This post is for writers.
I know my blog is a quiet little place with maybe 20 readers, but all my posts automatically post to Twitter. And some agents follow me there. And agent-editor-author burnout discourse makes the rounds constantly, and writers who complain about querying frequently get subtweeted and shutdown, which is one of many reasons I don’t usually complain about querying in general and on Twitter in particular.
So on the off chance any agents wind up here, I’ll say it again: this post is for writers.
Because querying is hard. Theoretically, I knew that going into it, but there was a lot I didn’t know. And those things hit me harder because I wasn’t emotionally prepared for them.
I don’t want to scare anyone out of querying. I don’t want you to despair because you didn’t know these things either and oh god is querying even worse than I think it is???
But honesty about how hard querying is might’ve helped me more than the insistent positivity. As much as I appreciate the intention behind them, quotes like “you’ll get there! you’ll have your day! it only takes one yes!” have never helped me. I’m too aware I might not get there.
There’s only one certainty in publishing, and it’s this: you won’t get anywhere if you don’t put your work out there.
That’s what’s kept me going, and I hope it’ll keep you going, too. Maybe we won’t get anywhere if we keep pushing on despite all the setbacks, but we definitely won’t get anywhere if we give up.
And I think it might be a little easier not to give up if you know what to expect.
People have been saying querying is far worse than it was a year ago, with long wait times and a lack of response. But everyone’s definition of “worse” was my normal for almost two years.
Is it really worse? Was my norm not the norm like I assumed it was? Has this been the norm throughout the pandemic but no one talked about it until now?
I don’t know. I just know that every time someone’s like, “It’s been 3 months and I haven’t heard anything, this is so much slower than last year :(” I’m like
Anyway, here are some things I wish I’d known about querying before diving into the trenches for the first time.
1. A lack of information about agents
You probably know to do your research before querying. Find agents who represent your genre. Find out what subgenres, vibes, tropes, plots, and existing books they like. Find out what their submission guidelines are, who their current clients are, what kind of deals they’ve brokered in the past, etc.
In practice, this information isn’t always readily available.
Some of it’s available for a price, through paid accounts with Publishers Marketplace or QueryTracker. Even when paid accounts are low-cost, this can be limiting if you’re dead-ass broke like I was the first two years of my querying journey.
Sometimes, information is harder to come by. ManuscriptWishList.Com and MSWishList.Com are great resources, but not every agent has a profile on these sites. If they do, it may be a c/p of the same listing found on the agency website, which can be generic in the extreme.
“I love a strong voice and compelling characters.”
Cool, cool, cool. You and everyone else.
If there’s no information about an agent’s specific interests, you have to go off genre alone – and sometimes even that isn’t clear. You end up yeeting anyway because, well, why not, but then you see another tweet about querying authors not doing their research, and you get frustrated because you tried, dammit, and how can you do your research if information is behind paywalls or simply not available?
Additionally, some agents have red flags that may make you not want to query them, but such information operates almost solely through whisper networks. If you’re not connected to knowledgeable people, you may end up querying or even accepting an offer from an agent who might hurt more than help you.
How to handle it: Luckily, many agents are on ManuscriptWishList and MSWishList. They also often talk about what they’re looking for in interviews and on social media. Friends with paid accounts to PM or QT are often willing to look up particular agents for you, as well.
Resources like WriterBeware track agents and agencies with a history of problems. Published or agented authors and creditable agents may also write blog posts or tweet about red flags. As with so many other things in writing, community is key: the more writers you’re friends with, the more likely someone in your circle knows the industry tea.
If you end up on a call with an agent, trust your gut. Don’t feel pressured to sign with someone if something feels off!
2. Form rejections & lack of response
Agents are busy. One agent tweeted during her first week on the job that they had already received 600 queries.
As busy as they are, many agencies have non-response policies: they won’t respond at all unless they’re interested in seeing more. If a non-response agency gives a timeline, like “assume rejection if you don’t hear back in 3 months,” it’s not too bad. You wait 3 months, maybe longer, mark the query CNR (closed no response), and move on.
If the agency doesn’t provide a timeline, or if you want to query a different agent at the same agency, it gets hairy. You can’t query a new agent until the first agent rejects, but how do you know how long to wait before you can assume rejection?
For those who do respond to every query, there are form rejections: nonpersonalized rejections that thank you for querying but state that the agent is passing at this time.
I knew about form rejections, and I understand the point of them. When I got “thank you for your query but this isn’t a good fit for me” on a cold query and five pages, it was a bummer but not a shock.
When I got “thank you for your query but this isn’t a good fit for me” on a full, I wondered what was going on – I’d always heard about the feedback writers had gotten in full rejections.
Obviously, agents are far too busy to give querying writers detailed feedback: they need to prioritize clients.
But after requesting a full or soliciting a query, you’d think they’d personalize the rejection. A single sentence like “the pacing lagged” or “I didn’t understand [character’s] motivation” is better than a form.
