Confessions of a Former Query Addict

Happy 2012! 

What a year it’s been. Exactly a year ago, I woke on New Year’s Day to one of those emails that used to flood my brain with a mix of adrenalin, serotonin, and hope—a burst of euphoria that somehow made my life of constant rejection bearable. It’s a high only an aspiring author knows.

There it was in my inbox on New Year's morning—a positive response to a query I’d sent to an agent months before: 

 “Your writing is delightful, and your characters are original and inviting. I would cheerfully read anything you wrote. I think you’re very talented…” I started to squee and do a happy dance.

Then I read on. It was a no.

The agent was turning it down because “the market has become unforgiving of the isolated well-written mystery. Series do better.”

But…it was one of my Camilla Randall mysteries! The only reason I hadn’t mentioned it is I knew a querier shouldn’t mention more than one book at a time. A major no-no. So I wrote back, groveling, saying the book was indeed part of a series—would she, pretty please, like to read book one?

Two days later I got a yes. I sent off the ms. for The Best Revenge.

...and never heard another word.

For all I know, the manuscript is still sitting in some unpaid intern’s e-slush pile.

I continued on this hamster wheel for another—I hate to admit this—eight months, sending out query after query to every agent who’d ever sold a mystery like mine. This on top of four previous years of query hell. Yes, that adds up to nearly five years. (My first publisher went under in 2006.)

And before I found that publisher, I’d spent much of the late ’90s and early ’00’s doing the same thing. Several queries took, and I was represented for much of that time, so instead of query hell, I’d lived in submission hell—another neighborhood in the same arrondissement of Hades, with slightly more prestigious real estate.

It was like being addicted to a drug. Those few “yes” responses--a request for a partial here, a full there, an "I love this, but..." glowing rejection--gave me the highs that kept me going and going, hoping for that one big score.

But I was saved by an accidental intervention by three people: my blog partner Ruth Harris, editor Les Smith at Popcorn Press, and author/editor/international entrepreneur Mark Williams at MWiDP.

Ruth’s comments here on the blog and elsewhere were my first wake-up call. Here was a bestselling author whose work I loved, who had made it to the pinnacle of writerly success—the New York Times bestseller list. She’d also been an editor at several of the Big Six houses. And she’d walked away from all of it in order to self publish. I had to admit maybe there was something to this indie thing.

Then I heard from Popcorn Press—a small indie publisher whose editor liked my blog, admired my professionalism, and wanted a look at my backlist. It took me a few months, but finally I offered them my two backlist titles.

But for my three new titles, I was still jonesing for that big score. I clung to hopes that my latest—the Hollywood mystery, The Gatsby Game—would finally land me an agent. I figured since it offered a solution to one of the ten most notorious Hollywood mysteries of all time—which is still unsolved—New York might see some potential money in it.

In September, I finally got that offer I’d been dreaming of for five years. Here was my big score--an offer of representation!

But it came with an astronomical price tag. The agency wanted a total rewrite. Not an edit. A tear-it-up-and-start-over rewrite. I was going to have to eliminate all mystery elements, humor, gay characters, and ties to the real Hollywood scandal. They wanted a simple, Harlequin-type romance.

Not only was I going to have to give up the story I’d been aching to tell for decades, I was also going to have to erase my own personality: squelch all my Dorothy Parker snark to become Barbara Cartland-sweet

It took me three days, but I finally had to admit the price of that fix was too high.

Enter Mark Williams. He had read Sherwood, Ltd as a favor, to check for the accuracy of my Brit dialogue. He loved it. And it seemed he was starting a new international publishing venture. He made me an offer on all three books—to launch before Christmas.

By Christmas.

Not maybe-get-an-agent-someday and possibly-publish-three-years-later-if-you're-really-lucky. He wanted to publish all of my new books in the next three months. He also wanted quite a bit of editing (Les at Popcorn wanted some, too.) But these were real edits: aimed at improving the books, not just wedging them into some marketer’s wish list. Still, doing them in that time frame--while promoting the other books--seemed deeply bonkers.

