2011: A Year in Queries

Hi everyone. Hope you all enjoyed the holidays! I’m squeezing in one more post in 2011. This year was my first *full* year of being an agent, so I thought the best way to commemorate this was with data collecting and spreadsheets. At the beginning of the year, I decided to choose three months at random and do a tally of every query I received. I’ll spare you from the VERY SCIENTIFIC (not really) charts and day-to-day totals, and just give a brief overview.

(Note: These results are from emailed queries only. Thankfully, I don’t receive many snail mail queries, and hope this stays true in 2012.)

In January 2011, I received a total of 442 queries. This is probably the most number of queries I received within a single month all year. January is a big query month. You have everyone who made it their New Year’s resolution to get an agent, you have the NaNoWriMo writers who took December to revise, and you have your usual queriers who just felt like querying.

Contrary to popular belief, January queries are not automatically bad, rushed, or even unwanted. I ended up requesting two manuscripts sent on the same day that month, and that day was January 1. Despite the optimistic start to the year, of those 442 queries, I requested a total of 8 manuscripts. Which means 434 people received a form rejection.

The next month I tallied was July. This is a slow month for obvious reasons. It’s the middle of summer. Writers are busy writing what they’re going to query, or they are vacation. Also, many agencies close to queries beginning in July, so it’s probably easier for writers to just resume duties in the fall. In July, I received a total of 388 queries, again including a post-holiday day of requesting two manuscripts in one day’s batch. Of the 388, I requested 11 manuscripts and sent 377 form rejections.

Finally, November – the last complete month of the year, work-wise. I received a total of 363 queries, the lowest total, but requested 12 manuscripts. November was also the month in which I received the highest number of queries in one day: 34. The lowest number I’ve received in one day’s batch was 7 (occurring once each month).

Random observation: Tuesdays and Wednesday are the biggest query days, while Saturday and Sunday are the slowest.

Using these samples, I’d say I average about 400 queries a month (4,800 per year) and request about 10 manuscripts per month just from the slush pile. This figure does not include any revisions I had asked for from previous months, contest winners, or requests from conferences. In case you’re wondering whether the requests were fulls vs. partials, I honestly didn’t keep track. But! I’d say 8 times out of 10 I request the full. It saves time in the long run and I can always stop reading if it comes apart. I request partials sometimes – most often if I’m on the fence about a particular premise (but was intrigued by writing), or if I love a premise (but not sure how the writing will be). Full disclosure: I may go back to requesting mostly partials due to an out-of-control reading pile that accrued around November.

To give you a picture of how many requests result in an offer of representation, out of the 100+ manuscripts I requested in 2011, I took on a total of 4 new clients, only 3 of whom came from unsolicited queries. (Admittedly I had offered on two others but lost them in a battle.) I officially started building my list in April 2010, and eager as I was to find clients, I took on a total of 8 out of a similar – though slightly lower – number of queries and requests.

For those who may not know, my *other* full time job at Curtis Brown is working in the foreign rights department. I love working in this department, but sometimes this means I end up passing on projects I really really like – but don’t love – just because I know my time is divided right now. I wouldn’t be able to give that person adequate attention. So, I keep my roster of authors purposely small so that I’m able to give proper time and care to my clients equally. By the end of 2012 I hope to raise my number of clients to an even 20. I won’t make it an official goal; I just think it’ll be nice. Obviously I’ll have to receive worthwhile submissions. Hint, hint… 🙂

While I chose these months at random (beginning, middle, end), the interesting thing I noticed in 2011 queries was that as the number of queries received decreased, the number of requested manuscripts increased. I take this to mean that more writers are doing research before they send. Rather than submitting blindly, more people are taking the time to realize I might not be for them. Meanwhile, those who do query me know exactly what I’m looking for or know why I’d be interested in their story. I hope this, too, remains true for 2012. Though, as you noticed, my reading pile got bigger and bigger at the end of the year. But, I’d rather take the time to read 20 amazing manuscripts than take a few hours sorting through a folder of lackluster premises, genres I don’t represent, or (worse) vampires.

