letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 219
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 2
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: YA fantasy (1), paranormal romance (1)

Note: As of end of business today (that’s 5pm EST), the oldest query I have on hand is dated 3/13/09. If you sent your query prior to that date, I either did not receive it or my reply did not reach you. This still leaves me with quite a stack dating back over the last couple of weeks — your patience is appreciated.

Please be sure to check the guidelines on our website at http://www.maassagency.com/submissions.html (long story short: send by email to info [at] maassagency.com or by snailmail with SASE and include your query letter, the first five pages of your manuscript, and a synopsis).

Dear Authors:

Now about this queryfail/agentfail conflict…. I didn’t participate in queryfail (I didn’t even read any of it) and I’m not going to make any value judgement about its worth or injury. Suffice to say that people have argued both sides. But I will admit that I didn’t make it through all the comments on agentfail. (If you haven’t seen agentfail yet, it’s a thread where Agent Jessica courageously opened up the Bookends blog to hear writer complaints.) I’m not going to read any more of the thread at this point but the portions I did read left me feeling by turns both enormously sympathetic with writer-kind, and ridiculously defensive on behalf of agent-kind.

A friend of mine pointed out to me that the opposite of queryfail isn’t agentfail — it’s rejectionfail. And I think that focused for me one of the things that took this off the rails for me. It’s the process that’s flawed. And pointing fingers at either the writers or the agents just seems to raise more ruckus and animosity than awareness. Or at least that’s how it looks from here. The difficulty is that the query-process feels adverserial. Since the supply of writers so much outweighs the supply of agents, it’s simply impossible for everyone to be satisfied. As Nathan said in comments on his post about the topic, you can’t win. If an agent answers too quickly, the agent didn’t give the query enough consideration; if the agent is too slow then other criticisms come in to play. This is not to say that some of the points raised on both sides aren’t valid, but that they need to be weighed in the balance of the big picture. Agents must do the best they can with the resources they have.

I’m happy to see that Jessica is having an AuthorPass and AgentPass Day today because I think what we need to remember here is that even if the query system is flawed and uses charged words like rejection and generates bad feelings on both sides as everyone struggles to make their writing or agenting dreams reality — well, what we need to remember is that agents and authors are on the same side. And we shouldn’t let the fact that agents advocate for authors get lost.

I think agentfail allowed for a lot of venting. Some of it was constructive. Some of it not so much. And though it took me nearly all day to work my head around to it, I’m determined to walk away from it with a positive outlook. I hope you will too. Let’s remember that respect is a two-way street, but earned and not an inalienable right. Let’s all re-commit to focusing on the positive aspects of agents getting the chance to work with talented and creative writers and writers getting the chance to bring their stories to readers, even if the road is sometimes long and the shortest distance isn’t always a line between two points. Most of all, let’s remember the readers. I’m glad they want more stories. May their appetites never be completely satisfied.

37 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. If you think being an agent is frustrating, try being a writer. For good writers, agents or editors are the least of their problems. With newspapers downsizing, along with other unemployment, suddenly everyone’s a freelance writer. It is getting very difficult to make a living these days.

  2. I have two comments:
    First of all, does one actually send a query siting “paranormal romance” as the genre? I submitted my query to you as women’s fiction and I believe paranormal romance is a better fit. I guess I didn’t realize paranormal romance was a genre.
    Secondly, I agree that the queryfail became one big muddled mess of finger pointing and although the intentions were well meaning, I found myself wondering what it would really solve. Will the predictable complaints really change how the process works? Although I’m admittedly green when it comes to the publishing world, I didn’t feel venting would solve the real problem.
    You have a point in saying that agents and writers are on the same side, however there are thousands of rejected writers out there that don’t feel that way because it’s the “agented” authors that are the only ones that can boast having the agencies in their corners. It’s simply a ratio problem, you can’t send out tips to every writer you reject, therefore they will feel left out in the cold.
    And…because I’m dying to know…did you send those requests for manuscripts in an email? I would just hate it if I didn’t get my request or denial! The worst is not knowing!

