29

Let's suppose you have finished your novel, through all the appropriate stages of drafting and editing needed. You begin submitting the book to various agents and/or publishing companies, but none of your queries gets answers.

I'm talking about a worst-case scenario, where you either get copypasted replies or no reply at all, and no feedback about how your work could be improved.

Given this grim setting, when do you stop, if ever, sending queries for that particular novel? Is it safe to assume that it's either badly written or there's no market for it? Do you keep it in a locker and try to publish it again years later?

Edit: To be completely clear, I'm not in this situation right now, but I figure it's an interesting question to ask.

  • 11
    I was in the same place with my first novel. Many writers assume that the doors aren't open to them or there's some magical query that will open them. Remember: books are picked up based on how marketable they are, not how good they are. So, ask yourself, is it as good as the bestsellers in your genre? If it's not, then you know you should write something else. If it is, keep going. I decided to shelve mine and write something I knew would be marketable. I sent ten queries and the doors flew open. But only you can make an educated guess as to whether your book could be a bestseller. Good luck! – GGx May 8 at 16:57
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    @DPT It's true. Writers place so much emphasis on query letters. But there was nothing special about mine. It just explained the story in one paragraph, why I was targeting those agents specifically, and a little about my writing experience. Half a page and no magic formula. It was a story that was marketable and I wrote it because I knew it would sell. It got me 6 agents. People forget this is a business... – GGx May 8 at 17:44
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    ...Publishers take celebrity books and pay sickening advances because they know they'll earn it back in spades. Lolita would sell if Michelle Obama wrote it. If I wrote it... ha ha ha. I wouldn't even get one agent. – GGx May 8 at 17:44
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    @GGx Another interesting point though, is that through the journey of my own personal query-failing, the process of trying to improve the book I have written, is that it actually is improving. It's so much better than the version I queried a year ago, because I keep finding the deficiencies and correcting those. So, it may never get an agent, but for the book that it is, it's pretty damn good. I'm proud of it. Possibly no one will ever read it. – DPT May 8 at 17:50
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    @DPT But that is exactly it. When you went on that journey you didn't come out the other side thinking the fault was with the system. You turned back to your own work and looked for the deficiency there. That's what a writer does, always writing, always improving. And if it's good and you're proud of it, why don't you self-publish it? You'll make far more money than you would from a traditional deal anyway! – GGx May 8 at 18:00
2

Never give up a book based SOLELY on the response to your queries. The reason is that the response rate you get to queries tells you relatively little about your book's quality. Query writing is its own form of writing, and one that it is highly rewarding, but surprisingly difficult to master. It's quite possible that a good book could have bad queries. So, as @Amadeus has correctly noted, your first step should be to improve your query-writing game. There are plenty of good books and online resources on this topic. Until you get a query accepted, you haven't received any direct feedback about your book at all.

With all that said, there are some valid reasons for rejecting a query that do connect to the book. First, an unprofessional query usually indicates an unprofessional writer, which indicates an unprofessional book. Any errors at all in a query --typos, bad grammar, and so forth --are usually disqualifying in this regard. Second, a weak or vague query often means that the writer doesn't actually know what his or her own book is about. That can mean a vague or confused book. Third (to be harsh) a badly written query can mean a bad writer --or at least one who hasn't achieved a high standard of work yet. Finally, an unmarketable query typically means an unmarketable book. This is the least fair one, because it has nothing to do with book quality, but publishers are in a business, and if they can't figure out who your audience is, and why that audience would buy your book, they aren't going to publish you.

So my advice to you is twofold: Work hard at improving your queries AND use that process to understand where corresponding weaknesses in your book might lie. Do you understand your own book? Do you know your target audience? Do you know the market? Is your book flawlessly edited and free of errors and typos? Is there something compelling about it? Only if those answers are all coming back as negatives (and you can't fix them) should you consider tabling this project and starting a new one.

27

The most likely explanation is that your queries are poorly written, or the agents you are querying are poorly suited to your work (or feel they are after reading your query).

If you are getting rubber-stamp rejections, look online for lessons in writing queries; one example is at Query Letter, but there are many such sites.

