When to Fold ‘Em

This weekend I went to the Surrey International Writer’s Conference and met some very talented writers. I made more requests at this conference than I’ve had at most others I’ve been to this year, and the reasons why became obvious during our pitch sessions. For one, these writers studied craft. Not only were they just good writers, but they knew their genres and where their book would be placed in a bookstore. It was clear they read within their genres too; not once did I hear someone compare their novels to a massive bestseller or radically mislabel them.

The second reason is because the majority of the writers at this conference had a clear vision for their writing career. They did their research in which agent was the best to pitch and no one was rude or abrasive if their novels weren’t requested. They understood that it’s not personal; it’s business, and rejection is just a stepping stone to finding a better agent for their work.

There were of course some pitches that simply weren’t for me, which is always bound to happen, but I noticed another small trend in what I was rejecting. Or rather, not what, but who I was rejecting: The Used Car Saleswriter.

It goes something like this:

Writer: “My book is about [X]”
Agent: “Thanks but I don’t think that’s for me.”
Writer: “WAIT! WAIT! I ALSO HAVE THIS ONE!”
Agent: “Um, OK fine. Let’s hear it.”
Writer: “It’s about [Y]”
Agent: “Sorry, this one isn’t for me either. Someone else might – “
Writer: “But surely I have something you’ll like! Perhaps something in red! With a moon roof! I’ll throw in a juicer!”
Agent: ::slowly backs away:: ::joins Witness Protection::

OK, so this is an extreme case, but variations of this conversation do happen in pitch sessions. I see it more often in my query inbox. Sometimes I’ll get 3 or 4 queries from the same person all sent on the same day. Other times I’ll send a form rejection and their next-day response will be a new query for a different project, as if the first project they queried meant nothing. Sometimes these responses are even within the hour. The strangest repeat queriers are the ones who just keep sending new material with no mention of ever having contacted me before, as if they’ve become one with the query process and stopped paying attention to the actual humans on the other end of it.

I encourage writers to re-query even if they receive a form rejection, but it’s important to know when to stop. (Hint: Usually after two or three queries, unless an agent specifies that you can send more work in the future or asks you what else you’re working on.)

Sending too many queries to an agent who’s already rejected you says, to me, the following:

  • You don’t care who represents you, just as long as someone does. 
  • You’re not ready to query because you aren’t thinking seriously about your career. If you give up that easily on your own projects, why should anyone else invest time into them? 
  • You have no intention of listening to feedback or taking constructive criticism. If you’re ignoring form rejections and only using them as an invitation to send something else, then you’re not stopping to consider the fact that either your query or the project itself is the problem. 

With requested material, I’m more forgiving. Sometimes I will ask to see future work, but if I read two or more of the same writer’s manuscripts and they’re still not clicking with me, I won’t want to read another one. I could like their third or fourth manuscript just fine, but I’ll probably still pass on it because I already know it’s the only manuscript of the writer’s that I like. [Note: By “like” I mean both in personal taste and in regard to my ability to sell the project in question.]

I’ve also had writers ask me what would happen if they significantly revise. Can they re-submit then? This depends. With queries, an agent rejects or accepts based on the premise of the book. So, if we pass on it, we likely won’t be interested even if the writing improves. If an agent requested material and the main reason for rejection was the overall execution of the plot, then it can’t hurt to try again if the revisions are significant.

You don’t only get one shot in this business. Most of the time, you get several. If one person passes, send to someone else. If everybody passes, send out a new project. No one will yell at you. But keep track of who responds and what they say. Some rejections are nicer than others, and some provide more explanation than others, but a rejection is a rejection. Don’t settle for an agent who begrudgingly accepts the one project they think they can sell. You want an agent who will leap at the chance to represent your work and be equally excited about your other ideas, that way you’ll both have a long, satisfying career.

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In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

I’ve stumbled across a few blog posts and tweets recently that have been both flattering and troubling. The posts come from writers who are either querying agents or preparing to query agents, and have very nicely named me as their “dream agent.” When I say “a few” posts I mean just that. I’m not implying I have legions of fans or anything. But a few posts – and really even if it was just one post – are too many. Here’s why.

Resting all of your hopes and dreams on one person is dangerous. This is true for life in general, but let’s stick with talking about publishing. If you’re a writer and you’re querying agents, you should have a healthy list of agents (say 10-20) whom you deem the best fit for your work. If they all say no, find 20 more. And if they all say no, OK well maybe you need to revise. The point is, there is never just one agent to query. The number of websites devoted to curating lists of literary agents is staggering, so no one with Internet access has an excuse for not doing research.

Here’s the thing: most manuscripts get rejected. On an average month, I receive roughly 400 queries. Of those 400, I request maybe 5-10 manuscripts. I won’t tell you how many of those requests turn into offers of representation because I don’t want to depress you too much. Let’s just say the odds aren’t exactly in your favor if for no other reason than I can’t read 400 manuscripts a month. That’s the beautiful thing about there being other qualified literary agents! What I don’t request, someone else might, and your chances of getting an agent increase. Building up one person out of many to pick your needle out of their haystack is absurd. What happens when your dream agent says “no thanks, this isn’t for me?” Do you give up because the dream is dead? Of course not. Saying “OK, on to the next one” – and not taking personal offense – should be your only logical course of action. 

What’s more troubling about the “dream agent” is that when I see writers use this phrase, whether about me or someone else, I worry it may be for more personal reasons than professional. The Internet has eliminated the great divide between Writer and Gatekeeper. Agents aren’t just mysterious figures in their New York City Ivory Towers who crush the dreams of writers at will. Now writers can see that we’re just regular people who love books and happen to have the right connections to get their books published by major publishers. This has been great for publishing for several reasons: Stronger relationships, built-in marketing networks, and being able to directly tell writers what I like and am looking for has made my slush pile a much more pleasant place to spend time. But, sometimes I worry the personal connections writers feel to certain agents can overshadow the real task at hand – selling books. Liking me on a personal level is great, but please research me on a professional level.

The agent-author relationship is first and foremost a business partnership. If you’re querying agents, writing is probably more than just a hobby for you. This is your career. It’s not something to take lightly or “pass off to a friend.” You should want a professional who will know exactly how to sell your work. Being liked is a nice feeling, and it lets me know the advice I give to the writing community on Twitter hasn’t gone unnoticed. But if you’re a writer seeking an agent, I hope you’re not just querying me because we both watch Doctor Who or because one time I made a joke you found funny. I have a good personal relationship with all of my clients, which I think enhances any business relationship, but that part of our relationship is a fun added bonus. I didn’t only love their books or think they were cool people – even though I did, and they are – I also knew I could help them get their work published.

Before querying, ask yourself the following questions:
– Is this agent taking on new clients?
– Does this agent represent my genre?
– Has this agent ever stated whether they specifically are or aren’t considering certain sub-genres?
– What type of success has this agent had with my genre specifically?
– What type of sales does this agent have overall? Will they have good connections even if my genre is new to them?
– What agency does this agent work for? Are they legit? What’s their reputation like in the industry?
– Does this agent share the same vision for my work that I have? If they don’t, why not?
– Will I get along with this agent on a personal level? Will this be an enjoyable relationship, as well as a successful business partnership?

You won’t know who your dream agent is until you receive that offer of representation and realize that someone saw something brilliant in your manuscript. If your pre-determined dream agent turns you down, then they weren’t the best fit to begin with. The person you need to work with is the person who needs to work with you. Don’t pretend this person exists before you even query them. Writing is hard enough, let alone querying. Take one solace where you can and know that your dream agent is out there, but it’s not up to you to decide who that is until he or she reads your work. They will come to you.