Saturday, October 21, 2006

Responding to Rejections

I think I'll speak for many writers. YES, we DO want to know if it sucked. We DO want to know what's wrong. We DON'T want to be treated nicely. If you told us the truth, we'd re-write, get into crit groups, work on it. With this type of reply, all we can think is that you're not the right agent and we keep sending out the same schlock.

Please tell us when it's crap.

So, I've decided that either you are the most thick-skinned writer in the history of literature or you have not actually sent any of your stuff out yet.

Everybody says they can take it. I say I can, that it's not personal, but really, I'm crushed by their nice reply. G-d forbid they would have actually told me I was terrible writer the first time I tried to submit to publishing companies, when I was 14. I was a terrible writer, but at least they didn't say that, and I kept writing.

Writers DO take it personally. I know this because we occasionally receive an angry reply to our rejection, or a phone call, which is why we don't pick up the phone a lot unless we recognize the number.

Oh, and then there's Rejection Collection, a bastion of maturity and sense. Actually it's people venting their frustration, and there's nothing wrong with that, but usually they're complaining about the wording of the form letter without realizing it's just a form letter. IT'S A FORM LETTER. It just means "no." Don't try and analyze it.

Plus, I got in a lot of trouble for making a comment once to that effect, like serious trouble. The guy called the AAR and reported my boss as having bad business practices. She had to counter it. It was a mess. So forget it. I'm keeping my job, thank you very much.

A Typical Day

Woah! I am a little backed up with emails and questions after Miss Snark's awesome endorsement. I apologize if your question gets lost in the shuffle. Now, onto the questions.

What is a typical day for you? How many query letters or query emails do you receive? Do you read them all that day? How long does it take your boss to review the 5% you pass on? How long to respond with a final rejection or request for ms? Is yours a typical agency?

A typical day for me begins with me oversleeping and rushing to the subway without remembering to bring lunch. Then I buy some overpriced soda on the street because man, you do not want to lick envelopes without something to change the taste in your mouth. Then I forget the code to get into the office building and it takes a few tries for me to get it before I can get in.

I only come in once or twice a week. My boss, on average, recieves anywhere from 5 to 20 queries a day, which is fairly low but because she mainly does non-fiction and that generates less queries than fiction. Despite that, most of our queries are fiction or autobiographies. I usually handle the week's mail first, which has piled up in my absense. The mail is opened very carefully so that SASEs are not lost or mixed up with other ones. The maybes go in a pile for the boss, and the rest are rejected, put their envelopes, and sent off that day. (I believe strongly in not making people wait more than necessary)

Other jobs include some record-keeping in terms of tax-deductible office expenses. Occasionally I have to check a contract against a standard contract from that company and note any differences, as publishing companies are notorious for inserting or removing a crucial line to their boilerplate contract in hopes that the agent won't catch it. An average contract is a good ten to twenty pages of legalese, so this is an intensely annoying job, but it has to be done.

Very often my boss has me read partials or whole manuscripts, either because she wants me to look them over first in case they are so obviously bad that she doesn't need to bother with them or because she needs a second opinion. Occasionally I copyedit the manuscripts of new clients. She spends most of the day on the phone or at the computer (she does a lot of work by email because she has many international clients and does a lot of foreign rights), handling whatever's necessary to promote her client list. Often this means yelling at or comforting crazy clients who don't get their work in on the date they promised or are calling to complain that the champagne at their last book party was too warm. (I wish I was kidding, but if your books are pulling in half a million dollar advances, you get to do that kind of shit) She also goes on those infamous three-hour agent lunches with house editors, which don't involve eating slowly so much as talking about a manuscript nonstop.

Occasionally she has me sort paperwork or bundle books to be shipped out to foreign agents, but there's very little of that.

Her response time will vary hugely, depending on what author is having what crisis or what book fair is coming up. Rejections are usually faster than acceptances, especially if the partial is really bad. On a slow week she'll get to a lot of partials. When a client has hit the bestseller list, she'll be on the phone day and night telling everyone everywhere and arranging for him/her to be interviewed by radio shows and TV shows and partials will stack up. So it's really unpredictable.

