Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, January 12, 2009

Picking Droplets From a Fire Hose

I have to admit that I was surprised by some of the responses to last week's discussion about queries. There's so much angst out there as authors struggle to find agents that some writers adopt an ends-justify-the-means mindset and think there's something wrong the entire process if their queries don't work.

But as I said in the comments section of Thursday's post, every successful debut book should be viewed on the order of a minor miracle. It's like throwing a manuscript across a river of paper-eating snakes and crocodiles and hoping that all the pages reach the other side. Success is hard and rare, and there is an incredible array of obstacles along the way.

Success is not the default, and success does not come easily.

And yet so many aspiring authors don't approach the business in this fashion. They expect success. They feel that they've earned success simply by completing a novel they think is good. And they feel that if they are not easily finding success something is wrong.

Then you start hearing things like agents don't know what they're doing, the query process is stupid, the publishing industry is going down the tubes because they won't publish MY book, etc. etc.

The system is not perfect, but it's also not broken. In fact it's working precisely as it should: It's winnowing tens of thousands of projects down to the few that are published. There are far more novels out there than can realistically be sold to publishers. Far, far, far, far more. To paraphrase Sean Lindsay, there are too many writers and not enough readers. Getting published is not supposed to be easy.

If there were a more effective system of winnowing down thousands of submissions than referrals and query letters I'd love love love nothing more than to find it and use it (and Jennifer Jackson agrees). But in order to decide if I'm interested in taking a look at a manuscript I need to know two things: what the book is about and whether the author can write well. And I need to know those things as quickly as possible because I have a million other things to do. That's precisely the point and function of a query letter. If the query did not exist, God would have to invent it.

It's not fun to be winnowed. But don't blame the winnowers. Just keep at it. And while you're at it, try and enjoy the process. Life's too short.

Please respect the system. It's there for a reason.


Bill Womack said...

It's hard not to go through bouts of bitterness from time to time as a writer. Sadly, agents tend to be the object of our angst by virtue of occupying the next rung up in the literary food chain.

A few years into the writing process, I've finally begun to relax a little and enjoy the process itself rather than obsessing on publication. It might not have improved my writing, but it's certainly made it more fun to do. Keep up the great work, Nathan.

Marsha said...

In the UK, agents usually ask you to send your cover letter (query), synopsis, and first three chapters -- all by post. The whole thing usually costs at least £3, double that if you include an SAE. It is a big cost for any writer if you query even ten agents.

Often my submissions have been returned back to me, unopened, since the agent isn't accepting new clients. (And yes, I did check the website before sending).

So to me, the US system seems far more expedient and writer friendly. Hope the UK follows suit!

Anita said...

Is it just me or does The Bachelor offer a fabulous analogy to the whole finding-a-debut-writer proces...particularly when writers who get dumped at the query complain, "But he didn't get a chance to know me!"

BJ said...

Very good post, Nathan.

Lee said...

Here's the flipside:

Be a bookseller with a major chain. You read books every day not just because you love to read, but also to have recommendations ready.

Enter the author who wrote the next big thing. They brag how they've passed up the publishing world and gone with a small, independent "subsidized" (i.e. self) publisher who recognizes the power of their story. They claim their independence, but probably the publishing world said "no" for a reason.

This author ends up with me because I read the most in the store and he's not taking "no" from other booksellers. He hands me a copy of his book (not to keep and preview, but just to look at - he can't afford to lose money on a single copy). I ask if he wants objective feedback, since he's so certain he's going to outsell Stephen King, he adamantly agrees.

It doesn't matter if the story is great: the cover most likely looks awful and the blurb on the back reads like a bad movie trailer ("In a world..."). The author does not want to hear that and pushes to have me take a chance on him. To appease him, I look the book up in the system.

The book is most likely listed as a POD, the publisher does not take returns so we can't order it into the store even if I wanted to take a chance on it : any unsold copies become trash when we do book pulls.

However, the author does not understand that and becomes abusive claiming that big chains are ruining the creative world. When I finally give in and read the first chapter on the spot, he becomes even more indignant because I point out that he needs an editor to tighten up his opening pages: pages that make or break a book regardless on how good it is. Most likely, his sentence structure makes me wince and I'm confused by a logic error or two.

In the end, he leaves in a huff - especially if I give him the name and number of a writer's group that could assist him through the publishing process.

In a few weeks, a caller special orders 5 copies of this book (most likely leaving a wrong number) and an unknowing bookseller orders them. After 20 days, the unclaimed books make it to the bookshelf where they sit for 90 days before being pulled and marked down. They sit on the mark down table for 20 days before being trashed.

The publishing process is there for a reason. If the query letter doesn't grab, then the book isn't going to either. The process isn't perfect, but it does weed out the writer's who can't tell a story - no matter how compelling.

Aspiring authors need to get into a writers group where they're told the truth: if they have a story to tell the group will support them through the process. If they don't have a story to tell, they can stop and think before trying again.

I left the bookselling world to teach, but plan to go back in a year or so and I don't expect it to have changed in the time I've been gone.

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks for that breakdown, Lee. Very interesting to hear things from the other side.

nonich said...

Your twitter entry says "Getting published is not supposed to be easy."

That's an interesting way of looking at it, and not surprising since you're on the publishing end of it. It's different from my perspective. To me, getting a great idea is not supposed to be easy. Developing it in interesting and unique ways is not supposed to be easy. Writing in clear, clean, interesting, arresting language is not supposed to be easy. Once we've managed all that, finding a publisher is supposed to be easy. To me, this whole rigmarole is like spending three years in law school only to find that you have to cross an obstacle course to get to the bar exam.

Nathan Bransford said...


It is hard coming up with a good idea, it's hard writing a novel, it's hard to find an agent, it's hard to find a publisher, it's hard for the publisher to convince booksellers to take on the book in the numbers they want, it's hard for the bookseller to sell the book, it's hard for a book to become a bestseller.

It's one big obstacle course in which you have to beat out other books every step of the way. To use a sports metaphor, it's March Madness with a 1,000,000 book field. Make it to the next round and there are 500,000. Make it to the next round and there are 250,000. And you have to win every game.

freddie said...

I find thinking about statistics of success too worrying, since it's impossible for me to control, anyway. So I try to concentrate on writing the best story I can.

Lee said...

Nathan said:

"To use a sports metaphor, it's March Madness with a 1,000,000 book field. Make it to the next round and there are 500,000. Make it to the next round and there are 250,000. And you have to win every game."

You forgot to mention that all the while your first book is playing the game, you MUST be working on your second book to have ready should your first book makes it to a bookseller's hand.

At least in the mystery genre (my favorite) where series are the norm, it helps tremendously if the bookseller can say: "And book 2 is due out in 8 months!" Unknown authors are tough to sell - even by hand - and very few readers will take chances on them. If the book is in hardback, it's near-impossible to sell...unless the bookseller knows that another one is on the way. For some reason, readers will take chances if they believe the publisher is also willing to take chances.

Years ago, I heard a well-known romance writer (Jayne Ann Krentz, I think?) say how she always had one book in editing, one book in the process of writing, two or three query letters out for various books, and several more ideas perking in her inspiration folder.

I would add to that, you should also be reading in the genre that you're writing for.

Dara said...

Great post! I do understand the bouts of bitterness that all writers go through, but the process does work, even if it doesn't work for all of us.

I think some writers need to realize that the process is long and hard and that success is not a guarantee.

And I'm saying all of this as an unpublished, unagented writer. :P

Crimogenic said...

I've not had success with the query yet, but I do understand the need for some type of system to narrow down the playing field. All books written won't be published, that's a fact. Writers will just have to deal with that. It's okay to be frustrated at times, but take that energy and use it to write the next novel.

Kristan said...

Or DON'T keep at it, after a point, no? Find something else you love and can actually succeed at?

Heather Wardell said...

In reading through a list of new books on (my favourite eBook seller), I recognized another part of the frustration.

SO many of the books listed sound just like everything else. "Her boyfriend broke up with her so she hired a guy to pretend to be him but now she's in love with him." "He's a normal guy until the criminals assume he has something they want."

It's frustrating, I must admit, to read through these blurbs. We're told as writers that the industry wants something new and exciting, and yet from what I see in this new books list, that's not what they're publishing.

Now, is that because:
- these are short blurbs and the books really ARE different? (Perhaps, but I'm not wasting my money to find out.)
- the industry picks the best of what is submitted, and these are the best?
- something else is going on?

I don't know, and it won't stop me writing my books the way I want to because, as Bill Womack said earlier, that's the only way it's fun for me. But it's interesting nonetheless.


sex scenes at starbucks said...

I rarely feel bitterness as a writer. I've been a working artist for much of my life and I get it. It's tough out there.

But as a customer, a reader, I often get bitter. I'm sick to death of a thousand average books that all sound alike. For instance, right now it's urban fantasy: this genre that I love to read has been hijacked by the "tough-chick-alternate-being" protagonist. Yawn. True, they sell. I realize this. But soon they won't, and I feel like the authors, agents, and editors will be blindsided by it when it happens. Until then they throw out look-alike after look-alike.

