I'm querying agents for the first time and it's not going well (form rejections from some, silence from others). I follow each agent's requirements, so I'm confident the problem is in the content of my work/letter. I was wondering if there was a magic number of these to get before I should read it as a sign to put on the brakes and rethink my strategy. The form letters all graciously concede that maybe another agent would like the story, but do you have any estimate for how many flat-out "no"s I should receive before I have to stop and change something dramatically?
On a similar note, how important are previous publications at the query stage? This probably varies, but I was wondering your take on it. As the rejections are coming in, I'm trying to figure out if it's the story that the agents don't like or if it's my lack of publishing experience. If it's the latter, I'd want to stop and focus my time on developing publishable short stories and building up that bio section.
Rejections don't tell you anything other than the agent you queried is not going to read the full manuscript. It's the ONLY thing a rejection tells you. At this point you do NOT know whether you have a good query for a project no one thinks they can sell right now, a good query for a project that sounds like it's a Lifetime movie, or a terrible query for something that might be ok.
This is where you get your query in front of an agent in real time and get some feedback. This is what writing conferences are good for.
Thus don't ask how many of these rejections you need to acquire before moving on. Ask how long you're going to wait before getting some advice. That answer should be sooner rather than later.
There are a LOT of writing conferences and writers groups offering workshops both in person and on-line.
I'm giving one myself on Feb 1, 2015 here in Brooklyn. Details are here on my Facebook page for those who are interested.
I know my slithery competitor Barbara Poelle and her companion in comedy Holly Root do webinars from time to time for Writers' Digest. Barbara and Holly know their stuff, and they're good workshop leaders. You can't go wrong with them.
As for pub credits: no one says yes or no to a query based on pub credits. If you've got 'em great, if you don't, not to worry. Beefing up pub credits in a bad query won't help. Beefing up pub credits for a book I don't want to read won't help either.