When I’m working with authors pursuing traditional publishing, a very common question often comes up: “When will I know it’s time to give up?”
As in: when will the author know when it’s a “no” from the traditional publishing world and it’s time to move on to other options?
This is a trickier question than it might seem at first blush. Yes, there’s a finite number of reputable agents who represent your genre, but these days that number might stretch into a hundred agents or more. You may well decide to stop querying before reaching the end of your list.
I’m going to get into the ins and outs of this, but when to stop querying really boils down to this: you’ll just know it’s time. So when you’re at the start of the process it’s not something you need to worry about.
The spectrum of scenarios
It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen when you start querying. You might receive multiple offers within a week (but probably not) or you might be stuck in a querying abyss for years. (Literally. That’s not hyperbole.)
Even when querying works out and you find your dream agent, the road getting there will probably be extremely confusing and a bit tortuous.
In other words, it’s unlikely you’ll go through some orderly process where you just work your way down your list of agents, get to the last name, dust off your shoulders, and move on to your next project.
Instead, you may end up in very confusing cul-de-sacs: following up endlessly with agents who have your manuscript or proposal, offered the chance to make revisions that you may feel uncertain about, or any number of other permutations. The process is anything but standard and orderly.
When you know, you know
At some point, if it’s not going to happen you’re just going to know you’re finished.
It might not even be when you expect it to happen. When I queried the first novel I wrote, a prominent agent wanted to work with me on a revision. If you’d told me before I started querying that this would happen, I would have been ecstatic.
But when I stared that editorial letter in the face, I realized I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t feel like I could pull it off, I had an idea for another project (which ended up becoming Jacob Wonderbar), and I didn’t have the energy for a revision. Not only that, I pulled my manuscript from the other agents who were considering it.
I was just done. I felt a little crazy to stop at that stage, but I’m ultimately glad I trusted my instincts.
Listen to what your gut’s telling you, and act accordingly. Don’t let your anxieties rule the day and give yourself some time to think it over, but at some point you’ll arrive at a decision.
Tips for pivoting
If the query process isn’t going as well as you might have hoped, here are some tips for pivoting and adjusting your strategy:
- If you’re not getting any requests, revisit your query. If you’ve sent out 12-15 query letters and you haven’t received any requests for your manuscript or proposal after a few months, there’s probably something fundamentally wrong with your query letter or the project itself. It’s a good time to seek out some additional feedback.
- Follow up with agents who have your manuscript or proposal. It’s not customary to follow up with agents who don’t respond to your query (many/most agents have “no response means no” policies), but if an agent has requested your manuscript or proposal, it’s imperative that you follow-up until you either get a response or you get tired of following up. Don’t just let your project drift in the wind.
- If you reach the end of the road, consider your options. Even if you’re dead set on traditional publishing, nearing the end of the querying road might mean considering going directly to publishers who accept un-agented submissions. Or, it might be time to consider self-publishing or hybrid publishing.
It’s impossible to cover every scenario. The industry is anything but predictable, and a lot will come down to your goals and priorities.
But at some point, your path will illuminate.
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Art: Alexander Nasmyth – A View of Tantallon Castle