Why It’s So Hard to Get Your First Novel Published

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why it’s so hard to get your first novel published, and I think it mostly comes down to inexperience. It takes time to learn how to write a publishable novel, as well as how to present it to agents and publishers. Obviously there are writers who succeed on the first try, but here’s why I think it’s hard to do.

I’m now querying my third novel, although I’d qualify that by saying it’s really the second novel I took seriously. But here’s the thing. At the time, I thought I was taking the first one seriously. I revised it carefully and even had a freelance editor go through the first 30 pages. I thought it was ready, and I sent off about 20 queries. I received all form rejections.

Did you notice what I didn’t do? I skipped the critique partner/beta reader step. I didn’t know I needed to have other writers read my work. And frankly, the idea of letting someone else read it terrified me. Kind of a problem if I wanted to get published, right?

I took a break from writing and then had an idea for a second novel. I went part-time at work so I could really dig into it. By this time, I’d become active on Twitter for my job and found a number of publishing people to follow as well–agents, editors and other writers. I can’t convey how much I’ve learned from the publishing community on Twitter.

This new novel was something entirely different than I’d ever written before. It was middle grade, and I needed a whole new set of writing skills to pull it off. I studied kidlit blogs, interacted with other writers, joined SCBWI and the St. Louis Writers Guild, attended some conferences, and eventually found two critique partners–one through a blog and another through the St. Louis Writers Guild. This time, I thought, I was doing things the right way. I finished up a chapter-by-chapter critique process with each of my CPs and had my query letter critiqued on an online forum until I was sure it was ready. I sent out my first round of queries and got a request for a full the first week. This meant I was on the right track!

Well, sort of. Looking back, I think it was luck or possibly the fact I mentioned the agent’s favorite movie in my query. Anyway, I’d read somewhere that you should send your queries in batches. I sent out batches of seven every two weeks, regardless of whether I’d heard back from any of the agents. After all, I’d gotten a request in my first batch, so it must be ready, right? But I didn’t get a single request in the next five rounds, and I’d burned through a lot of the agents on my list.

I started reading more middle grade and also entered a couple of secret agent contests. Based on the critiques on my first page and query letter, it became clear neither was working the way it should. I rewrote the first chapter and sent it back to my original critique partners, one of whom said it was “a bazillion times better.” But I’d learned to be cautious, so I searched out a beta reader, someone who could go through the whole thing and give me thoughts on where I had holes. She gave me some great feedback that helped me reshape parts of the novel, and I started querying again–cautiously–with a shiny new query letter as well. My request rate went up exponentially (not hard when it was just one before that).

I practiced patience. I sent out a round of queries, sent off the requests, and waited for responses, hoping they’d give me some feedback as to what didn’t work. Although I never got anything specific enough to know what to change, I did receive some encouraging rejections that told me to send my next project when ready.

I haven’t completely given up on that novel–I still have two fulls out–but I know I could have done things better. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what I should do. I’d read about how to know your novel is ready to query and how to go about it. I just hadn’t experienced it yet, and unfortunately it was one of those things I had to learn through experience. So no matter what happens with it–if someday it goes somewhere or it remains a document on my computer–I learned from the process and have applied it this time around. I’ve had quite a different experience so far with the novel I’m currently querying, but I’ll save that for another blog post.

What have you learned during the writing and querying process? What could you have done differently? Any tips for other querying writers?

Responses to “Why It’s So Hard to Get Your First Novel Published”

  1. samanthaeden

    I’ve never tried to publish a novel. Nor have I queried, but your post makes me think about whether or not the I am taking the short stories I write seriously enough. I certainly do not let anyone read my short stories. Perhaps I should. Great post. Good luck!

    • Michelle Mason

      It depends on whether you want to publish them someday. I was afraid that having other people reading my work would turn it into theirs instead of my own. I wanted all of the ideas to be mine. But when I started working with a critique partner, I discovered the comments they gave me challenged me to make my writing even better. My writing wouldn’t have improved without that feedback.

  2. pernillenkl

    What does it mean, query? I tried translating it into Danish, which is my main language, but I don’t understand the context.

    Great tips though!

    • Michelle Mason

      Querying is the process of trying to get an agent or publisher’s interest. It’s basically a pitch letter with a writing sample that varies depending on the agent’s preferences.

      • pernillenkl

        Oh, so you pretty much find out what the agents like and pick out a “piece” of your book for them to read?
        That’s actually a pretty good idea. If I ever get on to finishing any of my projects, that’ll definitely be something I won’t NOT do!

        • Michelle Mason

          When I say it varies, I mean as to number of pages. They ALWAYS want the beginning of the novel. Some want just the pitch letter, some want five pages, some want fifty. Always check their websites first. Good luck with your projects!

