Wednesday, February 14, 2018

So, how much love do you think you're going to get??

I am currently in the query trenches. I’ve carefully researched the agents I’ll be querying, right down to the styles of writing they prefer. I meticulously personalize each letter to the t.

Imagine my sorrow when one of my top agents replies with a form response. I’ve looked on Querytracker for the types of responses she usually sends, and they’ve all been personalized! Except her letter to me!

Now, I’ve also gotten several full requests with the same query, so I don’t think the letter / sample pages completely suck. But I keep reading into agent responses and thinking, “how can the same letter make one agent request and another reject?”

If your book is sparkling, has a compelling plot and awesome characters, shouldn’t you have a 80% request rate? Agents don’t differ in tastes that much, do they?

P.S. Not saying my book is sparkling, necessarily. Just saying if there is a book out there that’s awesome, are there still agents who pass? How?

Back in the day Ann Landers used to print really oddball letters and than answer with "I'm so glad the fraternity boys at Yale are having some fun." She could pick out prank letters with near perfect acuity.

I thought I could too.
But the longer I looked at this, the more I wondered if you notorious rodent wheel spinners might have actually spun yourselves into this maelstrom.

So here's the answer:

You're kidding, right?

When I worked in politics, it was a given that we'd yield 30% of the vote.  Even if our candidate walked on water, 30% of the electorate would vote for the other guy. (This is why elections in far flung places that have 99% of the vote going to the incumbent are called rigged.)

So, that's 70%.

And if you look at ANY political race, it's a landslide if a candidate gets more than 60%.

And that's picking one from a group of two.

The odds of eight out of ten people picking ONE SAME book from a selection of even five are pretty high. Just ask anyone trying to put together a reading list for a book group. And agents get queries for a hundred books a WEEK.

In other words, you're completely off the mark here.

Now, why this is a problem for you. 

You've got an unrealistic idea of what success looks like so even if you succeed, you'll think you failed. That's a very bad thing.

And that will be a problem if you do secure an agent, a book deal, and have a book to promote. Book promotion is notoriously difficult to quantify. If you already think success is having a lot of people buy your book, you're going to go nuts when I tell you that you have to do all this promotional stuff and we don't even know if it will work, let alone how well it will work.

You're also taking things REALLY personally when you don't need to.  Noticing who posts personalized rejections on querytracker is an exercise in masochism.  You have NO IDEA if the agent sent a form letter only to you, because QueryTracker is self-reporting. There's no objective, measurable data pool from which to draw conclusions.

You're also placing way too much emphasis on personalizing a query. Writing style? I guess you could say I prefer short sentences, with a good strong rhythm, but if you mention that in a query, the only thing I'm going to conclude is you're spending too much time reading this blog, and not enough time working on your book.

Personalizing queries beyond a sentence or two is an utter and complete waste of time.

And there's much MUCH more to taking on a book than whether I like it. I have to want to work with the author (and there are enough of you out there who are nutso that I'm pretty careful about asking first and signing later.) I have to think I can sell it, and sadly, a lot of books I thought were great don't find a home, so I've learned to be a lot more conservative about this.

Agents have widely varying tastes, just like you and your friends do. In fact, if you need something to do (and you do, because you really need to stop that personalization fetish you've got going) go to five of your friends' houses and list every book they own. See what overlap there is.

I'd actually be interested to see what the percentage is. My guess is it's somewhere between 0-20%.
(in other words: not even close to 80%)

Bottom line: quit worrying about anything but getting the best possible query you can out to as many agents as you can. 


Ashes said...

Two exercises in accepting that 'taste is subjective':

1. Go to Amazon. Look up your all time favorite book ever. Read the 1 and 2 star reviews. Accept that there are heathens out there that hate the book you love.

2. Read 5 classic books. Books that are famously good and you've just been assuming that's true. I guarantee you'll find at least 1 you hate. (Me, I cannot stand Wuthering Heights). Realize that even critically acclaimed bestselling entries in the cultural lexicon, are books you can dislike.

Timothy Lowe said...

Neat post for Valentine's Day.

OP, this is only my experience, but in my querying, I typically wound up with about a 10% request rate, with all different types of projects, even the project that ultimately snagged an agent. I'd like the think the query and pages were well written and the concepts were good.

Query widely, write broadly, and don't take rejection personally.

Unknown said...

It's not you. It could be your writing, but it's not you. If you're getting requests, it's probably not the writing.

