" in which to tell the truth (Bartleby, Benito Cereno, The Encantadas).

  4. It makes the idea of self-publishing much more appealing... sorry for the rejection. However, this was a great post for a writer to read... so, thank you!

    1. I'd love to hear how your writing is going, Jenni. We need to try to do coffee again so we can gab about our projects!

  5. I'm sorry for the rejection. That's never fun! I'm glad you're able to take it so gracefully. I don't know if I would.

    1. Unfortunately, I'll hear No more than Yes, if I keep at it. It takes persistence. Many people give up. Not there yet.

  6. Good news, which comes on the heels of my initial blogpost! I have a contract. I found it directly with a small press. No agent involved. There is light. I won a small lottery.


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