Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Email vs. Snail Mail Queries

I received a question lately from an author with an interesting experience. Rather than relay the entire story I’ll sum up (I hope you don’t mind). About four years ago this author had an experience with a psychological thriller where in the end she received eight offers of representation and signed with a heavy hitter. The book didn’t sell. Now she’s back at it (looking for a new agent) and wondering why nobody responds. She’s using the same “kick-ass pitch” so can’t understand it. Ultimately her question is whether or not email and the Internet have become so much more commonplace that agents don’t even bother to read their mail. Is it that or has competition become tougher?

I think it’s a number of things. First and foremost, I think it’s rude. You’ve heard me say it a million times before . . . it’s not my job to respond to queries. I know that more than anybody and stand by it. However, I think it’s rude when you send a resume or interview for a job and no one bothers to respond, and I think it’s rude when you query an agent and no one bothers to respond. It takes time. Don’t I know it? I get, personally, 100+ equeries every week. I imagine Jacky and Kim each get the same number. I also get requested proposal packages, full manuscripts, submission material from my clients, snail mail queries, contracts that need reviewing, the occasional unsolicited submissions . . . You get the picture. I’m busy. You know what? I’m not that busy. It takes me the same amount of time to hit delete on the email as it does to send off a response. Okay, I might lose a second here or there, but I think I can afford that second or two, and if I can’t, well, I should quit this blog first.

Wow! That was a crazy rant. Back to the point of this post . . .

I think that email has made it too easy for authors. Crafting a good/great query has gone by the wayside. I now get equeries that actually say, “I’ve written two great children’s books. Would you like to see them?” So many things are wrong with that I can’t even begin to count. I think people have somehow decided that the best way to achieve fifteen minutes of fame is to write a book. As one very close friend of mine once said, “How hard can it be?” I think that despite all of the literary agents out there, competition between authors is tougher. I also think that the fact that all of the publishing houses have combined means that there are fewer places to really sell books, meaning competition is tougher on our end and we need to be pickier (thank goodness).

I also think that on a personal level you need to consider that times have changed. You didn’t mention what type of book you’re selling now, but four years is a long time in the publishing industry and it’s very, very possible that the book you’re selling right now isn’t as marketable as the book you were selling four years ago.

There’s no easy answer to this question, but to be proactive I think you need to first look at your book, your pitch, and your query. You might also want to re-evaluate the agents you’re pitching.

Jessica

23 comments:

Kiris said...

I think some people just don't understand that email is like any other method of communication. You don't talk to your boss or to an agent the same way you talk to your friend, and this applies to RL, letters, phone AND emails.

I'm from the internet generation. I got almost all my jobs so far by emailing my CV and I contact my boss and my teachers via email. But I know who I'm talking to, and I know how to be proper. When I get around to queries, I'll do it right.

On the flip side, being from the internet generation makes me roll my eyes at the idea of sending queries by snail mail. To me, it's like saying you prefer horses to cars. I have never sent a letter to anyone by mail so the idea is very strange.

December/Stacia said...

I have no problem with agents preferring snail mail queries, although I do query email accepters first simply because being in the UK means snail queries are difficult and expensive to send. Some agents do specifically state that if you're overseas you can forgo (why does that look wrong no matter how I spell it?) the SASE, which is helpful and appreciated.

But yes, I know it's time-consuming to reply to all email queries, but it isn't that hard to set up an F key macro for your form rejection. The problem with not responding to email queries is you leave the writer wondering if the query was received. How much time should they let pass before querying another agent at that agency (if guidelines permit?) Should they send it again, just in case? Etc. etc. It feels kind of bad to be rejected, but it feels worse to be ignored. (I could not query agents who say they don't respond if not interested but again, if you're limited to email queries you've got a fairly short list already.)

Aimless Writer said...

I'd definately agree that times change quickly in the publishing biz. Some genres pass like fashion trends. Are Vampires still in? Dog books? Will they be "in" by the time I finish this darn book?
I've sent queries and heard back within hours (email) and I've sent them and never heard anything. One agent actually responded almost a year later with an appology for taking so long. Long ago I decided not to worry about it. I figure if the agents want to see more, they'll ask. Beyond that, I just keep the focus on the writing, not the waiting.

Julie Weathers said...

Well, I'm from the horse-and-buggy days and personally, I prefer snail mail. There is something gratifying about putting together a pristine package to send to an agent. When I get a rejection back, it's something corporeal to add to my collection. Agents used to add a personal note sometimes. When they drop the self addressed stamped postcard in the mail on receipt of package, I know it's been received and I don't have to worry about that.

How am I going to wallpaper my office with e-mails? Yes, I know I can print them out, but it just isn't the same.

One of my goals in life is to own an illustrated Charlie Russell letter. Now there was someone who knew how to write a letter. Leeter writing is becoming a lost art. Told you I was horse-and-buggy.

I don't like e-mail queries, but I will do whatever an agent wants and try to follow their guidelines and preferences to the letter. It's tough enough out there without irritating them before they even read the query, partial or manuscript.

Marcille said...

Thank you for your rant.

Anonymous said...

