Sometimes Right is not Right Now

Two weeks ago, my scribble sister, Morgan Hazelwood shared an agent’s nutso response to another writer’s query letter. For those who don’t know, the query letter is a one page document a writer sends to an agent to pitch their book and hopefully secure agent-representation to sell the book to a publishing house. It’s rare for any of the big five, (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, Macmillan) to accept an un-agented manuscript. Sure we’ve all heard the slush-pile Cinderella story but we’re discussing facts today. 

Typically, if you want someone else to publish your book, your first step, (after writing the book) is to secure agent representation. Make no mistake, the query process is a slog. Writers hate it, agents hate it and all-too often, writers and agents end up hating each other over it. You can, and should, read Morgan’s post and related deets, here. But long-story-short an author submitted a query letter which an agent rejected—and then took to social media to rant about the query—for the most ridiculous of reasons. 

Now, if you’ve been in this game long enough you know that writers are a little nutso. Agents become, if they’re not already, a little nutso from dealing with nutso writers. It’s an occupational hazard. Morgan rightly questions the wholly unprofessional behavior the agent while subtlety, (not a word you’ll encounter often on my blog) laying out what querying writers can expect in the process as well as what time allowances should be made. She finishes by opening the discussion to agents. In short, she’s not attacking our natural allies.

Neither am I.

Countless writers, (self-included) have benefitted from the phenomenal Jessica Faust, (BookEnds Literary Agency) and her YouTube channel on the publishing game. Janet Reid, (Janet Reid Agency) has guided a generation of writers through the query process on her blog. On a personal note, in her very professional rejection letter, Ms. Reid identified what was wrong with my first effort. So, no, this isn’t hate on the players. This is an update on the game. 

Publishing is flux, (reads a lot like “fucked” for a reason) right now. 

COVID-19 has driven book sales—in survivalist books, medical history books, games/activities, classic literature, and childrens’ books. But in all other areas, (mass-market, new lit, et al) sales are flat. The agent in question failed to state in their social media rant is: a) new fiction sales are iffy, b) the big five are making few deals and nothing risky, and c) agents are only taking on clients they have 110% certainty of selling books.  

And there’s still no guarantee. On November 25th, Simon and Schuster was sold on to Penguin/Random House. Penguin may continue to operate S&S as a separate entity but the bottomline is, the big five have become the big four. That means fewer book editors, fewer book designers, fewer book buyers, and, ultimately, fewer books published. The questionable agent’s questionable behavior is based in fear.

I know what you’re thinking, “if pepperoni is a cold cut, then is pizza a sandwich?” Kidding. You have to wonder what this means for your little diddy. Will your book find a home? Will your dream become reality? The answer is YES! If you don’t give up. 

Times are always iffy for writers. Traditional publishing has yet to reconcile business practices—20 years into the new century—with a dynamic market, much less current events. What has not changed is readers. They still want to read stories that transcend their experience and elevate their lives. Hardcover, paperback, or digital, readers still want books. 

We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories. ― Jonathan Gottschall 

The depth of publishing strata beneath the big four-ish monolith is nearly limitless. There are niche presses. Black Classic Press focuses on works by minority authors. Tor Books is still killing it in science fiction, and Hard Case Crime is doing the same in my genre. The romance presses are too numerous to mention. University presses do incredible things for literary and historical works. You have Google open in another tab, anyway. Use it and get cracking. 

Then there are boutique publishers, (I’ll touch on this topic next week)  and there is also a wealth of opportunities in self-publishing, (which I’ll also touch on next week). The bottom line is DO NOT QUIT. There are many paths to get your story to your audience. You’re only done when you’re paid, when you give up, or when you’re dead.

The above photo is courtesy of the Oregon Department of Transportation. Full details of image and use, here.

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