Hello everyone, and welcome to (the last day of) April! I had plans (big plans!) to share a post today about character and finding your voice, but those plans were scuttled by the arrival of a long-awaited email from the agent I’d been talking with about See These Bones.
Long story short: she decided not to offer representation.
Instead of spending this post weeping into my (non-existent) beard, I wanted to share a timeline of the experience, from initial contact to ultimate rejection.
As writers, we tend to hear two kinds of stories about getting published. The first involves that mythical writer who sends out a handful of queries, winds up with multiple full requests in the first two weeks, and then has to choose between lit agents, all of whom are throwing money, affection, and glittery things at their door. The second, oft-repeated tale is how JK Rowling was rejected 27 times before she got Harry Potter published.
For the first story, all I can say is that’s amazing and also 100% not the norm. As for Ms. Rowling… well, most querying writers today will tell you that 27 queries is nothing.1 I queried both Investigation, Mediation, Vindication and See These Bones almost fifty times. I had several full requests for both (more for IMV, ironically, given that the draft I queried was nowhere near as polished as STB), and zero offers.
So if you’re not a unicorn and you’re also not JK Rowling, what might the querying process look like? Well, my latest rejection offers a pretty good window into everything but the actual offer of representation, sale, and release, so I wanted to break down that process.
Note: I’m not naming the agent or agency involved here, as that’s not the point of this post. They were great to work with, and I’d have been delighted if an offer of representation had materialized.
Day 1 – The Pitch
Journal entry: Once more into the breach, good friends. This is a day for chaos and merriment, as authors shout their pitches to the heavens, like birds greeting the rising sun. Only… less melodic.
Unlike my usual cold queries, this particular query resulted from one of the many (many many) Twitter pitch contests. Several agents liked my pitch, inviting me to send the query and full manuscript on to them.
Day 14 – The Submission
Journal entry: Spirits are high. Against all odds, my voice was heard. I know it wasn’t my singing voice, so this could only mean good things for the book itself.
The main advantage to the twitter pitch approach (on the rare occasions that it works) is that the agent is already interested in your idea. In this particular case, the agent also wanted the full manuscript right away. This was a huge shortcut… in my experience, going from query to getting a partial request to then getting a full request can take several months, all on its own.
I took a few days to familiarize myself with the agent’s submission guidelines and to do another editing pass on the manuscript before I sent it in. You should never query a manuscript that isn’t finished, but it’s also never a bad idea to take one last look for typos or issues before putting your book (and fate) into someone else’s hands.
Day 57 – The Reply
Journal entry: In the fullness of summer, at last, a reply from the heavens! It’s… not an offer of representation, but it’s also not a rejection! Huzzah!
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the response to that full manuscript was positive, but the agent requested that I revise and resubmit the manuscript, updating the characters’ age so that they fit better into the New Adult genre (basically New Adult fits between YA and Adult, allowing more mature subjects and expletives). Getting something back other than a rejection was huge.
Day 71 – The Revision
Journal entry: The nights are hot and the days are long, but we have persevered nonetheless, and now triumph is in sight. Also, I can’t remember my name or when I last ate.
I took the next two weeks and made the requested changes. Thankfully, they weren’t too extensive, which was part of the reason I was so open to making those changes in the first place. (If the age had been a significant plot point, I might have been more reticent. As it was, I was more than happy to improve the story’s marketability.) All told, I did three full editing passes on the ~130k+ word manuscript in that time, followed by a fourth pass just before submission to find anything I’d missed and/or broken. Every single pass turned up something new, proving once again how important readthroughs are to the process.
Day 206 – The Wait
Journal entry: Summer has passed into fall, and fall has given way to winter, and still we wait, manning our lonely outpost here in the wild. Have we been forgotten? Was our campaign doomed to failure all this time?
Having submitted the revised manuscript for consideration, I then waited for a reply. And waited. And waited. Finally, after 4 and a half months, I sent what’s known as a nudge… basically an email asking for an update. The last thing you want to do is annoy the agent, but sometimes nudges are necessary. There’ve been more than a few times when I’ve nudged an agent only to hear that they either misplaced what I’d sent them or never realized I’d sent it in at all. When you’re getting hundreds of emails/queries a week2, I guess it’s easy for things to slip through the crack.
