How to decide to query for agent representation or take the self-publishing route.

Volkswagen bug and tree

I am in the process of querying my manuscript. So, for me, the question is not about whether or not I query. It’s a question about how long I query?

I’ve only just begun to look for agent representation and I’m patient. But querying takes a lot more than patience. It takes time to prepare a great query letter, diligence to search for an appropriate agent, focus to research submission guidelines, and care to keep it all organized.

And sometimes, after all of that, some of us find only one or two agents that seem like a good fit.

Not so long ago, I was firmly set on traditional publishing. My plan was to query for a year, maybe eighteen months, and if nothing came of my efforts, I’d consider self-publishing. But I’ve become more flexible in my thinking. I’m not so sure that I want to wait that long, especially when I’m sending out fewer letters than I had hoped. I realize that many writers query for much longer than a year or two, but that’s not my preference.

My evolving opinion has been influenced by the ups and downs of my everyday life. As time passes, and I experience path-altering, life-changing events, I find myself with a much more simplified perspective.

I used to believe that traditional publishing was the only way to go. I regret to say that I used to perceive self-publishing as a negative last resort.

Admittedly, some of the self-published work I come across today can still spark this negative point of view. Too many self-published books seem rushed. They are presented with typos and grammatical errors, badly formatted, or have non-professional, clumsy covers. With so many glaring issues, it’s hard to imagine that these same books contain well thought out plots or engaging characters. Maybe they do, but the thing is… many people will likely never find out because they’ll have trouble getting past the mistakes and issues.

Now, having said that, it’s fair to say that even the most thorough among us can miss a typo or two, or overlook a grammatical error. But that reality is quite different from a so called finished book chocked full of problems.

Self-publishing is hard work. But to make one’s book the best it can be before putting it out there for all the world to read… is well worth the effort. A good self-published book gives the entire industry a well-deserved boost.

Okay, so, what about traditional publishing? There are indeed some truly great benefits to having agent representation. Here are a few of them:

  • Literary agents are positioned to take care of the business side of writing.
  • Agents know the publishing business and they have established relationships with major publishing houses. They know who’s who.
  • Agents know how to get an author a book deal because they know how to get the ear of the right person for a particular book.
  • Agents know how to negotiate the best deals possible. They know how to troubleshoot and how to fix problems.
  • Agents are the conduit between the writer and the editor.
  • They know how to talk the talk.

Knowing the above, why would anyone go it alone?

Well, because it can be really hard to get an agent’s attention… and then keep it… and then receive an offer of representation.

After a writer has slugged through the many drafts of a query letter, and finally settled on the version she hopes will work, the rest of the query process isn’t all that difficult… but it is definitely a challenge.

Finding the most appropriate agent to query is hard work and time consuming. The process appears straightforward: research agents, read their manuscript wish lists, read what they like and what they don’t like, read their submission guidelines… and when a writer finds an agent who’s seeking the kind of book he’s written… he’s sends off his query and can give himself a well-deserved pat on the back!

But I’ll be frank, not all agent wish lists are as direct as I’d like. Too often, I find myself trying to interpret what an agent has described… deciphering their character and topic preferences, or translating their colorful genre descriptions… and wondering if my manuscript fits. If I find myself wondering for too long… I’m off to the next agent… and hoping to find a clearer connection. I don’t fault the agent for this complexity. It’s the nature of the business! But I do appreciate when I come across a clear and concise wish list.

Added to the challenge of the query process is the fact that literary agents receive thousands of letters each and every month.

Agents are really busy. Weeks or months might pass by before a query letter is located and read. More time will pass, and then a letter of rejection will show up in a writer’s inbox. And when an agent does ask a writer to submit part or all of a manuscript, the request is certainly exciting, but the overall process remains relatively unchanged… time passes and the writer waits. The harsh reality for most of us writers is that more than not, absolutely nothing happens. We hope and we wait. And sometimes, as the days pile up, we writers have been known to wonder if our query letter was received at all! Odds are it was.

For most of us, we understand why the query process takes so long, and why we don’t always hear back from a potential agent. Agents are human beings too. Not only are they busy, but they have lives to live just like we do. But, what now? We’ve queried a few select agents. What do we do now? What if we don’t hear back? What if we do hear back and the news is negative?

Well, while we writers are waiting for a reply… we send out more queries.

And, if we do receive a rejection letter, it’s best to be genuinely grateful. A rejection letter is proof of receipt. And a reply from an agent is that agent taking the time to respect and acknowledge us. Sometimes, if we’re really lucky, we may even receive a rare and valuable critique, or a word or two of encouragement.

If we happen to receive a request for part or for all of our manuscript, fantastic! And, for some presumably talented writers, lightning does strike more than once. For them, it’s appropriate and respectful to inform all of the agents involved that multiple requests have been received. Oh, what a problem to have!

Okay. Great. Our book is complete. We’ve made it the best that it can be, and we’ve been querying. That’s good. That’s great. That’s amazing! Right?

But for how long? How long does the query stage last before a writer chooses to self-publish? I don’t think there’s a universal answer. But, here’s mine: I don’t know.

I really don’t know. It’s a personal choice. And I can definitely sense myself leaning closer and closer toward the idea of self-publishing. My increasing lean is less about the possibility of never receiving agent representation, and more about believing that I can create a solid self-published product.

I’ve been researching and studying the self-publishing option. Recognizing the hard work involved, I’m starting to see the potential for self-publishing success… and I’m discovering the benefits. I’m one of those people who enjoys marketing almost as much as writing… almost… certainly enough to enjoy the business side of the work. So, I just might give it a swing!

And another important aspect to remember about literary agent representation is that if we find an agent to represent us, the hard work is far from over. Many more months can pass before that agent finds a publisher interested in publishing our book. And sometimes, despite their best efforts, our agent can’t find a publisher for our book. Literary agent representation does not guarantee a published product. But, don’t let this stop you from querying. It’s just something to keep in mind.

In a future blog, I’ll share what I’ve learned about self-publishing. In the meantime, I’ll be sure to keep you up-to-date as to how the querying process pans out for my novel, REASONS.

Cheers and keep at it! Like fast ed in the image below… if you stay dormant for too long, a tree might grow through you… and then what?