letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 122
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: mystery

Dear Authors:

I imagine many of the readers of Agent Rachelle’s blog were dismayed to learn of the change in guidelines at her agency. Due to the volume of queries they are getting, they are no longer giving a guarantee of a response unless they are interested. Luckily, they list a 60-day period as a limit for when you can expect to hear from them. She’s pretty unhappy about this decision, but resigned to the necessity.

I can empathize with her position. The queries seem to come in faster than I have time to read and respond to them these days, and I have to admit that the amount of time I get to spend on them seems as if it’s becoming less rather than more. Based on my weekly stats, so far this year, I have read an average of 33 queries per business day. Let’s suppose for a moment that reading, assessing and responding to each one only took 3 minutes per query (some take more while others, such as those mentioned in the next paragraph, take less probably). So, a little more than 1 1/2 hours per day. That’s almost 20% of (so-called) regular business hours. And they are unpaid business hours — unless one of those queries yields a sale, and those statistics can be grueling as readers of this blog well know, so most of those queries will not generate commissions. Looking at those statistics and knowing I don’t have that kind of time in a business day (who does now-a-days? and who only works 40 hours a week anyway?), it becomes rather obvious why every week many agents seem to fall a little bit further behind on response-times.

Plus it doesn’t help when people send queries without doing even a moment of research. For example, this week I got a query for representation for a coloring book! And there are many queries that I get each week that fall into categories that are completely wrong for me — business books seem to be the latest craze and given the economy I can see why. But one can hardly expect an author to understand the economy when they won’t even take a few minutes to do research on the agents to whom they are submitting. It can feel so exasperating sometimes. I mean, in theory a person is sending you a query because they want to work with you on getting their book published, and yet so many seem to be so careless of your time (and, by extension, your clients’ time).

More than one person has suggested to me that I consider closing submissions for a period of time, or only having them open for a set period. Which I suspect would end up meaning that I would continue to get business books (or the like) regardless. It’s a suggestion I am resisting. I don’t think it will get me what I want — which is great novels by either new writers or those already published that I can feel passionate about representing, and can sell. I can’t find them if I’m not looking.

28 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. If people aren’t bothering to read the guidelines in the first place, would they bother respecting whether submissions are open (or only open for a set period)? I get the feeling it would restrict your ability to find what you are looking for, without much affecting the quantity of queries for what you’re not looking for.

  2. Have you considered intermediate slush readers? In the pay-it-forward realm of SF/F, at least, you could probably find volunteers. (Of course, you then have to go to the trouble of vetting the volunteers and such, but it might be worth the time-investment?)

  3. Is there any chance another member of your office, perhaps an intern or a student, could read through the queries and triage them? With the volume you’re talking about even just getting rid of just the obviously not what you do projects would help.

  4. wow…
    That’s a tough one. Maybe the latest find-an-agent-or-die craze will settle down soon and querying will return to normal. Or perhaps a combo of the dreaded auto-response and form letter will help. The auto-response will let potential authors know their query has been received (perhaps even stand instead of a response after a certain amount of time has elapsed.) While the form letter can be reserved for those folks who persist in: sending the same query each week, refuse to read your guidelines or equate flippancy with wit. Hey, if they can’t be bothered to follow the rules you shouldn’t have to be bothered with responding.
    * sigh * It’s got to be maddening and it’s scary for authors who are working hard for an opportunity. Too much madness and you may close the gates…

    • Re: wow…
      An auto-response of “I receive too many queries to personally respond to every one. No news after XX days from this message should be taken as a rejection. Here is a link to my guidelines for repeated queries or multiple queries. [link to said guidelines, including the ‘what I do NOT represent’ list]” …I could live with something like that, personally.
      (Bonus points if someone writes an “Agent’s Email” program that can count how many queries are in your inbox and say something like, “You are 1,356th in the inbox since 12:01 today. If you have not received a response by…”)

      • Re: wow…
        Oh, neat! And how about “This is the 47th Email you have sent since we got your query. You do know it moves your query to the back of the queue each time you send another Email, don’t you?
        And a skull icon that sends an auto-regrets, deletes the query and pulls up the next one. Or a question mark icon that moves the query to the “hand handle” file. And maybe a tear icon that opens mail so you can do an “Oh, so close!”
        I am surprised there is no agent-specific software to semi-automate the work.

