Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Does This Backfire?

I recently received a query for an author’s debut novel. The author was incredibly confident, envisioning the novel as a future bestseller and hit movie, but that’s not what bothered me. What I found unsettling was when she wrote, “I am sending this proposal to several literary agents and have set a deadline for your reply as at July 31, 2010. If you believe you’re the right agent, please contact me. I require a list of your published titles and the publishers you’ve worked with, as well as your expected fee (commission). I look forward to hearing from you and hope to create a great working partnership.”

Ultimately I rejected the query, partly because I didn’t feel I was right for it, but also in part because I was put off by the author’s demands. Information on my sales, including publishers, is really easy to find with just a little bit of research. Heck, if you found my name it’s likely you also found that information. Certainly she’s right to want to know that information, but am I the one that needs to supply it and, maybe, it was the way her request was phrased that didn’t sit right?

When I submit to publishers I don’t need to ask what pay range they are in, what kind of royalties they offer, or who else they publish. I’ve done my research and I know that already. When negotiations start I will definitely have more questions specific to the book I’m selling. At that point I will most definitely want to know their vision for the book, including advance, royalties, marketing, etc. But does it sit wrong to demand that before someone has even read the book?

I give the author credit for being so confident. Her query was well written (although could have been a lot stronger), but I worry that with many agents this approach might backfire, that she appears to demand a lot without bothering to understand the business first. Of course, I might be reading too much into it.



Unknown said...

She just sounds bloody rude to me.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

My book will of coarse be a best seller, in part because Oprah will read and love it. My publisher wiil most certainly pay the highest advance ever paid for a debut novel, the deal will make my agent's name a household word. J.K. Rowling and Stephen King will call ME for writing advice.

Larry King will interview me and the star studded cast of the blockbuster movie which will win more Oscars than any other movie in history.

And to think, Jessica (what's her name) rejected my query, go figure.

I'm not being overconfident. Oh, wait a minute,let me wipe the sleep out of eyes I must have have fallen asleep..was I dreaming?

Anna Banks said...

You want to exude confidence in a query letter but you don't want to bleed arrogance, which is the tone I'm getting from the excerpt. Maybe she didn't intend to sound that way, but a major rule of writing in general is if the reader may not understand what you're saying, scrap it. Query letters included.

nauthor said...

The only way you're reading too much into it is in taking this woman seriously. She probably acts this way in all her relationships. Can you imagine what she says to her dates?

I know I always complain that the relationship between writers and the people who make a living off the fact that writers exist ought to be more egalitarian. But this lady, as Merilee said, is just rude. Working with her would be painful.

Being Beth said...

Sounds more like someone hiring a nanny than seeking representation on a debut novel. Maya Angelou wrote, "When someone shows you who they really are, believe them the first time." I think it was really nice of this author to show you so clearly who he/she is -- demanding and inflexible. Believe it and move on.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Did I mention I will also be interviewed on The View and Good Morning America.

'BeingBeth', I've been counseling Maya Angelou by the way, she seeks my advice quite often.

Ok, that's enuff, don't want no one to think i are arogent because i are a riter.

Mark Terry said...

Of course, I know you're aware of how skewed the agent-author relationship is compared to most business relationships. The author-agent relationship as a "business relationship" would appear on the surface to be one in which the author hires the agent, who then gets paid 15% based on the success of their work.

Then it gets skewed, because the agent apparently decides who they will work with, the terms of their relationship, etc., and most writers feel like they go begging, rather than hiring. The author is supposedly hiring the agent, but the agent makes all the decisions.

Most people in the business describe it as a business partnership, although if that were accurate you would question the 15% commission versus a 50/50 split.

I guess my point is: the editor/agent relationship is weird.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how anyone who has done research on how to write a successful query can NOT know that this is a bad approach.

At some point overconfidence becomes delusion.

Anonymous said...

I hope she sent the same query to Janet Reid...heh heh heh.

M.D. Fields

Sarah J. MacManus said...

It's startlingly out-of-character in publishing, but let's face it - if she were considering you for the position as her lawyer or realtor, her questions would be completely appropriate and you would be expected to 'sell' yourself and your services.

Publishing is weird.

