Agent Janet Reid breaks down half a year’s full manuscript requests–and not only do we get to see the raw numbers (124 manuscripts requested, 2 offered representation), but she adds up all the reasons she passed. A good look into what it takes to make the final cut.

Or the not-so-final cut, I guess, as I believe even after you climb that whole agent mountain you still have to sell the damn thing somewhere.

From the closing Rappaport Agency.

This covers a year of slush, roughly 5500 submissions, and provides a decent sample size. One highly intriguing stat, to me, is that of all those queries, the agency only requested 139, or ~2.5%, partial manuscripts. 1 out of 40 queries was judged interesting enough (in terms of content, relevancy, etc.) to follow up on.

That by far is the biggest filter. Of those 139 partials, 25, or 18%, led to requests for a full manuscript. I’m having a harder time understanding the way some of this data is phrased, but it looks like of those 25, only one got picked up by the Rappaport Agency–two others went with other agencies, and the four other clients who appear to have signed with the agency this year got offers based on queries or partials rather than full manuscripts (though obviously their fulls were eventually read).

To summarize, if I’m reading this right: about 1 in 200 of the novelists who queried the agency ended up getting requests for their full manuscript. Drawing from every stage of the query process, about 1 in 1000 submissions was eventually represented.

I was surprised to see how few partials get requested, and would have guessed the odds of representation were slightly higher–of course, with only 5 clients taken on, a small change would have skewed the numbers a lot either way–but this is pretty interesting stuff.

Look: I know every third man, woman, and manwoman in America is walking around with an unpublished technothriller, cozy mystery, category romance, or space opera stashed on their hard drive. An agent might get fifty novel queries a day; a strong short story market is probably reading through 200-300 stories a month. I know this is an incredible amount of work, and each agent and editor deals with it in whatever way they can best manage.

That said.

Fantasy and Science Fiction, one of the SFF short fiction markets, has a reading time of one or two days–when I mail them something from Washington state, I can bank on getting my SASE back in a week. I remember reading John Joseph Adams, their soon-to-be-former slushreader and assistant editor, saying they did this so they would always be the first market people sent their new stories to, meaning they would have the best possible stories to draw from. This is probably a mixed blessing–it means they have to read all kinds of slush from bozos like me–but writers notice these things, and you can be damn sure their strategy works.

When I was querying my last novel, one agent from a big firm sent me back a short but nice and personalized rejection within a day. You can bet that, when I’m ready to query my next one, he’ll be the first guy I go to.

Around noon, I emailed a magazine submission, then went off to watch Brothers to review for the paper. When I got back at three, I already had a no in my inbox. Was I happy about that? Fuck no, rejection always sucks. But I do sometimes write publishable fiction. You can be sure when I’m looking at markets in the future, they’ll be high on my list. And in the meantime, I can get this story off to a different editor who might be looking for exactly what I’ve now got on their electronic desk.

I know everyone in publishing is putting in crazy hours, frequently for too little pay. But these guys have found a way to be really, really fast. We notice. After that, they get our best work first. It’s worth keeping in mind.

I only recently found this funny piece of agentry: Stephen Barbara discusses the Great American Query Letter

Barbara, who appears to have recently moved from the Donald Maass agency to Foundry Literary + Media, has been on my radar since I queried him on my previous project–he replied swiftly and with the kind of compliment that almost makes you forget there was a no preceding it.

I get that query letters are, for the habitually overworked agent, a great window into a writer’s ability to string words together and express ideas in a compelling manner. But people fucking obsess over queries. My impression is they’ve gone from a casual necessity to an industry of their own: many agents only accept a query–no sample material–and if you drop the ball on that, that agent’s never going to see a single word of what you consider your real work. No wonder people stress. Workshop their queries. Spend a comparable amount of time fine-tuning them as they do on their first chapter.

Still, something about it’s deeply exasperating. It’s one more piece to stress about in what’s already a hypercompetitive field. Barbara’s take is funny and refreshing (and, coolly, well written): he seems to be tired of the whole business of the query letter, and is instead much more interested in the actual material he’s considering whether to represent and attempt to sell.

Not to say that other agents aren’t. But as writers, that’s what we love to hear. I’m sure Mr. Barbara will be on pins and needles waiting for me to drop that query in his inbox as soon as my next book’s ready.

