Friday, October 16, 2009

Agency Policies

I have a question about why most agents auto-delete queries that are mass mailed or are simply titled, "Dear Agent."

Let me give you a short scenario:

Writer Mary has written her book. Is it any good? Maybe. Mary does all the stuff most agents recommend, she goes to critique groups, polishes her manuscript, researches all the good websites for how to write a compelling query letter, and then decides to query.

Now, we all know that 999 out of 1,000 times, her query is going to be rejected. She may have issues with the query letter, issues with her writing, or the story just isn't currently marketable (or a thousand other things). Fair enough, and I think most writers realize that these ARE the stats. So do agents. You ladies both know how the slush pile works better than I, or any other writer does.

So by agents stating online that they want a personalized letter, they are telling every writer out there to spend hours on EACH agent they choose, knowing they are still going to be rejected by almost every one of them.

So often I hear agents say things like, "It's all about the writing." Okay, fabulous. Well then, why do agents care about the heading of the query so much and not the meat? Does the heading always pre-qualify the story? If Mary has written an extremely well thought out query letter and written prose that could knock the socks off anyone, but she puts "Dear Agent" or mass mails it to multiple agents, they won't even read her query. On first blush, that smacks of hubris. It seems to uphold the fallacy that agents are prima donnas and simply must have a personalized query to stroke their egos.

But most agents I have spoken to/emailed weren't like that. So I am confused why agents want a writer to spend so much time doing something that's going to get them nowhere and why the focus is taken off the actual story and writing and onto something the doesn't really matter anyway. Agents know writers are going to query multiple agents.

I can only think of one good reason, but it doesn't address the issue for the reason.

I'm sure in your history, you've found that people who send out mass mailings do it without concern of which agent gets what story. They'll send their medical mystery to agents who only accept non-fiction or science fiction. The notion would be, "Well, if they don't care enough to personalize, then they probably don't care enough about their writing." But by telling writers not to generalize their query and not mass mail, you're not addressing this particular issue. People who do that, don't read up on the proper way to query anyway and will continue to do the same thing. I suppose that it does give you one more easy out for a query in the slush, but it almost seems a ridiculous rule.

Is this merely a way to try and stave off the ridiculous amounts of query letters you folks get? I can't imagine it would work. That slush pile is like your credit card bills: it just keeps coming at you.

I will continue to spend around 30-60 minutes on each agent I send to, and still garner the 99% rejection rate, but it would be easier to just craft one package and send it out.

I included the author’s entire question here because I like the short scenario. I also think that the author was sincere in asking the question and not at all attempting to be snarky.

Sometimes I’m honestly not 100% sure why I do things until called to explain. What I do know is that there is always a reason and in the end it’s what works for me. Before answering the actual question, let me fill you in on a little agent secret. We don’t actually expect each individual query to be personalized beyond much more than the name. In other words, once you craft a solid query you should be able to simply cut and paste that query into the email and add the agent’s name to the top. Yes, I know that still takes longer than writing one general “Dear Agent” query and adding 50+ names in the “to” section of your email, but that’s the way it is.

So why are we so demanding? No, it’s not about stroking the ego, that’s what this blog is for [insert grin here and prepare for angry anti-agent backlash], it’s about professionalism and making things a little harder on you. When I started in publishing, email did not exist (in publishing). Authors who wanted to query were required to write (typically type at that point) an individual query letter, place it in an envelope, add a stamp, and mail the old-fashioned way. In other words, it took a little bit of work, which meant that only those who were really serious would make the effort. Now we have email and everyone and their mother is writing a book and haphazardly sending it off to agents. You nailed it when you said that it’s a way to stave off the amount of queries; it’s also a way to ensure that people actually need to think about the queries they are sending.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had to send out resumes (and let’s hope it continues to be a long, long time), but I remember back in the day working hard on both my resume and cover letter. I would agonize over every little word and each formatting indentation. Each cover letter was personalized to the person and company I was submitting to. Sometimes I would simply change the name and other times I would add a line or two that gave it a little extra oomph. I think of queries the same way: you are trying to impress someone and in doing that you are hopefully putting your best foot forward. If you send a query to everyone and their mother and I can obviously see that by all the names at the top of the email, it shows that you only want to do the minimum required to get the job. It makes me wonder if you feel the same way when it comes to revisions and the writing of your book in general.

