letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 226
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partials/manuscript requested: science fiction

Dear Authors:

It can be far too easy to play the statistics game. Especially when someone is conveniently posting their stats every week. Sometime in the last couple weeks someone commented on a query wars post and asked if I thought my numbers were typical. Not only are they typical — many agents I know say they reject about 99% of materials they receive — but the odd thing, to me anyway, is that they haven’t changed in that respect.

Back in the day, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and before e-queries were invented, there were a handful of much-touted guides (e.g. Jeff Herman’s book and the Writer’s Digest one) that had agent listings.* One of the questions in those guides was usually about rejection rate, and the very first time I ever filled one out for the agency, I was told to list our rejection rate as 99% (if you can find an old edition in a library somewhere, you can prove me right). Back then, we had to carry our submission piles of manuscripts around on those luggage totes with the bungee straps (no convenient e-readers) so everything we requested was directly contributing to the eventual cracking of our spines. But we didn’t let that interfere. Our goal was to find and sign great stories that we could sell to publishers — some things just don’t change. But I digress.

In those times, the agency received about 40 queries per week total. (Can you imagine?) I could generally review and respond to them all within a day or two. And often I requested 1 or 2 partials or fulls per week with the occasional week where nothing was requested. Now, as you can see from the numbers above, I receive hundreds of queries per week (at the moment there are still about 450 in my query folder), and those are just mine. The other agents I work with have their own as well. However, despite the fact that the queries have increased hundreds of times over, the request rate has remained roughly the same.

Here’s some of the reasons I think this might be the case:

–> The number of people who casually query is higher. It’s so much easier to send an email than to trudge to the post office with packages and buy stamps in the correct amount.

–> The proliferation of personal computers has given people the opportunity to be more casual about writing the novel in the first place. No typewriters. No correction ribbon. No labor-intensive retyping for revisions.

–> The number of people who inappropriately or prematurely query is much higher. I’m basing this on personal experience. The percentage of queries that are for types of materials we don’t represent at all is higher. The percentage of queries from debut novelists who haven’t finished their books (or in some cases, even begun them) is higher. The percentage from writers who just haven’t learned enough about their craft yet is higher.

–> The availability of data about publishing has grown by leaps and bounds and is a less arcane pursuit, therefore more people with more access to information are finding what they need in order to pursue publication.

All of this makes the statistics rather skewed when you take a step back. My gut instinct says that the queries that garner requests now have to stand out against a bigger sea than they did before, but that they have the same qualities as those that stood out when the pond was smaller.

What do you think? And what other theories would you propose that might contribute to this?

*These books still exist and we are still listed in them but I wonder how much they are being used with something like agentquery.com out there as a resource. It’s been a long time since someone mentioned one of the print books in a query as their source for information on the agency.

24 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. The percentage of queries that are for types of materials we don’t represent at all is higher.
    That’s the one that is most depressing…because that information is now readily available on the web.

  2. Interesting post.
    I’d say the word processor is probably the biggest contributing factor. That and the ability to cut and paste.
    I do have a question though. If the rejection rate is the same, does that mean the actual number of clients you take on has increased in the same proportion as the amount of queries received?

    • What I was trying to say is that despite the rise in the number of queries, the number of submission requests hasn’t risen in like fashion, perhaps for some of those reasons that I mention above (and for others I haven’t thought of yet). I think I’m reading more queries now to find one client than I was before but it’s at least partially a case of a sizable proportion of those queries falling into categories that shouldn’t have been sent at all.

      • I imagine the actual quantity of truly awful queries is much higher. Especially since it’s so much easier to change an address and hit the print button compared to typing out a new letter each time.
        Thanks to all this wonderful technology, I should think agents are far more prone to headaches than they were a few years ago 🙂

  3. Everything you say here chimes solidly in tune with conversations I’ve had with other agents over the past ten years.

  4. I think I could offer several ideas, but here’s a couple.
    In the old days, many times you were to submit a full manuscript, and that meant copying a bunch of pages. The cost of mailing the whole thing was not insignificant (plus the SASE if you wanted it back), so the up-front investment was bigger, not to mention you couldn’t submit the few pages you have done and hope someone would accept that you’re “still writing the rest.”
    The other big thing, as you suggested, is that submission is so much easier now it almost begs the author to take a shot. Good or bad writing, done or not done, accepted genre or not, the author can, with minimal effort, fling their prose at anyone, and maybe somebody will like it. If the odds say 999 queries will be rejected before you find your publisher/agent, then the sooner you get 1000 out there, the sooner you win. Right?
    C

