Querying and Agents: Now I’m Confused

While I consider myself rather well-versed with the querying writer’s life and expectations, I recently ran across something new and worrying.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, literary agents are well-read people, familiar with the industry, who are versed in contract law and help writers find a publishing house. While you can go it alone, the larger publishing houses often do not even accept submissions from un-agented writers. Querying is the process by which we entice the agent with the characters and stakes of our story, let them know where our story fits in the market, and include any relevant biographical information. It’s a one page letter that works almost like a job application — only, if the agent selects us (with that lovely external validation) — they’re working for us, to promote our writing.

Back toward the end of October, I was gearing up for NaNoWriMo, waiting to hear that I did NOT make the cut (again) for PitchWars, when someone in my Middle Grade Waves PitchWars support group (middle grade is what comes before YA books, but after chapter books) mentioned that they’d queried an agent… and the agent had:

a – gone on twitter to complain about someone querying outside of business hours
and
b – rejected them promptly

Wait. WHAT?

First of all, email is asynchronous communication.

Secondly? Queries are business emails. No querying writer should ever expect a response at 2 am on a Saturday night. But, that might be the time of day that the house is quiet and they can put their thoughts together and work up the nerve to send the email.

We should never expect a response at 2 am on a Saturday night. In fact, most of us expect our query letters to be filtered into a ‘queries’ folder and only looked at when the agent has finished dealing with their pre-existing clients. Maybe just before lunch on Wednesday, or Friday evening before they head out for the weekend. Sometimes, we suspect agents just set aside a day, maybe not even once a month, where they go through and clear out the queries that are pushing ‘past due’.

An immediate response was never an expectation most of us even thought could be a possibility.

So. Now I’m not just worried that my story isn’t ready, or that my query needs work, or that the market is oversaturated, no matter how good my story and query are. Now I get to obsess over timing of my email!

I’m already factoring holidays, school schedules, and elections into the mix. I usually hold off if there was just a pitch contest on twitter, because I know agents usually bump those to the top of their queue because they seem a bit more time sensitive.

How do I handle this?

Was this just one agent? Do I just assume an agent who dislikes this is not the match for me? Or is this more a common pet peeve?

Maybe I’ll start prepping my query letters and schedule them to submit on Tuesday mornings. Not Monday, because they’ll have all the weekend backlog, but not so close to lunch that they’re hungry and distracted…


Agents — is this a common practice?
Do you feel frustrated when you get emails outside of regular business hours?

Querying writers — what else have I missed about properly timing my query letters?
Anything else I should be stressing about?

Pitching Agents And Readers

I talk a lot about pitching agents via the query process, but that’s not the only way to pitch. There are verbal pitches to agents. And? There’s the pitching you need to do to the READERS!

6 New Tips For Pitching Agents

Here’s a couple things to keep in mind.

  1. In person, if you’re not very social, it’s fine to keep the pitch extra short!
  2. In the written query, the part addressing the story is typically
    1. First paragraph is the character, setting, and inciting incident
    2. Second paragraph is the escalation
  3. It’s okay to close with a question!
    1. I’d heard so many times that agents “hate rhetorical questions” that I’ve just banned any question from my query letters. BUT! I’ve been told, it’s okay to have a question, especially in the summary sentence. “Will Carol manage to finish dinner before the store closes, or will she find herself locked in, forever!
  4. A strong character voice in the query is very dangerous, but on rare occasions will work.
  5. Only describe your background/education if it’s on display in the book.
  6. A lot of publishing houses are looking more for duologies and stand alone books than series. It’s a smaller commitment, that can be expanded if the book(s) sell well!

Pitching Readers

The number one thing you have to remember when pitching to your readers is … if you’re planning on selling on Amazon, no matter how amazing your cover text is, Amazon only shows the first 2 lines of your blurb. Make Them Count.

No Matter Who You’re Pitching

There are two things your pitch has to accomplish.

  1. Show how your story is distinct from the others in its genre
  2. Show how your story fits in the market

What pitching tips work best for you?

What ones would you suggest we avoid?


Here were more notes from all the panels I hit at Balticon53 and I’m still not done. I attended all the panels, so you don’t have to.

Tune in again next week for more writing tips and writerly musings.

Agents and Editors Share–Pitches We’re Sick Of!

What do agents want? What are publishers sick of? At Balticon52, I got the opportunity to hear a few of the industry leaders voice their opinions.

The panel was entitled “Pitches We’re Sick Of (And One’s We’d Like To See More Of), but since that’s not enough to fill an hour, it turned into a Question and Answer session.

***

Whose Opinions Were Shared And Why Should You Care?

Joshua Bilmes is the President of JABberwocky Literary Agency, which he founded in 1994. His clients include NY Times bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Charlaine Harris, Peter V. Brett, Jack Campbell, Elizabeth Moon and Simon R. Green.

Neil Clarke is best known as the editor and publisher of the Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning magazine, Clarkesworld. He is a six-time and current finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Editor Short Form.

The panel was moderated by Sarah Avery. Sarah’s first book, Tales from Rugosa Coven, won the 2015 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy Scroll, Great Jones Street, and Jim Baen’s Universe, as well as Black Gate, where she was a regular contributor on series fantasy and teaching fantasy literature. With David Sklar, she coedited the Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic anthology.

