Persevering in the Query Trenches (Taken with a Dose of Reality)
I am so thrilled to be a part of 2017 WriteOnCon. At the first 2010 WriteOnCon, I was unagented and participated in the forums, looking for that perfect match. I signed with my first agent in February 2011, and participated in subsequent forums to give and get critique. I was and continue to be amazed by the organizers and how much time and energy goes into the project. As someone who has been involved in planning “live” conferences, I can tell you there’s no less work involved in planning a virtual one.
Perseverance — my favorite word
Today, I’m talking about Persevering in the Query Trenches. It’s one of my favorite topics. Every time I have the opportunity to talk to authors just starting out, I will eventually get to this subject. First, my own story.
As I mentioned, I was first agented in February 2011. It took 67 queries, spanning about 2 years, for a YA contemporary that was near and dear to my heart. This was after a failed attempt to query agents for several picture book manuscripts over two years prior to that. My agent left the field about sixteen months later, leaving me agentless. I was sad at first, then determined to get back into the query trenches. She’d given me a handful of referrals, and I began the query process again. A month later, I had an offer. After 25ish queries. Alas, my second agent parted ways with her agency about a month after I signed with her, leaving me agentless a second time in just over four months.
I might have had a glass or two of wine at that point. I won’t lie. It was frustrating. I felt like my career was stalling through no fault of my own. But life happens. If you quit, you won’t get where you want to go.
Here’s where the part about perseverance comes into play.
I started querying again. This time I had two finished projects. And several more in the works. I’d met agents through conferences. I had author friends with agents. I focused my search. I asked for referrals. I made connections. I had done it before; I knew I could do it again. In August 2013, I signed with my third agent, Kathleen Rushall. Kathleen had seen previous work of mine, we’d stayed friendly, and when the right project crossed her desk, she signed me. (And I love her for it every day, three and a half years later.)
The book I queried her with hasn’t sold yet. But we’ve sold two other projects; a digital contemporary YA to Bloomsbury Spark published in 2015, and a Middle Grade time travel novel to Simon and Schuster/Aladdin, coming out in 2018. My overnight success story only took 15 years.
What does this mean for you?
The complaint I hear most often from people who are just starting to query is that it’s hard to take rejection. Not to mention writing the actual query letter.
Let’s start with the part about rejection. Let’s just put it out there. Rejection sucks. It’s hard. It’s hard to put your words out in the world and have people reject them. It feels personal.
Can we all agree not to call it rejection? Let’s call it what it is: A Decline. An agent declines your work. They pass. That’s all. They aren’t rejecting you as a person.
You are going to have to get comfortable with agents declining your work. Rejection implies a judgement on you. As with anything creative, not every work of art is going to appeal to every agent (just like not everything you write is going to appeal to every editor). When you get a decline, take whatever you can learn from it — and then move on. Don’t burn bridges either, because maybe your second or third project might be the best fit for someone who previously declined. Take it from me, it happens.
But that’s the game. There are literally hundreds of agents representing children’s books (or adult romance, or science fiction). At any one time, half of them may not be accepting submissions. (Note: I made up that statistic. I have no idea exactly how many agents are representing any genre or how many aren’t accepting submissions at a given time). They might not rep what you write. They may be looking for something super specific. This is not rejection. This is them looking to add to their own client list. This is them passing. Declining, not rejecting.
I wanted to share some data I collected for this blog post. The raw data of the survey is available upon request, but here’s my analysis.
I asked five questions of agented authors:
- How many queries did it take to sign with your first agent (and any subsequent agents, if you’re not still with your first.)
- Are you still with your first agent?
- Were these queries all for the same project? If not, how many different projects did you query?
- How many months/years were you in the query trenches before signing for the first time/second time, etc.?
- Since signing with an agent, have you published the work queried? Have you published a different work?
Data Analysis — Reality Check Time
Now it’s time to get real.
Forty-nine people answered the questions through a private Facebook page and through a survey posted on Twitter. Please understand this survey is not scientific. And I can’t share personal anecdotes, just the raw data, so it’s difficult to get any nuance from this. Also, don’t try to figure out who the authors are — even I don’t know, as it was an anonymous survey.
Here’s the down and dirty:
Number of queries sent before signing ranged from one – one thousand. Takeaway? You might be in this for the long haul. Get comfortable with the word “decline” (see above).
Of the forty-nine (49) respondents, sixteen (16) are no longer with their first agent – that’s a little over 30% who aren’t with their first agent. This survey did not ask why — but reasons can range from agent left the field, to the relationship not working out, or not having a sale. Remember, this is a business relationship that either party can sever. Takeaway? Having had multiple agents does NOT make you or the agent you parted ways with a bad person or a bad writer. No one thinks this and you do NOT need to be ashamed of having had more than one agent.
Of the forty-nine (49) queried, twenty-six (26) queried more than one project. Underscore this: More than half the respondents queried at least two projects over the course of their process. Out of those twenty-six, seven had four or more projects. Takeaway? Write something new while you’re querying.
Length of time in the query “trenches” ranged from one day to ten years, and lots of variation in between. There is no rule of thumb here. Your process can be short or long; and is in no way a judgement on you as a person or a writer. Takeaway? If you keep working at it, you can (and will) go on to sell your book.
Overall, those who have a second or third agent took less time to query and fewer queries for the second and third processes. Takeaway? It gets easier the more you do it.
Twelve out of the forty-nine haven’t sold their queried project, though some have sold subsequent projects. (And that means that thirty-seven SOLD the project they queried. YAY!) Takeaway? Having an agent doesn’t mean you will sell your project, but the odds are that you’ll sell something else.
Don’t toss out the baby with the bathwater
For me, the biggest takeaway is that whatever your expectation of the query process is, you need to toss it out the window. We love to think that we’re going to be the exception — that we’ll be the one person who sent one query and signed in a day (and great, if you are!). But realistically, the odds are that it’s going to take longer. Honestly, it should take longer — you need to vet potential agents as much as they vet you. The person who sold their eleventh project in the tenth year of querying, is a New York Times best seller. If that person had quit in year eight, we wouldn’t have those amazing books.
Some of the results might be skewed by personality types — it’s hard to know, but someone who holds onto a manuscript longer, revising multiple times, and then querying, likely has fewer overall queries. Others might query too early, with a MS that isn’t ready, adding time and numbers of total queries to their process.
Your query process is yours alone. It won’t resemble anyone else’s. Take these results with a grain of salt — they are not meant to depress you or overwhelm you. My goal is to demonstrate, with real data, that the process is different for everyone. As long as you don’t quit, you keep practicing your craft, and you PERSEVERE in both your writing and your querying, you will achieve your dreams.
There will be opportunities for agents to critique your queries this weekend, so I won’t go into detail about the actual query itself. My simple rules of thumb are: keep it short (one page or less), talk more about your book than yourself, and make every word of the query count (no need to dwell on backstory and be sure to include the stakes for your main character).
I’m taking questions here on this blog post — let me know if this has been helpful, or if you want to chat! I wish you all the best of luck — if anyone is going to be at SCBWI in NYC next weekend or at New England SCBWI in April, please be sure to say hello!
I’ll be hanging out in the forums, helping out where I can. If you’d like me to take a look at your query, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to check it out.