  3. Good points. But I feel like agents are still on the side of those writers who are unrepresented even if it doesn’t sometimes seem that way. They advocate for better terms overall which can benefit everyone down the road, they attend conferences and workshops and so forth and interact with writers whether they represent them directly or not. It’s not a perfect system and I can understand why some writers find frustrations in it. But hopefully there are positives in there too, even if they are somewhat intangible at times.
    I think paranormal romance is considered a subgenre of romance at this point. I’m not a huge stickler for labels but sometimes they are helpful.
    As to your question about queries — yes, I did send those responses via email (unless the query was sent by snailmail and had an SASE). If your query was before the date of 3/13 (as per above) and you haven’t gotten a response, check your spam filter. 🙂

    • I wish there were more paranormal romances which weren’t werewolf/vampire/urban-fantasy romances… (E.g., Bujold’s first two The Sharing Knife books.) The RWA implies that it’s any romance with a fantastical setting/element (so The Sharing Knife 1&2 count), but I hardly ever see anything labeled “paranormal romance” that isn’t Anita Blake revisited urban-fantasy-with-vamps-and/or-other-fantasy-species.
      It makes me leery of whether I should label my romance-in-a-fantasy-setting as “paranormal romance” or if I should stick with RiaFS.

  4. I’m so new to this whole world, I almost feel like I shouldn’t even comment.
    That clearly isn’t stopping me, though.
    I’ve read a little of this controversy between agents and writers, and it makes me nervous. I don’t want to get to a point where I’m so jaded that I resent people who don’t feel my project is right for them. It’s terrifying to think that could happen.
    Having said that, from what I’ve read (granted, I didn’t read everything–I got depressed) it seems like agents are making a huge effort to find out what it is that writers want or expect from them. I don’t know what else we can ask. I’m sure it’s not true across the board, but let’s give credit where credit is due.
    I’ll be the first to admit that I dread rejections, but I don’t ever want to come to a place where I spend my time frustrated at the agents who don’t see my work as something they are interested in, rather than spending time productively writing something this is right for someone.
    Seriously. Nervous now.

    • I applaud you. Thanks for commenting. 🙂
      I like what you are saying about putting the writing first.

      • Queryfail and Agentfail have sent a ripple across the online community and the whole thing just seems so damn rediculous.
        I really don’t see how someone can blame the agents for their rejections. Yes my queries have been rejected time and again. Yes it hurts like hell each time you get another one. But it isn’t like I actually blame/hate the agents for it. How can you?
        You guys get inundated by query after query, and you can only have your attention grabbed by so many things. Would I like someone to offer representation? Hell yes! But I’m not going to curse someone out because they didn’t offer it. It wasn’t that person being vindictive or callous. It’s the agent’s opinion of my work, not who I am as a person. I take what I can from it, and I move on.
        I’m not going to waste my time and energy reading another person’s gripe sessions. Life is way too short. I’d much rather focus on perfecting my craft and getting published.

      • Arcaedia:
        I queried over a hundred and forty agents on my first novel. Got requests for three fulls and half a dozen partials.
        All were ultimately rejected without comment.
        I have to admit I took it personally for a while. But for some odd reason, I now have a different outlook.
        Reaction: Re-evaluate/ get critical about self and writing/back to square one/start new novel.
        Current Result: 50,000 words out of target 85,000 written.
        Writing is artistic, yes. But it’s also a business. I do not accept failure.

  5. I tend to look at the relationship between agents and writers as being somewhat like a dysfunctional family. It’s a love/hate relationship, but in the end, we all need each other. We’ve got to communicate, no matter what. Hopefully this whole #queryfail and #agentfail thing has at least shown us that much.
    I’m totally with you on focusing on the positive in this whole big mess. That’s the only way we’ll be able to move forward. Fantastic post. Thanks for adding a little sunshine to the rain for us!