I hope I properly answered the question. What I can tell you, though, is that if Writer Mary really spent that much time crafting a query, she isn’t mass mailing to 50+ agents at a time. She’s too serious about her writing career to do that. Those who send out the mass queries typically think publishing is easy and haven’t bothered to learn otherwise.



Kimber Li said...

Yep, I figured it was all about a shortcut to learning if the author was serious, professional, *had read submission guidelines,* and was willing to do the work.

Although it may seem insulting to get nothing but a form rejection after all the work and time we put into it, the statistics do add up. And, besides, a form rejection letter is bliss compared to no response at all.

Jim Bronyaur said...

Great post here! The good news is that those who think it's easy and figure by sending to 100 agents at least one will want it, they will learn a hard lesson (as did I). The bad news is that agents will still be flooded with queries and proposals that aren't good.


Hillsy said...

How little time does a writer have? I mean really? You can devote 2 months to 5 years of free time writing a novel and you can't find the time to send out 100 individual e-mails (with a different name and a sentence changed to reflect that agency) rather than 1 mail to 100 recipients.

Hell, I wouldn't do that when going for any other job. My CV doesn't change but I put in a paragraph aligning my skills to the job, which is much more than you need to change in a query letter, and can still pump out 20 in an evening.

I'm the laziest sod in the world but I don't want a prospective employer to know that. It looks professional for christs sake, you want it to stand out from the rest....

.......hang on a minute.

Actually can everyone ignore the advice and mass send their queries from now on? It's so much easier you know.


Jarred McGinnis said...

For me, I just invested 1000+ hours getting a manuscript worthy of showing to people not related to me. Spending an hour or so investigating an agent and crafting a few personal sentences to communicate that effort is a minor investment of time. Frankly I would encourage more agents to blindly delete Dear Agent emails. It puts my work a little closer to the top of the slush.


Anonymous said...

"I think of queries the same way: you are trying to impress someone and in doing that you are hopefully putting your best foot forward."

I don't agree with the above statement. I believe that the way a writer puts his/her best foot forward is by writing really, really well,not by honing the perfect query.

I realize that agent-as-gatekeeper is the system that currently controls most of publishing and that agents consider the query letter, a non-fiction document, to be representative of the writing skills of the submitting novelist. Say what?

(BTW - some agents are skipping the query letter altogether, asking, instead, for contact info, genre, word count, a brief synopsis and a sample of the writing. They state right on their websites that the query letter doesn't tell them a thing, is a waste of time when it comes to evaluating a novel.)

Frankly, I can write a phenomenal query letter -- After working as a technical writer/marketer for a computer company, I can knock off a fetching business letters, summarizing, selling my product, with my eyes closed -- but that skill doesn't necessarily translate into high quality fiction writing. I've been working at that for years.

Yes, I know you're going to say that most agents ask for pages. If that's the case, then why are you wasting everyone's time demanding they write a skillful query letter. The number of blogs, websites and tutorial sessions at writers' conferences devoted to writing the perfect query are absurd.

Fortunately, endeavors like Smashwords is making small inroads to a system, while dominant for now, is grossly flawed. (This is solely my opinion and is based on the dearth of good reads compared to 20 years ago,again just MHO.)

I really don't believe that query writing and fiction writing skills are interchangeable. And if that is true, with the publishing industry on its knees, isn't it time to think outside the box, if not for the sake of writers, for the sake of the reading public?

I say ditch the query letter, ask to see the writing. Think like a reader browsing books: read the first few pages and if they grab you, read the synopsis/pitch.

kitty said...

Anonymous says: **(BTW - some agents are skipping the query letter altogether, asking, instead, for contact info, genre, word count, a brief synopsis and a sample of the writing. They state right on their websites that the query letter doesn't tell them a thing, is a waste of time when it comes to evaluating a novel.)**

But anonymous--"contact info, genre, word count, [and] a brief synopsis" IS a query letter!

