About a week before my nonfiction debut went to auction, I received two requests from editors who planned to bid if I did what they asked. The first editor wanted me to take my 4,000-word writing sample and rewrite it in a purely comedic vein. The second requested a rewrite, too, only he wanted me to make the book ultra-serious. No jokes.
It was 2019. I was childless, but I did have a demanding full-time job I couldn’t shirk, so I got up at 5 a.m. every morning and banged out new drafts before work. In the evenings, my friend Lizzie hunkered down beside me while, over beers and takeout, I walked her though the new material. Then we punched it up, or slathered on the sad. The adrenaline rush of all this was real, and also very far from pleasant. I felt like the comedy-tragedy mask come to unshowered, greasy life. If I didn’t satisfy both briefs, my book might not sell.
A dozen years prior, when I’d first started trying to get a book published, I wouldn’t have been up to the task. Fortunately, by the time all this went down, I’d already spent 12 years in the query trenches. I’d also spent a year in L.A. pitching movie ideas to producers in deep V-necks who absolutely loved the idea, wow, beautiful, brilliant, only change the entire thing, okay?
It’d been like a fitness boot camp for my ego: sadistic and deeply wrong, probably in violation of multiple health-department codes. In the end, though, I was glad to have survived, and the conflicting requests found me in shape. I’d already made pretty much every stupid, humiliating mistake you can make. Perhaps without all those years of unanswered emails, form rejections, close calls and ghostings, I would’ve been tempted to be like but but but! How dare you question my Art!
Instead, my feeling was: Thank you for the suggestions. Hand me that brief. Lemme see what I can do for you.
This kind of compromise isn’t for everyone, I realize. Depending on your ambitions, your age, where you are in your writing career and/or the happiness of your childhood, you may be on a different path. My goal was getting my book’s big idea out into the world, whatever form it took, whether comic or tragic. And for me, in the most literal way, humor triumphed over depression. Running Press, a subsidiary of Hachette, bid on the funny version and won.
I want to say I learned a lot in my years of querying and perhaps most especially in those last few hysterical days before auction—as Nabokov wrote, “The last long lap is the hardest.” But I also know it’s all too easy to recast the struggle as edifying and educational when you find yourself, for however brief a moment, lifted out of it. Who’s to say the self-congratulation phase is not, in its way, just as blind as what came before?
Putting it mildly, the world demands different dues from different people. We don’t all have the same access, resources or, for that matter, masochistic streak, dark sense of humor, what have you. I do, however, feel comfortable presuming that your experience of querying has been horrible and painful, too. Disheartening. A mashup of Cinderella and The Road.
You may take heart in hearing that you are almost certainly savvier than I was when I sent my first queries in 2006, when I was 24, and it turned out no one wanted the bildungsroman I’d written hoping to sway an indifferent ex. I queried two more novels off and on over the next 10 years before starting work on a nonfiction proposal in late 2016. It was 2018 when I signed with an agent.
Here’s what I came to see in my dozen years of disappointment. Maybe this hard-won knowledge can help you, too, wherever you are in your—the word is hard to dodge—journey.
- Lottery truisms apply. You can’t win if you don’t query, yet the odds are grim.
- It can be better to think of querying as a process rather than a matter of sending an email, or even a whole season of sending emails. Finding the right agent may take years and years even if you’re 99.8% less naïve and deluded than I was when I started out.
- Literary agents aren’t therapists or fairy godmothers. They’re more like realtors searching for developed properties who, several hundred times a year, find themselves the target of strangers’ bizarre emotional entreaties. People target agents, in short, with some very weird stuff. This is what explains their occasional caginess, overall reticence and long response times.
- The major obstacle standing between many (perhaps most) writers and a book deal isn’t a polished manuscript or proposal. It’s a sense of the publishing landscape as it really is. It’s market information, market know-how: a considered view of where the opportunities lie, of how to pitch and market successfully.
- Writing and marketing are distinct skill sets. Busting out of the bull pen tends to require that you develop both and then wrestle them into overlap.
Yes, yes, I know: Some people will see the word “marketing” and equate it to insincerity. But some of history’s greatest and most recognized writers also spent years studying and adapting to the market, adjusting their original visions so that they more closely resembled popular literature and what was in demand. Edgar Allan Poe, by way of example, shifted his lofty and high-minded vision considerably downward to crank out such pop hits as “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.” Now those are the works we all remember. Dickens and Shakespeare wrote expressly for their markets, too.
Of course, nonfiction and fiction may be marketed and sold very differently. With nonfiction, it can be easier to make an objective case for who will buy a book, while fiction—you will hear again and again—is more subjective. As a novel-querying friend of mine said, after I told her I was writing this piece, “When your No. 1 response is ‘This industry is very subjective,’ you’re not running an industry. You’re running a sorority.” And she’s right. It’s distressing how often it’s the case in book publishing, as in so many other areas of life, that cultural capital, cache and opportunities just keep accruing to those who can already boast of a boatload.
Still, this is our task in trying to sell our work, no matter what that work is. We have to try to take the subjectivity out of it to the greatest possible extent, which means seeing our own market positions as clearly as we can, and trying to put numbers and data to our business cases in the form of platform, market research, and comps—in addition to developing a unique premise and an appealing presentation of your connection to your material, et cetera. It may mean acting on feedback, too, if that’s something you’re open to.
With querying, it’s almost as though you’re working a long, sometimes-awful, unpaid internship. You’re discovering how to think like a salesperson, learning to address objections, assembling a compelling commercial vision in real time as you rack up the rejections. In short, you’re preparing to move to the next level and face the final boss, so what would be the point of complaining? (I mean beyond the amazing #amquerying gallows humor on Twitter.)
The truth is that no one is ever going to care about your book as much as you do, which is the major reason you’re qualified to do not just the writing but the selling. Then there’s the fact that we’re all simply stuck with the task, anyway, so may as well get cracking. Who knows? You may scoop up, in the end, some valuable skills—in fact, the exact skills you’ll need to sell your book or next big project. The stamina, too. I can’t think it’s just a coincidence. Life itself is a tragicomic grind full of highs and lows, hard lessons and slow-boil jokes. And of the #amwriting, #amquerying life, that’s only more true.
Catherine Baab-Muguira’s debut, Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru, was published by Hachette in September 2021. She also writes a free email newsletter called Poe Can Save Your Life, packed with darkly inspiring self-help tips for writers and other creatives. Check it out here.