Monday, October 31, 2016

Rant: Personalization is bunk

This past Saturday I gave a class on how to write queries for a writers' conference. One of the questions from the audience was about personalization.

I realized I hadn't addressed personalization in my talk, probably because I think it's an utter waste of time for writers.


Many MANY of my colleagues seem to insist on it. "Tell me how you found me" "tell me why I'm the right agent for you" etc etc.

Let me ask a couple questions:

1. Does personalization tell you anything about the book being queried?

2. Does personalization make a difference in the quality of the writing in the book?

3. Does personalization have ANY impact on whether the book is publishable?

In other words, does personalization make any difference in the central question of a query: do you want to read this book?

And the answer is clear: no it does not.

Honest to Godiva, do we think there are acceptable and not acceptable ways to find us?
Your dear departed Mum spoke to me in a seance? (Honestly, that sounds exactly like something my mum would do just for laughs.) 
I found your name etched on a table in the visiting room at Rikers? (Not a problem.)
Barbara Poelle mentioned you didn't have enough to do and thought my 300,000 word novel would be a good use of your time? (Bring it on.)
And the idea that we have to be wooed just makes me crazy.

When you call Roto-Rooter to get your pipes cleaned, do you need to mention why you picked them instead of all the other plumbers?

Do you need to tell your dentist why she was your first choice in toothyness?

Of course not.

The presumption is these professionals offer a service  you're in need of.

I've previously ranted on this subject, pointing out that asking writers to have a database of info on agents is an incredible waste of their time, particularly since that data base does not become more valuable over time.

I'm not sure if other agents just haven't realized how authors get on their obsessive rodent wheels about this kind of thing. Since I have a bird's eye view of you in the comment column here on a daily basis, maybe I have a better sense of it than most.

But a good agent should know what makes writers crazy. Personalization  can and does.

I view my job as HELPING writers, not making them crazy.

Time for it to end.

If you want to query me, tell me about a book I want to read. You're a writer, I'm an agent. That is all we know and all we need to know, my beauty.


Kitty said...

I have a more difficult time with the bio. All the years I've thought about it and all the wonderful bios of other writers I've read, and I am still flummoxed. I couldn't think of a single word for the poem over the weekend. "Tell me how you found me" would be a cinch by comparison.

Btw, I love the new look of your blog :)

nightsmusic said...

But...but...I found you at the bottom of my teacup in the leaves I read as a hobby!

Of course, my tea always also includes a little whisky and honey and a squeeze of lemon, so the leaves might have been lying, but I'm not going to worry about it...


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

BUT, if an agent you know and respect (are there any ?) or an editor you admire (is there even one ?) recommends I query you, shouldn't I pass that on in my first sentence so you'll at least read beyond my amazing repast of word-mongering.
That I bow to your wisdom and worship your sharkdom, must be of some interest. So what if my writing sucks. I'll sweep your floors, do your laundry and clean your royal toilet.
Ah, the check is in the mail.

Leah B said...

Dear Agent Pants,

I first found your website on a Buzzfeed list of '10 Websites All 90s Kids Will Feel Sorry For'. When I started Twitter-stalking your agency, I knew you guys were the ones for me. I picked you specifically, Agent Pants, when I found out we both like the ice cream container! And you don't tie off your garbage bags! A slob like me.

Anyway, thanks for your time! I'll see you at Little Pants' swim competition. Boy they grow up fast, don't they?

Adib Khorram said...

I'm digging the new blog look, too!

Pretty much the only time I will personalize a query is if the agent represented a book I really REALLY loved. And then I will mention that because, as they say, flattery is the sincerest form of flattery. Or something like that.

Unknown said...

Interesting. I've read lots of agent interviews where someone asks IF the agent wants to see this type of information, but not WHY. I've also submitted queries that wanted information about my favorite author, the last book I read, whether I'm involved with a writing group, and etc. It seems all the extra information is to help hedge the bet. Is this author serious about the craft? Did she do her homework? Will I be able to work with her? It's like job announcements that require a full application, instead of just a resume, to see if you should even be considered. It's a buyers' market and it sucks. But if you wanna play, you gotta pay...

