I was recently asked, when should an author stop querying a project and move on to the next?
Great question. The answers you get will be subjective. Meaning, everyone has a different answer and no opinion will work for everyone. Just like you can’t get everyone to like your book.
The agent you are querying not only has to love your writing, he/she must love your plot and believe they can sell it to a good publisher. It is the agent you are querying who decides if it passes all their checkmarks. Then, they have to find the right acquiring editor to take a chance on it, but oftentimes, the editor then has to take it to a table meeting and convince their colleagues to bring on the project. That’s a lot of people to please.
Those people at Top 5 publishers and their imprints can help with marketing and exposure that is very difficult for indies to compete with. They have a marketing team, connections, brick and mortar stores, swag, and best of all, a larger budget. If you prefer to be traditionally published for those reasons, I say, go for it.
Some people know right away that they want to self-publish. This is not for them. This is for the people who want to be traditionally published or don’t know yet if it’s possible for them.
My first advice is this: Finish that book. Make sure it’s done and been through beta readers. Make sure that it’s been edited…more than once. When your book is the best it’s going to be, you are ready to query. Do NOT rush this step. You get ONE chance to impress an agent per book. Be sure it’s your best chance.
Some people query twenty agents, some query hundreds of agents. I believe you should query in rounds of about fifty. Do not send to more than one agent per agency at a time. And make sure that the agency sells books to well-known publishers. Target your agents well. Go to: www.manuscriptwishlist.com to find agents who are looking for your genre. Click on the search tab, click agents, and then your genre, then search. The page will not refresh. Just scroll down. (Do not click on editors, those are acquiring editors at publishing houses, and most won’t accept un-agented submissions.)
The reason for keeping your rounds smaller initially is that if you get an offer from one agent, you must let all the other agents know. That way, if they are interested, they can throw in a bid for your book. (Best case scenario.) At that point, you can email any other of your favorite choices and let them know you’ve had an offer, but you would really love to know if they are interested.
But sometimes, one has been querying for rounds and rounds and not getting back any acceptances. Have you gotten ANY feedback about the book or your writing that may help? Gather the consensus of opinions, if you have any, and consider making those changes. Halt querying and work on your professional query letter, your blurb, the things that are not pulling agents in. Have someone critique these things for you. Be positive the agents are seeing your book in its best light. Make sure your first pages introduce setting and characters, capture attention, show clear plot structure, and entice the reader with action.
Then query again. You owe yourself and your book the second chance. Once it is published, you can’t turn around and change your mind. Find more agents and query again. Maybe try www.mswishlist.com or www.QueryTracker.net for more choices.
You will know when you are done querying. At some point you say to yourself, I want to be published and this is not happening.
I, personally, say not to give up- if your dream is Top 5 or imprint, then revise and submit, revise and submit, until you make it. Never give up.
But I know that most of us do. I did. I was told that I couldn’t do any better than what I got. So I settled. Do NOT settle. This is your book baby. Getting a big publisher after having a small one, is extremely difficult. So is trying to query your self-published book. Publishers will not take books out of series, and many publishers have a clause in their contract that gives them first rights to publish whatever you write next with the same characters or world. It’s best to do it right the first time.
Can dream publishing scenarios happen? Yes. Does it happen? Yes. Does it happen to best-sellers? Yes. Does it happen to regular Joe Smith and his Pilot Dreams of Yonder? Not usually enough to bank on. But even if you’re like me and you already have a book out by a small press, you can always write a new series and take it to agents. Just don’t forget to market the heck out of your first book(s) because the agents will be concerned with your sales information on previously published works.
Only you can know when it’s time to pull the plug and move on. I believe, if you cannot get your dream of a big publisher, that you should self publish. I have looked at Draft2Digital and it seems legit. I would use them myself.
Why self-publish rather than accept a small press? At least I will be published, right?
Many small publishers are regular people who began to self-publish themselves or someone else on CreateSpace or another self-publishing site. They learned that if they make themselves a company, they can publish others’ books for free as well, and keep 50-70% of the profits. They may also attach prices to your own book when buying for yourself, to cover their costs from formatting or cover artistry, whether you hired a cover artist or not. They can lock you into a contract for your series that you can’t get out of.
Small publishers are notorious for having little to no budget for marketing, so you, as the author, will be doing all your own marketing. You will be contacting betas, bloggers, book groups, libraries, conferences, doing the marketing budget and all promotion by yourself. And it is hard to see what promotion is working when you don’t have access to your own sales information.
If you were going to be published on a self-publishing site and doing all your own marketing, why wouldn’t you want to keep all your own money?
So I guess the question comes down to: do you want to make changes and query again in hopes of a deal? Or do you want to stop, settle for what you’ve got, and start making some money on it?
The choice is yours.
But if you have more questions, let me know in the comments…
6 thoughts on “Agent Questions Fifteen: When to Stop Querying”
I have tried, tried and tried. I’m under no delusions of being a Pulitzer-caliber writer, but I’ve seen enough of other local folks’ writing to know I’m above average. I’m meticulous about adhering to submission guidelines, but cannot get past the polite, generic form rejection letters. I don’t want to give up, but it’s been over a hundred pitches, three different novels, the past few years. I don’t want to sell myself short, but…how do you know when it’s time to invest in another endeavor? I cannot help but wonder, sometimes, how much baby literary agents are flushing with the bathwater.