Because the publishers can only, or will only, publish X amount of books, dumbing down of the art form, especially in genre fiction, is occurring at an astounding rate. (Ok, maybe I feel a bit defensive as a writer, too, but mostly as a reader who often has a hard time finding really great books that appeal to me. I've bought 0 books on my past three trips to the bookstore. Zip.)

So to me one part of the business that's broken is the marketing angle. Other businesses have ways to figure out what's the next thing. It's not like Coke throws a new energy drink out there without market research. Even film makers, probably the closest art form to books marketing-wise, do market research before investing millions on a movie. But what's the market research process for books?

Also true: it's hampered by excessive go-to-market times.

So publishing isn't broken--especially on the agent end, no. But I think certain aspects of publishing need updating, especially product marketing and placement, and the technology/processes to cut lead times.

Mark Terry said...

A while back agent Peter Rubie (or is it Rubin?) had a lengthy blog post about writers and writing and he said something brutal that struck me as important and true. He said, basically: no one deserves to be published.

What he was suggesting was that writing a novel that's good or very good, or, I suppose, even great, doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be published or even going to be successful if it does get published.

As someone who finally fought onto the novel-publishing wagon then got rather abruptly kicked off it 2 or 3 books later, I can attest that there are an awful lot of factors involved in getting published that have little or nothing to do with having written a "good book." You can, as I was, get great blurbs and fairly good reviews (I say fairly good because there just weren't that many of them, but the majority were glowing), but still not gain much traction in the marketplace.

Nathan's absolutely right here. It's all uphill and when you do finally get published, it gets even steeper.

So you either change your focus or work harder. Or quit. And the world won't much give a damn if you quit.

Rose Pressey said...

Excellent post.

Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Gurl! said...

Yes, we all feel bitter sometimes, but some writers take it too far.

Get over it. Maybe some writers' writing ability really are shitty and they should find something else to turn to.

If you want to be a writer, you will NOT give up and keep going at it. Quit being so bitter, stop blaming agents, and look at your own writings more often.

Anonymous said...

If I didn't "expect" success (after doing the yes, very hard work) I wouldn't write at all.

No writers would.

Do people that go to law school "expect" to one day have a job in law? Yes

Why is that an allowed expectation for a lawyer but is somehow not only unrealistic, but also somehow makes you ungrateful if you expect success as a writer?

Nathan Bransford said...


A lawyer going to law school has approximately a 95% chance of becoming a lawyer. A novelist, even a good one, has approximately a 1 in 10,000 chance of being published, and an even smaller chance of selling well, and an even smaller chance of making a living at it. There are better ways of making money. Confidence is one thing and obviously if a writer is immensely talented their odds improve dramatically. But I think it must be accompanied with some sobriety about the odds.

ElanaJ said...

Great post Nathan. I think the hardest part about publishing is the fact that you can't succeed right away. In my "other" professional life, if I worked hard enough, I achieved what I wanted. In publishing, you can work incredibly hard and still not achieve what you want. You're sort of at the mercy of others. It's a humbling experience. I feel no bitterness, and I plan to persevere. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Sex Scenes at Starbucks said this:

"...So to me one part of the business that's broken is the marketing angle. Other businesses have ways to figure out what's the next thing. It's not like Coke throws a new energy drink out there without market research...."

I could not agree with this more. The whole industry feels haphazard and because of that writers are tossed this way and that. The only way to succeed is to have your book win the "lottery" of becoming a lead title -- no matter if the writing is worthy.

I see midlist authors tossed in the shark waters to sink or swim. I think that's the big joke of publishing. Even if you can GET published, you'll never make it out of the midlist.

Brian said...

In a sad, masochistic sort of way, I enjoyed reading Nathan’s take on it: distilled into simple market terms, there isn’t enough demand to support the publishing of all of the “good” novels. But why do we write? Simply to be published? For the glory? If we write because we take consolation in the process or the product, if we need the creative outlet, we needn’t be discouraged by this truth. One of my resolutions is to just write, to do the best I can. If I get published, that’s great.

Prepare for disappointment and failure--isn't that the first thing that we're all told? We should expect it to be difficult. I empathize with writers, though. This simple bit of knowledge doesn't mitigate the gut-wrenching pain that an uninterrupted train of rejection letters can cause.

Anonymous said...

A lot of authors forget that writing is like playing basketball. Any kid can throw a ball into the hoop. Thousands of kids are superstars in their own high schools across the country. But most of them will never get a basketball scholarship, and even fewer will make it to the NBA.


Scott (Thinking Man) said...

I agree with most of what you said, Nathan. Not that I'm god's gift to writing or even close, but you look at some books, the success they have, and you scratch your head.
That's my reaction to the Stephanie Meyer books. Now, I like vampire books. I've devoured most of Anne Rice's works. I really wanted to like Twilight. But as I listened to it, in certain sections, I wondered... how in the heck did this hit a home run? I mean, if ever a novel needed editing...

Kimber An said...

If our chances are so tiny (made even tinier by the recession), why should we bother querying at all?

It's an incredible amount of time and energy to polish a novel to Submission-Ready and then send it through the Query Process. Most of us have full time, paying jobs and families which must take priority.

There are agents who are so polite and fair and professional that I could query them a dozen times and never feel stung by their form rejection letters. Nathan Bransford is one of those agents.

And there are some agents I won't query at all.

Anonymous said...

Just to keep pushing the sports analogy a bit more, what are the odds that a high school basketball player will make it to the NBA? I wonder what the relative numbers of sports superstars are to top name writers.

Anonymous said...

When I went to law school, at orientation, the dean of my school told us we’d all be making a hundred thousand dollars a year within five years of graduating. He did not mention that a third of us were going to fail out after the first year and if we even made it to graduation and were in the less than 50% that would actually pass the bar on the first shot, then only 17% of us would be earning more than $15,000 in the first year. That is exactly what happened in the case of my particular class, but had the dean told us this was our probable future instead of giving us the pep talk he did, our eager young selfs would have run screaming to another school get our MBA’s instead. Gloom and doom and a healthy dose of realism are fine, but, for God’s sake, lighten up. You’re sapping out all the fun you keep telling us we’re supposed to be having.

Anonymous said...

Kimber An:

I couldn't agree more. There are some agents that are downright nasty. I don't mind a form rejection, but some agents rejections are nothing short of snobby. That's sad. Sometimes it's like authors are treated like cattle.

Nathan Bransford said...


Wow, that's the first time I've been told to lighten up! I must be getting grouchy in my old age.

Honestly though, this response is due to some stark negativity I've seen (and received) about agents and the publishing process. So consider this some pushback -- we're just trying to do our job, and we're not stupid. What I described are the odds. If you're not liking them and are only going to have fun if you're Stephenie Meyer.... well, there are easier ways of making a million bucks.

Scott (Thinking Man) said...


I think being an Agent is probably akin to being a cop. You may start out being nice, but after you have dealt with enough crap, you become crass. Not saying that it's right, but you can kind of understand.

bootsandbibles said...

Since you evoked him, Nathan...

Seriously - all you whining, anonymous, unpublished and angst-ridden commentors would do well to take a gander at the above linked article.

Anonymous said...

I once read on an agent blog that any big books she ever had were the result of her either nuturing or going after the writer. And she also pointed out that she never had any big books from unsolicited queries. And this is a seasoned, well respected agent with plenty of big books. I'm not agreeing or disagreeing, but I thought it was an interesting (and honest) comment on a blog post.

j h woodyatt said...

I find it helps to remember that not only are there far far more unpublished manuscripts than there are opportunities for them to be published, there are far far far more publishable unpublished manuscripts than there are opportunities for them to be published.

Not only does the winnowing process eliminate all the ones that aren't good enough to sell. It also eliminates all the ones that are good enough to sell, but which didn't hit the lucky jackpot.

You put the dollar in the slot, and you pull the lever. Most times, it eats the dollar and you put another one in. Sometimes, it gives you your dollar back. Occasionally, it gives you more than one. On very rare occasions, you get back enough to make up for almost what you've previously lost (though, the odds are always in favor of the house).

The crank-addict one row over is the one who hits the big jackpot, and he ends up blowing it all on hookers and dope, then losing the rest because he doesn't file his taxes properly.

lauren said...

A couple days ago, I had the chance to look at one of HarperCollins’s catalogs for spring, and doing so was quite eye-opening in terms of the publishing process. It really drove home the point that you’ve got to have an idea that can be expressed in a way that makes it seem new and fresh in the marketplace. With the debut novels and the second novels, in particular, there was something about each one that made it really different. There were a couple pitch paragraphs / back-cover blurbs that made me go, “Eh? That sounds like about a million things I’ve read before,” and then scanned down to the bottom of the page to find that the author was already a Somebody (if not in writing, than perhaps in “reality” TV. Ahem), and that HC was likely betting on the name recognition or another odd biographical detail to sell the book.

I critique and beta-read for a number of YA and MG writers, and the number one thing I see (that I try to look for in my own work, too) is a manuscript that is “good” on nearly all levels, but that just doesn’t have the sort of premise that will sell in a query letter (much less in a bookstore). It’s frustrating, I think, to get feedback from betas, contests, agents, et cetera, who are telling you that you’re writing at a publishable level, but then still not being able to sell. But they’re lacking that hook, and they’re often dragging out another “deals with” plot (dealing with death, dealing with a breakup, dealing with divorce) in a stale way.