Sometimes I was completely ghosted on solicited queries and fulls.
I had agents who never responded to solicited queries. I had agents who never responded to requested fulls. I had agents who never responded to nudges asking after the status of requested fulls.
I know agents are busy, but it sucks when an agent reaches out to you, never to be heard from again.
How to handle it: Don’t be disheartened if you get form rejections on fulls – it doesn’t mean your book was too bad to bother with feedback. Especially during the pandemic, I think this has become more the norm than not. Conventional wisdom says rejections on fulls means you need to revise. But if agents aren’t giving you feedback (or give you conflicting feedback), you don’t have enough to go on to know your book needs work. So calm down, cry a lil if you need to, and keep yeeting.
If an agent responds to all queries within a set time, nudge after the period specified. If an agent requests a full and gives a general timeline, ditto.
If no timeline is given, many people say to nudge after 12 weeks. But in pandemic-querying-time, 12 weeks is literally nothing. With several fulls, I didn’t nudge until we’d hit the one-year mark, or close to it.
At any rate, pick an amount of time, nudge, and wait. Since you may never hear back on your nudge, decide how long you’re willing to wait before closing out the query. Then, if you’re hoping to requery the same agency, withdraw the query from the first agent and requery the new agent.
(If you don’t have anyone else to query at the same agency, leave the query open, just in case.)
If you hear nothing back after nudging on fulls, forget they exist. Don’t pull them unless you’ve made substantial revisions, want to query someone else at the same agency, or no longer want to query the agent with the full. Otherwise, treat them like CNRs.
3. The power imbalance
While authors are clients to agents, agents are the ones who decide whether to make an offer. The power imbalance is inherent in how the industry works, at least if you’re seeking publication through traditional means, particularly if you want to approach a publisher who will not accept submissions from unagented authors.
Unfortunately, it leads to some nasty treatment of writers in an industry that already routinely exploits them despite being built on their creative work.
Some agents are known for sending needlessly cruel – or ableist, or racist, or queerphobic – rejections. Some complain about authors not withdrawing query letters after receiving an offer, while being non-response agents themselves. Some subtweet authors for things as innocuous as sending a nudge in line with agency guidelines.
Yes! I have been subtweeted before! Which is how I found out about a full rejection I didn’t actually see in my inbox for another week!
Meanwhile, authors are routinely reminded of the importance of remaining professional at all times and keeping complaints in their DMs.
Agents who subtweet may themselves get subtweeted, but authors may worry about destroying their careers by complaining about agents, or even querying in general, in public spaces. Agents whose unprofessionalism or cruelty lives in their inboxes may never be called out anywhere but whisper networks – and again, authors who have personal experience with such agents may worry about the harm it will do to their careers if they speak out.
Yes, agents are burnt out, overworked, and underpaid. Yes, the industry exploits them, too.
But that doesn’t erase this power imbalance, and it doesn’t excuse the double standards that allow agents to complain about burnout in a broken industry but expect authors to be grateful for having the chance to perhaps, one day, maybe, get a toe in the door.
How to handle it: Ymmv. I say very, very little about querying, especially on Twitter. I complain relatively little even in DMs, although that’s more for the reasons touched on in the last post I wrote about querying, which was the first post I’d written about querying since diving into the trenches a year and a half earlier.
(I actually said in that post that I wouldn’t write this post until and unless I was ever agented, but oop here we are.)
Other authors choose to engage publicly in discourse about power imbalances, double standards, how the industry operates, and more. It depends on what you’re comfortable with.
Regardless of your approach in public, make sure you have a solid support system in place when querying so you can cry, complain, and commiserate somewhere.
4. A call might not be The Call
I mentioned this in my last querying post, too, and I actually did know this one going into the trenches.
But apparently it’s not common knowledge, as I found out after this happened to me and everyone was horrified.
So! We’re going to talk about it anyway.
Before making an offer, an agent will schedule a call so you can talk, to determine whether your visions for the book align and whether you’re otherwise a good fit for each other. So, understandably, if an agent wants to schedule a call, you’ll get very, very excited.
However, some agents may also schedule a call to talk through a revise & resubmit. They may schedule a call because they think you’re a good writer and have a great thing going and want to give you some industry advice and information even if they don’t plan to take you on.
Those are good things! It’s kind of agents to take time out of their busy schedule to give information, edits, and resources to someone who isn’t a client.
But it can be crushing to have a call only for it not to end in an offer, even if you knew that was a possibility. If you didn’t know, how much more crushing might that be?
How to handle it: Temper your expectations when an agent schedules a call. Yes, get excited! A call is a great thing. But be prepared for advice, information, or an R&R as well as an offer. Hopefully the call will be The Call, but if you temper your expectations you won’t be quite as crushed if it’s not.
Make sure you understand what the call is while you’re on it – is this an offer? An R&R? Advice?