As for why a query letter is needed when an agent could dive right into sample pages without it: it's needed for context. It's why you read the back (or flap) of a book in the bookstore, not only the first page. And also, in a bookstore, you've already been given cues, by the location and cover, of genre. A query letter fills in those blanks.

Hillsy said...

Anon 9:02

The system is flawed, but it's the best we have that deals with time and commitment factors of agents in a world where more and more people are expressing themselves (arguably less skillfully, but I'm not going to deal with that).

Yes it would make sense to choose fiction writing over non-fiction. In fact the utopian idea is that an agent reads the entire manuscript before deciding. That's just not feasible. 200 e-mails a day sometimes, 5 days a week, crammed around the wants and needs of existing clients. If you reduce a 5 page sample of writing into a half page query letter, that's a 90% saving on time. AND it gives you a better overview of a book. What if the first 5 pages of your book are below par but the other 395 are mustard? Is THAT fair??

Yes it's illogical, yes it's flawed, but then again so is reading a CV to employ an accountant. What use are his verbal skill going to be in his job? The IDEAL thing to do would be to interview everyone who applied. But you don't have time so you paper sift using a semi-logical method.

I agree that unnecessary nit-picking on anything is destructive. Having the word count after the synopsis paragraph and NOT before for example seems excesive. Disliking "Thankyou for your time" - I think it was Rachel Vater who blogged she hated to read that. That's daft

But until someone can construct a method whereby agents can paper sift book proposals more thoroughly and assessing the necessary skills, or better still stretch time so each day is 35 hours long so they can read every MS thoroughly, We're stuck with it.

And it still stands that if you HAVE to write a query letter, you'd still take some pride in the damn thing....haha

Anonymous said...

The analogy I think of is to my spam folder-- these people haven't even bothered to find out who I am. They haven't even bothered to find out if my body contains the parts that they are promising to enlarge!

Anonymous said...

Addressing a query letter with the agents name is going to be the easiest thing you do in publishing.

It's not as hard, as say, writing the book, and then revising, revising, revising, revising some more. It's not as hard as taking a look at that book, realizing its crap, and then starting over with a new book, that's more marketable or has a better core concept.

If your biggest problem is having to address your query to an actual person, then I don't know what to say.

Anonymous said...

If it took ELEVEN paragraphs to ask why you should bother to personalize a query, it might be the length of your query that are garnering the 99.9 percent reject rate -- not the fact that they haven't been personalized enough(though you should not say "Dear Agent").

I'm not being snarky at all, so please don't take it that way. Visit Janet Reid's site called Query Shark if you want to see examples.

kitty said...

Please, please--just pick a name! You can call yourself anything you want--Squirrel Boy or Rocket Chops or just something from a "Name the Baby" book--but specify yourself. It looks like someone called Anonymous is talking to themselves.

You can do this by choosing "name/URL" and just typing a name and ignoring the URL part.

Dara said...

I just wonder what the big deal is about taking a few extra minutes to do a little research on an agent you're querying. I don't think agents are expecting you to memorize their career biography :P Nor do I thin they want to read that in the query!

Personally, I'd spend hours researching agents because I want to make sure I'm querying one that would be ideal in representing my manuscript, rather than mass emailing and getting an agent that's impersonal and not helpful.

I think a little time spending researching agents goes a long way. I mean, I spend months--perhaps years--writing my novel, why not spend a few hours doing agent research?

The Swivet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Swivet said...

The most important reason that I delete unread queries that don't follow submission guidelines and/or are addressed to a generic person or no one at all is this: I must know how able you are as a writer to take direction and follow instructions.

If you can't follow the most basic of instructions ("Please address the query to a specific agent") then how are you going to be able to deal with 14 pages of detailed editorial notes and revision instructions for your first revision from an editor? How will you be able to keep to set of publishing deadlines?

The ability to take direction is crucial as a professional writer.

So why not do anything I can to weed out those who don't know how to do so?

Vivi Anna said...