  5. If it were me, I would probably start only responding to people who have done their research. But I’m a bit of a heartless bitch like that.
    And as an aspiring author, it sucks to think that the people who do their research and go about querying in a thoughtful manner are in essence being punished for the inconsiderate ways of the uninformed.
    But such is life.
    The issue sounds exasperating. I still don’t know how agents do what they do and stay (relatively) sane. Kudos!

  6. A friend of mine paid an outfit to submit her query for her. They sent the exact same query to over 200 agents without paying attention to important details such as, “Did the agent represent Friend’s genre.” I’ll bet that option is becoming very popular.
    I don’t know how you can protect yourself from such spam. Unless you developed a webpage submission form that authors had to fill out to do a sub. The form could be programmed to only accept genres you’re interested in. That wouldn’t stop everyone, but it might make newbies think twice.

  7. You should start sending bills to authors who waste your time by sending you nonesense. I’m not saying anything big, but like…. And generic email charging suggesting that they owe you a quarter for being lazy might at least net you some candy bar money.

  8. Strong medicine, and a very important message to be giving aspiring authors right now. I thank you for sharing these thoughts, and I applaud you for taking your stand. I truly hope you are rewarded for your efforts.
    I haven’t yet submitted a query letter to any agents, as I’m trying to finish up some important revision work I’ve come to realize is needed on my first completed novel (I thought I was finished over a year ago *shakes head*). I’m hoping to send out query letters in the next week or two. I hope to be able to give an agent like yourself something that they can really feel good about promoting.
    Reading blogs like this have helped give me the feeling that literary agents may prove to be some of the best people I’ll ever encounter in this business. Before reading posts like these, I think I honestly imagined that agents were some mythical beast that had to be approached armed to the teeth. Now I actually find myself looking forward to forging a relationship with an agent who can help me tell stories that will find a home, be read, and perhaps even loved.
    Despite the odds stacked against me, suddenly I have a real idea as to how this can be done, and it starts by finding someone with a passion for helping writers sell good books. Such a simple thought, but it’s taken me most of my life to figure it out. I thank you and people like you for giving me that insight.

  9. Hell, at this point, you might as well just change your guidelines to “I will only respond if interested.” Maybe some new writers will gripe, but whatever. At least they will stop flooding your inbox.

  10. It’s a shame agents can’t set up some sort of automated email vetting program that would scan and delete queries with particular key phrases in them [g]. Like “coloring book” or “how to make money” or any other genre you don’t take.

  11. My recommendation: Hire someone to screen unsolicited queries for the automatic disqualifiers–does it conform to guidelines, is it a type of book you have no interest in representing, are there grotesque offenses against the English language, etc.
    Then this person can take the time to send out the “sorry but you totally suck” letters. You can then devote your time to potential clients who might actually produce revenue.
    There’s only so much time in the day, and (as one of the most influential agents or whatever it was that article called you) yours is too valuable to waste on non-productive activities.
    The economy sucks; you should be able to get someone cheap.

    • Hiring someone to perform a duty that brings in no money to begin with doesn’t really make any fiscal sense.

      • I was thinking this, too. 🙂 Yes, hiring someone to triage your queries would be wonderful – but what are you going to pay them with? Monopoly money? Your eternal gratitude? Cheap or not, hiring someone (even part time and for cheap) is a lot of money that most agents just don’t have right now.
        Sure, they could donate half of what they make, if they’re willing to stop being selfish and buying such luxuries as groceries and medicine and clothing and rent. Bah! Those greedy agents, always wanting eat meals and wear shoes! Next thing you know, they’ll want to do laundry.
        I don’t like the new policy, and part of me (I don’t mind saying) resents it* – but I also can’t think of any better a solution than this. And an email/software program that scans for phrases you don’t want is stupid, because sure you can scan for “making money” – but what if the query pertains to a story about a character who is hellbent on “making money” and it turns out to be a good book?
        Unfortunately, you need an agent’s eyes and an agent’s common sense for this job, and there’s not software sophisticated enough to substitute for those two things.
        Of course, all (or the vast majority) of writers could make sure they carefully research each and every agent they send their queries to. That would solve a lot of problems also.
        *not because I’m even in the same genre as the other agent, but some part of me rebels at the idea of not at least getting a rejection notice when I go through the trouble of sending a submission.

