Writing had taken such a hold in my life, it was nearly impossible for me not to write. But at the same time, I wondered how I’d survive in an industry that felt like it was simultaneously sucking the life out of me.
Welcome to publishing.
I think all artists go through this. Art of all forms is undervalued in our society. People pirate movies and songs and e-books and think nothing of it. Most people don’t pay for original, quality artwork to hang in their homes or offices. And a lot of readers sacrifice quality, edited literature for something cheaper.
Because, let’s face it, we’d all like to get more bang for the almighty buck.
Me included. The $500 painting pays for a plane ticket to see my kid. I’ll glance at that bare piece of wall for the rest of my life in exchange for a week with any one of my children. Maybe I’ll cover the blank space with a thrift-store cork board and some pictures from the trip. And $500 is cheap for an original painting.
After another round of querying and another round of form rejections, I quit writing. I didn’t have it in me. The words were there, the worlds existed in my mind, and I went back to the stories in my head while folding clothing and doing the dishes. Life went on.
Until one day, my husband confronted me. “What’s up with you lately?” A conversation about my mental, emotional, even physical health ensued. I wasn’t nearly as happy. And my husband told me I needed to go on a writing retreat because it always helped. (Yes, he’s that good.)
My heart fluttered but my brain remained fixed. “No way. I’ve given that up.”
He shook his head. “Why? You love writing. I thought it was your dream to be published.”
“Was being the key word.” I folded my arms and clenched my jaw.
He sighed and gave me a hug, kissed my cheek, squeezed me a bit harder even when my arms remained folded. And I cried.
I couldn’t face it.
Nope. Nope. Nope.
I didn’t think so. At least, not if I had to face querying again. But…
What if I was never published? I could write for me. Writing stories made me happy. And that’s what mattered. The next time I had a free moment, I sat down at the computer and started a new novel. And for the first time in years, I felt free.
So how do we know when enough is enough?
If you can quit writing and it doesn’t ruin you, do it. I say that with all the tenderness and care I possess.
You might be unhappy with that notion or disagree with me, and that’s fine. Feel free. But after watching hundreds of published authors go through the process, I’ve learned what it’s like. If you don’t love writing and write for yourself, for the love of the words and the worlds and the characters—the struggle, frustration, and rejection will eventually leach out every other positive part of the writing process.
You’ve got to have a passion that will sustain you through all the struggle to get published. You have to have it after you get published and don’t sell enough copies or get a hateful review or don’t sell the next book or don’t sell the next three. Even if you sell well and things go wonderfully, you have to love writing enough to find time to write while you’re marketing, promoting, editing the last book, and dealing with everything else in life.
So, if you have to write, how do you know when your manuscript is ready to query?
This is a complex question. Sometimes the answer is, you don’t.
Most people don’t have enough money to hire a professional editor. That’s okay. I never did. So how do you figure it out on your own?
Remember that you’re not alone. You have critique partners, hopefully, that will give you their opinion. They might be wrong, but it’s a place to start.
Use contests like Pitch Wars and Author Mentor Match to submit as if you were querying and see what happens. They’re free, so no harm. Usually, you’ll get an idea of how well your manuscript is doing against the competition. These are a bit more helpful in that you can choose the mentors who read and write in your genre and age category just the way you would submit to agents. Again, don’t let that completely discourage you. Use them a gauge, not an end all be all. They can only accept one manuscript, where an agent can accept multiple. So you might’ve made the cut. And often, the mentor will tell you that or give helpful feedback.
There’s also the free workshop, #1st5Pages. They take the first five people every month who submit and give a free critique of your pitch (the flapjacket or blurb part of your query) and your first five pages and let you revise a couple times in the process.
Use critiques at conferences or online to see what industry agents and editors think of the manuscript. They do cost $40-$50, so it’s sometimes prohibitive, but paying a little can get you a lot of information. This is a career you might have to invest in, just like most people would pay for classes or training. Often, these conferences will offer ten page critiques. I’ve been both sides of the table here, getting critiques and then giving them. My advice: let yourself go through the grief process with them. You can get a little angry, feel hurt, let down, but give it a couple days and then go back and read the critique. Often, the agent or editor will have some great advice for how you can make your novel better.
Use the querying process itself to see if you’re ready. Choose ten agents. Five who are young and hungry for manuscripts and five seasoned agents. If all ten are form rejections, there’s probably something wrong with your query, synopsis, or first ten pages. I’ve got a post on The Modern Query Letter here. And The Simple Synopsis here. Get help. Edit them. Have people read them. If they don’t understand anything in one single pass, make sure they tell you where they were confused. Get it as good as you can. (Don’t feel badly. I know plenty of published authors who need help because queries and synopses are so difficult.) Then query ten more as before.