Question:

Is it ever a good idea to bring out a manuscript that's already been rejected all over the place (including a truckload of partial requests), revise and polish it, and send out queries again?

Regardless of how polished it is or the changing market, the idea's already been rejected.

What say ye?

Kate H said...

I've been wondering something similar to the author you're answering, Jessica. About a year ago I sent out queries on my novel and received several requests for a partial and one request for a full, but no offers. I revised the book (for the umpteenth time) and about two months ago sent out another round of queries, using the same pitch. So far I've received only one request for a partial (from Kim, bless her!). I can't help wondering what's going on. The subject of the book isn't the kind of thing I'd expect to be subject to fads--it's just straight women's fiction. So the only things I can think of are (1) another book with a similar situation has recently sold or (2) I exhausted the list of agents who might actually be interested with my previous submissions. So I'm trying to concentrate on writing my second novel instead of obsessing about selling the first. At this point I think it might require divine intervention.

annawritedraw said...

I wish you did children's books. I have the same feeling about RSVP's. It is just common courtesy to respond. A communication requires the acknowledgment of the receiver.

green ray said...

Jessica, thanks for that rant. I love the way you put it. Personally, I can accept not hearing back from email queries; but I can't understand no response to a requested manuscript. Just today, I sent a very polite email to an agent who hasn't responded or answered my emails about a requested manuscript for 15 months, yes 15 months! I needed to take some power over this, and very politely said that if I don't hear back from her in a week, I will assume that she's not interested. I don't see how we could ever work together anyway under the circumstances, as I find this very rude. But maybe I'll get one of those "I'm so sorry" emails today. I'll be checking!

Anonymous said...

There may be several things going on:

The market has changed, so what was a fabulous query...not so much;

The type of book became too popular, and therefore has been done to death;

As someone mentioned, the book has been seen by too many people to be a viable project for an agent to take on.

Timing plays so much of a role with sales. I've seen books that are so-so go on to be great sellers because of that hook, that difference, because of timing. Something's happened in the news or in another part of pop culture. You never know what's going to drive the market.

A mistake was probably going to a big agency. Unless they sell that book within a month, you are at the bottom of the list. Better to go to a solid working agency (like BE) who focuses on sales rather than huge dealmakers.

And finally, in four years the writer should have written another book. Don't be a one-trick pony.

Jael said...

Does the query mention that the book's been previously represented? It makes sense that agents would be less willing to take on something that they know has already been shopped around. If it's already been rejected by editors at the major houses, there's not much more they can do with it... or, at least, it makes the selling harder, and they've got thousands of other queries for books that don't have that roadblock.

Kristin said...

I think not responding to equeries is a definite mistake that some agents make. Just because I am certain there are nuts out there who take a non-response as license to query again and again and again. Even for those agents who expressly say they don't respond if they aren't interested.

And you are right, a form rejection takes just as much work as hitting the delete key.

I prefer email queries, because I tend to get a faster response. Also, I don't have to waste paper and postage. Personally, I often wonder who opens and reads my snail mail query. The assistant? The mailroom guy? Does it just get left on a shelf or an in-box?

Somehow email feels more personal, like I am contacting the agent directly (I know there are some agents who have assistants reading the queries, though). And most of us spend a lot of time in front of the computer, so it is a lot faster to just click on an email and send a reject/accept rather than have to wade through an envelope with a bio sheet, first 3 chapters, query letter, SASE, etc.

I also prefer agents who like email queries, because it makes me feel like they are comfortable communicating via email and are technically savvy.

Josephine Damian said...

A bunch of writers from my group sent e-submissions and queries to a boutique press that gave a presentation to our group.

All but one were lost in the spam filter. If I hadn't followed up after 3 months, we never would have known.

I hate the idea of wondering did I not hear back because I was rejected or because the agent never got it to start with.

I still prefer snail mail with a SASE to email queries - I also see that writers get long winded and ramble in an e-query because there's no space constraints to force then to be succinct like there are in a one page paper letter.

Merry Jelinek said...

You know, I think it's common sense to write an equery with the same professionalism you'd use in snail mail.

I don't mind querying in either fashion, but I seem to be running into a lot of editors and agents who stipulate that they don't respond to equeries but do respond to snail mail... I don't actually understand this, except maybe they get less professional equeries from because so many people who aren't prepared just hit the email me button and shoot off something.

If they say they don't have time to respond, I tend to move them to the bottom of my list unless there's some stellar reason not to.

KERRY ALLEN said...

Most of the agents I queried who prefer snail mail request at least a few pages of the story along with the query. It appears, even if the letter itself is somewhat lacking, they'll at least glance at the pages since they're right there, and good pages can win them over.

Most of the agents I queried who prefer email want only the letter, and if their entire decision is based on that, it has to be stellar.

Needless to say, I've had better luck with snail mail despite the supplies and postage costs and the environmental impact and the increased turnaround time...

One very simple thing that could be done to improve the e-query process is set up an autoresponder to verify the email made it to the inbox. Only one agent I e-queried has that, and that's the only one I'm sure didn't get lost in cyberspace.

ORION said...