So that was 2011 in a nutshell. As I begin Year #2 of being an agent, and I add more clients and book deals to my belt o’ publishing, I can only hope that one day I’ll look back and say “remember when I only received 100 queries a week?” Until then, thanks readers & writers for making my first full year as an agent pretty darn great.

See you in 2012, friends! Happy New Year!

Jocks vs. Nerds

“When deep-space exploitation ramps up, it will probably be the megatonic corporations that discover all the new planets and map them. The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Philip Morris Galaxy. Planet Denny’s. Every planet will take on the corporate identity of whoever rapes it first.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Don’t let the title of my blog post fool you. Yes, I fall into the “nerd” camp, but this won’t be a Revenge of the Nerds story. It won’t be about staying true to yourself even when you’re not popular or realizing that someday you will inherit the earth. In this story, the nerds lose.

Note: This post is a response to Slate’s anti-bookstore article and should not be read as an attack on Amazon as a corporate competitor. Choice is a good thing. Competition is healthy. People who propose eliminating competition are not.

Last week, Amazon took a beating with their “anti-local business” discount program. Only to them, the “beating” was more like an infant punching tiny fists into their ankle. Many authors, booksellers, and publishing folks had reactions to this, but the one that I’ll point to specifically is Richard Russo’s New York Times op-ed. Russo’s daughter works at an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, but his personal connections to bookstores are deeper than that. He discusses what he calls the “literary culture” that come with bookstores, and I’m inclined to agree with him. I’m also inclined to agree with his statement about Amazon’s personal investment in what it means to be a bookseller:

“Maybe Amazon doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe because it’s simply too big to care. In a way it’s become, like the John Candy character (minus the eager, slobbering benevolence) in Mel Brooks’s movie “Spaceballs” — half man, half dog and thus its own best friend.”

The thing about Amazon is that it’s a monopoly disguised as our savior. It has its hand in every area of book publishing – no longer just a seller, they are a distributor, publisher, and author platform. Eventually Amazon will realize they can’t be everything – or at least can’t be everything with the same level of success. But what they will always be, I think, is a venue to sell books.

I don’t buy my books from Amazon because I live in a city where local businesses still thrive and I’m physically able to support them. I don’t think this makes me a better person. It just means I’m lucky enough to be able to practice what I preach as often as I can. Not everyone has that luxury.

I know that for many people in other parts of the country physical bookstores are not available. For those who had Borders instead of Barnes and Noble, even access to chain stores can be nearly impossible these days. Then there are those who can’t bring themselves to care about “literary culture” because they are too busy working three jobs in order to pay their bills and feed their families. Maybe you live ten minutes away from your independently owned local bookstore but spending full retail price on a trade paperback just isn’t an option for you. Or, simply, you love the comfort of shopping online (which you can also do from the websites of many of your favorite local bookstores). Not supporting your local physical bookstore doesn’t make you a bad person, and I understand the many conveniences Amazon has to offer. (As a tiny New Yorker who can only buy as much as I can carry, I take advantage of having things delivered directly to my apartment quite often.)

