is reading queries part of my job? well, sort of.

Yesterday, Agent Jonathan had a followup post to a rant from the previous week. The rant had to do with the fact that he gets “quite a few queries that are utter and complete crap” and his suspicion that “some people think that anyone can write a good book.”

His post yesterday added that he thinks his “duty as a literary agent is to represent [his] clients to the best of [his] ability, and by and large this entails selling the rights to their works. [He does] not believe that reading queries and providing feedback is part of [his] job description…” He reads “queries for a single purpose- to get clients in order to sell the rights to their works.”

Go read his posts in their entirety before you respond to anything in comments. I’ve tried not to take anything out of context, but there is certainly context to be considered.

As I see it, there is only a slight flaw in his logic. If part of his job is to get more clients, then part of his job is to read queries.

However.

Getting new clients must necessarily come after providing services for current clients. That’s just plain old triage. If there are no sales for the current clients, and therefore, no commissions, the agent has to get another job and then there are no clients at all. So, after all the clients outlines, chapters, and manuscripts are read. After their submissions are out to editors. After followup on their outstanding submissions is done. After their contracts are vetted and signed. After their payments are received and disbursed. After their subsidiary rights are seen to. And so on and so forth….

Then…. Then, queries and non-client submissions can get read. Essentially, R&D comes after paying products (to put it in a very mercenary sort of way). Feedback is a whole ‘nother kettle o’ fishy things. That’s extra. It might turn out to be an investment, but there is no immediate return, except in extremely rare cases, so it’s not an efficient investment to engage in on a regular basis.

In reality, if it worked this way, I think queries might never be read. This is why I end up reading them in the evening after dinner. Or on weekends. This is why it takes so long to respond to queries, in addition to the issue of sheer volume. And, yes, it would certainly be helpful if all the queries received were from people who had a mastery of basic grammar (too many don’t) and from those who had taken a few minutes to visit the agent’s webpage and do a modicum of research before submitting. That’s the agent side of the query fantasy, though.

28 responses to “is reading queries part of my job? well, sort of.

  1. I’m new to the querying world. This post certainly puts things in perspective…which will help when I’m gnawing off my fingertips waiting for a response.
    Thank you.

  2. If they’d only treat it like a job interview…
    …so how’d I do on my job interview?
    …I know this isn’t my best suit but what do you think?
    …I didn’t care enough to write you a proper resume but this isn’t really an example of how I’ll work for you, promise.
    …nursing department? No, I don’t have the necessary qualifications but I thought I’d waste your time anyway.
    …you’re a welding company? Oh. Well here’s my resume for childcare. What do you think?
    Feedback? Please?

  3. I’d suggest that providing feedback falls more to editors than agents, particularly editors who are working to fill publication slots in underfunded and small venues where they rarely (if ever) get “killer” subs from Names. By taking the tack of making “suggestions” to authors whose work has come ever so close but not quite close enough, I’ve managed to get what I want and, hopefully, provide a bit of achievement, insight and guidance to the aspiring.
    At least, that’s how I see it.

    • This post is specifically on queries and feedback. Do you give feedback on queries? Or just on actual submissions (that’s a different level of investment, imo)? And, in my experience, few editors have time to give feedback except on books they have already acquired these days.

      • I pulled the “feedback” issue out of the queries statement based on the “R&D” investment side of this discussion. As stated, agents make their money selling the product of their clients. Thus, your statement of not seeing “feedback” as a particular aspect of an agent’s task list resonated.
        From my uninformed perspective, I can see an agent providing substantive feedback on a query of unmarketable quality as being an act almost saintly in its benevolence. If said query is compelling to the point of being marketable, then of course offering suggestions can be considered sensible — assuming that a contract is in the offing or that your hopes of attaining a return on the investment are high. However, for an author to expect any kind of feedback on a blind, unsolicited query from an agent other than a “No, thank you” or “Please send more” seems unreasonable to me.
        My apologies for drifting from topic.

        • No harm, no foul. I was actually just curious as whether that clarification was relevant.
          I do try to give feedback – at least a little (sometimes more) – on requested submissions. But I just literally can’t afford to on queries, even though there are several people a week who write back asking for more information.

  4. And, yes, it would certainly be helpful if all the queries received were from people who had a mastery of basic grammar (too many don’t)
    This always leaves me absolutely gobsmacked. I hear agents and editors say it constantly… yet somehow, I still find it unbelievable. There is, apparently, a fairly large chunk of my brain that can’t wrap itself around the fact that there are people trying to become writers who can’t actually….erm….you know….WRITE.