Jennifer Lawler said...

I'm not sure it's rude so much as presumptious. If I walk into Target, and a cashier comes up to me and says, "Let me take your credit card and verify your account," my reaction is going to be, "Wait a minute, I don't even know if I'm buying anything yet."

Although of course at Target I usually am.

Anonymous said...

This isn't the first query I've heard of with these demands. Colleen Lindsay had one from a gentleman a while back. I think it is rude to try to give an already busy agent a time frame to reply to you in.

The idea of giving a deadline could POSSIBLY be more plausible once you are working together trying to get the final details worked out on a book.

In a query is just a bit much for me.

Donna Lea Simpson said...




This approach is mindboggling to me.

Instead... she should have looked at your agency site to see if your books are in line with what she is selling.

Then, when she approached you, keeping in mind what you've said in past about your response rate, she should have had an internal 'need a response by' date, and at that time, if you hadn't responded, she should have approached you with a question about your progress on the query.

Why would an agent want to work with (and 'with' is the operative word, because it is a collaborative effort) someone who hasn't taken the time to do her research, and yet comes off sounding like a know-it-all?

Elizabeth Lynd said...

This just strikes me as someone who hasn't done her research. The mistakes she's made are ones that I've read about time and again, and while her approach might seem like a good idea when the whole concept of querying comes to one's attention (I had no idea about it before a few years ago, and I doubt the average Joe on the street knows much more about it than my dog does), just a few hours of research would put the kibosh on this kind of over-confident rubbish.

There's confident, and there's hubris. One is necessary, the other is obnoxious.

I hope, for her sake, the book is really, really good. But my guess is the manuscript is in an equally first-draft kind of form. Which is no big deal; we all start somewhere.

Creepy Query Girl said...

Wow- I mean, I admire her confidence. But it makes it sound like she's screening for a potential employee when in all reality- having an agent shoud be more like a partnership, right? And agents really do have all the power in this situation so it might come off as pompous to make THEM jump threw hoops to work for HER. Sounds like her outlook is a bit askew if you ask me.

nauthor said...

Being Beth, that's a wonderful quote.

Anonymous said...

"It's startlingly out-of-character in publishing, but let's face it - if she were considering you for the position as her lawyer or realtor, her questions would be completely appropriate and you would be expected to 'sell' yourself and your services.

Publishing is weird."

Publishing is like any other business when it comes to supply and demand. In publishing, the supply (writers) exponentially exceeds the demand (editors/agents). So the suppliers don't get to make the rules. A person needing a lawyer has many options, so he gets to pick and choose.

When the supplier becomes an established money-maker and much sought-after, the story changes. Just like in any other business.

And even in real estate and law, the suppliers get to review the home or case before deciding whether they want to work with the client, and then whether they are willing to sell themselves and their services. This writer kinda jumped the gun.

I agree publishing is weird, but not in this respect.

Julie Rowe said...

Your querier might think this approach works because she's looking to hire someone to represent her, so she asks you the same questions she'd ask her real-estate agent. But she's wrong. In business the law of supply and demand rules, and there's hundreds, maybe thousands, of would-be writers out there to every agent. That puts the control into the agent's hands.

Christi Corbett said...

This may be off-topic, but aside from the agent's own website does anyone out there know how to find out what books an agent has sold?


PS. No, I didn't write that query :).

Vivi Anna said...

Christi, you can check out Publishers Marketplace. It usually has the books bought by publishers in all genres and who repped them.

You can type in an agent's name and it should pull up all the deals done in the past few years.

There is a fee to sign up, but it is worth it to see who's doing what.

As for the query, I bet that if the author hadn't come off so arrogant, Jessica may have asked for a partial.

Michelle Kollar said...

I have one thing to say to her: You are a little fish in a big pond. Be respectful and you might get a rejection letter with some helpful pointers.

Blogging about her is actually a nice way to give her a wake up call. Although, she doesn't seem to blog based on that major query faux paux.

Regina said...

Oh, so that is what not to do..hehehe.

Erika Marks said...


Reading this, I had to wonder if the querier had reflected yet and winced at their tactic. I know I just did for them.