If it’s The Call, have a list of questions ready to go about how the agent operates and what their plans are for your book. If it’s an R&R, make sure you understand the revisions being requested. If it’s an advice call, take full advantage and ask as many industry questions as you can.
And, as always, make sure you have friends there to comfort you if you come out of a call that wasn’t what you hoped it would be.
5. The jealousy
Quite possibly you are a better person than I am. So maybe you won’t experience this.
But for most of the year and a half I first spent querying, I was an absolute green-eyed jealousy monster.
Literally a monster. Very little joy for other people was mixed up in my jealousy. It was jealousy in its purest form, and it hit me like a sledgehammer.
I felt like the world’s shittiest person, because why could I not simply be happy for people? Especially people I knew would be happy for me if the situation were reversed?
I thought things were better when I got legitimately excited – and not jealous at all! – about two different friends’ agent announcements.
Finally, I thought. I’ve reached the point in my querying journey where I can be happy for people! I’m no longer jealous! I’ve turned a corner!
But then I must’ve pulled a U-turn or something, because after those two people, I went right back to seething with jealousy over every single book deal and agent announcement I saw. Throw in a good dash of existential despair and many, many crying jags, and you get an inkling of what a mess I was.
I have since seen someone tweet that if you feel professional jealousy, you should pick a different industry. Which first of all is a weird concept, because do they think people in other industries never feel professional jealousy?
But it’s also a damaging view. Jealousy is a human emotion! It’s normal! And you can’t help feeling it!
More important, I think, is what you do with jealousy.
Do you burn bridges because you’re feeling petty? Do you shit-talk friends because you can’t handle them having what you want? Do you rage about the unfairness of it all on social media?
Or do you congratulate people anyway, because they worked hard to get here, too, and they’re kind, and supportive, and you’re not going to let your feelings get the best of you?
That’s what I did. Some might find it hypocritical, but I congratulated people because I wanted to congratulate people. I wanted to be happy for them, even if I couldn’t be at that moment. I did what the me I wanted to be would do. And that meant supporting people – and talking through my jealousy with someone else later, because those feelings need to be processed if you don’t want them to consume you.
How to handle it: If happy-announcement posts are hard on your mental health, you may choose to mute words like “querying,” “agented,” or “book deal” on social media. If you want to support your friends but can’t handle gushing about good news on main while struggling internally, it’s okay to DM them instead of writing long public posts about how great they are.
Focus on what you can control. Publishing is, unfortunately, based a lot on luck: the right manuscript has to end up on the right person’s desk at the right time. You can’t control that, and if you spend too much time thinking about it, jealousy can give way to a spiral of despair.
You can control sending more queries. Writing another project. Submitting short stories to get some publishing credits in your bio. Spending time on non-writing things that bring you joy.
Other writers feel this way, too. You’re not a bad person for getting jealous, not even if that jealousy makes it hard for you to be happy for others. You’re not the only person who has ever felt this way.
But you do need to talk it through
as a crew, or at least journal about it. Get it out somehow. Try to do so in a way that’s constructive rather than toxic.
Shit-talking people who have gotten good news? Probably not a good way to deal with your jealousy.
Speaking honestly about your hopes, fears, and disappointments? Much better. Have at least one friend you can be open with about these things!
The Takeaway: Community
I know I sound like a broken record, but finding your circle is so important.
We tend to think of writing as a solitary activity, because we’re each individually hunched over our laptop or journal like a particularly eloquent gremlin. In reality, it takes a village, even before you have an agent or book deal: friends to cheer you on when you’re wading through the manuscript’s muddled middle and are certain you’re never going to finish; beta readers or critique partners to give you feedback so you can make the book the best it can be; query-trench veterans to help you write a query letter, synopsis, and sub list.
Other writers also provide a support system. Maybe your family and friends treat your writing like a silly little hobby, no matter how serious you are about it. Maybe you see rose-colored “how I got my agent” posts that make it seem so easy that you’re certain something is wrong with you, because your journey looks different. Maybe you’re struggling with jealousy, self-doubt, or impostor syndrome.
Whatever the case, other writers understand. So many of us have been through the same thing, or are going through it right now.
It’s easy to feel alone, but every time I take the leap and talk about feeling shitty because of querying, or writing, or the industry, overwhelmingly the response is: thank you for saying this, because I feel this way, too.
It still sucks to feel that jealousy, to have crickets in your inbox, to get a call that ends in rejection rather than representation. But when you know you’re not alone, it’s a little easier to take it less personally. And when you take a fall, you have someone there to pick you up again.
4 thoughts on “5 things I wish I’d known about querying before diving into the trenches”
Love everything about this. Kind of want to start signing emails “your obedient servant” now though…
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Only the angry ones, though! That was my favorite part of the master’s in theology, seeing people writing angry but polite letters to each other where it’d start off like “the blessings of God the Father be upon you, YOU HERETIC, I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’VE BEEN TALKING FUCKING SHIT ABOUT ME, I am your fellow servant in Christ etc etc”
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