Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Complaints or Excuses?

I frequently hear authors complain about the reasons their work is getting rejected and how strict agent guidelines are, making it so much more difficult to get published. But are these really valid complaints or just excuses?

I hate when people use the wrong name on a query. I actually don’t mind misspellings so much and understand how easy it might be to get Foust from Faust (Faust is correct, by the way), but am a little irked by Jennifer (a pet peeve) or Dear Sirs. That being said, it’s never, ever been enough to reject a query. I still read the blurb, I understand that mistakes happen, and frankly, I’ve had my own clients mistakenly call me Jennifer. It happens.

I hate mass queries. There’s just something wrong about seeing 50+ names in the “to” section of my email header; that being said, I understand, respect and encourage multiple submissions and understand why sometimes Janet Reid’s name ends up on my query letter (or are you just taunting me?). I won’t reject you for that. I’ll still read the dang query. C’mon!

I hate when I request a submission via email and the author doesn’t bother to read the clearly posted submission guidelines on the web site. It’s irritating when I have to reformat the submission so I can easily send it to my Kindle to read it. I’ve requested the material, I’m clearly interested, I would be an idiot to not take a little bit of effort to read it.

I think that before querying, authors should make absolutely sure the agent they are querying accepts the type of book they are querying. It’s a huge waste of your time and mine to send me a children’s picture book and my suggestion that you do research is, yes, part of the rejection, but also a suggestion that you make yourself look professional. It’s obvious when your book is so outside of an agent’s expertise that you have no idea how publishing works and probably haven’t done proper research on what it takes to write a book.

Word count does matter. That being said, if the book really, really sounds amazing I will request no matter the word count; however, it’s more than an industry standard, it’s an editing issue. Ninety-nine percent of the time a 30,000 word book needs an edit and yes, we know this because we’ve seen a lot of them and 30,000 words is just not enough to fill a novel.

Here’s the deal, you can blame the agents and their stupid guidelines and policies or you can take a serious look at what you’re doing and see if something needs to be changed. “Why am I not grabbing an agent’s attention?” should probably be your first question and it would be a lot more productive than saying, “agents are a bunch of idiots with stupid guidelines meant to hold an author down.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, getting published and staying published is hard enough without making it harder on yourself.



Carol Doane #pearlofcarol said...

Whenever possible I like to blame my dog. Ate the guidelines, dirty pawed it, or was just so darn cute I got side-tracked. There's no penalty for paying attention, and quite a few when we don‘t. Seems rather odd we don't do it better. I wonder how much adrenalin is expelled seconds before the click of the send button that should be re-routed into purposeful review, instead of dawdling in that fantasy, “I’m finally ready.”

Erin Cabatingan said...

I've always found it interesting that people get mad at agents. I really, really want an agent. I've come close, but not quite close enough. But I'd much rather work with an agent than try and do it myself. I love to write, and although I think that I probably could--eventually--figure out all the contracts and stuff with an editor, why would I want to do that? It sounds so boring. I'd much rather be able to write and have someone else do all that yucky stuff I don't want to deal with.
I want someone there to help me, someone I can easily ask questions. Someone who can worry about the mounds of money I'll obviously be making (that's said with some hopeful sarcasm) and everything else I don't want to worry about so I can focus on my writing.

I've never been bothered by the guidelines. In fact, they're nice because by following them, it's one less decision I have to make, one less thing to worry about.

kah said...

Have faith. There are those of us that ARE respecting guidelines. I've been editing my book from over 145k words down to 114k (still cutting). And its because I DO respect the advice of agents and try to educate myself on what the publishing companies are looking for. Some of us aren't making excuses. We promise!

Anonymous said...

I'm really surprised so many people get guidelines mixed up. IT's so easy to access the correct info online..

Mark Terry said...

It's an interesting phenomenon. I don't know if it's an art thing or it's just common all over. If you want to go to law school, you have certain things you have to do and certain approaches you have to make. Same with med school, dental school or any school. If you're applying for a job, you have to fill out the company's application the way they want to, show up for the job interview at the appropriate time and place and dress appropriately and fill out more paperwork, take a physical, sometimes a drug test, blah, blah, blah.

By and large, publishing is asking you to act professional, follow somewhat broad guidelines, and generally speaking gives you a fair amount of leeway in how you approach them, in order to take a look at your work.

Yet for some reason--possibly ignorance, possibly arrogance and quite possibly both (hell of a combination)--an awful lot of people think they're exceptions and can do what they want and agents and the publishing industry will just say, "Oh never mind, we recognize how brilliant you are, come on in."