Good answer Jessica. Your comparison to a resume is spot on.

It's all about professionalism.

This is a career, a job, and should be respected as such.

Catherine Bybee said...

*scratching head*-- Really? People send a generic query to 50 agents? I can't imagine doing that ever. Unlike some of the comments here, I don't think a query letter is something to do away with... Synopsis's * or is it Synopsi? LOL.. Those are an entirely different story. *sigh

Well, I'll just keep personalizing my queries. Make sure the agent I'm sending it to is interested in Paranormal Romance, and keep on plugging.

JDuncan said...

Does it take time to personalize the query? Sure, but not much. It honestly only takes a few minutes to look up an agent and what they are looking for. Even with a list of 50 agents you're only talking about a few hours. After all of that time and effort to write the novel, it's a drop in the bucket, and honestly it's not asking much of the writer to make that effort.

The other fact is, agents just don't have the time to read pages from every person who submits. Writers who think agents need to do so are just ignorant of the fact that they simply cannot do it. They only have time for those they feel are closest to what they are looking for. They are looking for authors who write well and are someone they would want to invest the time and effort in having a working relationship with. Would you want to bother with someone who couldn't invest in the minimal effort to check out who you are and what you are looking for? That's not a good start for beginning a business together.

Agents need to have ways to quickly cull out those they know wouldn't be a good fit for them, and "Dear Agent" is one of the easiest. Don't give them a reason to say "no" right off the bat. It's bad business.

writergrrl said...

I agree with Anon 10 AM. If you've crafted a solid query (note that I didn't say "perfect" because there really is no such thing), and are targeting agents in your genre, your request rate should be higher than 1%. Something is amiss with your query or opening pages.

Paul Greci said...

As a writer with an agent, my book will be out on submission soon, I'd like to say that it pays to not only personalize your query but also make it the best it can be.

I mean, after all, you've written a book, poured your heart and soul into it. For me, I wanted to make sure that every query I sent out had the best chance I could give it for getting positive attention.

When I hit that send button I wanted to know that I was sending my best because the statistics are staggering, overwhelming, discouraging.

So I worked and worked on my letter, and I personalized everyone of them the best I could. Just doing the research to see if I wanted to query a particular agent usually gave me what I needed personalize a query.

I had no idea what kind of results I'd get. I got a high request rate, double digit full ms requests from just a query, no sample pages, and several offers of representation. I don't think I would have gotten any of it without a good query. I had a one sentence summary plus a very brief back cover copy. If anyone wants to read my log line and cover copy check out my blog under the page: Placement.

It worked for me and one of the reasons it worked was because I educated myself reading blogs like Jessica's.

Unknown said...

A massmail to "Dear Agent" says I'll take anybody. "Dear Jessica" (or Nathan, or Kim, et al) says I want YOU. That speaks volumes.

Another one of the many (many, many) reasons to send small batches of individual personalized queries instead of one broad general query to 50+ people is that it gives you the chance to revise and react. If 99 out of 100 agents are rejecting you at the query stage, you need a better query.

"Better query" doesn't mean you spend hours making it a brilliant piece of standalone art. "Better query" means you set out the basic information about the book in an appealing way that piques the agent's curiosity. The implied question is "why should I care about this book"? If your query doesn't answer that, it is a bad query. And that has nothing to do with your credits or your sentence structure or the other parts of the letter folks obsess over.

You're doing the research anyway, right? You know what type of fiction these agents are looking for? Take the extra few minutes to type "I see from your website you're looking for gritty urban fantasy (or whatever) with a unique voice." And type "Jessica" in the salutation. That's all.

As a published author you will be asked dozens, even hundreds, of times to sum up your book in a compelling way that makes a reader think ooh, I want to read that. Think of your query the same way. It isn't a hoop or a hurdle or test or a trick. It's practice.

Rebecca Knight said...

I absolutely agree w/ those comparing it to a resume--only this is a resume for our Dream Job. We should want to put our best foot forward from the get go!

Also, it's true that I want to research agents for myself. I want the agent to be a good fit from the start. I think people who blast queries out to whoever are doing themselves a disservice.