Book publishing is a business. Agents get no money unless they sell a book. They can't waste time on books they can't sell. Personalizing a response is wasting time. It's not you.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

You don't need 80 out of a hundred to love your query, or 30 out of a hundred to request a partial, or 60 out of 100 to request a full or 90 out of a hundred to reply personably and politely that it's a pass, or 5 to tell you it sucks, or 4 to ignore, you only need 1 to love your book.
Or so I've been told.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

It is definitely not you, OP. Be glad for the full requests you have gotten. Publishing is a moving target. The market at any day largely unpredictable. Then queries are being read by agents after hours - so timing is everything. An overworked agent reading queries on the subway may well reject a wonderful book. So yeah, don’t beat yourself up on that.

I really must love this blog. Flu has knocked me on my ass and all I have strength to do is sleep and read this blog. I suspect I will still be reading it as a ghost.

Timothy Lowe said...

I want to chime in one more time to say that when I bucked up for querytracker premium and, ultimately, paid for a month of Publisher's Marketplace to check on agent's recent sales, I was a bit stunned to find that some of the "big" agents I'd been querying all along hadn't requested anything in 4 years and hadn't sold anything in over a year.

Live and learn.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Opie: Congrats on completing a book and receiving several full requests.

To build on what Kathy Joyce wrote: in addition to Agents get no money unless they sell a book. Publishers are in the same boat.That funnel--of writing, revising, selling, marketing our book--gets narrower and narrower, the further in we go.

EM: That flu has been deadly for some vulnerable people, children, elderly. And even knocks health-nuts back down. Take care of yourself.

Carolyn Haley said...

In response to this comment -- "The odds of eight out of ten people picking ONE SAME book from a selection of even five are pretty high. Just ask anyone trying to put together a reading list for a book group. And agents get queries for a hundred books a WEEK" -- readers might be interested in an informal study I did on this very issue among the editorial community. Motivated by the question, "If 10 editors went into a bookstore and each bought 10 books, how many would overlap?" I polled my peers and posted the results on the An American Editor blog last year. An overlap did exist but it was small. If nothing else, it resulted in a long recommended-reading list!

Julie Weathers said...

When I went to the workshop at Surrey on query letters and pitches, (mistake) the agents split straight down the middle on whether they wanted the query letters personalized. Half thought they were a waste of time and valuable territory half said definitely, it showed the author was doing their homework. I say it was a mistake for me because I came out confused. The panelists debated just about every point the mod asked so we went away with nothing concrete.

An 80% request rate would be remarkable. I think I had a 63% request rate with Far Rider, which was very high. You'll notice I am still unagented.

If this is a genuine letter, OP needs to stop scrutinizing Query Tracker for signs. It's a tool. I reported very haphazardly on my results. It's not scientific data. You're going to drive yourself nuts with all this why don't they love me stuff.

Diana Gabaldon has been under assault on Twitter for the past week (it comes up periodically) because she drinks Diet Coke. So, adding to the people who think she needs a psychiatric exam because of the cruel things she writes, the people who hate her books, the people who hate this or that, now there is the great Coke debate...again. If you want to be a writer you better put on your asbestos underwear, darling because it gets warm out there even after you're published.

Dena Pawling said...

What???! You mean agents won't be holding an auction to see who gets to offer me rep?

This publishing gig is harsh.

>>the only thing I'm going to conclude is you're spending too much time reading this blog, and not enough time working on your book.

I admit, some days I'm guilty of this.

>>Even if our candidate walked on water, 30% of the electorate would vote for the other guy.

And we all know of one person who DID walk on water, and more than 30% of the electorate voted for Barabbas.

>>Agents have widely varying tastes, just like you and your friends do. I

Yep. On Sundays when this blog asks “what are you reading today?”, more than half the comments extol the virtues of specific books that sound completely UNinteresting to me.

Congrats on the full requests! You know you can write a novel AND a good query. Now take my advice, because I'm taking it too. Stop reading this blog and get back to your WIP!

mythical one-eyed peace officer said...

"how can the same letter make one agent request and another reject?”
You never know what somebody is going to like.
Early on in my memoir essay writing adventure I submitted a piece to a large circulation periodical which was accepted and would pay mid three figures. Wow...I was excited!
An associate editor changed it so much that it hardly sounded like me so I withdrew it.
A year later I noticed on the masthead said editor was gone, so I submitted again, hoping the next guy would not be so severe in editing.
Surprise! REJECTION! I had never considered that possibility after the first acceptance.
A lesson never know what somebody will like.
Another year later...a phone call from a new editor-in-chief. She was reviewing old submissions, liked mine, wanted to publish, and did so with minor changes.

Julie Weathers said...

Now that my body is bathed so the x-ray people don't have to hold their noses, the second part of the post.

OP, you've gotten SEVERAL full requests. How wonderful is that? I'm currently listening to authors who aren't even getting a nibble. Nothing but form letters and they're trying to decide if this form letter or that form letter means something.