Hi Jesse. Sorry for such a long message. I hear you. For some of it, you’ve hit the nail on the head. One must be VERY careful when choosing agents, because if they don’t already know a great novel when they see one, they will pass over manuscripts that may fill a niche or be a great book in a category they aren’t familiar with. Some agents work with just a few genres, but specialize in them, and they are terrific agents for that genre, but I wouldn’t send them something they don’t represent. It’s hard though, when you look up someone and vet them well from their manuscript wishlist, just to query and find that they haven’t updated their preferences and are no longer taking your genre. It’s hard.
The thing is, there shouldn’t be any “baby agents.” When done the right way, and gone through the right channels, you cannot be labeled an “agent” until you have proven that you have the skill to do so. Those are the reputable agencies. And they often have the connections to get you a Top 5 contract. But if that’s not what you’re going for, you don’t need an agent at all to use a small publisher. (You don’t WANT an agent with a small publisher, that’s in another post.) I am assuming though, because your writing is above average, that you are shooting for a larger publisher.
I always suggest buying a one-month subscription from http://www.publishersmarketplace.com for $25. When you do that, a button in the menu to the left appears called “Dealmakers.” When I was an agent, anytime we made a deal, we reported it. In “Dealmakers” you can see every deal recorded by every agent and publisher. The big guys generally always use this. From this information, you can see which agents/agencies have the connections, and are actually MAKING deals with Top 5 publishers. Not all agencies have these connections, even though their site may say they do, and some go to a lot of trouble to hide the fact that they can’t make these deals. But Publisher’s Marketplace is factual. You can see who works with whom and who has sold what in what genre. If you are querying, I highly suggest shelling out the $25 and getting down all the info you can.
I wrote a post in March about “how an agent can tell if they like your book by reading only one chapter.” It’s in the Journey to a Bestseller Series (#34.5). I wrote that one with my agent hat on, and tried to think of what I look for in a manuscript submission. I tell you what, Jesse, DM me in the contact form, and we can talk some more about it and maybe you can show me what you’re using for your query submissions. I’m happy to give some advice on whether I think your trouble is with the query, synopsis, or sample pages. And we can figure out what the problem is. If you don’t NEED a Top 5 contract and just want to say you’re traditionally published and know you’re going to have to work on marketing, a small publisher is fine. Some small publishers do more than others. Always contact a few authors to see if they’ve had a good experience or if the publisher did a good job with their marketing.
As I’ve mentioned before, agents have the job of connecting you with a publisher, and negotiating a complicated contract. However, in small publishing, you can query them yourself for free, and have better results, AND small publishers, for the most part, use a standard non-negotiable contract. Catch that? NON-NEGOTIABLE. It’s a sign it or don’t situation. There isn’t much negotiating for the agent to do at all. You can look up literary contract law on writer’s sites and discover the two or three important things for you to look for. Like, if they want an exorbitant amount for their percentage, say no. Tell them what you will accept. If they don’t include free author copies, tell them you want some. There really are only a handful of items that you have any control over.
There are more reasons you don’t want to mix agents and small publishers, but in general, in this business, if you can do it yourself for free, you can save yourself a lot of time and money. Out of the last 45 books I have edited for the small publishing house, only ONE had an agent. Instead of pushing through the funnel just to GET an agent, make sure they can do what you need them to do–before you enter the funnel for a publisher. And if you want a small publisher, skip that agent funnel altogether. Those are the contracts that “baby agents” are making. They don’t have the connections to get what you want, so skip them.
Excellent post! I am in something of the same position as Jesse who posted back in 2019. My beta readers (not friends or family) loved my manuscript. It has a solid, easy to describe hook. And yet, I am not getting anything back from my query and first chapter other than form rejections. I know something is not grabbing agents, but it’s hard to zero in on the fix.
Hi Andy! Thanks for your comment. If you’re not grabbing the agents and getting asked for the full manuscript, then there’s something about your query that isn’t grabbing them and making them want to know more. I am happy to help. One thing to remember, is that the query itself is meant for one thing, and that is to “hook” the agent into thinking, “I want to know more.” Then they look at your synopsis to see if you have rising action and a good plot, with climax and resolution, and your sample writing shows them your voice and they can judge whether they think you can pull off the synopsis. One of my other posts may help: https://jenniferhaskin.com/2020/03/30/journey-to-a-bestseller-how-an-agent-can-read-one-chapter-and-know-if-your-book-is-any-good-series-35/. We’ll figure it out. Also, when writing your query, as with writing your Amazon description, think about a movie preview voice in your head, “In a land far, far away, two women form a pact to battle the evil forces of…” etc. etc. Make it dramatic. Go all out. This will help “hook” the reader (agent) into thinking, “Whoa, that sounds interesting. What else?” If you can get them to have questions, you are on a roll. They will read on, searching for the answers.