On Finding the Energy to Deal with Traditional Publishing

This article is part of my ongoing Wannabe Pride Self-Publishing blog series in preparation for publishing my novel, QUEEN HENRY, in July of 2014. Proceeds from this novel will go to the Harvey Milk Foundation.

34 Weeks Until Publication

Right now I’m wrapping up the final query letters to agents and publishers for my middle grade novel, RAIN ON THE WATER, and I’m about to start rewrites on another middle grade novel in January. Of course, I’m still working on getting my novel, QUEEN HENRY, ready to self-publish in July. Though I know it’s possible to self-publish middle grade novels, it seems to me that it would be extremely difficult to market to nine-to-twelve-year-old kids online. Yes, I’m sure there are nine-year-olds are Twitter, but they shouldn’t be! Essentially, I feel like it’s traditional publishing or bust when it comes to my middle grade stories.

It’s amazing to me how different my experiences are with self-publishing vs traditional publishing. When I’m working on my self-publishing project, I feel excited and invigorated. I feel like everything I read, everything I learn, everything I write, everything I DO goes toward the final product. With traditional publishing, I often feel depressed, even hopeless sometimes. So little is up to me with that process. I work extremely hard, but I always hit a huge wall that separates me from the Traditional Publishing World. I’m not allowed in there. That wall is guarded by Agents and Publishers who keep telling me, no matter how hard I try, I do not have permission to enter. For the most part, they’re nice, reasonable, professional people who are not out to get me. It’s just that there are hundreds of thousands of us writers, like peasants, who are begging to get past that wall and they have to tell most of us NO. That’s just the way it is. It’s not personal. They don’t even know who we are. We’re just faceless peasants trying to get in. They don’t even look at us, so they’ll never really know how good or bad we are. We’re just bodies in a crowd.

In the Guide to Literary Agents, there are hundreds of literary agents listed. Out of those hundreds and hundreds PLUS the huge listing of agents listed online at the Association of Author’s Representatives, I found exactly 87 agents who were willing to consider new, unpublished writers and who happened to be interested in my genre. So I queried those 87 agents. Of those 87 agents, 5 of them requested to read a full or partial manuscript. Four of those agents rejected the story kindly and actually had some good things to say about it. In a particularly heartbreaking gesture, one agent said she wanted to represent me and then changed her mind…

It took weeks to pore over all those agent lists. You can’t just go by what’s in the book. You have to go look up the agency online and see what their submission guidelines are and if they are still looking for work in your genre. It’s very frustrating to find an agency that is actually seeking books in my specific genre, only to go online and find out that their policy is to only consider people who are referred by a published author or if they’ve met you personally at a conference. To me, this policy is infuriatingly unfair. Remember the image of peasants trying to get past the huge wall? That’s what it’s like to go to a writing conference. I’ve only been to a few conferences, and I’ve left each one in tears. I found the whole experience frustrating, demeaning, and demoralizing, not to mention it cost me a lot of money that I simply do not have to spare. One conference actually had a session on “How to Make the Most of Your Relationship with Your Agent”. I’m sure the select few who are lucky enough to get an agent might need this session, but for me it felt like a painful slap in the face. That’s like going to a matchmaking conference and having a session for brides on “Planning Your Wedding”.

Now I’m sure there are a lot of warm, wonderful literary agents out there, but I will never forget a comment I overheard from a speaker at a conference. She said “I like doing these things, but you always wind up with a whole line of people who want to talk to you.” I will never forget how small and insignificant that comment made me feel. I didn’t bother to hang around to speak to her. She may be one of the ones whose submission guidelines say you must have met her personally to submit, yet she doesn’t want to talk to you at a conference.

And I don’t care how much social networking you do, most writers DO NOT know traditionally published authors personally. Their virtual peasant line is probably longer than the one for Agents and Publishers. Even the kindest authors do not have time to get to know a bunch of wannabe writers, let alone will they vouch for them. And why should they?