What’s most aggravating for me is when I pick up a book with a fab premise that doesn’t have much follow-through. I’m reading a (published) YA right now that had a really interesting(-sounding) paranormal twist, but that within 50 pages had devolved into yet another “why won’t the cute boy notice me?” story. Argh.

Lady Glamis said...

Great post, Nathan! Humbling and true. You do a fantastic job of letting us know how the system works, and that you must work within the confines of that system.

Marilyn Peake said...

Let me begin by saying that, as a writer, I have so much angst coursing through my system, it would probably show up in my blood work if the medical community had a test for it. As an English Lit minor, however, I agree that getting published shouldn’t be easy. It should involve rigorous training and practice through which only the best books make it onto the shelves.

There are many wonderful books published these days. As with certain films in the movie industry, there are also not-so-great books published solely to attract a large audience. It’s part of the system. On January 9, Jake Seliger posted a link on this Blog to an article by Ursula K. LeGuin – a brilliant woman and successfully published author whose books not only made it onto the bookshelves but also made her a well-known genre author. She points out how the publishing industry has dramatically changed the playing field on which writers now compete:
"If there are stockholders, their holdings must increase yearly, daily, hourly. The AP article ascribed 'listlessness' and 'flat' book sales to the limited opportunity for expansion. But until the corporate takeovers, publishers did not expect expansion; they were quite happy if their supply and demand ran parallel, if their books sold steadily, flatly. How can you make book sales expand endlessly, like the American waistline?"
This business model of expansion hasn’t been adopted only by the publishing industry. It’s been adopted by most industries, leading to the highest number of billionaires ever.

So what do we do as writers? Just keep on writing. Despite the difficulties in landing huge advances and getting published by the big publishing houses, there are more small publishing houses than ever before. Even the famed poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (I love his poetry!!) opened up his own publishing house and bookstore:
City Lights Booksellers & Publishers
There are great small publishing houses and those putting out pure drek filled with typos, bad grammar, and amateur writing. It’s up to writers to differentiate among them before submitting their work. Many of the best small publishing houses now close their doors to submissions at certain times of the year and have high standards for publication.

Many times taking the easy path leads to short-term gain and long-term failure to meet one’s real goal. There are many small press writers who decide to publish one or a few books through small publishing houses, sometimes their own publishing house, and then declare themselves experts rather than buckle down and try to push harder toward better writing. Those who are truly talented, non-mainstream authors become very helpful to others. Those who need to learn how to write better tend to lead others astray. Rather than admitting that they are teaching only what they know and that their knowledge will lead only to the same level of publication that they have achieved, they market themselves as experts who can help other authors achieve the success of well-known authors. When they charge money for those services, they do more harm than all the big publishing houses who freely admit they’re in business to make money as well as publish good books.

autumn's darkroom said...

Very true; we have to remind ourselves of these things.

Lorelei Armstrong said...

Excellent post! I get tired of the hostility from new writers who seem to refuse to acknowledge that writing is hard, that publishing is hard, and that the numbers are fairly against them. Try talking to someone who received 100 rejections and concluded that no one had ever read his submission, so he is going to self-publish. Argh!

Lori said...

I got a rejection of my query from N.B. Friday. I took another look at my query. Guess what? It sucked! Though I'd revised it a hundred times, I suddenly saw it was bad. I started from scratch, so glad Nathan responded quickly, so glad I hadn't yet sent it to other agents.
I'm worried I'll discover the book sucks as well. But guess what? I'm learning, I still love to write, and if I'm not ready to take rejection, I can just quit sending out, right? It's a choice we all have to make.

Anonymous said...

Marsha, what the hell are you posting in those envelopes? My submissions cost the sum of a Large Envelope stamp (however much at this at the moment), and another for the SAE, so around £1. And you say it 'comes back unopened' - you're not posting it off in a heavy folder are you? Don't bother. Keep it simple. Keep it cheap. 2nd Class is fine.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

I've always done my best to stay realistic, even as an ego-tastic teen writer. If twenty experienced literary agents all reject the same query letter, well, logic dictates that they're probably right and I have work to do. It's frustrating to work for years on a project and have no one interested in seeing it, but a talented writer who's done enough research shouldn't have a problem getting people interested in things.

There are always whiners who expect the world to pander to them. They're in every field of human endeavor. I've waited tables with people who still expected to be cut slack after a month of training (twice as long as usual), even though they couldn't keep orders straight and showed no real improvement since their first day. They just didn't want to believe that they were the problem. All we can hope is that people like that eventually come to their senses.

Best of luck to you and your fellow agents, Nathan. Hope the balanced authors outnumber the entitlement princesses.

Adaora A. said...

I think people expect sucess because they've put the (age old) " blood, sweat, and tears" into it. But in reality, becoming a huge sucess is quite a lot like winning the lottery. It's one in a million, and you never really should EXPECT it to happen to you. People should wish, hope, and dream of it happening, but they should leave the rest of it to chance. And never, ever quit your day job unless you win the lottery!

Right Mrs. You-know-who, sailing aboard an Orion?
Cool post.

Ann Victor said...

This comment has nothing to do with queries! I'll catch up with that interesting discussion later.

This post is more along the cheerleading lines...

I've been away in Cape Town and before I head off to the bush (oh, the thought is bliss!) I popped in to vote for Nathan's blog again(see the link on Nathan's blog) I was SHOCKED to discover that Nathan's blog is only 3rd in the best literature blog category!!

COME ON NATHANITES!!! Where's your voting fingers??? We've still got two days (USA time - I think!) and if every single blog viewer votes at least once we can do it! It only takes a second so...

Gimme an N! Gimme an A! Gimme a T and gimme an H and A and N...let's VOTE NATHAN!! Yes, we can!!

lotusgirl said...

I love your March Madness analogy. You have to win every game.

This is not the easiest business. I think the toughness of it forces writers to hone their skills and come out with the best work they can and then revise it and make it better.

It isn't a walk in the park. If it were, there would be a whole lot more bad books on the shelves.

That 1 in 10,000 number is quite sobering. If I could make myself give up writing, I'd quit now. Alas... I am still writing and, therefore, hopeful.

Elton A.R. Alwine said...

You may have a point, Nathan. And in that case, I blame the system. I.e. the Publishing Industry. If there wasn't such a stigma attached to self-publishing, I would attempt this for the sake of having a book out there to share, something that is not attached to a retina-burning web page. (Am I the only one with this problem?)
But alas, this industry clashes with their exploits of the blessed (published writers), so why should big publishing houses support such a thing?
I do agree that, if one can keep their expecatations to exactly zero chances of being published, when and if you do actually win this lottery we call publication, it will bring you to tears with joy.

(Go Ravens!)

Anonymous said...

Oh god, I've just had a horrible thought. Marsha, you're not sending it by registered mail are you? They won't sign for it - they don't have the time nor the staff - so of course it'll come back unopened!

Miriam S.Forster said...

Ooo... good post! I've seen so many places where writers bitterly complain about publishing, agents, editors, etc. I even did a post on Saturday about how writers get frustrated and blame the READERS.

My take? I spend less than $50 per year on stamps, printing, etc. I can write wherever I want and I'm not dependent on anyone else to produce and practice my art. So what if it takes a while to play the odds?

My husband's a bass player who'd love to do music full time. Now that's frustration.

Sarah Jensen said...

Anita said...

Is it just me or does The Bachelor offer a fabulous analogy to the whole finding-a-debut-writer proces...particularly when writers who get dumped at the query complain, "But he didn't get a chance to know me!"

Oh Anita! That's so true! The women gripe and complain. Are angry, back stabbing beauties, and then wonder why they were booted out.

I haven't had a request yet, and I figure it's because my query and ms aren't good enough yet. I'm working on improving my writing skills, and have since I started. I'm sure there's tons more to learn and I look forward to the ride.

I do appreciate agents who help us out by posting about queries and writing. They are a great help.

Jill Corcoran said...

Well said, Nathan.

Tracy Buchanan said...

I agree 100% Nathan and get SO embarrassed when I read some of the bitter posts from aspiring writers on agent blogs *sigh*. I'm a magazine editor so have a teensy bit of insight into what you go through. AND an aspiring novelist (before anyone screams that I don't understand).

Love the blog BTW. I'm a Brit and agent blogs are far and few between in this fair isle! 'Av a word with your UK counterparts, will ya (said in an East London accent) :-)

karenranney said...

Unfortunately, some writing organizations can intensify the expectation of being published. They call their aspirants "pre-published", for example.

I'd like to add that the hurdles don't magically go away once you are published. They change a little, but they're still there.

Kathleen Peacock said...

And yet so many aspiring authors don't approach the business in this fashion. They expect success.

Realistically, I think authors know the odds. The heart and the head, however, are two entirely different creatures. How many people would actually complete a novel if they didn't feel, in their heart, that they would and could beat those odds.

