books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, January 1, 2012

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?

Click Here to go to the Fair
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.

44 comments:

  1. A heartfelt New Years cheer of congratulations! What an encouraging story! I'm book marking this so I can re-read it on days that I think I need to "forget about it!"

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  2. Hi Anne,

    Congratulations on your success in 2011. I'm sure 2012 will be even better. Your blog is always full of great tips and ideas - thanks so much.

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  3. Hi Anne,

    I'm doing the same thing as Dorothy! :)

    Happy New Year!

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  4. Dearest Miss Allen,
    Huzzah, I say & huzzah again! #40 & 2500 sales is fantabuloso. May things continue to look upward. I, too, was addicted to queries, & in the glory days of the paper literary magazine I also nursed an addiction to short story submissions (a 1-2 dozen a month habit). The latter paid off somewhat nicely, but the former has never been any better than the occasional I-may-be-really-high-soon-but-not-really trip.
    Keep up the fine work.

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  5. Anne, so glad you're off the query treadmill. As I tried to make clear in my "Rejection" post, these days most of the time—at least IME and IMO—rejections are meaningless. Publishing is now dependent on the "sure thing" & that means the known brand names. The days when publishers were in the business of finding talent, nurturing new writers & growing a brand are long gone.

    You're way too flattering & I want to correct you on one point. I was never #1 on the NYTbestseller list but I was a good, solid, middle-of-the-list NYTbestseller when that actually meant something. My books sold millions of copies, were translated into 19 languages and sold in over 25 countries—rarely possible in today's dead tree publishing except for writers like James Patterson & Stephen King.

    To conclude, I want to wish you, my wonderful partner, & all our terrific readers & commenters the best & happiest of new years.

    2012? Bring it on!!!!

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  6. Now that is persistence! I wouldn't have queried for that many years. I'm happy with my small publisher and if I can just give them one more decent book, the whole thing will have a been a success beyond my wildest imagination.

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  7. Dorothy--I kept telling myself the only way to fail was to quit.

    paul--Thanks. We'll continue to work to give positive, helpful information here.

    LK--Keeping at it is the way to success, and we have a lot more ways to do that now.

    CS--Those literary magazines are mostly dead now, I suppose. It's still a good way for a writer to start--submitting short stories. But I guess most are online now. And there are lots of story contests. Those are a good place to practice--and sometimes even get paid.

    Ruth--I've fixed that in the post. Your piece on rejection really hit home for me. Thanks so much for joining the blog this year. You've helped more than I can say.

    Alex--I guess I was kind of nuts. But it sure gave me a lot of time to polish those books.

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  8. Congratulations and best of luck on growing sales for 2012.

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  9. Thanks for the shout out, Anne!

    To query agents or not is a difficult one in the brave new world where agents are no longer key players.

    If you must go down this route, find agents who give a sensible time period during which they will respond. If an agent#s website says if you don't hear back it's a no, then they're not worth bothering with in the first place.

    If they don't accept email submissions for initial queries you need to ask if they even know there's an e-publishing revolution happening.

    No question the good ones are worth getting in with, but how does a new writer know which is which, and aren't all the good ones pretty much over-subscribed anyway?

    Small publishers can be great, and can be dreadful. Again, how is the new writer to know?

    And with everything in such flux, will last year's savvy small publisher have any meaningful role to play next year when the landscape will be so different?

    It's a writer-beware world out there.

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  10. Congratulations, Anne! You richly deserve your success.

    I hear you on the query madness. I did it for about a year before I just flat-out got bored with it. I know there are many other reasons to not look for an agent right now but the waiting and the boredom is the biggest reason why I gave up on it.

    I'm just so happy that there are so many other options. It's a wonderful time to be a writer!

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  11. Congratulations on a great year!
    I write for YA but I think it is very competive. You have to be real good.

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  12. Awesome! And Congrats on such a wonderful year. Each writer has to evaluate their writing and how it might or might not fit with NY publishing.

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  13. I had to laugh -- YOU as a Harlequin author -- it's just too funny. Did they even read the book?

