A final word on queries

How did everyone’s query letter do in the countdown? Well, I hope. If you find yourself in perplexity about some aspect of the missive, feel free to ask questions via the comments function, below. (But please, I implore you, do NOT just e-mail me your query letter. I’m swamped.)

Before I sign off on the topic of querying for the time being, in order to retackle contest entries with renewed enthusiasm, however, I want to speak today about the extraordinarily difficult task of keeping yourself from stressing out while your queries are wending their way through agencies thither and yon.

Keeping your spirits up is very seldom addressed in your average querying class, is it? And in most how-to publications out there, the implication is that since the advice contained therein will elevate your query letter from rejectable to irresistible in a few easy steps, there is no need to consider the possibility that a good writer might have to send quite a few of them out.

Frankly, I think this attitude – although probably meant to be chock-full o’ positive vibrations for your success – actually makes it harder for writers going through the querying process.

I wondered for a very long time where aspiring writers got the rather fantastic idea that talent is always recognized instantaneously, as if there were a special angel who did nothing all day but assure that any gifted writer’s copy of GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS would automatically fall open to the perfect fit. And then I started listening to the bigwig writers who spoke at the conferences where I was teaching. Turns out, conference speakers tend to be huge proponents of the notion that Somebody Up There sees to it that the gifted don’t have to query more than a handful of times.

While it would be easy to dismiss this attitude as self-aggrandizement – “You, the audience, may be struggling to get your work a fair reading, but I, the speaker, am so brilliant that agents appeared on my doorstep as soon as I printed out the first draft” – I don’t think that’s actually what’s behind this kind of assertion. I think that often, by the time a writer is prominent enough to be asked to speak (particularly to give a keynote speech) at a major conference, he tends to have landed his agent so long ago that the writing market has completely changed in the interim.

So, effectively, unless the speaker is unusually devoted to helping aspiring writers and is still in the trenches like yours truly, trying to assist others to get published, the story he is likely to tell will bear about as much resemblance to what a querier can expect now as your grandparents’ stories about their high school years bore to yours.

Wanna hear my father’s story about the first time he sat in a car? It was a Model A. Think that helped me learn to drive?

This was brought home very forcefully to me this fall, when I was teaching at a small conference packed to the gills with exceptionally talented writers who had made their names between 10 and 40 years ago. When asked about how to land an agent, these well-meaning souls to a man muttered the usual truisms about how good writing always finds a home, and all you really have to do is get someone to read it.

Which, to a writer new to the game who is at all savvy to the current hyper-competitive environment at agencies, could be heard very much as, “I’m all right, Jack; I’ve got mine.” Not overwhelmingly helpful, as guidance goes.

Then one of the writers I have admired for a very, very long time stepped up to the podium. She’s probably 15 years older than I am, which is to say that I estimated that she had hooked up with her agent just about the time when it started getting genuinely hard for good writers to find representation. The timing had a lot to do with the rise of the personal computer, by the way, and even more with the later rise of the internet: once writers did not have to laboriously retype or expensively photocopy every manuscript submitted, submissions to agencies went up exponentially; once writers could research agencies on the web, queries burgeoned.

In any case, I was in great hopes that this author, unlike the other speakers, would have a life story that might parallel the conference attendees’ struggles enough to be instructive. No such luck, alas: it turned out that she had been in an MFA program…

Lost you already, hasn’t she?

…and she went to a conference and made friends with an editor because she was crying over something. The editor read “the only good short story I had written so far,” introduced the writer to her best friend…


…who happened to be an excellent agent, and snapped her up immediately. Thus, the writer had never queried at all.

Well, that was helpful, wasn’t it?

Seriously, I think these types of stories depress writers who are querying now; they give new life to that old myth that real talent is always recognized instantly. In the current market – and actually, for most of the last 15 years since that lecturing writer had an agent magically fall into her lap like Newton’s apple – that just hasn’t been the case.

Trust me on this one: you will be a MUCH happier camper if you reconcile yourself NOW to the notion that you will probably need to send out dozens (and dozens, and maybe even dozens) of query letters before you land an agent – and that this most emphatically does NOT mean you are without talent, or that the publishing world is hostile to your work.

Once you accept that reality, sending out one letter at a time just seems, well, kind of silly, doesn’t it? If you’re going to need to get your work under many noses, it only makes sense to send out quite a few queries at a time. Not so many that you can’t keep track of who wants what, of course, but enough that when you hear back from one, you have others out there.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s emotionally FAR easier to keep a query cycle going than to start one from scratch. Especially if you are starting from scratch immediately after the agent of your dreams has just sent you a form-letter rejection. Many queries equal many possibilities: cumulatively, they help keep hope alive.

And anything that keeps hope hoppin’ is not something at which a writer should be sneezing, in this market.

Also, one-at-a-time querying is inefficient. This is an industry where tastes change in a matter of months, sometimes even weeks. If it takes you a year to query ten agents, it’s not beyond belief that by the end of that time, what the first agent is looking to acquire will have changed completely.

Seriously. I’ve seen it happen.

Let me knock another common writers’ conference truism on its nasty little head before anyone brings it up: it’s just not true that agents become angry if you submit to more than one of them at once. That was true in older, slower times, but frankly, it hasn’t been widely true since the Reagan Administration.

The FIRST Reagan Administration.

True, one occasionally does see notations in the standard agents’ guides stating that a particular agency prefers exclusive submissions. You know why that’s there? Because the expectation of exclusivity is so rare in the industry now that unless it is stated baldly up front, the assumption is that every agent on the planet accepts simultaneous submissions.

So there. Query early, query often, and don’t you dare conclude that no one wants your book until you’ve queried a hundred agents – and even then, make sure it’s your book that’s getting rejected, and not just your query letter.

Tomorrow, we shall rejoin our series on contest entries, already in progress. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

5 Replies to “A final word on queries”

  1. Querying. I’m hitting a road block. Did a little research on an agent and the address seems to be different than what I thought. Can’t tell in web listing how old the post is. What do you do next? I’m ready to send out.

    1. Preditors and Editors is usually pretty up-to-date, but which agency is it? I have pretty good sources for this sort of thing, and if one of the standard guides is off, it would only help everybody to post the accurate info here.

      Out of curiosity, is the post you’re talking about on the agency’s website, or elsewhere?

      1. Jill Grinberg. I think I first ran in down in novel written by an author I like. Our novels are sort of similar. First search yielded the Jill Grinberg Literary Managment. When I searched a few days later, I was suddenly getting Anderson Grinberg Lit. I couldn’t tell the age of the post. I believe Google was giving me something from Publishers Weekly or the Lunch.

  2. Jill Grinberg and Kathleen Anderson split up with each heading her own agency. The correct way to approach Jill Grinberg now is via the Jill Grinberg Literary Management address.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *