Super Reader Toddie wrote in the other day with an excellent question:
“Anne – Do you have any words of wisdom/nice template for the follow-up letter/email itself, when we get the temerity to send it? I waffle as to how much to include in order to stay on the good side of the agent vs. being seen as a nasty pest/provoking an automatic rejection.”
Toddie, thanks for asking this as a follow-up to my dictum on follow-ups: until an agency has had your submission — that’s requested manuscript pages, people, not a query letter — for EITHER 8 weeks (not including the 3-week industry summer vacation) OR half again as long as the agent told you to expect (if the agent told you 6 weeks, give it 9 before you follow up), you may legitimately inquire about it without being a pest. Indeed, you SHOULD inquire about it then, because if you wait much longer, the chances of being able to find it again if it is lost are slim.
Note that I said SUBMISSION, and not query letter. If you haven’t heard back on a query letter in 8 weeks AND you sent a SASE with it, just assume that it was lost. Send another, and don’t bother to mention that you’ve queried before. At worst, you’ll get a peevish little note from a screener, saying he already remembers it, but most of the time, it will simply be read as a fresh query. Screeners’ memories are not that good, and often the bodies screening queries in the summer are not the same ones screening them at the same agency in the winter.
But okay, let’s say that you have been waiting for 8 weeks to hear back on requested materials. Or an agency sent you back your manuscript with no letter attached, or you received your SASE with neither letter nor manuscript in it, or you received a rejection letter clearly intended for someone else’s manuscript (and yes, I’ve seen all of these happen. Agencies move a LOT of paper in any given week). Any of these warrants a follow-up note — and if you received someone else’s materials, you should send them back to the agency right away along with that note, because some poor writer is waiting for those.
Do send a note or an e-mail, rather than calling. Why? Well, if any of the outcomes I have mentioned above is true, you’re going to be letting the agent know that someone at the agency has fallen down on the job. At best, the agent will be annoyed at her screener and apologetic toward you; at worst, the agent will resent the implication that she should be working faster. And in every case, yours will be the ring of the phone that does not herald an offer from a publisher for one of her clients’ books.
So tell me: do you really want to be on the initiating end of that call?
Generally speaking, it’s not in your best interest to call anyone in the industry with whom you do not already have a relationship — and no, a nice conversation at a conference does NOT count, by publishing world standards. This is a fairly formal industry, still run by the written word. So it’s best to be as polite as possible — adhere to the Cheese Plate Rule.
What? Don’t tell me that no one ever explained the etiquette of cheese consumption to you. Really? No one but me was raised regretting the Bourbons? What is the world coming to?
Okay, then, I’ll explain: after the dessert course, the hostess presents the guests with an array of cheeses and small knives, right, so that each guest may serve herself? But each cheese is a different shape – an isosceles triangle of Brie, perhaps, next to a rectangle of triple crème, a square of sage Derby, and a wee round of Stilton — so how do you know how to cut off your individual slice?
By preserving the integrity of the cheese: you cut off your piece so as to allow the cheese from which you slice it to remain essentially the same shape as before you began. Thus, you would cut along one long leg of the triangle for the Brie, so the original remains a triangle, across the short way for the triple crème, a shave along the top of the Derby, a pie slice off the Stilton, etc. That way, when the other diners return for seconds, the cheeses will resemble their original shapes closely enough that each eager eater can hone in instantly upon her favorite from round one.
Curious how I’m going to tie this to agents, aren’t you?
Just as one should preserve the integrity of the cheese by conforming to its original shape, a polite writer should preserve the integrity of the budding relationship with an agent by responding via the medium through which the agent requested the materials. If you queried by regular mail, and you received a mailed request to send more materials, sending a follow-up via regular mail preserves the integrity of the relationship, labeling you as polite and considerate: you are letting the agent determine the extent of your intimacy.
In other words, just because you have an agent’s phone number or e-mail address doesn’t mean you should necessarily use it. Respect the cheese plate!
However, if you have already exchanged e-mail with an agent, it is entirely appropriate to follow up via e-mail. If the agent called you personally to ask to see the rest of the manuscript after you’d submitted the first 50 pages, you could legitimately phone – although personally, I would probably e-mail in this instance.
And no, Virginia, if you met the agent at a conference, you do not have to wait until next year’s conference to follow up (although I have known ultra-polite writers who have done so, actually, much to the surprise of the agents). Preserving the integrity of the cheese in this situation would require following up in the same manner as you submitted your materials: either by regular mail or by e-mail.
You’ll never look at cheese the same way again, I assure you.
So, back to Toddie’s question: what should you say? Well, I’m a big fan of allowing people who have messed up an easy means of saving face, so I would advise setting up a way that the agent can do what you want without having to accept any blame whatsoever for the delay. And heck, a little flattery never hurts, either. (Hey, these are touchy people.) So if an agent has had a submission for 8 weeks, I might send a letter that said:
“Dear Mr. X,
Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of my manuscript, THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. Since eight weeks have passed since I sent it, I am beginning to fear that perhaps it got lost in the mail. Here are the pages you requested again, with another SASE. If you would not mind dropping the enclosed stamped, self-addressed postcard in the mail so that I know that this copy did indeed arrive intact, I would appreciate it.”
And I would send exactly the same pages again. Ditto if I received an empty SASE or somebody else’s manuscript — because, you see, with that many submissions, it actually is possible that the submission did get lost. In the more likely case that it did not, this letter allows the agency to pretend that it did.
And the submission is read by a contrite screener, rather than a defensive one. Everyone wins!
You will notice, I hope, that I have been speaking exclusively of agency submissions here, rather than of editors. If you have submitted to a small press, the method above is fine — although for your own protection, you should always send manuscripts to a press that accepts direct submissions from authors via a form of mail with a return receipt.
However, if you met a kind editor from a major house at a conference who asked to see your pages and have not heard back, no amount of cheese-paring is going to enable you to make the follow-up request sound polite. Because, you see, all of the major houses have policies that preclude their reviewing unagented submissions — which means that in asking to see your work, the editor was doing you a personal favor, by definition. So, technically, he doesn’t have an obligation to get back to you, alas.
Just let it go.
I should mention, for the sake of completeness, that the organizers of this year’s PNWA conference swore up and down that every single editor who attended was in fact empowered to pick up new authors directly. If that is true, and an editor you met there solicited your material, feel free to follow up. However, as none of the major publishing houses have changed their stated policies on the subject in recent months, I tend to doubt that such a follow-up would receive much of a response.
What you should NOT do, under any circumstances, with either an editor or an agent who has already sent back your work, is ask for insight on why. Any reasonably busy person in the industry simply reads too many manuscripts to remember individual ones a week or two after the fact, unfortunately, so this is universally considered an unreasonable request.
You are right to tread with care, Toddie: this is a notoriously easily-offended industry. But if you both follow the Cheese Plate Rule and make it as easy as humanly possible for the recipient of your follow-up request to read your work immediately, you are far more likely to be happy with the ultimate outcome.
Keep up the good work!