Query Blog 2 – What Comes Next?

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I was a very bad blogger and missed posting last month, as my allotted time fell right around the holidays.  By now you’ve probably forgotten all about my November post about the dos of querying, so here’s a link to refresh your memories.

Debbie K. posted a question about what happens after the query hits home that sparked a response long enough to become a post all on its own.  Never one to look a gift blog in the mouth, I’m using that initial response as a jumping off point.

Once your query reaches its destination, the possible outcomes can best be expressed via flow chart rather than an essay answer. Starting with the response, a “no” can take two different tacks: a form or a personalized rejection. Primarily, we send out form rejections, because we simply don’t have the time to formulate individual responses to every submission.  Agents reject material for any number of reasons, primary among them:

-The material submitted doesn’t fit in with what the agent represents (in other words, the querier failed to do the appropriate research).  For example, they’ve submit fiction to a non-fiction agent or a children’s picture book to an agent who’s never sold one in her life.

-The writing simply isn’t up to snuff.  Sometimes the writing has the spark but not the craft.  Sometimes it’s the craft without the spark.  But, as you all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so what works for one agent or editor may not work for another.  It may not be that your work doesn’t shine so much as that it doesn’t connect with a particular individual.

-The idea is too a) off-the-wall, b) un-categorizable, c) like something we already represent, d) commonplace or e) not of sufficient interest to the person contacted.

-Something about the query leads us to believe that the author will be difficult to work with.  This can manifest in overwhelming ego, negativism, virtriol, condescension or any number of other red flags.

Sometimes, either because we’ve made a personal connection or because the material motivates us, an agent or editor will give a critique, which they’re hoping the querier will find helpful.  Personal rejections are often a sign that you’re on the right track and are nearly as good as gold.  If the comments are especially complimentary and the critique resonates, it’s acceptable to recontact the agent once rewrites are done to find out if he or she would like to reconsider. Unless a project has been pretty significantly revised, however, it’s not advisable to query the same agent with the same work. Although some guidelines will say otherwise (thus it’s always important to check), it’s also not generally acceptable to query multiple agents within the same company. Ditto for editors.

Now for an even better outcome: a request for a partial or full manuscript.  Generally, agents and editors don’t expect an exclusive – certainly not on a partial and rarely on a full.  However, it’s a courtesy to let the pro know whether others are considering your material as well.  If a publishing professional does insists on an exclusive (otherwise known as a single submission), he or she should have the courtesy to offer a brief time frame in which they’ll provide a response as recompense for your holding up further submissions while they consider your work.  It’s up to you whether this is something you’ll choose to do, and you probably only want to do it if you’re sure you want to work with that agent should you get a positive response.  If not, you can contact the pro to find out whether they’d be interested in considering even if you’re unable to grant an exclusive.  Chances are they’ll agree.  If you do grant the single submission but the response goes beyond the stated time frame, you’re free to submit your work elsewhere.  It was once more common that it is now for agents to request such exclusives.  Now few of us can promise the tight turn-arounds.

Now, I say “publishing pro” above, but mostly I mean agents, because major publishers, with possibly an exception here and there, don’t accept unsolicited material at all.  They insist that submissions come through an agent.  (Though they’ll generally take queries from people they’ve invited to submit to them at conferences, etc., in which case they’re no longer “unsolicited.”)  This is not because they’re cruel or elitist, it’s because there’s simply far too much work for each editor to do to also expect them to wade through the mountain of submissions that come in over the transom, so they count on agents to latch onto the most marketable projects and send them along.

So what if your work has been requested, but you haven’t yet received a response?  First, check the company’s guidelines for response times, which will generally be listed on their websites.  Once the standard response time has come and gone, it’s fine to send a polite query regarding the status of your submission. An e-mail is generally preferred to a phone call because it’s less intrusive and gives the pro a chance to look up the answer to your question before responding.

We’ve already dealt with rejections, so let’s talk about acceptance.  Once an agent offers representation, there are all kinds of questions you can ask to find out if you’ll be a good fit, everything from where they see your work fitting into the market to what revisions they’d suggest. You can also ask to speak with one of their current clients, in which case you’ll want someone at about the same level you’re coming in at (i.e. debut if you’re a new writer) rather than someone at the top of the list who will, of course, receive a great deal of the agent’s attention. If you’ve got your work out with others, you can feel free to ask the agent to hold that thought and give the others a chance to read and respond (something like a week), unless, of course, you already know that this first agent is the agent of your dreams, in which case you’d be putting the others through a rush read for nothing. If an editor makes you an offer while your work is on submission to agents, you tell him or her to hold that thought, that you’re talking to a few agents.  Then give those agents a call before you agree to anything. You should be sure the representative you pick is enthusiastic about your work and not just the fact that you come with an offer on the table, but you really don’t want to go about negotiating your first contract on your own.  Among other things, like getting you more advantageous terms, an agent will also help you avoid certain pitfalls, like strict non-compete and broad option clauses.

But contract negotiation is a whole other ball of wax.  And perhaps the very topic for next month’s guest blog.  See you then!

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14 comments to Query Blog 2 – What Comes Next?

  • Lucienne,
    this is the best, clearest, frankest discussion of agent response to queries I’ve ever read. I’m sure it will help a lot of people. Thank you. And thank you for the advice never to look a gift blog in the mouth. In this context, ‘blog’ sounds like some kind of swamp-dwelling monster. I like that.

  • Great post and even better information, Lucienne!

    As a submitter, I hate to see the form responses with no indication as to why something was rejected. I wouldn’t think it would be too hard to add a couple check boxes to form responses so that the writer has some indication as to the reason for the rejection.

