Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ask & I’ll give it up: my agent query stats

Last week, I mentioned a personal rule from my 2006 agent hunt, which was to send out two new queries for every rejection I received.

Some of you asked for details. How many queries did I send? How many rejections did I get? How many requests for fulls & partials? How many foot massages did I offer before finally landing the amazing Michelle Wolfson (who subsequently landed me a three-book deal)?

Fortunately, I saved all my original notes from my query days. It took awhile to compile statistics, and before I share, here’s some background:
  • I sent my first queries in late summer 2006 and my last mid-December 2006. Snail mail was common, and accounted for nearly 50% of my queries. Things have changed since then. Nearly everything is electronic now, and the only piece of printed correspondence I’ve swapped with my agent in 2.5 years is a contract.
  • Because I had already sold a book to Harlequin/Silhouette when the line collapsed and left me orphaned, I was considered “published” by two or three agents I queried. In a couple cases, this resulted in phone calls or an expedited query process, but in most cases, I was part of the regular slush pile.
  • As a result of the whole sold-a-book-that-never-got-published thing, several agents asked to see the orphaned novel (the rights were reverted to me). Since I knew I wanted to go a different direction with my career, I was more intent on querying a new book I’d written in a different genre. Know what’s interesting? Neither of those novels – not the one that originally sold to Harlequin/Silhouette, and not the one that snagged offers of representation from four agents – has sold today. I don’t say that to be discouraging. I say it to point out the publishing industry is fickle. Just because agents or editors love a book doesn’t mean it’s destined to land on bookshelves. This is one reason it’s crucial to find an agent who is passionate about your whole career – not just one book.

So without further ado, here are my stats from 2006:

Number of queries

Rejections of initial query

Zero response to initial query

Partials requested & rejected

Fulls requested & rejected

Fulls/partials requested, then zero agent response

Agents who quit or closed to queries

Agents who referred me to other agents

Agents who offered representation

Fulls/partials requested after I had already signed with another agent

Agents who requested full, then bowed out when I issued a deadline upon receiving other offers

Bizarre photocopied full request w/ no agent name, no mention of my name or my book, and no email address given for follow-up questions

Some random, interesting tidbits:
  • Of the 4 referrals I received from agents saying, “I’m not the right agent for this, but try my colleague so-and-so,” two resulted in offers of representation from so-and-so.
  • Prior to querying, I made a chart of agents and their requirements using agentquery. Then I cross-referenced it with info gathered from the agents’ own websites. If they differed, I trusted what was listed on the agent sites.
  • One of the agents who requested a full and ultimately rejected it contacted me out of the blue two years later to wish me well and say she always wonders if I’m “the one who got away.” (Totally made my day).
  • I did not, in fact, provide foot massages to any prospective agents (though I have a standing offer to Michelle to let my dog lick her feet if she so desires).
A few lessons learned:
  • No matter how polished your query is or how much homework you’ve done, you will screw something up. I guarantee it. Consider this when you send your initial queries. Do you want to contact your “dream agent” with a query you’ll kick yourself about in a month, or do you want to save him/her for when you’ve learned a few things by trial & error? I got a whole lot more requests in my third month of querying than I did in my first because my query got better. I thank my lucky stars Michelle Wolfson was in the last batch of agents I queried because she didn’t get to see what an idiot I could be (I saved the idiot thing for later in our relationship).
  • As I’ve shared before, I initially signed with another agent and then left amicably after a year upon realizing it just wasn’t the right fit. This happens, and it’s no one’s fault. Lucky for me, I knew Michelle was the right agent for me, and she was still willing to take me on a year after she made that initial offer.
So there you have it. All the numbers you ever wanted and some you probably didn’t. Feel free to hit me with questions in the comments. If something requires a long explanation, I may devote future blog posts to the topic.

Ready? Set? Go!

And happy querying to all!


Alexa O said...

This is fascinating.

One of the things that frustrates me with this crazy business is that the skills needed to write a great book are not necessarily very closely linked to the skills needed to get a book published (or to get an agent).

You write your book(s), which is its own scary learning process, and then you sell your book, which is a completely different and even scarier learning process. And a full-time job to boot.


Thanks for sharing this, though. Very eye opening stuff!

RosieC said...

I'm a little disturbed by this "bizarre photocopied full request". Seems like blatant scam, no?

Six months of querying seems pretty quick. You give me hope :) It's lots of hard--no doubt about it--and your persistence is admirable. Two for every rejection seems like a great tactic.

Génette Wood said...

This is going to be one of those posts that is retweeted 600 times.

71 queries makes me feel a lot better. I've got a chart going that shows when I sent mine, what date I received a reply, etc. Keeps me optimistic, watching those rejection dates get farther apart, haha.

Jessica Lemmon said...

Ohmygoodness... I always meet a dose of reality with a groan since I'm Little-Miss-Pie-in-the-Sky most days. BUT, I do so appreciate the stats - it lets me know just what I have to go through to get where I want to be.

