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!