Tara McClendon said...

There's a fine line between using a personal name (which shouldn't take too long to find) and trying to learn enough to kiss up.

jjdebenedictis said...

Another reason not to mass-email agents is you may later decide you want to polish your query letter and/or first pages.

If Mary gets rejected by 999 out of 1000 agents, something is seriously lacking in either her book or her presentation of the book. She should send out 5 queries, then--if they all come back as rejections--consider tweaking things before querying another 5 agents.

I queried about 25 agents before someone kindly pointed out my opening scene wasn't working. I rewrote it, and got an offer of representation from my next batch of queries.

Unknown said...

Jael said:

"As a published author you will be asked dozens, even hundreds, of times to sum up your book in a compelling way that makes a reader think ooh, I want to read that. Think of your query the same way. It isn't a hoop or a hurdle or test or a trick. It's practice."

And that is the flat-out best reason to write a good query that I've seen yet. Not that all the other reasons aren't relevant, but this one brings out the fact that there's a strongly practical issue involved, and that you're going to be doing this over, and over, and over....

Anonymous said...

I don't want to oversimplify, but if it's really about "Dear Agent" then put your agent list in excel and do an email merge with first names.

Mr. Stupid Writer said...


It's me.

Yes, the "me" who wrote the original letter to Jessica.

Thanks all for the good feedback. And don't get me wrong, I completely agree with most all of you. I do think it's putting your best foot forward, and I do know that you have to craft a solid query. My concern wasn't with how well the query is written, is was with the dear agent and mass mailings.
I have no plans to change the way I query agents. (And yeah, I do spend a lot of time on each agent.) But let's be realistic, for all the unwashed masses of writers out there, most would take any agent that even looked their way. So the old adage of "I want an agent who I will fit with." is not a terribly compelling statement. Especially when you've had the first 50 agents tell you "no" and the 51st calls you with an offer to represent. Now from an agent's perspective this makes more sense. They want writers who aren't jackasses. (Oh, and I love agents. They are one of the few pieces of the publishing industry that don't do their jobs for just the money. They do it for the Love of the Craft. I find that admirable.)

Now, all of that being aside. I have one more item that I've noticed. And I think every agent out there will agree with me. Most of the time, when you get one agent who wants to represent you--you get a lot more than just one. If you're good, you're good, and most agents recognize that. I mean, that's their job afterall. Why do I bring this up? Simply because I feel there is a fat, wide line between those who query and get lost of requests for more, and those who query and get all passes. But that's a whole nother topic.

Thanks again everyone for the good feedback and especially thanks to Jessica for taking time to answer it. Jessica, your reasonings were pretty much what I already guessed (and knew). I wanted to make sure there wasn't any other reason out there. You were right, I intended no snark, and it was an honest question. So thanks again.

Anonymous said...

But anonymous--"contact info, genre, word count, [and] a brief synopsis" IS a query letter!

I don't agree. A one page synopsis is very different from the pitch in a query.

"The system is flawed, but it's the best we have"

There's nothing "best" about wasting everyone's time. I believe you meant to say it is the ONLY system we have.

Here's what I was trying to say in my original post (anon 9:09) and because my brains were mashed potatoes this morning thanks to the cold from hell, did not say very succinctly:

No more query letters. Period.

Writers should be sending the first two or three pages of their manuscript along with contact info.

If an agent flips out after reading those pages, he or she can move onto the one-page synopsis which should be part of the initial contact package. The agent will then see (hopefully) that the writeru can, in fact, write their way out of a paper bag and that they've come up with something original and coherent for a story line.

Throw in a couple of lines about your writing credentials, if it makes you feel good and you know it to be important to that particular agent, and include your name/email/phone number and then call it a day.

Agents: stop wasting everyone's time. Dare to think outside the box. I'm betting everyone will be a lot happier because you'll have a system that makes some kind of sense.

Nicole said...

I take plenty of time to research both the agency and the agents in order to know who will want to see what, and who might be the best fit for my work.

And that's fine.

