I was thinking about you yesterday, readers, as I was taking scones to the poll workers. (For those of you reading this outside the U.S., yesterday was Election Day.) I usually take bagels — I volunteered as a poll worker once; it’s a 15-hour day — but a new bakery’s just opened up in the neighborhood, and what better way to introduce ‘em to the locals?
Why did this remind me of you, you ask? Because no matter how many election days see yours truly and partner coming through our local high school’s absurdly heavy double doors with goodies, the poll workers are always surprised to be treated with kindness. In the midst of dealing with the super-rushed, the resigned, and the confused, they always seem shocked that anyone would recognize that their job is a hard one.
I constantly see this same “What do you mean, you’re going to treat me like a human being?” weariness in the eyes of aspiring writers who have been querying for a good long time.
It’s completely understandable, of course. After a couple of dozen form-letter rejections — basically, being told by a faceless entity that one’s work is not good enough, but not being told how or why — it’s very, very easy to start to believe that agencies and publishing houses are staffed by writer-hating ogres, leering loreleis who cajole writers into sending in their hopes and dreams, purely for the pleasure of smashing them into the ground.
But the fact is, this just isn’t the case. There are a few mean people, of course, as in any profession, and I suppose it’s not out of the question that some perversely masochistic hater of the written word might choose to torture herself by becoming an agency screener.
For the most part, though, if you have the opportunity to talk to an agent, editor, or one of their overworked screeners, you will discover someone who genuinely adores good writing and is sincerely eager to promote the interests of those who produce it.
Stop laughing; it’s true.
Not everyone agrees on what constitutes good writing, of course — one doesn’t have to hang around the industry very long to realize that there are folks out there who apparently don’t make too strong a distinction between what is marketable and what is well-written — but contrary to cynical rumors perennially circulating on the writers’ conference circuit, it’s rare to find an agent or editor who genuinely regards writers as merely the necessary evil behind a successful book.
So why do so many of their form-letter rejections, conference speeches, websites, and even statements in agency guides convey, to put it politely, the opposite impression?
An array of reasons — absolutely none of which have anything to do with you or your writing. Please, please do no fall into the trap of taking it personally.
In the first place, form-letter rejections are now the norm in the industry. Period. Even for submissions — yes, even when an agent or editor has asked to see the entire book. It’s annoying as heck for the writer who receives them, of course, but the fact is, boilerplate rejections are the industry’s reaction to the incredible rise in queries since the advent of the home computer.
Like so many other puzzling aspect of the submission process, it can be explained by the agents’ desire to save time. Which, as long-time readers of this blog know, can be darned hard in an agency that receives 1000 queries per week.
See why I don’t think you should take it personally?
And while reason tells us that it would take only a few seconds per query for the agent or screener to scrawl a couple of words of explanation in the margin of a pre-printed rejection (which does happen occasionally, if a screener has mixed feelings about the rejection), the sheer volume of envelopes on Millicent’s desk tends to discourage it.
Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” a few lone voices cry, “this isn’t what I’ve heard. I’ve always been told — sometimes by agents speaking at writers’ conferences — that if I have been querying for a while and receiving only form rejections, I must be doing something terribly wrong.”
I’ve heard that one, too — and interestingly, I’ve sometimes heard agents who use form-letter rejections heavily say it. So my first response is: poppycock.
This is, in fact, an outdated notion. Gone are the days when only those illiterate queries and submissions without a prayer of being salvaged were brushed off in this manner — although, to tell you the truth, since the invention of the photocopier, there have always been more agencies and publishing houses using boilerplate rejections than was generally recognized.
It’s just too good a way to plow through the day’s mail.
To understand why, place yourself in Millicent’s moccasins for a moment: she’s been screening submissions all day, and she wants to go home on time in order to crank out those grad school applications sitting on her desk at home. (Oh, she dreams big, our Millicent!) Standing between her and the door are the 150 query letters that arrived in the morning mail — probably more, if it’s a Monday — and she knows that another 150 or so will be dumped on her desk tomorrow.
Isn’t it in her interest to get through each of those queries as quickly as humanly possible?
This is precisely what she does, of course. For a bone-chilling insight on just how draconian that process can be written by an actual Millicent, I highly recommend the excellent Rejecter blog, but those of you who have followed this Book Marketing 101 series already have a basic idea of the carnage that follows, right? “Dear Agent” letters and queries for book categories her agency doesn’t represent are rejected unread, of course, as are letters that fail to conform to the norms of submission. (For a crash course on just what those norms are, please see the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category at right.) For each, she stuffs the agency’s boilerplate rejection into the accompanying SASE.
Those are quick; the more professional ones take a little longer. But almost all of them are going to go.