Still, bitterness and snarky responses to agents are tacky and unnecessary.

Adaora A. said...

Guys the truth is a hard pill to swallow. If you want to have a CHANCE of making it in this industry I think (keep in mind this is information I've picked up on from reading great blogs like this, and doing MY homework), you have to have two things:

1. The facts (whether you like them or not, you have to have them so you can know how to attempt to work with them. Remember knowledge is power. Cheesy, but it's true

2. The knowhow to understand that this is a career you go into only when you have a profound love of writing. The odds of making a living on just writing alone are slim. You can hope and dream but you shouldn't expect.

I don't understand why people are snapping at our host. He's just giving us the information that is beneficial to us. This is probably the best blog on writing out there. Don't bide the hand that's feeding you. And I'm not trying to be kissy kissy by saying this, it's just genuinely the way I feel.

Lupina said...

uaBitterness is counterproductive to the writing muse. Unless you are Edgar Allen Poe (master of sublimation), and if you are Poe, you died young, poor, unhappy and wearing someone else's clothing. Better to cheerfully write on, I say, and keep reading the blogs like this one that at least provide helpful hints and inside info.

Anonymous said...

Writing is an art before it's a business. Expressing yourself and bearing your soul through the medium of storytelling is bigger than whether or not you get a check in the mail in return for your pages.

That said, there is a business and marketing side to making your art your vocation. It takes work and drive, confidence and humility. But the industry is all about rejection. If you're not getting rejection letters, you're not even in the game.

I guess the question is: If there wasn't such a thing as being published, would you still write? The answer for me is an easy YES. If the answer for you is NO, then maybe it's time to examine why you're really doing this in the first place?

Miss Viola Bookworm said...

I have to agree with Anon 10:14 just a bit. Believe me, I'm an upbeat person. Pessimism isn't my thing, but sometimes, it's tough hearing that as writers, we're never supposed to give up and that yes, if we are good enough, we will get published. But the next minute, we're told that 1 in 10,000 of us will actually make it? Geesh.

Many of us trying to get published read several agent blogs daily as we are trying to learn and do whatever we can to improve our writing and chances at publication, and I appreciate the honesty, but sometimes,'s tough to hear this sort of thing across the board, particularly if you are in the submission process. When I'm just writing and don't have any queries out (and no rejections coming in), these statistics aren't particularly bothersome. When I'm in that mode though, watch out. It's easy to get down and grumpy about it.

That said, I do appreciate Nathan's take on this, and since I hang around here often, I do understand where he is coming from since I've read nasty comments from people on various blog posts. I'm sorry if agents have to hear a bunch of angry comments from disgruntled writers.

Still, it can be frustrating to always stay positive, even for those of us who never give up, love writing for what it is, and always keep at it despite the odds. Sometimes even we have to vent our frustrations about the difficulty of the publishing process, especially when we get to hear these statistics or stories from published writers who got in the door because of their connections. I've read about two such authors in Writers Digest recently, and yes, it's frustrating, especially when you're in rejection mode.

That said, this is life, and for those of us who truly want to make it will write and continue to learn and perfect our craft, and when we get down, we'll take a minute to have a small pity party and then get back on the horse and go for it again. And for when I'm down, I just seek out my friends. Thanks to them, I've never felt the urge to vent to an agent or complain about a rejection or this process becuase they are always there to tell me to go for it even though the odds aren't in my favor. They're very good at letting me have that little pity party before I get back at it again. :)

Sarah Jensen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I think part of it also has to do with the mindset (not, you know, MY MINDSET, or any of YOUR MINDSETS, of course) these days. I'm not sure if I can make my point clearly, but I'll try.

I think 'success' in most things is easier now than it used to be. I've been taking classes at the local community college for the last year - and basically if the students showed ANY effort, they got an A or a B. If this has to do with keeping students and financial aid (or tuition reimbursement from work) because that is based on grades - and failing students mean no revenue for the college - or if is just how things are all over - I don't know. I hope it isn't that teachers just don't care.

My point is that students are turning in crappy work and getting good grades - they start to believe they are A or B students, their work is superior and when they encounter a teacher who actually grades accurately - AND THEY FAIL - they blame the teacher.

As a society we try so hard not to offend and we overlook problems so as not to hurt someone's self-esteem - we build up and encourage and support (not that this is wrong exactly) - "you're doing GREAT!" when maybe they are really only doing so-so.

In publishing no one can blow sunshine up your skirt - no one can just shrug and let things slide - and I think there are a lot of people who get their first dose of reality when they can't find success in publishing. I'm reminded (surely this example has come up before) of American Idol try-outs. Sure, a lot of people can sing and carry a tune (and well, a lot of people CAN'T but still think they can) - but only a few can be successful. It isn't enough to sing adequately or write adequately. It has to sparkle.

I know teachers are under enough pressure - and I have no solutions, but it does seem like the current system creates false hopes. The standards are at the lowest common denominator. Students who might eventually sparkle with the right encouragement and development fall through the cracks - because their work is adequate for an A and no one pushes them to do more.

I'm not sure I've made my point but maybe there is a glimmer of it in this babble.

other lisa said...

Well, here's some good news: Fiction reading is on the rise! - after a 25 year decline.

Anita said...

Sarah Jensen:

Thank you!

Seriously, all of The Bachelor contestants/writers think they've got the beauty/query that will get them noticed by the Bachelor/agent...and maybe the beauty/query gets them noticed immediately, but if they don't have a fabulous personality/manuscript to back it up, the Bachelor/agent is going to drop them. And if the Bachelor/agent isn't immediately smitten, some of these contestants/writers get nasty.

Does that even make sense? I'm losing my brains from too much reality TV.

Anonymous said...

I won't use someone elses blog to promote my books, but go Heather Wardell for mentioning I for one really do try to keep it different. Really, I do. And I agree: so many books do sound the same. But I'm always going back and forth with my agent and editors, fighting to make it different when they want me to play it safe. I've learned how to be a really good negotiator. One publisher I have doesn't do this, and I think that's why they are up for a few awards at P&E. A lot of the advice I get from another publisher I have to ignore, because if I didn't, my books would be more run of the mill dreck. It drives them crazy, but it's my name on the cover and my only goal is to entertain the reader.

So, some of us really do try to entertain you. We really do. And it's not easy with all the bad advice going around out there.

Elyssa Papa said...

It's like Randy Pausch once said, the brick walls are there for a reason---they let us know how much we really want them. There are tons of hurdles to overcome (Nathan listed them spectacularly in one comment), but each one you do, you're that closer to getting what you want. You might not have Stephenie Meyers' success, or J.K. Rowling but you'll be successful.

Nathan, out of curiousity, do you believe that all genres of literature are hard to break in, or that there are some which might be "easier?"

Oh, look . . . puppies!

Kate Nash said...

Another way to look at it is that queries are like CVs (resumes). No-one gets hired off the basis of a CV alone but it's the imperfect tool to get to the next stage in the selection process.

Bryn Greenwood said...

It's like the Bhagavad Gita of publishing: "You have the right to query, but not the right to the fruits of your query."

Sam said...

Then you start hearing things like agents don't know what they're doing, the query process is stupid, the publishing industry is going down the tubes because they won't publish MY book, etc. etc.

I play a fair amount of online poker. I'm a mediocre player, I recognize that, and I work on getting better. But it seems like at every table, there's at least one guy who whines constantly that the other players suck, and that they should play the game the way the complainer thinks it should be played. Usually, the plays they complain most about are excellent plays, not dumb luck, but the complainer doesn't understand the game well enough to recognize that.

I can't imagine why I thought of that when I read this post.

And while you're at it, try and enjoy the process.

I've been a lot happier since my lovely wife pointed out that everyone who loves me now will still love me if I don't get published, and that maybe I should learn to enjoy what I'm doing first and worry about getting published later. I had a lot of fun writing my last novel, and the new one is shaping up to be just as rewarding.

Steve Fuller said...

"Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."
- George Orwell

Carley said...

As frustrating as both the query letter and the 'strange and dark world of publishing' are, I have to say it is constantly teaching me things. Things I never knew I needed to know, and what's better than that? To constantly be learning, while you are able to do what you love is a true treasure. The best advice I ever got was from my non reading hubby. He said 'just write because you love it, because you need it like you need air and because it makes you happy, forget about all the rest.' Did I marry a smart guy or what??

Anyway, I appreciate the query, even though I've yet to master it, I appreciate it's challenge and understand it's necessity.

Lastly, I wouldn't dare venture out into the publishing world without a super agent leading the way, holding my very best work in his or her hand. The query and all the steps along the way make sure that that happens.

Ann Victor said...

Great Orwell quote Steve!

Jill said...

You're kidding me with the law school analogy right? You make it sound like anyone can show up at law school with their legal pad and pen and in three years become a lawyer. Not so, first you have to graduate from a four year college with top grades. Then, you have to pass the LSAT exam with a top score. Next, you fill out numerous applications including essays on various topics and pay steep application fees. If all of that is successful, you may get an offer of admission. Then, you have to suffer through three years of law school after which, you have to pass the character and fitness test to be able to sit for the bar. If, you pass the bar and receive your license, then you have to find a job and work associates hours for years. All in all, quite an arduous query process to become a lawyer. Too bad after doing all of that, I have decided I would rather be a writer.

spinregina said...