Courtesy above all goes a long way in life, and certainly in publishing. I don't know of any agents who've praised someone for being demanding or presumptuous, and certainly not ill-informed.

Anonymous said...

Your points are well taken. She obviously hasn't taken the time to research the ins and outs of querying or utilized the very easy sources that would answer those questions she's demanding of agents. Frankly, I would expect the response of 99.999% of agents she's queried to file 13 this one. She'll be lucky if they respond at all.

Robena Grant said...

I think the writer's mistakes come from writing a formal business letter. She didn't take into consideration that it is not her, but her work, that will create that partnership with the agent.

Unfortunately, she didn't do her homework on the difficulties and intricacies involved in securing an agent to represent her work.

So, yes, it does backfire, and I'd suggest a little more humility and a little less confidence, these here are tricky waters. ; )

Kate Douglas said...

I'm enjoying the responses to this post as much as the post--and have to agree that it's the voice of the letter that would immediately turn me off--arrogance, hubris, and yes, delusional are all great ways to describe the tone of the query.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience in reverse. A brand new epublisher made all sorts of nit-picky demands of me which not even the major publishers make. I was like, uh, this publisher expects preference over the uber-agents courting me right now? Um, no.

The Swivet said...

I got that one and found it incredibly arrogant. Instant reject for me. Why would I want to work with someone that arrogant?

Dale Bishop said...

"but also in part because I was put off by the author’s demands. Information on my sales, including publishers, is really easy to find with just a little bit of research."

Sheesh...lighten up, hon :) These weren't demands. Clearly, they were questions by someone who doesn't know the publishing industry very well.

If you were to question most people on the street who know nothing about publishing, these questions wouldn't sound like demands. They would sound like valid requests.

Abby Stevens said...

No, I agree. The author definitely sounds too demanding without understanding the business. Possibly poor attitude and lack of research = an author probably not ready to be published, well-written or not. Sometimes overconfidence can be a far worse affliction than lack of confidence.

GalaktioNova said...

I don't know why it is so, but in writing, arrogance and amateurishness often seem to go together. The more experience you get, the more it humbles you.

She's most likely just starting out, as simple as that, and probably one day she'll be remembering this letter with embarrassment.

Unknown said...

i think it's a great letter.

Amanda said...

I believe the letter was bordering on disrespect. I say "Do your research!" I remember a post about wasting an agents time, and because this person didn't do the research the agent is expected to send a list. Anyway, how does this person know what kind of work to submit to each agent?

Kimber Li said...

"I don't know why it is so, but in writing, arrogance and amateurishness often seem to go together. The more experience you get, the more it humbles you."

Beautifully stated, GalaktioNova.

Anonymous said...

I also think it's a great letter. It's amazing: agents are often rude to writers but are offended when they receive it in return.

Kate said...

Before I started reading agent blogs, I knew nothing about the process of getting an agent or the publishing business. But it never would have occurred to me to take that approach, even in my ignorance. She must have had some bad information?

_*rachel*_ said...

What worries me is the use of fee/commission; it sounds like she doesn't know about the usual 15% and thinks she can compare prices. Which makes me think she'll get responses from the scammers only.

Lucy said...

@ Smelling

I think most of us who read this blog would agree that Jessica goes out of her way not to be rude to writers, which makes your argument rather less applicable.

As for the writer, I've seen this kind of football-padding-plus-stiletto-heels approach in the corporate world, and believe me, it's just as big of a turn-off in that setting. There's a disconnect from sweet reality that fails to inspire confidence--and worse, by demanding respect, fails to earn it.

Seven said...

I'm not this author, but I've rewritten the quote. Does this sound as arrogant or snooty? All I did was phrase what they wanted as a request rather than a demand. Flies and sugar and all that.

I am sending this proposal to several literary agents and would like your reply by July 31, 2010. If you believe you’re the right agent, please contact me. If you have a list of your published titles and the publishers you’ve worked with available, could you please include this information or direct me to where you have it on your website. I would also like to know your expected fee (commission) should you be interested. I look forward to hearing from you and hope to create a great working partnership.

I think this sounds a lot better, and asks for the same things. How you say things is sometimes more important than what you say.

Anonymous said...