And that, too, is partially a function of time. Think about it: since an acceptance requires a personalized letter or e-mail, it takes longer to accept a query than to reject it, right? And if Millicent has already decided to reject a query, which is she more likely to do when she’s trying to get out of the office, give a detailed explanation why, or just reach for that pile of rejection letters?
Would it affect your answer to know that take the easy route might save her a full two minutes? Not a lot of time in the life of the writer who has poured years into writing the book being queried, I’ll allow, but the sheer volume she faces precludes lingering. (150 queries x 2 minutes/query = 300 minutes, or 5 hours)
If she works at an agency that accepts e-mailed queries — still not the norm, but becoming more common all the time — her rejection rate is probably even faster, and she is probably using pretty much the same boilerplate.
This seems to come as a surprise to many habitual e-queriers: after all, how long could it possibly take to give a sentence or two of actual feedback?
We writers tend to forget this, but to most of the earth’s population, the transposition of thought into written sentences is a time-consuming and sometimes even painful process. A good reader is not always a good, or even adequate, writer.
Which is a nice way of saying that Millicent is unlikely to reinvent the wheel each time she taps out an e-rejection. It’s much more time-efficient to paste the same surface-kind language her agency has been cramming into SASEs for years.
To experienced eyes, the same stock phrases — and often even the same sentences — are evident in pretty much every boilerplate rejection, be it electronic or paper-based. I’m sure you recognize them: Your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time. We are only accepting clients selectively. I just didn’t fall in love with it.
And that’s just from the agencies that bother to respond to e-queries; increasingly, I’ve been noticing, agencies that accept electronic queries have started to state outright on their websites that the querier will only hear from them if they are interested, a level of brusqueness practically unheard-of for mailed queries. Presumably, then, they prefer e-queries primarily for the ease with which they can be deleted.
Personally, I find this practice kind of appalling: with a form-letter rejection, at least, the writer can be sure that the query reached the agency; without a response, how can she ever be absolutely sure that her missive didn’t just go astray?
Not to mention the fact that the human eye tends to skim on the screen, zipping across even the most beautiful prose with a rapidity it never would on paper. (See why I habitually discourage e-querying?) And since e-querying and e-submission is substantially less expensive than paper querying for writers based outside the US (to query an agency here, the stamps on the SASE need to be in US currency, which can be quite spendy to track down abroad; to buy them online at face value, try the USPS website), I worry that foreign writers might be encouraged by the relative cheapness of e-querying to place their queries at a competitive disadvantage.
Okay, I’ll admit it: all of this may not be the best way to make my point that most agents and editors are really rather fond of writers and their work. My point is that precisely because such practices — form-letter rejections, non-response rejections, writing in blurbs — are impersonal by definition, it doesn’t make sense, logically, to read them as a reflection upon your work.
Seriously, there is nothing to read into a statement like I’m sorry, but this does not meet our needs at this time, other than a simple, unnuanced No.
Which, admittedly, is lousy enough to hear — but it certainly is not the same as hearing, “You know, I really liked your premise, but I felt your execution was weak,” feedback that might actually help a writer improve the next query or submission. And it’s definitely better than hearing what so many writers read into such statements, hostility that amounts to ”Take it away — this is loathsome!”
At minimum, it should NEVER be read as, “Since I’m saying no, no one else will ever say yes.” Just note the response — and send out the next query immediately.
I sense some lightening of writerly hearts out there, but still, some strategic-minded spirits are troubled. “But Anne,” I hear a few quiet voices saying, “this is all very well as encouragement, but why are you telling us this in the midst of a series of posts on how to build a querying list?”
Because, sharp-minded questioners, in working with my clients and preparing these blog posts, I reading through quite a few listings, websites, conference blurbs: in short, I have been sifting through what a writer trying to glean some sense of a particular agent’s preferences might find. And over the years, I haven’t been able to help but notice that just as many aspiring writers read a certain hostility into form rejections, they sometimes read a coldness into the listings and blurbs themselves.
I don’t think this is in the writer’s best interest, as far as pulling together a querying list goes. Here’s why.
While some agencies seem to go out of their way to be encouraging, others come across as off-puttingly intimidating. Most of the time, it’s just businesslike advice: Query first by mail. Include SASE. Query before submitting. No e-mail queries. A bit terse, perhaps, but nothing to cause undue dismay.
Sometimes, though, these statements — which are, the shy writer thinks, how the agency is choosing to promote itself to potential clients — can come across as positive discouragement to query at all.
Chief among these, naturally, are the ones that actually ARE intended to discourage queriers: We do not accept submissions from previously unpublished writers. New clients considered by recommendation only. Does not consider science fiction, fantasy, or mysteries. Or my personal favorite from the first page of the guide currently at my elbow, Although we remain absolutely dedicated to finding new talent, we must announce that until further notice we can no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. We also cannot accept queries or submissions via e-mail.