  5. I think part of the problem with people focusing on statistics is that the process is not random. You don’t roll dice to decide whether to request a manuscript or partial, so the percentages are irrelevant.
    I do agree that the lower barriers to entry mean that more people are submitting. The problem many of them face is that while completing a novel-length manuscript has gotten easier, writing a novel has not. So the number of people writing salable manuscripts is only increasing with population, while the number writing and submitting any old manuscript is rising much faster.
    The likelihood of a good writer getting an agent is about the same as it always has been.

  6. I’d be really interested in roughly what percentage of queries falls into the automatic reject categories – incomplete or non-existent manuscripts, types of books you don’t represent, CC’d to a million agents or addressed to someone else (I can’t remember if you’re one of those who auto-rejects on those, my apologies), etc.

  7. Speaking from experience, and watching my father query when I was a kid, the internet has made the process more transparent and less mystical than in times past. Once upon (and all that), a writer had to chat spells, light candles, pray the rosary (or perform some other religious ritual) and finally do a actual research to discover the path through the murky waters of the published world. There may have been books, but you unless you knew what you were looking for, you’d pass right by them in the bookstore.
    Nowadays, you can throw “agents” or “submission guidelines” in a search agent and get a plethora of links to check. Links that have email addresses and snail mail addresses. Links that have blogs like this one. People, with their short attention spans, scan through the information, take what parts of it speak to them and throw together their query. Nothing mysterious or mystical about that. Who cares if they’re sending their How-To books to a romance agent? Anyone can be published these days! No actual work required.
    Right? @=)

  8. Though I have no experience with agenting work, I think you must be exactly right about the reasons the pond has flooded over. Though as an aspiring writer*, those statistics are rather discouraging.
    *Don’t laugh, please. Also, I promise I’ll be reading all submission guidelines for all agents I query when I finally write something worth querying for.

  9. This reminds me of a story I heard from a different profession altogether.
    A friend of mine taught a university engineering course for a period of several years. During this time, the government brought in new funding and doubled the number of students the program could accept. Hence, the number of students taking that course also doubled.
    The number of students who managed to pass it, however, stayed about the same.
    Increasing the opportunity doesn’t increase the amount of talent in the population.

    • From a pure logic standpoint, it seems to me that those numbers make perfect sense. If you assume that those who are really motivated, which includes those few that are both motivated and talented, are already in the pool, then it seems equally logical that the “additions” to the pool would be those who are less motivated, and presumably, less talented. That’s not an absolute, just a reasonable set of assumptions.
      Ergo, if the “good ones” were already there, the pool just got more crowded, but the skill level didn’t suddenly increase. It just makes it harder to find the “good ones” amongst the rest of the wannabes.
      C

  10. Jen, that comparative example is fascinating! My hope is that the passing ratio was a little higher than the query acceptance ratio, though…
    Really, this information should be posted in front of every person that ever gets the idea to write. It should be pounded into their heads Brave New World style; then they can’t use the convenience of technology as an excuse for sloppy writing. Polished is published, polished is published, polished is published…

    • I beg to differ with your mantra, polished is published. It isn’t.
      True, everything you query and send out should be presented in its Sunday best clothes. But just because a story is polished to the nth degree, a sparkling shiny novel doesn’t necessarily mean you will get an agent or that the agent will be able to SELL to an editor.
      The manuscript has to be salable. The manuscript has to fit particular lines/imprints. The manuscript has to invoke passion in the editor. The editor has to be willing to fight for it during their meetings. The manuscript had to be the same enough to keep an editor in his/her comfort zone, but different enough to garner attention. Don’t forget other editors are just as passionate about their projects and there might be one slot for seven manuscripts.
      So who wins??
      It’s a business and everyone wants to make money, but sometimes your pretty shiny manuscript isn’t really what they want. That’s when you buckle down and finish the next one and the next one.
      My mantra: Lather, rinse, and repeat.
      Margaret

  11. I think your summation really captured the crux of the situation. On a different note, have you been able to see a faster improvement on later submissions by the same authors? (With the volume of material you see I won’t be surprised if it all becomes a blur.) But I do wonder since the presence of books, workshops, and online submission requirements does help aspiring writers to learn more of the pitfalls before they fall in them, or correct their mistakes sooner.