    Anyway, congratulations! You deserve every single accolade, the highest praise, and 5-star review. You are a damn fine writer and I wish you the best!

    One question -- Now with all your books out on the market, what are you going to write next? (After a much deserved vacation of course.)

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  14. Well done Anne. And every one of your covers is great. I'm really impressed.

    I am right at the moment now where I decide to either query agents (UK) or bite the bullet and launch my own book. Let's just say I'm watching your career with interest!

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  15. Deb--Thanks--you, too.

    Mark--It's a writer beware world, all right. Do ALWAYS check the Writer Beware site--and ask around. Networking is a big help.

    Cynthia--You're right that agents aren't always the best path these days. At least not traditional agents.

    Vera--You're right that YA, like every other genre, is highly competitive. But at least you have a fighting chance. With most adult fiction--not so much.

    Laura--You're right. It's so important to look at the marketplace--not just what's selling to book buyers, but what's selling to New York. They have very specific tastes, which don't always seem based on logic.

    Anne--I think the only person who read the book was the unpaid high school kid who was interning. Those kids work hard, but a 14 or 15 year old doesn't have the necessary expertise, in my opinion.

    My next book? Working title is NO PLACE LIKE HOME--about a Martha Stewart type who loses everything and ends up homeless. She thinks her Ponzi-scheming ex-husband--supposedly dead in a fire--is alive and kicking. She wants to kick him back.

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  16. Thank you for telling us your story. It's one of the best HEA's I've ever read!
    Patti

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  17. Congratulations again Anne!! I had so much fun reading your book and working with you on the cover design! Let me know if you need a cover design in the future, I'd love to work with you again!

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  18. Huge congrats... goes to show what persistence can bring. Well done.

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  19. Neil--I'd strongly advise you to try the agent route first. UK agents are a different animal. They aren't all Hollywood-shark wannabes. Brits read more than any other English-speaking people, and older Brits read the most. UK agents care about who actually buys books, not just who might want to see the movie.

    Patricia--Thanks. I'm not figuring out what HEA means, but I probably will at 3 AM and feel like an idiot.

    Meghan--Loved working with you. FOL is my bestselling title and I'm sure your cover has something to do with that.

    tfwalsh--Thanks. I think the word is "stubborn."

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  20. Anne, this post is overwhelming...in the best manner. My novel is near completion and yet still undecided which route to go for publishing. How did it all get so complicated?!? But with each of your posts I learn a tad more and the jungle is slightly less bone-chilling.

    Thanks for all you do and congrats on your Novels!

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  21. This is an absolutely lovely post. It filled me with enthusiasm for the coming year, and the many possibilities open to me. Thanks Anne :-)

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  22. Welcome to the indie publishing party, Anne. The champagne is fine.

    You're bound to do great.

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  23. This is a fantastic must-read post for authors considering the Indie path! Thanks so much - and thank you for participating in our Indie Book Fair! Off to tweet now... :)

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  24. Congrats! Seems like the real trick here was to be aware that the paradigm had changed and be willing to take a new look, then change, too. Easy to say; often hard to do.

    May 2012 be a winner for all the ink-stained wretches in the world. Scribble on, you mighty pen warriors!

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  25. Thank you for the shout, Anne.

    You did things properly, you know. You're a very talented writer with a vision, who doesn't buy into fads. Since you took your time and picked your battles, you found the right agent and I'm very happy that The Gatsby Game is getting the love it deserves!

    To a productive 2012!

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  26. Donna and Sarah--I think everybody should try the agent route first, unless you know you've written for a non-trending niche market. If so, you might want to look for a small publisher that addresses that niche (there are lots of great small publishers for cozy mysteries, for instance.) Self-publishing is great, but I think it's best to explore all the options while you build inventory. It's hard to make it with one book. But the great thing is we now have many options.

    PV--I did indeed do some celebrating with bubbly this week. Thanks!

    Susan--Thanks much for the Tweet. Hope the Bookfest is a great success!

    Chura--Exactly. We all need to be aware that everything is in a state of flux. What works this week may not work next week. We have to keep on our toes.