I somehow didn’t win Nathan Bransford’s first paragraph contest, despite the fact there were only 2650 other entries. Didn’t make the finalists or semi-finalists, either. Absurd! They made up an entire 1% of the entries!

I was genuinely surprised to find myself annoyed about that. When I entered, there were already over 1600 submissions. I was entering the first paragraph of a novel I haven’t submitted in over a year. My thinking was “Well, this is a crapshoot, but it’s a good paragraph, and the prize would be useful. Let’s take a shot.”

Because that is how it works in every part of this game. Extrapolating from Realms of Fantasy‘s old numbers, the top sci-fi magazines accept no more than 1 out of every 200 submissions. A lot of those submissions will be trash, or worse yet, wholly mediocre, but there is going to be some serious talent, too. Even if you can punch with the heavies, how many other great stories are you competing with for that one spot? Three? Ten? In those final rounds of selection, when you’re down to nothing but the works you love, what gets chosen and what gets sent back gets capricious and arbitrary. The only response is to shrug it off 60 seconds later, find a new market, and take a new shot with them.

I’ve learned that, I think. Except when I lose total confidence in a piece (this happens about once every 8-10 stories), I keep my work out there. I keep hammering away at the big markets. Now and then I’m frustrated that I haven’t been rustled from my bed to be awarded a golden crown and a floating bed with “WORLD’S GREATEST WRITER” sheets, but I’m aware that competition at the top is very stiff. I could be doing first-rate work right now and not see the results for years.

To be stung that I didn’t win a contest with over 2500 other entries (odds of winning: 0.038%), then, is downright exasperating. I know it’s not personal, but it’s as if emotions don’t listen to things like logic, those dumbasses. The punchline is I bet that feeling never goes away when you get a “no,” no matter how much success you’ve got. That’ll be something to look forward to in the next 50 years of my life.

Literary agent Nathan Bransford is hosting a first paragraph contest on his blog, wherein would-be authors submit the opening paragraph of their novel to be judged against all the other entrants. Among the cool but minor prizes, finalists will receive a query critique, and the grand winner can choose between that, a critique of their partial manuscript, or a phone consultation. Not entirely sure what that last one entails, other than speaking live about your work with an actual agent, which is, honestly, more professional contact than 90% of us chump entrants is ever likely to receive.

Bransford opened the contest just over 36 hours ago, you see, and with about 42 hours left to go, he’s already got 1600+ applicants.

I’ve read several other entries, and though I’ve never read a slushpile, it looks like the lowest-quality submitters have by and large been filtered out, likely due to the dual screening process of a) having to be an internet-user to enter and b) the whole “submitting to a public forum” thing. With very few outright awful entries, what’s left is a lot of not-good stuff, a whole lot of not-bad-but-not-great stuff, and a small but not insignificant wedge of quality material.

Reading all these different openings is fascinating–you get a good glimpse of just how many ways there are to begin a long work of art–but the point it suggested to me is these represent 1600+ fucking unpublished novels, all written by people of obvious dedication (novels don’t write themselves, no matter how much you shout at them), every one of whom is competing for an agent’s (and, eventually, publisher’s) attention.

How do you make your work stand out from the madding crowd? Browsing those entries, a few tricks are obvious: open with conflict from the very first sentence, raise questions in the reader’s mind, make them so hungry to find out what comes next they can’t help reading more.

That’s what any agent will suggest, too, and what you’ll hear in any fiction class. These are the methods that can be learned, tools that can be grasped and sharpened, consciously employed at the start of any piece of fiction.

But there’s one other thing that stands out, too. Some entries just have it and most simply don’t: Talent. The skill with language that makes good writing good. When you see it, you know it, but it isn’t a trick or a tool, a mini-formula you can pick up the first day of class and have forever more. And, Dan Brown notwithstanding, talent is critical to eventual success.

There’s two ways I know of to get it: be born with it, and work your fucking ass off to develop it. Among those 1600 applicants, you know some of them have it. Some of the ones who don’t have it right now are going to bust their humps until they do. For those of us who have to have that life, we have to work even harder. You know what they always say: Good writing shines through.

