Will Literary Agents Really Read Your Query Letter?

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Literary agent reading book

I recently received an email from a concerned writer about a statement I’d made in one of my previous posts.

This writer has allowed me to use the email for the purposes of this article. Here is an extract:

I saw this on your blog and was disturbed by the implications to say the least:

“… [M]any queries don’t get read at all, some are deleted before being fully-read, and other submissions are rejected before the agent has read any of the manuscript.”

The arrogance that is implied by agents telling writers that they should spend countless hours on query letters, and in lots of cases cause a massive amount of stress to these writers, then not even bother to read the thing is amazing. This borders on being a flagrant slap in the face of writers.

I’d love to get your comments on this, because I hope I am reading this wrong.

This is going to be a monster post.

I think a lot of writers share the same concerns about the publishing industry. The email came from a writer who is in the process of querying, and who is worried by a lack of meaningful response just yet.

Literary agents sometimes seem untouchable. They play gatekeeper to our publishing dreams. Our success as writers generally hinges on whether or not we can snag that one special agent.

Writers bust their butts

I’ve found several mentions of the following study, although I apologize I wasn’t able to find the source for citation:

A study by Michigan-based publisher Jenkins Group showed as many as 80 percent of Americans want to write a book (~BNET Australia)

Of course, something like only 2 percent ever actually attempt it, far fewer finish, and only a small fraction of those ever get published.

So, if you’re one of the writers who has succeeded in writing a manuscript, no doubt you’d like some recognition for your efforts.

You’ve likely invested years of your life devoting yourself to the craft. Now, you have the final unpleasant task of taking your 300+ page manuscript and stuffing it into a one-page query letter.

That letter decides the fate of your career as a writer.

So, when you hear someone say your query letter might not be read at all, or it might be deleted before it’s fully read, it very well might sound like a slap in the face.

And, if you do receive a standard rejection letter, you might be left wondering what went wrong.

Agents get a lot of queries

I follow a lot of agents’ blogs. Everything I say here is based on what I’ve seen and read.

There are a few agents in the blogosphere (Miss Snark, Query Shark (Janet Reid), The Rejectionist) who play to the stereotypical image of the nasty publishing gatekeeper.

However, most agents are down-to-earth, and honest about the struggles they face in the day-to-day query slog.

Back in January, agent Nathan Bransford said:

Whoa boy am I getting a lot of queries these days.

In addition to the 400 or so I received over the holidays, I came in this morning to another 100+ that had accumulated over the weekend. To put that in perspective, last year I received about 110 over a three day weekend, and that had been a record.

Nathan does read and respond to every query he receives, but he recently asked his blog readers for their opinions on how to handle the query deluge. It appears to be getting a bit much.

Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency admits her agency has a dedicated query-reader to keep up with 150+ letters each day. Other agents have different policies, including the no-response-means-I’m-not-interested-policy. As harsh as that may sound, put yourself in their shoes.

Imagine, like Nathan Bransford, you receive an average of 100 queries each weekend (that works out to over 230 queries per week). Would you read every last line of every one of those queries? More likely, you would read each one only until the point you were sure it wouldn’t be a good fit. That is, unless you thought it would be a good fit, in which case you would request a partial.

The problem with many queries

Agents receive a lot of queries that shouldn’t have been sent in the first place. Janet Reid of Fine Print Literary Management recommends spending two months perfecting your query letter before sending it off. One page–two months! Most writers wouldn’t devote half that amount of time to it.

Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary says, “[A] surprising percentage of [queries] fail to give me any sense of the book being pitched, or fail to tell me anything about the author’s qualifications to write and sell that particular book.”

Other reasons for a quick rejection might include:

  • The manuscript is incomplete (if fiction)
  • The agent doesn’t represent the author’s genre
  • The letter isn’t personalized, but is part of a mass query (Dear agent…)
  • The author hasn’t taken the time to research how to write a proper query letter
  • The author hasn’t followed that agent’s submission guidelines
  • The query or sample pages (if requested in the guidelines) are sent as an attachment

So, agents must first wade through all the queries that should never have been sent, in order to get to the queries that have potential. That, in itself, must be frustrating.

Also, I think there are a lot of people out there who think, “Hey, I can write a book. No problem!” but, they spend little time learning about the craft. The resulting manuscript and query letter attest to the writer’s lack of skill and commitment, and end up only further slowing down queries from those who deserve a better look.

