When I talk to people about my publishing plans for my next couple of books, people ask me if I’ll ever query and try for a traditionally published deal. I always say, “No, I’m not writing anything queryable right now.”
People can take that a lot of different ways, and mostly that sounds like I don’t have faith in what I’m writing, or that my work is crap and only suited for self-publishing.
That couldn’t be further from that truth.
What I mean by that is, I know what I’m writing. I know what it’s suited for. That doesn’t mean what I’m writing isn’t being traditionally published; it just means I don’t have to find an agent to get it there. I write fluff. Maybe that’s demeaning to my genre when I say that, but I also am not pinning my work with any more importance than it deserves. Harlequin, the publisher that brings you the lines Temptation, Desire, Blaze, and the like (they’ve done some remodeling, so I don’t know what their lines are now) prints hundreds of books like that every year. In my Barnes and Noble, they take up a shelf in the corner of the building near the floor. All the shiny red spines with titles like One Night with the Billionaire or The Cowboy’s Baby. Women read these by the handfuls; a quick read you can get through in a couple hours before tossing it onto a pile and reaching for another one, like candies in a heart-shaped box. You know what you’re getting, you savor it as it melts in your mouth, but you have no problem reaching for another one when the chocolate is gone.
My books are like that. What I write in three to four months will be devoured in three to four hours, and I’m okay with that. I’m more than okay with that. Romance is a huge genre, and where there are millions of writers cranking out millions of books, there are also millions of readers. They don’t call the Romance genre the bestselling genre for nothing.
But along with pages of guidelines for how they like their books to be written and their preferred word count, Harlequin has its own dropbox on its website. I don’t need to query an agent and let my manuscript sit in a slush pile to wait for an agent’s assistant to skim my query letter. I can upload my manuscript onto Harlequin’s website myself, or to Carina Press, the digital-first arm of Harlequin, and let it rot in their slush pile without any help, thank you.
If I were to query, going back to the original question, I would query something more serious. Something I worked harder for. We all have visions of our books sitting on the display table at Barnes and Noble in the center of their main walkway. Trust me when I say Don’t Run Away would never make it there—agent or not. No, looking at the New York Times Book Review right now, I would want to write something more akin to Women’s Fiction, not Contemporary Romance. I would want my manuscript to mean something, to say something, to point out an injustice, to try to right a wrong, to help someone. I would want my manuscript to come from my brain as well as my heart.
I’m not trying to degrade romance, not at all. But any romance writer or reader knows the difference between In the Arms of Her Boss and Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward, a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. And let’s be clear, a reader who picks up either one of these knows what she’s getting. You have to be in the mood to read it, and a writer has to be in the mood (not to mention have the talent and skills) to write it.
I’m not in the mood to try to write something of Sing Unburied Sing’s caliber. I’m perfectly happy editing Chasing You. (You can weigh the two books by title alone, can’t you?)
If, or when, I plan to query, it will be with a book that will make it worth my time, and it will be with a book that will be worth the pain and heartache of rejection. Because I know the score. Querying is a whole lot of rejection, and I won’t put myself through that for a computer file full of fluff.
You might think that I’m too hard on myself, but I prefer to think of it as a realistic POV of my work. And, quite possibly, more indie writers should have it. Querying a story that won’t make it onto a table at the Barnes and Noble will sour you on the whole process. Traditional publishers only publish so many books per year. Why query a book that would never make it? That’s not to say your fluff isn’t good enough for Harlequin or a small press. (The back of bookstore on a shelf near the floor is better than nowhere at all, right?) It very well may be, and you should definitely go that route if you feel your book is worth it. Query to find an agent knowing/admitting where your book is going to end up, or use Harlequin’s dropbox and let your book sit in cyber purgatory for a few months while interns wade through the submissions.
But I won’t bother to try to find an agent for something that will sell just fine when I self-publish it.
After I’ve grown a bit more as a writer, or maybe when I have a nice backlist I can be proud of and want to challenge myself, or when the perfect plot plops into my head, I’ll write my book and I will query it to find an agent who loves it as much as I do, and maybe one day it will end up at the Barnes and Noble on a table in their main walkway.
I’ll pass it and brush my fingers over the cover as I walk to the café for a coffee. But for now, I’ll finish writing Running Scared while chocolate melts in my mouth.