That’s why I was taken aback by a counterpoint piece that Slate published with the sensationalist headline “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller.” Rage-inducing as that is by itself, I know that the writer, Farhad Manjoo, most likely didn’t write his own headline and that titles are meant to grab attention and aren’t indicative of the content of the piece overall. Except in this case, the author is saying exactly that. In fact, it supports such an unpopular opinion that part of me wonders whether it’s satire, while the other part of me can see it’s a blatant attempt at self-promotion. Then there’s the part of me that knows in either case, it was written for the sole purpose of getting a reaction. So, fine. I’ll bite.
(It should be noted – if not written in all-caps – that Slate is an affiliate of Amazon.com.)
Manjoo highlights many of the points I made above about Amazon being pretty great for people a) with no other option, or b) who don’t consider themselves part of a “literary culture” and just want to buy books. I 100% agree with him on this. Not everyone considers themselves part of the literary class – those who prefer reading to other things have been historically considered “nerds,” after all. We are in the minority.
 But he goes on to argue that Amazon is not only part of the literary culture, but is actually helping support your local community by providing cheaper models of the same books you were going to buy anyway. He says:
“After all, if you’re spending extra on books at your local indie, you’ve got less money to spend on everything else—including on authentically local cultural experiences. With the money you saved by buying books at Amazon, you could have gone to see a few productions at your local theater company, visited your city’s museum, purchased some locally crafted furniture, or spent more money at your farmers’ market.”
Putting aside my continued shock of seeing someone so flagrantly anti-bookstore, I’m more confused by what Manjoo is trying to say with this. The same case could be made for a lover of Applebees who thinks that eating at chain restaurants instead of more expensive family-operated ones could free up some cash to support your local bookstore instead. Or, put from the perspective of a pro-Wal-Mart shopper, one could save enough on groceries, clothes, and appliances to send money to starving children in Africa. It’s a weak argument at best, and it brings me to the next point that the Slate piece misses.
Bookstores are about much more than selling books.
If all you want are books, then Amazon is just as satisfying as going to a bookstore. Those who drive to a store are usually looking for more. You can’t host an author reading/signing at your local Amazon, meet with your writing group on their comfy couches, peruse their shelves, and meet fellow book-lovers in your community. Your local Amazon doesn’t care if your child has a place to go to hear Story Time readings (even if you don’t buy the book) so that you can run errands for an hour.

Manjoo refers to Richard Russo as a “bookstore cultist” and admits to not understanding why a novelist, in his op-ed on bookstores, “omits the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books.”

“Literary culture” is not just for the literary elite, which is the image Manjoo is trying to paint with his pro-corporate brush. He’s trying to argue that we “bookstore cultists” are merely part of an Occupy mentality who hate corporations. His thesis seems to be: Who needs a sense of community when there’s nothing to buy? He misses the point of what bookstores mean to a community, or that they even have meaning.

Manjoo fails to see that you can sip your soy latte and be a member of the NRA and shop at Whole Foods and vote Republican. Not everyone needs to be one thing, and not everyone has to want only one thing from their bookstore. Manjoo isn’t just telling us to respect Amazon for what it is. He’s saying it’s the only way to shop, and that even if you’re able to support local businesses, you shouldn’t because if you do you’re nothing but an out-of-touch, overly romantic hippie who doesn’t get how business works.
So nerds, we lose again. Because being able to look outside yourself and still see value in the thing you love is totally lame. Isn’t it cute how we thought we could compromise and that we’d be able to live in harmony with the popular kids? Sadly, no matter what we do, we cramp their style by merely existing.
Corporate America, you win. Rich kids with your fancy cars and your head cheerleader girlfriends, you win too. Don’t provide us with a more convenient option – become our only option. Put us in a headlock and steal our lunch money because, hell, you’ll probably invest it for us and make us better for doing so.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? No middle ground to see here, folks.

The Recycle Bin

Today’s post is inspired by my mother, who (unbeknownst to her) raised an interesting question about ebooks. My mother only recently got rid of AOL but has somehow managed to jump immediately to having an iPhone, where – to her delight – she can download ebooks. Just one problem – “What do I do with them after I read them?”

I take after my dad. He doesn’t join Netflix for the same reason I don’t belong to a library – we need to own, and display, the things we love. With him, it’s movies. With me, it’s books. I have lots of them, and give or take the sporadic “do I really need three copies of Pride and Prejudice?” I keep 98% of what I buy or what’s given to me.

I like arranging books on my shelf, being able to look at them, picking up old favorites to re-read, or just  reorganizing my shelves when I’m bored. But mostly I like owning books. For these reasons, I don’t really buy ebooks. I say “really” because I’ve purchased five ebooks in my life, but I don’t see myself buying more if they are also available in print. I have nothing against them and see no difference between reading a book and reading an ebook during the act of reading. My love lies in the books themselves. There are books I have in my apartment right now that I know I won’t read again, but I like knowing they’re there.

But there are those with a less romanticized notion of books. So you tell me, embracers of ebooks, what do you do? If no one can see the physical evidence that you’ve read Thomas Pynchon, do you bother keeping him on your ereader? Can you delete and move on, the way technology does, or do you transfer each ebook to every new ereader because you just can’t let go?