It only takes one to say yes. There is any number of reasons for rejection. Some of my reasons, it's too close to something they already have, loved the writing, but in the end, it just wasn't quite there for them, regretful pass, but keep in mind for next project. The last agent spelled out in a multi-page rejection what the problem was.

Until you get an agent who will spell it out, you don't really know. Trying to guess will drive you insane.

Rejoice you are getting full requests and go forth with confidence. Not everyone has my problem, 10 pounds of story in a five pound bag.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

OP, I'm concerned because I absolutely cannot get where you're coming from. I really like that you're confident about your query letter and pages--it's hard to overcome that doubt, and I'm glad you were able to rework your pages until you were really proud of them.

I'm mostly concerned because any artistic endeavor requires taking a lot of punches, and given your reaction to a single form response, you might not be prepared for that.

It sounds to me like you're mostly just venting, OP. That's okay. If you spend a lot of time on a query, of course you'll be upset when it doesn't get a response. But the idea that there is some kind of universal good writing that everyone enjoys is a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. And, as a writer, human nature is sort of your job.

So take a breath, a deep drink of water (or vodka), and get back to querying. You're not looking for statistics to brag about, you're looking for representation. And it sounds like you're on your way.

Gayle said...

OP, I think research and personalization can only go so far. Sure you can research until you know an agent's supposed preferences down to writing style, but do you really? An agent's list is only what they've sold, not what they want, but haven't seen yet. And certainly not authors they have on their list, but haven't sold yet. If they have something on their list already, they might end up MORE unlikely to request something similar. They might have a MSWL out there, but could be blown away by something completely different. We are not mind readers. There is literally no way to tell. Follow Janet's advice and query widely. I feel as long as you don't query with a genre they flat out don't represent. For example, sending a fantasy to an agent who only reps literary fiction--but even then, there are lots of fantasy (more magical realism) that verge closer to literary. (Not mine, but I've heard of this.) You never know.

On QT--if you are only looking at the comments, that's very sparse info. Most of the comments seem to be only when something interesting happens, like a request or personalization. I've been tracking and haven't commented at all, but I put my info in the data tracker.

Just started sending out a revamped query and I would be glad of even one request. I worked with a professional editor on the query, so I'm hopeful, but I'm trying to brace myself. I have my fingers crossed for something verging on 30% (it's good enough for baseball!) but I'd be thrilled with anything.

KariV said...

If you think of querying in sales terms (essentially you're making a sales pitch for someone to look at your work) an optimistic goal would be 30-35% request rate, or 1 out of 3. And that's what a great salesman with years in the business might get. As a newbie, you'd be closet to a 1 in 10 success rate. This is much lower than 80%. My advice is to cut the personalization, query widely, and stay positive even if your rejection rate is higher than you're expecting.

roadkills-r-us said...

OP should definitely come to my house and catalog our books. We have at least 2,000. Even if you ignore most of the children's books, I'm certain it's over 1,500. Those numbers don't include my books for signings, libraries, etc.
Two of my early readers and I have very similar tastes as my wife and I. I'm pretty sure we don't have 20% of the same books across the three homes.

Unknown said...

Comments about how tastes differ are all so true. I see another point too.

It sounds like OP has invested a lot in making everything about the querying process better and better. More thorough research, more personal letters, more sparkling words, more wonderful characters. The bar is set at 80 percent. Rejections mean the work isn't perfect enough.

There is no perfect. We have to be good, really good, and then let the process decide. Expecting perfection from ourselves, and viewing it as failure when others don't see it, is a recipe for anxiety and depression. Please don't go there

The Sleepy One said...

Timothy, one note about Publisher's Marketplace: it's self-reporting. So some of those big agents might have sales, just didn't self-report to Publishing Marketplace. Even agents that report their sales to PM might not report every deal for a variety of reasons.

Jennifer Laughran of the Andrea Brown Agency has a good post on PM:

Timothy Lowe said...

Thanks for the clarification, Sleepy - that post was worth looking at!

Julie Weathers said...

So, I go get the EMG done on my arm done today. If I'd known I was going to live this long I might not have had so much fun when I was younger. Regardless, in the waiting room on one small settee to my left was an elderly gentleman reading a book. I sat in a chair in the corner and in another settee to my right was an elderly lady.

The man was reading a book and me being me, who is not from New York, I ask him what he's reading. He holds it up. The Civil War Bathroom Reader: Historic Reading for Your Private Moments. I hold up the book I'm reading A History of the First Major Campaign of the Civil War Battle at Bull Rull by William Davis.

I ask him if the book is good. Yes, it's written in very short chapters for bathroom reading. Nothing in depth, but if you're a Civil War buff, it's fun. I recommend Bull Run heartily. I don't mention it's a little biased because unless you've read the documentation, diaries, orders, and letters going back and forth before Sumter, you won't recognize what the author did. It's still a stellar book.