After yet another draft of the first chapter–a half-draft, really, maybe even draft 5.1; all I did was brush up two scenes which have stubbornly resisted all my prior attempts to make them good–I gave it yet another read, and at the end of those first eleven pages, I was troubled by a feeling I couldn’t place.

On further reflection, it turned out I liked it. Chapter One, I felt, had finally become Chapter Pretty Fucking Good. This, after giving long and serious consideration to chopping it down and turning it into a prologue, or just deleting it altogether and squeezing it into a paragraph of exposition in chapter two. Ultimately, I did neither–there’s some plot-critical info there, and though I think the book gets stronger once the secondary character shows up in chapter two, the contrast of the main character’s existence before he has this friend is an important part of the greater meaning of the book. Hmm, excuse me a moment; I appear to have a lump of pretension stuck in my throat.

Much better. Long story short: I’m so (probably unreasonably, certainly temporarily) satisfied with the work that I’m starting to submit it in earnest. In the agents search, two things pop out at me: 1) lots of agents are accepting e-queries these days, and 2) many of them want to see nothing but the one-page query letter–no synopses or writing samples except by request.

1) is mostly a positive. I like paper submissions, I think they’re tangible and thus less dismissable than email, if only infinitesimally so, but on the other hand, e-queries save postage and paper, and most importantly of all, they shave a week or more from the response time.

It turns out waiting is one of the most important skills of the professional writer, probably but not necessarily ranked just after a) the ability to write well and b) the ability to revise. It is also far and away the most odious and nerve-wracking part of the business. Also, in case of the ever-present threat of rejection, it just delays you from sending it on to someone who might appreciate it more. Anything to shave down the wait-time is to be highly esteemed, if not worshiped outright.

2) One page queries–no sir, I don’t like them. So far, I’m 2/2 on parlaying one pagers into requests for partial manuscripts (neither of which I’ve heard back on yet, despite one being out since mid-January; yay, waiting), and I understand an agent can tell a lot from the 200-300 words that go into a query, but man, query letters are like the exact opposite of fiction.

Query letters are pure exposition, total infodump. The totality of your book and who you are as a writer must somehow be compressed into a teeny tiny fraction of either. Good fiction, obviously, is about relaying information in ways that feel naturalistic and subtle–as the subtext in dialogue, as a vague, fleeting reference in the middle of a scene, as a feeling that emerges despite never being mentioned. Any scene in a novel that in any way resembled the naked exposition of a query letter would be laughed at, scorned, then laughed at some more–and rightly so.

Also, the need to just crank all that information out there results in an extreme departure from my normal writing style. I kind of really doubt I’m alone in that. A competent query might let an agent know the writer can at least string coherent sentences together (and maybe that’s all it takes for them to request a partial), but it kind of rankles to think professionals are making an initial judgment of your work before they’ve seen a single word of it.

One of Miss Snark’s finest rules is “Query widely.” There’s lots of agents out there, and to paraphrase (because I forget the real phrasing) her most important rule, Good writing shines through. I have no doubt that’s true, and in defense of The System, agents are totally swamped with unrequested material of highly questionable value (to the point where “slushpile” is probably one of the most polite terms for it). The one-page initial query exists, most likely, to cut down on the time agents spend reading utter nonsensical garbage, leaving them more time to deal with the queries with potential, and also these things I hear they have called clients–you know, the guys who make them the actual money.

Still, it’s one more layer to slog through on the way from being Joe Bleats About His Wonderful and Unappreciated Manuscript All Day to being Successful and Beloved Author, Esq. (Uh, these days, apparently publishing contracts bestow law degrees, too.) It’s that much more time we have to spend on the business side, the side we really need that agent for, rather than on the actual writing.

Again, though, agents are notoriously overworked. Nobody seems to like the current system; any agent interview or blog is likely to include a passionate screed about how crummy the whole process can be. In many ways, it’s not even unfair to writers; until we’re proven commodities, maybe it is us who should have to jump through the hoops, not the agents we so feverishly desire to work with.

Really, it probably is the best and most effective system we’ve got, and the one-page query is just a way to make the best use of an agents’ minimal time. Like that dude Candide said, though, if this is the best possible world, what must the others look like?

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