Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Querying Agents: Why isn’t it Working, and What can I do to Change this?

Now that many of you who have joined the holiday raffle have sent me your query to edit, there appears to be a collective worry amongst you: why hasn’t an agent picked you up?

You might be wondering what it is exactly that makes your story so unappealing. The obvious problem is that it’s your fault. And it’s good to be critical of your own work—that’s how you make progress. However, there are far more factors at play than just the quality of your writing and your storyline.

Agents are Subjective
Often I hear agents reject queries, partials, or fulls with catch phrases like, “It just didn’t grab me,” or “I just didn’t love it.” What these responses illustrate is that agents are looking to fall in love with a book. But this also means agents are using their personal tastes (to some extent) to dictate which books they represent.

Obviously every writer wants every reader to fall in love with his or her story, but the truth is that even runaway bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code have low reviews and readers that feel only lukewarm about the book. Not every agent will love your topic even if it’ll go on to become a bestseller.

Agents are Busy
This is exactly why I tell writers to insert phenomenal hooks in their queries and to begin their books with a bang. Good agents are swamped. Always. And this means that writers don’t have much time to capture their attention. If you don’t have a strong hook in your query, or a strong opening scene in your manuscript, many agents are going to use that as a yardstick by which to measure your talent as a writer.

And no, this is not completely arbitrary. After all, think of your audience. They are used to getting things almost instantly, thanks to the Internet. And thanks to online bookstores, they can now browse the first few pages of your manuscript for free. If they’re not captured by it, you’re not going to get a sale out of them. Now think of agents, who have to sell your product. They’re not going to take a chance on you if they think this could be the potential outcome.

The Rise of Amazon
Did you know that Random House and Penguin are in the process of merging? Did you know this is in reaction to the rise of Amazon? Amazon has revolutionized how books are published, sold, and distributed. Writers are now able to self-publish their own books on Amazon for free, price them lower and earn a much higher percentage of the royalties than traditional competitors.

In addition, many are also turning to Amazon to buy print books rather than buying them in bookstores. This in turn has deeply impacted bookstores. In 2011 Borders, an international book retailer, applied for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was ultimately liquidated. If anyone has looked at the stocks of the remaining booksellers, you might notice that within the last few years they’ve taken steep hits as well.

This has had a direct and devastating impact on publishing houses, which now have to compete under a rapidly changing paradigm. This has led to an increasing demand for books that are guaranteed to generate money, such as books by celebrities, and a reluctance to pick up books that have unpredictable sales models.

Agents are Minimizing Their Risk
Because Amazon is changing the rules of the game, agents and editors have to minimize their risks. Time magazine published an article on the self-publishing industry—a topic I will discuss in a future post—that indicated that traditional publishing houses lose money on 9 out of 10 books. That’s huge! It’s that tenth book that curbs their losses for the other nine.

Now consider how many people have to make a living off of these books—the agent, the editor, the editor’s boss(es), shareholders, the cover designer, the typesetter, the marketing director, the sales team, the printer, the wholesaler, and the bookseller. (This is why traditionally published authors get much smaller royalties than their self-published peers.)

Because so much money goes into a largely untested product, agents must try to minimize their losses in any way that they can. A great way of doing this is to represent books that are similar to those that have been widely successful. This is also why it is good to give examples in your query of similar books that have done well—although it can appear amateurish if you compare your novel to a ridiculously well known and only loosely similar book. Examples in the YA genre are comparing your book to Twilight, The Hunger Games, and/or Harry Potter.

What You can Do to Better Your Odds

It’s a Numbers Game
Query more agents. Don’t stop at five—that’s giving up before you’ve even begun. You’ve read about how hard agents are to acquire, so now it’s a matter of making your work as visible as possible. Go on to query tracker and find out who the agents are in your genre, and aim to query all of them.

Do research before you query. Get a feel for the people and the industry you’re reaching out to. Read up on the correct format for queries, get a feel for them by reading successful queries. There’s an etiquette to the process, so make sure you read up on what additional items you put into that envelope you’re about to mail out.

There should be statistics out there about how well the average query does. Find out what those statistics are, aim to be better than the average, and keep track of your odds—they’ll indicate whether you have room for improvement. Don’t query all at once; you don’t want to belatedly find out that you were doing something fundamentally wrong and use up all your options for representation.

Tighten The Beginning of Your Book
Now that we’ve come full circle, make sure that you tighten your writing, especially the query letter and the beginning of your book. Those are the areas of your story that have the highest visibility, and those are the easiest ways for agents and editors to determine how much promise your story has. There are many factors that you cannot control, so optimize the ones you can!

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. All good advice, Laura. If queries/openings are your worry, there are several sites where you can get feedback, such as the Open Query Slushpile, the QQQE, and Flogging The Quill, plus occasional opportunities on various blogs. Of course, these are mostly by writers for writers, so you have to use your own judgment to filter feedback.

  2. Solid advice, and good point by Botanist, too. Also, several agents have examples of successful queries on their websites/blogs that can help give some guidance. Although one thing I note is a lot of these agents feature queries that 'broke the rules'. You want to be very careful and really know what you're doing before you break the rules.