November 14th, 2008


letters from the query wars with Agent Manners response

# of queries read this week: 163
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 2
genres of partials/manuscripts requested: mystery (1), fantasy (1)


This came in for Agent Manners but seemed appropriate to answer in a query wars post (since it isn't really an etiquette question, per se):

Dear Agent Manners,
A delicate question, here--just how many truly painful manuscripts do you have to slog through before you find one worth requesting? I see your weekly tally and wonder; and I don't mean manuscripts that don't fit your particular market or need a bit of tweaking, I'm talking about full on disasters. 50%? 70%? 90%?
Just how big IS the competition out there for every publishing slot?
Most Sincerely,
The Boggled Bogwitch (who is neither a witch nor does she live in a bog, even if she is somewhat flummoxed.)

Dear Boggled:
Once upon a time, good manners included the saying: "if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all." So, one hesitates to speak ill of the quality of queries, particularly since any writer reading this may take it very much to heart. However, I would direct your attention once more to the timeless Slushkiller post, particularly section 3, in which famous (or infamous) editor Theresa Nielsen-Hayden details the context of rejection. Her rendition seems painfully accurate, specifically her endnote:

"Aspiring writers are forever asking what the odds are that they’ll wind up in category #14 [buy this book - for those that didn't click through to read the details]. That’s the wrong question. If you’ve written a book that surprises, amuses, and delights the readers, and gives them a strong incentive to read all the pages in order, your chances are very good indeed. If not, your chances are poor."

Based on the current statistics that have been posted on this blog this year, 1% of the queries submitted have resulted in a submission request.

I have not broken down the other 99% into specific categories, and given the amount of time that would require, am unlikely to do so. But, to be desperately, perhaps brutally, honest, I would venture a guess that at least 50% fall into the category you term "painful" above. Of those remaining many fall into (a) completely wrong for the agent in question (e.g. poetry, children's picture books, other things I don't handle), (b) Theresa's category #4 (Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language), (c) with an idea that is overly familiar, or (d) some combination of a, b, and c.

To make another educated guess, based largely on instinct from reading queries over the years, probably only 10% of the queries received make it into the "second pass" pile for further consideration. While these numbers make it patently obvious that the query process is flawed and inefficient, it remains, nevertheless, a necessary evil, simply due to the volume of inquiries most agents and editors receive.

Please do keep in mind that your mileage may vary from agent to agent on the overall statistics. And remember that the ultimate test is in the writing, so if you are sending me a query, include those first five sample pages (not chapter 34 as someone did this week). Hopefully this question was as delicately answered as it was tendered.

Good night, and good luck.