Friday, October 27, 2006

The Word Count Controversy

Many people have written me to ask why I put in my notations in an earlier post about word count in new fiction needing to be in the 70K - 100k range, with certain genre exceptions. Yes, it is true that a lot of fiction violates these rules. Yes, some stories take longer to tell. Yes, famous authors have written much shorter stories. The real reason behind it is not about us but about the current demands of the publishing company. I'll explain it as best I can.

There's a certain overhead for publishing a book. There's costs for the binding, the cover, any editorial work, the cover art (usually done by an in-house artist or contract employee), and publicity. These range from book to book (especially in the publicity area) but stay the same regardless of the size of the book, but it is very expensive to publish a book. The overhead is huge.

If you talk to publishers today about why the price of books always seems to be skyrocketing, they will go on and on about the rising cost of paper and ink, the two things that are affected by word count. If the book is too short, they can't charge as much for it (because it's small) and may not recoup their basic overhead costs. Oh yeah, and they have to give a portion to that writer too, or something. They have to consider the public, which often feels cheated if a book is too short, the same way people feel cheated if a movie is an hour long.

On the other hand, if the book is too long, paper and ink starts becoming a major concern because the cost of the book to print will go up and exceed the price they can reasonably sell it for. This doesn't count for Harry Potter, as everyone will buy the 8oo-page volumes the day they come out anyway, but if you look at the first three books (before JK Rowlings became a major success in the States), you'll notice that they are much shorter than 4, 5, and 6.

So, the publishers have a comfortable range that they think a book belongs within, which varies based on genre, and if you want to get published, you should stick to their rules. Once you're a famous author, you can do whatever you want, but let's take it one step at a time.

Getting Into Publishing

I'm a senior in undergrad (English major, writing concentration) and I'm interested in becoming an editor eventually. What WOULD you suggest to do that? Is grad school necessary and *must* I move to NYC? I've tried finding out by browsing around online but the results are somewhat murky and my career services officer wasn't much help either. (Ok, I know that NYC is optional but I still *feel* like it isn't, esp. for fiction.) Thanks!

Grad school is not necessary or recommended. It is expensive, takes 2-3 years, and doesn't really aid your career in publishing.

The main way these days to get into publishing is to do an internship at an agency/publishing house, and then be an assistant to an agent for about a year before applying to a publishing company to be an editorial assistant.

Moving to New York, however, is basically a must, unless you can find employment at a small company/agency in the town where you live.

Rungs on the Ladder

What is the difference between an associate agent and a just plain agent? Is it anything like being a sub-agent or a junior agent?

Are there just a lot of rungs in the ladder, each with its own title?

Not really. Associate/Junior/Sub-agent generally all mean the same thing - "We've come up with a fancy title for the person who is not the head agent." Don't worry about it. If you've found someone who sells your work to a publisher, you're golden.

"Commercial" Fiction

This may sound like a nitwit question, but I've read so many different answers. Can you define for us - once and for all - what 'commercial fiction' is?

It refers to fiction that does not fall neatly into a genre. It is often just put into Fiction/Literature sections of bookstores. The term "commercial fiction" is mainly an insider term, as is "contemporary fiction," which means the same thing.

Repeat Queries

I sent out my novel, confidently, thinking I’d done the best possible job, querying widely. There were requests for fulls and partials, all leading to no, but with some encouraging advice on revision. They were right. Now I find myself in the position to query again, a year later, with a new and improved! version and would like to re-query not only those agents who wrote the encouraging comments, but the ones who passed on the original query. I’d imagine, I hope, that this happens to quite a number of people. From your side of it, what happens when you come across a “familiar” query letter?

Do you even notice? Is it necessary to change the title as some people will tell you to do? Are there records kept? In my case, I sent the first 5 pages which will be essentially the same. Does that matter/will it be noticed? I do plan on changing/improving the query letter.

And, while we’re at it, how would I approach a query letter to an agent that had read the partial or full and turned it down? Just query again without mentioning, not query at all, or query with a reference to “new and improved!”

We come across familiar query letters all the time, because there's rumors going around that agents don't remember every query and assistants change a lot. In fact, we see repeat queries, unchanged, within a month. And while we don't remember everything (I will not for the life of me remember your name), it will likely look familiar to us. More importantly, if we rejected it the first time, there probably was a reason, and that same reason will lead us to reject it a second time.

