letters from the query wars 9.27.2013

Some days back someone asked me if I was going to continue the query wars posts. I realized at that point that I’d somewhat inadvertently taken the summer off.

Bless me writers — it has been far too many queries since my last posting. I’m afraid I must admit that I became a touch discouraged at continuing this ongoing set of entries and talking about queries received as the number of them which don’t even make the vaguest attempt to follow guidelines seems to have risen dramatically. Some of them have been the usual sort — no sample pages, everything as an attachment, and so on. They make it harder to give each one a fair assessment, but one tries regardless. Others should have never made it to my inbox at all (e.g. the self-help dating book, the poetry, and additional categories that are listed online as not for me).

There’s also been an increasing number of what we generally refer to as “pre-queries.” Most of these fall into the category of those who would rather ask for guidelines than do a quick search online. Some of them of late have wanted feedback on ideas — before the novels are even begun. (Sidebar: Insert essay on the question of whether ideas or execution factor more highly into whether a book might find a publisher.)

Enough of this shows up daily to slow down responses to those who follow the guidelines and are seeking representation for projects that fall into my wide and varied genre interests. So I used to write about those that didn’t in what I intended as an effort to help everyone. It was supposed to get me more of the kinds of queries I wanted and less of those that I did not. It was supposed to help writers more expediently find a good match for their work and succeed in getting representation. Of course, the flaw in this plan in that those not taking the time to do the little bit of research to find guidelines desperately hidden in plain sight on the internet are in all likelihood also not finding these “query wars” entries.

All this is by way of saying I’m rethinking my approach. I’ve got some ideas and I’m mulling them over, probably for a few more weeks. However, I’d also welcome feedback from the trenches, so to speak. Whether you’ve already queried or are about to query or have just begun writing and may plan to query some day down the road. If you were on the agent side of the so-called query wars, how would you approach it?

14 responses to “letters from the query wars 9.27.2013

  1. I have been on the agent side before; I’ve interned with an agency. The way they did it was to have interns weed out the queries that just didn’t apply to the agency. Their guidelines weren’t strict, but it might work for you.

    They eventually stopped having interns read queries because there were a few slipping through the cracks that the agent might have found interesting. On a side note: this agency, for whatever reason, attracted mostly authors who knew how to query, so the agents weren’t completely overwhelmed by looking at the queries themselves.

  2. Back when blogs were huge and everyone had them, some prominent agents encouraged aspiring writers to treat guidelines as suggestions or something to deter the intimidated. What’s the worst that could happen if you query someone who doesn’t list what you’ve written as something they’re looking for. Maybe you’ll be the one that broke the mold!

    While that kind of attitude might give hope to those in need, it doesn’t do any favors to fellow agents who are inundated by queries they never intend or wish to represent and in the end just adds more discouragement for the authors who are rejected even more than they would have been otherwise.

  3. Hello Ms. Jackson,

    First of all, thank you so much for posting about the query wars. I tweeted you asking about them, and I am overjoyed to see you saw my post.

    As for your dilemma, I do not envy you in the slightest. In college, I had a volunteer position affording me the delightful opportunity to receive hundreds of emails daily. I do not pretend my inbox was nearly as cluttered as yours likely is, but I can understand the anguish. In my opinion, your role in the “query wars” is the rescue party or the medic. Your part in the battle is to crawl through the trenches over corpses in the hopes of finding the survivors, the determined, and see them safely on. The “letters from the query wars” are the military statistics chronicling the dead, categorizing them into neat, dispassionate categories to keep from becoming emotionally attached or strictly speaking mourn the loss.

    As a young writer pursuing publication, I find them comforting in a morbid sense. I can better anticipate the competition. But as an agent, the letters are filled with regret. They discuss the number of failures, describe the information lacking, and occasionally when you find the survivor of the week, a number and genre. Those that do not research your guidelines, will not likely find your query wars. But for those that do, the letters do not entirely give an idea of what you are looking for. They give an idea of what you are not.

    I suggest you add a section to your standard letter format. Include a short paragraph showcasing a query you did find interesting, even if you did not ask for a manuscript. Search for the positives in the queries you saw. Talk about a humorous line or intriguing character. Describe the imagery or prose in a positive light showing your writers what you are looking for, truly looking for. Try not to get disheartened. I am sure you will find your survivors, like Jim Butcher, and see them on to the next steps.

