Photo by Daria Nepriakhina
At some point in our lives, we all face rejection—whether in love, a job we really wanted but didn’t get, or that time we ran for student government president and lost. We tend to pull back for a while and lick our wounds.
But for writers, rejection may be constant, especially if they are sending out query letters. The odds are against you from the beginning—some agents only take on two to five new clients a year, yet receive tens of thousands of queries a year.
No one is immune from this. There are many stories of well-known authors querying hundreds of agents and publishers. Sara Gruen, author of the best-selling Water for Elephants, sent out 129 query letters for an earlier novel, Riding Lessons. This novel was no slouch either—it went on to sell several hundred thousand copies. Kathryn Stockett received 60 rejections for The Help, which went on to become a best seller and a movie. Mary Higgins Clarks, a bestselling author of more than 50 novels, was rejected 40 times, with one publisher saying, “Your story is light, slight, and trite.”
Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times (I bet those agents and publishers are kicking themselves now). Even J.K. Rowling has famously published rejection letters she got as Robert Galbraith, her alter ego. One of the letters even recommended she take writing classes! I could go on and on; there are dozens of other examples.
If you are going through the querying process, don’t feel alone. Here are five pieces of advice for those battling rejection after rejection:
1. Don’t give up too soon. Nora Roberts, who has now published more than 130 novels, submitted manuscripts for over a year. New York Times bestselling author James Lee Burke, who has 37 books published, was rejected 111 times over nine years when he queried with The Lost Get-Back Boogie. When it was finally published by Louisiana State University Press in 1986, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
2. Follow the rules. If the word count for your genre is from 60,000 to 80,000, don’t send in a 180,000-word manuscript. Agents will automatically assume you can’t write tight or don’t want to cut your darlings. And a debut novelist is not likely to have such a behemoth of a novel published. It’s costly for publishers to put out big books—they don’t have an unlimited budget, so the big bucks are going to the Stephen Kings of the world (and even King advises to cut your darlings).
3. Carefully craft your query. There are plenty of examples of good queries out there (Writer’s Digest has many of them). Study them carefully. There’s a formula for queries for good reason—because agents want to know certain things. They want to know the genre, the word count, what the book is about (briefly), and who you are. They also want to hear your “voice.”
4. Learn from the rejections. If you aren’t getting requests for partial or full manuscripts, ask yourself some hard questions—or have beta readers or an editor look at your manuscript, if you haven’t already. If there’s a theme running throughout those rejection letters, then it’s time to revise the manuscript.
5. Finally, move on to the next agent. Mary Feliz, author of the Maggie McDonald Mysteries, said it best: “It’s important to celebrate every request you get for additional chapters or a full manuscript. Those are great accomplishments. But it’s a mistake to invest too much time, emotion, or angst in each one. Celebrate, follow up, move on. It’s like dating. It’s okay for you to contact them to follow up [if you get a request for more chapters and haven’t heard back after a few weeks], but if they don’t respond, they’re just not that into you.”
For more on queries, see my book, Publishing for Beginners: What First-Time Authors Need to Know (free if you sign up for my newsletter).
Thought Catalog photo
What makes for a good professional editor? Granted, this is subjective, but here are a few thoughts:
As an author, you are always juggling. Not only are you writing the next book, but you are promoting your latest book, writing a monthly newsletter, keeping up with your blog (or other blogs), and updating your website. And that’s just for starters.
This is where a virtual assistant (sometimes called an author assistant) comes in handy. They can help you gain some breathing space and may even boost sales with their knowledge of promotions. These assistants—who don’t have to be in the same office, or even same city, as you—handle a multitude of tasks, including:
How to work with a VA
Most virtual assistants charge $25 to $50 an hour for their services. You don’t need to hire them full-time, although you can. You may need them just for a few hours a month, or to work on a specific project.
“Each virtual assistant will have a different skill set,” said Jenel Looney, who works full-time for three authors. “If you want someone to create marketing graphics for you, make sure that she knows how, and that you like her style. If you want someone to help you brainstorm contests that will get readers excited about your books, make sure you hire a VA that has creative ideas that are in line with your readers’ tastes. If you want someone to handle a large mailing for you (like the 30,000 bookmarks I recently mailed to Susan Mallery’s readers), make sure you hire a VA who has mad organizational skills.”
