Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Rant: personalization is a waste time

I've studied through the archives on both your sites, getting my query lean and mean, giving a preview of my story that's tasty and enticing—250-some words, spare and clean-looking on the page—and now, ready to send. But.....

In my preparation I've also read a lot of agents I must respect to whom it's nothing more than common sense that all queriers explain "why I queried." So, my first batch is six—including three solid references—and I came up with one very short rationale for querying each and stuck it at the end of my carefully honed, muscularly worded, winsomely teasing query.

Now my query looks terrible. It looks like a big fat book-report, where some kid threw in EVERYTHING he had in order to fill up the page. It blobs the whole landscape. To speak aesthetically, it's OVERWEIGHT.

I know you've discussed this before, but for the love of mercy, please discuss it again. Do we REALLY have to do this? If this or that well-desired agent says, "Of course you MUST give me some special reason you queried: you MUST do ten minutes of research, and you MUST prove to me you did so....."

Must we? On aesthetic grounds I object.

Thank you for giving me the chance for one last rant this year. Here it is: Personalization is a waste of time.

I started thinking about this a while back. It was prompted by a post at Quartz.com about ineffective, spammy PR pitches. Here's the post I was reading: Dear PR person who just sent me a robo pitch

Robo pitches are the kiss of death in PR. Since my career path was via book publicity I've known that since forever. When I read that post, I was strategizing how long it would take to get an in-house PR person up to speed if starting from scratch, since you absolutely cannot just email everyone you know with "hey, here's my book, how about a nice review in your next column/blogpost/twitter feed."

And the answer was a substantial number of months if not a year would be required to build a data base from scratch.

The only reason that didn't make me run screaming into the night, is that once that data base is built, it's usable for other clients and other projects. It gets MORE valuable the more you work it and use it, because you end up with lots of contacts and lots of information that you can use and reuse.

When I sold my PR business, what I was selling was the data base of contacts and the information about them.

That's the same kind of data base that many of you are creating for querying.

Except, once you have an agent you don't need it anymore. One thing that makes a PR date base worth building well is that it GAINS value over time and use.

One thing that makes an agent data base less worthwhile is that it ceases to have value once you have an agent.

Another value to a PR data base is one person is pitching different writers. A columnist/reviewer who doesn't respond to Thriller A may well respond to Thriller B from a different writer.

An agent data base that you're building is for one writer: you.  An agent who doesn't respond to your Thriller A can't be queried for Thriller B the next day. Your pitching inventory is one project at a time. When I worked in PR I was pitching five or six books in any given month.

Thus, asking queriers to have individual details about individual agents to put in a query letter means we're asking you for months if not a year of work that will benefit you once, then not again.

Think about that for a second.
Well, no, think about that for a minute.

If you had to pay someone to do build that data base, would you? If I had to pay someone to build a PR database that's usable for just one client would I? No. It doesn't make any business sense to do that.

That's when I realized that asking writers to build a data base of agents wasn't a good use of time or resources, unless you think you'll be querying ten books in two years.

The good news for writers is that an agent isn't going to reject your work if you haven't included some personalizing detail or reason for querying. Write well- that's all that matters.

And frankly that's why ANY time spent building a data base of agents likes/dislikes etc is a bad use of time: writing well takes an enormous amount of time. Taking time away from that is not in your best interest. And frankly it's not in mine either.

You'll serve both our interests in spending as much time doing what you're good at: writing. I'll serve both our interests by doing what I'm good at: keeping you chained to your desk and demanding pages.


Unknown said...

Great post, Janet. I don't need to read why someone decided to query me - I kind of expect them to have their reason (because they'd like to work with me). A lot of querying writers mention a blog post or tweet in which I mentioned something I'd like to find in my inbox. That's fine, but not necessary. As long as they address me as me, and not as 'Dear Agent/ Sir/ Editor/ etc.", I'm happy. It's totally up to the author how much they personalize a query. A personalised query can stand out from the rest though, but that's just my two cents.

Unknown said...

This is amazing advice. I felt like a stalker trying to figure out just the right way to reach out to individual agents. Much as I would like to know what each one would order at Starbucks on the second Tuesday of every month, it was frustrating and seemed insincere. I wouldn't want to build a relationship with an agent without being honest. Thank you for sharing this!

Stacy said...

This simplifies everything. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

This didn't really seem like a rant. It was more of a factual "and here's why this isn't really necessary."

Clear. Concise. And, no blood in the water.

Colin Smith said...

My recent querying experience has shown that it's better to build relationships than databases. Of the agents I queried, there were some with whom I'd had some online interaction that I was able to mention either at the beginning or end of my query. I was more likely to receive a personalized response from those agents (even if it was a "sorry, not for me") than those that received a bare-bones query.

So, I would say IF you've had positive social media interaction with the agent, it doesn't hurt to work that in to the beginning or end of your query. BUT what agent in their right mind is going to reject a stunningly-written novel, one that conjures to mind lists of potential editors who would also love the novel, one that causes the agent sleepless nights reading and re-reading the pages, simply because the writer neglected to mention why he queried her? She's not going to care. I know I wouldn't!

