letters from the query wars with Agent Manners response

# of queries read this week: 163
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 2
genres of partials/manuscripts requested: mystery (1), fantasy (1)

***

This came in for Agent Manners but seemed appropriate to answer in a query wars post (since it isn’t really an etiquette question, per se):

Dear Agent Manners,
A delicate question, here–just how many truly painful manuscripts do you have to slog through before you find one worth requesting? I see your weekly tally and wonder; and I don’t mean manuscripts that don’t fit your particular market or need a bit of tweaking, I’m talking about full on disasters. 50%? 70%? 90%?
Just how big IS the competition out there for every publishing slot?
Most Sincerely,
The Boggled Bogwitch (who is neither a witch nor does she live in a bog, even if she is somewhat flummoxed.)

Dear Boggled:
Once upon a time, good manners included the saying: “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” So, one hesitates to speak ill of the quality of queries, particularly since any writer reading this may take it very much to heart. However, I would direct your attention once more to the timeless Slushkiller post, particularly section 3, in which famous (or infamous) editor Theresa Nielsen-Hayden details the context of rejection. Her rendition seems painfully accurate, specifically her endnote:

“Aspiring writers are forever asking what the odds are that they’ll wind up in category #14 [buy this book – for those that didn’t click through to read the details]. That’s the wrong question. If you’ve written a book that surprises, amuses, and delights the readers, and gives them a strong incentive to read all the pages in order, your chances are very good indeed. If not, your chances are poor.”

Based on the current statistics that have been posted on this blog this year, 1% of the queries submitted have resulted in a submission request.

I have not broken down the other 99% into specific categories, and given the amount of time that would require, am unlikely to do so. But, to be desperately, perhaps brutally, honest, I would venture a guess that at least 50% fall into the category you term “painful” above. Of those remaining many fall into (a) completely wrong for the agent in question (e.g. poetry, children’s picture books, other things I don’t handle), (b) Theresa’s category #4 (Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language), (c) with an idea that is overly familiar, or (d) some combination of a, b, and c.

To make another educated guess, based largely on instinct from reading queries over the years, probably only 10% of the queries received make it into the “second pass” pile for further consideration. While these numbers make it patently obvious that the query process is flawed and inefficient, it remains, nevertheless, a necessary evil, simply due to the volume of inquiries most agents and editors receive.

Please do keep in mind that your mileage may vary from agent to agent on the overall statistics. And remember that the ultimate test is in the writing, so if you are sending me a query, include those first five sample pages (not chapter 34 as someone did this week). Hopefully this question was as delicately answered as it was tendered.

Good night, and good luck.

7 responses to “letters from the query wars with Agent Manners response

  1. Other advice — when including those first five pages? Make sure that they are the right first five pages. I got a much better response after realizing that my starting chapter was too wretchedly slow, and if I cut it entirely and did some chainsaw-therapy to the next chapter, I could end it on the bestest cliffhanger ever in 5 pages.
    Of course, the response also pretty much said I needed to apply chainsaw therapy to the rest of the manuscript, so I’ve been working on that for some time now. Slog, slog, slog.

  2. It’s funny you should mention the venerable Teresa Neilsen Hayden, because she inadvertently prompted my question to you. (I attended Viable Paradise in 2006) She gave us statistics on the good vs not so good manuscripts that come to her yearly–totally blew me away. I’ve been wondering ever since if the same held true with agents. Thank you for putting my curiosity out of its misery. 🙂

  3. “include those first five sample pages (not chapter 34 as someone did this week). Hopefully this question was as delicately answered as it was tendered.”
    Ok, this made me laugh.
    I finished Barbara Rogan’s Next Level workshop in September. She really did hammer home the necessity of starting in the right place and making that opening sing.
    She said when she was an agent she could guarantee the opening wasn’t ready when a writer sent her pages from the middle.
    This original post was interesting. Now I am going to go look up that link.
    Julie

  4. queries
    “If you’ve written a book that surprises, amuses, and delights the readers, and gives them a strong incentive to read all the pages in order, your chances are very good indeed.”
    Well, good if you can get the agent or editor in question to actually get that far. If the query letter itself sucks, would you bother to read those pages? I can do the pages, I can’t do the query. Is there any way past that roadblock?

  5. Does (a) include subcategories of categories that you’d normally take? I’ve done my best to eliminate everything else, and the only reason I can think of that I have left is that yes, it’s a historical, but it’s a historical set in a place and time that apparently no one wants to represent.
    How do I get past that part and get representation for that book?

  6. Thanks so much for that Slushkiller link! Wonderful! To get the perspective from the editors pov was fabulous! Makes me feel so much better and more prepared for the rejection letters… if I ever get my novel to the point of submitting!?

  7. Well, good if you can get the agent or editor in question to actually get that far. If the query letter itself sucks, would you bother to read those pages? I can do the pages, I can’t do the query. Is there any way past that roadblock?
    Go look up the Miss Snark archives.
    Look up the Query Shark archives.
    Find the Snowflake Novel writing method and work backwards to get your focus.
    Write up something between 250-350 words and post it on Evil Editors and get some feedback. He and his minions are excellent and it’s a fun place to hang out and learn.
    Queries are a necessary evil and we have to do them.
    Good luck.
    Julie

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