  12. Another influence may be the softening of international and continental boundaries. I know that it was relatively easy for me to send a query to the US via email, whereas doing it via snail-mail would have been off-putting to say the least.
    Not only that, but should you succeed then your on-going communication with your agent would have to have been via airmail or international phone-calls with the expense, time zone difference and delays that would incur. Nowadays an email crosses the Atlantic in seconds and we can chat for free.
    Is that confirmed by the statistics? If you were to compare the number of queries from other English-speaking territories now with those from ten years ago, or even those from the west coast of the US, would there be an increase as communications have improved?

    • No longer having to beg friends to send you stamps makes life a lot easier indeed. (The Post Office sells stamps online, so you can buy them with your credit card in case electronic submissions don’t work). So I would guess – particularly as you cannot necessarily see from a query where the sender is located (I have a gmail address) that a fair few of the queries are from writers overseas.
      The amount of information and training and communities that are available means that I know a fair few who are writing and submitting in English, who previously might have written in their own language only – or not. I would guess that a portion of queries comes from that source.

  13. On the plus side, I’d argue that word processing software has probably improved the quality of the manuscripts that are ultimately published.
    I don’t care how dedicated you are, if you have to retype pages X to X+20 in order to tweak a paragraph early on in the chapter, you’re less likely to put in the effort than you would be if all you have to do is make minor adjustments to the paragraph itself.
    As supporting evidence, I’ll cite all the golden age SF authors I loved as a kid and still occasionally reread. (I’m looking at you, Heinlein.)
    On the other hand, Haldeman still apparently does everything longhand and he’s magnificent.

  14. I don’t suppose any of a previous generation of publishing and agenting sorts recall if submissions shot up when electric typewriters (or even manual ones) became widely available? (I don’t presume to guess your age.) That data might reflect on the word processor/computer question.

  15. To some extent, agents must limit themselves to what they think they can sell, and I don’t blame them. I’ve long thought agents are pickier because publishers are pickier, and publishers are pickier because the falling demand for printed fiction forces them to take fewer risks. The falling demand is caused by the fact that the new tech of the last 20 years has pitted printed fiction against new competitors it never had before — many of which are inexpensive, or even free (which makes them very tough competition).
    The question to test this theory is not, “Are more or fewer novels being printed?” — but rather, “Is the public spending more or less of its money on novels?”
    I haven’t critically examined this theory — maybe the numbers don’t bear me out.

  16. Queries on the increase
    I agree with all of those reasons. It’s much easier to query with so much information out there and when you only have to press send instead of making labels, crease SASE’s and go to the post office.

  17. I really like this post. It makes the process of agent acquisition seem less bleak. I’d like to think that I’m one of those people who would still buy stamps, etc. I mean, I re-type the final draft even though it’s on a computer, just to make it as nice as possible…

  18. Haven’t been here in a while, but I liked this one and thought I’d respond.
    I agree that the spread of the personal computer and the Internet has contributed in a very large way to more extensive querying by authors. When I started doing this, it was with a Selectric IBM electric typewriter, and was one of those damned souls who trudged down to the local bookstore and researched who was accepting what in that year’s edition of “The Writer’s Market.” I never actually bought a copy; from the glacial amount of time given by most agencies and publishers on when they would reasonably respond to virtually anything (a three-month minimum seeming to be the norm), there didn’t seem to be much point in spending twenty-five bucks in beer (er, postage) money on a tome that was only going to be used four times a year before needing to be replaced.
    E-querying produces, by comparison, insanely quick response times. I have gotten turnaround times of “the very next day” and “later that same afternoon,” and it certainly beats the living hell out of the old method.
    Also, and as a final point, the Internet has allowed writers to connect with each other in a way that wasn’t possible even fifteen years ago. For the first three years of my (ongoing) trek toward publication, I only personally knew of one person who wanted to be a professional writer, and that was the guy in the mirror. It wasn’t until I got to college that I met people who were even casually flirting with the idea. Today there are hundreds, thousands of support groups/literary MASH units that we can turn to when the chips seem down.
    I’m sorry that it’s resulted in a never-ending mountain of queries for you, but on this side of the fence, the technology boom has been very welcome news. Good hunting, Jennifer.

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