Scott G said...

Sorry for the personalization, but I found your blog after typing the words "Best publishing advice for writers EVER"

Or maybe it was when I was searching for spooky manuscripts last Halloween and typed "Best SnOOK MS Ever" into Google by mistake.

Or maybe it was when I was searching for good deals on "Best GODIVA chocolates EVER" (with free shipping, of course).

Or maybe it was when I was helping my son do research for a science term paper on coral reefs.

Regardless, I'm sure glad I happened across this blog.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Your Majesty,

This is a competition. I have also queried someone called Barbara Poole who claims she cleans her inbox out faster than you. The winner will get some shark's teeth I found at the beach, a bottle of moonshine, a feral cat, and my book. That cool? Respond in 100 words or less.

The loser will receive the literary Dino-porn kale romance fiction novel I wrote in hieroglyphics while attempting to distill moonshine using Lima beans and sea bird droppings on Carkoon while listening to some cabbage breathed scion spout garbage the natives call poetry. In short, the loser gets the last of my sanity. Good luck.

nightsmusic said...

I failed to mention that I too like the new look of the blog. Still bright, but a tad easier on the eyes at 7am ;)

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

"The idea that we have to be wooed makes me crazy." Yes! I've been compiling a list of agents to query, and reading dozen and dozens of submission guidelines. When they ask those "Tell me how you found me" type questions, I pass.

I continue to be so grateful for this blog. Thank you, again, for all you do.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

to E.M. Goldsmith
send cat

Brigid said...

I love this. There is something subtly odd about the personalization, isn't there? It makes a bit of sense in that this professional relationship requires the ability to work together, but that gets revealed well enough in the first dental appointment or plumber's visit.

Brigid said...

Also, I didn't manage it Saturday, but here's my life poem:

Hungry know-it-all,
Do your part
With a word and a smile
And kintsukuroi heart.

Unknown said...

Melanie Sue, does that work? I haven't read the blog long enough to know if you've published a book or found an agent. But, I'm wondering if blowing off the ones who have different preferences than Janet is fruitful. The whole concept of agenting is based on "give them what they want." Why balk when they ask to know how you found them? I get why people prefer they don't ask, but if they do, is there a benefit to not complying? I'm confused.
Thanks for any advice or insights.

DLM said...

Ze blog, yes, she is purtyful.

When I was querying, the sense I got from "please personalize me" agents was that they were getting a crapton of queries for things they don't represent and from queriers who clearly didn't know who they were, which was frustrating. That sort of stuff takes time away from queries that might be relevant.

So. I actually can see where this would be an issue, if the proportion of "you're an agent, I'm just going to query you whether you rep cookbooks for the damned or not" got too high.

It seems to be a lot less about "stroke my ego" than it is about trying to make queriers to DO THE RESEARCH. Which I think even Janet would say is wise, right before she would say "if in doubt, query me anyway."

Unknown said...

OT - Can anyone explain why my comments always post twice and how to stop it? Thx.

Barbara Etlin said...

In the rare event that you do have a genuine personalization, it will be obvious to both you and to the agent. If not, don't waste space on useless trivia. Dazzle her/him with your brilliant story.

I once had a genuine personalization; I had used the agent's client's book as part of my comparison logline. I got a request within 20 minutes.

Donnaeve said...

It's a curious practice. Word to the comparisons about Roto-Rooter and the dentist.

Agents and editors alike say something to the effect of, "do not waste words," when it comes to writing a story, and yet, this is encouraging a writer to do just that, when they need every single one for convincing the agent to read their story.

