letters from the query wars

# of queries read last week: 118
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 0
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: n/a

# of queries read this week: 180
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 0
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: n/a

Oldest query in the queue: 4/3/2010. If your query was sent prior to that date and has not received a reply, either I did not receive your query or my reply has gone astray.

450+ queries in the queue still awaiting review.

Despite having taken time off from queries back when I had my wrist injury in December, I continue to find it a challenge to keep up with the “up to 4 weeks” response time listed on our website. I have some ongoing issues with those injuries which limits my time at the keyboard. Additionally, the number of queries received has been higher this year than it was last year.

In an effort to be more efficient and (hopefully) provide better response times, I’m re-evaluating my submission guidelines. I plan to have updated information on my website in the near future. This will include a request to include the word query and also the title of your novel in the subject line of your e-query.

What is most helpful to you in submission guidelines? What is least? What questions about queries can be addressed in guidelines without making the specifics overly complicated? I hope to find a balance between an overwhelming amount of information (which will only slow the process down) and providing enough information. Thanks for any insight you can provide from the writer side of the equation.

25 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. I always dither, in email submissions, between whether I should enforce plain text (and if so, should I include HTML markup of underlining, if needed), or HTML email (and if so, what font??).

  2. Solutions
    Hello Jennifer!
    Nathan Bransford recently blogged about the query deluge issues, and several good solutions were proposed to him in the comment section. I’m assuming here the hiring of an intern or assistant to first sort through the mess is out of the question, so here are some other suggestions:
    1. Ignore the queries that do not follow submission guidelines, as in, don’t even respond to them
    2. Streamline the submission guidelines and process for both you and us… QueryShark already forces you to use a very specific subject line, I assume this helps Ms. Reid to sort the queries from other e-mails.
    3. If you’re still copy/pasting form rejections in e-mails and are using either Outlook 2000,2003 or 2007, you can configure it to automate the response process.
    It works a bit like this:
    You create a folder within Outlook, and name it whatever you want, say “Form rejection”. Through a simple interface, you assign an e-mail template message to that folder (supposedly your form letter that you’ve been copy/pasting until now). Then all you have to do is drag the query e-mail from your inbox into the folder, and it automatically sends out an e-mail to the original sender. No need to type or copy/paste anything. Just click and drag, and away it goes.
    Each folder can have its template, and you can even check a box that will open the compose editor with the TO: and SUBJECT: fields already filled, and the message already copy/pasted in the body, should you wish to personalize a bit from time to time or add information.
    For processing a lot of e-mails fast, it’s an amazing tool.
    4. Increase the “promised” response time to six weeks or more. Though it might not be ideal for us, you’re a good and highly sought after agent, people will still query you. Some agencies openly say they only respond to queries they are interested in, so in comparison, two more weeks isn’t a deal breaker.
    5. If none of these do, I suppose only responding to queries that garner an interest would save a truckload of time, though I know it’s frown upon by many lit agents who blog. Maybe you’re one of them, I’m simply suggesting.
    As for us and your guidelines, they are simple enough I find. Query, sample pages, synopsis, all in the body, no attachment. It’s not hard at all.
    You could force us to use a specific subject line like you already, but more detailed, say “Query: TITLE, GENRE, AGENT’S NAME” to help you sort through them. QueryShark does it and still gets hundreds of submissions each month apparently! Since you seem to be using the same e-mail address for the entire agency, maybe getting a dedicated address could be useful too.
    If you’re interested in the Outlook solution, I can e-mail you the information.
    Thanks for your blog and representing sci-fi and fantasy with such a passion 🙂

  3. I really don’t think your requirements need to be changed. They’re pretty easy to understand, provided the person in question actually takes the extra twenty seconds or so to read all of them, and they seem to do a fair job of weeding out those who are not ready right off the bat. As far as the vast amount of queries you get… well, I guess that comes with the territory of being Jim Butcher’s agent. 🙂
    If I had to say one thing to change or add, maybe having a font preference. Ten pages in Times New Roman and ten pages in Helvetica or Courier New give a different stopping point for writers. Other than that, nothing springs to mind.