Even when you do find an Agent who is willing to read a query letter from someone she doesn’t know, the odds are still pretty infinitesimal that she will be interested enough in the story to actually take the time to read it. This is totally understandable, but discouraging nonetheless. They may get hundreds of queries every day and they’re looking for a reason to get your query out of their inbox. Wouldn’t you?

If you think getting an Agent is impossible, the odds get worse when you try to approach a Publisher. I pored though all 230 pages of publishers listed in the 2014 Writer’s Market to find publishers in my genre who were willing to review manuscripts of unagented writers.

I found thirteen.

There are thirteen small publishers who will consider my book even though I don’t have an agent.

Several of the listings who refuse to consider me actually state “We suggest you find a literary agent to represent you.” Like I hadn’t thought of that and already been through hell and back trying. That’s like telling someone who lost their job “We suggest you go out and win the lottery”. Sometimes I feel like lottery odds are better than winning the publishing game. I really do.

Of those thirteen listings, two of them require an exclusive of three months. Meaning if I submit my manuscript to them, I’m not allowed to send it anywhere for three months. At that rate, I could submit to four publishers a year. One publisher stated that they required a three-month exclusive “For obvious reasons”. Yes, it’s obvious that you want the odds weighted squarely in your favor and you don’t mind tying the writer’s hands for three months. PASS. Yes, even we peasant writers have a choice when submitting and I’m not wasting my time on YOU.

So. You can see where the feelings of hopelessness come from. You can’t help asking yourself – What’s the point?

I’m wrapping up queries on RAIN ON THE WATER now, so the agony is almost over for this story. But what about the one I’m supposed to start working on in January? I’ve finished the first draft, but of course there’s a lot more work to be done on that one. I’m finding it very hard to summon the energy to start the whole process over again. I can’t help but think that the only thing the future holds for the next novel is more frustration, rejection, and hopelessness. You try to be optimistic, but the harsh truth is that hard work and perseverance really might not be enough, no matter what it says on that inspirational meme.

A wonderful agent recently wrote an article essentially stating that fact. You can have a great query AND a great book and STILL get rejected. Repeatedly, and maybe forever. WHY YOU’RE GETTING REJECTIONS.

I know I’ve painted a rather negative picture of Agents and Publishers here, but the truth is that I’ve encountered a lot of kindhearted professionals in this business. Traditional Publishers really aren’t out to get you. It’s just a numbers game that even really good writers have a very small chance of winning. It’s NOT just about talent. It’s talent and hard work, but it’s also about luck, who you happen to know, and who has enough money to attend lots of writer conferences.

So why try?

It’s getting harder and harder for me to answer that question, especially with the advent of self-publishing. Still, if I want to write middle grade, its keep trying to scale the Agent/Publisher wall or quit altogether. So for this next novel, it’s going to be Traditional Publishing or nothing.

Want to lay odds on which one will happen?

Why am I doing this again?

That’s a hard question to answer right at this moment. But I’m betting that when I open up that first draft I wrote, read it, and start walking in the footsteps of my characters again, I’m going to remember all the reasons why I do this.

-Linda Fausnet

There’s Something Worse Than A Rejection Letter….

The second novel that I wrote was called QUEEN HENRY. It’s about a macho, homophobic, MLB player, Henry Vaughn Jr., who takes part in a clinical drug trial to treat his asthma; and the experimental drug makes him gay. He then falls in love with a man and learns a lesson about what it’s really like to be gay. I wrote it first as a screenplay in 2005, then as a novel in 2011. In my 18 years of being a writer, it’s my favorite story.

When I started querying agents with the story, I got the same answer from many people. The audience (meaning gays) is too small for it to make a profit. The only answer for me is to self-publish, or turn to small, LGBT publishers.

 When I sat down to find some LGBT publishers, I was thrilled to find a long list of them. So maybe traditional publication was still possible after all! I sent out a bunch of queries, and yesterday one of the publishers responded favorably after I sent them a synopsis and two chapters. They wrote back to say they liked the concept, enjoyed the writing, and wanted to see the rest of the manuscript! They don’t accept simultaneous submissions, which means I can’t send the novel to anybody else while they have it. Since their turnaround time was only 1-2 weeks, that was no problem for me. Another publishing company posted their times as 14 weeks – also no simultaneous submissions. No wonder I queried this place first right?