    • While I hate to link myself to mainstream reality TV fandom, I always look at it like singing. American Idol does a dozen shows every season where people who obviously can’t sing try like crazy to get onto a show where that’s the key thing and unless (as in more recent seasons) they’re just mugging for the camera, many of them seem to truely believe that they’re “the next American Idol”.
      Apparently writers are similar in at least that aspect.

  5. it would certainly be helpful if all the queries received were from people who had a mastery of basic grammar (too many don’t) and from those who had taken a few minutes to visit the agent’s webpage and do a modicum of research before submitting.
    I’ve heard this in a few places, and I’d like to ask – what percentage, would you say, of queries received do you reject simply for not fulfilling these criteria? Or, conversely, what percentage of queries do you receive that, even if the project is not for you, you don’t throw out right away just for being bad, in and of themselves?

    • I’m not sure of the exact percentage but it’s high enough to be noticed each week. If you haven’t already read this, go through section 3 of Slushkiller. It’s depressingly accurate.

      • Wow, those percentages are somewhat depressing, at least from an agent’s/editor’s perspective! I guess one can only hope to be in at least the top ten percent, even if we don’t hit that all-important 14.

  6. Feedback is definitely optional. (I see why you don’t.)
    Reading queries is your long-term strategy. People die or their ideas dry up – if you rely only on your current clients, you won’t have much of an income in twenty years’ time. So making time to read queries/partials and taking on new clients is actually a vital part of your job – it’s not urgent, but it’s definitely important, and the only way to deal with it is to not prioritize it below everything else. *Every* business needs to set time aside for getting new clients and planning ahead.

    • People die or their ideas dry up – if you rely only on your current clients, you won’t have much of an income in twenty years’ time.
      There are a couple inherent flaws to this statement that came right to mind.
      People die…. and then you represent their estate (not to sound even more mercenary but the Heinlein estate is still delivering to the agent, whom I happen to be acquainted with). (At least until copyright law changes.)
      Ideas dry up…. still waiting for that to happen. Most of my clients tell me that they don’t think they’ll ever run out of ideas.
      And in 20 years an agent could be running a boutique agency with several bestsellers with an income that would, then, be more than adequate, in all likelihood.
      It’s not that it’s not important to look for new clients but I don’t actually think income is the primary reason. New work keeps an agent’s list vital; keeps an agent creative. As far as prioritizing, though, which item in my list are you suggesting should come after reading queries? I’m just curious.

      • It’s not that it’s not important to look for new clients but I don’t actually think income is the primary reason. New work keeps an agent’s list vital; keeps an agent creative.
        Your reasoning is better than mine, and much more positive. It was, however, the reasoning I heard from an agent who was shocked by suggestion that just because he has successful clients now, he could lean back and rest on his laurels and never read another query.
        As far as prioritizing, though, which item in my list are you suggesting should come after reading queries?
        I don’t think that strict prioritizing _works_ if you take it to mean ‘first finish this, then finish the other’. A much better strategy is to weigh the importance of each element for your job and allocate time for it. My experience says that market research and product development take anything between five and twenty percent of time/resources for a smallish business (it gets much harder to find those things out for large companies, and I am not privy to their secrets) – and in your case it would not *just* be reading queries, but also keeping up with your genres, maybe researching a new one etc – but they’re all activities that do not bring immediate dividends.
        I’ve seen a number of small businesses in various sectors struggle because they spent too much time (relatively speaking) doing the actual work, and not enough time worrying about future work.

    • A lot of agents get referrals for new clients through editors, other agents or other writers. I think that Nathan Bransford mentioned once on his blog that he gets the majority of his new clients that way. I know two agents who no longer read queries at all because they get all of their clients this way.
      Even though I’ve only been agenting for a few months, I’m surprised at how often I get referrals from writers and editors; I tend to give these referrals higher priority on my reading list than cold queries.

      • I equate a lot of the Agenting Biz to my time spent on recruiting duty— when you remove the jargon and specialization from each side you’re left with sales.
        The sales thumbrule we used was that after three months of working in your market area 70% of your new contracts should come from referrals. Whether that was from other contracts(clients) or centers of influence (editors,other agents, ‘people in the biz’).
        Successful recruiters were at 70% (I was closer to 100% by the end of my recruiting tour) or higher…and to echo what you’ve said about prioritizing those: my experience in my specialized field is that the referrals were 1)higher quality applicants and 2) more likely to sign-on.
        YMMV.

