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The Catch-22 Dilemma

Rosena wrote in with a very familiar question a few days ago:

I have a query regarding the never ending circular line I seem to have stepped on to! I have written several short stories (children’s picture book types) and just finished penning a child novel and I am stuck because if I write to a publisher they won’t read my manuscripts unless I have an agent and almost all of the agents will not read my manuscripts because I have not yet had anything published. Could you offer me any advice on securing a read by one or the other?

This is a perceived problem that some writers have. Let me explain why I say “perceived.” It’s understandable thinking but I’d love to put this “I can’t get published unless I’m published” thing to rest for good.

First things first: we need writers to do our jobs. Most agents, at my agency and at others, are constantly on the lookout for new talent. We read unsolicited submissions from rank amateurs, we go to conferences, we blog, we reach out, all in the hopes of getting quality material sent our way. There are agents who are not accepting submissions or only working with referrals, sure, but they are in the minority. My inbox is full of mail from writers at all stages of their journeys. I don’t really care if they’re unpublished or published in the Podunk Literary Journal that I’ve never heard of. I’ll maybe take notice if they’ve had previous books published by a traditional publisher (not self-published or published with a vanity press) but I’m really evaluating the submission, first and foremost. The writing and story premise are all that matter, and I think that the vast majority of agents will agree with me on that point.

In terms of publishers, most major houses will not accept unagented submissions, that’s true. There are, however, houses that still take submissions directly from writers. Each of these houses has bought at least one manuscript that came from the slush, guaranteed, just like every agent has taken on a successful client from the slush. Houses that accept unagented children’s books are easy to find online. In terms of agents, I vehemently disagree with the statement “almost all of the agents will not read my manuscripts because I have not yet had anything published.” It’s just not true.

Don’t believe me and want to see for yourself? There are many, many of ways to find agents online. My favorite is Agent Query. Head over to the site. Click “Full Search” in the left-hand toolbar. Check the genres you want to write in. When you scroll to the bottom, you’ll see one additional dropbox: “Are you looking for an agent who is actively seeking new clients?” Click the dropbox and select “Yes.” Click “Search.”

When I did this search for you just now, I checked the “Children’s” and “Middle Grade” boxes under the Fiction category. (I’m assuming middle grade is what you mean when you say “child novel.” You might want to find out what category you’re writing in, as “child novel” is not a widely-used term.) With those three criteria (1- Children’s fiction, 2-Middle Grade, 3-Yes, looking for new clients), I returned over ten pages of agents. That’s about a hundred agents who you can query and who will read your submission.

Now, that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically offer representation, of course. The submission has to be excellent. If you’re reaching out to agents who are accepting new clients (most of us) and still getting form rejections or no responses at all, it isn’t your “unpublished” status that’s hurting you…it’s the quality of the submission. But keep trying. Every published author was unpublished at one point. Everyone has to start somewhere.

I’d love to stick a stake in this publishing myth and call it a day but writers are going to keep believing this anyway. Oh well. I just hope they stumble across this post at some point.

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  1. Marybk’s avatar

    Hey, Sushi…yay, you!

    I’m all over that bidding thing. I’m sure a FABULOUS query letter would help with the submission process.

  2. Kristi’s avatar

    As someone whose pets are considered my ‘other’ children, I’m so happy to hear that Sushi is doing better! It’s great that you’re helping with the Nashville auction. :)

  3. Kate B.’s avatar

    WooHoo for that determined cat!

    I’m nervous to query a publisher without an agent, even if they read unagented manuscripts. So, if the agent hunt runs dry, hopefully I’ll be finishing my next masterpiece to pimp all over again. :)

    A lot of people in my writing group are nervous of agents for some reason I’ll never understand. They submit to the publishing slush pile. I’m waiting to see which one of us gets lucky first!

  4. Candyland’s avatar

    Yeah for Sushi!!! *good vibes*

  5. M Clement Hall’s avatar

    With full respect to your enquirer, the terminology she uses suggests she has not been trying to get published for very long, nor used the numerous helping blogs and other resource sites readily available to her. She might also look for a convention close to home and get a “face to face” with an agent and/or editor.

  6. KellieD’s avatar

    Kate B. — I’ve heard the same thing from a critique partner. Personally, I want to find an ally/mentor/advocate in this business. My goal is keep working at my craft until I’m agent-worthy/lucky. When my work goes to a publishing house, I want to make sure that it is ready to be there. I don’t think I’ll know that until I have an agent who can say with a professional eye “It is ready, now let’s go get ‘em!”