  6. No one’s forcing any individual agent to take unsolicited queries from first-time writers at all. Reading such queries in search of a big seller is, frankly, a long shot, and doesn’t make much financial sense. Frankly, if I were an agent, I wouldn’t do it on a bet. I can’t see why any agent would — without a sincere desire to publish somebody new.
    About a quarter of the way through agent fail, I was astounded that there are this many agents who take the queries of first-timers at all. It stands to reason that agents can choose any time to discontinue the practice; I hope that this experience doesn’t nudge any good agents off the fence, and out of our reach.

  7. I read through some of the comments, but it quickly became apparent that many of the people were just whining to whine. If you love writing, it’s not about the publication, it’s about telling a story. Yeah, we all want to be published, but I’d write if the only people that ever saw my work were good friends. The fact is that we the writers chose to be in this profession. Every profession has its challenges, whether it’s designing an innovative new product or building a house. There are always challenges, and you can bitch and whine about them, or you can say to yourself yeah, it sucks, but I’m going to keep trying until I get where I want. The answer isn’t to get angry at the people you want to help you make it, the answer is to do what you have to in order to get into the business, and then work to change it if it bothers you that much.

  8. Frustration Should Not Quell Professionalism
    Hi Jennifer,
    I hope I am in that 219 this week. Or maybe I shouldn’t hope that since I haven’t heard from you. (Ammanuel Moore, emailed you a query on 3/19.)
    I took a peek of the agent author conflict you referenced and as an author, who is anxious to simply get a response from an angent, I can fully understand the frustration. There’s something almost evil in not knowing. At least with a rejection, I can figure out where changes should be made in my pitch, story idea, etc. Sometimes its good to get a – this sucks. 🙂
    What’s your record, in terms of read queries in a week?

  9. I think you’re absolutely right about the opposite of queryfail being rejectionfail. I sent out some queries for a project, and today I received three wildly different rejection letters.
    One rejection consisted of a single sentence saying, essentially, “Thanks, but no thanks.” With the agent’s name attached at the bottom. This one felt the worst to get back, because I had hand-crafted the query letter for this agent, I had taken the time to research her and her list, and I had labored on the letter and then checked it over about thirty times to make sure I had everything completely right. I don’t expect agents to put the same level of effort in, but some effort might be nice.
    Another rejection was a form letter that apologized for being a form letter. No big deal, it’s a form letter, they happen. It didn’t help me any, but I wasn’t offended by it. If I had to reply to hundreds of letters a week, that’s probably how I would do it.
    The third rejection was a handcrafted letter that was actually 100 words longer than the query he received from me. It told me what issues he had with marketing such a project, and with marketing me with my publishing experience (or lack thereof). He further gave thoughts on the plot of the book and the length, and how that part of the query hadn’t worked well for him. Finally, he told me where his interests were leaning these days, and that it simply wasn’t what he was looking for at the time, in addition to the other issues he addressed.
    The third letter was absolutely fantastic. It was a rejection, but it went way above and beyond the call of duty. He showed me that he’d read the letter, he’d given it very careful consideration (he knew things about the book that I didn’t think were even in the letter, but he was dead-on about them). This was the first rejection I actually received, some 8 hours after sending it, and I didn’t feel like I’d been unjustly treated at all. I was, and remain, very grateful for his suggestions and for taking the time to write such a fantastic and thoughtful rejection.
    Now, I realize that due to time constraints not all agents can reply in this manner, and I don’t know for certain that the agent in question sends such nice rejections to everyone (though I would guess he probably does). But, at the same time, this is a letter that actually helps the serious writer. It tells them what they can change about a query to make it better for other agents, what they can change about the book to make it more marketable, and it tells them very clearly why it was that the agent decided to pass, even having only looked at a query letter. These are all important things for any author building a career and they’re things that can only really be learned through feedback from more experienced people in the publishing field.
    So, there are definitely good and bad rejections, but why is it that we’re so focused on the negative? Why don’t we have querywin or agentwin or rejectionwin? Why don’t agents focus on the queries that were very courteous and professional (even if the project wasn’t right for them)? Why don’t we, as writers, focus on wonderfully helpful rejections rather than the one-sentence ones that make you want to scream in frustration?