I waver on this one, but I wonder if the system is a bit of an antique? In this day and age, coudln't there be something new invented to make it a cohesive, level playing field? I have no idea whatsoever what that would look like, but perhaps a same-ness throughout the industry, perhaps ad agencies writing queries (joking)...I have no idea. Good to think about! Thanks.

Nathan Bransford said...


Trust me, I have enough lawyer friends to know that it's not easy in the slightest and that it's even more difficult when you finally do graduate and wind up working a hundred hours a week as a first year associate.

The analogy was only about the numbers side of things. Someone goes to law school has a reasonable expectation that they will graduate and become a lawyer. I have no idea what that number is and only threw out a percentage, but I do know that it's a larger percentage than the number of people who write novels and wind up getting published. I mean, the novel to novels published percentage starts with a zero, as in 0.0something%

Nathan Bransford said...

Ah, wait Jill, I see what you're saying. If you start with the number of people who want to BECOME lawyers and apply to law school the numbers would reduce drastically and it's something more akin to the query process. I was starting with anon's analogy about people going to law school expecting to become a lawyer.

Anonymous said...

"A lawyer going to law school has approximately a 95% chance of becoming a lawyer."

I have to go with Jill@12:58 PM on this one. I've been there. The first year of law school they weed out half the class, and then they keep weeding until only the best and the strongest survive.

No the best comparison. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

But you've redeemed yourself.

Dan said...


Perhaps you need your own talking head show on cable TV?

Your blog popularity has made for a lot of good comments. It has also made for a lot of... less-than-helpful ones. I believe you now know how PROFESSIONAL SPORTS COACHES feel, where some people rally around their decisions and others pick them apart, piece by piece.

pseudosu said...

My paying gig (so far) is visual art, another dicey biz to attempt to make a living in and I see many similarities. There are TONS of people out there driven to create, and only so much art money. Not all work worth doing is worth selling.

As for my own writing- I'm driven to do that. I can only hope to become better at it than my competitors, and make it across the mine field. Tough as it is to accept, the market will sift you out if you're not good enough.

Just_Me said...

I respect the system. I think it's good to write your own query letter, because it needs to be your voice. But I don't think anyone writes a good query letter in isolation.

Whether it's feedback from Query Shark, a blog post where you get comments, a writer's group, or a workshop- someone helped you with that letter.

Someone will help you with your book too. Your agent will make changes. Your editor will make changes. Another editor might make changes. Feedback from an agent you don't sign with may force you to make changes.

This isn't a business of isolation. It can't be.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Nathan. And Lee - wonderful insider look from a bookseller's point of view.

Anonymous said...

The one difference between the lawyer thing and the writer thing is that when you try to become a lawyer and you're not very good at it, they will tell you up front. You flunked. Period. But who is going to have the guts to tell this to an aspiring writer? Not me. And some people who want to be writers just aren't very good.

Julia Weston said...

Thanks for your honesty, Nathan. I've yet to submit my first query and I appreciate the no-nonsense post. I'm one of those people who would rather expect the worst and then, if I'm super lucky, I'll be pleasantly surprised.

Brigita said...

I agree, just trying to convince an agent that your book is the one is like trying to win the lottery. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'll win the lottery sooner than get an agent. Oh, well, I'll just self publish then. ;)
What I wanted to say was that from time to time I come across a book that just really sucks and you wonder how did that get published? There are thousands of good books that don't get published while trash that no one should have the bad luck to stumble upon much less read it gets an agent, a publisher, a place on the bookstore shelves ...
I'm sure the system works, but most of the time it's a very frustrating system for the authors. And I'm sure for agents too with all those millions of queries.
And your blog is just such a tempting opportunity to vent our frustrations and blame the agents ... :)

Anonymous said...

As a struggling writer, it doesn't hurt to remember that some guy named Clive Lewis wrote a kid's book about a talking lion that nobody wanted to read. And some other guy wrote an adventure about little people called Hobbits and a battle over an evil ring.

It took a few years, but they both didn't do too badly in the end.

Sign me: Slypotb

Lafreya said...

It really does help if you learn to enjoy the journey of writing. In my critique group when somebody finishes their novel, even if it's a first draft, we celebrate with food and wine . When I finished my first novel I lit candles just to acknowledge the effort put in. When I landed my agent I had a dinner party with my writer friends. My sister asked me why I just didn’t wait until the book sold to celebrate I explained to her that the book may never sell , so I was going to celebrate this particular achievement. I went into writing with a plan A, Plan B and Plan C in mind so that in the end there is no real failer the dream just looks different depending on which things come true. This is not to say that I don’t have days when I’m not envious or bitter or frustrated with the waiting or other issues. But I’ve come a long, long way and I remind myself to celebrate that.

Anonymous said...

"Slypotb" here (again) :P

I was in grad school with a screenwriter who was so awful at writing that he became an entertainment lawyer. From there, he became a literary agent, because he thought he'd have a better chance at being published if he became a agent!

Oh, the humanity!

Anonymous said...

I don't think authors become bitter about rejections by themselves. Rejections are certain to occur, and any non-delusional author should know that.

I think authors become bitter when, after having their manuscripts rejected, they then find a terrible novel (or a shelf full of them) that HAS been published. A lot of chaff gets published. Sometimes the chaff was written by a celebrity whose name sells books, sometimes it's an already famous author who is now phoning it in, and sometimes a series of bizarre circumstances conspire to push a truly awful book through the publishing process. These things happen all the time. Authors familiar with rejections can feel a piece of their soul dying every time they find unreadable trash on a bookstore's shelves.

It's hard not to blame the publishing industry for publishing trash that sells well for reasons unrelated to its literary worth. And yes, you can go an extra step and blame readers for buying -- even preferring! -- such trash.

But, as all here have said, bitterness and envy are not fruitful pasttimes. Write and enjoy writing. If anything more happens, consider it a bonus.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Caving in and giving up

"the more I try the more I want to give up" - no, not really - but in the grocery story parking lot today - this very gray-pinky-blue-frigid cold of the baggers was bringing in the carts, and as she passed me, heading back toward the store - she sang loudly "NA, NA, NA-NA-NA..." Pushing full steam ahead into the slush and wind with her silver train of grocery carts - well, she put me to shame - in my overheated writerly the same parking lot once in the summer, a little girl pointed to the full moon and said: "Mama, la lune! la lune!"

Vignettes, and Keat's terror of the "teeming brain" not fully "glean'd" before death...I mean, forget about getting published for a moment...just that feeling of not getting "it" out in one's lifetime..."NA, NA, NA-NA-NA..."

Oh well. I kind of like the image of picking snowflakes from a fire hose myself, or maybe from a snow machine - a Michigan thing I guess...

Anonymous said...

“Honestly though, this response is due to some stark negativity I've seen (and received) about agents and the publishing process.”

Try being a lawyer sometime. Until literary agents can claim to be a category of joke, then don’t even try to compete.

Telling us that our chances of getting published are zero and that our beloved books that we've bled over are just going to get eaten up by crocodiles is counterproductive, isn’t it? And not even one mention of a puppy, either.


Kathleen said...


Good to know I'm not the only one who celebrates along the way.

Anonymous said...

"Honestly though, this response is due to some stark negativity I've seen (and received) about agents and the publishing process. So consider this some pushback -- we're just trying to do our job, and we're not stupid. What I described are the odds. If you're not liking them and are only going to have fun if you're Stephenie Meyer.... well, there are easier ways of making a million bucks."

As far as I can tell, your blog post today (and some of your comment responses) all come from a few barely objective criticisms expressed last week by some of your readers regarding agents and the query "process."

Look how well you handled it.

Something to think about before your next post about how writers need to endure and have thick skin and except criticism and blah, blah, bleck.

I also wouldn't be writing anymore about how hopeless the publishing "process" is for an aspiring author.

Even if you're just trying to 'keep it on the real, yo.'

It sends the wrong message and dramatically increases the chance that the only queries you'll be getting in the future will be from prison inmates who chose you solely based on the picture in your profile.

Just saying.

Nathan Bransford said...

Enh - honestly anon, I'm really not sweating things very hard, nor do I feel I'm being overly negative. I'm just trying to respond to the people who would rather blame agents and publishers for the fact that they're not published.

I don't see how pointing out the odds involved in the publishing process makes me a bully or overly negative. Don't shoot the messenger.

Marilyn Peake said...


How about a "You Tell Me" blog day when writers get to share the "war stories" we've been through on our way to publication? It might put writer angst in better perspective.

Nathan Bransford said...


Reading my mind. I have something similar planned for Wednesday.

MzMannerz said...

I've been in meetings all day and am just getting around to reading today's entry.

I don't know anyone in any industry who doesn't experience bitterness and frustration at some point. Usually/hopefully the feeling passes quickly. It's not unique to writers, believe me; I talked to at least three people today who feel under appreciated and under valued.