I would also look for agents at Agent Query and at Manuscript Wish List, so you can find agents suited to your genre. There are other resources online as well.

For submissions; the advice (from agents) is to submit a query to about six agents at a time, so you can look for feedback. If you get none, learn more about writing queries and revise. If you get feedback with your rejections, revise your query. Do NOT send out the same query to more agents!

By submitting to a handful at a time, you give yourself room to adapt, revise, and learn what you need to know to write a successful query.

This is a case of "judging a book by its cover", in this case: It's cover letter, which is your query. Remember, agents are looking for ANY unprofessionalism in your query. Any mis-formatting, any mis-spelling, any weird grammar or word choices.

In their mind, the query letter is a sample of your writing skill and ability to follow the rules; and they are looking for a reason to reject queries because they don't want to work for an author they have to babysit, or a prima donna, or somebody that can't be bothered to check their own spelling. They want somebody that can write a tight half page description of their work that intrigues them; because if you can't write that, why should they think you can write a whole book?

Agents love new writers. Published writers are hard to come by, they already have agents. New writers are up for grabs. Unfortunately, this is a "buyer's market", the supply of wannabe writers is far larger than the population that agents could actually represent. So they don't make the mistake of confusing "unpublished writer" with "amateur writer", they want to represent new writers that seem immediately publishable, with very little work on their end, other than representation. And that means rejecting about 95% of queries.

Your query letter (and any sample pages permitted with the query) need to reflect that you are in the 5%.

One reason publishers consider the recommendation of most agents very carefully is because the agents act as a filter for them and typically can be trusted to bring them quality work. You have to work to not get snagged by that filtering process.

  • Curious where you get the 95% number. I hear 90%, but also hear that the number of aspiring authors continues increasing even as the number of sales decreases. So I'd love to know actual query rejection numbers across the board. Numbers on query tracker would seem to indicate that 90% rejection is a low estimate--but the actual number is a big mystery to me. Obviously the difference between 90% and 99% rejection at the query stage hugely impacts the number of query letters one must anticipate sending--even assuming the query letter and identified agents are all done properly. – DPT May 8 at 16:46
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    If I had to guess it's the old marketing rule on whether an ad is effective or not. In marketing the rule of thumb is a 10% response rate is a great rate. There's a corollary that for every one person you get feedback from, 10 people were probably thinking the same thing. My guess is that all of this is actually pseudoscience, but they might be good rules of thumb regardless. – Kirk May 8 at 16:51
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    @DPT The 95% rate is one I have read in agent blogs and commentary talking about their jobs; so it may not be accurate across the field, just a sense they get on their own, that they summarily reject nearly everything. I'd guess it also depends on how full her roster is; if she has a full slate, she may be much more picky than if she does not. She may still be reading queries with a full slate just to make sure she doesn't reject a bestseller, but her standard may be near-perfection in the query and its personal appeal to her. – Amadeus May 8 at 17:18
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    @Kirk: I professionally wrote direct mail ads for five years. A typical response is 1%, a great response was 3%. My letters averaged a little over 2%. But I read and revised them critically twenty or more times; checked them for every rule of ad-writing (there are many), and usually wrote at least four times from scratch. That's what you do when you're going to spend $5000 on just a trial run of the letter. I'd say do the same for the query: you want to sell a product for $thousands, perhaps $millions, and you need an agent to bet several unpaid weeks of her time. She has to really want it. – Amadeus May 8 at 17:30
10

Answer: You stop when you are ready to stop. You begin again when you wish to begin. New agents come on the scene every month or two. New publishers too.

Part of the answer, which complements the excellent existing answers, is to assess what you are gaining from the experience. You might be learning through the process, and this may be valuable in and of itself. If you hit a point where you are no longer learning but only suffering, it might be time to stop.

Another suggestion, which you haven't mentioned doing in your case, is to read more of the sort of books you are attempting to 'sit next to' on the shelf. Someone asked me a few days ago if I'm trying to do what Michael Crichton has done in his books. Hadn't occurred to me that way, but if I were trying to do what he has done, then I would look at my manuscript side-by-side with his books and ask myself where are the differences? Is his pacing tighter? His descriptions more unique? his stakes higher? His command of language better? his story structure easier to follow? Is he more emotional in his writing than I am?