    Ben--Again, thanks bunches for your great review. You're right that I don't do fads. I've even tried, but it's not how my muse works. I always have to be a little different.

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  27. You are such an inspiration Anne. I think that your blog is extremely informative and you're absolutely right on the money with how the query process works and turns out for many of us. It's like you can see into my brain.

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  28. Congratulations on all your hard work finally paying off, Anne, I'm so glad you didn't give in to the rewrites. You're telling the story(ies) you love and they're out there, and that is so inspiring.

    Reminds me, Food of Love is on my Kindle, I have to get back to reading it soon (it's been crazy around here- or that should be I've been crazy around here *smirk*)

    xoxo and Happy New Year!
    bru

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  29. Thanks for sharing your story, Anne. I’m so glad things are going your way! You have earned great success.

    I, too, have been on that query treadmill, though not as whole hog as you describe. I would have loved to have an agent/editor invested both financially and emotionally in my work, helping to make it the best it can be. But it’s become pretty obvious after many nice rejections (some after full requests) that this is a dream I need to put into my past. I’ve decided to devote more time to perfecting my work and less time perfecting my query.

    Here’s to a better 2012!

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  30. Michael--It's true that I can see into your brain. So stop thinking that. Right now. No, that. :-) The query process is a learning curve. It's not all bad. It's just that some of us have trouble letting go.

    Bru--Thanks for stopping by. I haven't been getting to my friends' blogs much recently, for obvious reasons, but I've been thinking about you. I do hope you like Food of Love. Happy New Year to you, too.

    Dawn--Oh yeah! I forgot to mention that whole aspect of the addiction. I spent more time writing my query than I did writing books. Plus reading about how to write queries. And parsing every agent's blog to try to find that hidden key. It gets insane, doesn't it? Better year coming up. I can feel it.

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  31. I love the lineup of all your covers! What a beautiful sight, huh? You have earned all of the acalaids and sales. Congrats on your success! Well, well done!

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  32. Huzzah, Anne! Thanks for sharing your story. I never got on the query treadmill, but I do know submission hell all too well. Having attempted to enter the marketplace during the early months of the economic crash, I also had to bouy myself through dozens of positive rejections from traditional publishers who couldn't find the right pigeon hole to stuff my work into. Whether its indie, self-publishing, coop press, or some other new publishing venture (like my deal with Amazon Publishing), I have to say there have never been so many opportunities. As we writers have alwasy known, there is room in the marketplace for every story. And now, finally, maybe even a publisher for every book.

    Congratulations!!

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  33. Congrats, Anne, on publishing five books in three months while keeping this blog going every week! That's absolutely phenomenal. Sounds like you have a very bright 2012 ahead of you. And thanks so much to the links to David Gaughran and Kristen's Lamb's posts.

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  34. Hi Anne - and thanks for another inspirational post. I agree with all you say, and was a query addict myself for more years than I care to mention - like most writers, my career has been a switchback - every time you have a success, you think you've made it. But you soon realise that it doesn't work like that (or only for a lucky few!) I would only take slight issue with one of your comments - and it's a sad observation. I'm afraid in my experience UK agents are quickly going the way of US agents, and even when they aren't, writers still have a big problem, because you can spend years of your working life looking for an agent only to discover that even WITH an agent, however supportive, it's almost impossible to get a publishing deal now unless you are a stunning young debut writer, working in a very limited number of genres in a very specific way. I've blogged about it myself. My last agent said of one of my novels. 'This is wonderful. If I can't sell this, I'm in the wrong job.' I got that lovely 'high' you describe. But of course the book still got a string of rave rejections. (I'll be publishing it myself on Kindle in spring 2012)
    When I began my working life as a reasonably successful playwright, back in the 1980s, my then agent advised me about my career, he was a tough negotiator, but although he would offer general observations about scripts, he wouldn't have dreamed of becoming my 'editor'. He never saw that as his job. Somewhere between the 80s and 2000 all that changed and by the time I was writing more prose than plays, my new agent - although indisputably a good editor - spent most of her time trying to change me into an instant hit,(she described it herself as looking for an 'oven ready product' which should have told me something!) rather than working with the writer I am and helping me to both improve and place the work - which would probably, at that time, have meant looking at small independent publishers. I'm still grateful to her - she taught me a lot - but this year I've decided to remove myself from the query merry-go-round and go completely indie. I'm indisputably a mid-list writer, and even in the UK, conventional publishing has largely abandoned the mid-list in favour of the obsessive hunt for the instant blockbuster. But I do agree with you that when writers are starting out, they need some help - publishing an unready manuscript to Kindle is a very public way of making the mistakes we all make. All the same, I'm beginning to think that employing the services of a freelance editor might be the best way. It's something I would certainly consider doing myself with future manuscripts. A good editor is beyond price - but I've come to realise that the editor has to be on your side - and not trying inexorably to change you into something you aren't.