Sometimes the individual is extraordinarily talented and wrongly overlooked for assignments/positions. Sometimes the individual is of average talent and simply hasn't put forth extra effort and/or allowed enough time for natural progression to occur. And sometimes the individual is less talented than they believe and needs to channel their energies elsewhere to achieve success.

The problem is, most people tend to believe they are in the first category, whether they are, or not, so you'll naturally see more people shifting the blame to someone else (agents, in this case) than not. Doesn't mean agents are actually at fault (and in some cases, obviously, doesn't mean they aren't).

MzMannerz said...

Gosh I used a lot of punctuation.


Anonymous said...

While the comments have taken a huge turn for the worse, I think I actually do get what Anon 2:37 ment by this post --

"... Telling us that our chances of getting published are zero and that our beloved books that we've bled over are just going to get eaten up by crocodiles is counterproductive, isn’t it?..."

If only because you have pounded it in our heads by previous posts to: "Query Me First."

So Query Me First, but expect nothing from anyone in this business at any time, in any shape or form, and also even if you can sell something you'll never make a living -- but I WILL, off of many authors, so yeah, Query Me First.

Of course, I know the odds of getting published are slim, but I also know as an Anon so profoundly pointed out somewhere above, that there are many, many publishable books that will never make it past the query process simply because of the large egos of certain agents. I am not suggesting that YOU, Nathan are such an agent (you wouldn't blog if you thought writers were idiots) but there are many agents in the position of power that EXPECT to be treated as demi-gods -- and yet most of their list is midlist. So, obvioulsy they don't know everything.

Expecting that authors bow to you is, in my opinion, worse than an author expecting to be published after working for two years on that all important first novel. I don't believe it's even about the chances being slim. I believe it is about how writers are disrespected in this business by the very people that make MONEY off of writers. That double-standard is very, very tough to take.

Until you've been here you simply wouldn't know.

MzMannerz said...

Oh. And sometimes they're uber talented and haven't given it enough time, too.


Linnea said...

There's little point in balking against reality. Knowing the odds gives you a better idea of what you're up against. Being aware of the uphill battle either discourages a writer or drives them to make their work the best it can be.
I am tenacious by nature so telling me the odds is like throwing gasoline on a fire.

Nathan Bransford said...


Trust me, the frustration you are expressing doesn't end when an author finds an agent, nor is the industry clear sailing and cocktail parties on rainbows for agents either. I get frustrated. I have had submitted novels that I thought should have sold that didn't sell (and sure, I didn't write them, but that doesn't make it much of an easier pill to swallow when you feel the author is counting on you).

I can blame the system and the gatekeepers (editors) or I can recognize it for what it is: it's a tough business.

Unagented aspiring authors don't have a monopoly on frustration. I'm not talking from the seat of my pants here.

And I'm also not asking anyone to kiss my ring. I know there are agents who give that impression, but most agents are just trying to make the most of a really, really difficult job.

Marilyn Peake said...


Woo! Hoo! Can't wait 'till Wednesday. I'm sharpening my, my computer...even as I type this.

Vancouver Dame said...

Great post, Nathan! If we aren't aware of how difficult it is to be published, how can we beat the challenge? You've laid the facts on the line, which I appreciate. It's much more defeating when you're given a rosy picture of your success, and you find out that it's not the true reality.

Success is what you make it, unless you're lucky enough to know someone in the publishing business. Most of us don't. A few writers network, and get a book published, but their staying power is what determines true success.

Meanwhile, I'm still working on my novel, and your post doesn't discourage me in the least. Keep up the good work of keeping us informed.

Anonymous said...

I've got to jump in here.

Quote: "...I have had submitted novels that I thought should have sold that didn't sell (and sure, I didn't write them, but that doesn't make it much of an easier pill to swallow when you feel the author is counting on you)..."

But that is simply not the same thing because you can pitch ten different client novels in a week -- an author can only write one a year.

When my last novel was rejected, my agent (a so-called A list agent) ignored my request to discuss why it didn't sell, and what I could do better/different the next time. Months later, finally getting around to return my emails, she stated she was too busy with her "best-selling" clients to represent me anymore.

Trust me, I'm not the only one. Writers don't talk alot about these injustices because they are concerned with not burning bridges. So when you say "respect the system" that is hard to stomach, because it is this very system that so often does not respect us.

I hope that it doesn't sound like I'm complaining -- I've long ago accepted that this is the way this business is -- but, I'm sorry, that doesn't make it right.

Karen Cantwell said...

As a writer navigating the dimly lit path of this process we call publishing, I have never understood or agreed with those who want to natter on about agents or the querying process. They (as far as I have observed) love reading and love authors and are just doing their job in finding those they want to represent. In fact if we were to walk in the shoes of an agent for just one day, I'm sure we'd all be singing a different tune! I'll stick with writing, thank you very much.

Madison said...

You can think I'm crazy, but I enjoy the query process. I enjoy getting rejection letters. Why? Because at least it's proof that I'm trying. But, seriously, even if my stories don't get published EVER, I've written things that both me and my friends enjoy, and that has it's own beautiful reward. :D

Nathan Bransford said...


At the same time, while an author has a day job (hopefully), an agent is living and dying by what they are and aren't selling. Your novel doesn't sell and your hopes are dashed, which, yeah, sucks, but you still have a roof over your head. An agent doesn't sell books and we're out of a job that we've devoted years and years of hard work to.

Look, it's not easy for anyone in this business, which is my entire point. We can get into an umbrage and oppression war, or we can just recognize that this is a tough business and that we love it despite the frustration it causes us. It's tough sledding all around. We still willingly go down the mountain. Might as well say "whee."

Anonymous said...

'Kay... Whee!

Nathan Bransford said...

Look out! A tree!!


Melissa said...

"In this day and age, coudln't there be something new invented to make it a cohesive, level playing field?"

It is a cohesive level playing field. Everyone has a chance to play. Although there are some celebrities who get published on name value, the vast, vast, vast majority of manuscripts published go through the same don't-know-the-writer-just-judging-the-manuscript-and-concept evaluation as everyone else.

What isn't level is the skill level of the applicants -- and that aspect shouldn't be level. If all people who submit manuscripts are put into a pot and judged "equally," the chances of getting published are incredibly small. But when you start weeding out the people who wrote utter dreck, the likelihood of being published (within that pool) starts increasing. If you are a really talented writer with a polished manscript, your chances of getting published are significantly higher than most people's. If the pool is 10,000 aplicants, your likelihood is NOT 1 in 10K.

Of course "really talented writer with a polished manuscript" is the rub. We all think we're talented. We all think we're written a great manuscript. And only the agents and publishers can ACTUALLY see our competition.

The real lesson is that writers need to be humble enough to accept that we should always be honing and improving our craft, and our early efforts are likely subpar compared to much of the competition, no matter what your friends, parents, and teachers tell you.

The agents are unbiased, ebyond wanting to find a manuscript that they are passion about that they believe they can sell.

Anonymous said...

So, what's being discussed now? Who has it worse, writers or agents?


Can I throw postal workers in the fray? Think of all the useless correspondence they have to hump back and forth between the two parties aforementioned.

Jo-Anne Vandermeulen said...

Hi Nathan;

I have chosen your blog among my ten to consistently read. I enjoy reading your topics and absorbing your perspectives. Thanks for posting.

I have two completed manuscripts and have been querying for an agent for the past two years. During this time, I have grown and needed to improve in all areas of writing. I look at querying an agent as part of the apprenticeship that needs to take place before publishing. An aspiring author must be ready. Unfortunately, a new author often feels they are ready instantaneously. I often compare this situation to a dog you tie to a leash when walking in heavy traffic. Sure that dog feels like it should roam free, but the master knows that if he/she lets it go, it will get run over.

I have learned to be patient and to use my time wisely, advancing in learning more and more. When it does come time for an agent to accepts my submission, I know I'll be ready.

Jo-Anne Vandermeulen
Professional Support Network for Writers
Prolific Writer of Romantic Fiction

Scott said...

Wow, over a hundred comments already. Makes me want to go back to hawking screenplays. Different animal, I guess, and the pitches come with looser proseworthy expectations.

Nathan, I think it would be interesting to learn how many letters/ideas are "close" to earning partial requests, or is it like the screenwriting industry where I hear 99.9% of them are too far below par to even be considered. If nothing else, it could keep the odds in some kind of perspective.

All that said, I've been working on my latest query on and off for an entire month, and so far I've needed every minute!

Nancy Coffelt said...

Madison, if you're crazy to like getting rejection letters, then I'm in the same club with you. I've learned TONS from some of my favorites and I've kept all of them. After sticking with this mad, mad world since 1990 those precious scraps of correspondence are spilling out of my ragged accordion file. And to me they're a part of my history. Sure, they don't speak to the published part of my history, but like you said, they're testament to me putting myself out there.
It's time to get a new file. I'm still working so that means inevitably - more rejections heading my way.

Rachel said...

Wow. After reading some of the comments, I think it's time for us all to remember that there are a LOT worse things in life than never getting published. Anyone who has time to write, not matter how little, is one of the lucky few in the world. The vast majority of the world has far bigger things to worry about than not getting a book published. Lighten up and be thankful for what you have. And thanks, Nathan, for the great blog today.

