Thank you to Women in Publishing Summit Speaker, Lyn Fairchild Hawks, for contributing this guest post!
I recently landed my third literary agent. Third?. Yep. THIRD.
I’m an indie fiction author who’s released three books and a traditionally published author who’s released three works of nonfiction. I recently spent six months searching for my third agent in order to break into traditional publishing for my fiction.
It’s not uncommon to switch or part ways with agents. Authors don’t discuss it much, because not only do you have to tread carefully, but frankly, it’s embarrassing. We can feel that we’ve somehow failed. But as I told Alexa, I want to tell my truths about the querying game and help those who might be wondering whether to go traditional or try to be an indie/trad hybrid.
First: why would I try the traditional route if I’m already self-published?
Second: if you’re going this route, what should you pack in your bag?
Know Your Why
What you believe a literary agent could do for you should be bright as a neon sign flashing in your mind before you start this querying game.
Here’s a truth I’ve learned: some authors try indie but aren’t skilled at handling the business aspects such as design, publishing, distribution, marketing, and publicity—key elements of author entrepreneurship. I’ve discovered that while I may be a startup thinker, persistent, and a quick study, I’m not a long-haul entrepreneur. Somehow the founder of a chocolate store and an international businessman produced this kid!
Truth: many authors also lack the time. There’s this thing called the day job, which provides health care and more benefits—and my genre isn’t one that I can guarantee enough income in the first couple years to replace that. Then when I’m not working or commuting, sleeping/eating/exercising, I will see husband, cat, family, and friends. In the time I have left, I want to write, primarily, and let someone else handle putting the pages together and getting it out there.
When you realize these things about yourself, it’s quite the relief.
Suits Your Life Style?
Indie authors might gladly trade my querying time for handling social media, ads, accounting, etc. You might look at time I’ve invested in three rounds of querying since 2009 and ask yourself whether that would’ve been better spent on building your business and brand. Since July 2018, I probably logged five to seven hours a week on querying, while spending another 10 hours a week on writing. Because I have time to work in short, daily bursts, plus long weekend bursts, it suits me to try the writing + querying routine. I can write for an hour, query for a half-hour, and still keep moving toward my goals.
My other big why: an agent gives me connections to an industry and a path to editors and houses. An agent gives me marketing and publicity advice. An agent provides editorial help. (Note: not every agent does all these things, but agent Tara Gelsomino of One Track Literary and I discussed what she would provide and I’m delighted to say her approach checks several boxes for me).
With my original indie fiction, I learned how to juggle the web designer, the graphic designer and book formatting service, and the distribution with Amazon, B & N, Smashwords, and Kobo. It’s not impossible to learn these things and more, but I get easily frustrated when I hit snags. (My web designer will tell you that I have a fraught relationship with hosting services and security certificates—to name a few.) I don’t see hours spent troubleshooting tech and researching pros and cons of different advertising outlets as time well spent. You have to enjoy that kind of work to some degree, and you should see the problem solving as a necessary part of the process—not a huge obstacle or hindrance, as I have. I love solving characterization and plot problems, and I love figuring out how to teach writing. I do not love talking to GoDaddy or Amazon.
In other words, you need to love being a business manager enough to persist with indie. If there’s not enough joy, then why grit those teeth harder like me? All you’ll end up with is an Invisalign bill.
My opposite is Becky Moynihan, a successful dystopian romance writer, who also happens to be in my writers group. She embraces every part of the indie world, thriving on Instagram with her beta readers and #bookstagram community. She adores cover design, and she comes from a marketing background so she knows how to craft the perfect summary post, the perfect swag, the perfect contest. She’s good with expenditures and investing wisely. And she writes relentlessly, both solo and with collaborators. To me she’s got every kind of chops needed for this indie life.
All authors must be business people, but there’s always a question of how much time ya got, how much skill, and how much zeal. If you land an agent, you can gain an adviser in your business ventures who will also look at publishing contracts and let you know whether you need to change your tone on social media. I need all of that.
So Where Do You Place Your Persistence?
“I decided to play the game of rejection letters as if it were a great cosmic tennis math: Somebody would send me a rejection, and I would knock it right back over the net, sending out another query that same afternoon. My policy was: You hit it to me, I’m going to hit it straight back out into the universe.”“
Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
Indie authors I know never, ever give up on marketing and publicity. They never, ever give up on networking and making meaningful connections. For me, I placed that type of missionary zeal in my querying game.
When my second agent left the business last summer, I was devastated. It wasn’t just the loss of a great agent; it was landing in this place again. My first agent had many revision suggestions, but didn’t seem eager to shop my book out or respond to emails so we parted amicably. Then my second agent, who was a great editor and submitter, simply said “Peace out” to the business. Now she’s a fantastic developmental editor. So this last summer, when I faced the question of Will I query again? I won’t lie that this mountain looked massive. Two manuscripts had been on submission with my second agent, but no success. Honestly, I had a lot of questions for myself. As in
Why me, Lord?
