Pursuing a Trad Published Dream

We talk a lot on this blog about self-publishing, but some of us have other goals. Meet Sue Coletta, an author who is holding out for the traditional path, and she’s here to tell you how to go about it!

Dream BigWe all have different dreams. As long as I can remember I’ve always dreamed about seeing my name on books in the library and in stores everywhere. I applaud self-published authors, but I never questioned which publishing route I would take.

So, after I finished writing my first novel, I researched how to make that dream come true.

Enter: the query letter

One of the hardest things for me was crafting that first query. My mind just didn’t work that way, condensing my three-hundred page novel into a few sentences. It took countless hours of reading successful queries – you can find hundreds on Query Shark – writing and rewriting it a thousand times until I got the hang of it. Four novels later and I’m only now happy with my query.

Get feedback

When I completed my first novel I’d been writing in a vacuum for years. Meaning, I had no critique partners, no beta readers, no editor. No one had seen my work besides a trusted friend and my husband, both of whom raved about it. Of course they did! They loved me. This was a huge mistake. My advice to anyone regardless of publishing path is to find someone (who doesn’t love you) to read your work. You can’t go this alone. The writing community is such a supportive group. There’s always people looking for someone to swap beta reads. But you also need to be careful of those who give bad advice. I’ve made this mistake, too.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Find someone with a similar skill level or who knows more than you. You don’t want to spend your time teaching.
  • You don’t want someone who “thinks” they know more than you when they really don’t.
  • You DO want someone who will give you constructive criticism the right way. Meaning, always say something positive before something negative to lessen the blow. It’s not easy having someone rip apart your work. So have it be someone who is mindful of your feelings. One of the best ways to find a critique partner is to join a writers’ group. That way you’ll get a sampling of how they critique. You’ll also get to know their personality, quirks, bad writing habits. Anne Allen blogged about making sense of it all here.

Find an agent: Research

Once I did all of the above I was ready to approach agents. Who would I sent my “masterpiece” to? There are many great resources to find agents who represent your genre. Some are: Literary Agent Undercover’s Directory of Literary Agents, Publisher’s Marketplace, Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. There’s also a lot of scammers out there so by using one of these directories you can save yourself future headaches. Also, check out Predators and Editors and Writer Beware. Because there is no board governing literary agents, and I’d heard a lot of horror stories, it was important to me that the agent also be a member of AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives). In order to become a member the agent needs to meet certain standards and adhere to a canon of ethics. The standards are:

  • Prospective members must have at least two years as a full-time working agent.
  • At least ten reportable sales over an 18 month period.
  • Primarily responsible for executing publishing agreements, translation or performance rights in these properties.
  • Applicants need to be accompanied by two letters of reference from current members.

By querying agents who are AAR members, I was ensuring I wouldn’t get a lazy agent who sat on my manuscript for years before trying to sell it. It happens! Tip: if someone asks for a reading fee– run!

Approaching an agent

You only have one shot at a good first impression. The agent world is not a big one and they do talk to each other. So, always be professional. A good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t say it to a potential employer don’t say it to an agent. Agents look for reasons to reject. Don’t give them any.

  • Always follow the submission guidelines on the agent’s website. If they ask for ten pages, don’t send fifty.
  • Don’t ever send an agent a link and tell them to read pages on your blog.
  • Don’t tell them your family and friends loved your story.
  • Don’t tell them you’ve been writing ever since you could hold a pen.
  • Don’t tell them you just know this book will be a best seller.

Do I really need to talk about rejection? It stinks. It hurts. But it’s part of being a writer. Don’t just toughen up, grow rhino skin. You’ll need it if you choose this route.

MSS Requests

Clearly the best part of querying is getting requests for the manuscript. I felt like someone was finally paying attention to what I had to say. All my hard work was being recognized. When a request rolls in I send off the manuscript or requested pages right away, following the guidelines. Tip: there are usually different guidelines for requests than queries.

Keep the faith

By setting small goals along the way toward that big dream I kept the dream alive, really felt like I was achieving what I’d set out to do. For instance, whenever I get a request I reward myself with an hour of playtime on social media, a walk with my dogs, an enormous ice cream sundae. Something that I enjoy, a way to tell myself, “Good job!” By doing so, it keeps me motivated, keeps me forging ahead and focused on my goal.