  4. Is it possible that you have reached the point where you should hire an assistant? Or is the work that is piling up of the sort that you can’t farm out?
    I don’t know how you keep up, I really don’t.

  5. I think the absolute most helpful thing an agent can include is their tastes. Eg. listing fantasy, but meaning “Urban fantasy only, high fantasy is not for me”, or listing romance when they’re only interested in erotica, or regency. I’ve seen some agents say they don’t like to preclude something outside their usual tastes that they might really like, but overall that inexactitude seems to waste both agent and author time.
    How to title the email is useful (though any queries which are coming through without ‘query’ in the title strike me as somewhat clueless).
    Pet hates might help as well. “I’ve never met a bondage story I’ve liked.”
    How many pages to include below the query, of course. [Agents who have pages included with the query strike me as more efficient as that gets rid of the ‘request a partial’ stage and allows the agent to jump straight to requesting a full if they’re interested.]
    Average response time, and a status check time are also useful. “I usually take up to four weeks to respond to queries, but at times may take more. If you have not heard from me within eight weeks, please feel free to send me a status query by forwarding me your previous query and beginning your email subject like with ‘Status Query’.”
    I know that some agents take a “no response means no” approach, for reason of time or abusive replies, but it is a very discourteous approach and I appreciate that it’s an option you have not taken.

  6. Were I submitting, I would want to see as a minimum everything that is an automatic reject, no matter how complicated that makes the guidelines. I’d also like a list of Ideas That Don’t Necessarily Kill Your Query Dead But Probably Cripple It.

  7. query guidelines
    I find the guidelines posted on DMLA clear and concise.
    Recently Janet Reid posted something on suggested query word count (250 words, I believe). Perhaps offering suggestions on that – not quite within the realm of submission guidelines, but still important to the querying process.
    Links to sites that cover how to write a query, examples of great queries, a list of ‘what not to do’…that could also be helpful.
    One thing that I love to read on the DMLA site – the What We’re Looking for this Month section. Oh my goodness, but I love reading that section. Not only does it provide more insight into what you and your fellow agents would like to see, but the examples serve as creative sparks. The specific examples under ‘Some stories I’d like to see’ also do a great job of showing the concepts of hook and loglines. If any of those stories become a book, I hope someone at DMLA lets us know. I’d like to read them.
    And I have to ask (because I’ve wondered for some time), does Mr. Maass come up with all those possible stories? Or do you and your fellow agents suggest things as they come to you?

  8. If you’re going to edit your guidelines, I’d consider specifying your preferences/ideas re: synopses. You posted a while back about what you looked for in a synopsis, and I was surprised. I’ve found that the answers to this question are wildly different depending on the agent, and so I think if I were at the stage where I was submitting my writing, that information would be golden.

  9. A rough tally of your blog entries for the year-to-date shows you’ve read some 2,655 queries and have requested 11 partials/manuscripts from that.
    On the one hand, the more specific you can make your guidelines, the better. It would seem clear that many if not most of the writers submitting to you have either not read your guidelines or have willfully ignored them. (Or just cannot write themselves out of a wet paper bag.)
    On the other hand, why go through the work to update them if no one is reading them? 🙂

  10. For your query guidelines, I really like it when agents say a bit about what they are actively looking for and what you don’t want – if you’re sick of vampire books, say so! Love ’em? tell us to bring ’em on! I want to query the right person, I’m not spamming queries to everybody so more information is appreciated for someone like me who writes novels that cross genres, usually YA/fantasy or Paranormal/Erotica. You can see we’d be confused if you say you like YA but don’t do fantasy – I wonder if I should bother…! And if you represent Erotica, does it include gay/lesbian or just the straight stuff? Please and thank-you!