  7. This kind of post is SO helpful. It can be hard from the author-side to know how really crazy it is on the agent-side of things, and this kind of post always helps to lend perspective.

  8. i don’t expect anything from an agent.
    those who say no via non-response, i’m okay
    with as long as they indicate that this
    is what they do.
    after going through the querying process,
    researching and reading agent blogs, i fully
    understand how busy agents are.
    i appreciate agents who treat writers
    with respect–and i can’t complain
    about anyone i’ve queried.

  9. I don’t get it. If you are disciplined enough to write a book, you should be disciplined enough to research agents who represent your type of book. It should also follow that an aspiring author have enough sense to study and master the nuts and bolts of the querying process. Writing the book is only the end result. Then you have to back up and market the sucker, first to an agent and then publisher and then…a never ending process. It ain’t amateur night, folks. Become a professional. Educate yourself for god’s sakes. If you’re serious about all this, then seriously learn what it takes to succeed.

  10. I did read what he wrote, and while I get his rant (really I do) there are people who can be fantastic writers with the help of a good copy editor. I will admit that most of the examples I know had to publish themselves. I didn’t care for the way The DaVinci Code was written, but the story was extremely intriguing, and the history (though bent a little to the author’s will) was pretty well researched. My own father wrote a weekly column for years. It died when my parents divorced because, while my father could put together the banter and the politics (two fictional characters discussed local issues. Sunshine was educated but naive. Willy was crass and poorly spoken, but possessed the wisdom that comes with experience) he couldn’t proofread his own work, and the newspaper had no patience to do it for him.
    I have a personal petpeeve about people who try to write novels without reading them. I attend a writers group at a chain bookstore. Ours is a branch from the original, which was huge — 65 people showed up. Many did not come back because, in that setting, they could see there were those with talent that so far exceeded their own that they were embarrassed. Many of those admitted that they didn’t like to read. Due to my take-charge personality, I ended up running the thing when the organizer had a panic attack over the sheer number there. I divided us into groups based off of interest and started my group off by asking them what they liked to read. Each time I got the answer, “I don’t like to read,” I asked them why they imagined people would buy a book by an author who didn’t buy books. (Yes, I’m too blunt.) The short answer was that Hollywood has romanticized writers and many people imagine it is a quick road to fame and fortune. If they only knew, right? I told those people that I would not say that they couldn’t tell stories with the best of them, only that they probably needed to read, if they wanted to write. I suppose I seemed like an authority, standing there with a box full of stories and manuscripts, rather than a few shorthand notes. A few of them stayed — they are determined to meet the challenges. Most left and never came back.
    I wish very often that there was feedback with rejections. You hear stories about feedback, but I have yet to see any, though I’ve amassed a lot of rejections. I suppose that, with the volume of queries you get, feedback on most is impossible. I also imagine that some people take criticism that is meant to be constructive as a personal insult — those weird few like the one in the subject of one of your recent posts, who felt it necessary to blow the bridge up rather than just burn it to a crisp. You don’t need that, so it might be easier to just respond, “Sorry, not for me.”
    With each query, I hope to get closer. For me, writing the book is much easier than a query. The story flows. I could put a first draft book of 125,000 words together in 44 days. Writing my first synopsis took two full months. And I’ve not yet made a query I’m totally happy with. Creating characters is something I do well. Plot, action, drama — those are all things that come easily to me. Selling myself, well I’m not so good at that. I figure that’s why I need an agent. The very same things that make me able to absorb personalities and create worlds make me very bad at diplomacy. So while Jonathan Lyon’s extolled the idea of knowing his limitations, perhaps a few people he’s rejected were showing him that they did.
    Usually, I avoid the agents who talk as though they hate writers. I wonder if Jonathan Lyons realizes that’s how he came across.

  11. Jenn mentioned to me that she’s gotten some interesting comments in response to her post, which was spun off from my post last week. I don’t have much to add, except to respond to the last line of the most recent post about me coming off as not liking writers.
    I love books. I love them so much that there are no words to quantify my feelings (a bit ironic). And I love writers, the artists who create these beautiful works. I love writers so much that I’ve developed literary crushes. I’m fine meeting a movie star, but I stammer and blush whenever I’ve met one of my literary heroes.
    I quit my lucrative job as a lawyer some years ago just so I could get into publishing. I took a job as a receptionist at a literary agency, making an amount so appalling that I can’t even mention it, and I’ve never regretted a single day. I am an advocate for authors and I help bring books into the world. What could be better?
    And I’m not alone. Most publishing professionals feel the same way as me. Almost all could be making more money and working less hours in another profession. But they don’t because they love their work.
    My frustration with really bad queries is actually in part a result of my love of writers and books. Writing a good book requires both talent and a tremendous amount of hard work, and when I receive a query that shows neither, a query that is riddled with typos extolling a completely unoriginal conceit, a query from someone who clearly thinks that anyone can write a book, I think it insults us all. It insults aspiring writers, it insults successful authors, it insults agents, it insults editors, and it insults readers.
    Wow, I went on a rant again.

