Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Old New Castle, Delaware
Broken things drive me crazy. Just call me the Fix-it Fairy. If something is broken–be it an object, a person, or a system–I have trouble accepting the state of brokenness. I want it fixed. This week I’ve chosen five things we writers, agents, and publishers encounter– five things that feel broken at this point.
Today I want to vent about the query system we use to screen potential clients. Here’s a news flash: the system is broken.
Let me tell you why.
Query Spammers. Writers’ queries to agents have increased exponentially. Remember the days of Louisa May Alcott when she gathered her handwritten manuscript, tied it with ribbon and delivered it to a publisher? Or in the last century when a writer laboriously typed each manuscript, perhaps making one onionskin copy? Those writers invested significant time and effort to prepare for each submission. With the advent of the computer, word processing and email, a writer can blanket the entire market with queries in a matter of hours. And, believe me, they do. The reality of this shotgun approach is that the overwhelming percentage of the queries we receive are entirely unsuitable. It becomes patently obvious that the writer never even took the time to read our website to see what we represent. These query spammers ruin it for the serious writers by eating agent time and energy.
Writers often complain about receiving blanket rejections. If only you could see the blanket queries we receive.
You’ve probably heard about one particular query spammer who sends the same daily query to every agent in the industry. He didn’t start numbering his early queries but he added a numbering system about a year ago and is up over 300 numerically. Ridiculous.
Because it takes so long to process the tsunami of queries, agents despair and begin to analyze the value of reading queries. Looking at queries is only a tiny fraction of our workload–the least profitable fraction. I haven’t kept a tally of the number of queries received last year but another agent, Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary, did. Their agency processed about 10,000 queries in 2010. I’m guessing that’s not too far off for any of us. Out of all those queries she was not able to sign one new client. You can read more about it here.
Queries are not necessarily representative. Some of the finest writers are some of the worst query writers and vice versa. We’re making seat-of-the-pants decisions on a bit of promotional-type writing.
Scarcity of Slots. Truth be told, most established agents have very full client lists. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t take on a new client if we fell in love with the book or the writer, but few agents are finding new clients through the query system. We often wonder if it is counter-productive. So how do we find clients? Each agent is different but I tend to find clients two different ways: through referrals from editors, clients or published authors; and through meeting writers in person at a conference.
So. . . can the system be fixed?
I’m not sure it can be fixed. In a dream world I would say that the tsunami needs to be stemmed but no matter how many times we stress research and matching the project to the agent we can’t make a dent because the query spammers never assume it applies to them. The only writers who would take heed are the very writers we most like to represent– writers who invest their time in research and follow all the guidelines.
Do we need more agents? Maybe, but remember there’s a finite number of publishing spots. If we doubled the number of literary agents yet publishers kept publishing the same number of titles, agents would statistically sell only half as many books. And their clients would have their chances of getting a book contract cut in half. The reality of the current market is ever-shrinking publisher lists.
Can a writer get around the broken system?
Yes. If you are reading agent blogs you are the kind of due-diligence writer agents like to represent. The query spammers don’t spend time researching the industry by reading blogs, so the competition is much smaller for you to do an end run around the query system. Connect with other writers. Once you get to know published writers you may get the offer of an introduction. Or cut out the middle man and meet your target agent(s) at a writer’s conference.
Also remember that you stand a better chance with a newer agent, an agent just developing his/her client list.
Your turn: You can tell I didn’t come up with many solutions to the broken system.Got any suggestions for fixing the system? Would you like to point out the unfairness of it all? Is there something I’m not seeing?