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Switching from Querying Agents to Querying Publishers

Debut author Kristen Brakeman shares her experience of switching from querying agents to targeting small presses to publish her debut collection of humorous essays.

After completing a final polish on Is That The Shirt You’re Wearing? my collection of humorous essays, I diligently researched and targeted literary agents, and sent personalized query letters. And I eagerly waited for their replies.

Then I waited some more . . . and waited some more after that. I even sent myself test emails to make sure my email program was working—the writer equivalent of a stand-up comedian asking, “Is this thing on?”

This guest post is byKristen Hansen Brakeman. Brakeman's comedic essays have appeared in the New York Times Motherlode, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Working Mother Magazine, Scary Mommy, and Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop, where she is currently the Humor Writer of the Month. She has appeared on Huff Post Live to endlessly debate the use of the word “Ma’am,” and is a reviewer for the New York Journal of Books. Real humans have compared her writing style to both Erma Bombeck and Nora Ephron, but possibly they were intoxicated at the time. Brakeman works behind-the-scenes on television variety shows and lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles with her husband, and three daughters. Her first book, a collection of humorous essays titled IS THAT THE SHIRT YOU’RE WEARING?, was published by Tidal Press in May 2017.

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Undeterred, I continued submitting about ten queries at a time every few months or so, for three years. Though each rejection left me in the doldrums, I was encouraged to continue because of the many compliments I received about my writing, helpful advice on how to strengthen my platform, and the suggestion from one agent that my manuscript was a tad on the short side.

With the false hope that it was the quantity of my words to blame, I re-wrote and restructured, and then submitted again, this time with my slightly longer, yet apparently still unsellable book. As the months passed and my number of queries topped the 150 mark, I was, as the queen of humorous essays would say, “at wits’ end.”

Finally, in my last batch of rejections, came frank words from two different agents saying the same thing: Essay collections are simply too tough of a sell, even for well-known writers or comedians. One offered that if I were to become super famous, like say, Tina Fey, to contact her again. Become super famous? Why didn’t I think of that in the first place?

Yet I still believed strongly in my manuscript, and felt that readers would enjoy not just the humor, but also relate to my real-life struggles and appreciate the positive tone. And the fact that so many beta readers and literary agents said they loved it, made me not want to give up.

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Lots of friends suggested that I self-publish, but I didn’t want to do that either. It’s probably a great option for prescriptive nonfiction authors who write weight loss guides or get-rich quick tips, but let’s face it, people aren’t Googling “humor essays” for help with their troubled lives.

Also, according to Publishers Weekly, the average nonfiction book sells only about 250 copies a year, and 2,000 over a lifetime. My profit margin would be higher if I self-published, but either way the amount I’d earn would still be minimal. So I decided to keep trying to to have my book published traditionally, if for no other reason, than to serve as a legitimate credit when peddling book two.

If big publishing houses weren’t interested in essay collections, maybe medium and small publishing houses were worth a try. I found listings for independent presses on Writers’ Digest, Poets & Writers, and AgentQuery, with descriptions of the type of books each publisher was interested in and their submission policies.

Whereas most agents asked for only a query letter and a writing sample, I discovered that publishers universally required a book proposal, replete with a market analysis, marketing plan, and a description of the target audience (in my case … um … humans who like to read and laugh?). With the help of online guides, I somehow faked my way through completing a proposal.

As I searched for places to submit, it dawned on me that my book was in a bit of a literary no-man’s land. I was too unknown to land a contract at a large trade, but my writing seemed too mainstream for the majority of these independent presses, who clearly preferred “literary” writing—serious novels or short story collection, poetry collections, or chapbooks. Frankly, I didn’t even know what a chapbook was, so I was fairly confident I had not written one.

Whenever I’d find an independent press that actually wanted essay collections I’d get excited, but most were after essayists of a different sort: deep thinkers who pondered man’s place in the universe, not someone ranting about the horrors of collagen lip plumping. And I bet not one of their essayists spoke in the voice of their dog … or cat.

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Conventional wisdom says not to judge a book by its cover, but I had to do just that to guess at which independent presses might want me. If the book covers on their website looked particularly heady or dour, I moved on. If a publisher expressed interest in humor, yet their nonfiction humor book covers had old-fashioned comic drawings, I clicked away, knowing we wouldn’t be a good match.

After a few months of submitting, I heard back from one of the medium-sized publishers from my first round of queries. The acquisitions editor requested my manuscript, and then later wrote back to say that she loved it. She asked for a few changes to my proposal, including securing advanced blurbs and adding links to my published columns, in hopes that her company’s marketing department would agree with her desire to buy the book.

A month later, and after numerous emails back and forth, unfortunately she wrote that they would have to pass. My platform was deemed to be, “Not dazzling enough to make a dent in the crowded marketplace.”

I was devastated. I felt like I was so close, only to have the rug pulled out from under me. My husband had to work hard to talk me off the ledge, emphasizing that if this editor wanted to publish my book then surely someone else would too.

As much as it pains me to admit it, it turned out that my husband was right. Over the next few months I actually had three more independent publishers express varying levels of interest.

I had submitted to one of them, Tidal Press, because on their website it said they were interested in books that “explore the life of the underdog, the outsider … and that make you feel less alone … and sometimes they’re funny.”

[How to Resurrect a Forgotten Manuscript]

The outsider—too much of a “nobody” for the big trades, but not “literary” enough for the smalls—that sounded like me! So when the publisher wrote back to say that she liked my voice and thought that I nailed the void in publishing that she wanted to fill, it was music to my ears.

Within a few months I had a signed contract in my hand and the knowledge that my book was actually going to be published. What’s more, the publisher wisely decided to market it as a memoir—a more popular genre than humor.

My only experience in publishing has been with an independent press, but I’m guessing that one of the biggest benefits is that the writer gets to talk directly to the publisher. Likewise, probably the biggest drawback for a small publisher is that they have to talk directly to the writer. Because first-time writers have questions … so many questions, and because they’re so gosh darn excited about their first book being published!

While being published traditionally meant I didn’t have to worry about the nuts and bolts that I would have had to deal with had I self-published, I will be doing the lion’s share of the marketing. So once again I’ve turned to online advice to help me navigate my campaign, which has included asking (okay, begging) for reviews, offering interviews to book bloggers, and endless requests for blurbs in everything from alumni newsletters to local book clubs.

We’ve all read the amazing stories of writers who found an agent on the first try or landed a fabulous publishing contract within a couple months, but for the majority of us, our books are only published because of our own perseverance.

Five and a half years, more than 150 agent queries, and a few dozen small press submissions later, my goal of having my book published will finally be realized. Of course I’m aware of the sales stats for books like mine, but I won’t let that discourage me. After all, I’ve come this far!

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