If you know that you will have to promote your book (because your traditional publisher only does so much, or you are self-publishing), then your VA can help you come up with creative promotions. For example, Looney, who works with mystery author Kate Carlisle, designed a custom deck of cards for one of Carlisle’s books. Each face card held a different murder weapon. It was used for a giveaway for members of Carlisle’s mailing list. In addition, Looney created a video revealing each day’s random winner. It was so popular that “she had a lot of readers asking if they could buy the cards,” Looney said.
“I offer a wide variety of services that come down to this: helping authors get more organized and feel less stressed,” said Mel Jolly, who has assisted multiple New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors. “The clients who utilize my services best keep me in the loop for everything involving their business. When it comes to things that need to get done (website updates, blog interviews, social media posts, newsletters, launch plans, ad booking, etc.), I either do the thing or I make sure the thing gets done.”
Another assistant, Amanda West Kassis, who also works as an editor, focuses on publishing weekly newsletters and growing subscribers. “I am in the publishing industry, which gives me unique skills and knowledge,” she said. She will help an author post on social media, write newsletters, and do other marketing.
Is it worth hiring a VA?
You may have written a wonderful book, but it won’t go anywhere without marketing. And marketing may take away time spent writing the next book, which is crucial in a series.
Most virtual assistants said this is the beauty of having help—the author can concentrate on the writing.
Having a virtual assistant, said Looney, “isn’t going to magically make you a bestseller. In my opinion, authors should not hire a VA until they’ve reached a stage in their career when it makes financial sense, and that’s a decision each author must make for herself. When you’ve reached the level of success that leaves you too busy to have a life, consider hiring a VA.”
Sarah Merchant, who specializes in social media and website/blog management, said that what may take someone else hours to do might take her minutes. “Is it worth it to you to struggle through those hours simply because you think it will save you money? Isn’t your time worth more than that?” she said. “I have a lot of respect for authors, and love putting my skills to work for them, so they can concentrate on their writing.”
She can’t say how much her work has helped with sales, but pointed to a recent Facebook promotion she did for an author. Her work resulted in an immediate increase in clicks.
Looney also said it’s hard to pinpoint whether her work has boosted book sales. “The frustrating thing about marketing is that you will rarely be able to draw a straight line from a specific promotion to specific sales,” she said. “I will say that I don’t take any credit for my clients’ success. That always, always, always comes back to the book. They write books that readers love. My work is not responsible for their success; rather, I help them manage that success.”
An author first needs to consider the budget and her priorities, said Jolly. Most of her authors only need her for five or so hours per month.
“We all wish we could outsource SO MANY THINGS, but the reality is that we have to start small and outsource just one or two things at first,” Jolly said. “That’s best for a small budget and for building trust.
“Quickly, let’s talk quickly about math. Let’s say an author can afford to hire an assistant for 10 hours/month. That’s 120 hours per year. How many more words can that author produce with an additional 120 hours per year? Let’s estimate low and say that’s one additional novella per year.
“If the author is paying the assistant a rate of $40/hour, that’s $4,800 for the year. How much can the author make by self-publishing that novella? Or selling it traditionally? At this point, there are too many variables for me to continue with the math, but do you see where I’m going with this?”
One author, Susan Mallery, has worked with Looney for nine years and considers her indispensable. As an example, she mentions her latest book, Secrets of the Tulip Sisters. Looney created the content for TulipSisters.com, sent 200 copies of the book to a “Review Crew,” created a sign-up form for mailing list members to receive bookmarks, then sent out the bookmarks to 30,000 fans (Looney also designed the bookmarks). In addition, she created quote-of-the-day shareables with quotes from the book, created videos and graphics to use in Facebook ads, and executed the Facebook campaigns. During all this, she coordinated with Harlequin’s PR and digital marketing departments on the book promotion.
“Because of my virtual assistant, I can write one extra book per year,” Mallery said. “I write four or five new books every year. I couldn’t keep up that pace without help.”
All of the virtual assistants agreed that you should have a conversation with potential hires about what you need, as VAs have different specialties.
“If you don't get a love match the first time around, don’t give up,” said Looney. “You might have to kiss a few frogs.”
Special thanks to the following virtual assistants for their help: Naomi Cowan Eaton (firstname.lastname@example.org); Mel Jolly (www.authorrx.com); Sarah Merchant (www.workadayservices.com); Jenel Looney (www.jenellooney.com); and Amanda West Kassis (www.awestediting.com).
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.