It actually sounds to me like what would happen if I asked someone to write a letter for me. A "Querying Service" or a more forceful friend, say.

Oh, god, I can't do this, I'm going to sound like a weeny! Here, you do it for me, you're a business major!


(because I can't get my open ID thingummy to work)

That's my bet.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

I'm a little concerned about your issues with the refs, Jessica.

In any business relationship, references go both ways. I've seen agent websites that offer a complete list of pub'd titles and a list of publishers that the agent has worked with. This is a good thing. Is it inappropriate to ask that the agent have a sheet with this info or have it readily available on their business site rather than a prospective client having to do the research to find it? I don't think so.

The author did not say s/he needed refs immediately (although it could be inferred so). If you were to eventually offer, I would expect you could supply your refs via a simple link or a document by request. Couldn't you?

I suspect publishers have those sheets readily available for you, as well.

This person also gave agents a reasonable amount of time to reply to a simple query: 90 days. The assumption is that if s/he hasn't heard from you by then you're not interested. If you've picked up the query after that time, you needn't bother any further with it. If the author had mentioned an unreasonable timeframe, then, yes, you'd have a better right to be annoyed, IMO.

Is this letter a bit forward? Yes. This is a person who wants to be in the position of power, who maybe even thinks they are. It also plays on the tenets of the effective sales letter: Always ask for the close.

Would I phrase my query like this? No. Are you being overly sensitive? Probably. Does the approach backfire? With many agents, obviously so.

Anonymous said...

I'm flabergasted at this query. Everyone has said it all.

Anonymous said...

As a journalist, I sometimes had to give deadlines to editors if an idea was timely. But I said, "If I don't hear from you by (date), I'll assume you're not interested."

One agent keep me waiting for 7 mos. without a response to a requested full, just excuses. I do think a deadline or withdrawal may be best for the writer's sanity. We're busy too!

Anonymous said...

I understand what Phoenix is saying, but a query isn't the appropriate time to ask for such references. Find out if the agent is interested in representing you, do your homework, and whatever else you need to know can be asked at that point.

Anonymous said...

Mark Terry -- most professionals choose who they work with. Lawyers turn down clients they don't want to represent, and doctors may do so as well. The difference is they get paid while they turn someone down.

That being said, it would be a lot easier if a writer could merely opt to plunk down a per hour fee, and I'm sure many would do so. But if the book didn't sell, what would happen then? There's no guarantee. The way it is, there's no guarantee, but at least a writer can't complain the agent took them for money.

I agree this person comes off as being full of themselves instead of confident. I think she meant to come off as taking charge, rather than arrogant, but it failed.

Anonymous said...

I would bet this person is a professional, and this is the way they do business in their daily job.

It is hard to know what is the correct way to be professional in a different industry, especially when you already think you are. And there is a lot of info out there that says a query letter is a business letter.

I'm betting a lawyer.

Kimberly Kincaid said...

Wow. Many good comments and points well made. I think there is a fine line between being confident and being arrogant. For me, this person definitely crossed it, and I'd have probably had the same kind of reaction. No matter what the relationship (or in this case, potential relationship) between parties, there's a certain amount of courtesy that everyone should bring to the table. To demand a list of information that could easily be garnered through online research is just unprofessional. The deadline? Pushing it. If she needed a response due to having an offer on the table, I could see it. But otherwise...unprofessional as well.

Nice to disclose that she's querying multiple agents, but I have to assume that all agents believe this to be the case across the board. Is there anyone who really queries agents one at a time?

Anonymous said...

This is timely for me, but only because I had an agent recently do something similar when asking for a partial. Her list of demands were huge (she was new, with no sales, was at a good agency, but obviously had no clue how to be an agent just yet).

Her needs went something like, jump through this hoop, and then that hoop, and then this one that has nothing to do with your ms or your credentials and then, maybe I might represent you, but only after you do this and that. How could she say she might represent me when she hadn't yet read even a partial of the ms?

I withdrew it. Cluelessness works both ways -- an agent that acts like you are already a burden for simply querying them is a red flag.

There is no kind of crazy like publishing crazy.

Mira said...

How was the writing in the pages?

That's always the important question.