Query again, with no reference to previous queries, and significantly change your query. I don't mean move lines around. Change the description of the book (the "hook"), because that's what we're most likely to remember, not names and titles. If your writing has improved, you'll want to change it anyway so that it's better-written.

I Always Get This Question

Can you post an example ot a query opening that grabbed you and one that you rejected?

No, because it wouldn't help you. You have to describe your own work in your own style, as the accepted writer did. Assume the rejected writer was boring and/or had a lot of basic grammatical errors.

Stationary Envelopes Suck. There, I said it.

When making a submission, at what point (paper count, presumably) does one abandon the tri-fold business envelope and graduate to either a half-envelope, with one fold, or a full-size envelope to accommodate unfolded 8.5 X 11 sheets? Are manila envelopes appropriate for either half-size or full-size, or should one go with white First Class? All this, of course, only after writing & rewriting to the best of one's abilities.

It is to your financial advantage to stuff as much in a small envelope as space will allow - which can vary based on the thickness of the paper but is usually not more then 10 pages. We don't care, honestly, how the query gets to us. We do, however, get annoyed by SASEs that are stationary-sized. That means we have super-fold our reply letter so it will fit and it looks ridiculous. Don't give us a return envelope smaller than a traditional letter envelope.

Try not to go first class unless you have to. (The post office will make you do so over a certain weight, unless you want to send it media mail) It's expensive and it's just a query letter.

Small Publisher Questions

1. Can smaller publishers get you out across your nation or is that
their reach? Or in other words, is their circulation to small?
2. Can you trust a smaller publisher to look out for your best
3. Do they push your book and advertise well enough? (I read one critic
that Shadow Mountain messed up with one author because they did not
give his
book the publicity push it needed)
4. Do smaller publishers pay the author less then bigger publishers?

1. It depends on the publisher. Now that we have and and, the sky's the limit, but the publisher's ability to get your book on the shelves of stores on the other side of the country depends on the publisher's resources to do so.

2. About the same as you can trust any major publishing company. Meaning, not at all.

3. Again, depends upon the publishing house you're talking about and the resources they're willing to commit to your book. If you've heard bad things about a small publisher, stay away.

4. On the whole, yes. Much, much less.

Giving Someone First Look

When my novel was a work in progress, it was shortlisted in a competition. A couple of agents read the 25k words in existence then, and asked to see the novel when finished, as did a publisher.

It's now finished. I do want to follow up with the agents who read the work in progress, but I'd also like to not limit my options too early. Should I let the two agents read the full ms first before anyone else sees it, or would it be ok to send partials out to a few other agents at the same time? If I do, I assume I should tell them that the full ms is being considered elsewhere.

You can send out queries to other, random agents at the same time, and you don't have to tell the original agents you're doing that, but it's kind of rude. Honestly, if you have an "in" with a publisher and a couple of agents, try that first before blind-querying a bunch of other agents, unless you have someone specific in mind that you also want to try.

Multiple Query Letters to the Same Agent

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it okay to send out seperate query letters out for each novel to the same agents at the same time? I'm not doing this, but I've read that it is done and might be useful to this questioner.

Uhh... I guess you could do that, but it would look a little odd. Seperate them by like a week or two.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Typical Day's Mail

Today I decided to keep track of the mail so you can see a bit what the submissions are like.

2 Maybes - Both non-fiction. One was rejected immediately by my boss, the other placed back on the pile for more serious consideration.

The Rejections

3 Crazy Book Ideas - I am referring to not a person who is crazy, but the idea is crazy (it's different), though the person could very well be crazy for all I know. These queries, among my favorite, describe novels with plots that make no sense. ("These lovers get on a plane - and then a gorrilla comes out of fucking NOWHERE!!! and then it turns out he's invisible but he's still attacking them...") Or they are novels that are not properly described in any way that makes sense because the author rambles for about a page about other stuff, to the point where I wonder if he has written anything or is just lonely for return mail.

1 Famous Person That Can't Write - Many people who have achieved some mediocre amount of fame (in this case, as a popular sports radio personality) think they can translate whatever part of their career/act that made them famous into written form, and they are wrong. So wrong.

2 Manuscripts That Are Too Short - Seriously, if you're in fiction, don't go under 70k. Under 60k is an auto-reject, no matter what NaNaWriMo says about novel length. And definitely do NOT submit something that's 33,100 words.

