QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, March 9, 2009

Open Mic Monday: Your Questions Answered

Last week, we asked our readers to submit their writing and publishing questions. So let's get down to business with our first question:

Dr. Dyer,

Thanks for allowing us to email questions your way!

As a psychotherapist in private practice for 24 years, I've maintained my own sanity by writing--prolifically. I have several fiction and nonfiction mss, for children, YA and Adult. I think an agent deserves to know that I have this breadth of work that I'm ready to publish.

I've clarified this to two top-pick agents, who each responded with a form rejection, proving they'd not read my specific letter. I realize that most agents are swamped, and they are free to decline a project without explanation. But, in these two cases, my letter was not read. I did not enclose a query or partial in my letter. There was not a manuscript to evaluate or to determine "was not right for their list at this time," although they both stated "I assure you that your material was carefully evaluated."

Do I bring my question back to their attention, seeing as they were top-pics, or do I write them off? I don't want to offend/alienate them by phoning, or calling this to their attention, but neither do I want to ride off in the sunset with a bogus rejection, when I think there was a shot at a mutually beneficial partnership.

I would greatly appreciate your advice!

This question brings up a lot of great points for people who are starting the query process, so let's go through a few basic rules of thumb for querying.

~ Your first official contact with an agent (unless you meet them at a conference or in the proverbial elevator) should be a query letter. The purpose of the query letter is to save time, paper, and postage by asking whether an agent might be interested in your project before submitting anything. Unless you are extremely famous in your own right (I'm talking paparazzi-famous), no agent is going to agree to review your material (let alone offer representation) without knowing the details of your project. Which means you need to send a proper query. Any other correspondence will likely be seen as a waste of time, as it won't give the agent the information she needs to be interested in your project.

~ You may have noticed that I keep using "project" rather than "projects"; that's for very good reason. Your query to an agent should be focused on a single project. It's absolutely fabulous to be prolific. A writer should definitely work on multiple projects, but when you're seeking representation, you need to choose a single project to market. Agents receive hundreds of queries per week. To make your project stand out, you need a well-crafted pitch to get their attention. You only have a couple of minutes before they'll be moving on to the next letter in the pile, so you need to focus on one manuscript. Pick your best project and query that first. If the agent asks about other projects (or offers representation!), you can tell her about all your other work.

~ Just as you focus on a single project in your query, you should also focus on a specific genre when seeking representation. Many readers are loyal to their favorite genres. Many avid mystery readers wouldn't be caught dead with a romance novel. Erotica fans might not find a sci fi novel... erm... stimulating. Certainly the readership for midgrade vs. YA vs. adult represent different markets. While it might seem like a huge benefit to be able to write in multiple genres, chances are that an agent will not see it as such.

Let's consider a hypothetical situation to demonstrate why: Congratulations! Your debut romance novel is a huge hit! You've got fans... yay, you! So you immediately move forward with a high fantasy novel. But your romance fans don't like high fantasy. And the folks who read high fantasy have never heard of you, cuz they don't read romance. For a publisher, it's essentially taking a chance on a debut author all over again. Meanwhile, your romance fans might lose interest cuz you're not releasing another romance novel right away. In general, agents would rather you stuck to a single genre, built a loyal readership who will anxiously await the chance to plunk down money for your next novel. If you are very prolific and can keep up with the demands of two different sets of readers, you may be able to successfully publish in more than one genre, but your agent will probably want to discuss that decision with you at length to decide whether it makes sense for your writing career. In other words, this is not the sort of discussion to have at the query stage.

So now to turn to the specific question Laurie submitted.

The query process is quite a bit like dating. What you want in a query letter is put your best foot forward, be intriguing, and leave your potential partner wanting more. Yes, eventually you want a long-term relationship and you'll need to discuss things like how you will manage your finances and how your manuscript children will be raised. But you do not want to try to nail down all these issues on your first date.

I suspect the agents you mention did, indeed, read the letter you sent. Given the number of authors seeking publication, an agent's focus is generally leaning towards rejection. They can only review so many projects, so if yours doesn't compel them to read, you can expect to be rejected. Since agents are pretty strapped for time (and since reading queries doesn't directly contribute to their income), most use a form rejection letter. The form letter is generally worded as a response to a query, as that is the most common correspondence they receive. Since they weren't interested enough in your work by the letter you sent, you received the form rejection. It's unlikely that an agent would spend time changing the language of her standard rejection to reflect the specifics of your letter.

Since these agents are your top picks, I understand your reluctance to write them off. However, I would absolutely recommend you NOT phone the agents in question. Most agents say they dislike unsolicited callers and some consider it a big mark against you. The good news is that agents receive so many queries, you don't have to write them off yet because you haven't queried them. And chances are good that these agents receive so many letters, they won't remember your previous message.

So here's my specific recommendations:

1. Choose your best, most polished manuscript in your favorite genre.

2. Craft a specific pitch for that project. If you haven't already, check out Elana's series on query letters here on the QueryTracker.net blog.

3. Make sure the project you're marketing is one that would interest the agents in question.

4. Query away!

Good luck! Your experience will definitely be a plus in your query letter bio.

Thanks to Laurie for getting us started with a great question!

Now stay tuned for another question addressed by Carolyn Kaufman on Showing vs. Telling. Beyond awesome... seriously.

H. L. Dyer, M.D. writes women's fiction and works as the Clinical and Academic Director for the Hospitalist Program at a pediatric teaching hospital near Chicago. In addition to all things literary, she enjoys experimental cooking and composing impromptu parodies to annoy close friends and family. Click to visit her personal blog, Trying to Do the Write Thing.


nightsmusic said...

Been following your new blog since it started and I have to say, I'm lovin' it. :)

I don't know if you followed Colleen Lindsay's brainchild, QueryFail on Twitter, but I thought it was awesome. Agents twitted about what made a query...well, fail. And the number one thing? Queries that simply don't follow submission guidelines. Some agents have 500-600 queries a Week! If the person querying them can't follow simple submission guidelines, how easy are they going to be to work with as a client?

So, to anyone who is actively, or is considering querying, follow the agents submission guidelines. Even if the agent doesn't fall in love with your work, it puts you way ahead of most of the queries they'll read.

Amy Nathan said...

I think the mistake made by your emailer was thinking he or she was "above" the query process. As a stranger to these agents, the letter (or whatever was sent) was part of a massive slush pile. From what I've read on agent blogs and websites, agents don't search the pile for reasons to say no, they assume no and only look for reasons to say yes. This person did not follow any protocol at all.

So many great sites out there that can help with that!