Anonymous said...

Oh Jennica or Jessifer.(oops, couldn't help myself)
Jessica, this seems to be the ongoing thread of that cirlce of "publishing these days." So many people think they have that next great novel and are too lazy or too ignorant to do the research and understand the industry, let alone the submission guidelines.
I have two mss ready for the query jump, but I would never send them to you or any other agent that represents your genre. The mss are memior and YA fantasy. (I read your blog every day because you teach about the process and the industry.)
If somone created the next greatest kids board game she wouldn't shop it around a clothing manufacturer or a sporting goods company.
It's pretty simple to find, read and follow submission guidelines, but only if the writer is serious.
I couldn't do your job--I'd trash everyone of those @%$&!'n lazy, ungrateful, childish and misdirected submissions in a hearbeat.

Kevin McDonald said...


I stumbled across your blog several months ago, and I'm glad I did. I've never posted, being content to read your articles and reinvigorate my dream of publishing my novel.

To be honest, after reading years of horror stories about the publishing process, I had nearly resigned myself to editing and formatting my novel myself and giving it away for free. Why endure the pain and suffering of the publishing process if all I really want is an audience?

Your blog has helped changed my mind. I appreciate the last few articles in particular - not only because they offer "valuable tips," but because you come across as human, sincere, and even fallible. It's tremendously comforting to find someone like you on the other side of this game.

I can't wait to query you some day. You're the only agent on my "list," and I'm comfortable with that. It may or may not be a fit, but at least I already know I'll rest easy waiting to find out.

--Kevin L. McDonald

Anonymous said...

What if do you follow all the guidelines but the agent ignores your ms? I got a same-day request for a partial, spent a week writing a synopsis and preparing the partial for snail-mail, including published works,
then the agent sat on the ms. for months? Then when I try to nudge, it immediately gets rejected (without any explanation, of course). So what's up w/ that?

I have fulls out w/ various agents who passed their promised deadlines but I'm afraid to nudge for fear of rejection. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't...

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Jessica,

Speaking of things you hate....

Writers are encouraged to query in (small) bunches. Writers are asked to send requested pages in a timely fashion while the agent is still interested. Writers are told never to send full manuscripts to more than one person at a time.

My question has always been, how does the writer respond to an agent asking for the full manuscript when another agent already has it in hand?

"I'll get that to you as soon as Janet Reid rejects it" seems to lack a certain something.


Kaitlin Ward said...

I actually like the guidelines. It's much easier for me to query someone when I know exactly what they want than if I have to guess. I would never have thought to blame the query guidelines for myself getting rejected. Although it is nice to hear that you don't automatically ignore queries for what are clearly mistakes, because sometimes they happen, especially when technology has its little glitches. Sometimes, I think, people start to feel frustrated by their rejections, and just need something/someone to blame.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Anon 9:42:

I disagree with the "damned if you, damned if you don't" theory. I think that's something authors put on themselves because rather then think the work was what got the rejection letter it's easier to think it's because you checked in. Frequently when authors check in it just so happens that I had just read the material. I hate to say how much the timing just happens that way. It was not rejected because you nudged. The letter probably just hadn't been written yet. You're getting full requests which is fabulous. The next step is representation. You just need to keep plugging along.

Karen Amanda Hooper:
Thanks for the kind words. I do know that most of you listen and listen well. I see it in my inbox daily. The query letters keep getting better which shows that many of you are paying attention.

Stephen Rogers:
Writers are encouraged to do a lot of things, none of these are rules. The reason for small batches is not to satisfy agents, but for you to see if you need to rework the query before going a second round. That's actually for your benefit. I think sending it out in a timely manner only makes sense. You should never query until everything is ready. Certainly you shouldn't need to write the chapters or synopsis after you get a request. Those should be done. As for encouraging never to send fulls out to more then one agent at a time who said that? It certainly wasn't me. Most agents encourage multiple submissions so that's a "rule" I've never heard of. In fact, if you read through old posts you'll see exactly how I feel about exclusives and I know there are a lot of agents out there who agree with me wholeheartedly.


Unknown said...

I'm an aspiring author and you are only too well aware of the accompanying frustrations, but I really appreciate your sharing the other side. It makes it easier for me to take a deep breath and get over myself : ) Thank you!

Melanie Hooyenga said...

Great post. I get tired of hearing people complain that everything is stacked against them, the rules are too hard or idiotic, that the submission policies aren't logical. If you want to succeed in this industry, you have to follow the same "rules" (used loosely) as everyone else.

