Thursday, July 10, 2014

Query question: Query widely or create spreadsheets from hell?

Dear Janet:

In the past you have given the following advice:

1) "It's not a waste of time if you query me, even if it's not right for me" (see: Elsewhere on your blog, you've said that you'd rather see a query that's not right for you than miss out the chance to represent an awesome novel--or words to that effect.

2) Do your research. If you query an agent with a genre s/he doesn't represent, that shows you haven't done your homework. (I can't cite you on this, but I know I've read it more than once.) (1)

Now, I'm picking on you, but I've seen other agents say similar things. In your humble opinion, as QOTKU, which piece of advice trumps the other? :)


(1) Not from me you haven't.
There's even a Rule for Writers about querying widely.

The longer I'm in this business the more I believe that persistence is the key to success. Not crazy persistence - you want to learn from each experience, not blindly repeat it - but measured, steady persistence.

And who cares if you've done your homework? This isn't Miss Anthrope's English class. This isn't going on your permanent record. So what if you query me for a picture book? The very worst thing that's going to happen is I answer you with a form rejection. If that sends you in to a tizzy, you need a new line of work. If that sends me into a tizzy on Twitter, well, I just needed to vent and now that Brooks Sherman has escaped my clutches, I vent to you not him.

That said, there is something to the idea that you should only query agents you're actually willing to work with, which presupposes you've done some kind of homework on them, or met them at a conference, or have friends who are repped by the agent.

Increasingly though, I'm less patient with my colleagues who behave as though writers are intruding on them by querying, or by querying for the wrong category or something they don't rep.  Writers are not beggars. We aren't more stressed or more busy than any of them.   There are enough things we have to ask of queriers (no attachments, no phone calls, write an enticing query) that adding more hoops seems both unnecessary and a bit patronizing. 

Query widely and damn anyone who says different.


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Captain Underpants reference for the WIN!!!

Kitty said...

What does QOTKU mean? (I was sick that day.)

LynnRodz said...

Kitty, it means Queen of the Known Universe. It's been mentioned here and on Query Shark numerous times.

Kitty said...

Thanks, Lynn! I've seen the acronym many times but not its meaning.

Anonymous said...

"Increasingly though, I'm less patient with my colleagues who behave as though writers are intruding on them by querying, or by querying for the wrong category or something they don't rep."

It's sort of strange how writers (myself included @ one time)work day to day in a corporate environment, or as a professional of some sort, but when it comes to querying or interacting within a writing community, a different dynamic unfolds. I'm not sure why, but all previous work experiences that dictate a professional attitude and demeanor seem to fizzle into la la land. This isn't how it is with every writer, obviously, but you know, and I know, and most of the folks out here on your blog know...that many writers do feel like we have to tread water extra carefully, while trying not to breath too much air when it comes to querying. And I guess as long as there are agents like the ones you describe above...that will be how some writers feel they need to behave.

Ardenwolfe said...

For many hopefuls, it's like a blind date . . . where you hope to get lucky. Real lucky. And after the initial meeting, the agent puts her hand in your face.

Sometimes, they don't respond at all. They just run away. Now, for some writers, multiple that by a few hundred.

No, it isn't death. But it ain't no tiptoe through the tulips either.

Colin Smith said...

@Kitty: The cool thing is that you can say "QOTKU" as a word (kind of like "SCOTUS"): "Cotkue." Her clients and assistants then become "Minions of QOTKU." And somewhere, a sci-fi novel is being born... :)

@Janet: One objection I think some of your colleagues might make is that time spent reading a query that's not their genre is time taken away from reading queries that are. They might also wonder why a writer would waste time querying an agent they know isn't a genre-fit for his/her project. That's just asking for a form rejection!

Then I read this: "That said, there is something to the idea that you should only query agents you're actually willing to work with..." I notice that you have shifted the emphasis slightly: it's not about finding an agent for your novel, but finding an agent for your career. At least, that's what I'm hearing.

What if I've written a novel that's not a fit for those agents I would love to work with, but my next novel might be a fit? Would I mention in the query "I know you don't rep picture books, but that's not all that I write and I would love to work with you"? Or do I query on the off-chance that you had dinner with an editor who would be perfect for my picture book about zombie sharks?

In other words, how likely is it that an agent--ok, you, since you can only really speak for yourself--will take on a client not because you think you can sell their first novel, but because of that great-sounding thriller they say they're working on? Obviously, you would have to see potential in the work they submit. But would you say, "Sorry, this is not for me. That thriller sounds good, though. Query me with that when it's finished"? Which essentially goes back to the old advice: only query within your novel's genre.

BTW, Barbara Poelle writes some excellent advice about "dream agents" for the latest Writer's Digest (there's a story about a teenage crush and falling off a bus--must reading!).