  10. as I see it…
    Approximately 27,000 words were devoted to #agentfail. That’s (like) approximately 1/3rd of a novel. #wastedenergyfail, #writerfail, #slacktivism.
    Get back to work peoples, get back to work…

  11. Just wanted to say that I know there was a lot of criticism tossed around with the agentfail and I can only imagine that was hard to read.
    So, just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate all that you do. The fact that you take time out of your day to blog in an attempt to help authors is priceless. Never underestimate how much you are helping.
    I also appreciate how many queries you read and the fact that you are open to being queried at all. When you post your daily query totals, I’m staggered at the amount that you go through on a regular basis.
    So, thank you for all that you do.

  12. Do you think there’s anything that can be done by agents or writers to make the process less flawed? Not to deal better with the existing flawed process, but to fix the process itself?
    Or is the fact that it works as is for agents make y’all less inclined to even think in that direction?
    I would love to know what I can do from my end to make the process less flawed. The standard advice (write the best query you can, do the research, etc.) only goes so far.

  13. I’ve sent out both my share of queries and rejection letters, so it’s rough on both sides.
    I honestly don’t mind getting a “rejection” at all – I understand that an agent has to have passion about a project to sell it. I get it. I think any and all of my frustration is agents that don’t respond at all, or have ridiculous submission guidelines (there are some doozies out there, mostly old-school), or ask for ridiculously long exclusives right out of the gate, while your life ticks away. I don’t even mind short, blunt rejects. Saves me time, move on… I do mind being held on the fence for months over a partial or a full.
    To save a lot of grief, when I send ‘rejection’ letters, I make sure to use language in a way that doesn’t discourage the writer. I tell them I’m declining the submission, rather than rejecting it. I’ve been there – I know a rejection hurts. There are a host of reasons why I’ll turn a piece down, and they aren’t all because the piece isn’t up to snuff. Sometimes it just doesn’t suit what we’re trying to do, and would be fantastic for a publication with a different feel. I make sure I tell them that.
    As for #queryfail, I still think it was incredibly unprofessional. Judging from the examples that made the hall of fame, many were from new/non-pro writers. The kind of writers who take this seriously enough to pay attention don’t make those kinds of mistakes. It was a bit like watching someone kick puppies.
    The best way to improve the process is for agents who are seriously seeking new material to outline exactly what they’re looking for and keep these lists updated, with an accurate email contact or mailing address. Acknowledge receipt of the submission. Agents could probably reduce hostility by taking two sentences to state why you’re declining. And you know, throwing an encouraging remark in the rejection never hurts.
    I have to say that I’m incredibly encouraged by the number of agents who said they read #agentfail and gave it serious consideration. It restores my faith in the ones who did.

  14. I think there are grim realities on both sides of the query process, and those involved have to accept them or they won’t survive. Rejection is the norm for writers, and they have to arrange their own minds to set it aside and soldier on. You can’t rely on someone else to soften the blow for you. You need some technique–delusional though it might be–to ward it off.
    A flood of queries for unpublishable books is the norm for agents. You see them when some agent has a contest to pick the five best or some such thing. Agents have to wade through them while remaining polite, and that can’t be easy. I couldn’t do it.
    Both sides suffer because it’s hard for writers to know whether they’re ready for publication without going through the process.

  15. 1) I wonder if “pass” might be a better word than “reject?”
    2) What did paranormal romance readers read when they were “tweens?”

    • 1) I wonder if “pass” might be a better word than “reject?”
      I’d be surprised if many agents actually used the word “reject” in rejection letters.

  16. Sell short stories, first.

  17. Good heavens, I hadn’t heard a word about the whole thing until Jay Lake linked here. I started reading your post thinking it was an April Fool’s joke that I’d missed.
    I’m now thinking that a major reason writers should write and submit short stories is so that they develop a better understanding for the submission process and a thicker skin.

