Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Why I hate personalization with a passion

Personalization is a foolish requirement in query letters. It wastes time that is better spent writing. It  asks writers to behave as though agents need to be wooed, when in fact, we're the ones making money from your creative endeavours. Yes, we add value (I hope!) but honestly, what more do I need to know than you're a writer, and I want to sign clients?

But the truth of why I really truly hate personalization is that replying to them with a form letter, no matter how nice the form letter is, feels like a rude brush off.

I mean really, consider this example:

Dear Janet,
I've read Patrick Lee's The Breach, and Jeff Somers' Writing Without Rules, and both of them mention how much they enjoy working with you. My novel The Kale Fields of Carkoon is a thriller much like The Breach, with a sardonic hero much like Avery Cates.

Dear Writer
Thank you for your query. I'm sorry it's not a good fit for my list.
blah blah blah

The truth is I cannot respond personally to every query.
Form letters are going to be a part of this job.
So it seems to me that the only thing that we can alter is this insane requirement to personalize a query.

I can't seem to stop writing conferences from offering pitch sessions, so I'm probably not going to make much headway here either, but if you're querying me, it's really ok to just tell me about the book.

If you've read my clients' work, and genuinely loved it, the place I'd rather you  say it is the review section of Amazon, GoodReads, or on Twitter.

Personalization is not right for my list!


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

So I guess, that because you are my most favorite agent, number one on my dream-agent list, that I worship at your nimble feet, as well as your brilliant and encyclopedic mind, that if I could have, I would have, named my first born after you, that every client of yours is indeed an inspiration to my writing self, that I would without fail water your plants, feed whatever pets you foster, clean your toilets and hand over without regret my Sherwin William's discount, and non of that really matters to you?
You mean it's all about the writing.
Well babe, I'm buying some new yellow #2s and a stack of legal pads.
You do know how to read cursive, right?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I truly love Writing Without Rules - it eases the stench of the kale fields of Carkoon.

A personalized query to you would not be so hard "Your Majesty" is probably as far as I will go as that is the proper title when addressing the Queen of the Known Universe.

However, when agents I know little of beyond their literary wants ask for this, I must admit I am a bit stymied. I am tempted to always go with Dear Ms/Mr [correctly spelled last name} and then get on with the query - character A is this until character B does this. Now character A must make choice inciting event or else consequence Y and so forth and so on. Then pray the writing does enough to get past this odd requirement. Also, how does one balance being professional with personalization?

I like pitch sessions - good practice for talking about my writing and demystifying the agent. Even if pitch sessions are useless in determining whether or not a writer can, well, write.

Amy Johnson said...

I admit I've spent considerable time attempting to craft perfectly perfect personalized query letters. And gotten no responses to some of them. Such a waste of time I could have spent writing things other than query letters. I've learned. Thanks, Janet.

My takeaway: If an agent requires personalization (and other things many agents don't require from queriers), but doesn't respond personally (or at all), what might that indicate working with that agent might be like?

Megan V said...

I've noticed on Twitter and other blogs that several agents request personalization and several more have been insisting on having the info dump first.

Several of them have nay-said the advice of just jumping into the hook.

This is all well and good. Everyone's preferences are different. But a lot of them forget to add the caveat.

I.e. Never query *me* this way as opposed to never query this way.


Sometimes I feel like I'm standing on a precipice over the query trenches doing the Meg Ryan dance from You've got mail 'It's not personal it's business, it's not personal it's business' and really hoping I don't fall to my doom on the next swing.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Not ten minutes ago, I was considering querying an agent and read the following:
"A thoughtful, tailored query always gets further than something that feels it's been spammed to me and all my colleagues. It's not a race; do your work justice by being just as thoughtful about its submission process."

If I may vent for a moment ... A number of times, I've found agents whose "what I'm looking for" seemed perfectly to describe my book. So I queried them. Some got just a query, some got a query plus pages, some got query/pages/synopsis/author bio/marketing proposal depending on what they required. Responses: silence/NORMAN, "not a good fit," "not what we are looking for at this time."

So, IS it or is it not a race?
I mean, we do need to query up to 100 agents. That seems like of ... racy.

Maybe it's not a footrace, but more of a race to make some kind of handicraft, like throwing as many pots or knitting as many socks as you can. Quality matters, but so does volume.

What do you all think?

Bonnie Shaljean said...

