Is it all about the writing?

In October, I asked: Can you find an agent by cold-querying? On New Year ’s Day, agent Rachelle Gardner posted her query statistics for 2010, in which she revealed she received over 10,000 query letters, but signed none of those authors. On Monday, Jody Hedlund asked a question on her blog: Is the Query System Dying?

I’m no longer involved in querying, but I read Jody’s post and comments with interest.

Wait! Do I know you?

A few had tales of the cold query system working for them, though most of those acknowledged that was years ago. Some said they got their agent’s attention through referral. Many said they first developed a relationship of sorts with the agent who eventually offered them representation.

To do that, they did things like commenting on the agent’s blog and following and interacting with them on Twitter, but the most often mentioned method was meeting their future agent at conferences and seminars, possibly more than once. The object was to cement your name in that agent’s memory and to garner that “golden ticket” allowing you to send REQUESTED material. But, as the writer of another comment pointed out, that’s not fair to those who can’t attend these conferences and seminars for whatever reason. And it’s not.

Repeatedly, I heard it’s all about the writing. I followed all the agents’ rules, polished my query letter until my fingers bled, selected agents who said they were interested in books like mine—and got nowhere. I was frustrated because I knew my writing was good. I knew readers would enjoy my book. It’s demoralizing to think my query might not have even been considered.

I had believed a lie. Finding an agent to represent your novel is not all about the writing. It’s about what the publishers are buying. It’s not all about the writing. It’s about having a connection with that agent. Yes, in the end you have to write well. Or sort of. You have to have a great story, at least.  But none of those agents I carefully selected knew me from Eve. Was my query even in contention?

Those of you still seeking an agent, take note. If you have no “in” and no ability or opportunity to physically connect with the agents, you may have a very long struggle ahead of you. I wish you well.

Your turn: This is my opinion of the query game system. How do you see it?


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42 thoughts on “Is it all about the writing?

  1. Interesting Post. Is this a case of the more things change the more they stay the same? Its about be able to get to know someone and more importantly them getting to know you.

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  2. Hmm. This is disheartening, but I’m also not surprised. I feel that at the very least, even if you can’t make it to seminars, commenting on blogs and tweets is a good start. If that’s the game, you’ve got to at least attempt to play it, it seems.

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  3. I think once agents were accessible by email, their volume shot up to an unmanageable level. It’s also my impression that the downturn in the economy led more people with latent aspirations to start writing fiction. In fairness, the conference system is probably a way for agents to filter requests. 10,000 queries is 27 a day! Not to mention their jobs.

    Another big piece of the puzzle is that the publishing houses don’t really know what readers want. They know what’s sold in the past, so as budgets got tight, they invested more in the “sure thing” … okay, I can’t resist … the “shore” thing. 😉

    So I don’t think I see it as a game as much as a broken system that’s maxed out on many fronts.

    What’s exciting about being an indie author is that it is much more “about the writing”. (There’s that pesky little thing called marketing and awareness, but with more direct reader connection, the writing, the story carry greater weight.)

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    1. Cathryn, I fully understand this from an agent’s perspective. They don’t want to take on a book they know publishers aren’t going to buy. It’s business. I understand that … now. But I also find it disingenuous to present a system as an equal opportunity, when it isn’t. It’s unfair to writers to be told a well-written book is all it takes because when agent after agent rejects that work, what else can they think but that their work is no good?

      But yes, indie publishing gives authors the chance to take their work straight to the public for an honest opinion. 🙂

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  4. What Cathryn said, as usual. We share a brain, apparently. 😉

    I agree that the system is broken, and it’s broken on both ends. I remember Janet Reid posting about her fear that agents had scared the wrong half of writers. The ones who were never going to follow the “rules” anyway still query, and the ones who are trying to figure out the system are terrified to try for fear of looking like idiots. *Those* writers seem to be the ones who are actually pretty good, she says.

    Now, the good writers seem to be kissing the query system goodbye. Plenty of bad ones are, too, but more and more good ones are going indie because the system is broken.

    Honestly, I don’t have a problem with the “who you know” thing. I mean, it’s that way in every business to some degree. Most people are more willing to take a chance on a friendly face rather than a stranger. You are right that it might weed out some folks who don’t/can’t attend conferences, but then there’s Twitter and such, and that’s all free and at your own leisure…

    BUT! The good news for you, Linda, is that the indie world IS about the writing and about taking your words, story, and message straight to the audience. You will do great!

    Amy

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    1. I expect, Amy, that my disillusionment came from ignorance. From my naivety. I’m not in the business world. I’m not a natural schmoozer. I thought my approach to an agent was supposed to be strictly business and based on my product. Silly me.