The waiting…

Really is the hardest part. Here’s where I’m at now. When you’re waiting for an agent(s) to read your manuscript time seems to stop. With four novels out there I’m getting used to it, but that doesn’t make it any easier. The best advice I can give is to write another book. Writing and reading daily helps hone your craft. The more you write the better you become. It’s not rocket science. Practice really does make perfect.

Things not to do while waiting…

  • Don’t stalk the agent(s) on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sites.
  • Don’t email the agent(s) and ask how long it will be till they’re done, or if they’re enjoying your book so far.
  • Don’t try to engage the agent(s) on their blog.
  • Don’t post to your own blog about the agent(s) taking forever to read “one little manuscript.”
  • Don’t complain publicly about previous rejection letters you’ve received.
  • Conversely, don’t brag publicly about all the requests you’ve been getting.
  • Don’t ever call the agent(s).

By doing any of the above you’re actually lessening your chances of the agent(s) wanting to work with you. Okay, I’ll admit to doing the first one early on. But it only made the waiting so much harder.

Things to do while waiting!

  • Write another book.
  • Go to writing conferences/workshops.
  • Build up your social media platform.
  • Keep querying other agents. Chances are the first agent to request your manuscript will NOT be the agent who offers representation. At least it wasn’t for me and most others I know.
  • Take another writing class. I don’t know about you, but I love writing classes. Admittedly, I may have a small addiction to them.
  • Be humble and professional.
  • Increase your ranking in Google. Molly just wrote about things like this in her post, What Should Authors Blog About? Agents want authors who are Googleable. They will Google your name. Make sure it appears on the first page. This was a real nail-biter for me, because “Susan Coletta” is a well-known non-fiction writer. That’s why I go by

    THE Sue Coletta!

    “Sue Coletta,” which is what my friends call me anyway. Now, I’m proud to say I’ve managed to push “Susan” to page three. If you’re out there: Sorry!

  • Create a giveaway on your blog to start an email list. Publishers and agents want authors who can market their own books. By having a large following AND an email list you’ll give yourself an advantage over those who don’t.
  • Get your name out there. Ask people who have a large following if you can guest post. Take Molly for instance. Molly read an interview I did with an undercover operative on my blog and said, “You should come guest post on my blog sometime,” probably to be nice. (Note from Molly: not true, lol!) And I pounced said, “Okay. When?” I lucked out. I didn’t have to beg, plead, give up my first born or cry ask, all I had to do is not let her get out of it be available when the opportunity presented itself.
  • Do everything in your power to make yourself look “profitable,” that’s the key.

50WaysToMurder_OPWell, there you have it. Just keep in mind the traditional path into publishing is not for everyone. It takes time and patience. Remember: Getting published isn’t luck, it’s a decision. Work hard, hone your craft, and you’ll be well on your way to being traditionally published.

Sue Coletta is a proud member of Sisters In Crime. She’s authored four novels, most psychological thriller/mysteries. She blogs at www.crimewriterblog.com, is co-administrator/contributor to an authors’ blog, Prose & Cons with 24 trad-pubbed authors, and is a contributor to www.venturegalleries.com. You can find her on Twitter @SueColetta1. Grab your free copy of her 13 page booklet 50 Ways To Murder Your Fictional Characters.

Back to Molly … Did you enjoy this article? You can show your support by checking out my Amazon Author Page – and hey, buy a book while you’re there, okay? *wink wink* … Or subscribe to my blog so you’ll never miss my weekly posts. Your email address will NOT be sold, shared, abused, or rented – that’s a promise. If you’re not already, please follow @mollygreene on Twitter! And last but not least, this original content by Molly Greene is copyright protected. Mwah! Thank you so much.



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37 Responses to Pursuing a Trad Published Dream

  1. Garry Rodgers February 23, 2015 at 2:20 pm #

    Hi Sue & Molly,

    Great advice here! Several years ago when I finished my first novel, I submitted probably 40 query letters. I got about 20 rejections back and none were personal, so I don’t know if agents even read the queries. The other 20 didn’t reply at all, never mind anyone requesting a peek at the writing.