My day ends whenever I finish whatever there is to do around the office. I don't have a computer and we share the same single-room office from a larger office space so it's fairly difficult to pretend I'm busy when there's no work to do. This may explain the low numbers in my checking and savings accounts.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Dumb Mistakes Follow-up

To continue the thought, how do you feel about a person mentioning a book the agent represents--saying something like, "I learned you are the agent for X book, which in a way is similar to mine-"

Advice is given all the time to do this--to go to a bookstore and find books that are "like" yours--find the agent and proceed.

Is this now annoying because people beat it to death?

It's okay. Some agents like it because they know it's not a form query that has been sent out to a million agencies. The rest of us don't really care, but aren't bothered by it, so I would recommend doing it.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Things People Do That Are Just Plain Stupid #1

(Please note that this is different from "Things that make me laugh." These things do not make me laugh, or piss me off. I'm neutral about them, but it doesn't mean you should do them)

A lot of query suggestion websites recommend personalizing the letter by letting the agent know how you heard about them. This ONLY applies to people who know the agent through a special methods, like a convention meeting or they know a client of the agent.

Many people have, in their desperation and desire to listen to advice, written things like, "I found your agency in Writer's Digest." Well, of course you did. You had to get our name and address from somewhere and that's the first place people look besides the internet. It's like saying, "I learned about your agency from a phone book."

That's what Writer's Digest is: a phone book. It contains names, addresses, and other contact info the agent wishes to be made public, like an email address or a phone number. It also contains what genres the agent handles, and then a bunch of statistics that I'm pretty sure they just make up. I don't know of a single agent who can say off-hand what percentage of their client list is new authors, and I don't know of a single agent who's willing to put in the time to figure it out for Writer's Digest. Writer's Digest is full of filler, bad advice, and listings for unscrupulous agencies and writing contests. And, there's a decent chance that by the time it comes out, the information is invalid. Agents are always moving around, joining up or breaking off from larger agencies, or going out of business. Things happen very fast in New York City. I honestly would go to

And if you do go there, don't mention it in your query letter.

E-Query Question

Pretty much everything says to treat it as a professional business letter (easy enough if you have a snail mail one written). But what kind of information would be expected in the subject line?

Generally, something like "Query - [Book Name]." If they don't have hard and fast guidelines, don't worry that much about it. Also, if you personally know the agent or are beginning referred by a client, mention it there so that we flag it in the inbox.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Trends - Why You Should Ignore Them

Do you have an opinion on the fiction market? A couple years ago, I seemed to get a better response from my query. This past year, with a better project, I got less interest. I’ve also had some agents tell me they no longer represent fiction. What do you think the future holds? All I seem to see out there are non-fiction and memoirs involving pets.

I don't know what the future of the fiction market is. What I do know is that you should write your manuscript independent of any trends or other work you see, because by the time you see those books on the shelves, we're sick of them (not the books themselves, but the trend) and not taking many new ones. Also, the story (or non-fiction discussion) should be something you care about, not something to capitalize on a trend.

A year ago we were getting tons of thrillers that somehow involved the Vatican, and stuff about New Orleans and/or Katrina. We rejected all of it immediately. The words "Dan Brown" appearing anywhere on your query meant an auto-reject. Why? Because we knew the market was going to cool off, which it did, and we stopped getting those queries when everyone forgot about Katrina and when the Da Vinci Code movie came out and it sucked.

There's usually a fairly direct parallel between what's on the NY Times bestseller list and what kind of queries we're getting. #5 right now in hardcover non-fiction is "Marley & Me," which is, and I quote, "A newspaper columnist and his wife learn some life lessons from their neurotic dog." Political books always sell, and you can basically make a living right now - a GOOD living - representing anti-Bush books. Inspirational stuff always sells, but lately it's been more Christian-themed.

On the fiction list, I see a huge variety of topics, which is normal for the fiction list. I'm actually surprised at the number of names I don't recognize; generally bestsellers are by famous authors. John le Carre is #13. Laurell K. Hamilton is #8. We're also seeing more British imports than usual.