Stephen D. Rogers said...


Thanks for answering my question about full manuscripts.

I still feel uneasy about sending out more than one full at a time, but that's my problem. :)


Anonymous said...

Has the AAR ever approached agents with the notion of standardizing the query process, at least on the email end of things? I know agents vary to some degree on what they want on initial queries, but the beauty of emails is that you can ignore what you don't want to read. I know a fair number of agents are not in AAR but even many who aren't still claim to adhere to their rules. Anyway, I have no clue if the AAR is anythinng more than an association to standardize rules of practice or if they have more involvement with agents, and not that writers need an excuse to be lazy, but it would be kind of cool if writers could go to the AAR site and see, "ah so this is what AAR agents expect to see."

Regardless of that ease, it really doesn't take much, other than a bit of time, to figure out what agents want or expect regarding submissions. And if you can legitimately not find any info on an agent, one can certainly just email them and ask. I did this with an agent the other day because I could literally find no useful information about her. She emailed me back with a little bit of general information, and now I don't feel like I'm querying her blind.

Writers need to understand (most do I think) that agents want to believe that you are interested in their represention for legitimate reasons, even if they are minor. Blindly throwing out queries into Agentland makes it look like you don't give a shit about who represents you, and given the nature of the partnership and what it entails, that's an attitude that no agent wants to see.

I know the excitement of finally finishing an ms, and wanting to get it out there into agents hands, but finishing is only the first step in a long, long process. So, celebrate, take a deep breath, and do the work for the next step, which obviously, is more than just clicking the 'send' button.

Sookie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michelle D. Argyle said...

I really enjoyed this post. You know, it really annoys me that authors complain about getting form rejections when they have sent out a
"form" query. That makes no sense. I think selecting an agent and really taking care to write your query for that agent is important and imperative.

Thank you for some great information!

Anonymous said...

Great post.
Wow, I could never imagine doing a mass query.

Because isn't an author supposed to spend some time researching the agent? You know, to check out their blogs and their style of writing/communication to see if it's a fit??

Hmmm, but maybe I'm on glue or something.

Thanks for the post.

Unknown said...

Agents are the first hurdle. If you can't clear the first hurdle, you're all, "That hurdle is too high!" Regardless of whether hurdles two through ten are just as high, and just as impossible for your legs to leap over.

There's a reason that hurdle is at the height it's at. If you can't get over it, you'll never make it through the rest of the race.

Jean said...

Delurking for a minute...

A lot of what I've seen lately leads me to believe most of those who compalin about the way publishing works are folks that haven't done their homework. They haven't done the research on proper submissions. And they haven't perfected their craft yet, either.

My first submission years ago was perfect I thought but I had no clue and the rejection was the right response. Did it hurt? You bet but it made me look at the piece and see it as others did.

I'm a member of several writing groups and see a lot of novice writers with the "my writing is great - I'm just misunderstood and agents hate me" attitude. Yet when you look at their writing, it needs serious work craftwise. Of course, they don't see things that way. And they don't like it when you point it out either.

So, they complain. They complain about agents taking too long to reject them, not taking long enough to reject them, they complain about agents blogging and twittering instead of reading slush and how it's so unfair.

Writing something publishable is hard work. Getting an agent is hard work. That's just the way it is. Complaining doesn't do any good.

Do the homework involved and the doors will open.

*steps off soapbox*

Mysteries in the Making

Jean said...

*bangs head on desk* Darn typos!

Kimber Li said...

I've had to jump through plenty of hoops for other jobs. A Certified Professional Nanny earns top dollar for a darn good reason!

What I gleaned from that experience is that 'jumping through hoops' is one more way to prove you're willing to do all the hard work and follow the rules, thus reassuring those concerned you're capable and can be relied upon.

I only ask that agent and editors keep their guidelines clear and up-to-date.

Sarah J. MacManus said...

You know, considering the fast and easy availability of various agents' submission guidelines; the voluminous amounts of advice on how to write a stand-out query; and including the harder to find but very helpful tips for writing a good far as I'm concerned, the query/submission process has always been the EASY part.

It's not rocket surgery!

frau said...

The reason so many aspiring authors neglect professional guidelines, I think, is because there's still a rose-colored mythos of writing as a pure "art" - if you're unacquainted with how the publishing industry works, maybe it's harder to accept the fact it IS an industry and there ARE rules to follow.

