Note from Aimee: This post right here grabbed me by the throat, punched me in the gut, then never let go. I thought about it for days. The wisdom, the business acumen, the voice, the message laid brutally honest and bare. I keep saying this, but every single one of these posts has humbled me in a new way with a new perspective. Yes, I find myself saying. Also something I wish I’d heard. Yes, also something we need to talk about more. Yes, true. So thank you all, again and always, for allowing me a window into these truths.
Disclaimer: The links in the post were added by me, not the author. Most of the sites listed are free for querying authors to use and explore. Querytracker.net does have a paid, premium version. This is not an endorsement for any paid product by either the author of this post or myself, simply a tool for folks who might not be familiar with the resources referenced.
The Business Case for Quitting
By: Regina Weaver (Follow Regina @ReginaWAuthor on Twitter)
My writing origin story is unremarkable: I’ve been writing since I was a kid but never really finished much. I drifted away from it for a while when the obligations of work/parenting/adulthood didn’t leave enough time to sustain a writing practice. Then, about 18 months ago, the planets aligned to provide the right mix of financial security, motivation, and free time to start writing again. The end result was a 98,000-word contemporary romance that I absolutely adore.
I wrote it selfishly. It is the book I, a long-time romance reader, have been searching for but unable to find. It was so purely for myself that I didn’t even tell anyone I was writing until I was nearly done. When I did reveal I was writing my own novel to a few close friends in the context of discussions about the romance genre generally, to my surprise, they asked to read it.
My friends are lovely people, so I worked up the nerve and shared it with the folks who asked (2 of 5 actually read it) and got some very nice feedback. It wasn’t a totally horrific experience. I started to toy with the notion of sharing it with even more people.
I Googled “I wrote a novel, now what?” and two things quickly became apparent:
- I’ve got a full-time job, a kid, and I suck at self-promotion; self-publishing wasn’t for me.
- At 98,000 words, my book was too long for trad pub. Also, it is atypically structured and more slice-of-life than plot-y. Trad pub wasn’t for me, either.
That was where my publishing journey should have ended. But my friends were so encouraging…. As were the online writing spaces I had started lurking in, where folks with books outside the publishing norms were regularly encouraged to query anyway. The daydream of my book being out in the world, finding other people who liked it slowly grew more vivid. I kept researching how to query, feeding that dream like a feral stray, though I knew it was neither wise nor practical, until one day I saw a “how I got my agent” post from the author of a 94,000 word CR debut. I let that post confirm my bias. If other too-long books were being picked up by agents surely mine had a chance? Querying didn’t cost anything after all, so why not shoot my shot?
Thus began a month of querying prep. I read everything on r/pubtips and scoured query blogs. I agonized over comps. I drafted and redrafted query letters, synopses, and 1 and 3-sentence pitches. All of which sucked. I enjoyed none of it. I read Manuscript Wish List and made a list of potential agents on Query Tracker which I cross-checked against agency websites and social media. I made a crappy author website and signed up for all the social medias and even “engaged” on the platforms. All of the free time that, a year ago, had been devoted to writing was now devoted to making me and my book as appealing as possible to agents. I also started another WIP that I barely touched, promising myself I would work on it once the query package was done.
I sent out my first round of 10 queries. The first rejection came 4 days later. I knew almost all authors get rejected. I knew about Steven King’s railroad spike; about all the pillars of the cannon and blockbusting bestsellers that had been rejected scores of times before they were published. I had done my very best to temper my expectations and keep the fact that my book was a longshot for multiple reasons front-of-mind. That first rejection still hurt. Even with all that foreknowledge and my realistic expectations, I cried. The next day, I dutifully sent out another query because that’s what all the blogs said to do.
One month later, I had 6 more form rejections and no indication any agent had ready anything beyond “98,000 word contemporary romance.” I also knew a lot more, not about querying, but about the publishing industry. In that month, I learned that the majority of US agents are only paid when an author is paid and the amount is a) not much per book and b) usually split over YEARS. I learned how under-resourced and over-worked editors are and how much pressure they are under to prove ROI* to the finance bros who actually run the publishing houses. It’s always been this way, but due to a combination of VC** funding in publishing, houses consolidating, and agent and editors leaving during the pandemic, it’s apparently gotten worse. Multiple sources were said querying is harder now than it’s been in modern memory.
With a clearer and more nuanced picture of the publishing business, I reevaluated my book not as a piece of art but as a business proposition. If I were an agent looking through the hundreds of manuscripts in a slush pile for something that would pay my rent, would I pick my book? The answer: No.
A smart agent is going to try and find books in the slush pile that are going to be the fastest, easiest sale so they can maximize their ROI and stand a fighting chance of paying their bills. Their best bet isn’t an outlier; it is a book that has the expected word count, is easy to comp, on trend, with query materials that demonstrate the author can effectively promote themselves. My book could be the objectively best thing in the slush pile (it is not) and the smart agent is still sending me a form rejection and requesting a full on the 83k manuscript with a quirky 24-year-old FMC that lists 5 different tropes in the first paragraph of the query and comps itself to the books most beloved by the BookTok algo last spring.
[This is not a criticism of agents! I, too, like shelter and providing for my family and maximizing the money I get vs. the hours I spend on my work.]
Since I am not a once-in-a-lifetime talent, for my book to be a good business prospect, I would have to make it conform to market. I would have to cut 18,000 words and add in elements and structure that are more expected of the genre (that I consciously omitted or subverted because I am tired of them as a long-time reader). I would have to make it something other than the book I love. However, publishing offers me precious little incentive to do that.
