For those of you who are concerned, or looking to let off some steam, this blog is not about telling off literary agents. I’ll spare you that anxiety…or disappointment if you were hoping to really sink your teeth into a good bashing. I get it, though, the query process is soul-sucking.
As a would-be author (who is actively seeking agent representation) do you know what I read quite often from lit agents? Profiles, articles, blogs, and more dedicated to what they are looking for in queries, and what they are not looking for. I see lists and lists of advice about how to increase the odds of getting THE call, a request for the full manuscript, and hopefully, THE second follow-up phone call, where at long last, the agent proclaims they want to represent you.
You know what I don’t read anything about? The flipside of that coin. The writer’s experience. The frustration, the dedication to meet the requests of literary agents to exacting detail. I think the idea is everyone (lit agents and writers alike) presume to know this side. However, I have no impression that this is true. Here’s why – the advice given to unrepresented writers does not match the outcome. In other words, there is no proof to be had in that pudding.
It does not seem to matter that I wrote my query to his or her exact specifications or that the preferred content the agent is seeking is a match. I still end up with this response in the rejection email, ‘doesn’t fit my interests,’ or some variation of it. Even though you, the agent, listed that you specifically want to read a story in women’s fiction that features a strong leading female, maybe an underrepresented female set in the modern world, an outsider if you will. GREAT! I can give you just that! That’s my story, exactly. I, the writer, am suddenly terribly excited to submit my work to you, the agent. And yet, a week, two weeks, two months go by and I might get a rejection letter citing the ‘not quite right fit,’ line. Sigh.
I can’t discern from a basic, online profile page if what the agent is asking for is what he or she really wants. I only submit my work if there’s a match. Sometimes agents are very specific about what they are looking for, others are less so. The result is often the same. I follow the advice, I do my research, I tweak my queries, and yet the pudding remains without proof.
I hear tales long since passed of agents who took the time to write back after receiving a query, and although you were likely being rejected, the agent dropped a line or two on how you could improve. I don’t think the current standard for queries was meant to be as it currently is, that is to say, silent, but it is even so. How, then, do you boost your odds of getting an agent’s attention? You research your agents, you compose your query well, you submit the sample pages as requested…what else?
I’ve seen one advice article from a writer, turned author, who stressed numbers. Queries, he said, are a numbers game. Yes, you still craft your query as well as you can, you do your research of agents, you do your best at all times when reaching out to a complete stranger, but you do so repeatedly and often. If you’re submitting once or twice a week, you’re doing it wrong. I hate to think that this process, which feels oddly intimate because you are reaching out to persons unknown and putting your work out there, has been reduced to numbers. But I can’t say I’m surprised. And I’ll tell you why.
For nearly a decade, I advised university students (undergrad and grad) on how to launch into the real world. I have a master’s degree in counseling, and I chose to specialize in career counseling. While I had studied all the major forms of traditional counseling, I couldn’t leave the career element alone. I found career counseling infinitely more fast-paced and engaging. What to study, what to make a career of, and so on. If you’ve ever seen a person’s face in pure relief for having made a major decision about life, I’m telling you, there’s nothing like it.
Where numbers came in was when it was time for a student to apply to jobs. I told every graduating student I ever met, if she was not applying to jobs at least 10 times a week, it was the same as not applying at all. My advice for applications filed was roughly 15-20 a week. It seems like a lot but it’s not. The students who were smart enough to take my advice were the ones who received multiple offers. The students who only wanted to be considered by their top or favorite company and applied once, sometimes twice if they had a second favorite, well, you can imagine how well that strategy worked out. By the time this student realized saturation was the key, the jobs were filling up.
The idea behind application saturation is an old one. You write more, therefore your written language improves, also your speed in the application process improves considerably, which means you can submit even faster. You start landing interviews, and in so doing you become a better interviewer. You figure out how to make yourself look good on paper – that’s check one. Once you figure how to sell yourself in person (that is absolutely what an interview is) – that’s check two. Then it is only a matter of time before you get the offer.
Many of these things I have found apply to queries, and if you’ve submitted more than 10 queries you might know what I’m talking about. After 10 queries, I believe, you start to pick up the pace, not so unlike the application-cover letter-resume package that is part of job hunting. The faster I submitted (not sacrificing quality and always personalizing) the faster I got responses, all rejections at this point, but it was an improvement over the no responses when I was going at a slower pace.
The query is a lot like the application, cover letter, and resume rolled into one. The query should be tweaked per agent you are submitting to. I can’t help but notice how the expectations for queries can vary wildly among lit agents. That’s irritating, but because you’re a would-be author, you write your query as outlined (if at all) according to the agent or the agent’s company’s website. You tweak your query to make it a little extra special per agent, just like a cover letter (and if you aren’t doing this, you should be). You do your damnedest to be thoughtful, concise, and above all sellable, cause let’s face it, those sample pages you are submitting are your interview equivalent. I’ve trained countless student-clients on how to represent themselves on paper first and in-person second. I believe I do a good job of meeting the standards for queries if not exceeding them. Now let me tell you about my numbers:
Queries = 38
Rejections (auto response or personal) = 10
No Response = 7
Floating (too early to call) = 21
Calls = 0
Feedback Of Any Kind = 0
You can only read that quote about ‘giving up is the only way you ever really lose’ before you start thinking, ‘fuck you,’ in a sort of begrudging, mental response. The sentiment of never giving up is true, don’t get me wrong, but you’re still thinking, ‘fuck you.’
What keeps me going is that I actually like my work. I do. As I’m editing my manuscript, rereading passages, extracting samples, I truly, genuinely believe in my work. I am excited by it. My voluntary beta-readers, they believe in my work too and cheer me on. I didn’t slap 450 pages together thinking that now I needed to be compensated because I wrote something. I am very familiar with how life works and how it doesn’t. No, I pursue the course of agent representation, despite the overwhelming silence and rejection, because I know what I’ve produced. I have confidence in my manuscript, and one day an agent will too.
In the meantime, I will continue to submit queries with ever increasing accuracy and speed. I will reread that quote about the only way you ever really lose, while the mental ‘fuck you’s’ are stowed once more.
To learn more about my manuscript, please read the blog, “Ruth.”