Stop Helping Yourself

We all know querying is hard. Personally, I think writers make it harder on themselves, though I understand that keeping everyone’s individual guidelines straight can make any person insecure. If you’ve reached the querying stage of writing, you’ve probably read that agents get anywhere from 50 to 300 queries per day. While I can’t speak for every agent, I personally respond to all them, even if it’s ultimately a form rejection. This takes a lot of time (it’s also why many agents have a “no response means no” policy that’s been quite controversial recently.) Knowing all of this, writers think they need to go out of their way to stand out among the pack even though it really can’t be said enough that the only thing that will do that is to have an amazing book.

Writers with the best of intentions will include buzz words in their queries that they believe make them look more professional, and, in their minds, will attract an agent’s attention. What they don’t realize is that for many agents, these phrases and pieces of information more often serve as red flags that this writer has no idea what they are talking about or how publishing works.

Here are the Top 3 self-praises I see:

“I am a published author.”
If you have prior publications, you should absolutely list them in your query. Give the title, date, and publisher. Without that information, we have no way to believe you or take this claim seriously. Saying you are a published author when you’ve self-published or, worse, haven’t published at all makes you look foolish.

If you self-published, own it. Tell us when, with who, and for what type of book – then provide sales figures.  If you can’t give us this information, don’t feel that you have to. If your self-pubbed book only sold around 100 copies, it’s not the end of the world. Query agents with a project other than the one you self-pubbed and don’t feel as if you need to even mention that other book until you receive an offer of representation.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a debut author with no prior publishing credits. Being unknown or new to writing will never count against you if you have an amazing book, but having a fake or, let’s say, questionable publishing history can end up hurting you if you aren’t honest.

“My manuscript has been professionally edited.”
The first question that always comes to mind is “by whom?” Your friend who works at the local newspaper? A college writing professor? Your aunt who reads a lot? There are plenty of freelance editors out there whose opinions are professional and whose judgment I would respect as an agent. However, even if you used professional services, there is no reason to say that in your query. It tells me nothing about the quality of your writing or whether I’d be interested in your book. “Professionally edited” is a vague term at best, but at worst it can means one of three things:

1) You think the manuscript is already perfect and you won’t be willing to revise.
2) You could be willing to revise, but you aren’t able to do it yourself.
3) You think copyediting and editing are the same thing. (This last one I see a lot – the “professional eye” who looked over your manuscript made sure it was polished and grammatically correct, but the character development, plot structure, and overall quality of the writing were still severely lacking.)

Every writer needs an editor, but editors can’t make mediocre writing great or make an agent fall in love with a premise. All of that needs to come from you.

“My book has already gotten interest from Hollywood.”
On paper, this sounds impressive and I can see why writers include it in their queries. But let’s break this down. For one, how does anyone in Hollywood know your book exists? If you’re sending manuscripts blindly to showbiz people, not only could your idea could get stolen (and you wouldn’t be protected), but it tells me you might be signing contracts and giving away rights that renders any interest I might have had useless (not to mention any deal our film department could have made for you).

The second red flag is that “Hollywood interest” is not impressive to me unless you have an actual contract in your hands from an established production company. There is a huge difference between “Paramount Pictures wants to buy the film rights to my manuscript” and “Larry the coke dealer on Hollywood & Vine said he’ll give me $50 for it.” Both of these can mean “Hollywood interest,” and without knowing the specifics, I assume it’s the latter. Plus, think of how many promises are broken in the film industry. Some slick suit who calls you “baby” can tell you he loves your book one minute and then throw it in the trash as soon as you look away.

***

There is nothing wrong with wanting to make yourself sound more impressive than you think you are. Being a writer is impressive enough in itself, but I understand that in queries you want to add a little more. It’s called selling yourself, and this business is all about selling a product. Specifically, your product. But if you really want to impress an agent and get noticed, all you need to do is write the best book you can and know which agent will want to read it.

You should have pride in your work – if you don’t, who will? Saying you’re “award-winning” even if it was from your local library in 1998 might not change an agent’s mind about a project, but hell, you earned it and you should say so. Just make sure you’re not inflating yourself so much that you pop.