As for the author's approach, well, good for them. :)

But it probably won't work because it's so counter-culture - current culture being that the writer is low man on the totem pole and should be humble and polite. Groups tend to enforce their culture; first they enforce it gently, then more strongly, until they'll evenutally try to oust someone who doesn't conform.

A letter that is THIS counter-culture will probably make people very uncomfortable and will be met with slammed doors and ridicule.

On the other hand, the author might get lucky. Someone who really liked the pages might appreciate the freshness, the naivety or just have a sense of humor about the whole thing.

Interesting example.

Sarah J. MacManus said...

@anon 10:17 - The concept of supply and demand doesn't work with the agent model, logically. There may be more writers than agents, but you aren't selling anything to the agent, you're offering to give them 15% of your income to sell it for you.

And yes, real estate agents can pick and choose what properties they work with, but I've never seen homeowners doggedly following the tweets and blogs of real estate agents.

Homes have an estimated value - it's anyone's guess what a manuscript will sell for.

As a 'business' - as we are constantly reminded it is - it's weird.

Mira said...

Faun - the other reason I agree with you is that there may be thousands of writers, but very few of them will actually sell well.

Oddly enough, if you have a book that will sell, you're in a small minority, and it's a writer's market then.

Francis said...

Self-righteousness and arrogance aren't going to help you get a book deal... just ask Tyra Banks!

Oh wait...

Josin L. McQuein said...

Dear Agent:

My fiction novel is teh awesome. I've been far to busy writing my 40,000 word epic to bother researching the grunts tasked to sell it for me. I have people for that, and as soon as you send me my advance, I'll pay them.

The book is so far beyond what you're expecting that I can't afford to describe it in any kind of detail, lest you steal it. But you can't just HAVE my novel. (What do you think I am, a total n00b) No, if you want the one and only available slot as MY representation, you have to work for it.

And don't think you're going to snow me with that "commission" tripe. You get paid based on performance - think of it like a waiter's tip. Do good and I pay you more. It's MY money for MY words, why should you get any?

I guess I'll have to give you some clue as to what you'll get with me, just don't expect it to be anything you've seen in your inbox. I've got one word for you: vampires. We'll start a trend.

At least we will if you're quick enough to catch my interest.

Netta Chance N'Hale

Jinky said...

I have to be honest, I go back and forth about it. Yes, it was rude to include a list of demands...but at the same time, her demands aren't ones I wouldn't want to discuss if an agent offered representation. Conclusion: she's new, she's trying, and she hasn't quite figured out how to balance her sales pitch. Like scarlettprose mentioned above, exuding confidence without coming off arrogant is a fine line to tightrope across.

Martina Boone said...

I'm baffled. Behind the book is a relationship between the agent and the author. This particular relationship does not sound like it was starting off on the right foot whatsoever. I give you credit for stating that you rejected it ultimately because the work was wrong for you. I don't think anyone would blame you for having rejected it based on an unprofessional approach being taken.

Anonymous said...


That letter made me laugh! You should send it to Query Shark as a joke; I bet she'd get a kick out of it.


Anonymous said...

My jaw hit the floor when I read this! She's lucky I wasn't the one reading this query; she would have really gotten a piece of my mind!

Kate said...

Maybe I'm being too nice, but I don't think she's being rude. She just doesn't understand the business and the supply-vs-demand realities of agents-vs-authors.

It's as if this person is accostomed to hiring contractors, and she's requesting proposals. In this context, her demands are somewhat reasonable (if inartfully worded), because there are often contractors fighting over the same jobs.

On the other hand, if she did enough homework to write a reasonably structured query in the first place, maybe she's intentionally testing out the moxie approach. It certainly go your attention!

Either way, I think it's OK to be turned off by this. It sets a bad tone for any future working relationship.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! Legit agents will throw the letter away, while the scammers will race each other to contact this author. Being new and uninformed, she will not know about the scammers.

This will not end well.

M Clement Hall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M Clement Hall said...

If she didn't know the answers to the questions she posed, she was clearly severely uninformed about the business she proposed to enter. One might in charity say she thought she was being business-like and she might very well have a future. But were I the recipient of the enquiry, her future would not be with me. She'll learn and probably she'll prosper.

Amy said...

