Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

The Wet Blanket Reality… Chapter Two

Chapter Two… The Query

This book is a travelogue through the steps it takes in 2022 to become a traditionally published fiction writer. So please read the Introduction and First Chapter before this one. You do that, this chapter will make more sense, as much as this chapter will ever make sense to a sane, thinking person. (Writers are neither sane or thinking at this point in this process.)

So after years of work, you declare your novel masterpiece finished and have a party. So what next?

EVERYONE KNOWS (stupid common knowledge and not true, but we’ll go with the myth here) that you must have an agent to sell your book to a traditional book publisher. So how do you go about getting an agent to take a look at your book?

A Query Letter…

Now, a query letter to an agent is an art form these days to beginning writers. There are entire classes on how to write one, entire Facebook and other groups on how to write one perfectly. And anyone in the “know” will tell you the query letter must be perfect, whatever that means at that moment in time.

A FLASHBACK… Let me back up a moment in time, actually about 30 years in time, and let me tell you what the writer/agent relationship was like in say 1991. Or 1981. Or at any point for a hundred years before 1991.

Most writers in 1960 had not hired an agent. Almost none at all in the pulp era. By 1991, most writers had hired an agent for overseas deals and scut work. That’s right, for a hundred plus years, agents worked for writers. They got writer’s drinks at parties, they did the grunt work with writing some letters, they took 10% on books they were involved with. And when the writer called, they answered the phone and said, “Yes, sir.” Or “Yes, ma’m.” To the writer. If my agent had ever once took three days to get back to me on a phone call, I would have sent flowers because I would have been sure she or one of her family members was sick or had died.

Writers were the bosses, agents were employees. When I hired my one and only agent in my career, she tracked me down in a bar at a convention and pitched herself and her agency to me. And basically I did a job interview with her.

She never once sold a book for me or even submitted one. Not one. Ever. (I never asked her to. I sold 106 books to traditional publishers on my own.) As any good employee, she did the scut work and she answered the phone when I called. I told her what to do and what not to do, and through me over the 17 years she made well north of a half million. (Average about $30,000 per year for working for one writer.)

So somewhere around the turn of this century, agents started to think writers worked for them and over ten years this morphed into a full-scale thing. I was away from my agent about the point this started getting really bad.

So now, today, a young writer must prove themselves to an agent.

(Oh, one more point… Agents do not need testing or credentials to become an agent. They need to know how to print up business cards. (Wait, this is 2022 so it would be a web site.) Nothing more. Even a freshly minted Vassar grad in English can print up a business card or do a web site (usually with help).

Agents think writers work for them now. So a writer must write a perfect query letter so the agent can decide from a query letter if they want to spend their precious little time on the writer. 999 out of every thousand query letters are just bounced, mostly for not following some stupid direction.

That means that 999 out of every thousand masterpieces that took years to write are just sitting on a hard drive. Most new writers, right at this point, can’t handle the rejection of the baby (even though the agent never saw it) and go do something else, some even tossing out the novel.

The dreams that are shattered by this stupidity is just stunning and very, very sad.

Next chapter… Heaven forbid you are one of the one-out-of-a-thousand that the agent says, “Sure, send me a first chapter, or a partial, or the entire manuscript.”

At that point, things really do get worse.


  • Nathan Haines

    Sometimes, when a post from Reddit shows up on my feed celebrating a first novel and asking what to do next, when I feel like stirring up trouble, I go into the post’s comments to find that people are arguing about whether or not the new writer should “settle” for self-publishing or if instead it’s a far more intelligent move to choose to be traditionally published instead.

    And in those times where I feel like causing a stir, I comment, and I say, “You can choose to self-publish. You cannot choose to be traditionally published.”

    This almost always causes a fight, but by that time it’s none of my business and I’ve left, because the best it ever gets is “you’re technically right, but…” (Although to be honest, sometimes there’s a bit of support and positive advice for the new writer.)

    Becoming an independent publisher is the beginning of a great deal of freedom. It’s simply my hope that, occasionally, my comment strikes a chord and helps lead to an open mind about the opportunities in front of them.

    • Jason M

      Don’t worry. They’ll do their own research. 🙂
      I’m sure they’ll come up with a better solution than a vast, wide-open, global publishing network that offers electronic, print, and audio channels with zero barriers to entry.

  • Linda+Maye+Adams

    Yeah, I noticed the change, but I didn’t realize what it was. I grew up reading books for writers who wanted to go professional. When I started submitting, nothing matched up with what I’d read. Since then, I’ve seen so much get handed off to the writers to do, so much so, it makes me wonder exactly what the agent does in the first place.

    I think eventually the fiction market will eat itself. The publishers seem to have forgotten that midlist writers become best sellers and they have been cutting their supply off for years. Probably another ten and they will be a lot of trouble as the best sellers age out.

    • dwsmith

      Linda, yes, there is no building a career anymore. But the new indie world has pretty much killed the tall peaks of sales of bestsellers. Now everything is just rolling hills except in the nonfiction side. So agree, the traditional published fiction market is already eating itself. Just a matter of time.

