This is dedicated to all my writer pals currently in the querying trenches.
I may feel a long ways away from a long querying journey, but I still remember the struggles, and I won’t ever forget what it’s like dead center of that marathon run to find an agent. (I’ve found three, all via the slush pile over a 10-year period.)
I can talk about the struggles now because, Life Wisdom: it’s best not to rant or offer advice to those who can employ or represent you while searching for that job or for that agent.
Querying is a process rife with fears and imposter syndrome, when you’re always trying to figure out whether you are handling the querying process effectively and making any progress whatsoever.
I tell you what’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to admit…
…That Agents Are Human
I mean, why can’t they be like ME, who is purrrfect when it comes to communications. I ALWAYS respond to emails same day. Never miss a one. And I ALWAYS keep all my social media profiles updated. I ALWAYS read at the speed of light.
And yet when my inbox was still empty after several queries–some months old, some weeks old, I started to get a little restless.
Then I remembered the day job and the number of emails and communications that went out daily, on top of the goals I had to meet, and I wondered how in the world agents maintain the incoming slush pile, a tsunami every single day, on top of everything else they have to do.
…That the Website Ain’t Right. Updates, Please!
When agents’ social media profiles and websites don’t match, that can be super-frustrating. Like the time I got an automated response from an agent who indicated that she would not be receiving queries till spring. I was writing her on September 7, four days after the date posted on her website all summer, indicating she would be open again to queries. That date was not up to date, and neither was her Manuscript Wish List site. But still I asked myself: Maybe I should’ve checked Twitter and QueryTracker too, before querying?
Um, no. I’d already done plenty. I normally called it quits after three sites’ worth of research on one agent. I’ve got novels to write, and if I’d researched every agent I queried with an average of 4-5 sites each, I would have never gotten any pages written. I reserved the deeper dive research, over three sites, for the times when agents and I were in further conversation leading to possible representation.
But it sometimes feels–no, scratch that: it ALWAYS feels–like you’ve never done enough when you’re querying.
When at one point, I had 50-some queries pending on No Small Thing, with #PitMad in my rearview mirror, and with also a submission to PitchWars, one could say I left no querying stone unturned. Who said I wasn’t doing enough? This fast-paced culture that expects us to be machines.
In this culture of planned obsolescence, we all feel frustrated that we have to constantly keep up. See my original point: when the heck do agents have time to maintain websites? It takes a ton of time for me to keep this site up and running AND I have help from the amazing Elizabeth Simmons.
Another time, I received a note back from an agency that said, “Although we appreciate your interest, we have a firm policy of returning all unsolicited material unread.”
I’d gotten the agent’s email as a subscriber to Publisher’s Marketplace, and I wrongly assumed that this access meant, well, access. I should’ve know that if the agent’s website says nothing whatsoever about how to submit, then they really don’t want you to submit.
…That Some Want It So Personalized
You will read blog upon blog where certain agents want personalization of the query. They want to know why you want them.
Because of the above unknowns and frustrations, my advice is this: create a clean, streamlined query that can be sent to anyone. Then leave one small, fill-in-the-blank spot where you can place why you’re querying this particular agent. I always put that personalization in the hook paragraph. I’d do my research, then deliver one sentence to explain why You, Agent X, are best suited to sell my manuscript. I got it down to a science so I could preserve my creative energy for writing.
If I was really, really interested in the agent, I might even update my bio paragraph (the last one) to add a bit about something relevant to writing and this particular agent (an award or accomplishment of mine they might value, since you can’t put your whole resume in your bio, or a book connection in common, etc.). That’s one way to end on a super-personalized note. But that’s all I would do. In other words, a personalized query doesn’t mean you have to revise the entire query.
If the agent is the wrong fit, you trust in the Universe during the times when they read your full manuscript and then ask to call you. You listen hard during those conversations, you Google extra, and you decide then, if there’s an offer, whether this is the person for you.
Why? Sometimes, I was querying widely for myself: to leave no stone unturned. Because if I were to never find an agent, I didn’t want the buck to stop here. I didn’t want to hear myself say in response to, “How many agents did you query?” the following:”Well, 50 over six months, because I spent soooo much time on each and every query.” “How many got responses?” “Um, 25.”
My average is 130 queries per agent found.
…That You Have to Wait Around
I learned the hard way with my last set of queries that waiting on the first five to ten agents to respond for several weeks makes no sense if you want to make progress, and if you’re at a certain skill level.
The last part, skill level, is crucial, so please hear me out. I queried too quickly and too many people when I was just starting out in 2010, with a novel that was more of a second draft than a final draft and with query drafts that weren’t read by others and polished enough. You should try pitching your logline to someone both in real time and then in the hook paragraph and put that query through several drafts. Now, any novels I would query would be fourth or fifth drafts, vetted by a prior agent and developmental editors. In other words, if you meet my checklist below, there’s no reason to test the waters with a few tiptoeing queries. Query hard and often over a few months. Otherwise you can spend years of your life in the querying trenches.