I used to roll my eyes when people suggested reading more, but I don't anymore, because as we learn to read as writers, it becomes more and more valuable to analyze what sells. Reading works. In part because books that sell often do all of the things we are 'supposed to avoid' such as using adverbs and peppering in god-awful long sentences of sixty-seven words, half of which are unneeded or perhaps were only added for fluorish, and the other half of which may actually move the narrative along but you can't sort the one from the other because all you know by the time you reach the end of the sentence is that that was one hell of a lot of words. :-) And so, read more, and see if there are things your writing lacks that are present in published work. I bet there are (for all of us, including those of us who may have published.).

9

My answer is a little broad and maybe even opinion-based… so here goes.

I think you can divide your decision process into 3 "problem areas" – it's a little difficult to say these things in a neutral nonjudgemental way, so hopefully you will have the patience to translate my words into ideas. I say the word "problem" but the reality is there may not be a problem at all, just that the odds are stacked against an unestablished author.

  1. there is a problem with the book
  2. there is a problem with the publishing industry
  3. there is a problem with the author

1. There is a problem with the book.

(See GGx's answer about an "unmarketable" book.)

You haven't mentioned beta-readers, or whether you have gotten any feedback on the story. I'll assume you've asked family and friends to read it. They may not be able to give you critical feedback because they cannot separate the book from the author. They care about the book because they care about you, so they may not be able to approach the book is its own thing. The goal is to get "honest" feedback from strangers, strangers you do not need to please and who do not know you personally. You'll need a range of beta-readers, not just genre fans but include them too.

The next step up might be to hire a professional book doctor, sometimes called a book doula (the person who assists with a natural birth). This is a professional writer, with references, who for a fee will work with you to "fix" the book. You'd want to be sure the problem is the book though before throwing money at someone to "fix" it.

2. There is a problem with the publishing industry.

Possibly the problem is your approach (see the other fine answers here), or lack of access to the publishing industry. Statistically, not many books are "discovered" through cold submissions to publishers and agents, probably less chance than winning the lottery (*not an actual statistic). I tend to roll my eyes everytime I read so-and-so's incredible first novel got a huge cash advance, and then reading their bio it turns out they are an editor or similar at the publishing house. Or they are a TV producer, or otherwise employed in production, promotions, or publishing.

Recently, a pseudonymous Italian author called Elena Ferrante, praised for her "fascinating novels about the lives of women", was outed as a former publishing house employee. Let me put on a surprised face that this "wondrous" unknown author who "took the literary world by storm" was an insider. When does this get called a hoax? Or a scam?

This has nothing to do with your book so you can't take it personally. Projects tend to be promoted in-house, and anyone working within the publishing industry has the personal and professional connections to "jump the line" over random submissions from an unknown. We can't even be sure your book has ever been read by a publisher. If there is no concrete feedback about your work specifically, I think you should assume they are not even opening the envelope (that may not be true, but without evidence to show otherwise the generic returns suggest it).

How can this "problem" be solved? Get a job in the industry and make personal and professional connections for yourself, or try self-publishing. Both have learning curves and time commitments (probably expenses too) that take you away from being an author. There are technical considerations, which might not be your goal, and it's not a guarantee that you will actually reach an audience. Either way, it's a hustle to promote and manage. You can easily go with a print-on-demand service, like Amazon. I'm actually surprised that so many writers here seem to reject self-publishing as a non-starter, but self-publishing your own fiction isn't the same as self-publishing non-fiction. More than half the money spent by the entertainment industry is on advertising and promotion. No individual can self-promote on that scale. You are competing against every other form of entertainment available.

How important is it to you that the book itself be "finalized" into its corporeal form (ie: a paper book). Can you be satisfied with ePub and print-on-demand? Would you be happier to see the book abandoned and forgotten if it isn't published through a third-party?

3. There is a problem with the author.

You just aren't famous enough, and there are hundreds of already-published authors with mediocre 2nd books ready to go. Even worse, there are tens of thousands of celebrities whose name could be slapped on a book cover. The actress Adrienne Barbeau has a fiction series about a Los Angeles cop dating a vampire (the first was co-written by a professional author). I'm not trying to insult her, good for her, but how many "cop dating a vampire" stories are written by unknowns every year? It doesn't sound very original. I'd say her name-recognition went a long way.