1 Manuscript That Is Too Long - If you are in fiction or autobiography, please do not go far over 100k. Certainly, don't go over 120k. 240,000 words is just unacceptable. Auto-reject.

2 Crazy Christian Authors - Before I get a flood of hate replies, let me clarify. I am not referring to Christian inspiration, which is a legitimate genre that occasionally has good writers. I am referring to people who are obviously quite insane but are also all hopped up on Christ and have attempted to write a Christian inspirational novel, but their insanity slips through. One of them I remember featured a story about a town that re-introduced whipping as a form of punishment for sin. For two pages this guy went on about whipping and sin and Christ and more whipping, to the point that I was just suspicious.

1 Christian Inspiration - I forget whether this was someone's non-fiction autobiography about discovering their path to religion or fiction with the same plot, but the point is, it's not a genre we handle. No offense meant, but auto-reject.

1 Ex-Military Guy - And this guy wasn't from Iraq, either, though we see a lot of those. This guy was in the Korean war or something. Yes, you went to war. That doesn't qualify you to write about it, unless you can make it interesting. Unfortunately, you didn't.

2 Fiction About a Woman Discovering Herself - otherwise known as "chick-lit." Plus, one of them was about a woman who found out she was a lesbian over the course of the book.

1 Generic Self-Help - Hint: the words "generic" and "touching" don't go well together.

1 Just Plain Crazy Guy - I don't know what crazy guy's novel is about, because he doesn't usually get to it until the third page of his 16-size font rant, and it's only a brief summary. Before he gets there, he decides to discuss a bunch of non-related events in his life that are apparently supposed to be either hilarious or bitterly hilarious about the publishing industry and how it doesn't appreciate real literature, because this guy has CLEARLY written it, and that's why he has no punctuation.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

If You Don't Know Your Genre...

I am from India and my novel is set in contemporary India. It doesn't
fall into a conventional genre like
romance/thriller/historical/sci-fi, etc. and I am apprehensive about
calling it literary fiction as it isn't all that high brow.
Would my best bet be querying agents who handle multicultural fiction,
or is there some other category I should look out for?
Basically, I am looking for an answer to: You should query agents who
handle _______ genre. Please fill in the blanks.

It is probably contemporary fiction. Unless the agent's profile specifically indicates that they only handle specific genres (agents who only do sci-fi/fantasy, agents who only do romance, etc - but there's very few of them), go ahead and query.

Those Darn Assistants! (Again)

Wow, I've always wanted to ask this question. I seem to be a hit with assistants. They email, they've even called (freaky!). They always say they're going to pass my ms. on to the boss ASAP and that's when the crickets start to chirp. I can't wait for this generation of assistants to graduate to "boss." Of course, their mail will be screened by a new generation of assistants--assistants who might hate my work. Chirp, chirp.

I would like to point out that my answer to this is almost unrelated to the previous post because it discusses assistants, not assistants who are in the middle of becoming sub-agents.

In general, assistants do not request material on their own (unless they really push for it, which never works anyway). Even if they sign their name, they're doing it for the boss, because the boss wants to see it. The slowdown is unrelated. It's because agents are busy people and have a lot of other things to do, and so the partials and fulls pile up. I've got partials sitting at agencies for approaching a year now. (That's unofficially a rejection) So don't worry that it's the problem of who the boss has hired. It's a problem of the boss's busy schedule.

Assistants as Agents

After a lot of research, I e-queried a well-known NY agent who has represented literary fiction that I feel is similar to mine. After several weeks, I had a very nice note from her assistant telling me how much she loved my first fifty pages and to please send a full. There was no mention of the agency owner, to whom my query had been addressed. I've sent it off and am continuing with my next novel and my queries on novel #1. Assuming--and this is a big assumption, I know--the assistant loves the full as much as the first fifty, what is likely to happen? I don't want to ask her directly at this point for fear of insulting her. Will the agency owner become involved? I looked up the assistant and she's listed on the agency website as actively seeking new clients (as is the owner). I can make certain assumptions about the owner based on her track record, but have no information on the assistant. She's young (no offense) and new to NY (after college). How can she possibly have the contacts the owner would have? Is it common for a response addressed to an owner to come from an assistant?