 I was so happy to wake up yesterday morning to see an email from the publisher telling me they loved my synopsis and chapters and they wanted to see the full manuscript. If you read my Facebook regularly, you know that I keep a tally of rejections vs. acceptances. For QUEEN HENRY, it was 59 – 1. Guess which number is the rejection column? It’s very rare to get a Yes, and I am one to celebrate every small victory. I was ready to post on Facebook that JohnDoeBooks (not their real name…) had requested my full manuscript. I was prepared to get lots of Likes from people that are used to seeing my post my rejections.

 I sent the publisher the manuscript, prepared to have at least one week of hope. Sure, publishers reject most of the manuscripts they get and most likely this Acceptance would eventually turn into a Rejection, but I had at least one week to dream while they read the novel.

 Within 15 minutes of emailing the manuscript, they emailed me a publishing contract.

If you don’t see anything wrong with this, then step into my office and we can go over the catalog of bridges I have for sale – cheap!

None of it was real.

Sure, it was “technically” a small publishing company in that they do publish online and paperback books. They’re not a vanity press because they don’t charge any money. I don’t think…I don’t know. I didn’t really read the contract. Clearly, any “publisher” that’s willing to publish something they HAVE NOT READ is not legit.

 This isn’t the first time this has happened (an “agent” once offered me representation without reading the screenplay). It probably won’t be the last time, either.

 But it still hurts. Worse than if they had just said no.

 I wanted to believe that someone read my sample chapters and synopsis, liked them, and wanted to read more. I wanted to have at least one week of enjoying a real Yes from a real publisher.

 I wrote the guy back and told him kindly but honestly that I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with a publisher that would publish something they hadn’t read. (Seriously, what if the novel was really stereotypical and offensive to gays? It’s not, but how does he know??) The guy wrote back and said:

We read the synopsis and the sample chapters, which show us your writing ability and the story’s focus. We wanted to see the full manuscript for word count only; we had already decided we liked the story and wanted to publish it. You can tell within the first few pages if an author is good and marketable. We’ve published a lot of gay fiction, particularly gay erotic romance, and recognize talent when we see it.

 I suppose I should take that as a compliment. I guess they don’t publish EVERYTHING they get (Who knows. Maybe they do.), but it still doesn’t seem legitimate at all.

So it’s back to square one. Again. Maybe I’ll query that other publisher. Sure, they take 14 weeks to review your manuscript, but in that time maybe they’ll actually read it.

On to the next….

Query Letters for Screenplays and Novels

There are some basic similarities in writing queries for screenplays and novels, but there are also some fundamental differences. You need to figure out who to query and how to tailor your query letter for a literary agent, Hollywood agent, producer, or publisher.

Literary Agents: A literary agent, or perhaps an assistant, generally reads every query that arrives in their mailbox or inbox.

Find Agents here  

Hollywood Agents: If your hair catches fire, a Hollywood agent will not pour their Evian water on your head without first checking your pockets to see if you already have a screenplay deal on the table. That may be a slight exaggeration. Slight. Hollywood agents are, as a rule, not interested in new writers. Even if they will consider newbies, they are usually referred by other industry professionals who can vouch for them.

 Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) Agent List  Good luck….

You cannot get a producer to read your screenplay without an agent and you cannot get an agent unless you have signed a deal with a producer. That’s the conventional, “Catch 22” mentality in Hollywood. Except it’s not entirely true. 

Hollywood Producers – You *can* get a producer to read your screenplay. It’s just a lot harder when you don’t have a Hollywood agent to submit your work on your behalf. If you write a well-composed query letter that clearly outlines the script you are trying to sell, you may get a producer, or an assistant, to read your screenplay. Please do not delude yourself into thinking you can get Jerry Bruckheimer or Steven Spielberg to read your script. Be reasonable. Send only to producers who are willing to read unsolicited queries or at least do not have a stated policy of no unsolicited queries. I’ve gotten two of my screenplays optioned this way.