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

ARDENWOLFE: It's exactly like a blind date. You're both looking for a good time, but something more. You want the agent to fall in love ... with your work. You want to fall in love with his/her enthusiasm. Sometimes you hit it off and sparks fly. Then, if the agent hasn't been able to sell your work in a year or two, she/he falls out of love with you and says he/she doesn't want to see you any more. You sit home alone, rejected and weepy, maybe even eating all the ice cream in the fridge (unless you have kids. Then they already finished the ice cream.) It takes a little while to get over it, to nerve yourself to get back out on the market.
There's GOT to be a better business model for writers than one based on high school romance!

River Cameron said...

I've got a theory (it could be bunnies).

I think that some folks in the traditional business world believe there are a series of steps to a career and if they follow them precisely they’ll succeed. They think if they take the right classes, join the right clubs, get the right internship, they’ll land the right job. It’s like a linear progression, and if it doesn’t work, they must have messed up a step.

I think writing works more like art. While taking the right classes, knowing the right people, and understanding the audition process makes the director happy you walked in the door, it doesn't ace the audition for you. Only your work at the time can do that, and even then, you could be brilliant but not get a part for dozens of reasons that have nothing to do with you.

So when people who think they've jumped through all the hoops still get rejection, some assume it must be that they've either messed up a step, or the agent doesn't know what she’s doing. It seems like in the end, they can either figure out how to see it differently, or they get frustrated and bitter, and burn out.

Anyway, just a newbie theory.

Colin Smith said...

@River: I think there's merit to what you say. And I think part of the problem agents have (if I may be so bold, given I'm commenting on an agent's blog!) is that they are caught in the middle of two worlds: the artistic "what does your gut say?" writer side, and the business "what do the sales figures say" publishing side. They are trying to encourage writers to make good art, but also make saleable art. And I think this sometimes leads to advice that seems contradictory and/or confusing. Which is why, I think, agents often end up telling us "Just write a great novel and leave the worrying to us!" :)

LD Masterson said...

Logically, querying agents who represent what a writer writes should increase the chances of getting a nibble, but there has to be room for the occasional long shot, too.

Jenz said...

The You're Not Wasting My Time post didn't say anything about querying agents for genres they don't represent. What I took away from it was you don't need to second-guess whether an agent will like your manuscript, you find that out by querying.

I would assume that the post about making mistakes doesn't mean you should willfully do things wrong so much as you shouldn't let fear of mistakes keep you from acting. When in doubt, query. Sometimes you make mistakes, you learn, you get experience.

Karen McCoy said...

Miss Anthrope sounds delightful. I'd take her class for the fun of it.

Kitty said...

I apologize if this is off topic, but I wanted everyone to know that I've started Lee Goodman's novel Indefensible, the one Janet mentioned last week, and it is really GOOD!

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

There are agents on Twitter who do #tenqueries pretty frequently, and many of those batches are variants on "____, I don't represent _____. Rejection" (paraphrased). I do like reading #tenqueries, I think it gives me a false sense of educating myself? Or maybe a non false sense. Though any education would pertain to that agent and that agent only, I feel.

I think we're so indoctrinated into being terrified of making a misstep and being blackballed for life, and I think social media both helps and hurts.

jane pinckard said...

@river now i've got that song in my head... "what's this cheery singing all about?" :D

Brittany Constable said...

I don't think there's anything wrong with prioritizing. Right now, I'm mainly looking at agents who are experienced but not part of big giant agencies, actively building a list who explicitly represent the relevant genre and category. Another agent might love it, but are they going to have the contacts to sell it? After all, just getting an agent's interest isn't the end goal.

I'm just starting to query, and I can certainly see myself getting less picky as the search goes on. But for now, I figure it makes sense to give myself the best chance at a "yes" that I can manage.

Of course, I'm fond of my spreadsheets and I research the hell out of everything, so that part doesn't bother me.

DLM said...

One of the main things I've found in researching agents who'll rep historical fiction is that it's very very important to understand what they think histfic IS. I don't want to be repped by that one group whose entire website was pink and floral, and played MUSIC at me. I don't want the ones who rep only 19th-20th century American either.

When I started, it was 'any straw - just let me grasp one!' - and over time I've definitely changed my researching attitude. As Colin Smith points out, Janet shifts the focus in her advice - and it's wise not to lose sight of your own needs (and potential career trajectory) in querying. I need someone who reps my genre, sure - but that's only a small part of the overall expectation I have, and would expect an agent to have, in a relationship like this.

Unknown said...

So, as I read this I keep thinking I may be reading it wrong. Are you actually saying, "who cares if an agent says they do not represent X, query them anyway?"

As an agent I specialize in MG, YA, and Romance. That's it. no PB, and no other adult genres.

Let's pretend Joe is writing an international thriller. It would be an incredible waste of time-- both for me AND the writer-- to bother sending me a query. But let's say the crazy happens and for some reason I read it and request it anyway because it sounds THAT amazing, and I read the full, and I think it's the best thing since sliced bread-- why the heck would this writer WANT me to take them on? I don't know a damned thing about adult international thrillers. I could never guide this writer on how to revise cliched plot lines or overdone tropes. Sure, I could dig up some random editors I don't know and send it on over to them, but why would these editors prioritize my submission?