There are two main paths to becoming agent. The first is to work in a publishing house as an editor or a publicist for 20 years, burn out, and leave in a flurry of frustration about not being able to work with authors and having all of your projects crushed by upper management. The person takes all their contacts with them and becomes an agent, usually by joining a larger agency, and then breaking off when they have the client list to do so. This is the traditional way.

Today more and more people are jumping right from being assistants of agents to being sub-agents at that agency or a different one. I suspect the shift is largely because agencies are more likely to take on interns and assistants with no experience to help them get into publishing than a large, intimidating publishing company is, so more and more people start their careers at agencies (instead of publishing houses) and decide to stay.

If the assistant is listed as "taking on clients" for herself, then she is in the middle of making the transformation from assistant to sub-agent. Sub-agents get to use the name and resources of the head agent, which helps them get in doors and make contacts and have weight to throw around, but they also have to give a cut to the head agent. Eventually, they either build a client list strong enough to become a full agent (at that agency or elsewhere) or they don't and head into a different sector of publishing.

If the assistant is interested in being your agent, she's doing so with the tutelage of the head agent, so I wouldn't worry about it. She's also more likely to be agressively taking on clients because she needs to build a list to stay afloat financially if she's no longer being paid a salary like true assistants are.

I'm an assistant with no desire to move up the ladder because I don't actually want to be an agent. I don't particularly like working with contracts, bookkeeping, or publicity. I want to edit material, which is why I'll eventually end up in the editorial department of a publishing company, but I don't plan on making that jump until I finish graduate school.

The point of this blog, which has apparently been missed

oh, please! all you rant and rave about is how much you hate this way that writers address a label to an agent or how stupid writers look if they mention in their query where they read about an agent, and you want us to act as if we care separately about you! ha!

guess what? I don't care about you. I don't care about your agency or your boss or anything else that has to do with you. I don't give a fig about your stupid assistant's position or any or your dumb griping. the only thing I care about is writing and my novel. Until you or anyone else at an agency wants to represent my work the last thing I'm going to worry about is your supposed feelings.

This is forced marching thorough the slimy ranks of commerce for most writers. get that? You have to act as though you care about us, the people responsible for you having your job in the first place, before I'll even consider treating you as anything other than just another possible agency.

At various points people have privately suggested that I disable anonymous comments in my settings, because all of the ranters seem to be named "Anonymous." (I didn't even know that was such a popular baby name) The truth of the matter is it doesn't bother me. It's a reaction of frustration. I am, after all, the rejecter of their work, and by implication, a rejection of them as a person, because their work is a part of themselves. I'm the person you're probably going to get mad at. Various people in my MFA program have come up to me and said, "How do you do your work with a clear conscience?" The answer is always, "Well, we accept the good writers and get them published. We reject the bad ones because we can't sell their work. It's really not a moral issue."

The purpose of my "ranting and raving" (see above) is to point out the various mistakes people make that either annoy us or make the writer look stupid, and you don't want to look stupid. A query is like a job interview - you want to be wearing your best suit and answer all the questions right, because you want this person to at some point give you money, and maybe a health plan with a low co-pay.

The things I discuss here are lessons to prevent you, the writer, from shooting yourself in the foot. If you only care about your writing and don't give a lick of your time to thinking about how to present it to an agent, I don't know why you are looking for an agent and I don't know why you're reading this blog. Since I'm the gatekeeper, my "feelings" (see above again) should actually be a pretty major consideration. It mystifies me when I offer advice and people say, "Well, I'm just not going to listen to that and keep doing what I was doing, even though you just said, at great length, why I shouldn't do it." If you're a writer seeking an agent, you should probably listen to what agents and their assistants have to say.

If you just want to write, that's fine. Join an MFA program, or save money and take an adult education writing workshop at your local high school (They're about the same level of education, but the latter is less pretentious). Have fun. Write some fan fiction - I love fan fiction. But don't come to me and ask for my advice about getting a professional agent if you have no intention of listening to it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Breakout Novel

Good idea/bad idea?
You've written two novels. Maybe even two different genres. Novel A is your favorite, the one you'd like to "break out" with, but novel B would probably appeal more to agents. You send queries, attract an agent and receive an offer for novel B. Now that you have an agent, Is it a bad idea to let them know you'd rather see novel A in print first?

Your "break out" novel is the novel that is published first. I don't know why you think one will appeal more to agents, but if you send out Novel B and they accept novel B, it means they want to sell novel B to publishers and you should shut up about A until you've got a contract in your hands for B. It doesn't matter in what order your books are printed unless they're part of a series. Get in print any way you can.