I feel your pain via Harlequin "orphaning" you, but in a totally different way. The last job I had was in direct sales, for 6 years I worked to earn the annual trip to [insert exotic location here]. I did it in 2009, got my passport and was raring to go to CANCUN!!! woo-hoo! All expenses, gratuities, room, board and *ahem* drinks - PAID.

Then my friend Swine Flue hit Mexico, and I got a check (a nice check $) instead of Mexico (Mexico would have been better.)

*sigh* SO CLOSE!

I'm beginning to think life is full of those moments. It's the almost moments that lead us to something better. :-)

Shelley Sly said...

Wow -- this post was so enlightening and encouraging! I am about to start querying a new book this fall, and this really helps me see the reality of the querying process. I'm happy for those who snag an agent after only having sent out five queries, but I don't learn much from it (except that my queries must suck!) Thank you for this honest account, and best of luck with your books!

Deborah Small said...

71. That's a lot of research and paper. And persistence. Which eventually pays off provided one does as you did; adapts depending on responses.

Good on you, Tawna, for believing in yourself and your work. I look forward to reading your books. Soon.

Take care,

Delia said...

Thanks for the stats. In an odd way, it makes me feel better about the whole thing.

(Though, the whole dog-licking the feet thing squicked me right the heck out.)

lora96 said...

This makes me feel better. I'm getting ready to query and I have the distinct suspicion that I'll have to send out more than say, three letters to get an agent.

Okay, let's be honest. I have a premonition of myself slumped over the desk weeping over form rejection e-mails, a superstack of pringles away from incontrovertible obesity due to self-pity (and the fact that pringles are too delicious).

Patty Blount said...

This is gold, Tawna... I've gone through the query process to collect requests for partials and full and all ended in rejection.

I've always wondered what happens if more than one agent wants me, and I, in my insane-happy-dance, sign with an agent who later turns out to be the wrong fit.

Thanks for sharing this with us.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing this--and congrats on finding such a wonderful agent! :)

Stephanie Thornton said...

Wow- these stats are very helpful. Everyone has a different road through Queryland- I always like seeing the path an author took.

Thanks for sharing!

Adriana said...

Thanks for sharing, this was very interesting! Would you be willing to share your actual query too? :) It would be awesome to see how that evolved!

Melissa Gill said...

Oh man, I've really got to get on it. 71 queries in six months is amazing. I guess I'm dragging my feet for some reason???

Ricky Bush said...

I can so relate to all this--especially the part about early queries that revealed my rookie nakedness. The ones that now tell me, "No wonder they rejected you--you idjit".

Candyland said...

Well you've got the goods to back it all up. It's no wonder Michelle snatched you up.

Liz Czukas said...

Thank you for sharing this. It's always heartening to know that even wonderful writers like you have rejections in their past.

- Liz

Suzan Harden said...

Thanks,Tawna! You give me hope!

Marsha Sigman said...

Ok, I feel much better! And damn...I have work to do!

Unknown said...

Thank you, this is extremely interesting and helpful. I have a question as to how you went about improving your query letter. Did you receive form rejections, or helpful rejections that gave you clues as to what elements of the letter you might tweak?


Holy cow, I'm a little stunned by how many people are interested in this post and these numbers!

Alexa, actually, you'd be surprised (and thanks for inspiring yet another blog post idea!) The way the publishing industry works for debut authors is that you spend a HUGE portion of your time on various marketing endeavors to get your name out there. When an agent pitches your work to editors, guess what he/she uses? It's most often some variation of the query letter the author created in the first place. And guess what goes to your publisher to create back-cover copy and marketing snippets for booksellers? Yup, also variations of your query letter. Honing the ability to "sell" your own work is one of the most crucial skills an author can develop. (And thanks again for the idea, I'll definitely blog about this in depth sometime!)

RosieC, actually, it was a legitimate agent at a reputable agency. All I can figure is that he/she was receiving so many queries that he/she thought this might be a way to save time. Of course he/she didn't bother to proof the letter to make sure the important info was in there (which is precisely why I ignored the full request -- an agent who doesn't proof correspondence to me isn't likely to do it with editors, either!)

LadyGenette, when I first saw your comment about this post being retweeted, I was thinking, "nah, who'd be interested in this?" Uh, I was wrong. Obviously. Janet Reid even blogged about it, so now I'm getting slammed with hits. Love it!

Jessica, ouch on the Mexico trip. Did you ever get to go?

Shelly, study every post that's ever gone up on Janet Reid's Query Shark blog and you might start to get a feel for how (or if) your query sucks.

Deborah, you know, 71 actually doesn't seem that high to me. I've heard a lot of authors state 100 as the number they aim for (and I've known plenty who keep going to about 200 before giving it a rest). I think one misconception in querying is that rejection means your query or your story sucks. That's often not the case at all. It's just like dating -- you have to find the right "fit" both for the agent and the author. Hearing "not right for me" from an agent might mean precisely that, but it doesn't mean it won't be perfect for someone else.

Delia, if you like, my dog can lick your feet, too.

lora96, the "two new queries for every one rejection" rule is a great way to stave off the rejection blues!

Patty, someday maybe I'll blog about how to handle yourself if more than one agent makes an offer. Heh-heh...I said "handle yourself."




