In Ask Erika, For Writers, Publishing

Reader Question: How many query letters did you send out for Empty Arms?

Before I give you the exact number, let’s travel back to 2007 when I had completed my first novel, The Sounds of Silence, and was certain that agents would be fighting to represent me. Even though this was only 5 years ago, at that time most agents preferred snail mail queries. I sent at least a hundred…which, when you consider the oversized envelopes and the weight of the first chapter or first fifty pages that most agents asked for, cost me a small fortune.

The grand result? A few encouraging comments but no offers of representation.

Frustrated but determined, I spent the next six months reworking the story, fueled only by the few compliments I’d collected in my first round of querying. My revisions led to some major plot developments, new characters, and a title change: The Ardent One. In early 2008, I was back at the library printing copies of my new and improved query letter and sample chapter. Another hundred or so thick envelopes went out, and I was certain that this time I’d land an agent.

The grand result? More encouraging comments but no offers of representation.

I was at an impasse. I had to do one of two things: begin another major revision or put the story to rest and set to work on a new idea that was burning in my brain. I chose the latter and began writing the book that became Empty Arms.

Now, fast forward to 2011. After taking some fiction writing courses, workshopping my first draft of Empty Arms, working with a developmental editor, and doing some pretty hefty revisions, I ended up with a manuscript that I was immensely proud of, a manuscript that put The Ardent One to shame. And during the three years that I spent writing Empty Arms, the publishing industry changed completely. Now, hardly any agents accept snail mail queries, e-readers have revolutionized the marketplace, e-bookstores have grown into a serious distribution channel, and, as a result, the big six publishing companies no longer hold all the keys to the kingdom (though, admittedly, they still hold quite a few).

With my completed manuscript in hand, I had a decision to make: do I query a bunch of agents and hope that one is willing to take a chance on me OR do I take a chance on myself and leverage the new technologies and opportunities that are available to emerging writers? Again, I chose the latter. Instead of spending months querying agents who would probably rather be working with their established (read: money-making) clients, I decided to spend my time setting up my own small press, Dreamspire, and sending my work out into the world now rather than a couple of years from now.

So, the number of queries I sent out for Empty Arms? Zero.

That’s not completely true. A good friend of mine invited me to send a query letter to her agent. At first I was reluctant because I’d already made the decision to establish Dreamspire to publish my work. But it was such a generous offer that I did end up sending that agent a query letter and the first 30 pages of my book. I waited a few weeks and when I didn’t hear back I assumed that she wasn’t interested and I moved forward with my plan. But the agent’s lack of response ate at me. I thought I had grown so much as a writer, how could she not have responded? I forced myself to forget about it and focus on the positive comments I was receiving from early readers. Then, a funny thing happened. I received an e-mail from the agent apologizing for taking so long to get back to me. Here’s a little excpert from her note…

I did read the first thirty pages of your work early on and made a note to myself to read more since I found your writing engaging. In looking at your website I see that you have found a publisher and that you are launching an e-book. I wish you the very best of luck.  I think you are a very good writer with a strong voice, which is a great combination for success.

Could she have been the one to take a chance on me? Maybe. Maybe not. I guess we’ll never know because in the end, I decided that the person who was going to take a chance on me…is me.

How many query letters have you sent?

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Showing 10 comments
  • Stacy S. Jensen
    Reply

    I’ve sent a handful of queries. I found an agent at a writer’s conference, who was interested. In the end that didn’t work out, so I’ve been working on my story. I’m in the process of a new draft. Later, I’ll worry about queries.

    • Erika
      Reply

      I’m with you, Stacy, I like to put the whole querying thing out of mind until absolutely necessary. No need to put the cart before the horse 🙂

  • Brianna
    Reply

    I’ve sent a half-dozen queries and gotten no response. I’m about to start querying again, but I’m also wondering when your press will be open to submissions.

    • Erika
      Reply

      Ugh! That is so frustrating, Brianna. Believe me, I know your pain!

      As for Dreamspire, I’m hoping we will be open to submissions later this year. Stay tuned…

  • Brianna
    Reply

    Will do. I’m not so frustrated by the lack of response as I am by the fact that I don’t have enough time to dedicate to making this happen for real. I feel like such a slacker.

    • Erika
      Reply

      As someone who wrote 2 novels one hour at a time, I KNOW how frustrating it can be not to have enough time to focus on your writing dream. Don’t feel like a slacker, instead give yourself credit for all that you are doing to work toward your writing dream and take comfort that you ARE working towards it. There are so many people out there want to write a book but don’t do a darn thing about it. You’ll get there…

  • E.B. Black
    Reply

    Thank you for this post. It encouraged me greatly today, since I am in the middle of the query process and facing the very high possibility of not finding an agent.

    • Erika
      Reply

      Hi E.B.,
      Glad my post found you at the right moment and was able to offer a little encouragement 🙂

      Unfortunately, the query process can be grueling, but most authors (except maybe Snooki) have to go through it at some point. So hang in there, stay strong, and don’t give up!

      Good luck making your writing dream come true!
      Erika

  • Kate
    Reply

    I worked for 10 years on my novel, no writing workshops available unless I want to pay and take four other classes first. So far I have queried 27 agents and been rejected by nine of them. Some of them were queried in the morning and rejected me by 5pm. Not encouraging.

    • Erika
      Reply

      Hi Kate,
      Sorry to hear about all of the frustration you’re encountering. Fortunately, e-mail makes the query process faster. Unfortunately, it makes the rejection process that much faster too 🙁 Are you considering self-publishing? I’d be happy to offer any guidance if you decide to go that route.

      May I ask what writing workshop you’re referring to when you say that you would have to take four other classes first? Maybe there are others you should investigate? I took a 10-week Fiction Writing workshop online at Gotham Writers’ Workshop (www.writingclasses.com). I found the fee to be reasonable and the course to be valuable (and convenient, since it was online and I could fit the course work into my schedule). Plus, I didn’t have to take any other courses first.

      Just some ideas to give you some other options to consider.
      Wishing you lots of luck…Erika

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