This is assuming, of course, that the novels are equal in quality. If you love A but actually isn't as good as B, A will probably not be published until you make it better.

Manuscript or query?

I read that when attempting to sell a first manuscript, you need to send the full manuscript to agencies/agents, and not just a query letter.

Also, is it okay to send the manuscript to another agency after after a few months, or even at the same time? I’ve read that you should, and that you shouldn’t. It seems to me that because it’s exceptionally hard to get a first book published, and because most manuscripts are rejected, that it’d be best to send them to multiple places. On the other hand, I read that agencies hate this. Which is it?

First of all, I don't know where you read that, but you should send a query letter first unless you read on the agent's website to do otherwise. Don't go wildly sending out your manuscript unsolicited. It's expensive and it won't get you anywhere. In fact, it will probably annoy us.

You are permitted to send material to multiple agencies at the same time. In fact, we pretty much assume you're doing it and that all submissions are simultaneous submissions unless the query is from someone who knows the agent personally. If you're blind-querying us, we assume you're blind-querying at least 10 other people at the same time. When I used to work in a building with five agencies in one complex, we would get the mail in a big pile and the interns would sort it, and we would often see the same letters quite obviously going to every agency there on the same day, because the font would be the same or the envelope would be the same. If you're going to query multiple agents at the same address, at least have the decency to spread it out by a couple of days and give the appearance that you care about us specifically.


Does the phrase "stable author" mean an author who is not unstable, or a member of the agent's stable?

(I'm pretty sure it just means a trusted author/one that's been signed. I'm just wondering about the origin of the phrase)

I don't know the actual origin of the phrase, but it does not refer to the fact that the author is stable, mentally or in terms of output. It prefers to the fact that they are part of the "stable" of reliable earners on the client list. To be perfectly honest, I think "stable" is supposed to invoke the idea of ... a place where you keep horses.

....Yeah, I'm kind of grossed out, too.

The Multi-Book Story Problem

I am a first-time author shopping my MS around to various agents (since most major houses don't accept unsolicited MS's anymore anyway). But the entire story is actually three books. I mention this in my query letter as a matter of fairness but I'm wondering how many agents look at that and say, "Three books to tell your story? Forget it!"

I've had five agents request partials, one request the MS and one who recommended I submit it to another agent, so it's getting some action. But if first-time authors *NEVER* get a three-book deal, I'm thinking of setting this project aside and starting something else. Thoughts?

P.S. Rejecter? Or Rejector? ;-)

"Rejecter" is the correct spelling, but I kind of like the idea that I'm some kind of rejecting robot - "REJECTOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Multi-book stories are fairly normal in certain genres, mainly fantasy, particularly high fantasy. If you book is not fantasy, you're in trouble, and you may just want to make it into one long book. (It's the same story, isn't it? Why isn't it one book?) If it's some kind of historical epic, it's allowed to be excessively long. If it's a mystery, it's supposed to be relatively short. It all depends on your genre.

(If it is high fantasy, do not name the first book "The Prophecy." We've seen that a million times and it's honestly getting annoying. Trust me)

Actually, I heard phone lines twist and turn a lot

Hi Rejecter. What about if a well-known and successful best-selling author who has read some of your work, (because he happens to be a mate) gives you the direct phone number to an agent he knows, whom he thinks will like your work, and tells you to give this agent a call, mentioning that you are a friend of his? Wouldn't it then be churlish and insulting to assume that you, as a first time novelist, know better and to use another form of communication?

I don't know what this "direct phone number" is (all phone lines are pretty much the same), but I've had this happen before, where a friend of a client of the agent or a friend of a friend of the agent calls in. The appropriate way to do it is to have your author friend give the agent a heads up that you'll be calling and make sure the agent agrees to the call. Your friend should be the one initiating the phone relationship. Otherwise, just mention the author in your query letter.

Agent 404 Message

Maybe THIS is why I can't reach my agent on the phone when I need to tell her that my editor has just asked me to send that proposal ASAP. Only problem with e-mail is apparently they don't answer that in a prompt fashion, either.I e-mailed first, waited for a week, called, left a voice mail, waited some more ... so finally I just put the proposal in the mail myself. Reading this, I don't know whether I'm steamed at the droves of people calling or the agent for not at least listening/reading messages. Miss Rejecter, what would you have advised me to do in my aforementioned situation? Have I burnt my bridges with my agent?

