The dawning of a new day, or, a word of advice to queriers and submitters who make New Year’s resolutions

change of day on the beach

Happy New Year, everybody! I’ve logged in bright and early on this very first day of 2011 neither to add another entry to our ongoing Formatpalooza series (although what could be a better way for an aspiring writer to start off a new year of querying and submitting than learning how to format a manuscript professionally?) nor to urge you to invest a bit of time in entering the Author! Author! Rings True Writing Competition (ditto, and the deadline is a mere week away). No, I set finger to keyboard today in a last-ditch effort to talk you out of kicking off the year with a querying and submission mistake that literally millions of aspiring writers make every January 1.

I’m referring, of course, to the formulation of New Year’s resolutions.

Oh, there’s nothing wrong with making yourself a promise or two about writing more — or writing more often — in 2011 than you did in 2010. Or in committing yourself to finishing that book or book proposal you have been meaning to complete for eons now. In fact, that would be laudable: forming a practical, incremental plan to work toward a much-desired goal is a reasonable way to move toward it.

But those are not the kind of New Year’s resolutions most aspiring writers make, are they?

Here’s a pop quiz for those of you who spent some or all of the recent holiday season hobnobbing with kith and/or kin who happened to be aspiring writers: hands up if you bumped into at least one who confided that that her new year’s resolution was to get those long-delayed queries out the door, preferably within the first two weeks of January. Raise a hand, too, if a friendly soul astonished you by swearing that come January 1, that postponed-for-months submission was finally going to be making its way to the agent who requested it. Or that this was the year that novel was going to make its way out of that drawer and onto bookshelves everywhere.

And don’t even dream of dropping those hands if you know — or are — a writer who is spending today, or this weekend, cranking out query letters so they can go out in Monday morning’s mail. Or sending e-mails to arrive even faster.

Okay, legions with your hands in the air: keep ‘em up if you had ever heard these same writers make similar assertions before. Like, say, December of 2009, 2008, 2007, or any year before that.

I’m guessing that very few of you dropped your hands. Why on earth do we writers do this to ourselves every year?

The scourge of the New Year’s resolution, that’s why. Despite the fact that we’ve all spent our entire lives watching people make and break these resolutions, social conditioning encourages us to believe that it’s easier to begin a new project on January 1 — or at any rate, in January — than at any other point of the year. We buy this, even though our bodies tell us the opposite: not only are people exhausted from the holidays, but in January, not even the sun appears to interested in doing its job with any particular vim.

Yet millions of aspiring writers all across North America are going to spend today, tomorrow, and the next few weeks rushing those queries into envelopes, hitting those SEND buttons, stuffing those requested materials into envelopes, and forcing themselves to sit in front of a keyboard at a particular time each day. Successful queriers and pitchers of months past will also be springing into action, feverishly printing out or e-mailing requested materials. And every single one of these fine people will feel downright virtuous while engaging in this flurry of feverish early January activity.

Again: nothing wrong with that. The problem is, a good third of the aspiring writers in North America will be embracing precisely the same temporally-limited version of virtue.

The predictable, inevitable, and strategically unfortunate result: for the first three weeks of January every year, agencies across the land are positively buried in paper. Which means, equally predictably, inevitably, and unfortunately, that a query or manuscript submitted right now stands a statistically higher chance of getting rejected than those submitted at other times of the year.

So again, I ask: why do writers impose New Year’s resolutions on themselves that dictate sending out queries or submissions on the first Monday of January — instead of, say, the far more practical February 1?

Oh, I completely understand the impulse to rush those queries out the door, especially for aspiring writers whose last spate of marketing was quite some time ago. Last January, for instance, immediately after their last set of New Year’s resolutions.

I don’t say that to be judgmental: it can be genuinely difficult to work up the momentum to try, try again. Plenty of queriers and submitters take some time to lick their wounds after their last set of rejections — or, as is getting more and more common, their last round of sending out a query or even requested materials, waiting patiently, and just never hearing back. If a writer has pinned all of his hopes on a particular agent’s falling in love with his writing (or, in the case of a query, with his book concept; contrary to popular opinion, it’s logically impossible for a manuscript‘s writing style to get rejected by an agent who has seen nothing but a query letter), selecting an arbitrary date to pick himself up, dust himself off, and move on to the next agent on his list is not the worst of ideas.

Although were I advising in any individual case, January 1 — or 3, since that’s the first business day of this year — would not be the day I would pick.

