Monday Musings: Realities in “Queryland”
Last Friday I was excited to share a new post about the upcoming contest, FALL FICTION FEST I’m hosting with Marty Mayberry and Michelle Hauck. While promoting the contest on Twitter, I used the hashtag #amquerying. I was curious to see what people were saying about being in the trenches these days so I scrolled through the thread. As I read, I gasped once, then twice. I couldn’t believe the amount of misinformation and non-reality based conversation I was reading.
Now, let me put this out there – I am NOT a literary agent. But, I have been in the query trenches more than I’d like to admit. I’ve been there, signed with an agent, been on submission, parted with an agent, sold two books, and been back into the trenches again. With this blog, I’ve also had the unique opportunity to interview dozens of writers about their publishing journey, and talk to agents about the process of querying and submitting those first pages.
Here are a few things based on my experiences and interviews I’ve learned about querying:
- ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS follow submission guidelines. Part of your job as a writer is to do your due diligence in researching each and every agent you want to query. This means going to the agency website and reading their submission guidelines thoroughly. If it says only submit to one agent at a time, then follow this rule. If it says a “no” from one agent is a “no” from all, then heed this directive. What I’ve heard from most agents is that a good portion of their slush pile gets deleted for these reasons:
- People do not follow submission guidelines
- Writers submit material the agent does not represent
Agents often say that if writers follow guidelines, and submit the proper category and genre, they are already rising in the slush pile. A well-written query, and an intriguing premise, will move you up higher. Don’t think that you can be one of those people who buck the system because it makes you stand out. What will happen is that your hard work will end up in the circular bin.
WORD OF NOTE: I’ve seen a few whispers about writers sending queries and manuscripts to agents’ private residences. DO NOT EVER DO THIS. The publishing world is very small. Agents talk. Just don’t do it. EVER.
2. Giving up too soon
I saw in the thread that people were quoting things like how many times TWILIGHT, HARRY POTTER, or THE HELP was rejected. Here’s a reality-check. First, you have to define whether those rejections came from agents or editors. This is important because it is the difference between being in the query trenches or being agented and on submission. The two are VERY DIFFERENT processes.
For the sake of our discussion here, let’s say we are referring to querying.
If you are talking about a writer getting 20 rejections in the query trenches and are alarmed, I’m here to tell you THAT IS NOTHING. Seasoned writers, who’ve been in the game a long time, will tell you it took numerous manuscripts, and most likely 100+ rejections, before they signed with an agent. The rare unicorn is the writer who signs their first manuscript quickly with very few rejections. Querying is a grueling process. If you want to be published, you have to be in it for the long haul.
Let’s say now that the quoted “12 or 15” rejections were about books being submitted to editors. Again, from experience, I’m here to tell you this number of rejections is LOW. And to be even more honest, I’m going to share this fact: many, many, many agented writers do not sell their first book. As hard as that is to hear, it’s a truth in this business.
My overall point here is that you should keep querying beyond 10,12, 15 rejections. Most people send out queries in batches of 5 or 10. If their query and submitted materials are not getting any bites, they go back and rework the query and those early pages. Once that’s done, they submit to 5 or 10 more agents on their list. Keep working and pushing through the process. I know people who signed with an agent after receiving 50, 75, even 100 rejections for the same book.
3. Nudging on requested materials
Most agency websites will share their reading timeline on requested materials. If they do not, the best rule of thumb is to err on the side of caution. You must take into account that the agent has other clients and requests they must juggle along with your submitted materials. The typical rule of thumb is not to nudge until after 12 weeks. My additional recommendation would be to nudge using the same email thread as the original request. By doing this, the agent has a frame of reference for your inquiry.
4. Having a bad agent is better than having no agent
The plain and simple answer here is NO. This goes back to something I talked about in number one. I know it’s hard to imagine that after you’ve slaved for months, maybe even years, on a manuscript that you still need to do more work, but it’s the truth. In order to get the best possible outcome, you need to figure out who is the best fit for your manuscript. This means taking your time to research and weigh who are the agents that might be a match for your work. There are many things to consider here:
- The agent’s sales record. How many books have they sold in your category and genre? Do they have a proven track record? The caveat here would be new agents. If they are with a reputable agency, and have a mentor they’re working with, they are still a viable choice. Every agent had to start somewhere and many times newer ones are eagerly looking to build their list.
- Their agency. Is this a one-man shop or a bigger business with many agents under their roof? There is nothing wrong with a one-man agency as long as that person is respected in the publishing community and has had a long run in the business with a proven track record of sales. If it’s a larger agency, often times if your query doesn’t work for one agent they may pass it on to another within the company.
- The idea that any agent is a good agent. This is certainly not true. There have been many incidences in the past where people have hung out a shingle without the proper qualifications. Again, do your research. Make sure you are sending your beloved work to someone with proven experience and who has your best interest at heart. Talk to other writers. Read up on agents in important periodicals like Writer’s Digest, Publishers Weekly, and Publishers Marketplace. This goes for contests too. Just because you get a request, it does not mean you should send your work right away. Look into that agent and their record before sending off your manuscript.
I love that Twitter has opened the conversation about the process of querying. What I would suggest is that you take each comment with a grain of salt. Talk to seasoned writers if you have questions. Read and keep up-to-date about changes in the publishing world. I know better than anyone the difficulties of this process, and I want to make sure you are getting honest information so you can avoid some of the common pitfalls.
As always, my comments are open if you have questions!