Thursday, August 16, 2012

Query Advice: Everyone Gets Rejections, But Not Just Rejections

Stephenie Meyer really didn't have a hard time getting published
It's true that all writers who cold-query literary agents get rejections, and lots of them.  Most literary agents get between 5,000 and 10,000 queries per year, and requesting even one manuscript per week is a huge time commitment.  They have to cull the slush and make very fast decisions about most of those letters.  If you're interested in seeing the process that goes into the decision to request or reject queries, literary agent Kevan Lyon live-tweets her slush-reading sometimes.

Agents may reject a query based on a subjective disinterest in the concept, or because it competes too closely with an existing client's manuscript, or because they only have time to take on one new client, and they're looking for something very specific.  But mostly, they reject queries because the pitches and the pages that accompany them aren't good enough.

Successful authors seem to like to tell stories about their rejections, either to shoehorn their paths to publication into some narrative about overcoming hardship, or to commiserate with aspiring writers who are struggling to get agents' attention. There are legends, repeated constantly at writers' conferences, of bestselling authors who got dozens or hundreds of rejections before breaking through to spectacular success.  

A lot of stories make it sound like successful authors got their agents by accident, like when Nicholas Sparks signed with an agent who fished his query out of a dead person's mail.  But Sparks also spent weeks perfecting his letter, and, as a result, signed with an agent on his first batch of 25 letters, despite sending out letters "at random," rather than targeting agents who represented his genre. 

Similarly, when I attended Thrillerfest last month, three different writers told me about how Stephenie Meyer only got representation for TWILIGHT because an assistant who should have auto-rejected the manuscript for its overlong word-count decided to pass it along to her boss.  People who tell this story tend to omit the fact that Meyer got her agent in her first batch of 15 query letters, and she got a $750,000 deal so fast that some of those 15 agents were still responding to her query after she had already sold her book.

Based on such tales of perseverance, many aspiring authors premise their submission strategy on the assumption that queries fail until they succeed, and that the next agent they query could always be the one who will take on their book. But this isn't quite true; while everybody gets rejections at every point in the process, successful submissions don't get ONLY rejections.  The best queries tend to get a significant percentage of positive responses almost immediately.  Similarly, a query that's getting no requests probably needs to be rewritten.

Despite the huge volume of slush and the very brief consideration any individual query gets, the best letters really tend to stand out.  Most authors I know who have ultimately secured representation got requests for partial or full manuscripts from at least 20% of the agents they queried, which is an amazing degree of consensus when you consider that agents reject about 99.5% of queries.  If an author tells you that 25 agents form-rejected her query, she may be omitting the fact that she also had ten full requests and three offers of representation.  

I think this is an encouraging fact, because it means the query process is something you can control. It may seem like your letter is a single piece of paper in a vast sea of submissions, each with only one chance in 250 of getting an agent's attention, but it's actually more like 210 queries with zero chance of ever getting requested by anyone, 25 queries with a slim chance some agent might take a look, and maybe 15 queries that will get requests a significant percentage of the time.  All the agents will be requesting from among the same handful of manuscripts. Although any given agent is likely to reject 12 out of the 15, the authors will be querying dozens of agents, so multiple agents will be reading each of these books.

It's not a lottery; agents really read the queries you send them.  If your letter is the best one an agent reads in a given week, there's a pretty high chance the agent will request your manuscript. 

If you delve into the query-tracking threads on forums like AbsoluteWrite, you'll see that this is how it plays out: a few people will have 8 or 9 full-manuscript requests from 30 queries, a couple of people will be pinning their hopes on one partial request, and everybody else will have nothing but rejections.

Of course, that means the people everybody's jealous of also have a pile of rejections, so when established authors talk about the agents that turned them down, many aspiring authors take away the wrong message.  You aren't looking for one "yes" in a sea of rejections; you're looking for a positive consensus among a substantial proportion of the agents reading your submission.

Most agents will only consider a query from you once per novel, so it is a mistake to continue to exhaust all your leads hoping for a different outcome when your previous feedback has been unanimously negative.

If you send out ten queries with your first five pages to ten agents you think represent books in your genre, and you get zero requests, you shouldn't respond to that by sending out more identical queries.  You should go back and work some more on your letter and your pages (and possibly your entire manuscript) before you send it out to more agents. Query in small batches, and keep working on refining the letter if you aren't getting the responses you want.  AbsoluteWrite and other message boards have spaces devoted to query critiques, and you should use those.

Perseverance is an important quality for writers, but the way you persevere is by writing enough to develop the skill-set that will produce the best manuscript in an agent's slushpile.  If you fail, read more good books, write more, and produce new work you're even more proud of.   


  1. Thank you. You've made me feel better.

  2. This article gives excellent advice: Don't exhaust all your leads hoping for a different outcome. I know many writers who are doing exactly that. Thank you for expressing this point so clearly.