Still form rejections? Consider getting professional help–but make sure you do your homework! Not every freelance editor is the same. And often, your best bet is to go with an agent or editor from places like #MSWL Consultations. Agents and editors offer critiques, and they might like the premise enough to ask you to submit. If you need a cheaper option, go with a freelance editor who’s been in the query inboxes with agents as an intern and been groomed to read queries.
Revise it. Soon, you’ll start getting requests. If you’ve done your best to revise and perfect your query and pages and you’re not getting any requests for more, you need to think about querying another novel. There is no magic number of queries to come to this conclusion.
It might just be when you can’t take anymore. It might be that you have made a list of every single agent who accepts your age category and genre and you’re going to get to the end of that list no matter what. Either one is acceptable. Do what you need to in order to be satisfied, and then let it go. (That’s the hardest part.)
Hopefully, during this whole process, you’ve continued to write.
Often, it’s not until the third, forth, or even fifth novel that a writer catches agent interest.
Another thing, make sure the type of novel you’re querying is selling in the current market. As stated before somewhere (I think), what agents are signing is 18-24 months behind what’s hitting shelves. So they may know the market is saturated well before you do. My next post will be about how to follow the current industry sales and what’s being picked up now, so you as an author will be privy to what’s being scooped up.
I personally don’t like the idea of writing for the market. It stifles originality and takes some of the joy out of the process for me. Either way, this information will make you a better judge of whether it’s your writing that needs improving, or whether you simply aren’t going to find a home for it because it’s a vampire novel and that trend is over. That said, it’s also you can dust off that vampire novel sitting in that file when an agent tweets out that they want to see those vampire novels again.
I’d written a novel!
After having a couple people read it, all of whom said it was !Wonderful!, I thought, It must be good enough to be published then.
My chest tightened, and my stomach fluttered.
So I researched how to query on the internet. One issue–reliable sources. Another issue–outdated sources. I wasn’t sure who to trust or where to go for help. The biggest issue–I didn’t know anyone else who wrote novels. So I gave it a try.
I queried fifteen agents.
I queried fifteen more. About ten more rejections. And they all began sounding the same.
I mean, if it was decent, one out of thirty might’ve liked it, right? After another fifteen queries and some rejections, I’d had nineteen months of heartbreak.
I’d written another novel and half of the sequel to the one I was querying in the meantime. Because by then, I was addicted to it.
Every agents had said they liked Young Adult, Science fiction.
A side note:
Whenever you’re researching on the internet, look at people’s credentials, but also look at when the article or advice was written. For example, a lot of agents used to want the title, word count, genre, and age category paragraph of the query at the bottom, right before your bio. Now, most of the agents (at least the newer ones) want it at the top. Another addition within the last several years is an introductory, personalized sentence about why you’re querying them. And within the last couple years, comparable titles have become a thing to add as well.
That said, most agents aren’t going to throw out your query if you don’t do it exactly that way. They’ll give you the time (and I know this because I read queries for an agent) and read the entire query. But knowing how they prefer it shows a level of dedication and professionalism that speaks to what kind of client you’ll be.
So what was wrong with my manuscript?
And that was okay.
Something I was doing that wasn’t okay was translating the rejection of the manuscript to a rejection of me. It wasn’t enough to keep me from trying though.
All my effort went to honing my craft. And I made a plan.
First, learn to write well. If querying took that long, I didn’t want to waste another eighteen months querying and burn another forty-five agents. So, I wanted to wait until I knew for sure that my writing was good enough.
Second, learn to edit. Because your writing is only as good as your editing. I wasn’t going to throw away those stories. One was a planned trilogy with a prequel, number two already half written. The other could be a series, and I already knew how book two would begin and end.
So how could I learn when I didn’t know anyone and lived in rural New York?
I bought books on writing craft. For a list of some of my favorites, I have a post on it here.
I went to book clubs and libraries and independent book stores and asked the authors I met how they did it. And every single answer was different. (This is something I later realized would be the one thing that remained consistent throughout publishing–everything is different and subjective.)
I read books and analyzed them. Outlining plots. Following character arcs for primary, secondary, and even tertiary characters. Mapping structures of worlds. I tore the books I loved apart and saw them in a completely different light–as an author and editor rather than a reader.
One of the crucial people I met then was author Therese Walsh. She’d published her first book and was writing her second, but more than that, she was building a community of writers through a website called Writer Unboxed. It wasn’t very big back then, but it’s since become one of the best places to go for quality information on writing. She was building a community. She was giving back to the writing industry and gaining an invaluable network. I wanted to be like her, I just needed the opportunity.
