Queries, Quandaries, and Just Saying No

It’s become common for literary agents to use a ‘no response means no’ policy in which they only reply to queries that interest them and no longer send out rejections in response to all the other queries they receive.  (So if you’re one of those writers who aspires to wallpaper a room with rejection slips, you’re really out of luck now — even with the switch to email over snail mail you could still print them and stick them on the wall, but if you don’t even get anything back . . .  Well, let’s just say you’ll have to find something else to decorate that room with.) 😉

The serious issue, of course, is that most writers find this lack of response adds to their stress level for a number of obvious reasons.  It can make you feel as if you’re sending your carefully prepared submissions out into a void, and you can’t necessarily be certain that your query was rejected; there are always cases where someone receives a request for materials six months or more after they queried.  (Heck, there’ve even been cases where someone got a request after so much time that the manuscript had already been picked up by another agent and published!)  So it makes it harder to get a sense of where you are in the process and how many of your queries are truly outstanding versus those that have probably been rejected.  (But maybe not.)  And unless the agent has an online submission form that confirms receipt, there’s also that nagging question of whether one’s query might have been lost or gotten trapped in an overzealous spam filter.

I’m pretty sure most writers really don’t like this policy — and would choose a definite rejection over uncertainty — but I’ve noticed that when the subject comes up, many people insist that it’s perfectly reasonable, and are quick to point out that of course all good literary agents must devote most of their time to their clients, while they don’t owe queriers anything at all.  Although those things are very true, I don’t believe ‘no response means no’ is a necessary evil we should blithely accept.  Furthermore, all the emphasis on the need to be thick-skinned shouldn’t stop us from being sympathetic to writers who find the process exasperating.  Neither should we refrain from engaging in conversations about whether there might actually be ways to improve the situation.  So while it’s not my aim to ruffle any feathers, and I won’t say that ‘non-respondence’ is necessarily a sloppy or unprofessional practice (as some people will suggest), I will say that I think there are other ways to manage the situation that are more professional as well as more considerate.

Frankly I haven’t seen compelling evidence that supports the idea that ‘no reply means no’ is the only practical and efficient method for agents to handle lots of queries.  To begin with, there’s the hard-to-miss fact that there are some very popular agents (i.e. ones who definitely receive a high number of queries) who do consistently send replies (even if they’re mostly brief forms), and some of those agents are also very rapid responders.  One argument that I just came across is that if an agent takes ‘a minute’ to reply to a query, responding to a hundred and twenty queries would take them two hours.   But this calculation is based on an honest mistake.  We often say ‘one minute’ without meaning it literally, but  it really doesn’t take sixty seconds to read a query, much less to send an email reply — it can take as little as ten or fifteen seconds.

Out of curiosity, I did an experiment and pretended to be an ‘old-fashioned’ agent handling snail mail queries.  I timed it, and determined that if I were one of those agents who would write a quick note on the query itself and send it back (a bit off-putting, perhaps, but there certainly were — and probably still are — some agents who would do that to save both time and stationary), I could take an envelope from the inbox, slit it with a letter opener, pull out query and SASE, read the entire query, scrawl ‘Not for me, thanks’ at the bottom of it, put it into the author’s SASE, and drop the sealed envelope into the outgoing mail pile within thirty seconds.  And if the query were an obvious dud so I didn’t get more than halfway through the second paragraph before I stopped reading (and theoretically that’s true of eighty percent of any slush pile), I could do it in twenty seconds.

Doing this via email and avoiding the physical paper shuffling clearly makes it even faster.  My sister has worked as an executive assistant for many years and learned to deal with a staggering volume of emails every day.  I know from what she’s told me that there are tools for managing email to make it more efficient.  So if you set it up properly, with just a couple of clicks of the mouse you should be able to send a form reply (and I believe it’s possible to make a choice between several different forms as you do this).

