July 24th, 2009


letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 226
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partials/manuscript requested: science fiction

Dear Authors:

It can be far too easy to play the statistics game. Especially when someone is conveniently posting their stats every week. Sometime in the last couple weeks someone commented on a query wars post and asked if I thought my numbers were typical. Not only are they typical -- many agents I know say they reject about 99% of materials they receive -- but the odd thing, to me anyway, is that they haven't changed in that respect.

Back in the day, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and before e-queries were invented, there were a handful of much-touted guides (e.g. Jeff Herman's book and the Writer's Digest one) that had agent listings.* One of the questions in those guides was usually about rejection rate, and the very first time I ever filled one out for the agency, I was told to list our rejection rate as 99% (if you can find an old edition in a library somewhere, you can prove me right). Back then, we had to carry our submission piles of manuscripts around on those luggage totes with the bungee straps (no convenient e-readers) so everything we requested was directly contributing to the eventual cracking of our spines. But we didn't let that interfere. Our goal was to find and sign great stories that we could sell to publishers -- some things just don't change. But I digress.

In those times, the agency received about 40 queries per week total. (Can you imagine?) I could generally review and respond to them all within a day or two. And often I requested 1 or 2 partials or fulls per week with the occasional week where nothing was requested. Now, as you can see from the numbers above, I receive hundreds of queries per week (at the moment there are still about 450 in my query folder), and those are just mine. The other agents I work with have their own as well. However, despite the fact that the queries have increased hundreds of times over, the request rate has remained roughly the same.

Here's some of the reasons I think this might be the case:

--> The number of people who casually query is higher. It's so much easier to send an email than to trudge to the post office with packages and buy stamps in the correct amount.

--> The proliferation of personal computers has given people the opportunity to be more casual about writing the novel in the first place. No typewriters. No correction ribbon. No labor-intensive retyping for revisions.

--> The number of people who inappropriately or prematurely query is much higher. I'm basing this on personal experience. The percentage of queries that are for types of materials we don't represent at all is higher. The percentage of queries from debut novelists who haven't finished their books (or in some cases, even begun them) is higher. The percentage from writers who just haven't learned enough about their craft yet is higher.

--> The availability of data about publishing has grown by leaps and bounds and is a less arcane pursuit, therefore more people with more access to information are finding what they need in order to pursue publication.

All of this makes the statistics rather skewed when you take a step back. My gut instinct says that the queries that garner requests now have to stand out against a bigger sea than they did before, but that they have the same qualities as those that stood out when the pond was smaller.

What do you think? And what other theories would you propose that might contribute to this?

*These books still exist and we are still listed in them but I wonder how much they are being used with something like agentquery.com out there as a resource. It's been a long time since someone mentioned one of the print books in a query as their source for information on the agency.