Book marketing 101: Dear John, please don’t send a Dear Agent letter

Miss me over the holiday weekend? Actually, I didn’t refrain from posting because I was doing any of the standard Labor Day activities — all of the ambient barbequing in my neighborhood seemed to have triggered a headache of truly epic proportions. I know people want their briquettes to light, but honestly, is THAT much lighter fluid necessary?

Before I succumbed to the billows of smoke from up the hill, I had been talking about the most common problems found in query letters. Today, I’m going to get back to that rather grim task, in preparation for launching into a series of questions designed to help you see your query letter as Millicent and the other screeners of the agency world might see it.

Because, you see, they read hundreds of the darned things per week: even if only 20 of them share the same basic mistake — and trust me, more of them will — the 21st query that carries even a shade of similarity is likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction so strong that even Dr. Pavlov would shake is head and say, “No kidding? Just because the letter was addressed to DEAR AGENT, instead of an individual?”

Oh, yes, Dr. Pavlov, there are few epistolary errors that engender a stronger — or quicker — negative response than a DEAR AGENT letter. As in one that begins:

Dear Agent,
I haven’t the vaguest idea who you are or what you represent, but since the big publishing houses don’t accept submissions from unagented authors, I come to you, hat in hand, to beg you to represent my fiction novel…

Why, when there is so much to resent in this (probably quite honest) little missive, would the salutation alone be enough to get this query rejected without reading farther? Well, to folks who work in agencies, such an opening means only one thing: the writer who sent it is sending an identical letter to every agent listed on the Internet or in one of the standard agency guides.

Willy-nilly, with no regard to who represents what and consequently who is likely to be interested in the book at hand.

Which means, they reason, that it is unlikely to the point of laughability that the book being proposed is going to fit the specific requirements and tastes of any of the agents currently domiciled at the agency. And, most will additionally conclude, the writer hasn’t bothered to learn much about how the publishing industry works.

Now, neither of these conclusions may actually be fair or accurate in the case of a particular book. And honestly, since most agency screeners are simply told to reject a DEAR AGENT letter automatically, the Millicents of the world probably seldom give much thought to it at all — this is such a notorious agents’ pet peeve that I was rather surprised to realize that I’d never done a post exclusively on it before.

This knee-jerk response does have some rather sound logic underlying it, however, so rather than just stating that it’s always a bad idea to open a query with the generic DEAR AGENT salutation (which it is, oh, it IS!), I’m going to spend a little time talking about why.

First, agencies receive a LOT of this kind of letter, so many, in fact, that there’s it has an industry nickname. It’s called — wait for it — a DEAR AGENT letter. (Hey, I didn’t say that it was a startlingly original nickname, only that it existed.)

There’s a very good reason that they see so many of ‘em: scores of aspiring writers, impatient to get a response, will query every agency in creation their first time out. If you’re going to be popping 300 queries into envelopes, just photocopying the same letter 300 times can start to seem much more efficient than adding an individual salutation for each. Much less time-consuming, they think, patting themselves on the back for being clever.

And then they’re surprised when they receive 300 rejections. Or, if they did not include SASEs (usually because they haven’t done their homework well enough to know about them — and if you are unsure how to handle them, why they’re necessary, or what SASE stands for, please see the SASE GUIDELINES category at right.)

This kind of generic letter has, alas, become even more widespread with the rise of the Internet and the increasing acceptability of e-mailed queries. (Which I do not recommend, incidentally; they’re easier to reject. For a discussion of why, please see the E-MAILING QUERIES category at right.) Often, such blanket queries do not include any saluation at all.

Trust me on this one: few things annoy your average agent more than receiving an e-mail that indicates that it was sent not only to her, but to the three or four agencies that fall closest to hers in the alphabet.

Either way, they tend to find it a bit insulting to be treated as interchangeable with every other agent on the planet. Also, it’s rare that an agent works alone; there are usually several agents working at any given agency, each with her own idea of a dream book.

Why is does this render a DEAR AGENT letter a worse idea than it might otherwise be? By not specifying which individual a query is targeting, the querier is implicitly asking the SCREENER to make the decision about which is the most appropriate in-house agent for the book being proposed.

