My first novel went through a lot of rejections over the course of its early life. I’ve had the pleasure (or perhaps displeasure, depending on how I felt that day) of revising it extensively, and over the past year have put it back out there in the hopes of seeing it published.

Initially I went straight to an independent publisher during their open submission period. I happen to like and respect this company very much, and they’ve had glowing things to say about the novel. But, they weren’t entirely comfortable moving forward with it (although their reasons were entirely understandable and positive ones). With things in a state of flux right now and not having heard from them for a few months, I decided to return to the query trenches to see if maybe all those revisions might have put the novel in the place it needed to be to get attention from agents.

Over four years of querying two novels, here’s what I’ve learned about the process. As with all advice, take this with a grain of salt. Some of these are “things I do for my own benefit” and aren’t necessary to successfully querying an agent; some of them are absolutely musts. I’ll try to point out when that latter is the case.

Write a Strong Query Letter:

Every good query starts with a good letter. I tend to think a lot of my lack of interest during the first year of querying the novel had to due with my query letter. I had no experience with writing them and it went through many revisions. I finally sought help from others and had the query critiqued, first by other authors, and then by publishers/agents when possible. I could get into what I think works and doesn’t work, but that’s for another post. And any advice I give on that topic comes with huge qualifiers stating “everything you read here can be tossed out because agents are as varied as the authors pitching to them.” What will appeal to one agent won’t appeal to others.

Still, make a real effort here. Check out sites like Query Shark, which examine queries and talk about what works and doesn’t work. The author even goes into why a query that totally breaks the many “rules” he’s talked about still works. Use sites like Reddit to find writers forums where you can get honest critiques of your queries. Don’t rush this work, take your time and try and make your query “sing” about your story without being a blow-by-blow retelling of it. This is not a synopsis, this is more of a sales pitch.

Research, Research, do your Research

I’ve done this since the beginning and I continue to do it. When I find an agency that reps fiction, I read everything they have on their website about who they are and what types of work each agent represents. I never, NEVER send my novel to an agent who doesn’t represent the age and genre of the novel I’m pitching. If it’s adult fantasy, don’t send to an agent who reps literary fiction and cooking books. This is a MUST.

Once I do find an agent who might be a good fit for my work, I’ll often dig deeper. This is totally voluntarily and not a necessity, but I like to get a sense of who they are as a person, what attracts them to various works, what their thoughts are on the markets, on authors, what their favorite titles are. If they’ve got interviews online or their own blog, that’s best. You’ll really get some insight into those folks. An agent/writer contract is a relationship. Like any relationship, it’s going to work better if you’re on a footing of common ground and understanding. And given that I’m an introvert with real difficulty interacting with strangers socially, this is really important to me so I can walk into a relationship already feeling more comfortable about a person. It makes it easier for me to open up and have that initial conversation when I’m relaxed.

Sending It Off

You’ve got a well written query. You’ve done your research and found your agent. Now it’s time to send it off to them. Stop! Did you read all the submission guidelines for the agency? Did you double check to see if the agent had differing, specific guidelines? Did you verify the spelling of their name? Because in most cases, you do not want to send to “Dear Agent,” you want to send to “Dear Mr. Harriman,” or “Dear Ms. Ridgley.”  Note: I ALWAYS use Ms. because even if a woman is married, there’s no knowing if she goes by Mrs. Ms. is rarely going to offend anyone these days. But your mileage may vary. Have you included all your contact info below your signature line in the email? Name, address, phone, website, twitter handle?

Above all, follow their guidelines to the letter. If they want “the first three pages and a synopsis, inline in your email,” then that’s what you send. No more, no less. This helps show you’re paying attention, you’ve done your research, and you know how to follow directions. Those are the very basic things you need to prove if they’re going to rep you. That and how you write of course.

Waiting For an Agent Like You

You wrote the letter, you did your homework, you crafted the submission to their standards. Now comes the waiting. And waiting. And More Waiting. There’s nothing you can do about this. Complaining won’t change anything. Because you need to be aware of the following critical piece of information that you’re not thinking about: you are NOT the agent’s client. They already have clients, writers who they are working with to get their stories out. THAT’S their REAL job. You are trying to become one of those, but until you do, you’re simply an applicant for their attention.

Many folks never get to that realization. Many believe that agents are all assholes who string new writers along and treat them like dirt by never bothering to reply, or sending them form rejections. Nothing could be further from the case. They make time to go through their slush piles, but they are not getting paid for that time. They make no money by searching for new clients. But they are also constantly inundated with writers seeking representation. Only when the client is signed and the agent has sold the book to a publisher are they able to get paid, to put food on their table and a roof over their heads. Suggesting that their all too spare and valuable free time should be given over to stroking the egos of writers who aren’t their clients is asking far too much of people. Like any job, there’s an interview process involved. It begins with your query, just like most jobs begin with a resume. Many of those who submit resumes never get called in for an interview. Having worked as a hiring manager, we brought in perhaps 1 in 10 who submitted for our openings, and that’s a pretty generous rate.

And that’s the ultimate truth you realize: you’re applying for a job. There are very few of them, hordes of us, and the competition is tough. The hiring managers – the agents – already work long, hard hours and have little time to devote to finding new team members. Think of it that way, and you’ll find it far more tolerable to handle the waiting, which often ends with no reply at all.

Moving On

Some agents tell you in their submission guidelines when to expect a response from them. They may even tell you that “if you don’t hear by X number of days, it’s unfortunately a no from us.” Mark those entries accordingly (you ARE keeping a spreadsheet, right? Or using a service like Query Tracker? No? Well you SHOULD!). But a large portion, perhaps even the majority, don’t tell you at all and your query disappears forever. What do you do then?

For me, I give a generic 90 days. Some folks give less, some folks give more. If the agency website did not say they definitely would not reply, I may send an email at that point politely asking if they got my story and if there’s any update. Sometimes stuff happens and emails end up in spam folders. If I still don’t hear from them after another couple of weeks, I mark them as “Rejected – did not reply.” (I also have categories for “Rejected”; “Positive Rejection”; and “Waiting” for those still in progress).

Once all the queries I have out have expired or been affirmatively rejected (I usually send between 5 and 10 at a time), well. . . time to begin the process all over again. Maybe think about modifying that query if you didn’t get a single reply with a partial request. My query for this novel went through at least ten major overhauls before it reached its current state (which I think is pretty damned good, though I still tinker with the wording from time to time; but overall it captures the heart of the story and the tone of the work in a few short paragraphs).

And in the meantime, you keep working on new things. Because you may, in the end, never sell that first novel. It might get trunked, or you might be able to sell it later on the strength of another novel that does get sold. Or you can be like me: keep working on it when you’re not working on something else, and try, try again. The only real thing you know is that if you give up, your chances will be zero.

So yeah, this is hard process, and rejections sucks. The chances are slim. But I’ll take those over no chances, and if the publisher in question ever gets back to me, I’m positive I’ll be excited to work with them to make my novel the best it can be.

And maybe I can use that sale to land an agent. There’s more than one way to skin this cat.  🙂

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