If she/he is your agent and you are their client, and the editor you're speaking of is an editor at a publishing house, you have every right to pester them. Once you are a client with a contract you can do that sort of thing. Your agent should be answering you.

Monday, October 23, 2006

A Message From Agents and Assistants Everywhere

Dear potential clients/authors:

Stop calling us.

Seriously. We do not want your phone calls. We do not want the phone calls where you call to "confirm the address of the agency" (as if it's written WRONG somewhere) and then begin to pitch your book while we're on the line. We're on to you. We know your tricks. The phone line is for business purposes. It's gotten to the point where many agents don't pick up their phones, including my boss, unless they recognize the name/number - which is bad, because my boss doesn't have caller ID and can never remember my number, so I can't even call in sick because she won't pick up the phone. I have to email her.

There are established ways to reach us: by post or occasionally by email. Please use those methods. I think I speak for almost every agent when I say this.

I love it, she hates it.

Dear Ms. Rejecter,
When an assistant *loves* a manuscript she reads for her boss, to what extent is this a predictor that the agent will eventually offer representation?

It's certainly an indicator that the writing is great, and since we're talking about a full, the agent was probably interested in it to begin with and so I would say the chances are high. If it's just a query or an unrequested partial that I happen to love, it won't necessarily help the author, because no matter how much I love it, the boss has to love it, too. And my job isn't about my tastes; it's about my boss's tastes.

Losing Manuscripts

Madam Rejector,

Thank you a thousand times for your time, insight, and courageous candor in answering some of our more burning, writerly questions.

I have read stories of manuscripts being lost. Literally vanishing somewhere within the confines of an agent's office. I currently have a full manuscript out with a HUGE agent at a HUGE agency. They requested my manuscript via email and I am now, as has been a little over an entire month since I sent it off that it might have been deleted in error or printed and then lost. Any insight? Does this ever really happen?

A Quibbling Submitor

I have seen a number of agents' offices, and while I am sure there are exceptions to the rule, I have yet to see an office that was not a huge mess of manuscripts, partials, books, packaging to send out books, files on contracts, and several pieces of broken furniture or lamps that don't work. So, obviously, we lose stuff. More accurately, we put stuff somewhere to get it out of the way and then we forget about it. All white paper in stacks kind of look alike, especially when they're squeezed between two proofs for the stable author's new book and a folder of receipts from the agent's trip to the convention in Frankfurt.

In your case, I think it's very unlikely that the agency has lost it. They got it by email, and if they did print the whole thing, then they would have two copies. A month simply isn't enough time to expect an agent to review a full manuscript. Wait a couple more months and then send a brief email to ask (politely) if they have the material.

Let's Clear This Up Right Now

So apparently in order to stop the deluge of emails, I must clear this up.

Mr. Agent
Mr. Agent Agency
1000 Broadway Avenue
New York, NY 10002

The FIRST LINE is to indicate what agent you want it to go to within the agency. The SECOND line is to indicate which agency you want it to go to. The THIRD and FOURTH lines are the address, which tells the United States Postal Service where to send your letter by those mysterious numbers at the end.

If Mr. Agency Agency has subagents you are querying, you write it like this:

That Sub-Agent Who Never Comes In to the Office
Mr. Agent Agency
1000 Broadway Avenue
New York, NY 10002

Then we know who the letter is supposed to go to. If you write the address correctly, you do not need to add the word ATTN:. We are not going to say, "This seems to be addressed to the sub-agent, but I'll show it to the boss, because I am no smarter than a monkey with a severe neurological disorder."


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Things People Do That Are Just Plain Stupid #2

#2 is writing ATTN: on the envelope.

The envelope will go to the person who it's addressed to, until my understanding of the postal system is severely mistaken. Yet, many people feel compelled to add a line such as this:

Agenta McAgent
ATTN: Agenta McAgent
Agenta McAgent Literary Agency
999 East 28th Street
New York, NY 10001

The intention is obviously to try to bypass the "lackey" (me) and land right on the agent's desk, as if our mail is processed by a machine designed to such things, or as if I am as dumb as bricks. I have never once seen an ATTN line (or anything else meant to indicate who it's supposed to go to beyond the address) and said, "My G-d, this is clearly a query letter not meant for me, the person in charge of reading query letters, but for my boss, who is busy on the phone with an editor. I'd better interrupt her phone conversation to pass this on." We're on to you. I do the queries unless I'm out of town. No amount of sneaky tactics can change that.