Jill Wheeler said...

I like the word "winnow." It makes the whole process kinda sound fun.

ryan field said...

Wish I could say something wise. But I can't. It is what it is.

But Nathan wrote one line in his post that I've heard so many times from other agents and editors: "Just keep at it." And what better advice is there?

CindaChima said...

I think we all need to remember that we are all on the same side here. We want to create and sell wonderful books that will at least allow us to make a living. A legitimate agent is in it with you. He doesn't make money until you make money. He has to dig through a lot of--um--very bad prose to find something publishable.

I am a published novelist, and I am amazed every day to be here. Hard work and talent are necessary but not sufficient for success. It took me five years to find an agent and sell my first novel. My agent was an assistant at a major agency.

Trust me, your agents and editors are not the enemy. We might as well blame other writers who don't take the time to read the guidelines, perfect their manuscripts and target their queries. Their submission packages are clogging up the slush pile making it difficult for that dream agent to find your finely-crafted work.

Anonymous said...

Instead of pushing my story forward, I just spent half an hour reading everyone's comments.
The thread reminds me that my feelings are layered, universal, and fleeting. (I suck; I should learn how to knit.) The point in my case is to keep at it, at least until I finish this novel.
One sentiment I kept hoping to hear was this:
Not being published would feel more palatable if the general public, i.e. everyone I know, understood that even fantastic books fail to sell. This reality that Nathan described doesn't make me bitter about the industry. It does make me want to tattoo his post on my forehead.

BarbS. said...

"Keep at it."

Yes. And keep at it not because you want to make a name for yourself or to make tons of money. Keep at it because it's something that can bring you closer to your husband, your wife, your family, your friends. Because it makes them laugh, or cry, or sit in suspense as they wonder what will happen next, or if a favorite character will live or die or find that elusive "happily ever after."

Above all, keep at it because you love it, and because that love of stories can inspire the people closest to you to go to the bookstores and discover stories that other people are telling.

Your friends and family will have to pay to read THOSE stories. But the ones you wrote yourself will always be special. Not because they're free reads.

Because they're yours.

Shelia said...

For some reason I have always thought that even a well written novel might have a hard time getting published. It just never occurred to me to blame others if I never get published. I'm interested in knowing how this works with short fiction since that's what I write. Is it like March Madness on the moon? Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Okay you've convinced me.
If I am nuts enough to keep writing.
Get a day job.

Anonymous said...

Like I wasn't depressed enough after the economy and the Holidays...

Melissa said...

"If I am nuts enough to keep writing.
Get a day job."

Well, erm... yeah. There is literally a handful of writers who can make enough money writing fiction to fully support themselves (much less to support a family). Even novelists writing series with "guaranteed" book deals aren't necessarily making enough to live on.

Go into your local bookstore, pick a genre, and then count the number of series on the shelves. Now figure out how many of those authors are actually "known." It's probably a pretty fair bet that those who aren't are making steady money, but not enough to quit the day job unless they are either:

1. Getting help from a spouse or other income, or

2. Are single, supporting only themselves, and living a modest standard of living.

Doesn't mean they aren't successful writers. Just means writing fiction rarely pays the bills.

Damyanti said...

".... every successful debut book should be viewed on the order of a minor miracle. It's like throwing a manuscript across a river of paper-eating snakes and crocodiles and hoping that all the pages reach the other side. Success is hard and rare, and there is an incredible array of obstacles along the way".


In their enthusiasm for their own work and their impatience for publication, most writers tend to forget all of this.

If we writers spent more time bettering our writing before trying to get it published, life would be easier for us, the agents, editors, and everyone else in the publishing process.

Steve Fuller said...

Man, writers are nuts.

Life is tough. If you haven't realized that by now, it's probably because you got a trophy in little league for "participation."

If Nathan's blog makes you not want to write anymore, then you might want to reconsider your decision to write in the first place.

Sinclair Lewis once said, "It is impossible to discourage the real writers - they don't give a damn what you say, they're going to write."

Nathan, thanks for your willingness to maintain this blog and respond to comments. Not many agents would do that. It has been very helpful to get your perspective.

Laura D said...

Some see a gold coin and turn it over to find the tarnish. I'm exactly opposite, so here's something for aspiring authors to consider. The harder the battle; the sweeter the reward.
Hone the craft...become one of the best. No one got something for nothing.

Newbee said...

I haven't been in this long enough to be bitter. I don't know if that's a positive or a negative point for sure. But, I will ask you this. As a very new person in this insane world of writers, is it better to be someone who can write the most amazing paragraph...or someone who has come up with one hell of a story? I'm guessing both? It doesn't matter how great the story is if nobody reads it. Would you say I'm correct Nathan? The more I do my research on both my book and about writing/selling a book I have come to this conclusion.
It's all about understanding what you are up against and how you can find your niche in the market. Both in finding an agent and creating a riveting story millions of people will want to read. For me, a college drop-out/Mom, It's all a creative way to market yourself, as well as the book. I spent a good part of yesterday "shopping" for agents. Does this person like the same books I like? What kinds of books do they sell and/or like reading? Would they be interested in the themes of my book if I looked at other projects they have taken on? Maybe I am examining this like a MIT student with "the Hubble"? I don't know? But the way I look at it...It couldn't hurt!

Anonymous said...

Man, writers are nuts.

You're damn right! WEE :)

Anonymous said...

anon above again:

Nathan, we still love you although we're giving you a lot of lip.

This publishing thing; it's a fun, scary, frustrating, rewarding ride.

WEE again :)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Newbee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
other lisa said...


So, anybody watch "The Bachelor"? I feel dirty.

Newbee said...

I guess what I’m worried about is a dangling participle looking more like a dangling “partial nipple”. For me it’s all the same. They both are just too embarrassing for words.

Nathan Bransford said...


Not so appropriate. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I'm happy to have you dissent from the CV, but within the realm of respectability.

Nathan Bransford said...

other lisa-

I'm glad I didn't play the Bachelor drinking game tonight. Normally you drink every time someone says "amazing." I don't know if I would have been able to work the rest of the week.

other lisa said...

Nathan, as an alternate, you could do "Awesome!" But that could get pretty ugly too.

Nathan Bransford said...

other lisa-

Usually the triggers are:

- "amazing"
- "journey" (double for "incredible journey")
- any reference to a fairy tale
- "the right/wrong reasons"

It might be fatal if "awesome" were included.

And kids, don't try this at home.

Nathan Bransford said...

Oh! "Connection" is the other one.

Honestly, I swear I don't watch this show.

other lisa said...

Maybe you could make up a kind of Bingo...

mumblemoose said...

As the general manager for a big box book retailer in the bay area, I have to reference Lee from the very beginning of this thread.

He gave a really good synopsis of what happens every day at a book store. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to politely tell self published authors that their book doesn't meet the basic requirements to find a spot on my shelves.

These folks tend to really really believe in their books, and they really really don't want to be told no. I have been yelled and cursed at for failing to order their book.

I sympathize with these authors and the effort that they've put into their work, but I always tell them that they need to submit their book to an agent in order to achieve a publishing platform that will entitle them space on a retail shelf. Invariably, these passionate and enthusiastic authors discredit the process for rejecting their work.

The system does work. As someone who has spent three years writing a manuscript only to see my query attempts rejected by every agent I've sent it to, I truly hurt when self published authors tell me that I have no interest in supporting local authors because I refuse to carry their book. I have to turn down self published authors on an almost daily basis.

I have tremendous respect for every author that has sweat and cried over their work and sent it to an agent with nothing more than a prayer and the hope that their writing will jump off the page and be accepted, ultimately achieving publication, because I have done the same.

When those authors can walk into a store and see the result of their effort on the shelf, it is meaningful. It shows that they have created something that multiple levels of screening have deemed to be of quality work. These books will not all be best sellers. In all likelihood, few to none of them will. But each and every author can hold their head high and know that they've achieved the goal to which so many aspire.

This is the standard that I wish to uphold, and this is the goal that I aspire to attain with my writing. I could have my book on the shelf tomorrow, because it's my shelf. I will never do that, though, because I respect the process and won’t cheapen the victory.

Follow the system. Achieving the goal the right way is worth avoiding shortcuts.

mkcbunny said...

This is a great argument for the value of similes:

"It's like throwing a manuscript across a river of paper-eating snakes and crocodiles and hoping that all the pages reach the other side."

As a first-time novelist, I understand the challenges of getting my book any traction whatsoever and recognize that there are expectations of quality and professionalism in every level of my efforts toward publication. That includes the query level. If I make it past that, I will be delighted. If I don't, then there's something wrong with my query.

Emily Cross said...

Hey Nathan, i'm a first time poster, long time lurker of your blog, and always find the posts excellent - especially this one, as i actually can pitch in with an opinion.

I'm an 'aspiring author' but i hope i don't have the 'debut novelist syndrome' which seems to be everywhere.

