Traditional Publishing: The Pain, Trauma, and Reward

I received my first rejection letter on August 20th of this last year. The words of the form rejection are etched into my mind forever: “Thank you for considering me with your query. Unfortunately, your manuscript does not fit my needs at this time.” Not exactly a zinger, but it hurt none-the-less. Those words sucked all the life out of the afternoon, leaving only a dry wasteland of heat. I felt like was trapped in a scene from a T.S. Eliot poem. I may have a penchant for the dramatic.

When I first began down the traditional publishing path, I knew what I was getting into. I had heard the horror stories and the cautionary tales. Rejection was anticipated and expected. It is part of every author’s life. The problem was that, as I prepared to send my queries to agents, I told myself that I might be different. Maybe I would be one of those rare authors who find an agent on their first try. My life has been characterized by first tries. My husband is the first man I ever dated for more than two months, I got into the first university I applied to for each degree, I got hired at the first career job I applied for, and we bought the first house we looked at. I used these things to convince myself that I would only need to send out one round of letters. I think that convincing myself this would be another of those first-try events was critical. It gave me the courage to actually send the letters.

I realize, now, that those first tries weren’t truly firsts. A lot of hard work went into them. Events that seemed like easy luck in the moment were preceded by determination, grit, and preparation. Today I am thankful that I didn’t find an agent right away because it sent me on a journey that has improved my book, my skills, and matured me in new ways.

On that searing afternoon, however, all I could see were the stinging words of the polite rejection. I collapsed into the grass, prepared to wallow in self-pity for a while. My nose landed mere inches from a pile of dog poop. I had been so wrapped up in my writing world that I had failed to clear the lawn of landmines. This brings me to my first piece of advice for aspiring writers looking to get published traditionally: When that first rejection letter comes, beware of where you collapse.

When I say that I am thankful for those rejections, it’s true. My first flurry of rejections (I send queries out five at a time) spurred me into action. I read and researched. I signed up for classes. Although I already knew that rejection was a part of querying, I learned how to identify the problem from my rejection letters.

It turns out that my query letter sucked. It still isn’t perfect, but it is a lot better. Get as many eyes as you can on your query letter. Send it to your writing groups, friends, family, random strangers in line at the grocery store. Find people who are unfamiliar with your work to look at it. Give it to your enemy and let them tear it to pieces. If you have the money, get a professional opinion on it (Writer’s Digest is one place where you can find those types of resources).

So much hinges on your query letter, and it is the single hardest thing you will write as an author. The second hardest will be your synopsis.

In the midst of my querying tribulations, I wrote to a family friend who is a published author. She advised me to go to writing conferences as often as possible. Writing conferences are a fantastic way to get tips and improve writing practice, but they also provide two other crucial items for an author: a way to build connections with other authors and access to agents.

Connecting with other authors, independent and traditionally published, it really important. When I finally do manage to get published, I know my author friends will spread the word through their connections, giving my book a better chance at success. More importantly, though, they know what I am going through, and I don’t have to worry about doggy landmines when collapsing into their arms (digital or physical). Having access to agents is also crucial.

Agents have become the door through which you must pass to get traditionally published (in most cases, especially with larger publishing companies). Publishers will be taking on a financial risk with new, untried authors, and they use agents to vet those authors. Most large publishing agencies will not consider an unrepresented debut author. Thus, agents are inundated with unsolicited queries from people like me, and that means it is hard to get their attention. Some agents refuse to consider unsolicited queries because they just don’t have the time.

Laurie McLean from Fuse Literary was telling me that before she quit accepting unsolicited queries, she was getting almost 200 queries a week. I can’t even imagine trying to wade through that. No wonder my sucky query letter wasn’t getting any attention. Ms. McLean only accepts solicited queries (meaning she asks you to send her your stuff) after hearing pitches at pitch parties and writing conferences. Now she’s down to 20 queries a week. The best way to get your work in front of an agent is by pitching them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t send unsolicited queries, you should. Send unsolicited queries on a regular basis. But find other ways to get your work into the hands of agents, too.

At the last writing conference I attended, I had the opportunity to pitch my novel to Laurie and several other agents. It was the most nerve-wracking, rewarding thing I have ever done. I was shaky-going-to-puke-all-over-myself nervous. But I managed to pitch my novel successfully, and all of the agents I pitched to requested it. I also got to chat them up about things like query letters, writing platforms, and current publishing trends. The experience was priceless. Do not be afraid to pitch in person to an agent.

After I got home, I became terrified that my story was not ready to be seen by the agents that requested it, and so I began working with a freelance editor. Working with an editor was amazing, and I learned a ton. We worked on pacing and character arch. She pointed out her observations, and we had many long discussions about what to develop, what to alter, and what to keep. The best part was being able to see how her interpretation differed from my intent in spots and I was able to clarify my development to achieve what I had originally hoped. The most important thing I got from the experience, however, was more confidence in my own instincts.

If you can afford an editor, I highly recommend it (just make sure to carefully research the editor you choose). If you can’t afford an editor, get your work in front of as many eyes as possible, and read, read, read.

A week ago I got another rejection, this time from an agent who actually read at least part of my work. Her letter was more specific and more useful. She was intrigued by the premise of my story, but it just didn’t grab her as she’d hoped. This might mean I have more work to do on those first pages. I will wait and for a few more rejections of that nature before I undertake more revisions, however.


The key through all of this is to remember that writing is extremely subjective and these agents are reading with an extra critical eye. There are so many things that might cause a rejection: perhaps mine was the 199th manuscript she’d tried reading that week. Maybe she already has someone who writes like me that she represents. Maybe she doesn’t like my style. The list goes on. If I get several rejections that cite my first pages as unengaging, then I will start to think about revisions. For now, I will keep plodding stubbornly along.

Author Jerzy Kosinski once submitted his bestseller, Steps, under a fake name and title to several literary agents and publisher to prove how hard it is to get published as a debut author. They all rejected it, even the company that published it. Don’t alter your work based on the input of one person. Get multiple opinions before you make revisions, and trust your instincts.

There are more rejections heading my way, and that’s fine.  I am determined to have my work published traditionally, although I do plan on publishing some of my work independently. I got to chat with Chuck Sambuchino at one of the writing conferences I went to, and he explained my desires for traditional publishing best:

“You are going to go traditional because you want the best for your book. You dream of seeing it at Barnes and Noble. You dream of it being made into a movie. The best way to get those things is to go the traditional route.”

He’s right. I love my book and my characters. I think what they have to say is important, and I want as many people as possible to read my book, so I will endure.

Author Kathryn Stockett was rejected 61 times before she found an agent to represent her and The Help. J.K. Rowling, Agatha Christie, C.S. Lewis, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner all were rejected. In fact, rejection seems to be one thing all great writers have in common. There are three characteristics that ensure a writer’s success, no matter the publishing route they choose: faith, tenacity, and hard work.

This article first appeared on the wonderful Diana Anderson-Tyler’s blog:

Big thanks to her to for featuring me! If you don’t follow this lovely lady, you definitely should.