Actually, there are some envelopes I pass on immediately to my boss when I sort the mail. These are known in agent-speak as "bills."

Sending an Agent Revisions

Dear Rejector,

First off, I am enjoying your site so much! It's very, very enlightening.

Okay, question.:) I have had a full out to an agent for about five months. Due to some excellent feedback during that time I have done some major revisions. I mean major. Not one hundred words or so per chapter, I mean only about 45% of the original book is still in the new version. Total rehaul. And it is so much better. But if I write to the agent that has the full and say, "well, I have a better version for you now," do I look like a total flake? Should I wait till she responds and hope she offers to look at revisions? I'm hoping you have an answer since you menitoned you often read revisions.

I have mixed feelings about how to answer this question. She's had it for a long time, so that's a factor, but just last Thursday my boss was complaining about this crazy author who sends her like another revision every week and tells her not to read the old one. She's been through four now.

The real answer is that you shouldn't send off work unless it's totally polished and the way you want it to look when it's published, but 5 months is a long time for you to gain new perspective and let other people weigh in. This is why I let my own manuscripts sit for about a year before I begin to edit them.

You do risk annoying the agent, but if it's way better, you risk losing them by having them not like the earlier (and I'm assuming, crappier) version. I would take a gamble and email the agent about the revision. Don't send until you hear a reply. Also, start querying other agents. Don't put your eggs in one basket. Unless, I guess, it's some kind of egg basket.

Licking Envelopes - the Secret Truth

I always send self-sealing envelopes. I'm sure the agencies appreciate having them to send my rejections.

YES WE DO. Every time I see that self-sealing flap, my mind cries a little "Yes!" We certainly don't hold it against authors if they use traditional envelopes, but yes, I am licking them. And yes, I have diseases, and no, Herpes Simplex I is not an STD, it's something you get if you have a lowered immune system because you're on an immuno-suppressant (Damn you 6-MP!), stop looking at my cold sore, it's not what you think!

...But I digress. Germs and bacteria die when the envelope dries. I think you would have to eat the envelope within an hour of my licking it to actually pick up my cold, and to my knowledge, people are not in the habit of eating envelopes as much as just throwing them in the trash.

What we really despise is people who enclose an SASE from some stationary package, where the envelope is too small to fit the return letter unless we fold it up a million times. Don't do that.

New Writers - Why We Seem to Hate Them

Dear Ms. Rejector,

I just discovered your blog, and I love it! Here's my question. If an author gets a contract from a small press and contacts agents to see if any of them are interested, what is the dollar figure under which agents wouldn't even bother? I'm assuming if a publisher offers no advance and only royalties, they would say no thanks?? Or do I have that wrong? Depends on the agent?

There's definitely not a single answer to this, but if you have the contract in hand, the agent will probably not pass up what is essentially a free handout if she likes the material. You did her work for her; now she just picks up the check, but you get to land an agent for future material.

Let's do some basic math, as it will help everyone understand why agents are so hesitant to take on new writers.

The average advance from a major publishing company for a first-time novelist is $5000-$7000. If the agent is good, they can get it up to $10,000. If the agent is really good (and the material is really good) then the agent will try to get a bidding war going between publishing houses, which will drive the price way higher, but that usually doesn't happen.

Let's say the agent got you a $10,000 advance from a major publishing company. That nets her $1500. That may seem like a lot of money to us broke writers, but remember she has to make a living doing this. Since you're a new author, she probably had to talk the book up quite a lot, and spent time editing it or hired an assistant to do that. Time is money in publishing, so she probably spent at least $500 worth of time just getting that contract. And she won't expect royalties unless the book magically takes off, which most books don't, and she only gets 15% of those. So, essentially, she nets maybe $1000 for a lot of hard work. To make a decent living, she would have to take on at least 50 new authors a year, and new authors cost too much time for that to be physically possible.

Essentially, an agent usually takes on a fiction author because he/she cares deeply about the work and hopes it will succeed, but figures that it probably won't be an earner for her. If the author is rejected from major publishing houses, and she still truly cares about the book (which she may just be frustrated with at this point), she might take it to a small house offering little or no advance and be done with it. It makes the author happy and the book goes in print. And then she can move on to other projects.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction - FIGHT!