  3. hannahkarena

    I queried my first novel–a middle grade historical fiction–and the query letter got some really great responses, especially considering that I was still in college at the time and admitted that fact frankly, I’m still surprised that a handful of agents requested a partial.

    My book, I think, wasn’t as strong as my query, but the idea was good. The really personal rejection letters started to sound the same; the advice was consistently that there needed to be more: more characterization, more development, etc. I stopped querying because I understood there was a consensus that something was wrong with the book; I think I was too young/too close to it to really identify how to improve it though, despite the great–though vague–advice. It’s been set aside for two years now. Maybe later this year, now that I’m a better writer/have read a lot more middle grade fiction since then/have distanced myself, I think I could make another go at a rewrite. Because if it was rewritten, I think it might have a chance.

    I definitely need to add the beta reader stage to my process, and I’ve tried, but every beta reader I tried completely failed. Either they asked to read it, promised to read it, and never ever did, or middle grade just ended up not being their “thing” and they couldn’t offer much advice.

    How did you find quality beta readers? I feel like I’ve been searching in all the wrong places!

    • Michelle Mason

      That’s a great question. I found my beta readers a couple of ways.
      1. Local writers guild – I joined the St. Louis Writers Guild, which has a forum for connecting writers with critique partners. If you have a local writers group, they may have something similar.
      2. Writing blogs – I follow a number of blogs focused on kidlit, and they often host critique partner connections. I’ve found multiple CPs this way. Agent Mary Kole does this at least once a year. Here was her last post: http://kidlit.com/2011/12/12/december-critique-connection/. Right now, Authoress Anon is hosting one: http://misssnarksfirstvictim.blogspot.com/. She’s only leaving the posts up for one week, so you should check it soon if you’re interested. Krista Van Dolzer also posted one a couple of weeks ago: http://www.motherwrite.blogspot.com/2012/06/beta-reader-browse.html. These are great because the people on these blogs are really working to improve their craft. When you have someone to swap with, you can be more assured of getting the kind of feedback you need.
      3. Conference – I met one of my beta readers at a conference. We struck up a conversation and she said she’d be willing to swap with me. It’s been great.
      4. Twitter – I put out a call on Twitter for someone to beta read for me and found one person this way. She ended up giving me a fantastic critique that really helped with my current novel.

      I’d also suggest checking out the forums on QueryTracker.net. People often post calls for CPs there. And in August, there’s the WriteOnCon online conference. The forums are only active during the conference, but you can make some great connections there. Hope that helps!

    • Michelle Mason

      Unfortunately, no. Getting published traditionally–via an established publisher–is a long process. I’ve been seriously querying agents for over a year. I know I am making progress. I’ve gotten more requests and personal responses with my latest project, so I don’t consider it running in circles. It’s a matter of sticking with it until I make the right connection. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Zofya

    Hi Michelle! Thank you so much for this great article. I have to be honest, it depressed me greatly but in a way, I needed it to be grounded. I have been working on a boo for a couple months now and of course, I am no where near finished but I started researching what I would have to do, when the book is finished, to get it published. I have read a couple articles already but yours really brought me back to earth that my book might never get published and that I should stop dreaming about it and remind myself why I started writing in the first place; a mean to escape my sometime boring reality.
    Anyhow, I do not take criticism very well and I cannot imagine having other writers critique my work. I do have a beta and she is pretty awesome and encouraging but in the end, your article was a good reminder and a good way to bring me back to reality that maybe no one will read my work and that’s okay.

    Thanks again, I for one really enjoy reading your article and I can only imagine the quality of your work. If someone like you struggle to get published I cannot imagine going through it especially English being my second language.


    • Michelle I. Mason

      Hi Zofya,

      First of all, NEVER stop dreaming! Of course you should always focus on your real reasons for writing, and publishing shouldn’t be the only goal, but don’t ever give up on that ultimate dream. It’s what keeps me going!

      As for taking criticism, I promise it gets easier. I used to cringe at it, and sometimes I still do, but the more you understand it’s just part of the process and participate in it on both ends–giving and accepting criticism–you realize how subjective it is and how the other writers who are giving it are just trying to help you make your work better. And yes, it is ok if the masses don’t ever read your work, but maybe they will. It might take a while to get there, but if it does, it will be even more worth it when it happens. I’ve been working at this for years, but I am confident it will happen some day, and when it does, I am so going to celebrate it!

      So, my message to you is to keep at it and stay strong! If you want to write to be published and you keep working at it, and you can succeed at it. You’re already on the right track by researching the right way to do it. A lot of people don’t even take this step and just keep stumbling through. Hang in there!!!


  5. Marissa

    I learned that the purpose of querying is about getting someone to want to read your story, not selling your novel. This changed my entire perspective on querying.


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