Tuesday, October 23, 2012

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.

14 comments:

  1. Quick question. What do you do if an agent asks for the full, takes it home during her maternity leave and says she's very interested, but when she finally does come back to work, she never responds to any emails? Even when you say you have offers, and she said really liked your voice? Makes no sense to me, the no-response. Any insight?

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    1. That sounds pretty specific to that one agent, so I can't speak to that. But, probably best to just move on and accept one of your other offers. (Congrats!)

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  2. Thanks for posting this, Sarah; it's a useful insight into the query process from the agent's POV. Though I'm hoping you might clarify something - if the last query I sent you was several months ago, and I just got a form rejection on the query, should I still mention in the new query that I'd queried you before? Or only bother if you'd actually requested material (and passed) for the previous manuscript? I just assume that my form-rejected query would've blended into the masses and mentioning I'd queried you before wouldn't have much meaning.

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    1. I may not remember the name of every person who queries me, but I think it's strange when writers don't acknowledge previous correspondence, especially if I sent a response. I also like being reminded of what that previous project was. If I like the new project enough to represent you, then I'm only going to ask what else you write anyway.

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    2. Thanks, Sarah. That's something that will be good to bear in mind as I'm sending out queries on my new manuscript.

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  3. Great stuff Sarah.

    I'm gonna throw some stuff on here from the writer perspective. Apologies for the gigantor reply.

    I spent all of 2011 and a bit of 2012 querying my first book. I got a few partial requests, three fulls and several rejections with actual feedback (yours included). They all basically said the same thing: I like it, I like you, I can't sell this. I can take a hint. I put that book on the shelf and finished up my next one. When it came time to submit it, I went to my gmail inbox to see who should be queried first.

    Other writers, here's how to organize that stuff:
    -Create two labels: one called "Query" and another called "Rejections" or for something slightly less depressing, "Responses."

    -Tag every query ON ITS WAY OUT with the Query label. It's easy to do, just hit the little Labels button at the top.

    -When rejections come in, hit them with the Rejections label and archive them.

    -From there, use the handy star icons for granularity. For me, a gold star means they read the full and would read something else from me. A red star means they read a partial or just the query, but said they would read something else from me. A purple star means they weren't interested, but gave me more than a form rejection and might read something else from me. Normal form rejections don't get a star at all.

    -When you finish your next book, if you're still interested in some of those agents, just go down the list. Query them based on the previous responses (and mention those responses!).

    Bingo bango, now you have an organized pile of rejections that can actually help you do something, besides act as ice cream eating fuel. If you have to repeat this entire process again (don't stop, don't give up), take Sarah's advice and eliminate or de-prioritize some of the agents in the Rejections folder that said no twice.

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  4. Sarah: I'm curious how many books you've sold simply from queries. i.e. what % of your client list comes from queries vs. referrals or things you sought out?

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  5. Well, crap.

    They say first impressions are huge in the snagging-a-great-literary-agent-process. So I'm sure that second, third, or fourth impressions are obviously going to get tiring after enough attempts. I fully understand this. But specifics have to apply at some point, I would hope. Like an agent friend telling you to spend more time with your novels, say. You do so, nabbing beta readers, critique groups and so on, really spending time not only with those former manuscripts queried, but also new projects to pitch. The entire time, you think of that one shining agent you hope to query with the right project. Hoping, of course, your overhauls might be accepted if that new project is. Keeping in mind any personalized feedback said agent might have given you on previous rejections, and so forth, I have to wonder if giving it another shot would be a mistake.

    Then again, it's one I've already made, so...probably a moot point.

    Thanks to you, however, it's not a mistake I'll make again!

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    1. I think it all depends on, as you say, the specifics. This post mainly refers to multi-submissions at the query stage though. Once material is requested, there's usually a more open dialogue between the writer and agent about what to keep sending and when to stop.

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  6. This is why I make it a practice never to send a query to an agent who has already seen something of mine, either through a query or a contest I've entered. The only exception I've made so far was when an agent specifically asked me to send more of my manuscripts. I actually considered re-querying a few select agents who passed on my last manuscript (those who answered with more than just a simple form rejection), but I'm glad I didn't make that mistake! It makes perfect sense that, if an agent didn't like your first manuscript, she will probably feel this way if you came back with another manuscript later.

    I used to think that it was okay to send queries to agents that might have judged contests I'd entered, until Ms. LaPolla pointed out on twitter a few weeks ago that if an agent isn't interested in your contest pitch, she still won't be interested if you try to query later, since it's the concept that matters and not necessarily the actual pages. Which makes perfect sense, I just never thought about it that way before. I'm much more picky now about the contests I enter. Instead of entering everything, I ask myself: "Would it be better to try to query this agent via traditional means or through this contest?" - I'm glad I read this blog post, because even though I now know taht I should never send a query for my current manuscript to an agent who already saw it in a contest, I probably wouldn't have realized that I shouldn't ever query any of those agents with my next manuscripts!

    I guess it all boils down to "No means No!" right? - Just one more argument for making sure that your manuscript is beyond perfect before sending it to anyone, ever. You might run out of options before you ever write the right book, if you query the wrong one too soon! :)

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    1. Oooh! But now I have a question. If you've already submitted one manuscript to an agent, and you have another, different manuscript that you want to submit to a different agent within the same agency, is this an automatic no too? If you get a rejection, do you cross off the entire agency from your possibilities list, or just that one agent?

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    2. Thanks for asking! It is generally not kosher to query two agents at the same agency simultaneously, but you're free to query someone else if you receive a rejection from another.

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  7. If you are querying a collection of short stories is it usual to attach one of the stories as an example of your writing? A lot of agents don’t want short stories collections but they don’t always say. Is it best to avoid an agent unless they state they accept story collections?

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  8. Yes, I am guilty of this. Not the re-querying in the same day but later on with a different manuscript I have also been working on. My current manuscript I have been told is well-written and a great concept/premise but it's dystopian and editors are "burned out" on dystopians/paranormal/zombies, all of which is in my current book. At this point it's not marketable so what to do? Shelve it until dystopians come back? My new WIP is an urban fantasy, also a hard sell (I've been told)so I don't know if that one is worth sending out either. I had one agent tell me that YA contemporary realistic stand alones is what is selling. Well, I had one last year I queried and got nowhere with despite agents telling me it was well-written. I do keep track of my queries via Querytracker and I have a few agents who I would love to work with (hint, hint) and I will continue to query them but I will add a sentence about querying them in the past. If I see they've passed on three of my manuscripts, I will take them off my list. Otherwise, I will continue. Thanks for the advice!

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