My question is about nonfiction books, which make up many of the query letters you recieve. How do nonfiction queries differ from fiction queries? Is the publishing process the same?

The queries are still a basic one-page deal, but the author usually spends a lot more time discussing their credentials to write this book than they would in a fiction query. Where it starts to differ is when the agent asks for more material. In fiction, it'll usually be a couple chapters and maybe a synopsis. In nonfiction, it will likely be a proposal, which is a long and formal thing discussing chapter content, source material, credentials, and discussion of marketing possibilities in comparison to other books on the market with the same topic.

Every once in a while a fiction author sends material in the format of a nonfiction proposal - discussing all the things I mentioned above. This is totally ridiculous. We just want to see your writing. Send that unless the agent specifically says "I want a proposal."

The publishing process is generally the same, except the advances are generally higher in non-fiction but the editing process is much longer, as it often involves checking source material and getting permission from other media to use their pictures/content.

The "Voice" of the Story

Dear Rejecter:

I got a recent rejection of a partial that noted the agent didn't like "the
voice of this story." As you surely know, writer's obsess over rejections
and try to read them like blueprints to tell us what to fix. What does
this mean? Can the "voice" be fixed - or should it? Are the odds high

that if one agent hated the voice others will too, or might one agent's
"bad voice" be another's favorite melody?

It could mean nothing. It might be a form letter answer. However,
voice is very important to a story, even if you have an omniscent
narrator. The wayyou choose words sets the tone, which should
line up with the story you want to tell. If you're writing a pot-boiler,
it has to have sort of dark and smoky undertones. That sort of

A second question - unless there's a limit of one to a customer. If
I've written a story that comes out at the same time as a in-the-news-daily

high profile, political scandal, and my story ([G-d] bless me - the
MS was finished and I started querying a short day or two before the
bru-ha-ha), will the scandal help or hurt the agent-attracting
If the story is related to the scandal or incredibly similar, you will probably get a lot of rejections. Prepare yourself for them and move on to another project while waiting.

The Right Novel, The Wrong Time

You wrote: But it's hard to say to an author, "Look, this is just the right novel at the wrong time."

I'm wondering: Is one reason this is hard to say because it's something an author should be aware of without needing to be told? (That one should not try to market a hurricane story while FEMA is still muddling things in the news, for example.)

No, it's hard to say because it's hard to tell a writer you're killing their literary baby because of some market-related issue.

A Very Important Note

Earlier in this blog (G-d I hate that word) I stated that it's okay to email queries to agents if you the address from a major website. Miss Snark pointed out to me that it's fairly hard to tell what's a major website or a reliable source of material (See my post on Writer's Digest).

I would like to amend my comment and say that you should email a query after checking an agent's website. Also, AgentQuery is very respectable and the agent will list on their profile if they are accepting email queries. Ignore other information.

My apologies to the other agents and assistants out there.

Getting My Job

Dear Ms. Rejector,

About a year ago now, I was fortunate enough to be able to get a volunteer position working as an Assistant editor at a small online magazine. After a year of wading through the slushpile, I've discovered that I really love this sort of work. Probably I'm quite batty, but if one is going to handle the written word in any form, that may be an advantage. My question--which may be nitwittery worthy of Miss Snark, but, anyway--is this: how would you go about getting a job which actually paid you to do this? Volunteer is very nice and all, but I'd love to be able to read slushpiles AND pay the bills.

Ask current/previous employers if they would give you a reference. Try to get one in writing. Then look on craig's list. Average pay is $10/hour, no benefits. Or you could go for an editorial assistant in a publishing company, which would have a salary and benefits. It sounds like you have the experience to land a job like that.

Memorable Queries

I do have a question for you: Has there been a query letter that sticks out in your mind as one you will remember for many years? (something so wrong it was humorous? something so wrong it was frightful? something so wonderful that you were deeply impressed?) If so, would you mind sharing that with us?

Most of my favorite queries fall neatly into a category, like the author is crazy, the author knows nothing about how to make sentences make sense, or the plot is immediately derived from a movie they just saw. And of course, psychic lesbian detectives. If possible, I make a photocopy or keep the original query. I have a binder full of them.

Unfortunately, scruples prevent me from just reposting them in full here, but I will discuss them when I talk about things that make me laugh.