  11. An Alternative
    Have you considered voice-recognition software? Windows 7 actually comes with it. Takes a bit of time to learn to use but Windows’ version is very intuitive – and I say that being about as anti-Microsoft as a person can get. Even if you use a Mac, consider it – I find it allows me to be much more productive at a keyboard. Havi Brooks at “The Fluent Self” hates hers, though.

  12. Honestly, I think that there are many writers who will never read your submission guidelines. This isn’t to say that you should not post them. I say, do what feels best for you. Sometimes writers can be as wrapped up in their own heads as you are overwhelmed with the submissions.
    I do know that many agents quickly skim their queries and seem to have it all down to a science. They know exactly what they are looking for… Possibly a word or two that will jump at them and they’ll just know. Some people are all about feeling, and others are about order.
    I think you kind of find your own way and work with it from there. Also, some of us need a little extra help. Maybe you could take on a temp assistant to help you get through the queries. Maybe once you are caught up and able to breathe you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for. Sometimes all the clutter in front of us can cloud up our minds.
    Good luck! I’m sure you’ll get through it okay 🙂

  13. I think your guidelines are mostly all right. I do agree that maybe posting “things I’m tired of seeing”, even if they’re just things that you personally are tired of seeing might help you quite a lot.
    It depends on how many queries you’re rejecting because it’s badly spelled, not what you represent, not even addressed to you, doesn’t follow directions, and other technical bloopers that show the writer is sloppy and it’s entirely THEIR fault.
    If you’re getting a lot of those, no amount of revising of your guidelines will help. You just need a more efficient way to automatically reject those without them taking up your precious time. Email programs or what not.
    Now, if you’re getting a lot of queries that are well written, but they’re just not what you’re looking for at the moment, something you’re personally not too keen on, the market is oversaturated with them, editors don’t want [insert thing] anymore, or something that isn’t the writer’s fault, then revising guidelines will help you.
    Also? I know this is going to sound like heresy to fellow writers, but have you considered the “no response equal rejection” method BUT with an auto responder to make sure that the e-query was received? Because if an author knows that their email was received and then doesn’t receive a response, they’ll know you’re not interested and that their query actually got there.
    As a writer? This would not offend me. I understand that agents are quite busy and inundated with queries (as well as ALL the other things they do daily for ACTUAL CLIENTS, who are the most important part of their job). As long as I know my e-query got there, I’m happy. If no response is my rejection after a certain time limit, it really does not hurt my feelings whatsoever. In fact, given some pre-formatted rejection letters I’ve received, I prefer it.

  14. 298 queries read and no partials requested? Eek!

  15. When I’m not sure what an agent is looking for–for instance, some agents say a synopsis is one page, some say five, some say ten–I use google to search their blog or website for the relevant keyword. So I’d say that if something varies from agent to agent, just so long as at some point you’ve mentioned what it is that you like, that’s good. Of course, links on the side of your page to posts that answer those questions is even better.

  16. I’ve always used the subject line to make it absolutely clear that I’m querying, with the title of my book, and who I am. Seemed like common sense and an easy way to see what’s in the ol’ inbox.
    I like your guidelines as is, but I’ll be careful to check it again to see what you decide. : )

  17. A DON’T BOTHER LIST (would be helpful to all)
    I have to agree with Lorgus boy, it would really be nice to see of list of genres/themes/plots that you are just NOT going to be interested in. I’m sure it would save you time in going through stuff you just aren’t interested at this time and it will save us submitters time in not sending queries to agents who are not interested.
    My writing partner and I put you on our list of agents who do seem to be interested in what we are almost done with, but there are many agents out there who just leave no hints about what they do or do not want.
    But I’m sure Jennifer, that there are plots and character types that you are sick of reading about. Guess I’ll find out 4-6 weeks after we sent in our query if ours is that type… (gulp! – lol)

  18. Streamlining Query Guidelines
    I think your guidelines are pretty easy to follow, but I agree that I would like to see what you are looking for in a synopses.