I guess you could call it artistic hubris (my book is the next American novel! What do you mean, word count?), but I think it's more about first-time submitters not realizing that things like word count, genre, proper address really do make a difference.

I'm not a writer myself, but a fanatic reader. A while ago I started looking for book review sites, ended up on the agent blog circuit somehow, and realized just how many aspiring authors I'm glad DIDN'T get the go-ahead.

I know this sounds harsh, but really, when you look at sites like QueryShark it makes you realize just how many people think they're ready to be published authors when in reality, they're light years off. The least you can do, if you truly are a good writer, is to do a quick bit of research on what is expected.

If you can't or won't because of hubris or sheer ignorance - that tells me you're not very smart, or have severely overestimated the quality of your own work. So I have less confidence that I'd want to actually read your book down the line.

I have great respect for those who have the discipline to create a book out of nothing. But even if you have done this, AND are extremely gifted, that is no guarantee this one particular work you've queried is going to be attractive to me as a reader.

I trust the double gatekeeping agents and editors do for me: when I go into a bookshop, their filtering makes sure EVERY single book I see around me has something good going for it. I trust agents' judgment as a reader. Why shouldn't you, as an author?

Conversely I really hate to think amazing books are getting passed by because of a crappy query letters, so if you're sitting on that kind of golden egg, shape up! Better queries!

Diana said...

Regarding word count: I am sure this has been asked before, but are you looking for the standard word count (where you could up the words on the page and do the math) or the word count generated by Microsoft Word? Sometimes those numbers can be different, and I'm not sure which to use.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jessica for the vote of confidence! I'm Anon 9:42 and my 3 mss. have been out from 6 weeks to 5 months. I did nudge at the 3-month and 4-month mark but nothing final, just "I'll get to it soon..."

Isn't it true that agents who are excited about your work respond sooner, not later? If there's a problem, I wish they'd tell me so I can fix it. The waiting is nerve-wracking! What's a writer to do without being a pest?

Kelley said...

I'm dating myself, but wayyyy back in college, I had to take an Intro to Computers class. The professor was very specific-80% of your grade was based on following her directions. We were psyched. An easy A.

True story, she still teaches at UNH actually--most of the class failed. Her directions were always basic. "I want 1 in margins, two lines after the date, etc." But for some reason, even by the end of the semester, people still didn't follow them. They'd get their assignments back and complain about their grades. They weren't being given a fair shake, blah blah. It wasn't their fault. blah blah.

Finally, the last day of class someone asked WHY??? And she said it was the biggest, hardest and most important lesson every student needed to learn in order to be successful--how to follow directions. She also said it never ceased to amaze her how few could or how well those that did fared later in life...

I've never, ever forgotten her, or to remember to use the right font. Eek.

Anonymous said...

"I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, getting published and staying published is hard enough without making it harder on yourself."

The key words for me was "staying published". I understand that there is typically a three book leeway given by a publisher; that if by your third book you haven't hit certain expectations (books sold) that you can pretty much figure your publishing career is kaput or at least mortally wounded. Am I right?

Jessica Russell said...


My first name is Jessica as well, so Jennifer is a pet peeve of mine too.

Anonymous said...

I spent months researching the query process, visiting agent sites, and preparing my strategy for publishing my book.

There are lot's of resources to narrow down to the right group of agents, the right formatting of queries, and all sorts of advice from agents and editors on publishing etiquette.

I've found agents have been a godsend in working towards my goal of getting published. And because of the advice, I have started getting requests for partials on my manuscript.

Thank you all for the time you take to put the word out to us hopefuls!

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post. The most fascinating thing I read was that agents have different guidelines (published on their site) if they request more work. I've noticed submission guidelines for queries, but never for after the initial query. I'd always assumed the agent would just tell you specifically what s/he wanted if they requested more.

Scott said...

Jessica - thanks for the post.

I'm amazed at the back and forth discourse lately between agents and writers. Did it all start with #queryfail day? Was that the catalyst for the myriad of blogs from both agents and writers venting their frustrations? Has the proverbial worm turned? : )

Personally, I follow the guidelines set forth and hope for the best. I study the writing blogs and aim to perfect my query letter into a shining beacon of brilliance that will have agents knocking down my door. Lastly, I continue to write. It's what I do.

As for why I don't have an agent yet? I just haven't found the right one. He/She is out there somewhere. One day (soon, I hope), he/she will be stunned (in a good way, I might add) by my query letter and offer immediate representation. Hey, a guy can dream, can't he??

Anonymous said...

I'm curious, though...