      But you’re right, as an indie author, I’ll be judged by my writing, not myself. Unless they come to this blog first. 😕

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  5. I agree that the system is seriously broken for many reasons. There are only so many publishing contracts out there. In the end the publishing industry decides who is going to get a book deal. I’ve read that most of the large publishing companies won’t even entertain a book unless an agent is representing it.

    That, along with agents being more accessible, has caused a who-you-know system to getting published.

    The more I think about it, it’s not that different from finding a teaching job. I know here in NJ, where I am a certified teacher, it tends to be a who-you-know deal that gets teachers their jobs. Since I don’t really know anyone I’m having a more difficult time getting an in. It stinks.

    I guess in the publishing game I’m just going to have to find myself an in. Don’t ask how, I don’t know yet. 😉

    By the way, I can’t wait to read your novel!

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  6. So I wrote this long drawn out comment and about 200 words in, my power went out. :o) Someone is looking out for you today, Linda, and trying to save you from rambling.
    To sum it up: Life isn’t fair. My parents said that to me everyday growing up and I gritted my teeth every time I heard it, but it’s true.
    Publishing is a business and they’re the gate keepers to that business. If you look at it from their perspective, it makes more sense to read the pages of the people regularly fighting for your attention. They want people who want ‘it’ and if you’re willing to pinch pennies and drive across the country to attend a conference, if you’re willing to read the industry blogs everyday then you must really want ‘it’.
    I get that, it’s easier to look at those writers that seek you out, rather than wade through 10,000 people who don’t want to step out of the box and put themselves out there. Not that we are all unwilling to step out of the box. I think self-publishing is a huge leap of faith and anyone willing to go through that is admirable.
    But agents and publishers want to make money. If you’re a proven go getter, you’ll be more willing to handle your own marketing and leg work.
    I know if I had to wade through 10,000 queries, I read the names I’m familiar with first.
    Although, I would certainly skip Snooki, Bieber and the Kardashians. That’s inexcusable to me.

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    1. You said: “Although, I would certainly skip Snooki, Bieber and the Kardashians. That’s inexcusable to me.”

      But, Dayner, why would you question that? Signing those books makes perfect business sense. If it’s just a business, why not go with a sure money-making thing? Who cares how badly-written it is, how much it panders to the lowest in human nature? It will SELL!

      I’m mourning the loss of integrity, I guess. I remember when news used to be NEWS, not just sensationalism that can sell advertising 24 hours a day. I had a similar outdated view of publishing. I thought they published the best of the work submitted to them.

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      1. I think they do (most of the time) try to publish the best writing. But 10,000 is a lot to sort through. If they are already familiar with your face and your name, and your writing is good, your chances are better.

        To be perfectly honest, signing Snooki does make perfect business sense. I would love to say it’s the younger generation, and lament about how the country is going to pot with this lazy, partying, good for nothing younger crowd…but everyone I know that watches Snooki’s show is my age. That’s thirty-eight, It’s sickening, I know. But we could all learn a thing or two from Snooki. She puts herself out there. She sells herself. She has already stepped out of the box. Granted her platform is disgusting, but that’s our fault for buying it.
        Will i ever watch her show or buy her book–hell no! But how do we know Snooki can’t write? *grin* I could happen…somewhere…right?

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        1. They do still publish good books, Dayner. I read some of them last year. And as I said to DS, I have no problem with those who have a “personal” connection with the agent getting attention first. I just think agents should be upfront about that. Actually, I remember Nathan Bransford doing something like that. He said on his blog that the best way to get an agent was by referral. But I think the truth is that’s the ONLY way.

          Snooki has a “co-writer,” right? Let’s hope she can write … not that I’ll be reading the book anyway. 🙂

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          1. Either way, I think you made a wise decision to self-pub. I also think they’re getting a little nervous about the new self-publishing trend, it takes away their control. Lately I’ve heard more about self-publishing being the wave of the future. It used to be so frowned upon. I think It’s all very exciting.

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  7. Cold queries are useless? I am sure that you are right about it. This is probably driving the new self-publishing trend as much as other factors. What agents and publishers may not realize is that this attitude may bite them someday. The tables are about to turn, it seems. Blessings to you, Linda…

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      1. OH – I’m late to the party here and have no experience yet with querying a novel.

        But I LOVE this sentiment, Linda – that the indie movement is growing some nice fangs.

        yes yes yes

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  8. Oh, gosh, there are so many factors to consider. I think a biggie is the economy and the internet. The troubled economy has so many people out of work and with new time on their hands to write that novel they always dreamed of.
    Compound that with a lot of these writers being out-of-work journalists whose newspapers from where they had once earned a living are now obsolete due to free online news.

    The economy also led many publishers to downsize. The result: more writers, less publishers. More supply than demand.

    There is no way out but to hope for a better future and hope to be that less-than-one-percent writer who gets an agent through cold querying.

    The rain of problems the internet created has a rainbow. We can now be our own publishers.

