Discover more from Michelle's newsletter about writing and publishing and stuff
Is it time to give up on traditional publishing?
This journey has always been a slog. But it seems to get sloggier ever year.
This might be the question I hear most often from aspiring authors. And as I’m heading back out into submission-world for the first time since 2016, it’s one that’s on my mind for sure. I first started my traditional publishing journey in 2007. I queried well over 100 agents with my first novel, to no avail. I wrote another novel and signed with a great agent in 2010, landed my first book deal in 2011, and saw that book come out in 2014.
I sold over a dozen more books. I wrote several that never made it past my agent to get put on submission, and a few that did go on submission, only to get rejected. 2016 was The Year of Rejections for me: my agent told me the novel I’d poured my heart into for years simply wasn’t working (she was right); a publisher opted not to continue a series I’d co-authored; I was passed over for one IP deal and chosen for a second, which didn’t get past acquisitions. I wrote another novel in six weeks, desperate to get something out there on submission again, and then the pandemic hit and the industry seemed to grind to a halt. In 2021, I found out my agent was retiring. So by the end of that year, I was agentless, contractless, and had several unfinished manuscripts on my laptop that I had zero motivation to open.
If ever there was a time for me to give up on traditional publishing, that would’ve been it.
I say all this because I put a call out for questions to respond to in my newsletter, and this one really hit me between the eyes:
How many queries should you submit before you give up? Prose & Pastimes
Well, for my first novel, it was somewhere around 130. But the answer to this isn’t a number.
This is a question writers often ask ourselves out of frustration. I think the first thing you need to do it to get really clear on what you actually mean. Give up on what? On this version of your query? On this novel? On traditional publishing? On writing fiction at all?
I’ll use myself as an example again. I probably should have quit sending that particular query after a few dozen rejections. I probably should have experimented with another version that had more of a “hook.” Because you might have a really great novel but a really meh query, you know? So start there.
If you’re still getting lots of rejections and it’s clear this is about something bigger—maybe your writing isn’t there yet, maybe the premise isn’t clicking with agents, maybe it’s just not the right time for this story—then it’s time to ask yourself should I set this aside for now?
Notice how much better set this aside feels, as opposed to give up on? And I really mean it, too. Some novels just need time and distance to develop. I’ve had quite a few projects that I shelved, only to dust them off years later when I finally knew how to write them properly.
I apologize for offering such a boring answer, but when you start asking yourself should I give up, I think the real question you should be asking yourself is how much patience do I have for this? And that’s not meant to be rhetorical. We all have a finite amount of patience for certain things. How much do you have for writing and publishing? Enough to try a new version of the query? To revise your book? To write an entirely new book?
I talked about this in a recent video, but it’s also really important to start defining success for your writing now, and really celebrate what feels like the small wins. Getting a book deal is a really big goal. And if you’re like most writers, the success you feel in that moment will be fleeting, almost immediately replaced by thoughts about how you won’t really be successful until you hit the Times list, win an award, get a film adaptation, sell a certain number of copies, etc.
If you’re querying a novel, I really hope you’ve allowed yourself to celebrate that success. Bask in the knowledge that you wrote a wholeass novel and you’re putting it out there for agents to consider! That’s HUGE. Then set a new goal for yourself, whether it’s revising your query or your book or starting a new project, and focus on that.
Should an author engage a professional editor before engaging an agent? Or is that the creeping insecurity I’ve developed from endless query rejections talking? Greg Bennett
You absolutely don’t have to. There are so many resources out there to help writers figure out this whole “write a novel and get it published” thing for free, and many authors successfully land a book deal without having spent a penny.
That said, if you’re willing and able to hire one, why not? If so, I suggest starting by finding an editor who will review your query. It’s going to be a lot easier on your wallet than a full editorial pass on your manuscript, and it could very well help you start getting more requests for the full. Look for editors who have experience in traditional publishing—there are lots of former staff editors and literary agents on Reedsy. They’ll likely be able to offer you some perspective on current trends and what houses and agencies are (and aren’t) looking for at the moment, in addition to a critique of your work.
On TikTok at the moment there seems to be a load of authors creating videos around writing rules and things they say you absolutely must do in your book if you want to be published/successful etc. This seems to have generated a backlash from other authors who say there are no writing absolutes. I'm in the latter camp but the view from your editor perspective would be interesting. I had a couple of editors tell me that story structure wasn't that important as long as there was change to a character during the course of the story. Others say you have to follow a structure rigidly to create a successful story. @splufford
So writer TikTok is going through what writer YouTube and writer Twitter and writer blogs went through years ago? Love that. :)
I say this with kindness, and a hefty dose of hypocrisy: there are a lot of new-to-writing writers on the socials who are trying to build a platform by doling out advice they aren’t qualified to give. I’m guilty of it—I co-founded a blog and was putting out posts filled with writing and publishing advice in 2009, while simultaneously sending out the aforementioned 130 unsuccessful queries for the first novel I ever finished writing.
I have a degree in music education. Young musicians are fond of saying things like “I don’t listen to [insert style of music or specific musician here] because I want to have my own original sound.”
Cool. I mean, if you want that sound to be garbage.
The vast majority of artists start by mimicking their idols. Over time, they develop their own sound, voice, style. They learn what works and what doesn’t. And a huge part of that is knowing the “rules.”
It’s the whole you have to master the rules before you break them thing. Let’s take story structure. I don’t think you have to follow story structure “rigidly” to be successful. But I do think that, as an author, you need to understand story structure to be successful. Some authors apply structure from the very beginning and use it to map out their plot. Others follow their characters and don’t give structure two thoughts until they have a draft, then look at the weaker moments of the story and use their knowledge of structure to revise. It’s the difference between your catalyst should always come at exactly 10% into your story (not necessarily) and your story should have a catalyst (true).
There are no writing absolutes. But there are certain elements that pretty much all great stories share, and as storytellers, it behooves us to study them and decide how and why we’re going to apply, subvert, or disregard them.
(Pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever used the word behooves. Fun.)
In other news…
My middle grade novel WADDLE I DO WITHOUT YOU is coming out this Tuesday (Oct. 17)! It’s also included in the Scholastic Club & Fair this fall. Based on a true story, this novel follows a homeschooled girl named Addie and her loyal sheepdog Max who live on the coast of Australia close to a colony of fairy penguins whose existence is threatened when climate change results in a path that allows foxes access to their little island. Readers get to follow the perspectives of Addie and Max, along with a quirky penguin named Darwin who struggles to communicate with his colony. Kirkus called it “complex, timely, and deeply moving.” If you have any young readers in your life who love a fun animal adventure, this one might be for them—and of course, I would be forever grateful!
I think I like this Q&A format! I’m collecting questions left under this note and from comments on this or any post, so please feel free to drop a Q!
This post includes an Amazon affiliate link.