Two days after my nudge, I got a response. That email was my first indicator that things might not work out; the agent cited some concerns with her ability to sell my book to one of the big five publishing houses, due to the material and the fact that it was an unproven genre.3 She wanted to get my thoughts on potentially selling to a smaller press. I replied soon after with questions about that process, happy to start a dialogue.
Day 303 – The Wait, Part 2: The Wait Strikes Back
Journal entry: They say a soldier’s life is years of waiting, interspersed by moments of sheer terror, and I have begun to fear that an author’s life is much the same… except without any of the heroism, sacrifice, and life-threatening stuff.
At this point, I (perhaps naively) thought two things; (1) that I was making good headway in the process, and (2) that, now that we’d reached the ’email dialogue’ stage, the timeline would start to accelerate.
Narrator: The timeline did not accelerate
Also Narrator: He was not making good headway in the process
Also Narrator: Chocolate is better than vanilla, but vanilla milkshakes are better than chocolate. Discuss!
Instead, weeks went by without a reply, and those weeks eventually became months. This was my second indicator that things were not going to work out: I’d done the requested R&R and been open to alternate sales plans, so why had everything gone radio silent? Last week, the agent replied to my somewhat persistent4 nudges, saying that she wasn’t confident she could sell the book at all, even to the smaller presses. Part of that was the genre (ironically, despite Avengers: Endgame making 1.2 billion at the BO in its first 5 days of release, superhero novels are not a proven market yet), part of it was the length, (130k words is GIANT for a debut author), and part of it was the fact that I don’t have a platform yet.
Platform can mean a variety of things, but in this case, it meant I didn’t have a loyal following of x thousand subscribers/readers5. Basically, if a publisher is going to take a chance on a new author, they want that author to already have a platform that helps guarantee a certain number of sales. The end result is that she decided to pass on representing the book (and me).
Day ??? – I Don’t Even Know What Success Smells Like Anymore
Journal entry: As winter looses its grip upon the land–seriously, snow in Vegas? What the hell?–I too must let go of my dreams. Another campaign has ended in bitter failure…
…but at least it only took a year.
So that’s a rough timeline of how long it took, from pitch to full to revision to rejection. 303 days. When I started this process, I was twenty-five. Now, I’m ninety.
More or less.
Obviously, everyone’s experiences will be different. Maybe your book won’t require revisions or maybe it will be in a more marketable genre. Maybe you, like those other unicorns, will have agents fighting in the street for the chance to represent you. Otherwise, prepare yourself. The process will take a very long while.
Also, consider the fact that my book was rejected. If the agent had chosen to represent me, we’d be tacking on the time it took to actually find a publisher to buy the book, additional editing passes, and then the publisher’s own release schedule. In all likelihood, this would have added another ten to twenty months to the process. I was never great at math, but by my calculations, I’d have been old and/or dead by the time my book appeared on shelves.
So What Now?
If I had a platform of thousands of loyal followers, I honestly don’t know why I’d need a publisher. I could sell my books directly to those followers, and rely on word of mouth to sell additional copies. Better yet, I’d be able to do so without having a sizable cut taken by the publisher. Sadly, I don’t have the platform, which is why I’d hoped to leverage a publisher’s marketing budget for my debut.
That doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen, so it’s time for Plan B: do it all myself.6 Look for See These Bones to be available via Amazon Kindle and print on demand later this year. Also, look for a crapton of posts, including cover reveals and sample chapters, as we get closer to the release.
After several years spent getting absolutely nowhere with querying, I am incredibly excited to switch gears and push forward again. I’m optimistic too… after all, this was my fortune at PF Chang’s this week:
…and we all know that fortune cookies are never wrong.
- Which is not to compare any of us to her, save for our shared profession.
- Or even a day.
- And, as almost goes without saying, because I was an unproven author.
- Or annoying.
- Sorry; the literal tens of you that read this post don’t qualify as a platform quite yet!
- And by do it all myself, I really mean… rely heavily on my badass wife and her unbelievable work ethic.