  18. There’s also small press.

  19. Paranormal romance includes vamps, werewolves, other shifters, ghosts, angels, demons, faeries . . . pretty much any magical creature, including witches. If you want to see the variety that falls into the category, one way to do it would be to look at Silhouette Nocturne and Nocturne Bites, as these lines are devoted solely to paranormal romance.

  20. Thanks, it goes on my list.
    The Princess is not very dark, and the romance builds to a kiss in the final scene of the book. But, hey, she’s fifteen.
    There’s another romance, but the girl’s in denial and the boy’s oblivious.

  21. Thanks, it goes on my list.
    The Princess is not very dark, and the romance builds to a kiss in the final scene of the book. But, hey, she’s fifteen.
    There’s another romance, but the girl’s in denial and the boy’s oblivious.

  22. As a writer who is currently sending out queries and hoping for the best, I read a lot of that and I understand both sides. I read the blogs of many, many agents and also the blogs of many, many writers from pro to just starting out and as unpublished as I am.
    I understand that right now, agents are busier than ever, clogged down, and the market place has slowed, but the number of people writing and vying for spots has not let up one bit.
    I can understand drowning in emails and letters, and I can understand that there’s just a point where agents don’t have the capacity to deal with it themselves (especially since many have day jobs) or the money to hire assistants/interns (or to deal with unpaid ones).
    I mean, people gotta sleep and eat and go home sometime, right? Plus, they do have clients who’s books need selling, and that takes time.
    But I think a lot of the vitriol comes from feeling like you’re in the disadvantaged position. It’s easy to get frustrated when I feel (and again, these are feelings and not fact) that I have put forth years of my life for a book, then several more months researching agents, crafting letters, revising and rewriting synopses for someone who is in a position to reject them out of hand without caring or giving a second thought and I’m powerless to help myself out any more than that.
    As a writer who only has to focus on one thing at a time, my viewpoint is: “Wow, if someone spent two months carefully crafting a letter just for me, I’d certainly at least do them the courtesy of replying!”
    I will say, though, that I think the “no response equals no interest” isn’t completely fair, and I think agencies could change that easily as far as e-queries go. There are free mail programs to confirm receipt of an email.
    I’m not all that attached to getting personalized rejection letters, or even form rejection letters. I would just like some reassurance that the materials were received, and indeed, I think it might actually be in the agents’ best interests to do this.
    Honestly, I think if someone developed a software program specifically for this problem, especially a program that could maybe say “this query has been unread for 6 weeks, would you like to read or reject it” in a simple pop up and then allow for a one click way to send a form rejection, it could revolutionize things. Also, a program that allowed an agent to read a query and with one button, immediately send a form rejection without it needing to be typed or even cut/pasted in would be fabulous. Alas, I am not a programmer or developer. Just a lowly writer.

  23. If I were an agent, I’d have a hard time not getting hostile. I don’t know how most of them manage to stay even minimally polite.

  24. angels
    Jamie Leigh Hansen has two paranormal romances (TOR) with angels. That said, her stories also involve a curse, so I’m not sure if the Angels are the deciding factor.

