Why I Continue To Send Query Letters (Traditional Publishing)

As I send my 70th query letter between the two different book series I’m trying to publish, I find myself wondering: why am I still trying to publish this way? The answer is complicated, slightly prideful, but also embedded in the fact that I don’t only want money. I want people to be able to read my book. I want to belong to something.

Close-up view of keyboard.

When I was in high school, I managed to get my book (Spell Bound, Kristen McDonald) published through a legitimate publishing house — Black Rose Writing. Though now that I look back on it, I realize that being on my own to navigate this publishing process was a nightmare. They’re one of the few companies that accept unsolicited query letters (for anyone who doesn’t know, unsolicited means you can send your work without being represented by an agent or someone on the “inside”). Me being the little naive teenager I was, I considered this to be a plus.

But at the end of the day, I had to pay out of pocket for 100 copies, I had to edit the manuscript myself (with a 9th grader’s experience in the English language), and I received little-to-no marketing besides the book being released online through major outlets.

A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him.

-Edna St. Vincent Millay

After hearing all of this, you may think that I wouldn’t want to go through a nightmare like that again. Maybe I should just publish through Amazon and skip the trouble. But instead, this experience has made me feel like the only route that will work for me is to get represented. Maybe part of me is just such a purist: I feel that getting published the traditional way feels like the only option for me. But I know it’s more than that.

Also, I can’t edit myself — even as an adult. And I’m not about to shovel out a large sum to have someone else do it for self-publishing either.

Why am I still trying to go the “traditional” route for publishing? Why do I believe that finding an agent is the route for me? There are several reasons.

Navigating the Expenses

Glasses resting on a pad of paper.

While I am continuously sending query letters, I have looked at self-publishing expenses before. I’ve even requested packages and received numerous phone calls from people who try to get me to join their programs. The bottom line is always the same: I don’t have money to self-publish through these companies. So many of these places offer only slightly different packages for you. Some offer a set amount of money to receive a set amount of books. Others help with marketing but you have to pay for everything along the way.

I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is.

-Anne Lamott

But who really has money for this? It’s an investment for sure, but books won’t make you that much money unless you’re selling a ton of copies. But it’s not about the money for me when it comes to books.

Really, as a broke kid with college debt living in LA, my only chance to get published right now is through some kind of book deal with a publishing house. While self-publishing companies claim to push as low as 500-1000 dollars to get published through their system, that price is just not practical in my current situation. I loved this line from firstwriter.com, “Remember, it’s better to have 15% of something than 50% of nothing.” When you publish traditionally, you have such a better chance of your book getting read and purchased. 

Gaining an Advocate

While I’m sure there are plenty of horror stories about agent-writer relationships, at the end of the day, I need someone to advocate for me. I need to know that I have someone on my team who is trying to market my book as much as I am. Why? Because until I can reasonably support myself with my writing, I’m going to have to work another job. Which leaves very little time to actually market my own books. Not that I wouldn’t push it HARD on every platform that I can. But this means that I’m going to need to get a good marketing deal with a publishing house.

As someone trying to be picked up by the largest publishing house possible, an agent is a necessity. They’re going to be the ones who are able to push my work through what so many people call the “slush pile” and seen by publishing houses.

The Unfortunate Reality

Fancy letters that say "no"
Every response letter I’ve gotten so far.

It’s estimated that about 300,000 books get published every year in the US. And these are the books that are not self-published. So yeah, the odds are not in my favor. Even with a small, published book under my belt. Plus with the trends of genres always changing like the tide, it’s hard to catch the right agent’s attention. 

I can’t tell you how many articles and YouTube videos I’ve watched about “How To Get an Agent” or “Why Agents Aren’t Picking Up Your Book.” But at the end of the day, I’ve seen just as many agents tweet things about how it’s just luck. It’s just subjective. It’s just a personal opinion. And you just have to find the right one at the right time.

As a young man just beginning to publish some short fiction in the t&a magazines, I was fairly optimistic about my chances of getting published; I knew that I had some game, as the basketball players say these days, and I also felt that time was on my side; sooner or later the best-selling writers of the sixties and seventies would either die or go senile, making room for newcomers like me.

-Stephen King

According to theadventurouswriter.com, agent Janet Reid “gets 100 query letters a week; other agents in her office get 500 queries a week. Reid may request 4 partial manuscripts from those 100 query letters.” I know agents have a hard job. I follow quite a few on twitter, and I see how exhausted they are by writers who just don’t understand what “no” or politeness means.

But that’s easier said than done when it feels like you’re running out of people to send your work to.

Even worse, I’ve seen even agencies not accepting unsolicited query letters. At that point, I wanted to throw in the towel. How can I even hope to be published traditionally when there are all of these hoops to jump through? And yet I persist. Why? It might be because I still believe in this industry and want to be added to the YA shelves of every bookstore across the world. Or maybe I’m just crazy. Who knows?

All I know is that I will continue to write and continue to push my writing out into the world.

My Conclusion

My personal journey is to travel the narrow path of traditional publishing, but I know this isn’t everyone’s choice. What are your thoughts and reasons for wanting to self-publish or traditionally publish? I’d love to hear where you are in this process and how this journey has been for you. 

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