I said yes anyway.

The last three months have been a brain-frying marathon, but somehow, all five books were e-published between Sept 28th and Dec. 28th.  An amazing example of teamwork. Thanks Les and Mark! Look what we did!

I also must to thank Laura Morrigan of Covers by Laura, Megan Derico of Derico Photgraphy and Katheryn Smith at Popcorn for designing such fantastic covers.

All five novels should be available in paper early this year from Popcorn. I love the quality of the paper copies Popcorn has done for Food of Love—while keeping the price under $10. I hope they’ll be able to do the same for the others..

And I also have to mention the two anthologies that came out in the same three months. Saffina Desforges Presents, from Mark Willams and co. and Indie Chicks from the fantastic group of independent women authors brought together by the hard-working Cheryl Shireman (to read her inspiring piece, check out my INDIE CHICKS PAGE

And I owe a huge amount of thanks my wonderful blog partner, Ruth Harris, for keeping this blog going while I was going a little nuts over the past three months. (OK, a lot nuts.)

Am I saying you should all stop the agent query process and start looking at small publishers? Not at all. For one thing, you generally have to query them, too. And if you’re considering that route, remember small publishers vary wildly. Read the contract carefully and have it checked by a lawyer or publishing professional. They should be offering a much better royalty than Big Six, because there will be no advance.

The biggest drawback with a lot of small publishers is the price of the books to consumers—often close to $20 for a paperback. It’s very hard to sell many units at that price. Ditto high-priced ebooks. Anything over $5 is a very hard sell for a non-name author, so be sure to check a publisher’s prices before you query.

But for me, this route has been like getting off a drug that was killing me. There’s a saying attributed to everybody from Freud to Einstein (but probably penned by Rita Mae Brown) that says “the definition of insanity is expecting different results from the same behavior.”

That’s what I was doing, sending out those endless queries.

From that agent’s rejection I got a year ago today, I should have realized I wasn’t on the right path. Nothing was wrong with my writing, but my work was never going to fit into the wish lists of the Big Six, who are increasingly focusing on a younger demographic.  

But readers are another story. I’m building momentum with steady sales, and when MWiDP offered The Gatsby Game free for four days on the KDP direct plan last week, it hit #40 in contemporary fiction and got over 2500 downloads. And now The Best Revenge is climbing the charts.

I'm not against the query process. I still think most new writers benefit from it, and it's still the most reliable path to a professional writing career. But we also need to know when to quit and try something different..

If you’re young and write YA, especially steampunk or another trending genre, there’s a very good chance you’ll land an agent and maybe even a contract with a Big Six publisher. But if, like me, you’ve built up solid inventory and are getting the same “this is beautifully written, but…” results, it may be time to give up the query addiction and take charge of your own career.

And maybe next year, instead of waking up to one more close-but-no-cigar rejection, you’ll have a bunch of your very own titles on Amazon, available to readers and actually making you some money.

And maybe you’ll even get some good reviews, which are a better high than even a request for a full manuscript. Seriously--way better. I am lucky enough to have had some fantastic reviews from people whose opinions I value highly, like Irish author Gerry McCulloughCanadian reviewer Benoit Lelievre at Dead End Follies Regency Romance author Anne Gallagher, and Book Blogger Donna Hole  Many thanks to you as well as all the other wonderful readers who have left such great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

For a great overview of this tumultuous year in publishing, I recommend David Gaughran’s superb wrap-up post on what happened in self-publishing in 2011.

And if you’re considering indie publishing, read Kristen Lamb’s wonderful post on the subject last week.

How about you, scriveners? Have you ever been addicted to the query process? How long do you think a person should keep querying before they look for another path?

This week I’ll be joining in Susan Kaye Quinn’s Internet Indie Book Festival. She’ll be providing readers with a look at some brand new indie titles for your new Christmas Kindle (I got mine! Love it!) Stop by for a look at some great new, affordable books that were released in November and December.

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