    Maybe the sheer volume of submissions/rejections would even make this unfeasible. It still would be nice. 🙂

  • Lucienne, thanks for this. Understanding what’s going on at the other end of a query is so helpful to writers, not only for easing our worried minds, but in helping us all behave in the most professional way possible. Looking forward to Part 3 (you were planning on Part 3, right? Right? 😉 )

  • Lucienne, I had to put my tea down at the *gift blog* comment too. Great way to start the morning!

    I want to go back to this para and add a personal comment. >> Sometimes, … an agent or editor will give a critique, which they’re hoping the querier will find helpful.

    This happens at all levels, from published to unpubbed and it *really should* be considered a gift. When the AKA (Gwen) was ready to move from mystery to fantasy, her mystery agent sent her work to Lucienne, because he didn’t deal with fantasy of any kind. Lucienne came back with a pretty intensive rewrite letter. Not a *rewrite and I’ll sign you* letter. Just a rewrite letter. I rewrote, twice, if I recall correctly, before she signed me. And then, Lucienne submitted the manuscript to several editors. It sold at auction. And teh rewrite process started all over again.

    I hear tales of people who are offered excited rewrite letters from agents and turn them down, with snide comments like, “I’ll rewrite after somebody buys it.”

    My advice is (said much more baldly than kind-hearted Lucienne would say it) If you don’t want to rewrite, go home. You aren’t a pro, and aren’t pro-material. You have to satisfy people *before* money changes hands. And yes, I know what that sounds like. It’s the nature of the beast. If an agent spends time (for free) on your work, get on your keister (BIC) and do the rewrite.

  • Which sounded like a rant… And probably was.

  • Faith, that is really awesome advice and I’m so glad you came in with it! Stuart, a Part 3? I can do that. Maybe what happens after you’re signed, from revisions through submission, offers and publication. Hmm, may even be enough here for Parts 4 and 5!

    AJ, you made my day with the swamp-dwelling monster thought. I can just see it now….

  • Lucienne> Thanks for the great post. I found when I very first started looking into how a book gets published, a lot of the process was quite obscure. This eliminates some of the mystery. I appreciate the “why stuff gets rejected” list, too. Query letters are hard to write (thank you to the folks here who have given advice on them!) and there’s so much pressure (you have, what 500 words to pitch?) and so the less mysterious the process, the better!

    Faith> I don’t understand folks who refuse to revise when someone like an agent gives advice. I get the “well, you told me to rewrite my fantasy as a myserty, and I’m not sure I want to do that” but the “it’s fine how it is” seems too arrogant. That said, I know that when it comes to critiques, there comes a point when you have to stop rewriting and start submitting, and then just submit and submit, even if it is rejected (while working on other projects, too). Here’s my question: how do you know you’re at that point? How do you know it’s time to stop the critiquing and start sending out? (perhaps this merits a whole blog post… if so, sorry!)

  • Thank you for making this process so clear, Lucienne. I’ve had it explained to me repeatedly, in books and at writers’ conferences, but never quite like this.

    I’ll admit that at first, it’s a teeny tiny bit discouraging being reminded of the rewrites because the whiny childish part of me screams “but I’m already rewriting it! I don’t waaanna!”. Then I tell it to smarten up and deal with it, and I realize that it’s actually an encouragement: to put in as much BIC time as I can and get it finished, precisely so I can move on to the next stage in the process.

  • Pea Emily.
    I don’t what other writers would say, but here is my advice and what I did.
    Walk away from it. Put it (metaphorically?) under the bed. For a few weeks to a few months. Don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, don’t touch it.

    Then, when you think you might have cleared your mind, pull it our from under the bed (or print it out) and sit down with multicolored pens, highlighters, or sticky notes and start reading. Read it straight through, making notes. But not stopping to fix anything. Do it all in one sitting if possible. An entire day. If you are just making cosmetic changes and if it is the best it can be, send it out.

  • Sarah

    Thanks for the post Lucienne! The more I know the more I feel like I’m working within a system with clear rationale’s rather than trying to do magic with my eyes closed. Sometimes sending queries feels like throwing a virgin into a volcano, hoping good will result.

    Thanks also Faith for the rewrite-send out advice. Funny thing is I basically did that with the academic article I’m revising right now. I was just shuffling deck chairs so I made myself submit it to a journal. It got accepted contingent on revisions. The months that passed between submission and acceptance and the reviewers’ comments gave me the new vision I needed to actually make substantive changes. In one sense it wasn’t good enough – it does need revision. But in another sense it was good enough – it got accepted. I always want to send out a perfect manuscript, but that’s not going to happen. And making myself send things out turned out to be part of the perfecting process.

  • Lance Barron

    Thank you, Lucienne. Great post. Very helpful.

  • Faith> Thanks for that. That’s what I’ve been thinking. I just pulled it out again after about 6 months, and I’m making some changes, but I like the basic structure so far. It was nice to go back and read it and think “wow, that wasn’t crap.” So I’ll get it together in this revision and then sit on it for a bit–probably a month or two–and try that again! 🙂

  • Pea, what Faith said. She’s a very, very smart lady!

    I did a post on my own blog last year around this time about writing (at least writing for publication): “Nor do we write because it’s easy. If it is, you might be doing it wrong.” If writing doesn’t alternately make your heart soar and rip it to shreds, you’re not there yet. (Direct link: http://varkat.livejournal.com/135676.html.)

  • Great advice, Lucienne, as always. I’m looking forward to seeing more in this series of posts. I also think it bears repeating Faith’s point, and the subtext to all that Lucienne wrote: attitude is so important. Arrogance, ingratitude for a person’s time, laziness: all of these things can kill a career even faster than poor writing.