      • When you look at it on its own, I would agree. But by that logic, companies shouldn’t hire receptionists, security guards, or janitorial staff.
        The fiscal sense comes from freeing the person who generates the revenue from performing time-consuming, non-revenue-generating tasks. The revenue producer is then able to devote full time and energy to tasks that directly generate revenue.

  12. Logrusboy….I like that idea. What an interesting and saddening job. 😀 I love it.

    • I’d totally do it, but then again I hate stupid people. She probably wouldn’t let me do it though, because I’d keep trying to explain to them exactly how stupid they are. Muahahaha! 🙂

  13. I just want to say that I appreciate your taking the time to give us this talley every week.

  14. You’ll be sad when that coloring book makes the NYT bestseller list 🙂

  15. I don’t have a problem with not getting a response. I have my agent database sorted by rejection date. So far, every agent claims some kind of response time. I have a field for that. When that time passes, I just put the current date in the rejection field.

  16. I wish they would learn.
    I wish people would buy a book on the format of Query letters, and do all of the research BEFORE even thinking about submitting one. I recently submitted a VERY well written query letter, to 80 agents, that I spent months researching each agency, making sure they accept submissions, and the genre my novel was.
    Out of the 80 agents, not one requested to even see my manuscript. I think if agents had MORE time to read the good queries, then they would have a better chance of finding new talent. Out of the 80 rejection letters I got, more than half were almost the same message, but in different words. I think agents have SOOOO many query letters, they scan through them casually and aren’t allowed the appropriate time they need.
    BTW, my novel ended up being very successful, and I had lots of book signings. Though it was self published, I am hoping I can one day find an agent.
    Shane Maddon.

  17. Eeek! Uh oh. If you close submissions, you will be the third agent on my to-query-when-I’m-ready list who has done that. I’m afraid that by the time I finish revising the book, none of the agents I want to query will be accepting submissions!
    I feel as other commenters do, though…people who don’t read the guidelines aren’t going to notice that you’re not accepting submissions; it will only stop the people who query the right way for the right stories.
    I hope you continue accepting submissions…at least long enough for me to finish my book. 😀
    To God be the glory,
    A SF writer

  18. Anonymous wrote: “I don’t know how you can protect yourself from such spam. Unless you developed a webpage submission form that authors had to fill out to do a sub. The form could be programmed to only accept genres you’re interested in. That wouldn’t stop everyone, but it might make newbies think twice.”
    I was thinking of this too. If it was set up so that queries had to be pasted into a field, with no attachments allowed, you also wouldn’t have to deal with people who ignore your instructions about attachments. And with a little scripting, the automatic acknowledgment message actually *could* say something like archangelbeth suggested: “Thank you for your submission, which has been placed in our queue at position #3174…”.
    Come to think of it, maybe you need a support ticket system, like IT departments use to handle requests. Maybe there’s something like that for editors and agents.

  19. Makes you wonder if their books are any good if they can’t figure out who to send it to.

  20. Thank you
    Thanks for your blog. The adivice you offer is extremely valuable.

  21. queries
    I wouldn’t feel bad about changing your policy to, “I’ll respond if interested within ‘blank’ days.” To me, it’s no worse than a form rejection. I’m surprised when I hear back within just a few days. I use 30 days as a kind of default time limit. If I haven’t heard back within a month, and there’s no stated policy about replies being any long than that, I’ll just resubmit. It’s not like we writers are in a big hurry. We can’t afford to be in this business.

  22. The tragedy of closing submissions
    If the majority of agents are going to close their doors to queries or submissions then I submit that this action will end up becoming a tragedy of titanic proportions. Even if the economy does not right itself in the near future we cannot allow the likes of e books, self publishing or POD publishing to whittle away at the tradition publishing market. This will certainly occur if agents and publisher cease to examine carefully new work from up and coming writers or if they loose hope that the public will turn away from reading a good story.
    When times are at their worst and little money or work is available this is when most people will look for a great book to read, one which will lift their spirits and give them hope. I’m a writer and I’m writing an epic fantasy, one which I hope to submit to the likes of Jennifer Jackson and others when its complete. I and other writers like me can ill afford to lose hope in our work or the belief that agents and publishers will still take our work, for if we do we might as well stop writing all together.
    Finally, If anyone doubts the ability of fantasies such as, “Lord of the Rings” to lift and inspire the human condition, then they have either not read it, or they miss understood it. I refuse to give in. And I respectfully hope that you, Jennifer, won’t either.
    Christopher Ballantyne.

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