Am I really up for a third round of querying?
Do I suck? Is that what the Universe is saying?
I decided that everyone has bad luck, that I do have the energy for a third round, and that the Universe may have no opinion on my talent, but I think I’m good. I decided I did want an agent for all of the above reasons. After the soul searching (which involved a lot Eckhart Tolle, Liz Gilbert, The Bible, and the 88 Cups of Tea podcast), I realized I had no other choice: Swing away. In the same way Merrill in Signs knew he had to whack that alien. In fact, he’d been waiting his whole life to do it.
Swing away every day! Says @fairchildhawks about her journey to find an #agent She's sharing her #tips for #authors who want to #publish traditionally. #pitmad #pitchwars #agents #amwriting #ampublishing #womeninpublishing Click To Tweet
Swing Away, Every Day
I found my calling again, and I set my teeth doing something that didn’t frustrate me. Each no just made me try again. Problems have to bring out your perverse toddler side for you to know you’re tackling the right kind. So from last July to this January, I sent out 131 queries.
I received nine total requests for fulls, and from some agents classified as “dealmakers” in the last few years.
I received 113 rejections, and several of them were personalized.
18 still haven’t sent a response as of today.
My stats have some basic strategy behind them:
Build a list of your priority agents, those who not only represent your genre but also show through Publishers Marketplace deals and their Manuscript Wish List that they’re looking for your particular type of story.
Polish that query to a high shine and get editorial help.
Query in regular rounds, each week.
Keep good notes, and look for patterns in the rejections if they’re personalized. Revise query as needed.
Use multiple mediums. Over the years I’ve tried
Pitch workshop (Chicago Writers Workshop)
and hear that others are successful there.
All three times, though, I’ve been found via the slush pile. And on January 31, 2019, I signed with Tara.
Before all this, it should go without saying that my manuscript was well edited. My prior agent edited the manuscript, and the book before that, I’d hired a developmental editor and went through revisions with the same agent. I also had beta readers. What I was shopping out was a manuscript that was ready for primetime.
For all the resources I found tremendously helpful during my journey, head here.
Another truth about stats from the traditional industry—one that will make every indie author clutch her self-published book to her chest and whisper, “Damn, I’m smart”—is that the odds of me “making it” this way aren’t really in my favor. As author and writing coach Lisa Cron recently shared on the Literaticast podcast (with agent Jennifer Laughran) it’s damn difficult—and unfair—how few great books make it through the agent or editor gauntlet.
“97 out of 100 people who sit down to write a first draft don’t make it to the end…3 people out of 100 are going to make that first draft. When you take that 3 percent and winnow that down to the number that do several drafts and really decide to pitch to an editor or an agent…The statistic I’ve heard out there is that 96% of that remaining 2% get rejected….How many really great manuscripts never see the light of day…It’s a crap shoot. It really is a crap shoot.”
Now that I am where I am, enjoying the view at this hard-fought, hard-earned bend in the trail that heads up an endless mountain, I stop and catch my breath. I remind myself how I love the exercise and how I’m really not attached to any particular vista at any particular point in the trail. They’re all beautiful.
What I’ve had to face on the most difficult parts of my journey are doubling down on the why I want to go traditional and deal with the rejection dance. Soon Tara and I will be putting my baby back into the world, a YA novel about a teen investigative reporter exposing corruption at her school. Audrey’s already had a run at some publishers but she’s getting revised and ready to go again. Because that’s what you do. You just keep working.
All of us know something about that.
Lyn Fairchild Hawks writes YA contemporary fiction and short stories. She is represented by Tara Gelsomino of One Track Literary Agency. A lifelong educator, Lyn also designs lessons, trains teachers, and makes Shakespeare accessible to students. You can find her at http://lynhawks.com
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Lyn Fairchild Hawks
Lyn Fairchild Hawks writes YA contemporary fiction and short stories about gifted, weird, and wise teens. She is the author of Minerda, a graphic novella about bullying, and a collaboration with illustrator Robin Follet. She is also author of How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, her debut novel where Michael Jackson fandom meets #metoo. Wendy’s back story appears in The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future, a collection of short stories. Lyn is a 2012 recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation grant and the 2011 James Jones First Novel Fellowship contest semifinalist. In her other life, Lyn’s an education geek who loves teaching and Shakespeare. She’s written Teaching Julius Caesar: A Differentiated Approach, and is co-author of The Compassionate Classroom: Lessons that Nurture Wisdom and Empathy and Teaching Romeo and Juliet: A Differentiated Approach. A former high school and middle school educator, Lyn designs curriculum and distance learning programs for gifted youth and runs the educator blog, Teachers Workshop. Learn more about her at lynhawks.com.