None of what I just said in the last three paragraphs matters to you writers. Write what you love and want to write about. Write a book you would want to read. Then polish it, write a good query letter, and send it out to at least 40 agents. If it's a great book, at least a few of them will be interested, regardless of what's going on in publishing.

Email Queries

Agh. The Rejecter is recovering from the same cold everyone in NYC had last week. The Rejecter is behind. The Rejecter is wondering why she is talking about herself in the third person.

I would be interested to know what your agency's stance is on email, whether you accept email queries or not. Many agent's emails are listed on agents.query even when they don't accept email submissions. I've heard writers having success contacting those agents anyway.

It seems to me that if an agency is really serious about new writers, they ought to be accepting emails rather than snail mail exclusively. I'm disappointed but I think it's great when a well-known agent emails back & says, no thanks. I'd take a quick no over a 3 months of not hearing any day.

Then's there is the question of pasting in a couple pages or a chapter at the bottom of an email query. Some agents request this, others don't. I know etiquette says don't do it if not requested. But if the agent/assistant is on the fence, then the sample may tickle their fancy. If they were going to reject you anyway, they won't bother reading....

The answer to your initial question varies widely from agency to agency. Four or five years ago, when an agent said they weren't taking email queries, it didn't mean they didn't own a computer. It just meant they didn't use it for work and didn't want to. Now most agents do use computers for work - to contact other agents, clients, editors, and whoever. More and more publishing houses are talking to agents through email. More and more revisions of a manuscript are being sent as an email attachment. In a year or two, it will basically become essential for an agent to have a computer in their office and use it for work.

Queries are a different manner. Initially, agents were against them. Sometimes we feel like it's removing that one last barrier between us and unwanted submissions by idiots who haven't thought out their material and haven't researched how to present it. I mean, if you have to print out a letter and pay 39 cents to mail it, you'll probably put some effort into the letter. You also probably won't just query every agency in existence because it costs money, so you'll look into which agents are in which markets and narrow it down to people who are actually interested in your genre.

Most of the queries we get over email (my boss does accept them, and some unscrupulous sites list agents' emails anyway, so every agent gets them) do not stick to form to the point where it becomes obvious that the author has put absolutely no thought into the email and has just summed the book in a paragraph rife with spelling errors like the agent was a casual acquaintance. Plus, we get tons and tons of queries with attachments, which is just fucking annoying, even though every single agent website has "DO NOT USE ATTACHMENTS" like flashing or in bold or in bold and flashing in a floating macro that follows your mouse. Attachments take time to open, because they require a matching program, and we have to scan them for viruses, and for G-d's sakes, just put the text in your email.

The general rule is: If you can find the agent's email address on a major website (like, it's safe to send an email query, but be professional about it. And yes, you can put the first couple pages below the text if you want; that's no skin off our backs.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Why a Publishing House Kills a Novel, Responses

So have you any strategies a motivated author might try to get the buyers interested? Bribes? Gatherings where they can pitch their book themselves?

Writer a great book.

Seriously, that's all you can do. You're not involved in that part of the process.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Why a Publishing House Kills a Novel

Rejecter, I've had friends get promised the world when a NY house wanted their book only to see the publicity push never materialize. That's hardly a sign of a bad book or a bad writer. No one hardly knew the book was out there. I'd be interested in your take on this.

I've never worked in a publishing house, but I know enough people who have or actively do to presume to be able to answer this question. The answer is complicated and involves one of the last links on the chain towards publication - the "buyer" for the bookstore.

Today, most books are sold by large chain stores, the really big ones being Barnes and Noble, Borders, and that other big one that we don't have on the east coast. All of these book store chains have corporate headquarters that contain people called buyers. These are the people that decide how many copies (if any) the stores will be carrying. Usually there's at least one buyer per genre and/or region. There's the person in charge of buying sci-fi, the person in charge of buying romance, the person in charge of buying literary fiction, etc.