I'm a bit confused now. I seem to remember reading in past blogs - either here or QS - that you did not like queries that just said "Dear Agent" or other generalised boilerplate openings, because it felt like receiving mass spam. I think you said that anything from Dear Janet, Dear Ms. Reid, Dear Snookums (etc) would be OK, as long as you could perceive that the sender was an actual woodland creature, individually querying you - no matter how many other agents they were also submitting to.

I interpreted this to mean that I could open with "Dear Janet," after which I would jump straight into the query itself. Yes? No? Maybe, if you're in a good mood and just had your lunch? Never? Aaaaauuughhh...

Casey Karp said...

Right, Megan. And then there are the ones whose websites say you should personalize, but who tweet with things like "Don't tell me how it fits my wish list. I know what I'm looking for." Oy.

Sorry, petting my peeves again.

I've decided that just as there's no One True Way to write a novel, there's no OTW to write a query either. There's the the way that works for you. If you want to personalize, go for it. If your idea of personalization is making sure you spelled the agent's name right, more power to you. In the end, the right query is the one that catches her attention and makes her want to know more. Just like your opening sentence.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Amen, Casey!

Brenda said...

On a recent critique of my query I was advised to personalize the beast, something along the lines of “I hope this finds you well”. I am using the agent’s advice but it feels uncomfortable. Chatting up strangers in an effort to forge a business transaction makes me feel like an oily door-to-door salesmen. Writers spend a lifetime grubbing after the truest words. Platitudes feel more false to us than they would to anyone else.
Ironically, as EM said, personalizing to you is easy. At the same time, as Carolynn said yesterday, we have to guard against being unprofessional.
It’s easy to feel like we know famous personalities. After reading ‘Writing Without Rules’ I feel that I know Jeff Somers quite well. He reminds me of a high-school friend’s brother, an affable guy that always had “the good stuff”. In reality, I don’t know Jeff at all. There’s a very good chance he’d call the cops if I invited myself over for drinkies.

Betsy said...

I'm curious to know why you want conferences to stop doing pitch sessions. I'm planning to attend a conference specifically for the pitch sessions. It seems it's easier to land an agent who has met you face to face than through the slush pile, or so I've read.

John Davis Frain said...

Dear Madam or Sir,

Again, we agree. (If I'm not getting too personal there.)


J. F. Margos said...

I'm glad that is your perspective, and it's certainly a lot easier for writers; but I have taken several "query classes" and all say to personalize. I have even heard agents in conferences say that's what they prefer. I have done it both ways, and I honestly get more requests for fulls from the personalized ones. That's just my experience. I hope I'm not getting ignored for personalizing after I put the effort into it. That would be really bad...

John Davis Frain said...

By the way, Bonnie, I think Madame Sharque is fine with the salutation being personalized. Actually in favor of it if I can be so bold and personal. See the example she gives.

However, she's addressing the unnecessary need to personalize the body of your query to include something specific about the agent even though we all get responses that include personalization. Why, just the other day, a NORMAN complimented me on my oxford comma usage, but then remarked that my golf skills (or lack thereof) would prevent any further relationship. They were below par, she said. Oh we laughed and laughed, for this was a phone call, just not THE phone call.

Thank goodness I've reached my hundred words, yeah?

Lennon Faris said...

My M.O. is that if the 'personalization' is honest, I usually do it. If I loved their client's work, why would I not say that? It lets them know a bit more about me and why I chose them to look at my work.

Of course, though, I've done my research. If I write crime fiction in the future, and know a certain agent despises personalization, I would refrain.

Also, I think most writers understand understand that the agent isn't being rude with a form. An agonizing agent belies a warm and fuzzy heart (somewhere behind all those teeth!)

Heather said...

Dare I say it... I actually didn’t mind personalizing query letters. I already knew what it was about the agents that appealed most to me. (If I didn’t know this, they wouldn’t have made my list.) So it didn’t take much extra time to tack onto the end of my letter why I wanted them to represent me. Plus it served as a helpful reminder for my own records... ah, yes, this is THAT (amazing) agent.

Laina said...

@Bonnie Personalization isn't using the agent's name. The cable company isn't personalizing my bill when they put my name on it. They're just saying they know who it's going to.

I do personalize some of my queries, mostly the MSWL ones. If they've mentioned something that they'd like to see, and I think I'd fit that, it's worth a mention and only takes a minute.

Mixed results overall, unsurprisingly. Some of my full/partial requests were from ones where I personalized, some are from ones that I didn't.

Colin Smith said...

Betsy: There might be an article in the Treasure Chest about pitch sessions. Janet has discussed it afew times.