I bet if anyone ventures out and simply searches on query, it will say what QOTKU has said repeatedly, they're intended to "entice an agent to read your story." I bet nowhere does it say to also include a tidbit about how you found the agent, why they're a good fit, and that you really like the color they painted the walls of their office.

The only reason to add any personalization, (IMO) would be if you attended a conference, and the agent asked for a follow-up...or if someone in a very respectable position to a particular agency, (i.e. a best selling author, or another agent) referred a writer to them.

Maybe that would be different.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Love the leaf motif. So fitting.

This is so helpful--to read the QOTKU rant and the commentator's takes. So it might be helpful, if we've met the agent, to remind them, briefly. Otherwise, don't overworry it.

Linda Strader said...

I've occasionally run across agents who request that I tell them why I chose them. It used to throw me, but then I decided to simply say I chose them because they accept the type of book I've written, or, in the case of a few that I chose specifically because they were an agent for a book I used as a comp, I tell them so. Good to hear I shouldn't be losing sleep over such things! I lose enough sleep already.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Kathy Joyce: Great question, and sorry if my statement was confusing :-) I'm not blowing off agents who ask the "how did you find me" questions. It's simply my personal preference not to query them (and not because Janet feels answering these questions doesn't make any difference). Because "I" feel answering these questions doesn't make any difference (Janet just validated my feelings). When I see submission guidelines that say, "Please tell us how you found our agency and why you think we'd be a good match for your manuscript." I think to myself, "Why does it matter how I found you! And I won't know if you'll be a good match until I know if you love my manuscript." In a nut shell... After writing a 100K ms and revising, revising to make it the best it can be, and then writing and perfecting my query, my brief bio and a synopsis (revise, revise, revise)... NOW I have to come up with ANOTHER paragraph to try and woo you? No thanks. I'll add... there are agents I'm querying that go against Janet's advice. Example: Janet says put the housekeeping at the end. An agent I'm interested in asks for the housekeeping upfront, in the first paragraph. Obviously, that's what I'll do... hope this clears up the confusion. Cheers!

Sherry Howard said...

To personalize or not to personalize: that is no longer the question!

Dena Pawling said...

But what if I'm querying you because Barbara Poelle told me NOT to? Or because I stalked you all the way from your office to your home and followed you inside to leave my manuscript on your kitchen table, and you called 9-1-1? Wouldn't you want me to mention those reasons in my query?

Cheryl said...

Aw, but the agents just want to feel special, not like spam recipients.

I'm not sure how my answer (Google) is any better, but....

Karen McCoy said...

What Barbara said. If I met an agent at a conference, and they specifically request pages, for example, I'd feel inclined to include that. Otherwise, I agree--it just sounds generic.

Of course, being a woodland creature, I have a "what if" scenario. As an agent, would you be interested to know if I've featured your authors on my blog, or in some other capacity? Would my interest in your authors make a difference?

Craig F said...

I have spent a lot of time searching for inspiration on querying. I have seen way too many where the agent says something like "See here, they sucked up to me first. That is the important thing."

I had been hoping to find a query that is a sox knocker but it hasn't yet happened. I am just going with the basic idea of a query and hopefully make the narrative arc shine brightly enough to be memorable.

I don't see where in my approximately 250 word query I would find space to suck up. Sorry to all of those that would wish it so.

Nom de plume said...

That is always the most painfully awkward part of a query letter. It was also the bit that confused me the most when I first started learning how to write queries (in the dark times, the times before I discovered Query Shark).

My theory now is to include personalization only when it makes sense, as in I met you and I want to remember me and that I had at least the appearance of being capable of writing a novel.

Karen McCoy said...

I think I just answered my own might make a difference, but not as far as the writing and story are concerned...

Colin Smith said...

The problem with commenting late is that all the best thoughts have been said. Of course, that doesn't stop me... ;)

Why personalize? Possible reasons:

1) Because the agent wants to make sure you did your research and are not querying outside their genre preferences.