    Whatever you decide, I hope to see several more letters. Maybe someday, I will be included in them.

    Sincerely,

    Alexis Rhodes
    storytellerrhodes.blogspot.com

  4. As a writer on the brink of returning to the trenches, I’m hesitant to say anything lest my comments be held against me in the court of slush. But you asked for feedback, and we all need some from time to time.

    Querying is hard. I’m sure you understand this, but pretty much everyone on the planet is telling us writers we have no chance. None. Significantly less than one percent of writers even land agents. They say agents receive thousands of queries every year and that a good year is one where that agent signs two clients. If you’re a writer, you’re slated for piles of broken dreams and a bitter old age where you quote the stats of getting an agent to would be writers.

    Those stats rains on the parades of many would be writers (I’m a bit more of a dance-in-the-rain type myself, but black sheep doesn’t begin to cover my position in life). Your letters provide a much needed reality check to those raw stats.

    Take May’s query wars for instance: only four people in the last ten queries had followed guidelines and queried you with something in the genres you represent. Talk about encouraging from the point of the follows-directions-and-writes-in-your-genres crowd. Even with thousands, I know I’m not the bottom of the pile because I’m in the four.

    But how do you stop that bottom half from sending you so much time consuming crud? I don’t really know: shoot, I receive fifty emails a day and on average two of them are for me. Clearly I’m not a spam guru, but you could try altering your guidelines to have a special handshake in your subject title. Post it in your guidelines, that way everyone knows to type something like “The Sun is Shinning But The Ice Is Slippery” in their subject line after QUERY:AWESOME NOVEL OF AWESOMENESS. Then set your email to shunt every letter without the tag into the spam folder.

    Of course, the concern is that your filter will get overzealous and start flushing everyone into the query limbo of the spam folder. Set up an auto reply for your spam and inbox. In the spam folder, everything gets an auto response that says “Your email has been lost because you didn’t follow the guidelines. If you’d like your query to be found, please go to ________ for instructions. If you were pitching an idea, please be aware that I only consider completed manuscripts for fiction.” For your inbox have an auto responder that says something like “Your query has been received.”

    It’s clunky, but it might help weed out the totally clueless. Maybe. Okay, probably not, but it might help ease your burden. It’ll certainly educate some people, and you can always check your spam folder to be sure it’s working.

    Good luck whichever way you jump, but seriously, consider the secret handshake or password. Speakeasies were cool for more than just the jazz and scotch in teacups.

  5. If I were on your side of the desk, I’d create an online submission form for the website. A form funnels the submission into what you want. Emails allow too much freedom. A form also takes away any (if any) ambiguities about your guidelines. Inputs might include:

    Genre
    Word count
    Title
    Author name
    Author contact details
    A window to paste in query content
    A window to paste first 5 pages
    A window to paste synopsis

    Then the fun begins. The filters you set will help automate weeding. For example, under “genre” you might add as examples all of the ones you accept and don’t accept. If a submission selects one you don’t, the server files it away or deletes. If the word count comes in at 400,000… If contact details are missing, into the dump. If an author submits more than once, that data can be gathered — if the same author submits 126 times in one week, the submissions go into the folder “to be read never.” If any window is left empty or the word count in the window is 125 or less…

    In regards to the focus of your postings, I love reading about errors. Short-sighted schadenfreude, I know. But I always learn more about writing from reading examples of great writing.

  6. Ellen T. McKnight

    For those of us who do our homework, your posts have made it very clear what your interests are and what kind of submission you’d like to receive, as well as how incredibly rare it is to find a match. I’d suggest aiming your posts at the writers who are paying attention. I’d send a short but polite form letter to the people who are sending you prequeries or otherwise ignoring your guidelines, such as “We appreciate your interest in our agency, but we can only address queries which follow our guidelines as set forth on our website,” providing the link. I might add “If your work falls outside my specified areas of interest, please do not resubmit.” You could also consider an online submission form with filters, as suggested above. Most importantly, I hope you won’t let all this get you disheartened.