[ETA: After I wrote this, I discovered this post by Janet Reid from a few years back.  Being an agent herself, she can be blunt about why she feels there’s no excuse for not replying to queries.  And she confirms what my sister said about email — that it can easily be set up so you can select from several standard replies — and says that it only takes her three seconds.  (And, not surprisingly, it turns out that Ms. Reid also follows a practice similar to Ginger Clark’s by reporting how far along she is in queries, which I talk about below.) 🙂 ]

Now of course agents aren’t always going to rush through reading queries; no doubt some take a break from dealing with contracts and such by perusing queries at a fairly leisurely pace, rather than getting them out of the way as quickly as they can.  But for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s reasonable to assume that an agent we query is going to grant us thirty seconds of their precious time (especially after all the time and effort that went into writing that query!).  So why would anyone say it’s unreasonable to expect that agent to take another three seconds to send back a response?  (Granted, there’s the issue of those unpleasant characters who do their best to spoil everything for the writers who are polite and professional by reacting badly to form rejections, but who’s to say they won’t react badly to being ignored as well?)  [Janet Reid also dismisses this excuse in her post.]

Secondly, if an agent is flexible and creative, there are other ways of communicating with queriers even if they’re still determined not to send rejections.  One of the things that frustrates writers is not knowing when to ‘close’ a query and count it as a rejection.  Some agents mention an average response time on their website, but plenty of others say nothing about it.  So the speculation begins: four weeks? six? eight?  What if the agent is out of the country or taking personal leave?  How does the time of year, the holidays, the weather, etc., affect the response time?  But there’s actually a very easy fix that eliminates all of that guesswork.

Although agent Ginger Clark doesn’t send any kind of reply unless she’s interested in a query, she utilizes a system where she regularly posts on Twitter to say that she’s read all the queries she’s received through a specific date and time.  Now I don’t know if there are many other agents who do this as well — it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out that it makes good sense — but considering that the vast majority of agents today seem to use Twitter regularly, you’d think there’d be plenty of them doing it.  But if there were, I’m also pretty sure that everyone would be talking about it rather than speculating on response times.  In addition, while Ms. Clark often travels to conferences and such so she can’t necessarily say she will always get through queries within a certain time period, her method completely removes that problem.

Now I don’t go stalking agents on Twitter or anywhere else, and I can assure you that I’m not giving Ms. Clark a plug because she’s one of Le Guin’s agents.  The significant thing is that her being on my list (naturally) means I’ve researched her, which included browsing her Twitter account, and that’s how I learned of her query reporting technique.  And this brings me to one of my big pet peeves, and something that contributes to the overload of queries that agents receive: writers who query without doing thorough research on all the agents on their list.

Let’s say you’ve written a GoT style epic fantasy intended for an adult audience.  If you hop on Query Tracker or Agent Query or any other online database that lists literary agents, and search for ones who rep fantasy, a list of over a hundred agents pops up.  And you think, ‘Wow!  Look at all the agents I get to query.’  Not so fast.  Fifty of those agents may be on that list because they handle YA and/or MG fantasy, but not adult fantasy.  Or it might be something of a mystery why they’re even on the list at all — it’s possible they mostly rep Romance and don’t work with straight up speculative fiction, but if they marked on some questionnaire that they’re open to paranormal elements in Romance, that might make them show up on the list of agents who rep fantasy.

So how do you know?  You go to each agent’s website and read it carefully to see what they’re looking for.  If they have one, you also visit their blog page, peruse their Twitter feed, and try to find at least one interview with them.   Yes, it takes time, but why would you want to bother a busy person who’s trying to do their job in order to show them something they have specifically said (in a public source that everyone has access to) that they don’t want to see?  Maybe you have a MG fantasy about trolls, and in a brief interview on some author’s blog you discover that Agent X despises trolls — well, you can scratch her off the list for that manuscript.  I would think all this is common sense, but evidently it isn’t.  And, sadly, those who don’t go through this process are essentially helping to gum up the works for everyone else.

I admire agents very much not only for managing all the unpleasant contractual and legal aspects of  publishing (though I’ve studied business law I despise’ legalese’), but also just for continuing to read all those queries.  In the long process of learning everything I can about how to write an effective query and trying to help others by critiquing their queries, there are times when I’ve felt absolutely sick of looking at queries, and found that they all started to sound alike . . .  To be honest, I’m not sure how agents do it.  Last year I became one of the owners and editors of a new small press, and when we start taking submissions I’m seriously considering telling authors that I don’t want to see query letters, only a bare-bones cover letter and the first five or ten pages.

