Querying– the act of sending your book out to agents or publishers– is a necessary part of the process of being ‘traditionally’ published. But it isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s taking your hard earned work, your beautiful book baby, and putting it out to be accepted or rejected. It takes bravery and hard work to get to that point. And the process itself can be crushing. Months of silence. Rejections that sound like they’re just a form response (because usually they are). Specific feedback that you know is precious gold but you second guess every line thinking…did they mean this?
Last year I had my first go at querying, and later this year I hope to have my second. But there are some things that were absolutely essential to surviving the process. To come through it still excited to write and ready to try again with the next book. I wanted to share a few ‘tools’ that are really helpful to have ready to go when you query.
This post is not a list of things you need for your submissions package, or a discussion of how ready your manuscript needs to be to query. There are plenty of other blog posts on that! But rather, if you have these things in your toolbox, they will act as emotional cushions that soften the blows you can experience in the query trenches.
A Separate Query Email
A friend recommended this, and I’m thankful to her everyday! I have a specific email account which I use whenever contacting agents or entering mentoring contests. Why is this essential? Well, you know what it’s like when you are waiting for an exciting email. When every time you see a new email pop up in gmail, your heart does a little dance. Imagine having that feeling for months and months and months. The hope and disappointment cycle occurring every time that organisation you didn’t remember subscribing too tries to sell you something. That will overwhelm your life, and mean you never get a break from query stress.
Even worse is when you are about to go into an important work meeting. Or pick up your kids from school. Or go to an event you’ve been looking forward to for months. And it always seems to be at that point when your dream agent replies with…thanks, but no thanks.
If you have a separate email– you are the one in control. You can decide when your ready to check and you can decide how often.
Get a new email address. You’ll thank me, I promise!
A Support System
Querying is such a weird beast. People in your life outside of writing are never going to be able to understand it, no matter how much you try to explain. They don’t get the devastation of the no. They don’t get the high of the yes. But writing friends do! Its so worthwhile having a few friends on standby for support, who have been in the query trenches. Those who understand the particulars of what it’s like to ride the highs and lows.
My writing friends helped me get through the querying process. They cheered when things went well. They helped me when doubts overwhelmed me. And they talked me through every decision I made along the way. They were also there when I wanted to vent about a query response that hurt or a agent who took forever. Eventually I would process the hurt and realise it was nothing personal. But in the moment it was cathartic to be able to just complain without judgement.
The query process messes with your mind. A writing support system helps you to keep everything in perspective.
A Document Full of Positive Feedback
This might sound a little indulgent, but when you are facing rejection, or the wait, you can start to doubt your words. Wonder if what you sent out was garbage. When imposter syndrome started to tell me I couldn’t write, I would go to a document I’d created full of comments from writing friends who had read my manuscript and really loved it. There were quotes about their favourite bit. Comments about what they liked about my writing. Explanations of why they cared about certain characters. Reading through this document made such a difference in the hard times. Because while those comments didn’t mean that my book would definitely find a home, they reminded me that I could actually write. My words already meant something to someone. They showed me the lie of my imposter syndrome. And that boost kept me from falling into despair.
A New Writing Project.
It makes sense, while you are sending out queries, to be working on the next thing. There are no guarantees that your book will sell, and so you might as well start on the next one. Best case, you might have two books or ideas to bring to an agent. Worst case, you aren’t putting all your eggs in one basket, and have another book to try if the first doesn’t find a home.
But for me, it was more than that. Querying was something that was out of my control. I had no way of changing what an agent thought of my book once it was in their in box. But the new book was completely in my control. It was untouched by rejection. It was getting better with every draft. It was a back up plan, as well as a delicious distraction. And I was reminded, with every stroke at my keyboard, that the book waiting in the agents emails wasn’t my only hope. So rejections, while hard, didn’t feel like the death of my dreams. Working on that book was the single most helpful thing I did to make querying bearable.