    Awesome news on Sushi. (I have a hard time giving my cat medicine. I could never do needles. YIKES. That’s love!)

  7. Mary’s avatar

    M — Sure, I agree with you. But like I say in the post, everybody starts somewhere and, believe it or not, this catch-22 thinking is something I hear very often. I’m just glad I can clarify and demystify, even for people who are just beginning to ask these questions.

  8. Adventures in Children's Publishing’s avatar

    Thank you for what appears to be good news for those of us in Rosena’s boat. It’s daunting to submit if you’re not published, but there’s hope knowing the quality of the submission is what counts. This encourages us all to keep writing and improving in the meantime!

    Sending well wishes to Sushi! :X)

  9. Melissa Gill’s avatar

    Great post Mary.

    I’m glad to hear Sushi is doing better. Hydration is an amazing thing, but giving injections is hard. Hopefully she can get those atrophied muscles back in form and be off and running soon.

  10. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    If I were a B horror movie, I’d be titled…IT CAME FROM THE SLUSH!

  11. Cara’s avatar

    At an SCBWI conference several years ago I heard “Cream rises to the top.” If your writing is high quality, you will get noticed.

    For me, submitting to editors I’ve either met through conferences or just through the slush pile has worked. It’s given me contacts with editors who’ve rejected my manuscripts, but given me thoughtful reasons why and asked me to submit something else. Recently, an editor from Random House that I met at a conference even said, “I liked your writing, so if you want to send me something else, I’d love to read it.” Yay!

    Alvina Ling from Little, Brown told us “Perseverance matters more than talent” and went on to explain that many naturally-talented writers give up too soon, while many writers who keep working to improve their craft eventually do get published.

    I’ve also heard that, on average, it takes between 4-11 years to get published (and that’s if you’re good).

    For most writers, it’s going to be tough…that’s why you have to love the process and see it as a journey and celebrate the personal/encouraging rejection letters and keep reading and writing and submitting and praying and dreaming.

    Sushi-kitty, you’re on your way! Woo-hoo!

  12. June’s avatar

    That’s tremendous progress on Sushi’s part. I know from my own experience with my cat Boozie. Eating independently is huge. Sooo glad to hear!!

  13. Mary’s avatar

    June — Your cat is named Boozie? I think you’re my hero.

  14. Joan’s avatar

    I’m so glad Sushi is doing better! It’s encouraging that her digestive system is functioning properly. =)

    Despite my fear of needles, I give my dogs their yearly vaccinations (even the puppies). I hate it, but it saves $$ to do it myself. Still, I’m not sure I could do an IV. With the shot, it’s in and out in a matter of seconds . . . an IV has to stay in. *shiver* Kudos to you for being able to do it. “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!” ;-)

    Thank you for busting the publishing Catch-22 myth.

    I’ve been working toward publication for the past seven years (when I type it out like that it seems like a looong time). Granted, I’ve had family, work, school, etc. to juggle with my writing so it’s been slow going, but I wouldn’t change this journey for anything.

    I’ve learned and grown so much and my writing has improved. Am I perfect? No. Am I published/agented? Not yet. Am I going to give up? Heck no! It’s all about learning and growing. Even published authors are still fine tuning their craft.

    Learning about writing isn’t something that ends with publication. This is a huge business and there’s always something new to learn from the process. Do rejections hurt. You bet, but, if we let them, they’ll drive us to improve and grow. The determination and constant drive to be better is what will get us published in the end (or published again).

    I also love what you said about agents needing authors. It’s so easy when you’re starting out to think of agents/editors as something more than human. They’re the elusive mystical beings who dwell in a mysterious kingdom. We long for them to put down the drawbridge and invite us into their glittering castle.

    A pretty picture, but it’s all fantasy. Agents and editors are men and women trying to make a living like the rest of us. They have likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, and all that too. If we build it up to be more we’ll be disappointed and disillusioned in the end. Nobody wants that.

    And there’s my $.02. =D

  15. Emily Hainsworth’s avatar

    I was hoping you’d give a Sushi update. :) SO glad to hear she’s eating! We had a diabetic cat I had to inject w/ insulin 2 x day AND he periodically needed subcutaneous fluids like Sushi. :( It’s one of those things you think you could never do until…you just have to do it. All warm wishes for both of you still!

  16. Julie Hedlund’s avatar

    Thanks, not only for the advice, but also for the Sushi update. These pets are our children, and they are good at keeping us worrying. If she’s purring, she’s happy, and that’s the best sign yet. Still sending all my best wishes to you and Sushi!