BUT: What if I have done my research, and I like the agent and want to take a chance they'll like my novel even if it is outside their comfort zone? In any case, if you put the genre in the subject line (e.g., QUERY: A NIGHTMARE ON SESAME STREET (PB)) the agent can decide for herself if she wants to read on or hit delete.

2) Because the agent wants to know how you came across her.

BUT: As Janet says, will that make a difference to whether or not the agent takes on my project? Would she turn down the next JKR if the author said she found agent's name scrawled on the men's bathroom wall in a seedy Taco Bell in Baltimore? Maybe agent really doesn't want to know. I agree, at this point, agent really shouldn't care if it truly is all about the writing.

3) Because the agent wants to get a sense of your personality and whether the two of you would work well together.

BUT: Again, as Janet so ably pointed out, the query letter is not the place for that. I'm not going to call up the guy who's going to put some new gutters on our house and figure out if we get along before he does the work. If agent loves my story, we can talk on the phone and gauge compatibility there. After all, I can tell you anything in a query letter to get you to read my stuff. On the phone, you have my attention, and you have all the time you want to ask questions and get the comfort level you want (and vice versa) before contracts are signed.

4) Because the agent wants to know which marketing avenues work best.
BUT: Well... okay, I can understand this. But if that's why you're asking, a) Don't make it a requirement, and b) Be upfront and say the information is purely to help guide agency marketing, and will not factor into any decision over whether to request pages. That way you take the pressure off the author to come up with something clever and witty to say. "America's Most Wanted" will suffice.

5) Because agent wants to know!!!
If it's just for the agent's own personal edification, then agent can ask when she calls. Again, don't make it seem as if a decision to pursue a project depends on how interesting your answer is to this question. It's a query, not the SAT.

Hopefully, I'll only ever have to query Janet once, which is a shame. She's given some great ideas of "personalization" lines to use. :)

The Sleepy One said...

The only time I've put time into personalization is when I've had a specific reason to do so, like "when we met at the bar at X conference, you said I should query you." If an agent participates in MWSL and my project was the perfect fit, I'd take the time to personalize my query to reflect that, too.

In that past, I've worked in a line that says something like "I'm querying you because you represent Author A" or "because you represent Y."

RosannaM said...

I am not currently in the middle of querying, but when I was I carefully followed the agency's guideline and even the individual agent's guideline and followed those.

The 'why/how you chose me' never threw me for a loop as much as those that required a synopsis. Take my 85,000 word novel, condense it down into 4 pages (for one agent) or 5 pages (for another), or 4,000 words (for another), and be sure and include everything really exciting and don't spoil the ending (for one) or be sure and include the ending (for another).

Those always made me
a. start drinking at 9am
b. go back to bed and pull the covers over my head
c. dawdle with any time-wasting task until I couldn't avoid doing it any longer

That said, I can't wait till I have another project ready to send around.

BJ Muntain said...

"How did I find thee? Let me count the ways..."

I don't see a lot of agents asking for personalized queries. I think the most important personalization is:

Dear Janet Reid

THAT's important. No 'Dear Agent', or 'My dearest Publishing Professional'. When I think of personalizing query letters, this is what I think of.

As for the 'how you heard of me'? I can think of two reasons. One: "It was lovely to meet you at the Surrey International Writers Conference. Thank you for requesting these pages." Two: Marketing. It's possible an agent is trying to decide if it's worthwhile keeping up their presence in certain areas, like Twitter, Facebook, Agent Query, etc. Still, it seems odd to have the answer to that question in a business letter. That's more for a form on a website. Still, I'd probably throw in a word or two for an answer.

Only a couple times have I personalized a query letter beyond that. The one time I remember best was simply because the agent had a degree in anthropology. She did say in an interview that she preferred personalization, so I mentioned that I, too, had a degree in anthropology, and I used the knowledge I'd gleaned there in my science fiction. I don't know if I ever got a response from her, but if I did it was a rejection. So it probably didn't help anything.