  25. queries
    I don’t think the system itself is all that flawed. It’s pretty simple at its basics. Writer sends in a letter about their novel to see if an agent is interested in it, agent reads the letter and decides if they are interested or not. Pretty simple. The problems arise when:
    1. Writers don’t understand the submission process.
    2. The system gets overloaded, making it difficult for agents to read and respond in a timely manner.
    3. Writers don’t understand the selection process. Too many writers feel that they only have to write a good story and a good query to get more material requested.
    Most of the angst in the query process is on the writer end of things. And I think a lot of this is because many just don’t get just how insanely selective and subjective agenting is. Most agents are not new and looking to fill lists. They can only take on a few clients at the most in any given year. They get thousands of queries. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that your chances are very, very slim. Your chances are certainly better if you are actually a good writer, but still…very slim. Writers have to be willing to accept the fact that rejection is the norm. Understanding this can make rejection palatable. It’s not personal or even a reflection of your work. It’s just the odds. You need timing and luck, which you can’t plan for or take classes on to get better at it. All you can do is keep writing and submitting. You have to assume rejection. Not because your writing is bad of course, but because hitting that tiny little sliver of a window of opportunity with an agent is really, really hard.
    Another issue I see with some writers (just my opinion of course from blog reading and such) is a sense of entitlement. They feel that if they write something good, that they feel is publishable and marketable, that they are entitled to have it looked at and considered for publication. Then of course, they get immensely frustrated and annoyed with the query process which basically says you aren’t entitled to much of anything. Writers want validation for their effort. Who doesn’t? But it doesn’t mean you have any sort of right to be validated. Writers get annoyed when agents just say ‘no thanks.’ They spend hours trying to put together the perfect query for the agents they want, and get back two words. Again, where does the entitlement for elaboration come from? When agents are going through 20-30,000 queries a year trying to find something they love and think that a publisher will buy, where does this notion that you deserve more of an answer come from? Agents don’t really have the time to tell everyone ‘no thanks.’ They do it because it’s a courteous thing to do. Even for those agents who are quick and have the art of query navigation down to a science, they lose 2-3 hours a week just saying ‘no thanks’ to people. That’s two to three weeks a year agents lose, time they would be able to spend much more efficiently on other things.
    I know most agents feel the ‘no thanks’ is a professional obligation. I can see and understand that. Be nice though if writers all banded together and said, “You know what, we know the answer is most likely a ‘no thanks.’ We know finding the right novel is absurdly difficult. All we want to know is that you received the query. Set up your email to auto reply for receipt, and then let us know if you want to see more. If we don’t, then we’ll move on and keep trying. We don’t need to hear ‘no.’ We assume it because we understand how this industry works. We’ll just keep writing and send you something better the next time and hope for the best.

  26. Beautifully said
    Thanks for putting things so eloquently and leaving me with a positive vibe.

  27. AgentFail
    There were some criticisms that made no sense to me, and there are some exceptionally nice agents out there. But most of the criticisms found on the AgentFail post are valid.
    I agree the process has problems. It is hard to write a generic rejection letter someone won’t find offensive. When we query, we’re sending out our child. Our heart is tied up in our work so we’re sensitive to criticism, imagined or real.
    An agent who loves books and values writers, even inexperienced and developing ones, will generate fewer hard feelings than the patently uncaring. If an agent holds new writers up to ridicule, they fail miserably, even if they are otherwise successful.
    My favorite agent (and hopefully eventually she will be my agent) is a friend. I’m comfortable enough with her to send her snippets of what I write without a formal query. None of what I send is meant as a query, and it often already has a commitment to publication.
    She’s saw me through my struggle to find publication, suggesting agents who represented fantasy. She wrote encouraging notes. And when I sent her a rough draft of the first chapter of my work in progress, a revenge-murder mystery, she wrote: “Holy S*, you can write! I want to see this when you’re finished.” She will too, and before anyone else. All this is based on a friendship, not a professional relationship. And even though it’s a friendship that developed over the internet, she is as important to me as any other friend I have. Hi Janet!
    The agents who never responded, who made fun of my first query letter, who used me as a bad example on a blog post and wrote a nasty email to back it up failed. It’s not the process. It’s the agents themselves. It is worth going back and reading all the comments on the AgentFail post, even the silly ones. To pass off the response to that blog post as only indicating a flaw in the system is a mistake.

  28. I didn’t read the agentfail and I don’t regret it one bit. I read what Nathan and others had to say about it, and that’s been more than enough for me. I’m a writer, not an agent, and it bothers me to see other writers venting, complaining, or however you want to say it, in such negative ways. I feel like it makes me look bad by association. I want to jump up and down saying “we don’t all feel that way!!” Sometimes people get unreasonable because their feelings are hurt and they’re human. I understand that. But geez, keep it off the net, will you? All this negativity benefits no one.

  29. I have no idea if you will even read this far into a past blog post but I figured I would leave this for you anyway. This is quite possibly the best response to the battle royale that I’ve seen. The visual aids are the best part.
    Hope this brings a smile to your face.

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