I always made my equeries exactly like a business letter. I do agree not only has the computer age made querying easier it has also made novel writing easier-
I will add the amusing note that if you title your project LOTTERY and put Query: LOTTERY in the subject line 99.9% of the time it will go straight to spam! Ask me how I know...

Karen Duvall said...

Email gets sucked into spam filters, snail mail gets lost in the mail. Same difference. I have no preference.

But in regard to agents who don't respond if they're not interested, I must say that I'm not interested in them representing my work. Such indifference to potential clients says a lot about the character of an agent, and I find this method of "rejection" highly unprofessional. I think these agents are shooting themselves in the foot because there are many serious writers with publishable work who will pass them right by. There are plenty of good agents out there, so why waste time on the ones who have a questionable attitude?

I've been hearing a lot of stories lately about authors signing with big name agents who thought their project would be a slam dunk sale, but when it didn't sell, they were ignored. I know this is a tough business, but I guess I'm wanting an agent with more compassion who's willing to work with me on building my career.

I was talking to a writer friend at dinner just the other night, and she said she's scared of her agent. But she's okay with that. She's a literary novelist and her third book will be out from Harper Collins in September. She has no relationship with her agent, they never talk, and she likes it that way. To each his or her own, huh? 8^)

JaxPop said...

Your primary post was top notch - as usual. The 'crazy rant' was another stellar example of the type of quality agent & terrific person that you must be(combined with your pitch critiques & otherwise helpful advice). It's obvious that you're not full of yourself & understand that most efforts are at least deserving of a form rejection allowing the writer to move on rather than wonder 'what if'. As I prepare to start the query process I've moved agents that say they respond only if interested to the bottom of my list but haven't eliminated them. Some of the 'instructions' come across as harsh or rude but in defense of the agents, it's because they keep seeing the same blatant failure to comply with the submission guidelines (just look at Nathan B's recent query stats - & he's a nice guy!). THAT has to be a major annoyance, if not an insult. I'm no expert, (obviously) but surmise that each query effort needs to be customized to meet the varying requirements of each targeted agent. If nothing else, it shows that you've done your due dilgence, & respect who the agent is & the work they represent. Sadly, I won't be submitting to Saint Jessica - wrong genre, but I'll continue to appreciate St. J's work coaching the newbies, the clueless, the stubborn & the confused. Thanks

inherwritemind1 said...

Okay, I might lose a second here or there, but I think I can afford that second or two, and if I can’t, well, I should quit this blog first.

I think it's very generous of you to have this blog and I appreciate it.

Diana said...

At a conference I attended this past fall, an experienced agent talked about the impact e-mail has had on her ability to turn around responses in a timely manner.

She said that before, she could generally get back to a writer in six to ten weeks. But e-mail has made it extremely easy for people to submit queries and partials. In some ways, this is great, because it reduces the paper in her office a little, but in other ways, it means she's getting far more e-mail queries from all over the world.

I am going to guess that, for some people, not having to spend the time and money to print out a query letter or a manuscript and drive to the post office and pay to mail a letter or package is like a license to not be as careful with it. In my own workplace, I notice that colleagues are much more likely to proof-read a memo, letter, newsletter, etc., if it is going to be printed out on paper then if it's being sent as an e-mail. Even though we are transitioning to paperless, I think we still place greater value - perhaps are even more likely to treat something as authentic - if it's actually on paper.

That said, I really appreciate being able to communicate via e-mail for the query letter stage, at least. It means that I have a time-stamped copy of every letter I've sent in my sent-mail box, and in a couple of cases, agents replied to me within a week.

Kaz Augustin said...

Not getting a reply wouldn't bother me. I'd just write them off and move on. It's all about supply and demand, isn't it?

My day-job is IT and pre-2001-tech-bust, recruitment agents would get back to me in literally minutes, enticing me with other jobs they had on their books that I might be interested in.

Post-2001, with 200 applicants for every project management position, I'm lucky if I even get an acknowledgement auto-reply. If a set of agents with more supply than demand in one industry don't care, why should a set of agents in a similar situation, but different industry?

Of course it lacks basic courtesy (and your blog is a rare breath of fresh air, Jessica), but people take the path of least resistance most of the time, and I'm at the stage where I've now had all expectations kicked out of me.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Well, I sent you a query and got no response, and I NEVER get responses to resumes sent out - ever. As in never. No complaints here. Silence says "No" just as eloquently as a personalized and engraved card from the local stationers. All that is required is to deliver the message. Wasting bandwidth need not be part of the process.

I answered a voice mail mssage from a technical recruiter a few days ago, and his response was that due to age discrimination in the high tech industry nobody would hire me. (I am over forty.) When I told him I was well aware of that, having been laid off for that very reason, he said: "Well, then, why did you return my call?" I said it was a courtesy, and his response was: "Are you kidding? NOBODY is courteous in this business." True enough. He thought I must have descended from Mars or something if I politely acknowleded his existence. I expected he would send the men in white coats at any moment, but they have not arrived yet.

I would submit that none of us are children anymore, and that we can certainly survive being ignored. Not worthy of a response means precisely the same thing as not worthy of publication, and it takes fewer words to get the message across.

Feel free to click on the "Delete" key if you agree.