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  9. IMHO advertising and marketing paves the way of any venture. Editors/Agents, knowing their place in the market has dwindled with the advent of epublishing/self-publishing/vanity publishing and the like, are making sure that they line their pockets in advance with your hard earned money. Be it by imposing reading fees, hosting writing workshops, driving traffic to the advertisers on their websites, or even self-promoting their own HOW-TO manuals. Of course they will first look at the writers who have made a substantial contribution to their bottom line.

    Publishing houses, much in the same way, are no different. Publishing titles, no matter how trite, by famous celebrities who have a built in BRAND NAME for their product.

    The novel of the future will read like this.

    (Insert famous celebrity) bought a (insert designer product) before heading to (insert pristine vacation resort) for a night of passion with (insert politcal figure here). and so on.

    Of course all the insertions will have an active link taking you directly to their website where you too can live the life of a celebrity by purchasing their products and supporting their political agendas. Welcome to the future.

    Please, say it ain’t so, Linda. I’ll believe you if you say I’m wrong.

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    1. Let’s not believe it will get that bad, DS. 🙂 Though I do think I read about non-fiction ebooks with hypertext.

      I’m not against anyone making money in their business. I understood from the beginning that publishers and agents would take their cut of any money my book would make. They do their part, they get paid for it. Celebrities have always written their memoirs and I suppose publishers were at each others throats to have the privilege of printing them. I have no problem with that either.

      I don’t even mind that publishers have outsourced the gate-keeping to agents. I even understand why those with a “personal” connection with the agent get attention first. What I object to is agents not being upfront about this.

      Of course, maybe I’m the only writer who didn’t realize this was the situation.

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      1. Nah, I think there are many writers out here that tend to hold on to a certain innocence when it comes to the business end of writing and that is not necessarily a bad thing. My problem is my overactive imagination. Since I write Dystopian/Sci-Fi, I tend to lean toward the side of caution with everything and everyone. My mind spends 8 hours a day creating controlling governments and oppressors. At the end of the day, it’s hard to turn that off.

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  10. I have never attempted querying, but I will. It is something I will attempt, only so I can say I’ve had the experience. Will it stop me from getting my novel published? Nope, I’m getting it published no matter how I do it. Will I sit for 10 years waiting for a special agent to “get” my novel? No way. Will I wait a year? No way. I will pick a certain amount of agents, submit to those, and if they’re all rejections, that’s it for my “querying”

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    1. I have not used the service, but WEbook did share a story about a young author from Louisiana (?) who found an agent and GOT a publishing deal through the service.

      I’m sure they still have the link posted somewhere on the site.

      They list all the agents with genres on the site, so you could see if any look like a good fit.

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  11. But don’t forget, Linda, that I also mentioned in my post that I think writers should be on the lookout for newer agents. Chuck Sambuchino over at Writer’s Guide to Literary Agents keeps really good tabs on new agents and usually does a post highlighting a new one from time to time. It would be worth it for writers who are querying to take a look at those newer ones.

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    1. Thank you for stopping by, Jody. I do hope my readers clicked over to read your post. You bring up a good point. I’m sure agents like Rachelle have full client lists. If you don’t have “connections” I’d agree that new agents are the best bet.

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  12. It definitely seems like a difficult task, but I’ve seen it happen three times to friends, so it can be done. I think it’s more like though with the less well known agents–the ones that are still building their client list.

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    1. Were they all YA writers, Candi? I didn’t mean to imply cold-querying never works. It’s definitely easier to get results from a cold query to a new agent when you’re writing in a hot genre. And like you and Jody said, it’s easier with new agents. I’ll update my bleak pov in Friday’s post. 🙂

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  13. The statistics are disheartening, but I’m still trudging onward and getting ready to query agents. I’ve had great experiences querying/working with editors/publications on my short stories and poetry, so I guess I’ve become somewhat of a traditional gal 😉 I know this world of book publishing is a completely different animal, though, so we’ll see how things go.

    I wish you well in return…different ways of getting there, but, hopefully, successes all around~

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  14. I know…. I feel so discouraged just thinking about it… I live in Brazil and I’m saving money to go to New York for the RWA Conference in June, but of course I can’t fly to the US more than once a year (maybe even less than that). And yet I see the same trend: most people tend to find their agents through conferences.
    Which, again, is hardly a solution. With people writing about these stats this much, chances are conferences will get more crowded and more frequent, which will lead to “requested material” piles almost as big as slush. It’s not impossible that agents will actually stop requesting material at conferences once that happens. And then what?
    It’s clear the industry is changing. I just wish I knew where it’s going…

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    1. I hope you make excellent connections at the conference, Gabriela. Do your homework, find out as much about the agents who’ll be there as you can and make sure you get time with the ones you think will be a best fit for you. Romance is always a hot genre, so I doubt it will be a long time before agents start turning away all romance queries. Best of luck to you. 🙂

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