Why should publishers take a risk on an unknown, even if your story is better? Authors need publicity and fans. If a reviewer can mention your earlier novels, and how this current one compares, they have a built-in frame story to talk about your latest opus. If there is no backstory to talk about, they can really only talk about this novel. From a reviewer/journalist/blogger's point-of-view inventing a compelling story about a 1st-time author is a lot harder than talking about your past books and then segueing into the latest book.

And again, the publishing industry really seems like a scam when authors are praised for fake memoirs, and their publisher backs them up claiming the stories were all vetted and true (until they are exposed). No problem because now he's famous and can get his terrible screenplays bought and made into movies. Remember when I mentioned some "instant success" authors work in television? One hand washes the other. Their entire industry is about making talentless nobodies into an overnight success, why shouldn't they be the talentless nobodies getting famous and signing contracts? Who are you again? What is your highly-marketable backstory? Were you homeless and living in a car while scribbling YA wizard stories on a napkin? Was your first novel written in rehab (or did you claim it was)?

Publishing, like Reality TV, is an unregulated scam world filled with P.T. Barnum's selling flim-flam stories. When they get caught, the publicity only helps them. If you aren't a narcissistic sociopath, I'm not sure how you can hope to compete in their arena.

4. There is no problem, this is how the world works.

Well.... Now what? Live your life? Write another book? I don't think anyone can tell you what to do.

Enjoy your time on Earth and don't judge yourself or your creative work against unrealistic goalposts established by literary hoaxes designed to be free advertising. My personal advice is to get a little distance, grieve the end of your relationship (or celebrate the birth, whatever metaphor you choose). Attend to your mental health and re-center your creativity. What do you want to do?

You've finished a novel! You are already a winner. Getting "discovered" is another goal altogether.

  • 3
    I was onboard until the angsty doubt everyone and everything section. At that point, I admit, I was still thoroughly amused. I'm sure there's some truth behind the rant, but it sounds a mite pessimistic and in-actionable. I'm not sure after reading this that I'd be closer to knowing whether its time to keep going or give up if I've been querying a little while. I might be heading toward the bathtub with a razor blade. :/ I think what I'm saying is, can we pull the plane up? Section 1 is golden though. Don't change a thing there. – Kirk May 8 at 16:48
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    I wondered who downvoted, Haha. It's experience, not pessimism. For a short while I got involved with a TV network (promotional art project), and my friend mentioned that she remembered the TV executive's assistant from a TV show where she got an "apartment makeover", lol. Favors don't go very far afield. I'm all for disconnecting your creative self-worth, from corporations – not because "socialism" but because "group think" and "laziness". Try to see it from their POV, as individuals working in an office. They have only a few golden tickets to hand out, and media hype pays their salary. – wetcircuit May 8 at 17:05
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    I'd up vote again if I could. Thought I had commented that elsewhere I've seen an industry insider get a six figure advance, in line with your comments here. Don't know if I posted the comment or decided against it, but in light of the conversation with Kirk I'd say point 2 is not inaccurate. It's a market. Beta was always better than VHS. VHS won because of marketing, not because of superiority. – DPT May 8 at 17:21
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    @Liquid Maybe I should have said "My answer is broad and opinion-based." ha! – wetcircuit May 9 at 10:22
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    @Liquid I edited. I think what I meant was there were no specifics about the book itself so I had to find my answer "outside" the book, but later your edit said the situation was hypothetical anyway. I probably would have spent less time trying to spare your "feelings" haha – wetcircuit May 9 at 10:50
6

Converting comments to an answer as suggested by @wetcircuit

WHY BOOKS SUCCEED

I was in the same place with my first novel. Many writers assume that the doors aren't open to them or there's some magical query that will open them. Remember: books are picked up based on how marketable they are, not how good they are. So, ask yourself, is it as good as the bestsellers in your genre? If it's not, then you know you should write something else. If it is, keep going.