Unknown said...

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer is in need of an agent.

Must we explain why?

Susan Bonifant said...

"Thus, asking queriers to have individual details about individual agents to put in a query letter means we're asking you for months if not a year of work that will benefit you once, then not again."

I could cry over the elegance of this reasoning.

Producing a novel means putting your whole heart into the most honest expression possible of deep creative thought. It couldn't be a more sincere undertaking.

Using pseudo-flattery to woo an agent, who, as another agent put it, is going to zip through that query like they're changing channels always felt insincere to me.

I started querying this novel using the Janet Reid approach of getting straight to the point in the opening line. I fretted, because I thought it would be startling, but it feels efficient, professional and true.

Susan Bonifant said...

Also, MB Owen, exactly.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

One thing I have learned, as a result of my advanced presence on this earth, is that the cliché, ‘everything old is new again’ is as cyclical as a Liz and Dick marriage. (If you’re too young to know what that means look it up).
I could write a book about the hours I have spent as my own personal private investigator researching agents. No longer. It’s Dear Whateveryournameis, here’s my stellar writing, sign me, I will make you rich.
Speaking of rich, that’s what this post is. Now I have more time to write and less time to poke around in other people’s business. I will miss peeking in their windows though.

A few years from now, when we’re all e-published and e-reborn, neophytes will go back to personalization because disenfranchisement will be the emotional disconnect of the day. Wow, that was a hell of a sentence, the DayQuil must be doing its job. But I still feel like crap.

Anonymous said...

Carolynn, you're on a roll, but I'm sorry your sick. DayQuil makes me miserable. I'd rather suffer than take it. Which might be why you still feel like crap. Except. Maybe you can breathe a little easier while still acknowledging you feel like crap.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

On the other hand...sites like Querytracker.net have already done the legwork of building a database of agents. And it only took a few extra seconds when researching agents I thought would be a good match for me to make quick notes of my reasons for wanting to query them. Simple things like: represents an author I admire, interested in LGBTQ lit, likes Joss Whedon.

I sort of feel like if a writer is taking the time to target agents that are suited to them and their work (which they really, really should be doing), then taking an extra few seconds to note why they chose that agent isn't a waste of time.

Cheyenne said...

This is incredibly refreshing, and for some reason, it's never before occurred to me how much time I actually have spent in researching every interview I can find about every agent I've queried. I want to know they represent my genre(s), but apart from that, it never occurred to me what a colossal time-suck going further than that can be.

The only thing that remains is why do a good handful of agents out there say their preference IS to hear a sentence or two about why a writer chose to query them? It does seem like busywork rather than focusing on the writing itself.

Thank you for sharing this!

Craig F said...

I was trying to stay away because I feel that I'd worn out my welcome but couldn't stay quiet on this one.

If you Google successful queries you come up with the Writers digest series by Chuck Sambuchino. Every one of those sounds more like someone sucking up than a well written query. Why would a successful agent post those if that was not what they were looking for?

Unknown said...

Craig, I've noticed two Agent Camps: Those who want to plow right into the query, and those who like a little warm-up. But I bet they all want the same thing: a query that piques their interest followed by pages that don't disappoint.

Colin Smith said...

Carolynn: Sorry you're sick. :( I've not had to take meds for any ailments this season yet which is good, I suppose, but also makes a part of me sad. I have a strange liking for liquid medications. I was the only child in the family that hoped the doctor would prescribe penicillin when I was sick. It's probably a good thing I don't get sick very often. :)

On the topic for the day, I think we should distinguish between researching agents to make sure you're querying someone who might actually be interested in your genre, and researching agents to be sure you mention you have the same taste in socks. I think the broad research is appropriate, and probably appreciated by most agents. I think the point of today's "rant" (I agree, Donna, this wasn't really a "rant"--we've seen some Shark rants here, and this was a relatively friendly nip) was that while agents may say they want you to tell them why you queried them (you like an author they rep, you saw them at a conference and they seemed like a nice person, etc.), it really doesn't make that much difference. If the writing sucks, that ought to determine the agent's response.

Christie Allred said...

Sometimes I get overwhelmingly tired of keeping up with what they say we have to do in order to impress an agent. Thank you for this clarification - I knew it in my gut, and needed the extra support. *sigh of relief*

NotaWarriorPrincess said...

Dear Agent,
Based on the fact that you put two and a half sweeteners in your coffee thirteen minutes ago, combined with your ninth grade P.E. grade in the teamsports unit, I've determined that you're going to love this novel, and then put another restraining order on me.

Anonymous said...


That was out and out FUNNY!

Sharon Kirk Clifton said...

What liberating advice! Thanks.

DLM said...

Carolynn, hope you feel better very soon indeed.