If she submitted a query letter, then she's done some type of research.

I recently submitted query letters for my first novel as well, and I had no clue how things were done these days. I definitely didn't know what a query letter was. So if she wrote a strong query letter as Jessica indicated, then I would say she definitely researched the process of submitting to an agent.

Based off that assumption, I would have to say the letter's a little ostentatious.

Then again in her defense, I've said it a million times; reading somebody's intent and tone via a letter is so gosh darn difficult!

So yes, it backfired.

Anonymous said...

I've been interviewing stone guys for new granite countertops all month. If you think these questions are demanding, you should see the questions I've been asking these poor stone guys. And this is because I've never done this sort of thing before. I'm not trying to be rude on purpose. I just want to be sure I'm getting what I pay for.

I know, you're not going to like being compared to a stone guy. And maybe that isn't the best comparison. The overall analogy, however, is.

I think it's safe to say that everyone reading this blog knows the basics. And I also think it's safe to say that with all the people out there writing books, good or bad, who don't read agent blogs they think about hiring an agent the same way they'd hire an attorney, a doctor, or a stone mason. Big suprise: most people don't spend their time reading blogs.

Now, if I were to send you a query like this after reading your blog for so long, you have every right to kick my butt upside down :))

Anonymous said...

This does sound very much like a form query sent to several agents. As you advise for your form rejections, I would say don't take it personally or try to read anything more into it than that the person wants an agent for their work. Otherwise, you could spend hours trying to second guess the hidden meanings. For instance, you may have references that are easily accessible, but not all agents do. Not all agents are members of AAR, so asking about fees (which some legit agents do charge for ms prep while other agents absorb those costs and write them off at the end of the year) and commissions may be a way to ensure she doesn't end up with a scammer.

Seems if the rest of the query were strong enough you would check out the writing. If the writing were there, then you would talk to the person for a bit and feel them out before offering representation anyway. Isn't that the way the process usually works?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I have enjoyed the comments more than the post today. Jessica you sure shook the hive and enlivened the bees.
Isn't it funny, we all know a bad query when we read one and when given an example of a good one, I'll bet most of the bloggers today, especially the anon's, would say, you liked that, Oh I could do better.
Jessica please don't post my (rejected)query this group smells blood.
Look at the time I first posted and now, I need to get a life.

Anonymous said...

Bookends, you should do a post on this:

Basically, so many writers are eschewing the agent process in favor of throwing ebooks at Amazon to see what sticks that people are getting worried about the Very Quality of Future Writing itself!!!!

It's all about the Konrath Effect now...


But Pinter pounds some nails of reality into the boards of would be e-bestsellers' dreams.

Shelby said...

she's manipulative. don't like it. not one bit. one can be confident and still have good manners. she didn't.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I feel like I have read this exact query before. It's making me wonder if another agent has already blogged about it, which would mean the writer's made the same mistake with multiple people. I agree with all the commenters who say she must be new to querying and writing it as she would a business letter, but this is why research is important!

Kristin Laughtin said...

Ahh, after a quick search through my reader, I see it turned up on your blog on May 4th (but then was removed? Or maybe there was glitch where you wrote up the post and set it to publish later, and it showed up in my reader anyway.). I'm a bit relieved; in her place, I'd be pretty mortified if not one but two agents wrote about something I had done wrong!

Dara said...

A little on the arrogant side, although maybe she thought it was confidence. There can be a fine line between confidence and arrogance.

Although, I am leaning a bit towards the latter, especially as she guaranteed it would be a best seller and hit movie. I still do not understand why anyone would put that in a letter. Nothing is guaranteed in publishing--or any sort of media really.

Aimlesswriter said...

Wow, thanks for the laugh. I think if I were Stephen King I could demand such information (but Stephen would probably already know it), but for a new author she does sound a little demanding. Wouldn't you worry this is how she'd act in all aspects of her career?

Henri said...

Realistically, that kind of approach would probably never work, but it must be a lot of fun to send off queries like that. I find the idea of giving literary agents a deadline very amusing, but unfortunately also self-defeating and unproductive for the writer.

Thanks for sharing.


Anonymous said...

My guess is that the author is NOT naive and uninformed, and knows something we do not.