WHY QUERY LETTERS ONLY GO SO FAR

I took the difficult decision to shelve mine (it was 130,000 words and took 5 years to write, so it was no easy decision) and wrote something I knew would be marketable. I sent ten queries and the doors flew open. Writers place so much emphasis on query letters. But there was nothing special about mine. It just explained the story in one paragraph, why I was targeting those agents specifically, and a little about my writing experience. Half a page and no magic formula. As @DPT says, no query letter in the world is going to sell an unmarketable book. This was a story that was marketable and I wrote it because I knew it would sell. It got me 6 agents. Remember this is a business, and I took the decision to write for that business. But only you can make an educated guess as to whether your book could be a bestseller.

WHETHER TO SHELVE

Whether to shelve a novel takes deep introspection about yourself and your work:

In terms of the work, you need to step away from it and analyse it coldly for what it is. How does it compare to other work that’s been published? Have professional writers read it and analysed it? Do you know exactly where it would sit on a bookstore shelf and which books it will sit next to? Is it better than those books?

In terms of yourself, you should think about what you want from your writing. Do you want the kudos of a traditional publishing deal? Is it important to you to be able to tell your friends and family that you’ve been published by Penguin Random House?

THE TRUTH ABOUT TRAD

You see, @wetcircuit is bang on. Publishers have a marketing budget. That budget is largely blown on one or two books a year and these are known as super releases. These are the books they paid a 7-figure advance to procure. Michelle Obama’s biography for example. And the publisher throws their budget at making this the most talked about book of the year. As the advances go down through proven writers like Paula Hawkins and Sarah Pinborough, so does the marketing budget. Eventually, they get to the unknowns who are a risk. It’s a business. They have to do it this way. It’s how they make money.

So, unknown authors usually end up with between £5-50,000 advances. Fifty if you can get 5 publishers in a bidding war. But they often split that in half with a two book deal. If you consider that they’ll take 2-3 years to get your book out, that is very little money. Hence authors earn less than minimum wage. And forget earning back the advance. Royalties are so low that most authors don’t earn them back. They had little to no marketing so how can they? I’ve seen royalty statements in negative figures.

WHAT DO YOU WANT?

This is where your introspection needs to turn inwards. Many writers ball and whinge about the faulty system instead of playing it. And you can play it, but you will earn very little as a new author. So, what do you want? Do you want the kudos of a traditional deal? Or do you want to get paid for your writing?

Readers are out there for the strangest of genres, from erotica to reverse harem and genres you won’t even know exist. Traditional publishers won’t put the budget behind finding these niche audiences, but you can. I know a writer making 5 figures a month writing reverse harem.

Traditional publishing has shrunk dramatically and the indie world is now a very different space. Editors, proof-readers, cover designers etc. who were previously only available in-house to traditional authors are now contracting. Which means, without an agent or publisher, you can put your book through the exact process that a traditional book would take (if you're prepared to invest in it). Readers don’t care who published it. And you can market to them through Facebook, Amazon Ads, and Bookbub.

So, analyse your book and yourself coldly and decide what you want:

A traditional deal with less than minimum wage and no marketing? Then write something that works the system.

A self-published book that’s indistinguishable from the traditional books it sits next to? Then write what you like. You’ll have to invest a few thousand up-front. And nobody will have heard of you, but your niche readers will love you and you could earn 4-5 figures a month.

Kudos or money?

  • I need this reverse harem in my life! Well, not my real life, that sounds a pain in the ––– – wetcircuit May 9 at 10:37
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    @wetcircuit Ha ha ha... You fancy being part of some woman's harem then? I had no idea it even existed. I mean, what agent or publisher would pick that up? It' a funny old world out there. – GGx May 9 at 11:27
  • LOL I'm female…. but I guess that doesn't exclude me from being part of the harem… :D Gotta work your way up from the mail room to boss somehow... – wetcircuit May 9 at 11:32
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    LOL... I'm so sorry. I have no idea why I assumed you were male! Go big or go home... it's your harem darling! – GGx May 9 at 12:06
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    @Liquid ... ha ha ... you have a good point! Not sure it would make for a very exciting book though. – GGx May 23 at 8:44
3

I have heard that the number of queries you should expect to write is somewhere between 100 and 250. However, if you're not getting the kind of response you're expecting there are a few things you can double check on. Basically, this is a list of things to consider that might indicate whether you should keep going or stop.