There is a magnificence of scale with this advice. In the past, I've had nights where I got out as many as eight queries. Last night, I got out two. I researched three agents, decided against one, and hit up the other two wittily and personally. That was a night's work, after a full day's work, and a not too shabby showing, taking care of Gossamer and Penelope, AND making myself some tasty supper. I even bathed.

If I'd been doing eight a night since this summer, I'd probably be agented by year end. (Just not by Jessica Faust!)

The mind, she reels.


Karen McCoy said...

Carolynn, I'll take a hit off of that DayQuil. At least this blog post will help my headache. What a relief!

Deep River said...

Another time-suck aspect of building databases: they age, like leftover fish in the fridge. People change jobs, they change employers, they change interests. Databases require constant maintenance. They also encourage horrible copywriting (e.g. queries) because of the temptation to use all that data somewhere in the marketing message. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That Quartz.com article gives a few great examples of the worst opening lines for a direct marketing message. Ten years out of the business and I still bang my head on the desk over those kind of fundamental mistakes. Why care? It's a disease.

Anonymous said...


Thank you. Praise all that is holy for this post. I'm in the query process and I read submission guidelines very carefully. I read the agent blogs and twitter. I don't do this so I can mention they like Starbucks and I do, too. That would actually be a lie, since I'm not crazy about paying $5 for coffee, but I digress.

I check the agent out on twitter because it gives me a more current idea of what they're looking for if they happen to mention something specific. Plus, it gives me an indication of whether we might be compatible. Honestly, I've gotten to the point to where the less I know the better off I am in many cases. That being said, I love being able to talk about baking and chess for kids with Michelle Wolfson and various other non-essentials with other agents, editors and writers. I usually save the chatty stuff for agents who can do nothing for me. I have an abiding fear of someone thinking I'm being friendly so I can get something out of them.

At times, though, from the guidelines when it says to include why you're querying, I almost feel obligated to go out and buy the clients' books and read them so I can mention something about my work might appeal to you because .

Now, if there's a genuine reason to mention something, I do, but I am not spending untold hours/days reading every thing I can about an agent to find that kernel of interest. If not, I just let the query speak for itself. I can worry about the why I'm querying, what's your market plan, who will read this book, what books have you read recently and what books compare to yours, at a later date.

Carolynn, I hope you get to feeling better soon. Eat some honey, preferably raw.

Unknown said...

I don't think it makes sense to spend, say, more than 10 minutes researching an agent to query. Read the agency's website carefully, check MSWL, and any easily-found interview, and that can give a good sense of fit.

One of the problems with doing a ton of research BEFORE an agent expresses interest in you, is that you start convincing yourself that this is your "dream agent" because they seem to represent exactly the sort of book you wrote/ represented a book you loved/ also love Breaking Bad. Then you feel bad when they reject you, but why? It's like thinking some complete stranger is "the one" you're going to marry when they haven't even agreed to go on a date with you. It doesn't make sense to invest more than a good query letter at that stage. I have found absolutely no difference between rejections from agents that I personalized and those I didn't--and yes, I'm a nerd, I'm tracking the data.

Unknown said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! This makes so much sense.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I prefer a Liz and George marriage. That's a "favourite".

No author should have to develop an agent database. Querytracker and Agentquery do that for you.

However, it never hurts to have a couple of notes on your ten favourite agents.

If I come across a specific wishlist that fits my next project perfectly, I make a note of it, so I can include that agent in my initial batch of ten when I query.

These are literal scribblings on the backs of envelopes. Anything more formal that that, as Janet says, is a waste of my time.

(Speaking of marriages, nothing beats a Tish & Gomez.)

Anonymous said...

Query Tracker and Agent Query are really good tools, but they don't tell the whole story.

In my case, I write epic fantasy. So, if I just go by what is on either of the sites my pool is pretty large. It's only when you do a little closer research you find, "urban fantasy only, please", "MG fantasy only!", "No, high fantasy!", "No fantasy with ". There are a LOT of agents who will rep urban fantasy or children's fantasy and want nothing to do with epic.

Querying those agents would waste both their time and mine. I understand rejections are part of the journey, but I kind of look at it like a horse race. I never entered my 870 horse in 330-yard races because he took a while to get going. I like improving my odds of success by putting my horse in the right race.

I have agents color coded on my spreadsheet, but I make other notes also. I think there's a difference between researching agents to find the best fit for your work and obsessing to find something to personalize a query letter. That's me and everyone has their own preferences.

Leslea said...

I appreciate the sanity in this post. I wish I had back the time I wasted year after year querying people with exactly what they were asking for, only to receive no response whatsoever.

Laura Moe said...

This confirms that I have been wasting these last two years "researching" agents and their presences only to get the heartbreaking, ultimate rejection. I think querying ranks right up there with dating as to the horrors of adult life.

Robyn Campbell said...

Wonderful! Personalization always seemed so fake to me. I can now get to the reason the agent is reading. My story. Feeling refreshed.

Ardenwolfe said...

Thank you for posting this.