Later, after moving to Kansas, I began taking classes from authors and editors in the business who could teach me the art of writing. I went to conferences and found a critique group.
For years, I soaked up as much information as I could.
But I was afraid to query.
“What’s up with you?”
Should I say it out loud? Gulp. “Well, I wrote a novel.”
“A novel? Well, I’ll be darned. You wrote a whole book?” My uncle’s eyebrows rose when I nodded. The clink of silverware on plates quieted down. “Wow! You’re gonna be the next J.K. Rowling!”
My cousin chimes in. “What’re you gonna do with all the money?”
“Yeah, I could really use some help.”
The most painful thing…
The accomplishment of writing a novel took the backseat on a very long bus. They asked what it was about and responded with a, “Huh. I don’t really read that.” I’d devoted hundreds of hours to it, but there was no way for them to understand that it was becoming a part of who I was in a way I didn’t even comprehend. But I felt it.
My family tried to be supportive in their own way by telling me I’d be as successful as J.K. Rowling (and they could really use the financial boost, too). But that also sets up the expectation that I’m no good unless I sell millions of copies. And I hadn’t even decided I wanted to be published.
Fun Fact: The majority of authors sell around 10,000 to 15,000 copies of a novel.
And read it? That was a whole other mixed bag of emotions. Some wanted to read it, like my mom and gram. That made me so nervous. The mom in my novel was the villain. Yikes! And what if they hated it? What if it actually was terrible?
Most of my family didn’t want to read, which made me feel a whole different kind of lame. Like I wasn’t worth a few hours of their time.
The reality is, most people think that if you write a novel, the getting it published is easy. Even self-publishing, which is a much more direct path, takes editing, copy editing, dumping some money into a cover, and a part-time marketing job to sell a decent number of copies. A select few people know how difficult it is to take a manuscript and get it across the Big-5 finish line. So digest comments about your writing while also keeping their blissful ignorance in mind. They probably don’t mean to hurt you. They most likely don’t realize they’re doing it. I know that over the years since this, my family has watched me struggle and improve and been supportive to the best of their ability.
It takes a lot of courage and fortitude to even write a novel, and by the time you’re finished, it’s such a part of you. Having that be rejected and criticized and even just passed by can be a painful experience. But if you never share your novel, you’ll never find a whole other joy that comes from the writing process–the connection with your reader. And it’s worth it. You’ll find that people who read your books will gain things from it you never intended. They’ll have joy in an escape of your making.
You can share it with your family, let them read it, but don’t make them your critique partners. Your mom or gram or sister are most likely not going to give you the real critique you need. Find and connect with other writers out there who write in your genre and age category. It matters. And as you edit other people’s work, you’ll see an improvement in your own writing as well.
Or maybe you just want to write the first draft. Sometimes all we want is to give ourselves the escape. If that’s what writing is for you, you shouldn’t feel like you have to publish your novel. If you have a dream to be published, then go for it! I’ve gone back and forth over the years, not wanting to publish, wishing I could, hoping to go Big-5, thinking Independent presses would be a better way to go. Every one of those feelings and avenues is valid and should be respected.
And when you come out about your writing to people, give yourself a break, too. It’s okay to have all those feelings. Just don’t stew in them or let them get in the way of your dream.
While I do think getting an agent is the best route to go…
We don’t all have the luxury to find an agent who loves our manuscript the way we hoped they would. If you’re looking for an alternative to self-publishing to get your book out there, you might consider these imprints. Some of them even take books on that have been previously self or traditionally published, as long as you have the rights back.
Remember, it’s best not to query agents and publishers at the same time. Go one route or the other, or exhaust one and then the other.
Most of these publishers close on occasion and then reopen when they’ve sorted through their slush. Patience is still required. 😉 You can follow them on social media to see when they reopen.
Also, take note that several of them do not read queries but only take pages or the full manuscript via submission forms. Do your homework and read the submission pages carefully!
Another alternative are mid-size or smaller, independent publishers that can help you garner a fan base that can help you get an agent or bigger deal later on.
I’ll add to this as I find more.
Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin/Random House
They produce hardbacks of Picture Book, Middle Grade, and Young Adult
You can download their submission guidelines here.
TOR/Forge, imprints of Macmillan
They accept submissions in science fiction and fantasy, fiction of all other types including but not limited to general fiction, historical fiction, horror, mystery, paranormal, suspense/thriller, urban fantasy, and women’s fiction. Children’s and Young Adult books for the chapter book, middle grade, and young adult audiences.
Alibi, Penguin/Random House
A digital-only imprint focused on mystery and thriller fiction titles.
WITNESS, from Harper Collins Publishers
They accept thriller, mystery, or suspense novel manuscripts.
