letters from the query wars 9/3/2010

# of queries read this week: 203
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: urban fantasy

oldest query in the queue: 8/10/10

A few days ago while I was wondering around the internets, I happened on a discussion in which the topic was an attempt to determine if there was a way to increase the odds of requests by gaming the system based on things like submitting during times of year when there are less queries coming in. The theory being that a smaller quantity of queries means less competition.

Well. Not from over here. (Setting aside the idea that there is a “slower” period of the year, because I sure haven’t seen one lately.)

To my mind queries aren’t like writing contests. I’ve been asked to guest-judge many of the latter and when I receive the finalist entries, I have to pick a winner. Therefore, even if none of the entries are my cup of tea, I still attempt to determine which is the best crafted, the most marketable, or whatever other characteristics the contest committee wants included in the judging.

Otoh, with queries, there is no requirement to ask for the one that is better than the others on a given week. Some weeks I’ve requested half a dozen submissions. Others I end up with 1 or 2 or even none.

10 not-so-great queries = 0 requests
10 great queries = 10 requests

See what I mean? The query system isn’t like a contest. From where I sit, the queries aren’t compared against each other to determine a “winner” with a “prize” of having materials requested.

22 responses to “letters from the query wars 9/3/2010

  1. Hm. I can see wanting to “game the timing” in order to plop a proposal in front of an agent at a time when the agent is least likely to be burned out that day and predisposed to hate everything.
    On the other hand, better to be just so good that even a burned-out agent would feel favorable, yes?

    • Just so good?
      Ah, but how do you know you are just so good?
      If the not-so-good writers could recognize it, they would recognize the flaws in their letter/synopsis/pages/full novel, and fix them, so they would no longer be not-so-good writers.
      And those who are just so good may not realize that others are not as good — they can do it, surely everyone else can.
      This is an interesting paper on the topic: Unskilled and Unaware of It

      • Re: Just so good?
        I would know it by getting accepted, of course.
        The point isn’t whether or not I am that good. The point is that gaming the system with the theory of “I don’t have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you” isn’t a workable game for many or most agents. You do have to outrun the bear. The agent isn’t going to accept the least bad of a bad lot; the agent is going to wait for a good submission.
        Gaming the system with an eye to avoiding a burnt-out agent who says, “Comma in wrong place; DIE DIE DIE DIE”… is a different issue, and perhaps more reasonable.

      • Re: Just so good?
        I love the “Concluding Remarks” of that paper.
        To paraphrase, the writers accept the possibility that maybe their conclusions are wrong and they’re just too incompetent to see it!

      • Re: Just so good?
        Thank you for posting this link. I found it fascinating and I learned the answers to a couple of questions I have always wondered about.

  2. I think there’s this idea that an agent will give more time and more consideration to an inbox of 50 queries than an inbox of 500 queries. When people have a lot to get done, they tend to do things a lot quicker, and so it seems to us that you’ll request less to manage your time. I think a lot of agents do this kind of thing, but I bet a lot don’t as well! It’s nice to know that you give everything equal consideration whether or not they’re in a pile of 200 or a pile of 20!

  3. Judges of many different kinds of “contents” have to distinguish whether the best of all items wins, regardless of its overall quality, or whether any winning entry has to meet an outside objective standard first. For instance, there may be a small select class in a show (dogs, cats, african violets, orchids, watermelons, pies, whatever) where all entries meet the points standards and all are awarded ribbons. Other classes, maybe no entries get a thing. It seems reasonable to me that agenting better resemble that model, because the end-goal of getting published has such a vast supply of competitors. At least, I hope any agent I’d want to work with would be taking time to handle all submissions with the same standards, be there 50 or 150 or 500. MY winning against a smaller and less publishable class of submissions doesn’t make me (or any of the agent’s other clients) more interesting to publishers. My writing apples doesn’t invalidate somebody else’s oranges, either, so I’m not sure that a “competitive model” is all that helpful.

  4. I think the whole “game the system” thing works better when you’re targetting a publisher. Like publishers starting new imprints who need a lot of books at once. But even then, the publishers are “gaming the system” as well. For instance, when Harlequin starts a new line and commits to X books a month in that line, they ask all their established writers who might write something like that if they would give that line a whirl. They hold contests to induce writers to write to that market. They call up agents they know and ask if anyone has a client who might be interested.
    But it’s also a well known strategy to target new agents, too, folks who don’t already have a full client list and might be more receptive to new writers.
    Still, all these strategies assume a level of competency. In other words, the work has more slots available to it, but it still has to be publishable. All you do with these strategies is prevent the whole “I love this but there’s no room on our list” kind of rejections.
    I spent a while banging my head against the wall of a “new line” at Harlequin but I didn’t have the voice for it.

  5. 10 not-so-great queries = 0 requests
    10 great queries = 10 requests

    You can’t argue with that math, though I’m sure some folks will always try.

  6. There are certain times of year, though, that have a psychological impact on a lot of agents (who have blogged about it). If they take an August holiday, they have commented that they ask for less partials/fulls right before the vacation. They wondered if it was solely due to lack of quality or because they were already behind and wanted the vacation to catch up. Same could be said for December and wanting to spend time with family or November and the flood of NaNoWriMo queries that come in.
    It’s a testament to you that you can remain objective. I know for the short time I read slush, high volume days were so much harder to find the diamonds in the rough because that much crap just frazzled the brain.

  7. Interesting post
    To be honest, the whole idea of “gaming the system” is a new concept for me, one that makes me a little uncomfortable. I much prefer your method of letting each query stand on its own two feet, and may the best queries (however many there are) win.
    I hope most agents operate the same way. I’d hate to think I might be querying folks who won’t request partials from me simply because they’ve used their alloted quota for the day, week, etc. That seems much more unfair.

  8. The last line says it all. A great post. Thanks!

  9. Just Asking
    Just curious if the inclusion of dead presidents will help the odds 🙂

  10. I also have read articles from “Agents” who specifically stated that they were going on holiday and if authors wanted to get there manuscript looked at first, they needed to submit them on a specific date when the agent was returning.
    So maybe there are good times to submit a query and not so good times. I’m sure there has to be some fluctuations of some kind. Agents are only human.

  11. I think that’s an important thing to remember. It isn’t about winning, it should definitely be about presenting quality work that can stand on its own merits. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

  12. Agents are well-practiced at their craft so it’s unlikely there’s a better time to query than when you’re ready. To attempt to game anything would be like spitting into a tornado of variables. Multiple emotions, other duties on their plates, etc., etc. will all play a role in decisions.
    Just do your research, target your queries, and hope you’re not a UU*.
    *Unskilled Unaware

  13. I don’t think querying agents is a game at all. Querying in general is grueling work. I’ve revised mine at least a thousand times and I’m still not sure if I’m ready. I think that’s where the problem lies. All of us who have written anything mentionable at a family gathering are guilty of querying too soon. If you’re not ready, it will show immediately to an editor or agent. Take a break from your project, do more research, take a writing class, then go back and re-read your first query. In my case, I want to send letters of apology to a slew of editors. Hopefully, they won’t remember me if I query them again.

  14. Further to tamkee_7’s comment, what do you do when you _have_ submitted a query, and then due to something or another, you realize your submission contained a mistake, or worse, a missing piece? Is it at all reasonable to say, “I’m sorry, could you please discard what I sent and look at this instead?” or is it best to just write off the submission and try again in the future with a completely different project?

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