Then, too, the holidays are actually quite a sensible time for even queriers who send out those letters like clockwork to take a breather. The NYC-based publishing industry more or less shuts down between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day; with so many of the fine people who work within it on vacation and/or celebrating various holidays, it just doesn’t make sense to query or submit then. Your missive might reach a Bob Cratchit working late on a holiday eve, but frankly, even ol’ Bob tends not to screen his e-mail very closely over the holidays.

So I have nothing but sympathy for those of you who are trying to get back into the swing of querying and submitting. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break. Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again. Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it.

For an arrow flying through the air, the slowing force is gravity; for writers at holiday time, it’s often friends, relatives, and sundry other well-wishers. And throughout the rest of the year, it’s, well, life.

But you’re having trouble paying attention to my ruminations on physics, aren’t you? Your mind keeps wandering back to my earlier boldfaced pronouncement like some poor, bruised ghost compulsively revisiting the site of its last living moment. “Um, Anne?” those of you about to sneak off to the post office, stacks of queries in hand, ask with quavering voices. “About that whole statistically more likely to be rejected thing — mind if I ask why that might be the case? Or, to vent my feelings a trifle more adequately, mind if I scream in terror, ‘How could a caring universe do this to me?’”

An excellent question, oh nervous quaverers: why might the rejection rate tend to be higher at some times than others?

To answer that question in depth, I invite you yourself in the trodden-down heels of our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, the fortunate soul charged with opening all of those query letters and giving a first read to requested materials, to weed out the ones that her boss the agent will not be interested in seeing, based upon pre-set criteria. At some agencies, a submission may even need to make it past two or three Millicents before it lands on the actual agent’s desk.

Was that giant sucking sound I just heard an indication that some of you who are new to Author! Author! — perhaps reading it for the first time as the result of a New Year’s resolution to learn more about marketing your writing? — were unaware that typically, agents are not the ones screening queries — or even submissions? As nice as it might be for agents to cast their eyes over every query and submission personally, a successful agent simply doesn’t have the time. In order to get through the monumental volume of queries and make sure the agent has the time to read requested materials that have made it past the first cut, agencies employ professional readers like Millicent. That way, the agent can concentrate upon what actually supports the agency, selling already-signed clients’ work.

If that seems like a cop-out, let’s get practical for a moment: a reasonably well-respected agent might receive in the neighborhood of 1200 queries in any given week — and you can triple or quadruple that this time of year. If Millicent’s boss wants to see even 1% of the manuscripts or book proposals being queried, that’s 10 partial or full manuscripts requested per week. Of those, perhaps one or two will make it to the agent.

Why so few? Well, even very high-volume agencies don’t add all that many clients in any given year — particularly in times like these, when book sales are, to put it generously, slow. Since that reasonably well-respected agent will by definition already be representing clients — that’s how one garners respect in her biz, right? — she may be looking to pick up only 3 or 4 clients this year.

Take nice, deep breaths, campers. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

Given the length of those odds, how likely is any given submission to make it? You do the math: 10 submissions per week x 52 weeks per year = 520 manuscripts. If the agent asks to see even the first 50 pages of each, that’s 26,000 pages of text. That’s a lot of reading — and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands of pages of queries they need to process as well, all long before the agent makes a penny off any of them, manuscripts from current clients, and everything an agent needs to read to keep up with what’s selling these days.

See where a Millicent might come in handy to screen some of those pages for you? Or all of your queries?

Millicent, then, has a rather different job than most submitters assume: she is charged with weeding out as many of those queries and submissions as possible, rather than (as the vast majority of aspiring writers assume) glancing over each and saying from time to time, “Oh, the writing here’s pretty good. Let’s represent this.” If she did that, her boss might end up with several hundred submissions to read in any given week. Clearly, that’s just not logistically possible. Fortunately for Millicent, most submissions, and definitely most queries, contain problems that render them fairly easy to reject — or have simply ended up in an agency that does not represent the kind of book in question.

A good writer should be happy about that, actually. Since her desk is perpetually covered with queries and submissions, the more quickly she can decide which may be excluded immediately, the more time she may devote to those that deserve a close reading.

Yes, I know that this is a lot for those of you brand-new to the process to absorb. Keep taking those nice, deep breaths.

Given the imperative to plow through all of those queries and submissions with dispatch, is it a wonder that over time, she might develop some knee-jerk responses to certain very common problems that plague many a page 1? Or that she would gain a sense (or even be handed a list) of her boss’ pet peeves, so she may reject manuscripts that contain them right off the bat? As in on page 1 — which is where, incidentally, the vast majority of submissions get rejected — or within the first paragraph of a query letter?