  7. Hi Jennifer,
    I am working on the final draft of a novel and then will begin querying. I am starting to wonder if there is a new trend among some writers, where they just don’t want to bother with research. I haven’t been on the query side, but I belong to several writing groups. I have noticed that there have been a lot of questions that writers post that the answer could easily have been found with a quick search on the internet. Maybe, I’m wrong, but I’ve always used the groups to ask questions that I wasn’t able to find the answers. I recently saw an unpublished author ask, if they should starting querying now that they are half way through their first draft to see if there would be any interest in the book. Maybe it’s a new mentality. I didn’t get the impression that this person was lazy, or not dedicated, just maybe it hadn’t occurred to her to search. This baffles me because there are so many good sources of information on the web.

  8. I agree with Oliver, however, I’m actually a software engineer, so I say make it simpler and more restrictive. Only let them type their name, the name of the book, and their email address. They have to pick one of the genres you represent. They have to attach the entire book in DOCX format (use Word to determine word count automatically as part of the upload / validation process). And then give a 500 character (not word) “pitch” box in which they have to tell you about the novel (I suppose that’s a 4th place to let them type). I’d even go so far as to have Word reformat the MS to the way you like it as part of the upload, and maybe do a spell check and give you the results as part of the delivery email. You could even do a count of “was” as part of the upload. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

  9. I’ve loved the Query Wars entries, primarily for the statistics and what/if you’ve requested anything from those submissions. Somehow, it makes the whole prospect of querying — for me, anyway — a bit less overwhelming.

    I’ve been lurking here for a while, and this is something I should have said long ago: thank you so much for these posts. And thank you for introducing me to some amazing writers and their stories. Every book I discover through your Release Day posts becomes an instant favorite. & hearts;

  10. I agree with Rena and M.J.; I’m sure it is depressing for you to slog through so much garbage; but as a writer, when you are going through one of those spells where you are sitting there looking at your screen and wondering “is everyone else going to think this is just garbage?”–well, there is some comfort to knowing that if nothing else, at least you know how to read directions. And that, apparently, that does actually set you apart.

    It reduced the fear. I could see what you were dealing with, what you were looking for, and take some solace that rejection was a common affliction. I could definitely see how Query Wars could be a drain on your soul, but from this side of the desk, it helped me see that I would be submitting my work to a human.

    (I’m not quite sure what I imagined the alternatives were.)

  11. (I realize I only told you why I liked keeping the Query Wars around, and did not suggest any alternatives for getting better queries. I wish that I did have good suggestion to share, but I don’t. I feel like the influx of improper queries is correlating with the influx I’m seeing in Pampered Chef, Scentsy, 31, and countless other social-sales parties. The more pinched people feel for money, the more they look for ways to make a quick buck. I’m not quite sure why there is a prevailing opinion that writing is a quick way to make a buck, but it seems to be. In one of my college courses, we were to discuss ways for beginning writers to get started. I was shocked at the number of people who thought that anyone could get published in relatively short order, as soon as they decided that was what they wanted.)

  12. Pingback: letters from the query wars 10.4.2013 | Et in arcaedia, ego.

  13. Catherine Haustein

    Hello Jennifer, I would be interested in your tips on writing a good plot synopsis.

  14. This is perhaps a very selfish comment, and I am not tech-savvy enough to know how feasible it is. But as an author currently in the query process (I have not queried you, but I *am* waiting on a response from one of your colleagues), as an author who DOES research every agent inside and out, I think it might be helpful to have different types of form letters. “Sorry but this is not for me” isn’t really helpful to me, and it probably isn’t helpful to the authors who aren’t following guidelines either.

    “Your query was rejected for failure to follow guidelines. Please confirm the guidelines here (link) and resubmit when your query meets my requrements.” or “I’m sorry, but this is not in a genre I represent.” or “A manuscript of this length is difficult to sell” or whatever. And in the end, “Sorry, but it’s just not for me” is probably going to be one of those letters, for the queries that ARE well written and DO follow guidelines and ARE in a genre you represent but just don’t grab you. But at least then we would know what to fix (in that case, nothing I suppose, just query another agent and/or write another book).

    I think a lot of people don’t know that they’re doing anything wrong. And when I read about all of the people who are wasting agents’ time by sending things that either shouldn’t be sent at all, or shouldn’t be sent to that agent, especially in the context of “All of these queries are the reason I have a ‘no response means no’ policy,” it makes me… sad. And angry. To think that time that could have been spent on an author who really DID spend the time to polish the query and research the agent is being wasted reading queries that had no chance going out the door.

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