Forever and Forever Yours, imprints of Hachette Book Group, Grand Central Publishing.
They’re interested in all styles of romance, particularly contemporary, diverse reads, romantic suspense, cowboys, historicals, and paranormal.
They do not accept YA, fantasy, mystery, general fiction, or nonfiction. Novels should be between 50,000-100,000 words. Novellas should be 25,000-50,000 words.
For submission guidelines go here.
AVON Impulse, Harper Collins
Big, high concept historical and contemporary romances! Primarily, inclusive and diverse romances that reflect our world–all sexualities, races, ethnicities, religions, genders, body types, disabilities, and ages!
For submissions guidelines, go here.
Harlequin, Harper Collins
All sub-genres of romance. So many, in fact, that they have a list of their imprints to submit to with subbmission guidelines here.
Make sure and read carefully and scroll to the bottom to find the imprints that take unagented submissions.
They also accept unagented submissions in a wide range of genres for our digital-first single-title imprint, Carina Press. Visit carinapress.com to learn more.
Loveswept and Flirt, Penguin/Random House
Digital-only imprints focused on romance and women’s fiction titles.
Their contract was a point of contention for a long time, and royalties are split 50/50 with no advance, but it’s a viable way to get your book out there and start getting fans. You can read more about the initial controversy here.
SMP Swerve, St. Martin’s Press, Macmillan
A digital first imprint. The SMP Swerve team seeks for romance authors. From their page: We are looking for dynamic and diverse voices, compelling stories, and authors who are ready to build their brand.
DAW, Penguin/Random House
DAW accepts unsolicited submissions of science fiction and fantasy novels. No short story collections, novellas, or poetry. The average length of the novels they publish varies, but is almost never fewer than 80,000 words.
Scroll to the bottom to find their submission info.
Hydra, Penguin/Random House
A digital-only imprint focused on science fiction, fantasy, and horror titles.
HarperLegend, Harper Collins
They occasionally shut this page and it’ll seem like an error. It just means they’re closed.
All of their works have spiritual underpinnings akin to The Life of Pi, The Screwtape Letters, etc.
From their site: HarperLegend seeks to discover and publish new authors of visionary and transformational fiction in the digital first format . We know that there are many many writers out there who work in this genre. If you are one of these folks, we want to help your work reach the world. We hope that you will embrace our offer to submit your work to HarperLegend.
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX, Macmillan
The firm is renowned for its international list of literary fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children’s books.
Scroll down to the word ‘Editorial’ and you’ll find this:
Unsolicited submissions are accepted at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All submissions must be submitted through the mail—we do not accept electronic submissions, or submissions delivered in person. Please include a cover letter describing your submission, along with the first 50 pages of the manuscript. If you are submitting poems, please include 3-4 poems. If you wish to hear back from us, please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope with your submission. If you wish for us to return your manuscript, please include a self-addressed, appropriately sized and stamped envelope with your submission (we cannot return manuscripts if you do not send this envelope with your submission). We will reply in three to five months of the receipt of the submission.
Schwartz & Wade, Penguin-Random House, an imprint of Random House Books for Young Readers
Accepts submissions directly from authors. Schwartz & Wade publishes about 15 to 20 books a year, mostly picture books, as well as middle grade and young adult fiction, non-traditional nonfiction, and graphic novels. Schwartz & Wade also accepts unsolicited picture book manuscripts and proposals for longer books.
Make sure that your submission is a good fit for our small imprint. All submissions may be sent to: Schwartz & Wade Books, Submissions Editor, 1745 Broadway, 10-4, New York, New York 10019.
To review titles currently published under the Schwartz & Wade imprint, visit this link.
Baen Books, Simon & Schuster
publish only science fiction and fantasy. Writers familiar with what we have published in the past will know what sort of material we are most likely to publish in the future: powerful plots with solid scientific and philosophical underpinnings are the sine qua non for consideration for science fiction submissions. As for fantasy, any magical system must be both rigorously coherent and integral to the plot, and overall the work must at least strive for originality.
Delacorte, Penguin-Random House
I know from speaking with Senior Editor, Wendy Loggia, that Delacorte takes unsolicited queries. However, I can’t find anything about where to submit.
Swoonreads is an imprint of Macmillan that accepts all genres of novel-length YA! Anyone can upload their ms to the site and the community of readers and writers can read it and give feedback. Three times per year they select books to publish in print and e-book, based on reader feedback.
This is also a great place to read YA novels!
Many editors also take unsolicited submissions when you meet them at retreats, conferences, or occasionally through contests. Organizations like SCBWI often have editors featured in their newsletters that will also open for a brief window to those belonging to the organization.
If you find anymore, please contact me through the contacts page and I’ll try to include them here.