You don’t need to answer those questions, of course. They were rhetorical. (But if you’re new to this blog and are curious about common query, synopsis, and manuscript red flags, you might want to invest some time in going through the Querypalooza, Synopsispalooza, and Formatpalooza series.)

Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog are already no doubt already aware, certain times of the year see heavier volumes of both queries and submissions of long-requested materials than others.

Far and away the most popular of all: just after New Year’s Day.

Why, I was just talking about that, wasn’t I? That’s not entirely coincidental: this year, like every year, Millicent’s desk will be piled to the top of her cubicle walls with new mail for weeks, and her e-mail inbox will refill itself constantly like some mythical horn of plenty because — feel free to sing along at home — a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 3!”

Again, I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although ten queries per week would be hard to maintain for many weeks on end, if an aspiring writer were targeting only agents who represented his type of book. (And everybody is aware that querying agents who don’t have a proven, recent track record of selling similar books is a waste of an aspiring writer’s valuable time, energy, and emotion, right? If not, you might want to take a gander at my recent How to Find Agents to Query series.) My only concern is that you implement those goals in a manner that is likely to get the results you want, rather than merely leaving you discouraged before Martin Luther King, Jr., Day rolls around.

Which is, incidentally, the fate of most New Year’s resolutions: the average one lasts less than three weeks.

But let’s try to imagine what it would be like to be Millicent during those three weeks, before all of those poor revisers run out of steam. If you were a screener who walked into work, possibly a bit late and clutching a latte because it’s a cold morning, and found 700 queries instead of the usual 200, or 50 submissions rather than the usual 5, would you be more likely to implement those knee-jerk rejection criteria, or less?

Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be just a touch crankier than usual this time of year. Do you really want to be one of the mob testing her patience?

This is the primary reason, in case I had not made it clear enough over the last couple of months, that I annually and strenuously urge my readers NOT to query or submit during the first few weeks of any given year. Let Millie dig her way out from under that mountain of papers before she reads yours; she’ll be in a better mood.

She’s particularly likely to be in a take-no-prisoners mood on Monday mornings, by the way — and not just for the reason that most people who work a Monday-Friday week are grumpy then. All weekend long, busy queriers and submitters have been toiling away like unusually dedicated aunts, filling her e-mail inbox to bursting with messages; regular mail also arrived on Saturday. So the next few Mondays — particularly the coming one, if she has been on vacation — will see her frantically trying to clear out that inbox and read through what’s on her desk as quickly as humanly possible.

Again, do you think that will make her more likely to reject any individual query or submission in that pile, or less?

For this reason, if you feel you absolutely must query or submit via e-mail during the next month, avoid doing it on either a Monday, Friday, or a weekend. Actually, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for e-querying and e-submitting in general: January is not the only time when most aspiring writers have more time on the weekends than mid-week.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for the last three paragraphs, have you not? “But Anne,” those of you chomping at the bit ask eagerly, “if you’re advising me against taking action now, when can I reasonably begin querying or sending off that requested manuscript? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? I have a long weekend then.”

Well, that wouldn’t be a bad choice to start stamping those SASEs — although, like after holiday weekend, Millicent’s inbox will be stuffed to the proverbial gills on the morning of Tuesday, January 18. The average New Year’s resolution lasts about three weeks, so it would be fair to expect queries and submissions tend to drop off around then. Yes, that would make quite a bit of sense.

So why am I urging every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice to hold off until February 1? Two reasons.

First, over the past few years, the statistics about how many electronic readers and e-books sold over the holidays, vs. the number of traditionally-published books, have tended to come out around mid-January. (Oh, a few estimates will be available before then — there are probably some figures out now — but it usually takes a few weeks to verify the actual totals.) This year, the news is likely to depress folks who work in traditional publishing.

Yes, even more than last year. As you may have heard, 2009 was the first year that e-books outsold hard copies at Amazon on Christmas. Those sales figures were just for Christmas Day itself, an occasion when, correct me if I’m wrong, folks who had just received a Kindle as a present might be slightly more likely to download books than, say, the day before.

But that’s not what the headlines screamed immediately afterward, was it? I assure you, every agency and publishing house employee in North America has spent the intervening days fending off kith and kin helpfully showing him articles mournfully declaring that the physical book is on the endangered species list. Or ought to be.

It was also the first year that there were roughly the same number of self-published and print-on-demand books published as those produced by traditional publishers. Admittedly, the average self-published book still sells less than a couple of hundred copies, but in terms of sheer volume, that was a hard blow to the publishing houses. My sources tell me that in 2010, three times as many books were self-published or produced via print-on-demand than by traditional U.S. publishing houses.