  1. You can find someone who has had success in the industry and see if there's a flaw in your query letter. A lot of writing conferences will present you opportunities to do this if you network well. And a lot of these conferences will have sessions on how to write good query letters or what not to do. If it's a problem with your query letter, well, that should be a 1 pager problem. Much easier to solve. Keep sending those Queries out.

  2. It is possible you haven't done your research and are applying incorrectly or to the wrong people. Are you sending your query to agents and editors who work with your target audience? This requires looking at acknowledgements in books, websites of the people you have been sending queries to. If you're breaking the rules on an agent's website, they won't read your work. If you send a horror novel to a romance agent, they won't read your work. If you've been sending to the right people and you've sent it out to tons of them, there may be a problem with the work itself.

  3. Perhaps its the story you are actually presenting. Consult writing friends who have had more success. A query letter is not necessarily your entire book. It should represent an interesting hook that gets the person to want to request and read pages. It should not obfuscate or betray what your work is, but it should be engaging. Maybe you wrote your query about the wrong things. Write a new query and keep going.

  4. Maybe your work itself has flaws and the query letter is an indicator of that. Today, publishers and agents want finished works that are ready to sell. You can find freelance editors and the like. If you really believe in your work, maybe you're willing to put some money down. This isn't for everyone and anyone reading this should think long and hard before doing it. There are a lot of people who want to make a dollar. Finding a good editor who can actually help you may not be easy. Finding one who won't lie to you and treat you like a vanity project might be difficult. But it could be productive. It could also be expensive and a waste of money. But it's a way to know and possibly grow. Just because you've finished a book doesn't mean you've written a good one and there are plenty of writing groups who like the ability to give constructive feedback.

  5. Try to hand sell your work at a conference. If you can't pitch it verbally, there's probably something wrong with your query. It may become obvious based on the questions people ask. Maybe you're saying the wrong things. Maybe you're confusing. Maybe something doesn't translate or you are leading your prospective audience in the wrong direction.

  6. Find that friend who is brutally honest, appreciates the kind of work you are tyring to write, and has plenty of time to read and ask them: Do you think this should be on a book store shelf? If they can't tell you no, they aren't the right person to ask. If they tell you it needs more work, listen to them. Make sure you're ready for this. It might be world shattering.

  7. Ask yourself: Is my time best spent trying to propagate this work or the next one one I'm planning to write? If you've hit the kind of numbers people have talked about and revision hasn't gotten you anywhere; editing hasn't gotten you anywhere; and you're not getting bites it's probably time to consider moving on. You can double down on the project again. You can go back and do more re-writes. But it's possible the story you have is either flawed or too hard to sell. Think about what you've learned. Think about what you could write that might be easier to sell. And, if you're not totally in love with what you've been doing, put it in a trunk and move on. You can always use elements of what you've done in the past that are unpublished in future works.

1

You stop pushing a particular work when you cannot think of new opportunities to do so. You resume pushing it when you have the opportunity to do so.

While rejections or being ignored hurt they rarely come with actual cost attached. So neither is a reason to give up. As long as you think there is a chance of a positive result go for it. What level of chance you think worth pursuing is up to you.

And unless the novel has an expiration date on it why would you not try again later? You already did work on it, paid most of the cost, why not try to get something for it? What publishers and agents want changes over time because the market changes. There are even fads where something is suddenly very popular and stuff that year before would have been thrown away is suddenly worth working on.

Just wait long enough for something to actually change. If you cannot think of a reason to rewrite the query due to something changing, the result probably won't change. Changes with your target, reworking of your work, changes on the market, or realizing your previous queries were really bad, something else... If it is relevant to what you write on a query and has enough impact on it to be worth an actual rewrite of the query, you might as well just send the query.

0

It is maybe off topic answer but I got a friend of mine in a similar situation some years ago. This answer is based on what he did and it is a personal experience that maybe can't apply in your case. He refused to let down, he created a small company, and invest his own money to a professional printer to get 500 copy of his book, then he manages to get some library to put his books on shelves. Luckily the book sold well and he gets noticed by an edition company.

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