If that last sentence didn’t make you giggle at least a little bit, consider Millicent the screener’s job for a moment: hours and hours of query letters, hundreds of them, as if she were Santa Claus, until she begins to curse the legendary efficiency of the US Postal Service for not losing, say, a couple of dozen letters a day.

Preferably, the couple of dozen that begin DEAR AGENT.

It’s not just that the marketing error repetitions (like a letter that begins… well, you get the picture) would get on her nerves after a while; it’s the fact that — long-time readers, chant it with me now — her job is to reject as many of them as possible.

Why? Well, let’s assume that she’s working at a big agency, one with many agents representing a couple of hundred clients. In a good year, they might sell 75 or 100 titles, but let’s assume that they are looking to expand their client list — not a foregone conclusion, incidentally. (The standard agency guides will indicate which are not open to new clients.) Millicent’s agency is, due to client attrition, changing personal interests among the agents, new trends in the book market, etc.

So here’s a question to ponder (and a great one to stand up and ask a panel of agents at a conference, by the way): with a successfully productive client list, how many new writers do you think the agency will be picking up this year?

The answer really depends upon the individual agent, as much as upon the agency; it could be as few as just a few, or as many as a couple of dozen. A lot of factors affect such decisions. Has a particular agent just been promoted from assistant, and is looking to build her own client list? Is another’s child just about to enter an expensive private school, and he’s eager to increase his commissions? Have clients been leaving or — this is often a lifetime relationship we’re talking about here — passing away recently?

Or, to mention some reasons that an agency might be less client-hungry, is one of the member agents just about to have a baby, and is looking at taking a few months off — and thus are the other in-house agents going to be handling her clients while she’s on leave? Has one of their clients just hit the bestseller lists, and is both bringing in scads of money and requiring additional attention? Did half of a particular agent’s client list just suddenly present him with new novels within the last two weeks?

All of these influential matters, you will note, are utterly beyond a querying writer’s control, and 99% of the time, beyond her knowledge as well. Given that level of uncertainty, it might seem like a good idea to let Millicent, who at least knows what’s going on behind the scenes at the agency, decide which of the agents on staff might be the most open to your book, right?

Wrong; it’s not how Millie sees it. What she sees are 800-1000 query letters per week, for perhaps 10 or 20 new client slots per year. And while she was probably an English major, her math skills are certainly up to figuring out that she is going to need to reject the overwhelming majority of those queries without seeing any of the associated books at all.

Which means — and it pains me to say it, but it’s true — that easily-spotted mistakes in the salutation or first paragraph are a positive godsend to her. She doesn’t even need to read the letter to reject it. Next!

Do I hear some outraged sputtering out there? “But Anne,” I some voices in the wilderness cry, “doesn’t such an attitude virtually guarantee that many wonderful books will be rejected, just because their writers don’t know the ropes of the industry? Isn’t Millicent worried that she’ll accidentally reject the next DA VINCI CODE?”

In a word, no, because the sheer volume of submissions is so great. When she is wearing her submission-screening hat, she sees so many technically perfect submissions that she doesn’t need to fret that she might be rejecting a brilliant novel because it is incorrectly formatted, or because line 3 on page 1 contains a cliché, or any of the other hundreds of reasons that manuscripts routinely get rejected on page 1, right?

By exactly the same logic, the agency just receives too many queries for her to worry about the one that got away. (For a sobering — and, I think, enlightening — look at just how picayune some of those reasons can be, take a gander at the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE category at right.)

In fact, the general assumption is that if a writer is talented enough, she’ll go off and learn the rules of submission and come back again. Which means that, essentially, Millicent will throw a DEAR AGENT letter back, regardless of the quality of the book bring proposed, on the same principle as a fisherman’s releasing a too-small trout: it’s not that they never want to see the book pitched again; they merely want to catch the writer again when s/he is older and wiser.

So it honestly does pay to do your homework and target a particular agent, rather than leaving the choice up to Millicent’s tender mercies.

Not to worry: after I finish going over how to weed out the most common query problems, I intend to spend a few days talking about how to find out who represents your kind of work, to maximize the probability that your queries will land on the right desks.

In the interim, let’s concentrate upon not being the fish that gets thrown back. Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

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