The purpose of a query is to get the agent to request pages. Period. Full stop. The End. Sure, if you come off as rude or some kind of anal headwear, you'll probably get a form rejection. But I'd be suspicious of an agent that rejects a compelling query because you didn't list the last 10 client books you read.

My 2c.😀

Colin Smith said...

(I wrote the above on my phone. Don't get me started on how I hate writing on my phone. Here's a link to THE TREASURE CHEST. Trying to do that with my fingers on a tiny keyboard would have been a nightmare. And no-one at work wants to see me cry.)

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Weathers said...

I'm going to try this one more time and if it fails the third time, Blogger is trying to tell me something.

1. There's a spammer in yesterday's comments.

2. Carolynn, yes, being too chummy even if you think you're pals is dangerous. One agent made a quip about drinking too much wine. Then later said they were going to call it a night since they could focus on the manuscript they were reading anyway. I said something, it might have been that wine and did a wink emote.

I got a very perturbed dm telling me how hard the agent worked for their clients and they didn't appreciate me making it look like they were an alcoholic etc etc. I needed to delete that tweet. This is an agent I had been going back and forth with for over a year visiting with on twitter, so I wasn't just out of the blue. I deleted the tweet, apologized profusely, and unfollowed the agent so as not to take a chance of offending again. It was my fault. I crossed the line.

Now days I harass QOTKU and NYC Editor Gal. I visit with Jessica Faust some. NYC Editor Gal, I just threaten to show up with hot cookies every now and then. I'm pretty sure she knows I'm not actually going to NY to bring her cookies even if I knew who she was.

It's just best to stay on the friendly but professional side perhaps.

To today's topic.

This subject comes up at conferences. Some on the panel say yes personalize. They want to know they aren't part of a shotgun query. Others say it's a waste of time. They'll debate. No one changes their mind. The authors come away just as confused as when they eagerly flocked in the door. (Don't you hate those flocking authors thinking they're going to get the answers to all their questions?)

Then the agents will discuss comps and the same thing happens. Some like them. Some hate them. Authors are busily taking notes that will make no sense later.

The bottom line is just pay attention to what each agent wants. Try to give them what they want. Check again just before you query in case something has changed. Just because they don't want your book, doesn't mean it's bad or you're not a good writer. You just weren't what that agent needed right then.

Marilyn Monroe couldn't make it as a runway model because of her walk. That didn't mean she wasn't beautiful.

I was watching a J.B. Mauney tape yesterday. He's a little skinny bullrider who weighs about 140 pounds soaking wet. He's also the winningest world champion bullrider with $7 million in earnings so far and he's still young.

One thing that caught my attention. "I was the kid with the try. The other kids had the talent."

It doesn't matter how good that story is. It doesn't matter how talented you are. None of that matters if you don't have the try to keep going.

Megan V said...

Casey ha! 'petting my peeves' I love that expression. I'm stealing it.

Julie I like the thought of "having the try"
And then there's Yoda on my other shoulder going 'do or do not' lol

Craig F said...

A salutation, such as Dear Mr. Blankety Blank or Dear Ms. So and So, is the grease that lubes the gears of social intercourse. Not using it runs the risk of throwing sand onto your opening fire.

Personalization works if there is some reason for it. If you met the agent at a conference or they know you from some other source. If they do not know you it is, at best, a waste of time. There is only a short distance from there to sucking up.

AJ Blythe said...

I'm curious, does reminding an agent you met them and/or are following up on a submission offer fall under the heading of personalisation? EG I enjoyed meeting you at Wonderful Writing Conference. As discussed I'm sending you my novel.

Pitching at conference is not a faster way to get published. It sits on the same rung of the ladder as querying (unless the agent is otherwise closed to queries). Most agents request from pitches because it's hard to tell much from 3 to 5 sentences spoken to them. It all boils down to your writing.

An agent won't request pages if they already have something similar, they aren't passionate about the subject matter/genre, don't think they can sell it etc. As Janet has said in the past "agents and editors turn down good and publishable books everyday." Pitching the story doesn't change that.

The benefit of pitching is you get time one-on-one face-to-face with an agent. Make the most of it. Take your query letter (saves pitching it and you can get feedback). Discuss industry or something you might have burning questions about. Pitching definitely has its place, maybe not quite in the way conferences lead us to believe (and I speak from 10 years pitching experience - I pitch every conference even if I don't want to pitch a specific novel...I learn so much from those few minutes).