Since one of the reasons we started the press was seeing a need for publishers who don’t emphasize content at the expense of style, we’re looking for books in which the language itself is as important as the content.  So naturally I’ll be looking hardest at those pages, and if I like what I see, then I can ask for a synopsis and find out if the story actually has a functional plot as well. 😉  In any case, if the writing were functional but nothing special, the project wouldn’t fit into our niche anyway, so there doesn’t seem much point in torturing myself by reading query letters.  (And yes, I know — no matter how much we go on about how we’re seeking books written in good old-fashioned lyrical language, some fool will send us a Lee Child style thriller, and I’ll look at the opening paragraph and say, “And why exactly did you submit to this press . . . ?’)

One of the things that made me aware of how many people don’t do their research is reading ‘Ten Queries’.  An agent who regularly does that on Twitter is Margaret Bail, who I’ve also researched because she was on my list.  And it’s mind-boggling how many queries she passes on because they’re in a genre or age category she doesn’t represent.  (When they say ‘query widely’, that’s not what they mean, folks!)  For instance, she doesn’t rep literary fiction, but for some inexplicable reason people still query her with literary novels.  (And if you’re reading this and you’re one of those people, let me say this: Yes, you’re an idiot. And please don’t do it again.)  But what I learned from reading some of Ms. Bail’s Ten Queries comments actually led me to take her off my list.  And no, she didn’t offend me in anyway — far from it.  What she did was clearly communicate her tastes.  And because I have the utmost respect for her and appreciate that she’s taken the time to not only give us some insight into her thought process but also show us just what she is and isn’t looking for, I’m not going to waste her time or mine.

As Ms. Bail’s ‘Ten Queries’ comments not only confirmed that she doesn’t rep lit fic (among other things), I also saw that she passed on some genres that she does rep because she said something about the style being too literary.  After seeing that kind of comment for the third time, I knew I needed to drop her from my query list.  While I’ve always seen Margaret Atwood’s work referred to as literary/SF cross-over (perhaps because she objected to it being labeled science fiction?), Le Guin has always been considered an SF and fantasy writer (and has never objected to that, even thought she writes a very wide variety of things).  But recently I’ve seen Le Guin’s classic SF novels also described as cross-over between literary and SF.  And if that’s the case, I’ve probably shot way past ‘literary style’ or ‘literary bent’ and all the way to cross-over as well.  So although Ms. Bail certainly handles SF and fantasy and I write SF and fantasy, why would I query her with a book written in a style that she’s made perfectly clear is just not her cup of tea?

I think it’s pretty apparent that communication is the whole key here.  That includes taking the time to put the communication out there and making the effort to read and understand the sources of communication that others have made available.  So, for instance, if an agent wants to follow Ginger Clark’s example and keep querying authors from being left in the dark, even without responding to most queries individually, all they’d have to do is to add one little line on their website that lets authors know that they will post updates on Twitter (or another social media site, or perhaps the blog page of the website itself), and then every few weeks or so let everyone know where they are.  (The more I think about this method the more I think it’s a very obvious solution that should be widely imitated.)

Like everything else, the business of querying agents is an evolving process, and there’s a learning curve involved as agents figure out the best way to handle the changes.  The transition to predominantly email queries has been pretty rapid, and it’s no surprise that it’s evidently increased the amount of queries they receive exponentially.  (And with it taking so much less time, effort, and resources to send an email query vs. a snail mail query, no doubt it’s also increased the number of crazy folks who send out queries whether or not they’ve even written a book!)  So I think it’s important to keep an open dialogue going about the process, and not just shrug and blindly accept the frustration as if there’s no possible alternative.  Writers should feel welcome to take part in that dialogue, and no author should be shamed and told they’re whining or being unrealistic if they speak up to say that something doesn’t seem right to them.  Acceptance can also be a form of apathy, and there’s no reason to give up on trying to make a tough process easier for everyone involved.

One thought on “Queries, Quandaries, and Just Saying No

  1. Hi – nice to see you back! And this is an excellent post. It’s very hard to just send queries into the void and never hear anything back. I’m starting to appreciate fast, curt rejections. Then at least you know where you are. It’s hard to understand why agents can’t send a simple form back. But I will add that this makes me that much more favorably impressed by those who do respond.

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