Beyond that, I don't know. If they press for an answer, I might add a line like, "You said on Twitter that you were looking for space opera that really rocks, so I thought you'd like to read [my novel], complete at 93,000 words." But honestly, there just aren't that many agents who absolutely insist on this sort of personalization, so I don't worry about it.

Steve Stubbs said...

You write: A good agent should know what makes writers crazy. Personalization can and does.”

You just asked and answered your own questioI was wondering why I heard maniacal laughter coming from the suites the last time I walked down Fifth Avenue. It was either coming from a literary agent or one of his/her scrivenerous victims being trussed into a strait jacket and hauled off to Bellevue Psychiatric.

Julie Weathers said...


Yes, I think for the most part it's an anti-spam test, kind of like those squiggly letters I never get right the first time verifying I am not a bot. What it actually is: reason number 59 Julie Weathers went crazy and had to be committed to the Autumn Daze Nursing Home for Old and/or Crazy Writers.

When I read this in the submission guidelines, I ponder what my honest answer is.

"I met you at the Surrey International Writers Conference and spilled a glass of wine all over your gorgeous white suit. I'm sure you'll remember me."

"I was at the Rocky Mountain Fiction where you spoke about historical research and mentioned you love authentic Civil War pieces."

"You always post pictures of great hamburgers you find on your travels. I'm the one who recommended you stop in at Jonah's Gourd for great barbecue. Gads, who knew food poisoning could last three weeks!"

If I don't have something pertinent and positive to say, I don't. Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.

I'll jump through hoops like "what was the last book you read?" and so forth to a certain extent, but I am not driving myself further down the road to insanity naming three ways I am like a kumquat.

Of course, that also depends on what the last book I read was. I'm fairly certain no one cares that I read Snoopy's Guide To The Writer's Life or Civil War Recipes.

BJ Muntain said...

Julie: Snoopy's Guide to the Writer's Life should be required reading for all writers.

Andrea said...

Thank you! This blog helps me to stay sane in the crazy world of the internet. There's nothing like common sense.

I wonder if agents who want personalized queries send form rejections starting with "Dear Author", or have a NORMAN policy.

Beth Carpenter said...


John Davis Frain said...


"I view my job as HELPING writers, not making them crazy."

Congratulations on your new job. We'll miss ya.

Ardenwolfe said...

And this is why I love you, Janet.

Janet Reid said...

John Davis (manuscript)Frain, aren't you supposed to be writing a synopsis or something? :)

Unknown said...

Excellent advice. But that's not why I'm commenting. I simply want to say I now have a copy of "The Education of Dixie Dupree" and I cannot wait until all the little Halloween hooligans stop pestering me and I can dive in.

AJ Blythe said...

I think it's all been said, but I'll second Andrea's comment!

It's the 1st of November here in Oz so to everyone NaNoWriMo-ing... GOOD LUCK. I hope the words flow fast and the family is understanding =)

Joseph S. said...

John Davis Frain - You made me giggle. Thanks

John Davis Frain said...

Matter of fact, I begin work on my 50,000-word synopsis a few hours from now. That should keep me busy for a solid month.

Aside to Julie Weathers: I'll break out my hourglass and shut out the world. Thank you for that idea, I'm absurdly looking so forward to it, I can't stop myself from smiling every time I peek at it.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

John "Manuscript" Frain You crack me up.

I have tea, whiskey, stinky candles, pajamas, and a pug. In 3 hours, #NaNoWriMo begins - i can't wait. I can do this. I think I can. I think I can. Good luck to all who are joining the insanity. It'll be fun,

Megan V said...


It's a beautiful day for trick or treaters. But when it comes to the query trenches I have to admit I'm going a bit batty. I try to stick to tried and true queryshark morsel. And it works. I've gotten requests. But as the rejections roll in—I'm getting a lot of contradictory feedback. Pacing fast. Pacing slow. Too voicey. Not enough voice. Characters need development. Characters well developed but need to work on plotting.

