Okay, I have to say it: mono is no fun. My will to communicate remains strong, but the body is, alas, weak.
Case in point: I began today’s post last Monday, and am only managing to complete it to the point that the more polite among you may consider it useful today, which I believe is the following Sunday (now that I haven’t been blogging my usual every day, I notice that the days of the week have been blurring together), and that only with the assistance of a friend kind enough to take dictation. My eyelids are too droopy to stare at a computer screen for long.
You haven’t been far from my thoughts, though, I assure you. My kith and kin inform me that I’ve been moaning feverishly, “But I had planned to show actual examples of standard format!” for a good week now.
However, I am not, fevered dreams to the contrary, immediately going to launch into the next logical step in Book Marketing 101, showing precisely what standard manuscript looks like on the page. That’s hands-on, nit-picky material, best suited for when my brain is fully back in editor mode.
Instead, my topic du jour is much more basic, as befits my beleaguered mental state: hunting and gathering.
Specifically, hunting down names of agents who might be interested in your work and gathering that information into a list that will carry even the most intrepid querier through the end of the year. Or at least until Thanksgiving — that’s the fourth Thursday in November, for those of you reading this in foreign climes.
Why Thanksgiving, you ask? Well, not a lot goes on in the U.S. publishing industry between Thanksgiving and Christmas; I know many, many agents who, as in August, simply do not bother to send submissions to editors between mid-November and the New Year.
It’s a time for merrymaking — and for catching up on all of that reading that’s been piling up over the preceding 10 1/2 months. Given that the average agent’s office is well enough insultated with as yet unread piles of paper to allow him to survive the next ice age in toasty comfort, the relatively time to read is universally regarded as a boon.
What does that mean from the aspiring writer’s perspective? Chances are good that a query or a manuscript sent during these yearly doldrums will languish unopened for a month — or more.
Why more? A couple of reasons. By law, US-based agencies have to produce tax information for the previous year’s earnings by the end of January: paperwork central. And since agenting tends to attract former English majors, rather than accounting majors, this deadline can result in a few weeks of rather frayed tempers.
Which tend to be exacerbated by the positive avalanche of queries they receive within the first couple of weeks of the new year. It’s not uncommon for Millicent to greet a gray January morning by seeing 4 or 5 times the usual volume of mail dumped upon her desk.
That’s enough to make anyone burn her lip with a too-hasty sip on her latte.
Does Santa Claus bank down the reindeer engines from his Yuletide travels by bringing good little agency screeners buckets of additional queries? No, it’s a phenomenon of group think: virtually all of the aspiring writers of North America make it their New Year’s resolution to query the heck out of their books.
The result: the first few weeks of January finds Millicent the agency screener overwhelmed, her bosses stressed, and everyone concerned in an even more rejection-happy mood than usual.
I know; hard to picture. But true. I always advise my clients to avoid querying, or even submitting requested material, before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — or, to translate that into European terms, before Federico Fellini’s birthday on January 21.
Hey, if we’re taking nominations for a patron saint of aspiring writers, Fellini isn’t a bad choice. An enhanced appreciation of the surreal, the advent of the miraculous in modern life, and the value of sitting around in cafés, brooding and looking fabulous, is actually very helpful for those of us trudging the long path to publication.
But I digress. The autumn, as I was saying, is a lovely time to be querying, before the industry takes its long winter nap.
But where, as writers everywhere routinely cry to the heavens, does one FIND agents to query? Opening the Manhattan Yellow Pages and sticking a pin randomly on the page? Tracking down the four biggest agencies and querying every name listed in the Herman Guide?
The short answer, of course, is no. (The long answer is NOOOOOOOO.)
Bear with me, long-time readers, while I repeat an underappreciated truth of the industry: not every agent represents EVERY kind of book, or even every stripe of book within a particular genre. They specialize; they nurture connections primarily in their areas of interest.
And they uniformly tell their screeners — our old friend Millicent and her ilk — to reject outright ANY query that falls outside those parameters.
Yes, ANY query about a book category they do not represent, regardless of quality. Even if it’s the most marketable idea for a book since Helen Fielding said, “You know, I think I’m gonna rewrite Pride and Prejudice in a modern setting.” This is the primary reason that agents prefer queries to state the book category in the first paragraph, if not the first line: so they may weed out the kinds of books they have no experience representing.
So it is simply a waste of energy to query an agent who has devoted her life to promoting bodice-ripper romances with a futuristic fantasy where bosoms remain unheaved, and vice versa.
Oh, the misery that would be averted if more aspiring writers were aware of this salient fact! Every year, hundreds of thousands of hours are wasted in both writing misdirected query letters and summarily rejecting them, causing needless depression on one end and habitual chagrin on the other.
To heighten the wails of woe even further, it isn’t even enough for a writer to target an agency that represents his kind of book: he needs to target the right AGENT within it. One of the classic agency screener pet peeves is to see the same query letter sent simultaneously to every agent on staff at a particular agency a query in the hope of hitting the right one.
To all too many queriers, this comes as a gargantuan surprise — and an annoying inconvenience. After all, it just seems efficient to write to every member agent listed under an agency’s listing. “Who’s going to know there’s overlap?” these busy souls mutter to themselves, industriously stuffing envelopes. “The average agency gets 800-1000 queries per week!”
But in practice, it’s actually fairly likely that someone WILL notice: Millicent is often opening the mail for more than one agent. And I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the vast majority multi-member agencies have a policy that they will reject such blanket queries outright.
Not that they’ll usually TELL writers that they’re being rejected for this reason, mind you; blanket queriers almost always get the same form rejection letters as everyone else. Which is why, in case you were wondering, there are invariably so many blankly dismayed faces in the audience after an agent casually mentions from a conference podium that he and his colleagues won’t even consider a project proposed to everyone in the agency simultaneously.
A word to the wise: this pervasive practice of rejecting multiple queries to the same agency is often mistakenly confused with the writers’ conference circuit myth that agents uniformly become incensed if they learn that a particular writer is sending out queries to agents at DIFFERENT agencies simultaneously. The former is common; the latter is not.
At the risk of dragging out my broken record player yet again, unless an agency states SPECIFICALLY in its agency guide listing or on its website that it insists upon an exclusive for any submission it considers, these days, it is assumed that a market-savvy writer will be sending out simultaneous queries.
Why would they assume this? For one very simple, very practical reason: querying agents one at a time, waiting weeks (or even months) to hear back from one before sending out the next, can add YEARS to the agent-finding process.
Trust me, agents understand this. They tend to be impatient people.
So why would they find a writer’s querying every agent in a particular agency simultaneously annoying? To insider eyes, it’s a sign of inexperience, an indicator that the querier has not sufficiently researched who represents books in a given category sufficiently — and is thus unlikely to be a very industry-savvy client.
Why? Well, writers who don’t do their homework, they reason, are likely to need more of the process explained to them, and are thus more time-consuming to represent.
Realistically, there is another, more practical reason for this policy, of course: if 5 of the 150 envelopes Millicent slits open tomorrow morning have the same name on the letterhead, or sport the same title in the first paragraph, she can save many valuable minutes by rejecting #2-#5 as soon as she spots the repetition.
And she may not even get as far as the first paragraph of an e-mailed query that lists half a dozen agents on its recipient list.
Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you cry, “that isn’t fair! How on earth is a writer new to the industry to learn who represents what?”
Glad you asked, disgruntled mutterers. My project for the week shall be to answer this question — fevered brain and dictation-taker availability permitting, of course. In the meantime, keep up the good work!