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  35. Roberta--It's all about not giving up, isn't it? Congrats on your deal with Amazon Publishing for Well of Tears. And congrats to your agent for her perseverance. Yes, some agents really do keep working until they get you a deal!

    Meghan--Congrats to you too, and with your planned publication of Paris on $10,000 a Day, I know your 2012 will be great, too.

    Catherine--Thanks much for taking the time to write such a long and thoughtful comment. I have to admit I haven't been in the UK for a few years, and I seem to have been operating on old information. Still, there are good agents everywhere, if you have the luck to find one (like Roberta above.)

    But you're right that just as editors turned editing over to agents 20 years ago, now agents are turning the job over to the writers themselves. And if you have to hire your own editor, you might as well self-publish--especially if you're an established author with inventory, as you are. I don't recommend it for a first-time novelist, though. I think giving yourself time to build inventory is essential.

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  36. Happy New Year and huge congratulations!! You really deserve this and I think it's really apt that it was on the back of this blog that you got published. I definitely think this is the right option for you, as you said yourself, it's not your writing but the market!

    I'm so happy for you, and you give me hope too :)

    Here's to 2012 being even better :)

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  37. Christine--I skipped you up there. Posts must have crossed. You had a lot to do with it. You're so much a part of this blog, since your photo is on the header. This is something that can't be done without a lot of help from our friends, so thanks a whole lot!

    Emily--You, too. You were one of my very first blogfriends. You helped me get this blog started! It's your turn. Hoping for great things for you in 2012!

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  38. Happy 2012, Anne! I wish you lots of continued success.
    -Lee

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  39. Five days late, but Happy New Year, Anne. I think I was on the same Hamster wheel you were. I have so many 'good' rejections I can wall paper a good size room with them. The last one said, 'your writing is brilliant, but-(what for it)I can't sell this story." Crickets are indeed, chirping very loudly. Say what?
    That was over a year ago, and I was ready to quit. But then indie came along, and I'm ready to launch my first solo in Feb. Things happen for a reason. I guess this was it.

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  40. I've been trying to write this week rather than read online but wow! I'm so glad I didn't miss this blog! Thank you for excellent thoughts yet again. I've been on the query treadmill for a while and keeping hope alive is increasingly difficult (the subject of my last week's blog).

    Thank you for clear thinking and new directions.

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  41. Lee R--Thanks much.

    Lee L--Best of luck with your first indie book. I can't wait to read it!

    Maggie--I'll have to go check out your blog. I guess I'm not one to give advice about when to get off the hamster wheel, since I stayed on way too long. But that doesn't mean people shouldn't give it a good fighting chance. I'm sure you did the right thing to try that first.

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  42. I've said it before, but you deserve to hear it again--Congratulations, Anne!!! You're a lovely inspiration to the writing world :0). I'm looking forward to reading your books.
    -m

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  43. Wishing you all the best for the new year, Anne. I see you've started with a blast. Lots of brain fodder here.

    As to the querying process. I didn't go for very long before I was disillusioned. I realized shortly after I started, that location and culture might prove challenging to market.

    Luckily, I narrowed my focus to publishers I thought would understand what I was selling. That worked for me. Since then, I haven't made much of an effort to send out queries. Will I go that route again. Not sure right now.

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