  • Vincent Zandri

    Another good one Dean!

    Same experience. Other than my first deal which my then agent Jimmy Vines secured from Delacorte, I’ve always made my own deals and brought them to whatever agent I was working with at the time. Publishers either apporached me or I approached them for book deals, but never since my first agent has an agent sold anything for me. if a sale, be it books, film, video game, whatever, doesn’t fall into their lap, they’re not much good at selling anything.

    If anything, a big sale early on can kill an author’s career when he doesn’t earn out. That happened to me with my first deal and I was close to quitting when no pubs wanted to touch me after leaving $200K on the table. But I stuck with it and surivived and eventually thrived, no thanks to agents.

    However, they are good for doing the grunt work, like getting rights back to books and bugging pubs for statements. Agents live is a sort of perpetual state of conflict of interests. They are supposed to be soley the author’s advocate yet they are sooooooo afraid of pissing an editor off for fear of selling nothing to them down the road, they become useless and ineffectual.

    • dwsmith

      Spot on the money, Vincent. Exactly right about the perpetual state of conflict of interest. And as the number of imprints and publishers have gotten smaller and smaller by the month, it gets worse for them. I have zero idea how agents survive these days. The math, no matter how I crunch the numbers, just doesn’t work for them and those expensive New York offices.

      • Annemarie

        I suppose, they mostly live on getting their money from the old contracts. If those contracts don’t have a sunset clause, they probably get their shares for the life of the copyright

        • dwsmith

          Annemarie, sadly that is correct, but even more sadly very, very, very few contracts earn out these days so that any money flows. And it wouldn’t be enough for the high expenses of New York even with a 100 clients earning out which would be rare. This is where pure theft starts coming in. Writer doesn’t know, or has forgotten because of bad record keeping that $8,000 translation sale to Russia or some such place and so the agent just doesn’t pass the money along to pay rent that month. When you give a person all control of your copyright and your money, that happens all the time. Happened to me and Kris a lot before we finally threatened to audit our agent and they kicked not only money loose, but us.

  • Jason M

    Yeah, the query-go-round is a farce of a parody of a joke. I hopped on it for about two months back in the year 1999, as a baby writer, and then gave up. I figured there had to be a better way.

  • Zoe Cannon

    This sent a shiver up my spine, reminding me of my days of studying agents’ blogs to learn about things like the proper weight of paper to use for a query letter. (Yes, agent bloggers had opinions on this.) So glad I never got an acceptance, because even if trad pub were still a viable path, the indie world suits me much better (creative control!). Seems like the querying situation has only gotten weirder, too—now there are professional query-letter editors, and writers compete in big events to pitch their books to agents on Twitter.

  • Chris

    I have yet to write a query letter and no intention to do so. But back in 2018, when an editor of a French publishing house spotted my books on Amazon the editor said I needed an agent in order to make the deal. So no queries, it turns out I just had to turn up with a publisher wanting to buy in my back pocket and I got a high profile agent’s interest straight away.

    I fell hard down the rabbit hole, and no matter how many times I’d read your blog, Dean, I wholeheartedly agreed to rewrites, and said yes to going back to teaching in order to make ends meet, even though the agency said they would help me make a little more money than they thought I was making. I was to be the pet project, as they were on the lookout for an indie they could convert into a successful trad publishing career.

    Yeah – deep sigh – I know. All kinds of things you could pick apart there.

    What scares me most, when I think about it, is how quick I was to agree to all the myths. I just lapped them up. I mean, I was ready to discard everything I knew about indie publishing (at the time), and the people around me, writers among them, were convinced I had “finally made it”.

    I’ve mentioned this in a comment before, but I did one smart thing. I kept my English rights. Smartest thing I ever did. And I never did go back to teaching. And I quit not one but two agencies this year (one was for children’s books), pulled back all rights, and I feel liberated. I’ve mentioned that before on your blog too. But taking back control evokes powerful emotions.

    Will I make mistakes? Sure. Will I learn from them? Definitely. But will I share a percentage with an agent? Not anymore.

    I’m learning.

    And, Dean, many thanks, by the way. 😉

  • Ryan Viergutz

    The point where I realised agents were a joke was when I understood that they were expected to take a percentage AND handle the money with no oversight. Both made me say yeah, no, forget that.

    Ryan V

    • dwsmith

      Linda, first off, I find it HORRIFYING that a writer wants some Vassar grad in a publishing office to touch their manuscript. That I find horrifying. Second, what to do about it?? Indie publish and stay out of that system. But after all, what do I know?

    • Rob Cornell

      Whoa. This guy really believes you should pay $5,000 – $30,000 to hire an editor to “fix” your book before sending it to a traditional publisher? That’s like splicing together the DNA of some of the worst myths of writing to form a Supermuntant Myth.


      • dwsmith

        Yup, the crazy has gotten everywhere. Sadly, some writers will think that idiot is right and they won’t have the money so they will give up writing. That is the real horror in such stupidity, the loss of storytellers who might be great.