  17. Christina Bell’s avatar

    A friend of mine gets thousands of hits a week on her blog and just sold her book before it was finished. I haven’t seen the book, but I know she’s very funny and talented. Do you think that the fact that she already has a following influenced her agent and her publisher in their decision to take her on?

  18. Mary’s avatar

    Christina — Oh definitely. Is her book fiction or non-fiction? Will it be based on her blog? Does she have a main topic she writes about?

    Keep in mind that this does happen, but it’s rare.

  19. Christina Bel’s avatar

    I think it’s a memoir. She’s thrilled, and everyone’s thrilled for her. It just seemed like such a Cinderella moment, I wondered just how unusual that is.

  20. Melissa’s avatar

    Hooray for Sushi!

  21. Thomas’s avatar

    This is one of those undying myths that can often end up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Another related one is the idea that when you have an agent, you’re in, that it’s all plain sailing from there.

    I have an agent due to my work writing and illustrating picture books. Now that I’m trying YA fiction, lots of people I know think it’ll be easy for me because I’m already published and have an agent, etc. Not true. My first novel was universally rejected, despite some strong signs of interest, because it was structurally all over the place and I was very inexperienced. It really does come down to the quality of the writing, and not who you know.

    Good luck, Sushi!

  22. Mary’s avatar

    Christina — Editors and agents don’t just wait for talent to come to them, they cruise blogs and websites sometimes and keep their ear to the ground for new writers. I’ve definitely heard of this happening but I do wonder if an enthusiastic blog audience translates into an enthusiastic book-buying audience.

  23. Kathryn Jankowski’s avatar

    This is such a well-argued, diplomatic response.
    It does come down to the writing, doesn’t it?
    I think some writers just don’t want to hear that.
    ;-)

  24. Michelle Hodkin’s avatar

    YAY for Sushi! I’ve seen sub-cu fluids work real magic. I’m so glad she’s starting to improve.

    I do a ton of animal rescue work, so forgive me if this sounds weird, but how are her liver/kidney values looking?

  25. Mary’s avatar

    Michelle — She’s about 14, so her kidneys are not so good.

  26. christine tripp’s avatar

    While I understand a closed house is just that, many editors at conferences state, while they are not open to unagented or unrequested submissions, they will accept query letters. Though it may be more desirable to be able to send a whole manuscript, do you know if this IS the case and queries are still being read?

  27. Mary’s avatar

    Christine — Yes, editors who attend conferences will sometimes tell attendees to send them submissions (usually a query or ten pages, sometimes for a limited time window like 3 months). Sometimes editors will also requests manuscripts based on a meeting or consultation with a writer. So yes, there are ways to get into closed houses by meeting editors at conferences.

    However, as an agent (and as an agent, obviously, I would argue the merits of agents), it is my job to help writers get their manuscripts to an “editor ready” level. Sometimes these conference connections result in a direct offer from an editor. More often than not, though, they don’t. I’d much rather have a writer come to me and say “I met with So and So at a conference and want to get my manuscript in shape before s/he sees it,” than, “I met So and So at a conference and they passed on this already.” An unagented writer has less idea of what “editor ready” means, is all.

  28. Eileen Cook’s avatar

    So glad to get the Sushi update. Rock on little kitty.

    I cannot count the number of times people don’t believe me when I tell them that I got my agent via the slush pile. They insist I must have had someone refer me? Maybe a family member in publishing? Nope. Just a query letter. I also know that well over the majority of her list came to her the same way. The process is slow and at times discouraging, but it does work.

  29. Kristen F’s avatar

    so happy to hear that Sushi is feeling better…yay….

  30. Don Cummer’s avatar

    Hmmm….

    Sushi and Slushy all in one post.

    Thanks for the web site, Mary.

    And hope Sushi up and about soon.
    d

  31. Jo’s avatar

    I’m wondering whether the person who asked the question is not from the US. I live in Australia and can relate to what she is talking about. I have been researching agents and publishers in Australia for YA and so far have only found two agents who will rep YA over here. For PBs I’ve yet to see any agents who will represent a PB from an unpublished author. Of course in Australia the need for an agent isn’t the same as in the US as publishing houses here are more open to accepting unsolicited material. Saying that though, I’ve also found very few publishing houses that will accept unsolicited work in YA or kidlit.

    My plan, should I have no luck here in Aus., is to query overseas.

    (Also we don’t have Middle Grade here in Aus., we only have children and teen, which is another reason I thought she may not be from the US)

  32. Mary’s avatar

    Jo — Thanks for the insight! It’s always interesting to hear how things work on the other side of the globe.

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