    • My frustration with really bad queries is actually in part a result of my love of writers and books. Writing a good book requires both talent and a tremendous amount of hard work, and when I receive a query that shows neither, a query that is riddled with typos extolling a completely unoriginal conceit, a query from someone who clearly thinks that anyone can write a book, I think it insults us all. It insults aspiring writers, it insults successful authors, it insults agents, it insults editors, and it insults readers.
      No, I don’t think that’s a rant. I think that sums up how a lot of people who read slush feel. I remember applying to colleges and getting rejected. It hurt. So when I took an internship at a literary agency (for no pay, just because I love it, might I add), helping out an agent who was VERY behind on slush going through it. All I did/do was read slush. I was worried I would feel terrible rejecting people and being, basically, the crusher of dreams.
      But I was surprised at how gleefully I was able to send out those rejections. I know I must sound like a horrible person to the writers out there. But when you get a hand-written note from a guy with terrible handwriting who clearly doesn’t know anything about publishing, trying to pitch you a book in an genre the agency doesn’t represent… well it’s hard to feel anything but insulted by that.

      • Writing professionally means you have to present yourself professionally. Can’t do that if you don’t write strong support materials and comport yourself appropriately…
        …and we should probably write a strong book too. There is that.
        To do otherwise is to take yourself out of consideration for the work, just like any other job.
        Catherine

    • I agree completely.
      I worked in bookstores for nearly fifteen years before going into publishing. Neither is a high-paying (or, hell, even a MEDIUM paying career) but I love books and writers.
      I hear you on the literary crushes, too.
      When I first started working at Ballantine, I was told that I had to interview Ray Bradbury by telephone for the Del Rey newsletter. I was very nearly a babbling idiot – Ray Bradbury had been a literary idol of mine for years! “Wait, you mean I get to call him and just talk to him on the phone LIKE HE’S A REGULAR PERSON???” Yeah, I was that bad.
      Meanwhile, back at the San Francisco bookstore I’d worked for previously, actors and celebrities regularly shopped in our store and I was never fazed…in fact, I rarely recognized them. But the first time Ana Castillo, one of my favorite writers of literary fiction and poetry, came into the store to sign books, I reverted into an utter fangirl.
      When I left publishing, I ended up becoming an agent because I simply could not imagine a life where I did not get to work with books and writers.

    • My frustration with really bad queries is actually in part a result of my love of writers and books. Writing a good book requires both talent and a tremendous amount of hard work, and when I receive a query that shows neither, a query that is riddled with typos extolling a completely unoriginal conceit, a query from someone who clearly thinks that anyone can write a book, I think it insults us all. It insults aspiring writers, it insults successful authors, it insults agents, it insults editors, and it insults readers.

      Every miner must sift through tons of dirt and detritous for each precious stone. He only must decide if the gem is worth the effort. God bless those willing to live with dirty fingernails for those of us who hope someday to be called a diamond.

  12. interesting
    I swear I don’t mean this in a superior or mean way, but I couldn’t help noticing that the anonymous commenter included both of these statements:
    You hear stories about feedback, but I have yet to see any, though I’ve amassed a lot of rejections.
    AND
    I could put a first draft book of 125,000 words together in 44 days.
    I am thinking that perhaps the query is not the problem here. I consider myself a solid-write-something-most-days writer and that just seems incredibly fast, especially for a first draft. That’s over 11 pages per day, EVERY day. On a really good day, I get six or seven pages and there’s no way I could do that 44 days in a row.
    I have an agent now, but I can honestly say that for the five years prior to getting one, I submitted to both publishers, and then agents, and I got TONS of feedback…I was almost there, you see? Even on form rejection letters from editors, there was almost always a scribbled note. I was asked for revisions more than once. It took me a while to get my craft in shape and then I eventually got several agent offers at once (four). I really think that if you’re getting straight across the board rejections without ANY comments, then it’s the writing and not the query.

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