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Is Getting Traditionally Published Just a Crapshoot?

Lately I’ve heard comments about how much tougher it’s becoming to get in with a traditional publisher. Here are just a few of the kinds of things I’ve heard in various places:

“Landing a book contract is harder to do these days. Publishers are more selective than ever and a lot of good talent gets passed over.”

“Trying to be published by a traditional publisher is very much a crapshoot. It all depends on your query being perfect and hitting the perfect agent on the perfect day, and the agent hitting the perfect editor on the perfect day.”

“When I read where others are in the process, part of me thinks there won't be room left for me when I'm finished.”

“Sometimes I feel that I'm being left behind. But not because of others succeeding, but by the fact that publishers aren't publishing as many books as they use to, so it feels like I have to come in at the right moment.”

These are all very valid and real concerns. Are publishers more selective than ever? Is landing an agent and book contract a matter of luck? Will there be room for all of the talented writers? If we don’t act now, will we lose out on our chance at getting in?

Yes, these are the kinds of worries many writers have. I remember having many of the same concerns fifteen years ago when I started my very first round of querying. And when I started querying my debut book, The Preacher’s Bride, in 2008 (almost four years ago) I was still worried. With so many talented writers, would there ever be room for me?

Our worries transcend time. Fifteen years ago, four years ago, today. Most writers experience the nagging anxiety about whether the doors of traditional publication will ever open for them.

The worry is normal. It’s part of the process.

But in an effort to alleviate some of the stress, let me take a shot at addressing a few of the concerns:

Are publishers are more selective than ever? Does a lot of good talent get passed over?

Publishers have to be selective. But they always have been. They’ve always had to carefully examine each manuscript they come across to decide if it will work for their house, if it will appeal to their target readers, if it’s commercially viable, and how the story and author voice fit with the others they already have in the line-up.

Maybe the slush piles have gotten bigger, which has made more work for agents and editors. However, industry professionals are still looking. And if they pass over talent, it’s probably because it wasn’t coupled with a saleable story. Story trumps all. And that hasn’t changed.

Does it all really depend on a query being perfect and hitting the perfect agent on the perfect day?

My query wasn’t perfect. Sure, I read agent guidelines, formatted my manuscript correctly, and did the very best I could to be professional. But my letter wouldn’t win the Pulitzer Prize of Query Letters. And I apparently didn’t hit my agent on the perfect day either. My manuscript sat in her slush pile for nine months before she finally got to it.

The road to publication doesn’t depend on lucky perfection. It depends on learning patience.

Will traditional publishers run out of room for debut authors? What if there’s not enough room for all the talented writers seeking publication?

With the growth of e-publication, e-readers and the decline of brick and mortar stores, it’s clear things are rapidly changing in the publishing industry. Obviously, we can’t predict the future to know how all of this will affect the choices publishers will need to make.

However, I agree with others who’ve said, “This is a great time in history to be a writer.” The social media revolution is giving writers more opportunities and possibilities than ever before.

While I’m no expert, I still hold out faith that those who are seeking traditional publication can eventually reach it. The reading public is always looking for gripping and well-told stories. And as long as readers keep buying, publishers will keep looking for writers, including fresh, new voices and talent.

I don’t consider myself to be a writing genius. I’m pretty much an ordinary person who worked really hard, learned a lot, and persevered over the years. I figure if I can do it, so can you.

Your turn! Have you ever felt any of these concerns about getting into traditional publication? What is (or was) your biggest worry?


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