I have been writing for almost 20 years now—ok, maybe 18 years if you want to be all exacto knife about it. I started out by writing pretty much nothing but screenplays. Then I decided I wanted to write novels, so I wrote five or six of those. Between novels, I would also write a short story or two here and there.
About ten years into being a writer, I tried my hand at writing poetry and wrote hundreds of poems. Eventually, I grew tired of writing the poetry, so I began writing nonfiction—mainly memoir. I wrote several shorter memoirs and two very large ones, one about my filmmaking adventures and the other about my experience fighting Lyme disease.
All in all, I have probably written hundreds of thousands of words of both fiction and nonfiction. Hundreds upon hundreds and thousands upon thousands of pages. It’s really quite insane to look at how much I have written, to be honest.
Through this entire period of writing, I must have queried hundreds of literary agents, publishers, literary magazines, literary journals and whatever else. With the exception of a few bites here and there, nobody was interested in anything I wrote. Most people would never give me any kind of response. If I did get a response, it would be a form letter that an assistant cut and pasted into an email and then clicked ‘send’. On a rare occasion, I would get a personal response. It would say something along the lines of “Keep going!” and then tell me to start a blog or that “self-publishing eBooks is really in style these days.”
Over time, I would say that the pace at which I sent out material and/or queried agents became slower and slower and then, eventually, I basically stopped altogether. For a period of about five years, I would only send out queries or other material on a very sporadic basis. I was mainly working on new projects during this period and I didn’t want to spend the time sending queries out only to get no response or a form letter in return.
By the middle of 2021, I finished my latest book LYMEY BASTARD, the aforementioned memoir about my four-year-plus battle with Lyme disease, and I had no idea what to do with it. Again, after almost 20 years of writing, I had been unsuccessful in getting a literary agent interested in my work, let alone a publisher. It would have been nice to call up my literary agent and say, “Hey, I finished a new book! Help me figure out what to do with it!” but that simply wasn’t an option for me. Thus, I basically said to myself, “Look, there’s only one option you have here (other than to immediately self-publish) and that is to literally open a can of whoop-ass and do an absolute blitzkrieg of the literary market. You have to assault the literary agent industry and the indie publisher industry with your queries, proposals, synopses, manuscripts—whatever they will take.”
And this is exactly what I did.
I set my sights on the number 100. That is, I would send 100 personally-tailored queries and proposals to a mix of agents and publishers—whoever would accept unsolicited, un-agented submissions. The goal was not to necessarily get an agent or get somebody to publish my book. The goal was to reach the number 100. That way, I would feel some sense of accomplishment as I got closer to 100. Rejection was fine, so long as I was getting to that magic number of 100.
Now, when I say I personally tailored each and every one of these queries, what I mean is that I didn’t just do a mass-mailing that said the same old thing—you know, like a copy and paste job. No, I wanted to make each and every query personal and custom-made. In order to do this, I researched every single agent and publisher to the best of my ability. I wanted to know what they were looking for (memoir? fiction? science-based-books? health & wellness? offbeat/quirky? humor?). I also wanted to know who they represented either presently or in the past. For example, one agent I found represented the Beastie Boys (for their band memoir) and another agent represented a former DJ of the Beastie Boys (for his own memoir). I was sure to note to these agents that I had written a Kindle single about the Beastie Boys and I subsequently provided a link to that Kindle single on Amazon (HERE is the book if you are interested). Other agents had a client who published a book that I felt was very similar to mine, so I mentioned that in the letter. Another agent happened to mention somewhere that they liked F. Scott Fitzgerald, so I was sure to mention the fact that I, too, loved Fitzgerald and subsequently gave the agent a link to an article I wrote on Fitzgerald a few years back. Yet another agent lived very close to me (in Massachusetts, not in NYC where most are located), so I made a note of that. Some agents even went to the same college as me so I, of course, mentioned that. Heck, I even told a publisher that I was a distant cousin of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. whose book—The Real Anthony Fauci—they had just published (it’s true, you guys—he’s my great-great-grandmother’s-cousin’s-wife’s-great-nephew or something like that; read about this HERE). I knew that the more personal I made the letter, the better. You don’t want the agents saying to themselves—oh, this is just a lazy cut and paste job, a mass mailing.
Needless to say, writing 100 custom-made queries is extremely time-consuming. Not helping matters is the fact that pretty much every agent and/or publisher out there have different submission guidelines. Some places simply want a query letter, nothing more. Others want a query with a synopsis. Then other places want a query with a full proposal that includes a chapter outline and sample chapters. Some places want the proposal with sample chapters, but they don’t want the sample chapters to be the first chapters of the book. Other places, however, do want the sample chapters to be the first chapters of the book, including the book’s introduction. Then you have some places who want a query and nothing else but a marketing strategy. And then some places even want the entire manuscript, which is rare for agents but for indie publishers they’re often cool with you sending them the full manuscript along with a query. On top of all this, some places want email queries only, others want you to use an online form, like on “Submittable” or “Query Manager”, and then some places still prefer snail mail with a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope)! Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, there are many places who require that you have never self-published your book in any form, even on a blog or social media, and then other places are only looking for self-published material that has a proven track record of selling like hotcakes. Agh!!! Agh!!!!!!! Agggghhhhhh!!!!!