While a thoughtful peruser might be left wondering, in this last case, how precisely the agency in question acts upon the absolute dedication it mentions, having so emphatically cut off the most logical manners of exercising it, it is usually best to take such statements at face value. If an agency isn’t considering books like yours, or if it relies upon its existing client list to recruit new writers for them (not all that unusual), querying them isn’t going to be a very efficient use of your time, anyway.
Similarly, when a listing or blurb includes a simple statement of preference, along the lines of No phone calls or Include first five pages with query, this information can be very helpful to the writer. It’s worth seeking out. After all, practical information like We never download attachments to e-mail queries for security reasons, so please copy and paste material into your e-mail is always worth following.
Hey, I’m all for anything that keeps Millicent’s itchy finger away from that delete button.
Frankly, I consider specificity a very good sign in a listing; as anyone who has flipped through one of the standard guides can tell you, it’s fairly rare. Whenever I see a website whose organizers have taken the time to give the logic behind their preferences, I think, “Wow, this agency has given the process some thought. Vive la difference!”
But listings, websites, blurbs, and even conference speeches that bark advice at the writer — and, once notice, it tends to be the same advice, over and over again — can be harder to decipher. Does the assertion that I do not take on books described as bestsellers or potential bestsellers, for instance, mean that the agent is specifically looking for less commercial work, that he doesn’t like to see target market demographics in an e-mail, or just that he’s tired of receiving boasts? Does This agency prefers not to share information on specific sales mean that they don’t have many big names on their client list, that they tend to sell to smaller presses, that they are too new an agency to have many clients’ books on the shelves yet — or just that the guy whose job it was to fill out the questionnaire was in a hurry?
Here, too, the impulse to read character into the responses can easily run amok — but what a temptation some of agencies do provide! For example, does the order Be professional! mean that the agency stating it is interested in working with a writer new to the business, or doesn’t it? And why, the nervous would-be querier wonders, does this agency immediately leap to the conclusion that I intend to be unprofessional in my approach?
Keep reminding yourself: this is generic advice, not intended for your eyes alone. Nor is it a personality evaluation for the agent who wrote it — again, probably not a professional writer.
There are a couple of reasons for the barked advice — the first of which is, perhaps not surprisingly, the same as the primary justification for form-letter rejections: an attempt to save themselves some time. An agent doesn’t have to receive very many phone calls from aspiring writers before she notices that each takes up quite a bit more time than reading a query letter, after all, or be buried under an avalanche of unrequested manuscripts before establishing a policy that she will read only what she has asked to see.
In practice, though, you are probably not the target audience for these bits of advice. The terser listings and blurbs tend to focus upon what NOT to do or send, after all. This implies a focus upon the avalanche of queries they receive, not on the plight of the sender of this week’s 657th letter.
In my experience, the habitual readers of the standard agency guides — at least the ones who are predisposed to follow directions — are not the ones who need to be told always to include a SASE, or never to send an unsolicited manuscript; these are the wholly admirable souls who have done their homework, bless ‘em.
But the overwhelming majority of generic queries — and pretty much all of the much-deplored “Dear Agent” variety — come from aspiring writers who have not taken the time to learn the rules of the game. (Unlike, say, you.)
So when a listing strikes you as off-putting, ask yourself, “Is this snappish list of don’ts aimed at me — or at the nameless person who sent a query without knowing to include a SASE? If it’s the latter, I’m just going to glean this listing or website for what applies to me.”
“I can understand why an agent might want to give generic querying advice at a conference or on a website,” you argue, and cogently, “but the standard agency guides have entire articles about how to query, for goodness’ sake! Do we really need 74 agents also reminding us to query before sending a manuscript?”
Good point, oh skeptical one. But it brings me back to my earlier point: most agents are not writers. Thus, few of them have ever queried a book of their own.
This sounds like a truism, but actually, I don’t think that aspiring writers tend to think about its implications much. It means, among other things, that the average agent may not be aware of just how hard it is for even the best manuscript to attract representation these days. (Tell the truth now: if someone had told you how hard it was before you tried it yourself, would YOU have believed it?) They may not realize that it is now quite common for a very good writer with a truly fabulous book to NEED to query 50 or 100 agents before finding the right fit.
Which makes it entirely safe to conclude that they are not given to thumbing through the nearest agency guide in their odd leisure moments. I seriously doubt most of them are aware just how much repetition there is.
Again, useful for the writer who is predisposed to reading character into trifles (and what novelist isn’t?) If you approach those pithy little bursts of advice recognizing that their producers could conceivably believe that this listing might well be the first time anyone has ever heard of a SASE, they make considerably more sense.
Whew, this is a long post, isn’t it? And yet, amazingly, I still have a bit more to say on the subject of how to read agency listings; saving up my thoughts for intermittent posts has evidently produced a backlog in my brain. More follows after I have rested up a bit.
Keep up the good work!