Book Publishers – For your novel, you can try to send query letters to publishing companies directly but it is likely a waste of time. If you go to their website for their submission policy (and shame, shame, on you if don’t do this first!) you can find out whether or not the publisher is willing to look at material from unagented writers. More and more, publishers have stopped accepting unsolicited submissions and instead will work only through trusted agents. Your querying time is likely much better spent trying to land an agent than going to the publisher directly.

**As a general rule – If you’re shopping a screenplay, query producers. If you’re shopping a novel or nonfiction book, query literary agents.**

Tips for Queries for Both Screenplays and Novels

* Get to the main idea of your story quickly. You can even dive right into it in the first paragraph before you introduce yourself. You are trying to convince the reader that your story will SELL. Grab their interest right away. Describe in clear, powerful language who your main characters are and what they are battling. What do they want? What is the story about? Where is the conflict?

* Query only one project at a time. If you’ve written other books or screenplays, you can mention them in your brief bio paragraph but don’t talk them up here. You’re trying to sell your current project.

* Just describe the story itself, don’t praise it. You may think your story is “hilarious, entertaining, action-packed, or a tearjerker,” but that’s up to the reader to decide. If it’s not clear from your brief synopsis that your novel or screenplay is a comedy or a heavy drama, your query letter – or worse, your story – is not ready for submission.

* Include a brief biography of yourself. If you’ve won writing awards or placed in contests, mention those accomplishments here. If you are a professional writer as a day job (journalist, copywriter, technical writer), then say so. Don’t sweat it if you don’t have any writing credentials yet. If your story grabs the reader’s interest, you will get a request to read your manuscript or screenplay. If you have experience or a special background that qualifies you to write this particular story, describe it. If you wrote a story about World War II, then it’s relevant to explain that your grandparents were concentration camp survivors. If you’re an attorney and you’ve written a legal thriller, it can only help to mention your day job.

 Tips for Book  Queries

Write a professional query letter that shows that you take your career seriously. Unless they have specifically stated that they do not accept unsolicited query letters or will only consider submissions by referral only, they will read your query letter. No need to dress it up to grab their attention. Make your story grab their attention. 

* You can be creative, within reason. Some choose to write some or all of the query letter in their character’s voice. Do this only if you can do this effectively. 

* If you’re querying about a novel, include the word count.

 * You can mention whether or not a completed manuscript is ready for review. If it’s a nonfiction book, normally you prepare only a proposal and not the whole book. For a novel, you should have a complete manuscript ready to go.

 How To Write a Query Letter (advice from Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner)

Query Dos and Don’ts  

Query Rant  

Some suggest you just ignore all the rules  

Tips for Screenplay Queries

* Write a logline. This is usually a one or two sentence description of your story. The logline is in addition to the brief synopsis of your story that you will include (just like in a fiction query).

* Be creative. Unlike literary agents, Hollywood agents and producers don’t necessarily read query letters. You need to make your letter stand out. If you’re marketing a comedy, feel free to make your query letter humorous. I put warning labels on the outside of my query letter and I submit a pre-rejected postcard where people can circle the reason they’re brushing me off (and a place where they can circle YES, I want to read your screenplay). Several producers told me it was the best query they’d ever received.  Another producer called me to request the screenplay instead of sending back my rejection postcard because she thought it was clever and wanted to keep it! It’s tough out there in Hollywood – you’re at the bottom of the barrel if you don’t live in L.A. like me and don’t know anyone out there. You’ve got to work to be noticed. But it can be done. Show off your writing ability any way you can.

* Be original, but not gimmicky. Using colored paper, drawings, writing your query letter in crayon just for funsies is amateur and foolish.

How To Write a Screenplay Query that Will Make Producers Drool

Query Letter Catastrophes 

For both novel and screenplay query letters, it all really comes down to the story. If your story is compelling and fresh with characters an audience can really care about, people will want to read it. As you review your query letter, ask yourself – can I sell this story? That’s exactly what any producer, publisher, or agent will be thinking. Make sure the answer is YES.