After the publishing house has committed to publishing a novel (i.e. it has signed a contract) but before it commits to how many copies it will produce and how much publicity money it will spend, it produces a few "proofs" - paperback, coverless copies of the text that are sent to reviewers and buyers. From them the house gets a general feeling for how many copies the big chain stores are going to buy. In a cyclical manner, that then determines how much copies the publishing house will put out and how much money it will put into advertising the book. There's no reason to advertise a book if it's not readily available on the shelves at Barnes and Noble if you want to sell a book in Manhattan. Preferably, it should be somewhere up front, in "new fiction." In other words, if the big chains' buyers aren't interested in your book, you are screwed, and the publishing company will drop you down on its list of priorities like you smell of dead skunk.

Part of the agent's job is to make sure this doesn't happen. A competitive agent who truly cares about the material will be talking up the book to buyers and stores. A year before the book is even published, they'll be mentioning it at lunches with editors so that they don't forget about their own project, and shoving proofs in the hands of reviewers so they can get some blurbs. They might hire a publicity agent or do some publicity themselves. But in the end, there's very little the agent can do if the publishing house losses faith in the book for any reason and decides to bury it.

And that is the sad story of the little book that couldn't.

Form Rejections

Do you send form rejections for all the manuscripts rejected? Do you or the agent ever write personalized rejection letters?

It varies from agency to agency. One place I worked at had a letter that we would send back in the SASE. My current job involves writing a note on the bottom of the query letter itself and sending that back. You can argue amongst yourselves whether a full form letter or a personal form note in the assistant's handwriting but with the agent's name is best, but they mean the same thing: "No."

Agents have different standards. Some do personal replies after rejecting a partial request, or at least use a special "partial" form letter, but some agents only do a personal rejection after a full was requested. This is for the sake of time. That, and we actually like writers and want to let them down easy. "Thanks for submitting, but I don't think I'm right for this" sounds a lot nicer than the actual answer, which is usually, "Wow, that sucked." In other words, you don't want to know what we're really thinking. A writer myself, I am acutely aware that writers have insanely soft skins and will take every last word personally. I do it, you do it, everyone does it, because any writer, good or bad, pours their heart and soul into their manuscript. Rejection is a hard thing to take. I still struggle with getting rejected (which I do - when my material isn't good enough). It hurts. But it actually isn't personal; we just don't like your writing, and we want to let you down easy. That's what the form letter is for.

On occasion, I am allowed to personalize rejections with a P.S., if the rejection is just because the author hasn't done their homework and needs a push in the right direction. If the novel is below 60K, we might circle the word count and write "too short." If it's in a genre we don't represent, we might write, "P.S. We do not represent _____ fiction." It saves them the trouble of re-querying (which rarely works anyway) and tells them that they need to focus a bit more on the material they're putting out and whom they're sending it to. Despite the name of this blog, our overall goal is to help writers get published, or we wouldn't be working in this industry.

I will end this post with a story of one my hilarious mistakes that I was sure was going to get me fired. One day at the first agency I worked for, I opened a package that contained a whole folder full of material, from the query to the bio to a synopsis to a partial and a business card that matched the whole color scheme. This wasn't particularly unusual and generally means I get a brand new folder! Yay! So I sent our form rejection because the material was bad, and thought nothing of it. Then about a week later, my boss asks me, "Did you reject So-and-so?" Since I have no memory for names, she had to tell me that it was a blue binder and apparently this guy was an old friend of hers and he called her because he was pissed at his impersonal form rejection. As realization dawned, I noticed that we hadn't tossed the material in the trash yet (as he only sent an envelope with enough postage for a one-page SASE, meaning no return of his other materials). I produced it and argued my case - that he hasn't at any point anywhere in his folder mentioned once that he knew my boss. He just assumed she was going to see it and recognize his name. Unfortunately that's not the way agencies work, and I rejected it because it made no reference to the personal connection. Fortunately for my career, she understood and told him she still had the material, and it was all a misunderstanding. (By the way, the material was really bad and she rejected it, but she did it personally)

In other words: If you know the agent personally, please mention that in the opening letter. People lose their jobs over this sort of thing.