As writers, our job is to write the book, polish the book, research the right agents, write the query, and submit according to preferred guidelines. If we haven’t done all those things, I believe the agent is under no obligation to read our queries.

Why your query might not get full attention

To clarify what I meant when I made the statement in question:

Many queries don’t get read at all,” refers to writers who ignore submission guidelines. For example, agents generally don’t open attachments unless they’re specifically requested. Or, if you query an agent who isn’t accepting queries at a specific time, you can’t expect to be read.

Some are deleted before they are fully read,” means at some point while reading the query, the agent might know he or she isn’t interested enough to keep reading, for whatever reason. Jessica Faust of BookEnds Literary Agency provides us with a list of things that make her stop reading queries.

Some submissions are rejected before the agent has read any of the manuscript,” means the entire query has been read, but the agent isn’t going to be requesting a partial. Or, in the case of sample pages pasted below the query, the agent might not feel compelled to read those either.

What does this all mean?

It means the query is important. Really important. Important enough to spend two months on it.

Rejection does not necessarily equal bad writing

I think the author of this email is probably a very good writer who has ticked all the boxes. If, like this person, you’ve done your homework, written a query letter according to prevailing advice, and you’ve specifically followed all the agents’ guidelines, you have nothing to worry about.

Your query will be read.

That, however, does not mean you will be asked for a partial, or a full manuscript. It doesn’t mean you’ll be offered representation.

But don’t give up just yet. Noah Lukeman of Lukeman Literary Management advises:

[A]spiring authors [should] approach at least 50 agents when submitting their query letters. If they can find 100 or even 150 agents who are appropriate for their work (and effective), then so much the better…

I have encountered so many authors who have given up after receiving rejections from merely a handful of agents. It is quite possible that in many of these cases, if these authors had simply queried 50 agents (instead of 10), it would have made their difference in their getting published.

If you’re ready to throw in the towel before you’ve queried a hundred agents, you might be selling yourself short. Of course, if you’ve queried a bunch of agents and haven’t received even a request for a partial, you might want to spend more time revising your query letter.

The final verdict

The problem between aspiring authors and agents is less about what agents won’t do, and more about what they simply can’t do. In an ideal world, agents would read and respond to all the queries that cross their desks.

On the other hand, in an ideal world, writers wouldn’t query until they are totally prepared, which would probably cut the number of queries in half.

It’s not easy for either party, but I think we writers need to consider the tight position agents are in.

How to write better queries

It’s a tricky business, but there are many opportunities for support out there. Many agents have blogs devoted to helping writers write better, and query better.

Some variables are beyond your control, like the agent’s personal tastes or their workloads.

But, you do control plenty of variables:

  • Take courses or workshops to learn to write better
  • Join an online critique group or forum for support
  • Workshop your query letter until it’s perfect
  • Research agents to find out more about what they represent
  • Implement any suggestions for improvement offered by agents
  • Keep querying. Keep perfecting

Check out my post, 15 Resources for a Better Query Letter for links to helpful artices.

How do you perceive the relationship between unpublished writers and agents? What do you think should be done differently? What compromises need to be made? Do you think there’s a solution to this problem?

{ 20 comments }

LydiaSharp June 7, 2010 at 11:20 am

Excellent points made here. Thanks for all the links, too. :)

Marla Markman June 7, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Excellent post! Great advice and resources. It’s true about the amount of time you should spend on a query. I just helped a writer with her proposal. She spent months on it and revised it countless times before she ever even gave it to me to edit–and it shows!

Suzannah June 7, 2010 at 8:45 pm

Marla, I’m so glad to hear your friend took a lot of time to prepare her proposal. I think we writers want to rush into the agent-seeking process because it sounds so exciting, but rushing is the very thing that will get us rejected. The more you perfect, the better your chances! Thanks.

Jessica Tudor June 7, 2010 at 3:12 pm

It’s important for writers to remember that reading queries and finding new clients is NOT an agent’s primary job. It is what they do in the margins between their primary job, which is helping the clients they already HAVE. It bothers me when writers forget the writing world does not revolve around them.