A caveat. This is a much more effective exercise if the new writing project is not a sequel. There are various different schools of thought about what is the wisdom of writing the sequel to a book you haven’t sold yet. And I really think that is a decision that the individual author needs to make. BUT, be aware that writing a sequel of a book that is getting rejected is not an easy task. You worry that the first book isn’t going to get you anywhere, and that makes book two seem like a waste. By writing something completely different, you save yourself from that double disappointment.
A Knowledge of Your Worth
Querying sometimes feels like an act of desperation. “Choose me, pick me, love me.” The agents or publishers have the control and the power. As time goes on, you can start to feel like a beggar, hoping for crumbs.
But authors are not the beggars in this equation. They are the artists, the money makers, the bosses, the clients. Yes, you are looking for someone to represent you or publish you. But agents and publishers need us. Our words, our story, our efforts are what the person walking into the bookstore is really interested in.
This doesn’t mean that you go in arrogant! It also doesn’t mean that your manuscript is perfect or that you don’t have more to learn. But don’t let the querying process make your feel small.
There are people out there who make a living off authors desperation. Small publishers who put no money into your book, don’t distribute it anywhere, and just hope to make a buck off your family and friends. Agents who will send your email to publishers that didn’t need you to have an agent in the first place, just to make some easy money for little effort. Vanity presses who prey on authors dreams.
Don’t settle because you think you deserve crumbs. Be realistic about the competitive nature of the industry and keep improving. But don’t let the process make you desperate. Remember your worth. It will help you survive the query trenches .
A Sense of What you Want to Achieve through the Publishing Process
This is a particular hobby horse of mine, so please indulge me a little rant! So often, when we are starting the publishing process, we have one goal…our book on a shelf. And the time line? As soon as we can. It’s hard to think beyond that.
And so…when it comes to questions like what kind of agent do I want or publisher or what contract am I willing to sign, we can just take whatever we can get because…well, it’s our dream.
But we need to look beyond the dream to what happens next. Because the steps you take early on in your career will set it on a path.
You might have written a Sci-Fi book, but mostly want to write Fantasy long term. Chances are your publisher will want you to continue writing your first genre as you build and audience. So maybe that sci-fi book is not the best place to start. Or maybe you live in Australia and you’d love to be the kind of author who gets paid to speak to high school students. So you want to make sure that if you go with an overseas publisher, that they are able to distribute to Australia, so students can get your book. Or maybe you want to work full time as a published author long term. So you might be willing to keep trying with new books to get the kind of agent who can help you set up that type of career.
Or, you might have a book of your heart. A book that you’re willing to keep polishing and putting out there until it finds a home. Because it’s the book itself that matters to you, even more than the career.
It feels strange to think like this! To look beyond the first yes. But if you know what really matters to you, then you can make wise choices that can be stepping stones towards that goal. Which is much better than looking back and thinking: why did I waste that time heading in a direction I never meant to go?
Knowing your long term goals helps you make the decisions that will shape your writing life for the better. You won’t just send your manuscript to every publisher with a website. You won’t say yes to an agent who might agree to sign you, but doesn’t have the experience, context or connections to get your book where it needs to be. You might end up deciding to self-publish, because it fits with your goals and suits your entrepreneurial personality, rather than wasting time in the query trenches.
You might even put a manuscript aside, because even though you love it, you know it’s not the right one to start your publishing journey.
That’s what I did at the end last year with my first manuscript, and it is still pretty heartbreaking to think about. But it was the right decision, because I know what I want to achieve and it’s not just to have that one book published. It’s to have a writing career.
And strangely, having that long term goal was a tool that helped me emotionally cope with querying. Because I know what I want to achieve. And I’m in for the long haul. Rejection isn’t the end of my story.
Querying again this year will be scary as well as exciting. But it’s the path I have to tread to reach my writing goals. And at least I know I have the emotional tools I need to survive. And hopefully now, so do you!
(I’m aware that some of these suggestions are things that take time to put together. If you are wanting to build your own support network and don’t know where to start, Kylie Fennel wrote a terrific article on finding your “Write People” if you need some tips.)