I think the problem with alot of unpublished writers is that publishing/Literary/editor agencies etc. are not viewed as a business. I used to think like many writers that 'I' will make it etc. due to my 'amazing' talent and nothing else but i know now that i could write the most amazing book in the world, but if it isn't marketable = isn't sellable = unpublishable

I am now only starting my first book - but i've done my research (which i hope will help me). I know that apart from talent and decent writing, agents and publishers want a marketable book and 'author' - who has an established platform etc. and a business like attitude to what their doing.

I guess aspiring authors view 'their work' like their baby etc. but perhaps viewing it as a product your trying to sell would be better? So if/when I'm trying to sell my product to an agent, i'm going to sell it with an amazing query/pitch. Thats step 1. and theres a hundred more after this - and like a business once/if you get to the top of the game you still have to try and stay there.

It shocks me sometimes how some writers don't have a clue of whats going on or what happens in the publishing process- its not like this information isn't available.
Many go in completely blind, making silly mistakes, that five mins on the internet would solve.

There is this belief as well that once you;ve sold the product to a publisher, your part is finished. in my mind, the work really starts then - publicity, marketing etc. And all this has to be done while working in your real job too, cause i doubt $12,500 (5,000 hardcopies at 10% loyalties - not sure if these stats are exact) will not buy me that mansion by the sea.

So IMO, the system isn't really broken, its just a business strategy to invest money in best possible product.

that being said easy for me to preach when i havent dipped my toe in the shark invested waters with my 'masterpiece'. Business attitude is easier said than done though when the rejection letters come.

Sorry for the ventful rank, this has been festering for a while.

Catalina said...

I'm beginning to think that writing the story is the easy part. I do have to say though, as much as I hate it, the publishing process is good for any writer. It's a growing pain. How bad do you want this? I think it makes the victory that much sweeter. And, reading this blog makes the effort that much more fun.

James Buchanan said...

(I posted the following on another site, but it seems to fit well here too)

I think one of the things that gets lost on a lot of writers, especially new ones, but also experienced writers, is how much of this business comes down to two factors--subjectivity and establishing a connection with an editor or agent.

By subjectivity I mean that you may have written a very good book or have a great idea, but it has to mate with a likeminded editor or agent.

As to connections, there are two meanings. The first is the traditional concept of having a personal relationship or knowing someone with a personal relationship with an editor or agent to get you in the front door. The other is a little less tangible and comes in the query letter where you establish your project and who you are as a writer. By being able to hit the right notes--a shared MFA program, strong publishing history, or some other means to connect you with the person--you can build credibility and attract a little attention.

When building a connection is such a tenuous process and there is such a huge degree of subjectivity involved you have to enter into this business under the assumption that you likely won't get published. Therefore, you have to want to write because you love writing and you love the process of trying to get published.

James Buchanan

Stephanie said...

Very well put.

And very depressing.

I'm going to go eat chocolate now.

Richard Mabry said...

What a memorable phrase: "success is not the default position." I've used it as the basis for my own post--with attribution and thanks, of course.
Thanks for sharing.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

...It just never occurred to me to blame others if I never get published. I'm interested in knowing how this works with short fiction since that's what I write. Is it like March Madness on the moon? Any thoughts?

I've been an editor with a spec fic zine for three years. I can give you a few stats based on our magazine and then some reasons why stories don't get picked.

We had around 300 stories submitted for this issue and three editors reading. We hope to buy 6 stories.

Quality is improving all the time. I'd guess 60% of my stories are competently written. So let's say your story is one of those. Then we get down to story itself: we've seen that plot before or the ending doesn't quite work, it doesn't fit our guidelines, or a myriad of other reasons. Sometimes I love a story, but I have to reject it because I know it won't get past the other editors. "It's not right for our magazine" is actually a valid reason.

We saved 30 stories to vote on. This is the cream--most of them are quite good. However, again, we know each others' tastes and in ranking them, we take that into consideration. Often there are three-four stories that just rise to the top of each editor's list. We know all of us are probably going to like them. That leaves 2-3 slots left.

So it comes down to issue balance. One time we had FOUR great werewolf stories. Obviously we could only pick one. So three great stories got rejected.

So it's partially subjective, but it's also whether we think it requires a ton of work (we're all pressed for time), whether it's appealing to our readership (salable and marketable, in agent terms), whether it fits with the issue (re: agent list), and whether we can get it past the other editors (an agent knowing editors' needs.)

The subjective part comes down to being excited about something and putting my name behind it. I spend a lot of effort on these stories and the last thing I want a reader to think is "Why did they pick THAT one?"

Oh, and trust me, editors and agents don't go in looking to reject a bunch of stuff. We are optimists at heart who love to find that story with a spark!

Sorry so long. Hope it helps.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

After reading all... well, most of these comments, I went out and bought a NEW PUPPIE!!!!

Pick 'im up Jan 24, one day after my birthday. I smile eveytime I think about him. Yup, a hunting dog! (German short-haired pointer)


Haste yee back ;-)

Scott said...

I loved sex scenes post just above, as it really does hammer home what editors are up against. This bit:

"Sometimes I love a story, but I have to reject it because I know it won't get past the other editors. "It's not right for our magazine" is actually a valid reason." especially interesting because, in a perfect world, the rejection letter you get would say the first part instead of the second part. The Werewolf example is the same. "Sorry, we thought your story was great but we already have four going in" is so much better and reassuring than "Not right for us, cheers".

But to quote a phrase I hear so much lately that I'm considering titling a new story after it, " it is what it is".

Acceptance, it turns out, is also a two-way street.

Marc Vun Kannon said...

Writing a query and writing a novel are entirely separate skills. I don't see why anyone would think that just because a query is less than stellar the book is too. Especially with all the conflicting advice about queries out there. When I write my novel I know what I want to write and I write it. When I write the query I have to guess what someone else wants me to write and try to write that, then I have to assume from a lack of response that it wasn't right and then do it again, only now I can't send the new query to the same agent, since I've already sent him one. There's just too many uncontrollable factors. If we could at least re-query the same agents (and feedback would be nice too) the whole process would be easier.

bookchildworld said...

I'm both a writer and bookseller and I just want to say: what Lee said. That scenario is horribly real.

Alexa said...

I came a bit late to this whole debate but it has been really interesting. I haven't even thought about queries yet just finishing but I'll keep all this in mind when I do. I'll also keep enjoying the process :)

Anonymous said...

I leave this post and its comments with one horrible revelation:
OtherLisa, you watch THE BACHELOR?

Talk about shattered illusions...

Excellent post, btw, albeit realistically depressing.


Stephen Moegling said...

As a writer who recently landed an agent, I can say that the most stressful part of the novel writing process for me was the query letter. I'm still too close to it to know why for sure, although I'd like to figure this out for my own peace of mind. I think, in some ways, it was because I had to sell myself and my story. This can be very overwhelming to writers, to anyone, for that matter. I also think that young writers have to convince themselves to get the guts and patience to write a novel; then, being successful in doing this, having to then start at the bottom of the mountain all over again to land an agent, can make the wiring in a writer's brain screwy. Sorry, agents, for all of us who took our angst out on you. It's not your fault, it's ours. Please forgive us. And then represent us.

Devon Ellington said...

I think the query process is just as important for the writer as for the agent and/or editor. No matter how much I research a particular agent or house before sending out a query, it's not until the actual interaction I learn what I need to know.

To me, placing your project is like finding its soul mate. You have to date around a bit and not expect to find True Love your first time out!

Sure, it can be frustrating, but I'd rather get a rejection from a place I don't fit than shove myself in and we're all miserable.

Anonymous said...

It seems like the problem is that when you mix art with business, a lot of people get confused. So the artist, in this case the writer, may not understand that just as you wouldn't throw a tantrum in the middle of a job interview because you got a hard question, you don't act unprofessionally toward a literary agent to whom you are trying to pitch a query. Just because it's "art" (or just because you think it's art) does not give you the right to act like the "temperamental artiste." Focus that creative temperament on the writing, not the business.

Leis said...

Hi Nathan, Happy New Year everyone.

I've been away for a couple of weeks and am catching up now--glad to see this post!

I have a question for my disgruntled fellow writers here: how often do WE take a chance on a new writer, how often do we actually buy a book that, a.) is written by an unknown; b.) is not endorsed by established or favorite authors; c.) has not been featured favorably in the press or is on the bestseller list?

I can tell you how often I buy such books: never, unless the author is someone I know personally, someone from my writing group.

Am I the only one?

Devon Ellington said...

Leis -- To answer your questions -- 2-3x per week I buy books by writers of whom I've never heard, on most weeks. It's gotten a bit less right now, in this economy, but then I try to make up for it by buying more books at a time when I buy. That doesn't count the books I'm sent for review.

I loathe blurbs. If a book seems interesting, I'll pick it up and try not to read any blurbs before looking at the cover teasers and reading a random page or two. A blurb is more likely to turn me off a book and cause me to put it back on the shelf than anything else.

Also, if I'm in the "I don't know what I want" mode, I'll pick up an anthology filled with new-to-me writers, and, if I like what's in the anthology, I'll hunt down that author's longer works.

pressure washer hose said...

"Picking Droplets From a Fire Hose" Interesting topic! I enjoyed reading this post. Anyway, I agree with you there, "Success is not the default, and success does not come easily." very well said.


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