    I was prepared for this because of hearing so much from other writers experiences. Also, I have a hide like a Abrams tank so I didn’t let it discourage me. I went ahead and self-pubbed with surprising success.

    This experience led me to sending a factual book proposal on a historical subject into a well known publisher which is in final negotiation. In the meantime, I really ramped up my blog exposure (you two may be familiar with it 🙂 and my SM connections.

    Then, right out of the blue, I had a prominent agent contact me and ask for my self-pubbed m/s. She’d been following me on Twitter, then watched as my blog progressed, and saw me hanging around with the usual on-line suspects.

    She read the entire 115K words but passed as it was too long and complex for the market she was shopping. I was flattered by her encouraging compliments and we got talking about what she would like to represent. This led to me reconstructing a half-finished sequel to the first novel as an 80K fast-paced police procedural series. As she put it ‘no promises, but if you write it, I’ll read it.”

    The point I’m making for all writers who dream of getting traditionally published (like me) is never, ever give up. Keep your name out there, keep building connections, keep polishing your craft, and never underestimate the power of blogs and the leverage of Twitter. You never know who’s watching.

    And, above all, keep on writing!

    • Sue Coletta February 23, 2015 at 2:33 pm #

      I could not have said it better, Garry! I’ll add: And don’t be afraid to dream– and dream big! It’s what keeps our rear-ends in the chair and our fingers tapping the keys.

    • Molly Greene February 23, 2015 at 5:17 pm #

      Garry, this is such a great story. Rumor has it that agents are passing on (previously) self-pubbed books, and you see? You just proved that wrong. Another reason to listen to your heart and ignore all the bad news people love to spout. Huge congratulations!!

  2. Helen Hanson February 23, 2015 at 3:49 pm #

    Two of my favorite people on one blog 🙂 May you both sell gazillions!

    • Molly Greene February 23, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

      Now see? I had no idea you two knew each other. Small world. Thanks, Helen!

      • Sue Coletta February 23, 2015 at 5:26 pm #

        Yup. Helen and I blog together on Prose & Cons– and that spiraled into a friendship. She’s the best!

        • Molly Greene February 23, 2015 at 5:39 pm #

          You’re both the best!

    • Sue Coletta February 23, 2015 at 5:22 pm #

      Aww, Helen. You are so sweet! Thank you! And may you continue to sell your awesome high-tech thrillers.

  3. Sean Fraser February 23, 2015 at 4:26 pm #

    I loved this blog on going the ‘traditional path’. I’m in the ‘Approaching an agent’ phase. Thanks for sharing your experience and desire.

    • Sue Coletta February 23, 2015 at 5:25 pm #

      I’m so glad you found it useful, Sean! I wish you huge success in your endeavors. Please don’t let rejections ever get you down. They really aren’t a reflection on you or your writing; they are a right of passage for every writer going traditional. That’s how I try to think of it, anyway.

  4. Karoline February 23, 2015 at 5:47 pm #

    Thanks for sharing!! I wanted to go traditional and after 120 queries, I found an awesome agent in #121 2 years ago. She published my first book herself and recently got my a 2 book deal with Berkley for my cozy mystery series. I don’t know that agents 1-120 would have had such faith in me!

    • Molly Greene February 23, 2015 at 5:51 pm #

      SO COOL! Karoline, thank you so much for sharing!! Exactly the kind of news and encouragement aspiring writers need. Love you for taking the time to comment, mwah!

    • Sue Coletta February 23, 2015 at 6:00 pm #

      That’s an awesome story, Karoline! And you’re right. It’s all about finding the right agent at the right time. Good luck with your series!

      • Karoline February 23, 2015 at 6:03 pm #

        Thank you Sue! I just received your 50 Ways to Murder Your Fictional Characters! I used antifreeze in my latest book! Thank you for offering that –

        • Sue Coletta February 23, 2015 at 6:09 pm #

          Good one! Thanks for signing up. Enjoy!