It’s probably safe to assume that the mid-January statistics will not leave the denizens of agencies and publishing houses very happy. Or receiving any fewer calls from kith and kin, once again predicting the demise of the publishing industry.

Now, naysayers have regularly predicted the imminent death of the publishing industry every year since the mid-19th century, but that doesn’t make it any easier to hear, does it? Tell me, if you were Millicent and kept hearing all of those harbingers of doom, how cheerful would you be when screening?

She’s been hearing such dismal prognostications as often as the rest of us — and she’ll probably be hearing even more once those statistics come out. When she steps across the agency threshold the next day, too-hot latte clutched in her bemittened hand, the Millicent in the cubicle next to hers will be complaining about how his (hey, Millicents come in both sexes) kith and kin has been cheerfully informing him that he will be out of a job soon. So will half the people who work in the agency — including, as likely as not, Millicent’s boss.

It’s only reasonable to expect, of course, that through the magic of group hypnosis, the more everyone repeats it, the more of a threat the news will seem; the scarier the threat, the more dire the predictions of the future of publishing will become. By lunchtime, half the office will be surreptitiously working on its resumes.

Given the ambient mood in the office, do you really want yours to be the first query she reads that day? Or the fiftieth? Or would you rather that your precious book concept or manuscript didn’t fall beneath her critical eye until after everyone’s had a chance to calm down?

There’s another yet reason that people who work in agencies tend to be a mite stressed in January: by law, US-based agencies must issue tax documentation on royalties by the end of the month. That won’t be Millicent’s department, but it might be her boss’ — it’s not at all unusual for one of the member agents at a good-sized agency to be entrusted with handling most or even all of the royalty paperwork.

So can I guarantee that everyone at the agency of your dreams will be working away happily like the dwarves in Snow White by early February? Obviously, every agency is different, and I regret to say that I don’t have a crystal ball: there’s really no way of foretelling. Perhaps a freak bestseller will catch everyone by surprise — hey, it happens — or there might be an abrupt flurry of economic bad news.

Publishing is very trend-dependent, you know. Aspiring writers who hang all of their hopes — and predicate their New Year’s resolutions — on the belief that the only factor determining whether an agent will pick up a book, or a publishing house will acquire it, is whether it is well-written are setting themselves up for disappointment. Plenty of other factors may well go into a rejection — up to and including Millicent’s simply having to plow through more queries than usual that week.

In other words: try not to take it personally. But don’t query only one agency at a time, do your homework about who represents what — and maximize the probability of your query’s hitting Millicent’s desk at the right time by holding off until the beginning of February.

By then, those of you who each year stubbornly reject my annual admonition to eschew writing-related New Year’s resolutions will have had a nice, long chunk of time to see if you could, say, up your writing time by an extra hour per week. Or per day. Or prepared a contest entry for that literary contest you’d always meant to enter.

Far be it from me to discourage keeping that kind of resolution, whether you choose to put it into action on New Year’s Day, the fourth of July, or St. Swithin’s day. Only please, for your own sake, don’t set the bar so high that you end up abandoning it within just a couple of weeks.

Doesn’t your writing deserve a more consistent effort? Or at least some recognition that pumping up the nerve to bundle up your baby and hand it to someone who has a professional obligation to judge it is one of the hardest, scariest endeavors a person can embrace?

Be proud of yourself for being ready and able to do it — believe me, only a very small percentage of aspiring writers ever work up that nerve. You’d be astonished by how many successful queriers and pitchers never submit the requested materials. This is hard stuff; the writing part is only the beginning.

But you can do it — if you go about it in a reasonable manner. Don’t be one of the millions of New Year’s resolvers who starts out in a glow of good intentions, only to be feeling weak-willed three weeks hence because the resolution was simply too big. Or too much of a commitment to maintain for longer than just a few weeks.

If you must make a New Year’s resolution, resolve to set an achievable goal, one that you can pull off without burning yourself out quickly. In the long term, asking yourself to write two extra hours per week is more likely to become a habit than eight or ten; committing to sending out one query per week is much easier to do consistently than twenty.

Remember, if Millicent resolved to get through those masses of queries and submissions currently completely concealing her desk from the human eye, she’d fling her latte in disgust within the first hour. Steady, consistent application is the way to plow through an overwhelming-seeming task.

Okay, if I’m sounding like Aesop, it’s definitely time to sign off.

Next time, I shall be talking about the ins and outs of formatting nonfiction proposals — but if you have more general manuscript formatting questions, please keep posting them in the comments. I’m far from done talking about how to get the best out of a manuscript.

Just let me get all of these New Year’s resolutions out of the way first. Keep up the good work!

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