^All that is to say is that this whole business subjective. Whether its queries or novels, the answer is the same, to each their own, and make it work.

Andrea I've gotten a few Dear Author rejections from agents who've requested personalization. There are also several NORMANS out there who've stated their preference for personalization as well. I don't mind, but I only personalize if I can do it well. I figure nobody wants to read the rote recitation of the "I saw on your agency website that you represent books."

AJ Blythe said...

I've tried Nano a couple of times, but it's at a really bad time of year for Aussies. The days are long and finally warm (hard to stay at the desk), it's just on the end of the school year (so kids are tired and more demanding), everything is starting to wrap up (so lots of functions) and we are about to launch into our summer holidays (holidays!). It's not called the silly season for nothing.

CynthiaMc said...

I did Nano once, right after we moved into this house. We decorated the house and yard, everyone dressed up (including the dogs) and we had a blast - right before we discovered we live in a Halloween dead zone (1 neighbor 2 blocks away decorates. That's it. We did get to meet the neighbors. Once. We reconvene after each hurricane).

I showed up to one Nano event, where the 20-year-old in charge asked if I was there to pick up my daughter. I was the only one without a laptop, just a folder and lots of paper. Had a lot of fun once I got over the shock that the kids thought I was old. Ended up with a story called The Civilized Vampire that I still love (if I could just find the danged thing).

Good luck, Nano people!

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KrisM said...

Playing devil's advocate, I personalize all my queries as a rule. The last thing I want is an agent to suspect my query could've been sent out as a mass email. Any querying writer worth his/her salt has done a little research to vet out the agent, so it doesn't take much effort to write a sentence specific to that agent or their agency and suggest why my MS may interest them.

That said, any agent who insists on a personalized query *should* return the favor by replying. *No reply = No* is, in my humble opinion, unprofessional. And publishing is a business.

*steps off soap box*

Michael Seese said...

I smell a 100-word contest. "How I found Janet. Must include the words:

Manhattan (I'd like to see Steve Forti break that one up)

Stacy said...

My personal pet peeve is when they ask why I think I'm the best person for this book.

Unknown said...

Thanks for talking about this. I once read a blog entry by another agent who highlighted one of the biggest reasons he had responded positively to a particular query -- the writer mentioned that they hated a particular sports team, which to him meant that she had been following his blog.

It left me wondering if I would have to make a deep, personal connection right off the bat with an agent rather than developing one over time should the opportunity arise. I'm glad that this is hopefully not the case with all agents!

Nathan Bransford said...

It's a rare day indeed when I disagree with Janet, but this is one of those times:

Unknown said...

On the whole, I've discovered what each agent wants is all over the map. After I found out about MSWL, I began referencing that in my pitches - only to see a bunch of agents complaining on Twitter (where else?) that they didn't want their MSWL parroted back at them in the query. I actually saw one agent who preferred attachments - I was so stunned, I sat there staring at the guidelines for five minutes, wondering if I was seeing things. One agent wanted all communication in the same thread, and was very firm not to deviate from that. Another wanted your query pasted to the top of requested material, and was firm not to deviate from that. All of this is fine, everyone is different - however, most of this wasn't in the official submission guidelines, but had to be gleaned by trawling through blogs, tweets, and interviews. This takes up a huge amount of time and effort. Which is why I guess it would be nice that when you go to all of this effort, you, at the very least, receive an auto-reply that your query was received, something I've realized at least half of agents don't have. Or when someone requests a full, they give you a time frame on when it will be read. Or if you query, there is at least some basic trust that your query won't be paraded on Twitter for some laughs. Professional courtesy should be a two way street.

Delaney said...

Wooing is a form of flattery, and flattery makes some (many?) people feel all warm and fuzzy. And powerful, like they could crush your heart with their bare hands and make you like it. With whipped cream on top.