Suzannah June 7, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Yes–that’s a great point. I had so much flying through my head when I wrote this post, I neglected to mention that! I’ve heard a lot of agents say they read partials and fulls at home in their off-work hours. Thanks for this!

Joanne Brothwell June 7, 2010 at 3:15 pm

I think you have highlighted the difficulty very well – from both points of view. As a writer in the querying phase, I’ve spent at least two months perfecting my query, and I spend probably four hours researching each individual agent and personalizing each query letter. I think that’s the least I can do, knowing agents are facing the ongoing enormous task of slogging through innumerable queries.

Thanks for the links!

Suzannah June 7, 2010 at 8:48 pm

Sounds like you’re doing an amazing job, Joanne. All the best for your agent search, and I hope when you do make a match, you’ll let us know!

JaneR June 7, 2010 at 6:11 pm

This is an incredible post! To be perfectly honest I didn’t pay the whole query letter thing too much attention. I suspect it’s mostly because I don’t have a novel ready for publishing. But this post really showed the DOs and DON’Ts of how to go about it. So thanks for sharing.

Suzannah June 7, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Thank you, Jane :) I’m glad this post gave you some insight into the whole process, and that it’ll be helpful when you finish your own big project!

miss ali June 7, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Wow! Amazing post, so many links, so much information! Thanks for taking the time to really get into it! Cheers! :)

Courtney Carver June 7, 2010 at 9:01 pm

This confirms that your idea has to be remarkable to stand a chance.

Suzannah June 7, 2010 at 10:00 pm

I agree. If the idea or the delivery aren’t remarkable, I doubt you’ll get a second look. That doesn’t necessarily mean full of excitement, but something unique.

Jon Gibbs June 7, 2010 at 11:52 pm

What an excellent post!

I can’t imagine how hard it must be, trying to wade through all those queries.

Thanks for sharing :)

PD June 8, 2010 at 12:52 am

I’ve found a few websites with submission forms–I think in the long run that’s the best idea. Let a computer parse out key phrases (and perhaps even influencing texts) of interest to individual agents–writers don’t have to worry about digging through pages and pages of agents, trying to decide whether they’d be interested based on a half-sheet of information; agents don’t have to deal with query letters not relevant to them.

Anyway, thanks for writing this. I assumed 20ish was about the right number to query–I’ll get back on it soon enough.

Suzannah June 8, 2010 at 1:15 am

I think submission forms work for some agents, but if I recall correctly, Nathan Bransford said he wasn’t comfortable using and automated system. Of course, he doesn’t use a dedicated query reader, either. Some agents like to handle it all themselves, but who knows–maybe in the future they’ll be forced into a new system by the sheer number of queries. Thanks!

s0beurself June 8, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Another great strategy is foregoing agents altogether, hiring an editor (unless your confident in your editing ability), hiring someone to do the cover to your book (no way around this one) and self publishing. Just look at the numbers:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704912004575253132121412028.html?mod=WSJ_hpp_RIGHTTopCarousel

Suzannah June 8, 2010 at 8:17 pm

If you’re content to be self-published, it’s a good way to see your work in print. A lot of writers aren’t interested, though. I think it can work for certain types of books, but the author has to be dedicated to marketing.

Usvoter July 12, 2010 at 5:30 pm

I understand the reason queries aren’t read, but what about agents who read my memoir query letter, compliment me on it, ask for a chapter, and then say “This is not a good fit.”
Obviously, the query letter describes the memoir because what’s in the query letter appears in the first chapter. Is “This is not a good fit” agentese for something else? If so, what?

Thanks so much

Suzannah July 12, 2010 at 10:48 pm

I think that’s agent-speak for “Your query was good. It interested me, but I don’t LOVE your manuscript enough to make an offer.” Rachelle Gardner said the other day that she has to pass on many good pieces of writing because she can only offer representation for the ones she feels are the best fit with what she does. But don’t worry–everyone gets those responses, so you’re not alone.

Christopher Taylor August 20, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Its delivery more than idea. You can write the best book on earth that will sell a hundred million copies but not be able to write a snappy query letter and never get picked up. If you are great at writing a query letter, you can write a pretty ordinary book and get paid.

That’s quite frankly the most frustrating part of writing; I’m an author, not an ad copy writer or publicist. My job is to write, not sell my writing. That’s WHY I want an agent to begin with.

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