What annoys me is when there is NO information. Sure, they have a website, but the agents don't say what genres they take. Some places don't even offer up guidelines, which baffles me. Yes, I could email them, but doesn't that mean more letters to them when they already have oodles from people querying?

I'll personalize till the cows come home - but at least give enough information for me to do so!

jjdebenedictis said...

Agents: stop wasting everyone's time. Dare to think outside the box. I'm betting everyone will be a lot happier because you'll have a system that makes some kind of sense.

From the agent's point of view, the current system makes sense and changing it would be what wastes time.

All the brow-beatings you can deliver won't change a thing unless you come up with a system the agents like better.

Whether you like it or not isn't the issue.

Sierra Godfrey said...

For a long time I have said that query letters are equivalent to cover letters that go along with a job application. They all come down to one thing: professionalism. When I was in the position to hire a writer years ago, the people who blasted cover letters out without any thought were judged on that. It said to me that they didn't care enough about the company to personalize or customize. Now, why would I want to hire someone like that? Same goes for agents: if you don't care enough to put your best foot forward in a query letter, then why would an agent want to champion your book?

Professionalism, preparedness, showing you can follow direction, and most important of all: showing that you are not mass mailing crap out are what your query letter says--between the lines.

I have zero problem with the current query process. I think it works well.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Anon-- Writers should be sending the first two or three pages of their manuscript along with contact info.

I don't think agents have that kind of time.

nightwriter said...

Q: I hear differing viewpts re: queries: 1)to get to the point and 2) to personalize. How can you do both? I always send my queries out one at a time, formatting the e-mail like a biz letter, but I quit explaining why I picked that agent and went straight to the pitch.

Now I hear you have to "personalize" it--how personal do you mean? Naming clients & books they represent or what? I'm still being ignored when last year I had same-day requests, including one from Bookends. I know how to write queries, so what gives??

Sabrina Favors said...

jjdebenedictis, I absolutely agree with what you say in reply to Anon 9:02. "Ditching" query letters might save time for writers, but not agents. They're the ones receiving hundreds of emails a week.

A paragraph summary -is- different from a page-long synopsis, but agents need something short to read in order to evaluate whether the story sounds interesting, is something they represent, and to get a beginning sense of how well the prospective client writes, without taking up too much time.

Also, agents vary in their requirements, so some do want sample pages and a 1-2 page synopsis. Personally, I don't believe the query letter is disappearing anytime soon, so people should make the most of the process as it is now. Just IMHO, though.

Jay said...

It's true that eMail queries are far easier - almost too easy - than the snail mail way of life. I don't mind making sure I get the agent's name in the letter. Why not? I've spent long enough making sure I've got the right agent.

I sort of agree that once you get a query crafted, which in and of itself can take quite a long time, you can reuse it. But because I spend the time to ensure I know as much about the agent as I can, I sometimes tailor the query a little bit if I've got something relevant to say to that agent in particular.

Jemi Fraser said...

More great advice! Thanks, Jessica :)

ksclay said...

I really don't understand how anyone can think it's too much work to address their queries to specific agents. I mean it's just plain professionalism.

Stina said...

I don't bother to read mail addressed to Dear Occupant, so why would I expect an agent to be any different with a Dear Agent query? When I query an agent, I've already spent time researching them, so what's the big deal in spending a few more moments to personalize the letter, even if it's just their name. Sounds to me like the individual doesn't even know anything about the agents he or she is querying. Just like the company who sends me Dear Occupant junk.

kitty said...

Anonymous says *I don't agree. A one page synopsis is very different from the pitch in a query.*

Good grief, of course it's different in that one is longer. But they both describe the story. I can't think of any reason on earth you object to providing a simple story description. (And if you have a good synopsis, you should be able to adapt a shorter story description pretty easily from there.)

You claim that query letters are pointless, yet you agree that the agent requires all the info queries provide (contact info, word count, genre and *story description*).

I'm finding it hard to figure out what you're objecting to. Is it really that hard to write "Dear such and such" at the top and "Sincerely, me" at the bottom? Because that's the only difference between the revolution you propose (sample pages + wordcount, genre, contact info & story description) and the current setup.