I really do not understand this advice, or I am just completely misinterpreting you. One of the two.

-Mandy Hubbard

TCW said...

"Increasingly though, I'm less patient with my colleagues who behave as though writers are intruding on them by querying, or by querying for the wrong category or something they don't rep. Writers are not beggars."

Thank you for just saying that. I am astonished at the way some agents treat writers. My favourite is an agent whose web page says that they should only be approached if you have a book that has already been accepted by a publisher.

It just makes me feel better that there are agents who treat writers as fellow human beings. Even if they then reject them.

Nikola Vukoja said...

I’m going to risk the wrath of a Shark Attack and say I’m kind of confused by your advice?
Yes, some, sadly more than a few, agents treat authors as though they are second class citizen’s aka “Some Animals Are more Equal Than Others” – but, on the whole, I’ve found agents to be helpful, giving and generous.

I’ve also found them to be human. Sometimes an agent will make me laugh and other times have me scratching my head… I’ve even marked some agents as “great but not for me” because, while I respect them I know I would struggle to work with them.

I’m going to jump in and add to Mandy Hubbard’s comments – “Let's pretend Joe is writing an international thriller. It would be an incredible waste of time-- both for me AND the writer-- to bother sending me a query”

I have to agree.
Agents get 1000’s of queries every year and if people haphazardly ignore guidelines/wish-lists then that will double/triple… who knows? It’s hard enough to get any feedback without backlogging agents even more.

I also think it’s very disrespectful to say “Oh I’ll send it anyway!” where’s the consideration for the time the agent has taken to prepare and post their genre preferences & wish-lists?

And there are OTHER OPTIONS to ignoring submission requirements.
(i) check if other people in the agency represent your genre
(ii) follow the agent on twitter/ their blog and learn a little about them
(iii) try another agency
(iv) get involved with people the agency represents, perhaps there’s answers to your questions without being disrespectful.

To illustrate this further, there is an agent I admire and know I could work with but my MS isn’t an ideal fit. Lets call this agent; AGENT A.
Agent A & I had been in communication for some time re: this particular MS and this agent was interested in the theme. However, by the time I finished and polished it, the MS had morphed into something slightly different… something this agent did not represent. I was honest and said so, without submitting.

Agent A agreed, but then Agent A gave me the name, email address and details of Agent B and said to mention Agent A’s name as the referral.

Now, I have no idea if anything will come of this and yes, I did have an advantage because I knew Agent A… but going back to (ii) & (iv) I got involved with numerous agents (guess what, that’s part of my job) and now it’s paying off with referrals, without “ignoring” someone’s submission criteria.

If submission guidelines say something like “I prefer (add in category and genre here) but will look at all genres, submit freely” then yes go for it.
If not, why have guidelines if we don’t need to follow them?

Kiwi said...

It's great advice that we shouldn't remain paralyzed by the fear of sending to the wrong agent. It's better to send queries than to send none for fear of doing the wrong thing. I love your advice (on the linked post) to follow up three times. I'm sure some of my queries haven't been read yet. So here goes... reminders coming up!
Agents are human after all. They make errors too. (like not answering us sometimes!)

Ellen C. said...

What baffles me are the agents who ignore your query, despite referrals from fellow agents and clients. I've had agents recommend me to their friends and writers suggest I contact their agents--and I'm careful to mention their names--but I've always gotten the cold shoulder, even though they rep what I write. Can't they show us the same courtesy we're expected to show them? I'm talking a professional query, not an overly friendly tweet. Lots of confusion and contradictions in this biz...That's one reason I decided to do it on my own!

Cat York said...

I've seen agents handle advice like "please do your research" in both positive and negative ways. I understand venting, but sometimes it's too much, too often. That makes a big difference for me. I listen to the agents who make an effort to be positive and helpful.

That means I'm listening to them when they make book deal announcements too. If I keep them on a list of favorites ... that means I'll more likely buy and recommend their clients' books. For the agent, it means I'll speak highly of them to other querying writers. Maybe one of those writers is The Next Big Thing. You never know.

I don't have an agent yet, but if I did, I'd want one that represents me well by being more positive than not. That's hard to do all the time, but I'd hate to think people might mute or unfollow my agent because they're being unkind. I would think that would have an effect on how my books sell, since writers of all stages are also readers.

- Cat York

Ellen C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ilex said...

Increasingly though, I'm less patient with my colleagues who behave as though writers are intruding on them by querying ...

Thank you for saying that! One thing I kept beefing to my writing group about when I was querying was how many agencies have a Go-Away Spell on their submissions page, which essentially says, "Query us if you feel you must, but we very much wish you wouldn't bother, and we're already sure we have no interest in your manuscript." Why don't they just close to new submissions if that's how they feel?

I queried a number of those agencies just to be contrary. :)