What this all means is that you have to carefully read and re-read the submission guidelines for each agent and publisher. As you can imagine, this gets to be an incredibly tedious process. For the cry of my eye, why can’t every agent and publisher have universal guidelines to make it easier for writers? I think I know why. Because they enjoy driving writers nuts—that’s why. They get sadistic pleasure out of it.
Anyway, it took me about six months to send 100 custom-made queries/proposals out to a mixture of agents and publishers. Out of those 100, the majority of places did not respond at all. Maybe 25% responded with an impersonal form letter that was cut and pasted into the email. And, ladies and gentlemen…drum roll please…out of 100 queries, I literally only received ONE…yes, ONE…personal response. It was from a small publisher located in Arizona. Also, out of 100 proposals, only two places requested to read my manuscript after reading the query. Yes, only two places. And both of those places ultimately rejected me.
So…the journey continues, I guess. I met my goal of sending out 100 personal queries and/or proposals. I sent out many manuscripts as well, for those who would accept them. I told many agents about other books I have written, gave them the link to my blog as well as the link to my Amazon author page that has all my Kindle singles, hoping that something, anything would catch somebody’s…anybody’s eye. However, there was not too much interest other than the couple of aforementioned bites. I’m, of course, still waiting to hear from many people. I imagine a handful will still get back to me. One publisher took a full six months to respond. In fact, I just heard from them the other day.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, I guess, if you’re out there and you are discouraged from a ton of rejection, you are not alone. I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years now and all I’ve gotten is rejection.
But, in all honestly, the more rejection I get, the better it feels. Well, ok, it stings at first, but then it collectively feels good because I know I’m leaving NO STONE UNTURNED. And I’m leaving EVERYTHING ON THE FIELD. Even though I absolutely despise this process—it’s the worst part of being a writer—I still know that I’m giving it my all. I don’t want to get to a point at the end of my writing career and say, “You know, I don’t think I tried hard enough to get my work ‘out there’ into the world. I loved writing, but I was too lazy in trying to get published.” I know I haven’t been lazy as far as the writing goes—that part has been easy for me. It’s the process of trying to get your work published that absolutely sucks the most. It is not fun at all, but I guess a necessary evil. The biggest thing I fear right now is that I will find myself on my death bed and realize I could have done more to get my writing published. Yes, that’s my biggest fear. That and large crowds.
Anyway, because I’m a nice guy and also because I believe in good writing karma, I’m going to give you some hot tips that I wish somebody would have told me six months ago.
Tip A. If you want to find a HUGE list of literary agents accepting unsolicited submissions, you want to go to blog.reedsy.com/literary-agents. There are more than 680 literary agents listed there who accept submissions. On this directory, you can also narrow your agent search according to genre or style of writing (e.g. quirky/offbeat writing, memoir, literary fiction, horror etc.).
Tip #2. Here is a list of 20 or so indie publishers who accept unsolicited queries and/or proposals from un-agented writers. Some of these places even accept the entire manuscript.
There are, of course, many other small publishers out there who accept material from un-agented writers, but I thought I’d give you a good place to start. Aren’t I such a nice guy? Just don’t forget about me when you get published or get an agent. Tell them about me. Give them an ultimatum: they don’t sign you unless they sign me first. I can count on you, right?
Chances are, though, that you will be rejected by most of the places I mention above. But don’t let that discourage you. Be like me and learn to love rejection. Before you know it, all the rejection will leave you with a warm feeling inside. You will know that you’re giving it your all. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
Also, don’t drink too much. It numbs the pain of rejection short-term, but it ultimately leads you down a dark path in life. Ok, if you MUST drink, just don’t drink cheap beer like Natty Ice. I heard this from a friend, of course. I don’t know from personal experience.
MATT BURNS is the author of several novels, including Supermarket Zombies!, Weird Monster and Johnny Cruise. He’s also written numerous memoirs, including GARAGE MOVIE: My Adventures Making Weird Films, MY RAGING CASE OF BEASTIE FEVER, JUNGLE F’NG FEVER: MY 30-YEAR LOVE AFFAIR W/ GUNS N’ ROSES and I TURNED INTO A MISFIT! Check out these books (and many more) on his Amazon author page HERE.
Other trending articles by Matt Burns that may be of interest to you:
I Dream of Dream Machine (a memoir of the local video arcade)
NEVER FORGET the Fun-O-Rama (a traveling carnival memoir)
A Love Letter to the Emerald Square Mall (about the death of the shopping mall age)