Nathan Bransford has a typical agent’s blog. He talks a lot about the business and answers questions from his readers, most of whom are unpublished writers. Recently he ran a competition to give aspiring writers an insight into one aspect of an agent’s job: reading query letters. He ran 50. Three were for books that went on to be published. Readers got to pick five.
Reading the query letters was the least interesting part of the exercise for me. I didn’t finish a single one. I hate reading queries almost as much as I hate writing them. I think they’re a form designed to breed clunky, cliched, boring writing. It’s close to impossible to write an elegant and engaging plot synopsis, which is essentially what a query letter is. Yes, I always skip the plot synopsis when I read reviews.
But I was fascinated by the rejection letters in the comments threads. The majority of participants took the competition seriously and gave fairly standard rejection or please-send-me-more letters. But there were a few who took the opportunity to get a weird kind of revenge by rejecting the queries as viciously as they could. I admit I was shocked. I’ve accumulated more than twenty years of rejections and I have never been rejected anywhere near as nastily.
My only explanation is that the mean comments were coming from trolls1 and/or people who were translating the emotional impact of their rejections. When you’re rejected even though the actual wording is something like “not suitable for our needs at this time” or “while well written I did not fall in love” or “it’s not you it’s me” or “why don’t we just be friends?” it always sounds like I HATE EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER WRITTEN. YOU SMELL LIKE DUNG. I WISH YOU WOULD DIE. I think some people were writing rejections closer to how rejections feel than how they actually are. Because professional agents, unless they’re off their meds, don’t write those kind of letters. They just don’t.
The next fascinating part was seeing participants realise that it’s hard to read and process 50 query letters in a day. Because, as mentioned above, they’re the most boring things to read in the world. But also because you’re not reading them with regular eyes you’re reading for potential sales. Not just Do I like this? But how saleable is this? Will I find it a home? Do I love it enough to keep on pushing?
When my agent, Jill Grinberg took me on, it was because of my already published trilogy and an adult novel I’d written. She was very upfront that while she loved the adult novel she thought it would be a very hard sell. A few other agents I’d seen talked as if selling it would be a cinch. Since the reactions I’d been getting from friends who’d read it were so polarised (with some loving it and the others saying it was completely unreadable) I had great difficulty believing that and it was one of the many reasons I signed with Jill. Call me old-fashioned but I value honesty and realistic expectations. Turns out Jill was right. Despite all her best efforts the novel is still not sold.
I’m not alone in having written an uncommercial novel. Jill is not alone in taking on a client with an uncommerical novel. But publishing is a business and only taking on clients whose novels aren’t commercial (no matter how much you love their work) is not sustainable. Every so often an agent can place such a novel and every so often that novel can surprise everyone but selling well. But it’s rare.
So many of the people who aren’t published and blame agents for their lack of success fail to understand that publishing is a business. Agents have to understand that business and know which editors are looking for which kind of books. It’s specialised knowledge that you can only learn on the job. Agents can and do take on uncommercial books that they love but they have to balance it with more commercial projects.
For those wondering: I am not sneering at commercial books. I am a commercial writer. My published novels are commercial and fit without question into their particular genre. (The unpublished adult novel was an aberration!) Many of my favourite books are extremely commercial. You also have to remember that what’s deemed “commercial” changes over time. It’s not a fixed term.
I think its wonderful that this contest gave so many people a sense of the decisions an agent makes when taking on a client. Remember, though, reading queries and selling books is not even close to everything an agent does. Which is why it’s just about the last job I could ever do. It’s way too much hard work, requires you to be extremely organised, tactful and a strategic thinker and, well, basically you have to be good at everything I’m crap at.
I guess that’s why I’m a writer.
- And let’s not talk about them, shall we? [↩]
I’ve worked for two literary agencies. One I stopped working for, the next I’m still very happily involved with. The first utilized me on the slush. All I did was read crazy queries. And it was the best fun ever for the first three days. “Oooh! Look! A book about sheep humping drag queens who win the lottery!” Then it got awful. I saw the same mistakes over and over, the same awful thriller concepts.
At the agency I’m with now, I read full requests, client manuscripts, revisions… the fun stuff. And that’s what has made me seriously consider agenting at some point in the future. The slush? I’ll pull a lesson from my past and put an eager intern on it. =)
I think a lot of the participants–and I certainly include myself in this–reacted the way we did because we forgot that there were real people on the other side of those queries. In the safe anonymity of Nathan’s blog, shielded from the kind of responses that a real agent would get for being that mean, we fell prey to one of the easiest ***hatteries of the internet: being rude because there were no consequences.
Like the participants in several famous psych studies, I found myself more than a little shocked when I went back and reviewed my behavior. I wasn’t anywhere near as mean as some other participants, but that’s hardly a justification. I didn’t treat the queriers as I would have had them treat me, and that was wrong. I am ashamed of myself for having behaved that way.
What a cool exercise!! I’m showing up way late in the game, but I’m going to go through it, just to see what it’s like on the agent’s side. I’ve always wondered what my stories look like from that side of the street. Now maybe I’ll get an idea. 🙂
I thought the ’emotional’ form rejections were interesting too. I can’t decide if these writers really would prefer a rejection letter like that or if they were just afraid of upsetting other writers.
Anytime I’ve gotten those sort of letters for my writing or a job application I scan for ‘unfortunately’. Unless there is specific feedback, all I want is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.