In emerging-writer discussions, I often hear versions of this question: How long do I keep trying if I’m not seeing any results in my pitches to agents or publishing houses?
There are many ways to approach the answer. You can just buy into Winston Churchill’s advice to youngsters: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
Yes, there’s a part of me that appreciates that kind of bulldog stubbornness. I’d definitely want it if, say, I needed to defend Great Britain from invasion from foes.
But in most cases, for writers, the answer is more nuanced. What, to follow Churchill’s words, is the point at which it makes good sense to give in, lick a few wounds, learn from mistakes, and move on?
Yes, I’m familiar with the stories of writers like Madeleine L’Engle, whose wonderful novel, A Wrinkle in Time, saw dozens of rejections. Ditto for Jack London, and for others now considered authors of great literature.
But honestly, that doesn’t really tell you how long you should persist.
Here’s my advice, mostly in the form of questions for you to consider:
1. Are you sure you’re targeting the right agents and publishing houses?
Maybe half the queries I see for Crickhollow Books, the small indie press I run, are not of any interest to me. That suggests (admittedly from a small sample) that half the queries the typical writers send out are going out are going to places with no interest whatsoever. In fact, for most houses, the immediate rejects from slush piles are much worse; the bigger the publisher, the smaller the percentage of pitches they’ll want to ever consider even briefly.
Have you studied your prospects closely and developed an appropriate list? Have you used the directories of agents or editors that have detail on what they are actually looking for? Have you visited their websites and gleaned all you could?
Better targeting is a key step. Develop your best list of 10-12 places, and work through those. If all say no, you might want to try another dozen, especially if you’ve got a broad set of market options (say, for short stories for literary magazines). But if you’re writing in a niche area, after the first 12, the next 12 get less likely. After that . . . you’re starting to get a sense that what you’re writing may not be tickling the fancies of the gatekeepers.
2. Are you moving things along briskly?
Once you query a house, how long do you wait? There’s a big difference in waiting one month versus three. The first timeframe allows you to query 12 in a year. The second, only 4 – which means it will take you 3 years to work through a dozen targets. I’m only pointing out the math; you’ll feel different about your results if you’ve gotten “no”s for your pet project for 30 months year or just for 10 months. (The shorter time to discover what the market interest is will help you decide whether to keep pitching the work to others, to revise that work, or to start another.)
It behooves you to move things along. To be business-like, you’d want to get a sense sooner rather than later if a given project is of interest to your top prospects. A good literary agent is of course very helpful here; they will not only help to find the right targets, but they’ll also have the clout or to get it reviewed sooner and know how to push for an answer (and possibly an answer with real feedback about why the “no”). In a business sense, a “no” is useful information; it tells you to move on to find someone more interested in the work . . . and eventually that maybe your work isn’t of sufficient quality or market interest.
Agents will push for an answer. If it’s no, they want to move on to the next prospect on the list. You should too if you’re representing yourself.
3. Are you meeting agents at writer conferences?
This is one of the best ways to get more individualized attention from a few agents and editors. The professionals that you meet at conferences, assuming you’re a reasonable writer, should be willing to give you serious consideration; that’s why they are there. They’ll listen to your pitches at the conference, and if they ask for a submission, they’ll look a bit more closely at your project when they get back to their home offices. This means that if you’re work is good and marketable, you’re more likely to get a nibble, at least at a request to submit more material.
And if you get rejected here, it might be a sign that your work is lacking something that’s needed.
4. Are you reading outside of the current popular literature in your field?
This is not apparent to many writers, but let’s say you’re writing fantasy, and the reading you do is all bestselling, most hyper-popular stuff. So you read Harry Potter. The problem is that your writing is too likely to be strongly affected by the Harry Potter style. You may write work that seems to echo those stories. And to an editor or agent, work that is too derivative of recent popular work is often less marketable, as a) it’s already done so well by the big names in the first place, and b) lots of other new writers are submitting similar work, hoping to be the next J.K. Rowling.
To get around that, one trick is to read the good stuff that falls outside of your area. Read American national poet laureates, read National Geographic books, read biographies of the most fascinating people in arts or business or science . . . and then go incorporate elements of those into your fantasy novels or whatever you’re writing. Your results may be unique, more different from bestsellers, and this might be the competitive advantage you need.
5. Have you started your next project?
One of my favorite techniques comes from Ray Bradbury, who launched his career by a regimen of starting a story on Monday, and sending it off by Friday. He kept at it, generating a lot of material. This covers more bases – the 6th story or 12th might just happen to be the one that is bought – or it might have led him to success because he just kept getting better as a writer over time.
Look at the writing of a famous one-hit wonder, Margaret Mitchell. Her one novel, Gone with the Wind, was a terrific success. On the other hand, she had long written profiles for the Atlanta Journal of local bon-vivants and grand estates and society events. How much of her ability to capture dramatic characters and places and events was honed by practice, by long observation and writing of several hundred feature articles and news reports, with steady feedback from editors and readers?
In short, maybe it will be the second project, or the 24th, or the . . . that will sell. If you just write one, and it doesn’t sell, and you ask should I give up . . . I’d say you haven’t worked enough yet to develop either your writing skills or the choices in your literary offerings.
This isn’t a comprehensive answer to the question: How long should I keep trying?
But it is what I’d want to know if you came to me and asked me that question. Maybe it helps to point out some helpful things to focus on.