***

Skull and bones, half buried in a forest.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Pitches They’re Sick Of*

  • The Paranormal Boom is DEAD.
  • Superhero piles are getting supersaturated.
  • Zombies are rotting.
  • Some urban fantasy subgenres are being overplayed.
  • Oz.

Note: Even if stories are still being published in a genre, that’s often because publishing contracts and schedules are arranged years in advance. Even when a genre is dead, it can take 2-3 years for a publishing agency to get rid of their backlog.

***

Pitches They’d Like To See More Of*

  • ‘HopePunk’ (even if the term stinks)
    • I *think* it’s a dystopian future, where we actually solve current crisis. Like climate change or evolve into a more accepting species.
  • Diversified stories
    • It’s what the publishers are looking for
    • As the book reviewers themselves become more diverse, a wider variety of stories resonates with the reviewers.
  • Vampires seem to be coming back
  • Steampunk can’t be counted out for the next 3-5 years, but it’s on a downswing.
  • Short Sci-Fi sells better than short Fantasy.
  • But really? Whatever you’re passionate about! Agents can tell if you’re just chasing trends, and earnestness shows through. THAT’S the spark they want.

***

When To Approach Agents or Editors

  • NOT when they’re going into the bathroom – that’s their safe place
  • If they’re attending a convention and are on panels, they typically want to be found.
  • If they’re in a restaurant?
    • Is it next to the convention?
    • Are they at the bar, chatting away? Or off at a table in the back with one of their writers? Pay attention to context clues.

***

Rejections!

As any querying writer can tell you, a personalized rejection is worth its weight in gold!

What does it mean when an agent/publisher says, “It’s too similar to something I just bought/sold”?

It depends.

  • For some, it’s a polite brush-off.
  • For others, they only say it when it’s true.
  • For anthologies? Very likely true.
  • For magazine publishers? They can stagger release dates if needed…

*** Now, we pause for a brief interlude and the story of…***

Rejectomancy!

Once upon a time, Joshua submitted a story he was excited about from one of his writers to an editor. And this is what he heard back.

“I had to get a second read…”

“… because I couldn’t believe you’d sent me something so bad.”

Even agents get rejected.

***

Player 20 winding up to throw a pitch.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Pitching Your Story

The Dos and Don’ts of Preparing Your Pitch

  • Don’t use an adjective to describe your book itself
  • Don’t go over a page!
  • Don’t be cute or suck up
    • Your query letter is somewhere between a job interview and a cover letter for a resume.
  • Don’t write it from the main character’s point of view
  • Don’t summarize your story, especially when querying a short story
  • Don’t have a query longer than the story itself
  • Do include wordcount
  • Do follow the guidelines
  • Do pick a genre
    • Decide where your book goes on the library shelves and pick one.

Is it ever appropriate to respond to a rejection letter?

  • If they personalized the rejection, you can send a very brief ‘Thank You’ note.
  • NEVER respond negatively. If you can’t say anything nice, this is when you really shouldn’t say anything at all.

Is ManuscriptWishList.Com useful?

Joshua doesn’t use it, but at least one of his other agents does. Lack of inclusion doesn’t mean the agent isn’t skilled, inclusion doesn’t mean they are skilled. You still need to do your research.

Comp Titles

Comp titles (comparison titles) are often included in a query letter. Typically either two authors with similar writing styles and markets, or mash-ups where you can specify what aspect of that story you’re using. They have to be under 5 years, (preferably under 3), in your genre, and not run-away successes.

As I’ve said before, what sold 50 years ago isn’t what appeals to most modern audiences. Pacing, themes, POV preferences change.

So, what did our panelists have to say?

By using current novels, you’re showing that the trend you’re writing for isn’t dead.

Verdict? Useful for novels, but only if it’s a good match. If you’re trying too hard, it’s obvious and you should skip it.

Joshua noted here that no one can use Game of Thrones as a comp, (even if it wasn’t too popular) because there hasn’t been a new one published in over 5 years.

Not useful for magazines, but can be useful for anthologies.

***

Writing Contests Tips

  • NEVER pay to enter a contest or pay a “reader’s fee”
    • EXCEPT – Tenure-track professors often pay the entrance fee for college magazines…
    • EXCEPT – Some contests offer critiques/other services as a matter of course for having entered (RWA)
      • Fees currently should be <$50, preferably under $30
      • Verify their validity first, though.
  • Look at the contest’s readers
    • Who are you writing for?
      • Is that the path you want to go down?
  • Look at the past winners’ work
    • Did they write just for the contest, or are they writing like they want to be published?
      • Often, these will read very differently
  • Pay attention to how much time it takes away from your writing
    • Do you have to campaign for votes?
    • What other obligations does it create for you?

***

And finally:

When Is My Story Ready To Query?

As long as you feel that each round of edits is significantly improving your story, keep at it!

Storytime!

Brandon (Sanderson) submitted several manuscripts to Joshua. And Brandon kept getting rejected despite his wonderful (and steadily improving writing) because he couldn’t plot. Finally, when he submitted Elantris, Joshua looked at it and saw that the plotting could be fixed. That’s when he made the offer.

Submitting different stories to the same agent can pay off. But only if you keep working at your craft.

Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

***

Make sure to reread these dos, don’ts, and preferences! And best of luck as you work towards perfecting your craft.

* Yep. I ended those with prepositions. Whatcha gonna do? Throw red ink at me? Besides, it was the title of the panel!