Monday, May 19, 2014

The Simple Formula for the Rejection-Proof Query*

For all the changes that the indie publishing revolution has wrought, the majority of new authors still hope to get an agent to help them sell their book to traditional publishers. While the success stories of a few indie authors are legendary (and the royalty splits Amazon offers indies are attractive), traditional publishing is still the main ladder leading to deals for future books, overseas sales, and movie rights.

Although I self-published my first novel, KEEPING SCORE, I still dream of that traditional publishing deal. I’m currently querying agents in the hope of getting representation for my book about a female vampire assassin for the FBI whose daughter is kidnapped by a blood-sucker. (I know… vampires…) Vampires can fall under all sorts of different categories – paranormal, horror, thriller, urban fantasy – which makes it a little complicated to sort out agents who might be interested in the novel. Agents and editors seem to have a love-it-or-hate-it reaction when it comes to vampires, and sadly the only agent who specifically mentioned vampires in her list of represented areas is closed to queries indefinitely. In order to minimize the number of rejections, I’ve decided to only query agents looking for “urban fantasy” – because when you look up “urban fantasy” on, the entry talks about vampire killer Anita Blake. (There may be some agents who list “urban fantasy” who are unaware of this.)

There’s a lot of advice out there about how to write the perfect query, but basically it boils down to this: Get the agent’s name right. Mention a specific reason why this agent is right for this project. Summarize your story in one or two gripping, well-written paragraphs. Conclude with a paragraph about your writing experience or other experiences that led you to write this story. Follow submission guidelines to the letter. Proofread carefully to make sure you don’t have any typos or misspellings.

The problem with this advice is that while following it guarantees you won’t be rejected because you referred to a male agent as “Ms” or spelled “zombie” as “zomby,” the converse is not true: Following these rules does not guarantee your manuscript will be requested. In fact, I’d bet that even these well-written queries have the same success rate as any other piece of direct marketing, which is less than five percent.

Some publishing experts recommend sending queries in batches of ten or fewer, so that if the pitch isn’t working, you can correct it before sending out the next batch. Unfortunately, the situation isn’t usually that cut and dry. Here are three responses from a recent batch I sent out:

I thought really hard about this one and I read the sample twice. I like your style but I just don't think I can push a vampire novel right now.

Thanks for sending along the opening pages of The Ties that Bleed. With regret, though, I'm afraid the material didn't draw me in as much as I had hoped. I'm pressed for time these days and, what with my reservations about the project, I suspect I wouldn't be the best fit.

Thanks for querying me. This sounds fabulous--I'd love to see more! Please email the full manuscript as a word document..

Each of these agents asked for the same thing – the first five pages of the novel. Each had a different reaction. (In case you’re wondering, the last one is my favorite. Although I'm so grateful the first agent took the time to send me that personal note.)

So what does this tell me? That even if you follow the rules about query letters, there’s a slim chance you’ll get a request. That pages one agent finds “fabulous,” another agent will have reservations about. And that even an agent who regularly tweets about The Vampire Diaries doesn’t necessarily want to take on a vampire book.

More broadly, though, it illustrates how difficult it is to make judgments about your query letter based on the responses you get. Of course if you’re getting rejected by everyone, that’s a pretty strong message; if half the agents you query ask for more pages, that’s a strong signal, too. But most writers who’ve done their homework and written and rewritten and edited and then spent weeks on the perfect query are going to end up with results like mine.

Every good writer – every great writer – is going to get rejected. There is no magic formula for writing a rejection-proof query letter, and there’s no guarantee that a query that garners requests will result in an agent wanting to represent the book. Writing, like life, offers no guarantees for anything. Keep writing. Keep querying. Be polite and thank the agents who take the time to read your pages, even if they decline to take you on. You’ll get ‘em next time.

* There is none.

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