  19. Don’t just ask for the title in the subject line, ask for the completed word count. People whose novels are not completed will be unable to add this bit, and you will be able to trash a chunk of the queries without wasting valuable time.
    Also, as someone who has submitted work to you and is waiting for a response, I wouldn’t mind you pushing the response time out a couple of weeks. Knowing that you are spending the proper time with my novel is worth having to wait a bit longer than expected.

  20. I prefer the submission guidelines as posted on your personal site better than those listed on the Maas Agency site. Bullet points make it easy for me as a querier to see everything expected of me.
    Yes I read the paragraph if that’s what’s posted and I make sure my submission is accurate. But yours is not the only query I’ll be sending that day and bullet points ensure clarity.

  21. Thanks for the many posts about guidelines. I’ve been putting together a query for you so this has been on my mind. Most of the info posted is very clear, so I only really ended up with a couple of questions: In addition to the word “query” and the novel title, would it be helpful to see the genre and word count in the subject line? On synopsis and first five pages lengths: do you mean the first five pages as they would occur in a double-spaced manuscript? Is a 2-3 page synopsis also measured in double-spaced manuscript pages? It may be my journalism background, but I’d love rough word count ranges on both of these.
    I enjoy the “what we’re looking for this month” section of the Maass Agency site and I’d be interested to know what you’re most eager to see. Additionally, I agree with the posters who recommend a longer “don’t bother” list. On the whole your submission information and the blog posts about submissions are a gold mine of what to do and not to do — thank you very much for providing them!

  22. Clean the Augean Stables
    Look, agents shouldn’t be gatekeepers, if you’re a good agent you’re the wrong personality type to do a good job panning sand for color. It doesn’t matter how well you define what books you’re looking for, that only keeps the decent folks out. The jerks will still be there… and so will some good books. Your mindset needs to be on FINDING, not REJECTING, and with the way the system is set up you’re trapped.
    Trying to judge a book by a query is worse than trying to judge it by its cover. Writing queries and writing books are two different skill sets.
    My advice is find some hapless intern who can demonstrate reading taste and set the task to them. Your time is valuable, and you need to be using the skills that have made you successful, not trying to figure out a way to do something you should never be doing.
    I used to get paid big bucks to give this sort of advice, now it’s worth exactly what you’ve paid for it. I do feel for you, so my gift to you is a short prayer for your peace and your success.

  23. Would an online form help?
    Would it be better for both you and authors if you had an online form that specified the individual information you wanted included? For example, a field for title, fiction/non-fiction, genre, word count, etc. and places to paste in the query and samples. Each field would state what you are looking for (300-500 word synopsis, etc.) Then when reading these forms on your end, you could have a series of buttons, too long, don’t rep that genre, etc. that would make responding faster. Just an idea.

  24. It’s so important to know if I should receive a “we got your query” auto-acknowledgment email or not–otherwise if time goes by, I wonder if it even got there.
    I *really* like the submission processes that give you a tracking number and you can see where your submission is in the queue, but that may be too much for you to deal with! Updates on the submissions page saying, “We have processed all queries received before X. If you have not received a response, something got lost and you should re-query,” are an entirely wonderful, easier option.
    It’s always a relief to see, “Just keep it somewhat close to standard manuscript format, with this information, and don’t sweat the details like underlines or italics or font.” If, on the other hand, you do care, that’s good to know too.

  25. Perhaps I spent too much time commanding ill-educated military folk in the 1980s, but there’s something that I think is missing from the guidelines:
    I think the guidelines would get a lot more attention paid to them if you included a couple of examples (real ones, with permissions of the writers!) of queries that worked… and a couple of examples of queries that won’t work (probably necessary to write those yourself). Particularly in this day of faddish category-mixing and misguided advice from sales/marketing gurus trying to expand their gurudom to another group of suckers (authors), converting from generalities to specifics seems like a good investment of time and energy.

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