There’s no financial incentive: I am never going to make more writing than I do at my day job. If I’m going to expend effort on something I find neutral to unpleasant for money, I’ll just log a few extra hours at work. I’ll make a lot more and it doesn’t involve hacking up my art. I don’t want to be famous. Being a recognized author would be cool because it would potentially provide opportunities to geek out with readers and other authors but otherwise fame seems like a pain. The only thing publishing offers that I desire is people who know how to make and sell books who could put my book where the readers who might like it could find it. But it wasn’t going to give me that for a cost I was interested in paying.
It also turned out that querying wasn’t free. It was costing me something. Though my query package was done, querying was still occupying large chunks of my very limited free time and mental bandwidth. When I did manage to allocate time to my WIP, the persistent, low-grade angst from the rejections and the silence and the fact that I was constantly thinking about Book 1 made getting into the right headspace to write Book 2 incredibly difficult. After a month, I was dejected, the WIP only had 6,000 new words, and writing, which had once been an absolute joy, had become a slog.
I might not be able to make a business case for my book to publishing, but publishing wasn’t exactly making a compelling case to me.
If my book wasn’t a good business prospect for agents and changing it wasn’t a good business prospect for me, then what was the point? And why should I continue?
The answers were, of course: There is no point, and I should stop.
A proportionally brief digression about the prevailing attitudes around querying:
The refrain of the querying community is overwhelmingly “Just keep querying and you’ll get your turn one day.” A certain amount of irrational optimism is necessary to query and have the fortitude to keep going in the face of repeated rejection. Writers certainly should support and encourage each other in the query trenches. But it is a truth almost universally unacknowledged by the #amquerying world that not all of us will get there one day.
A writer can do everything right–stellar query letter, great comps, snappy synopsis, flawless manuscript–and still not get an agent for one of a dozen reasons that have nothing to do with merit and are wholly beyond their control. A writer with an amazing book who did something slightly wrong–weak query package, book too long or short, doesn’t fit neatly into a genre–has even dimmer prospects. The fact is, there are thousands of wonderful, worthy books we will never read because the system is jacked up.
“Just keep querying and you’ll get your turn one day,” is a lie; a tempting illusion. It gives writers a false sense of control: that if you just tweak your query letter/find the agent with the best Query Tracker stats/revise that log line then you can cause an agent to request a full. It also allows us to blame other writers when they fail to secure representation and differentiate ourselves, so we don’t have to acknowledge that publishing is subjective, capricious, and that worth and merit have a very small role in the process. “If they didn’t get any requests, it was because they did something wrong. I did [online query wisdom] so that won’t happen to me.” Further, it allows the publishing industry to shift the responsibility of its systemic failures to writers. I spent thousands on therapy fighting to keep my illusions of control because admitting you are powerless, that the universe isn’t just, and that good work and good people aren’t always rewarded is terrifying. But illusions help no one. You can’t make good decisions based on lies.
Back to quitting: Though quitting was eminently logical, deciding to actually do it was hard. The dream of being published, of having my book out in the world where other people might love it didn’t get any less lovely, and I didn’t want it any less once I figured out it was impossible. Also, the well-intentioned but relentless drumbeat of, “Just keep trying! You’ll get there!” from the online writing community made even considering quitting felt like cowardice. Acknowledging this might not work out felt like a personal failing, a fundamental lack of tenacity and gumption on my part that made me unworthy of being published.
I spent many days examining quitting, weighing the pros and cons, and “sitting with my feeling” (gross) before I could bring myself to do it. I spent another few days after that figuring out whether I wanted to stop entirely or if I wanted to finish off all the open agents on my list. I opted to finish the list, though it was not strictly rational, for two reasons. 1) My deeply Type-A ass needed that feeling of “completion.” 2) So when I encounter well-meaning folks in writing spaces who try to encourage me to query again because me giving up freaks them out about their own querying prospects, I can say I gave it a legitimate try, with the numbers to back it up.
My last outstanding query closed last week with 0 requests of any kind. The evidence is in: my book was not a good business prospect.
The evidence also shows that quitting was the right decision for me. My morning pages are no longer 30% Publishing Feelings. The rejections that came in after I decided to quit were easier to take. The biggest proof, however, is in the writing. In the two months I was actively querying, I added 6,000 and 6,500 words, respectively, to my WIP. The month after I quit, I added 10,000 even though I couldn’t write every day. The day after I resolved to quit, I wrote 1,500 words, and it didn’t feel like squeezing blood from a stone for the first time in weeks. With some distance, I’m also starting to appreciate the positives of doing this purely as a hobby, most of which boil down to not having to give a fuck about “the market” however publishing defines it at the moment.
If I had known what I know now when I started querying, would I have still done it? I honestly can’t say. I have more than my fair share of hubris, and humans are bad at estimating risk. But I think I would have done it a bit differently. And quitting would have always been a part of the plan.
As for what’s next, I don’t know. This whole exercise has shown me that I do want to share my writing, far more than I realized. I’ll spend some time this year exploring ways to do that and build more community. Though I worry that I’ve limited the spaces I can find community by opting out of publishing. I have no idea what that looks like yet. Whatever I end up doing though, this time I know that if it doesn’t work out, I can quit.
Bio: Regina Weaver is a self-described “chronic overthinker” and author of contemporary romance. Occasional destroyer of worlds. You can follow her on Twitter @ReginaWAuthor or checkout more of her writing on her website: https://reginaweaverwrites.com/
*ROI = Return on Investment. Calculated by dividing the net profit (or loss) by cost. A publisher yields a high ROI when (a) a book sells well; or (b) it is produced cheaply; or (c) both.
**VC = Venture Capital. Private equity funding where a financer provides money to a young company with the intent the money will spur the business into rapid growth ending in an “exit” (usually a merger or acquisition where the company is bought by a larger company for a sum much higher than the investment).