Don’t wait if you have
- A polished manuscript. I went through two editorial rounds with mine, with my fantastic prior agent, Amy, before my current and amazing agent, Tara Gelsomino, even saw it. The novel that Amy picked up got reviewed by two developmental editors over a period of years and two rounds of querying. Tara and I put my current project, No Small Thing, through two rounds of intensive editing before editors have even seen it while we’re out on submission.
- A polished query. The first draft was vetted by my agent and the other draft by seasoned queriers (writer friends with representation and writer friends in the querying trenches as well). Remember, your goal is to be the back-of-the-book blurb in this query, the thing that gets a buyer to flip the book back over and take it up to the counter. Your goal is to get that 1-click shopping move on Amazon. So your reviewers should tell you honestly whether they’d download or walk your book home.
…That You Gotta Market Yourself
All of the above? Marketing.
Are you good at it? I’m so-so at it. I mean, I can write marketing copy, but true confessions: I honestly don’t have the retail gene, and I never feel good about taking people’s money. Never. I’m getting better at it.
Querying is marketing and asking for people’s money.
Art is commerce if you want to make it part of how you pay your bills. So you need to listen hard to advertisers during this querying phase of your life, and study their sales-woman-ship, and you need to think about how you are convinced to buy, and read, and what in that Netflix trailer makes you watch.
That Some Agents Have to Have Too Many Side Hustles
One September when I was knee deep in querying (remember, 10 years, three times a charm!), I recall hearing one of the top dealmakers on Publishers Marketplace, who’d recently responded very nicely to my nudge about a query I sent July 17–share on a podcast a bit about his other lives. How he’d recently taken on a full-time teaching gig for the semester, on top of agenting. Full-time teaching equals four classes, folks. I’m a teacher who’s once upon a time taught over 100 students. You know that means over 100 papers every time you assign everybody something, right? And my first thought was: Wow, no wonder they can’t respond to my query. Because an English teacher’s work is NEVER done. Albatross of papers, anyone? ALWAYS WITH YOU.
My second agent left the business to pursue more lucrative work because even her excellence as a top dealmaking agent could not pay the bills required of American citizens.
So trust, I’m not frustrated with agents–I’m frustrated with a culture that has us all running and gunning in this supposed “gig” economy to make ends meet when we’re just trying to make art. If you want to get even more depressed, check out Porter Anderson’s latest analysis of the publishing industry and what writers can or can’t make in this economy. Then read Donald Maass’ response for an antidote.
There was a reason Shakespeare had a patron. There’s a reason there’s a Patreon today. Crowdfunding sites like KickStarter and GoFundMe are not a bad idea for the artist trying to get her start.
But sometimes, it just really feels frustrating that there are people out there doing things like stealing mortgages from little old ladies or marketing things no one really needs and making super big bucks at it while people like teachers, police, and EMS workers are making peanuts, like us artists and those who rep them. We’re all double and triple-jobbing it to make our ends meet. Come on now.
So when that agent doesn’t respond, sure, it could be the agent can’t manage her inbox–but it’s also possible you’d do better hating the game.
…You Know…That Book They Rep
It’s frustrating when you’re told that there better be an inciting incident by page 40 of your book and yet you’re reading a book by an author repped by that same agent dispensing advice to you (while also rejecting your manuscript) and that book not only doesn’t have an inciting incident but just drags in the middle. You really liked the character, you wanted to be obsessed with this book, but alas, it doesn’t follow the “rules” that just got you rejected. Things that make you go…sigh.
The Truth of the Matter?
Here’s what one agent wrote in a recent rejection letter that confirms something I keep reading and hearing–but feels particularly “true” when an agent says it:
Please remember that the decision to represent writing is based on a lot of factors, which are often difficult to qualify. Passion for a project, connection with voice, current workload, market saturation, concept timeliness; all of these are considerations, in addition to the quality of your writing.
If you continue to work on your craft, to query widely, and to research your potential agents and intended market, I am confident you will find the right match.
This wasn’t a personalized rejection per se but it spoke a truth of the matter that is agent choice: an agent must choose something she adores, not something that’s “probably gonna work because it’s a good book.” Market has to want it.
If you don’t love working on your craft, if you don’t query widely, and you don’t research your potential agents and intended market, then you won’t make it. But you also might not make it because of market saturation, a narrow publishing pipeline, and concept timeliness in an industry that sometimes looks backwards instead of forwards.
Trust that if you do find an agent, and that when you go on submission to editors, it will be the same frustrations, pressures, and concerns. So you must find the joy as you figure out your way through frustration. (Harder you grit your teeth, the faster the joy comes–trust me.)
Even so, with all this abundance and strengths, this wind beneath my wings? I still have to repeat this mantra every single day of authoring.
You have enough
You are enough
You do enough
Whatever twist you take or whatever turn you choose in the path to publishing (and remember, indie publishing is always an option, friends), know your why. That can help you a hell of a lot in rising above it all.