Anonymous said...

"The most important reason that I delete unread queries that don't follow submission guidelines and/or are addressed to a generic person or no one at all is this: I must know how able you are as a writer to take direction and follow instructions."

Twice this year, I misaddressed equeries to agents whose stable of writers would make any author drool. One of the two was addressed to a Mr. instead of a Ms., thanks to misinterpreting their first name and not taking time to google far enough to find out their gender. In the other, I was bleary-eyed from a long day of writing and forgot to change the name on my equery template.

Of course I thought I'd never hear back from either agent. Surprise! One wrote a personal rejection with advice on how to improve the first 3 pages I had included. The other (the one with the incorrect name) asked for a partial, graciously signing the request with their "real" name. Of course I was mortified about the name mistake and apologized in the cover letter I included with the partial. (Haven't heard back yet.)

Obviously, given the choice (my lips to God's ears,)I'd much prefer working with the agent who was more interested in my writing ability than whether or not I could jump through a series of hoops to prove I was worthy of representation.

Sylvia said...

I am pretty fussy about who I submit to (this might not last!) and I have a very good response rate. If you aren't getting partial requests and/or personal rejections then I daresay that's a straight-forward sign that your approach is too slapdash and thus your ratio will come out negatively.

To me, it's exactly the same as wearing a nice outfit to a job interview and being very careful about how I speak to the person interviewing me. I may be completely competent to do the job - in fact, the best person on the market! - but if I don't make a good impression at that stage, then it doesn't matter.

With my manuscript, I don't have the chance to sit across the desk and see what the person is like. So I do my research and write each one a letter based on what I found. They may not know it's personalised (i.e. I don't always mention something personal as it can sound stalkerish!) but they certainly know I didn't totally mistarget my pitch.

Wendy Qualls said...

I think it's important to remember that "agents reject 99.9% of queries" does NOT mean "I, an individual author, will have a 99.9% rejection rate." Realistically, a small percentage of authors will have an offer after one, two, or five queries - because if your book is that amazingly marketable breakout hit that every agent wants, you're going to be represented fast. There are other writers who will be rejected 274 times because they can't write worth a darn, and still come back with a 275th query.

So if you've been rejected more than a few dozen times, it's probably time to seriously revamp your query letter and your first few chapters. If you've been rejected more than a hundred times, you're probably better off shelving that particular book and starting on another one. But you, as an individual author, are not going to get a rejection from 999 agents and then get a "yes" from that 1000th agent.

That said, it's best to go into the query process assuming that you have what it takes to be that author who is snapped up right away - and that means putting the time and effort into deciding on dream agents, personalizing queries, etc. If you start querying with the assumption "I'm going to get rejected by nearly everyone," a reasonable agent will assume this is because you believe your writing isn't very good.

Melissa Blue said...

Simple instructions don't apply to every agency (I read Colleen's and even someone like me could follow them), but EVERY agency believes they have simple instructions. So I can understand the stance, but I can't get behind it 100 percent. In the midst of submitting your head can easily explode from the instructions given on the agencies website to instructions the agent gives in a recent interview on how to query them. Or instructions they have on their weblog.

Then again if the agent is someone I would give my left arm to have represent me, I'll jump through the hoops. Why would you settle for less? And why would you present anything but your best when it's your dream agent?

Anonymous said...

Everyone is throwing out random agent response rates that vary widely. Does anyone have a "real" rate for literary fiction based on solid data?

Lisa Desrochers said...

After reading the writer's question, I was left with the distinct impression that this writer queries with the expectation of getting rejected.

Granted, the stats are against us, but many of the "rejection" stats come from sub-par and unprepared writers. If your writing is solid, you should query with the expectation of having your manuscript requested.

My first project, I queried 18 agents and had five manuscript requests. For my second, which my agent is submitting tomorrow, I sent out 21 queries, had 12 requests and 4 offers.

I never once sent out a query to someone I hadn't researched extensively which, I'm convinced, is the reason for the high request rate. I also never once sent out a query I expected to have rejected.