Having recently participated in Nathan's "Agent for a Day" by reading and commenting on 50 queries, I actually found it much easier to navigate through the pile by eliminating the ones where the querier truly had no clue.

You know someone wanting to submit a 120,000 word YA novel or or a query that told about the author but not the book's plot.

In a way it made me wonder why agents complain about a person NOT following directions. Doesn't that just make moving through the query in-box that much easier?

(of course, people NOT sending queries would be better, but still...)

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:43

Maybe agents don't skim through the queries, trying to spot the gems. FYI, I heard somewhere that Twilight was originally 150,000 words and the finished product is around 120,000 words. You would have skipped right past it.

(By the way, I skimmed right past a bunch of the queries on Agent for a Day, too... glad I'm not an agent.)


Anonymous said...

I'm a Jennifer and Jessica is a pet peeve of mine as well. :)

Why does that bother us so?

Gilbert J. Avila said...

Anonymous said:
**The key words for me was "staying published". I understand that there is typically a three book leeway given by a publisher; that if by your third book you haven't hit certain expectations (books sold) that you can pretty much figure your publishing career is kaput or at least mortally wounded. Am I right?**

That's not necessarily so. An old acquaintance, Alis A. Rasmussen said that Bantam dropped her after sales of her 4 novels fell below 500 a month. ( Or maybe it was 5000--I forget). The novels were a science fiction series. She re-invented herself, and as Kate Elliott she's had 14 fantasy novels published by DAW. (15 if you count her collaboration with Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Roberson.) So hope is there.

evilphilip said...

One thing we learned from #queryfail is that there are FAR TOO MANY agents who are just deleting a query unread due to little things (wrong name, misspelled name, 'Dear Sir') at the top of the query and I think that is where all the hate from #agentfail came from -- from agents who weren't even bothering to read the submitted query letter.

If my query letter doesn't grab your attention, that is my fault. If you delete my query letter unread because it said 'Dear Sir/Madam' (which is a professional business letter style greeting) then there is a real problem here and it isn't the author who has the problem.

T. M. Hunter said...

“Why am I not grabbing an agent’s attention?” should probably be your first questionOf course, when one gets generic rejection responses, it's hard to answer that question. You can ask other authors, both agented and not, and they can give you ideas...but ultimately, only the agent knows for sure.

Just the nature of the business, I suppose...

Anonymous said...

You're assuming all agents have clear and concise guidelines.

Also if an agent happens to dislike a particular genre they ought to state that.

Ex: "I absolutely do not accept fantasy." (I noticed Bookends stated that.*)

If that's not in the mix, then blowing up at someone who saw the word 'fiction' and figured a 'magical realism' story might just be lost.

It's also kind of funny that agents don't like form letters. ;) Is that not a bit of irony? It's nothing personal it's just people are busy and they'd rather move on with their day, both agent and writer. People have lives and can't always respond personally, though if work is submitted it should at least be considered.

I agree that writers should familiarize themselves with guidelines, but those ought to be crystal clear. Otherwise people get confused, not because they're being stupid or vindictive.

Just a thought...

Weronika Janczuk said...

Absolutely, without a question, it's an excuse. I would not want literary agent standards to be any other way so that when I finally catch a break I will have something to be uniquely proud of.

Unknown said...

I hate to even wade into this murk, and I'm probably going to regret doing it, but:

"Dear Sir/Madam" is only appropriate in the world of business when you do not know the name of the person to whom you are writing, as in the case of a letter to a customer service department. When you query an agent, you should always know his or her name, and the name should be properly spelled. To address an agent as "Dear Sir/Madam" shows a lack of research, and implies laziness.

There are professional courtesies in writing and publishing that differ from the business world in general, not least because the relationship between agent and author has a strong personal component. If you as an author are not aware of the differences, then I am sorry to say that the problem is indeed your own.

CNU said...

Sorry if I happened to query you. I'm sure it was a screw up with genres. I think I saw the word, 'spiritual, new age, etc' and figured the work was a similar genre.

What happens when a book happens to fall into two different categories, one which the agency accepts, one which the agency doesn't?

Anyhow. It won't happen again, if I did submit, which I don't even remember so it's possible I didn't. :)

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


No apologies necessary. If a book does fall in two genres try the agent (I've posted on this before). The worst thing that happens is a rejection.

That Writer Chic... said...

I have yet to get to the point that I'm ready to query an agent. But to me, if one can't do so much as read simple guide lines and follow them, then perhaps they need to venture off into another field.

jakers said...

Love the straight out suggestions. Thanks