    • Garry Rodgers February 23, 2015 at 7:27 pm #

      God, Karoline – 121 queries. Now that’s perseverance! So happy for your breakthrough 🙂

      • Sue Coletta February 24, 2015 at 4:40 am #

        Karoline’s story is not that unusual, Garry. It happens more than you’d think. Timing is a big part of success with query letters. And sometimes it takes many, many queries before hitting the right agent at the right time. That’s why so many writers give up, which is very, very sad. I once heard about an author who queried 200 agents. Before he quit he decided to send one more, and that agent requested his manuscript and offered him representation. Last year he signed a 6 figure book deal. The moral of this story: as long as you (the collective you) never give up– you WILL be traditionally published.

      • Karoline Barrett February 24, 2015 at 6:52 am #

        I wasn’t going to give up Garry!! I have a friend who gave up after 10!!! Thanks for your comment!

  5. Karoline February 23, 2015 at 5:57 pm #

    You’re welcome! Love your blogs, Molly (we follow each other on Twitter, by the way!). I love the writing world!

  6. A.K.Andrew February 23, 2015 at 7:19 pm #

    Fantastic advice Sue & congratulations on being picked up! I’m in the query letter stage myself, which while disheartening at the moment I keep telling myself, many authors had many rejections before they were successful. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. Really helpful:-)

    • Sue Coletta February 24, 2015 at 4:00 am #

      You’re so right, A.K. Many hugely successful authors have been rejected over and over. Literary Rejections, the blog, has lists of bestselling books and how many rejections letter each author got before hearing, “Yes!” When a particular rejection letter gets me down I go to that site for inspiration. You’d be amazed by the number of rejections! Perseverance is key.

  7. MM Jaye February 24, 2015 at 3:50 am #

    Great advice, thanks for sharing. I had a positive experience with agents. I sent out ten queries (way before I even knew what platform building was) and got two partial requests. The feedback from both was encouraging re my story yet they said it wasn’t a fit to what they were looking for. That’s when I realized this was a process that would take years, and I turned to self-publishing.

    I haven’t given up the thought completely, though. After attending a number of online classes (I, too, am getting quite addicted) I might re-submit. And who knows? 🙂

    • Sue Coletta February 24, 2015 at 4:23 am #

      MM, those are good rejections for your first twenty! You should have seen mine. The longer you write the better the rejections. There comes a time when the rejection letters change to, “Although I really enjoyed your sample pages and feel your project is publishable I just don’t have room in my client list.” Or, “Because the market is ever-changing I need to be very selective, and that means passing on work that is not only good but publishable.” And that’s when you know you’re really close.

      If this is your dream, MM, keep sending those queries. But instead of twenty, send fifty, sixty, one-hundred– in rounds of twenty. When a rejection comes in send out a new query. That way you’ll always have twenty out there. One suggestion: don’t query the book you self-published. It makes it all that much harder. Write another book (not the sequel, either) and query that book. Better to give yourself the best possible chance of success. Good luck! You will get “the call” as long as you never, ever give up!

  8. Stephanie Mason February 24, 2015 at 8:46 am #

    Thanks Sue and Molly! I think I just found my new mantra, “Getting published isn’t luck, it’s a decision.” I will tell myself that every time I want to quit.

  9. Pamela Beason (@PamelaBeason) February 24, 2015 at 10:18 am #

    Thanks, Sue and Molly, for this post. There are pros and cons to both the traditional and indie approaches and I’ve been pursuing both routes. As a matter of fact, I’m doing an online course next month on what you can expect from both for the Kiss of Death group of RWA.

    I wanted to provide two tips that writers may find useful: For getting an agent and finding an editor, I wanted to mention that http://www.publishersmarketplace.com is a great place to look for what’s going on right now, because that’s where many agents post the deals they’ve made. So you can see which agents are selling what to whom. $25/month, so you can always try it out for just a month or two. You can see a lot of info there without signing up, too, but to use the most useful search feature–to search for “deals” in your genre–you have to pay the monthly subscription fee to join. That’s how I found my agent. Second, I always tell authors that if you can get a good email address for an acquiring editor, don’t be afraid to sent that editor a query letter. Most will read query letters. Don’t send anything more.

    I actually got my traditional 3-book deal after I self-published the first book in the series. And yes, Sue, you are so right–persistence is the key! Don’t stop perfecting your craft, and don’t stop chasing whatever publishing goal you want to achieve.

    • Molly Greene February 25, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

      Well said, Pam. And best to you on your online course – it’s about time you did something like that!