We visit very briefly and go back to reading. The elderly lady is watching us all this time and then gets up and sits down next to him.

He looks up from his book. "Oh, you decided it's ok to sit next to me now?"

She just glared at him.

Happy Valentine's Day you old lovebirds!

On the way out I nearly collided with a lady packing a Dean Koontz book under her arm. I decided not to ask. I'd caused enough trouble over books for one day.

Anonymous said...

My friends and I LOVE perusing each other's shelves when we go to visit each other, each of us lovingly pointing out our favorites and asking if they've read similar-book-by-different-author.

Depending on the size of the library, we might even have 30% overlap! But, I hang out with a lot of sf/f fans, and there tend to be general trends.

Unknown said...

Julie, love it! :)

MA Hudson said...

Julie - that’s hilarious! You’re the Valentine’s Day fairy!

OP - congratulations on getting any requests. Who cares if you got some form rejections - you got requested fulls!!

The Sleepy One said...

Woohoo, Timothy, I'm glad you appreciated the post about Publisher's Marketplace. I was sad when Jennifer quit blogging because her blog and Janet's were my two-must reads (now Janet is my only must-read agent blog, no complaints here).

Also, OP: be happy to get requests! I know as writers we create "dream" agents in our minds, but we'll never know the best agent for us until after we query. Someone can have a great Twitter feed, and social media persona, but if they don't get our work, it doesn't matter.

Lennon Faris said...

QueryTracker is a great place to obsess and lose your mind. At least you're happy when you go, right? Oh wait, nope you're more anxious than ever before.

I'll probably still fall to its evil powers again when I'm next querying.

Craig F said...

The thing about the agents on Query Tracker is that they are swamped. Thousands of people query them daily, so you have to be really bright eyed and bushy tailed when you query them.

I would say more but a school shooting has come to FLA and I have to check with a mess of friends over there.

Anonymous said...

Walk into any bookstore or library and take a hard look at those thousands of books on the shelves. Every single one of them had someone, probably several someones, behind its publication who loved it (or at least thought they could make buckets of money from it). How many would you pick on which to spend your hard earned cash and even more precious time reading? One? Three? More than you can carry (oh wait, that's me). None at all?

And honestly, if you react with this much sorrow and angst to an agent's form rejection, you're going to be in bad shape once your book is published. Just imagine all those readers who will read the back cover copy and decide NOT to buy it. Or who buy it and let it sit, unread, in their TBR pile for 14 years. Or who read it but weren't sufficiently moved to review it glowingly, let alone mention it to a friend. Or who HATE it and can't wait to leave reviews in every single public space telling everyone how much they HATE it. Or friends and family who, when asked, contort their face into a huge fragile smile and say, "It was great!"

OP, your expectations are way off the mark. Time to recalibrate your definition of success, for your own mental health. You're going to need much tougher skin in coming days.

Julie, I love this: "If I'd known I was going to live this long I might not have had so much fun when I was younger." Oh, yes.

Anonymous said...

Sigh. Upon reflection, I realize my comment was quite negative and maybe even harsh. I'm not usually so Eeyore-like. So I've come back to say:

OP, of course there will be readers who LOVE your book, who will write effusive reviews and maybe even email you or show up at signings to tell you how wonderful your book is and what a positive impact it had on them. Of course they will. Thank them. Treasure them. Count your lucky stars that your work found people who appreciate it. I have faith that a couple of those early readers of yours will be an agent and an editor.

Just . . . don't diminish the importance or impact of those appreciative readers by counting them as a percentage of some imaginary whole. That way lies madness and I sincerely wish better for you than that.

Sam Hawke said...

I'm not super convinced Opie is real - is there really anyone who expects an 80% response rate?? As an obsessive googler and researcher in my querying days I can say I've never seen anyone wave that around as a figure to aim for. More like 10-20% and you're doing great.

Julie, I've been watching DietCokeGate too and seriously is there a human alive more gracious than Diana dealing with fans telling her not to drink the drink she likes for 4 straight days??

B said...

Hi everyone - OP here. Thank you Janet for your usual, awesome wake-up call. THANK you everyone for your comments, from the heartfelt congrats to the reminder that everything is subjective in this industry. Sometimes it's hard to keep that reality in perspective. Since sending in this question, I've also done self-reflecting, and decided I'm going to focus on the good parts instead of worrying about things out of my control.

The 80% request rate was surprisingly not made up. I'd come across it in this Writers Digest article:

(However, I now suspect that is a huge outlier. Articles like that should not be in the top hits of Google searches...)

Thank you again! This blog should be recommended to every querying writer.