  10. Sue Coletta February 24, 2015 at 1:24 pm #

    You’re absolutely right, Pamela! And congratulations on your success! I was going to mention the paid feature on Publishers Marketplace, but there are so many great searches you can do once you join this post would have been way too long. 🙂 Thanks for sharing it in the comment section. It worked out perfectly!

  11. Debbie A. McClure February 24, 2015 at 7:04 pm #

    I’m lining up with the others here to thank you both for such a great post. It’s also a timely one for me. After going with a small independent publisher (who became ill and had to scale back in her work load going forward) for my first two books, I went back to querying agents for my next book. When I received six requests for partials or fulls from agents, I was thrilled. Then an agent asked me to call her to discuss the book. This was followed by several back-and-forths as I completed some sample revisions she asked for. Eventually this agent passed, which was incredibly disappointing, but I learned so much from her and appreciate the time she took with me. Now I’ve just completed yet another revision, have it out with beta readers again, and a critique partner whom I really respect.

    This looong process has taught me so much. I don’t know about thick skin; maybe just a writer’s firm belief in themselves and their work keeps us going when faced with rejections. I’ve also learned the value of the dreaded re-write process. It sharpens you like a pencil! As I prepare to step back into the publishing arena, I think of other writers like me who “Dare Greatly”. Thanks ladies.

    • Molly Greene February 25, 2015 at 2:35 pm #

      Thanks for sharing, Debbie. It must have been deeply disappointing, but we always win whenever we can take away something good – and it sounds as if you’ve done that! Dare Greatly!

      • Debbie A. McClure February 25, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

        Thanks, Molly. I guess that’s why they say writing isn’t for the faint of heart. 🙂

  12. Sue Coletta February 25, 2015 at 4:43 am #

    Oh, Debbie, that must have been heartbreaking! I have a feeling I know who the agent was, believe it or not. She’s helped many writers, getting on the phone, asking for revisions and then, ultimately, passing on their work. It seems to be a pattern of hers. But, each one of them has benefited from her advice AND found their agent soon after. So, I have no doubt this round of queries will find you an agent. It is a long process, but the work keeps getting better as long as you continue to hone your craft– which clearly you are. I’d love to hear when you finally “get the call”. Please stay in touch so I can help you celebrate! I truly believe when one of us climbs out of the slush pile– stronger for the effort– and achieves our goal we ALL should shout it from the rooftops (pardon the cliche). Here’s to 2015 being your year, Debbie! *clinks glasses*

    • Debbie A. McClure February 25, 2015 at 3:20 pm #

      Your kindness and support are balms to the soul, Sue. I’d love to keep in touch. I also interview other writers around the globe at various stages of their writing career, so I couldn’t agree with you more when it comes to supporting other writers. You’re speaking my language. 🙂 Onward!

  13. CS Perryess February 25, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

    I’m with you. I have huge affection & respect for my self-published pals, but it’s just not attractive to me. Like you, I keep writing, revising, submitting, & writing again. May your journey be fulfilling.

    • Sue Coletta February 27, 2015 at 4:28 am #

      Thank you, CS! I wish you huge success in your endeavors as well.

  14. Laura Zera February 26, 2015 at 10:32 pm #

    Perseverance is definitely key. And I’ve had more than one traditionally published author tell me that it’s just a “numbers game.” The more you try, the more likely you are to find your agent match. I started my search in October, and feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface!

    • Sue Coletta February 27, 2015 at 4:50 am #

      Numbers game? There may be some truth in that, Laura. However, if you do your research and contact agents that are looking for what you’re selling then you drastically increase your chances. I have many trad-pubbed friends whom I love dearly. But some seem jaded by the process and talk about it as if they had to give up their first born, or the only reason they eventually found their agent was because of x, y, z,– a lucky coincidence. Others are all too happy to discuss open and honestly about how they felt and what they did, gave specifics about what to look for when you get close. They all had one thing in common– they NEVER gave up no matter how many rejections they received.

      So, you’ve been querying since October. That doesn’t mean you need to send out 50 more queries before you find an agent. Nothing is etched in stone. If you’re getting requests and feedback on your story, take the advice that resonates with you and work to improve your story. Your perfect agent could be just around the corner. Good luck!