Kristi, Michelle is terrific, no doubt about it. At least once a day, I wonder what good deed I performed in a past life to deserve such a great agent.

Stephanie, you're exactly right that every author has a different journey. Some land an agent on the first query or two, others take years and countless queries. There's definitely no "right" or "wrong" about it.

Adriana, I'll definitely share my query at some point. In fact, maybe I'll ask Michelle to play that game where she gives feedback on the query and says what worked and what didn't. Keep in mind though, the query is for a book that never sold (sadly) so you won't be reading about my debut.

Melissa, the bulk of those queries went out in September and December, with just a few stragglers in those other months. Chin up though -- with almost every agent taking equeries now, it's definitely easier than it was in the paper query days. That was exhausting (not to mention expensive!)

Ricky, no kidding. And the thing is, I really HAD done my homework and had a pretty decent query to start. It's just that I got better with practice, and that makes all the difference.

Candyland, I've got the goods, huh? You're eying my goods?

Liz, EVERY writer has rejections in his/her past. Often hundreds of them. Thousands, even. I know I've also got plenty in my future. The trick is not to take it personally :)

Suzan, it's funny, I thought people would find these stats mildly discouraging. I'm amazed at how many people are saying they find it inspiring. Shows what I know, huh?

Marsha, querying is practically a full time job, but like I said earlier -- I think it's gotten a little easier with most agents accepting equeries. Back in my day (snicker, I sound so old) it took forever to study every agent's requirements and sit there sorting through piles going, "OK, she wants a long synopsis and the first three chapters, he wants a one-page synopsis and 10 pages, she wants 50 pages and no synopsis..." and on and on. I shudder to think how many trees I killed.

Idem, good question. My biggest issue was that I began querying a few weeks before the whole Harlequin/Silhouette cancellation fiasco, so the gist of my query letter at that point was something like, "I've got a book deal but I don't know if it's going to last, and I'm working on this new thing that's totally different." Once the line was officially canceled, I still floundered a bit with my query, trying to explain the existence of the previous book deal while also explaining the new project. It was way too complicated, and once I shifted things to focus more on the new book (while mentioning the other deal as a side-note, rather than a book I was actively pitching) it made a lot more sense. That's when I started to see better results.

Thanks for reading, guys!

Amie Borst said...

thanks for sharing your story. your stats are comforting in this business. plus i'm having a really suckish day, so it was nice to hear that there is light at the end of the tunnel and it's not an oncoming train.

abby mumford said...

i KNEW this would be a huge hit because i had gathered that your querying journey was very similar to what a lot of people experience.

a lot of No's before that one (or in your case, four) beautiful yes.

and now, please excuse me while i go bang out (tee hee) the troublesome spots in my query letter. it has to get better before i start sending it to my top shelf agent choices.

Linda G. said...

Thus proving that, along with talent, you have to have perseverance. Stick-to-it-iveness prevails. :)

Pat Brown said...

Congrats on getting the agent and the 3 book deal. I've been querying my current book since April and so far have 84 rejections, 7 outstanding partials and fulls and 134 outstanding queries, many of which have been out since April and May so I don't really expect responses from them.

I'm a published author with 10 books out from small, indie publishers. I had an agent once, but she retired and I lost my editor at my New York Publisher, so I moved to indies. I'm trying to move back up with an agent, but so far no luck. I'm giving it till the end of the year before I start approaching publishers myself.

You definitely need perseverance in this business.

Elizabeth Ryann said...

Thanks so much for this! I think one of the reasons everyone is interested is because, well, curiosity, but also because there are so many pieces of the process that are shrouded in secrecy, that it's just really nice to see a post that's not just vague advice. You know how specifics really help your writing? They really help a person learn about the process too. And by a person, I of course mean me. So thanks again!

Stephanie said...

Thanks for sharing!! I always love reading author's agent stories!

I am most shocked about the number of agents who requested fulls and then did not respond! That, to me, is just bad business!! And rude!

jill said...

I love reading stats like this because it shows that we'll all in the same boat at one point in oue writing careers and it's inspiring because you kept at it until you succeeded.

I've kept careful track of queries going in and out - like several commenters here, I sent out two or three at a time, got the responses (rejections), tweaked the query and sent it out to two or three more agents.

Haven't queries for a few years because I'm making sure the plots aren't the problem (hard to follow the "query formula" of X must do Y before all Z breaks loose and A is trying to prevent Z from doing it" when I don't have a concrete individual for "A"!). Soon, though, I'll be rereading all these excellent posts and getting back to it.

Thanks for sharing this part of your journey! And everything else in your blog!

Unknown said...

Wow, those stats are very informative. I don't feel so bad. However, two questions: 1) Did you ever re-send a query to an agent who already said no after you tweaked the letter? 2)If you were rejected by one agent, did you consider yourself rejected by the agency, or did you query other agents in that agency.

Matthew MacNish said...

How interesting! What a nice glimpse inside the workings of your personal experience. Thanks for sharing this info with us Tawna.

kah said...

What a journey. Thanks for sharing. The dock licking feet thing kinda grossed me out though. lol.

Elizabeth Flora Ross said...

I always enjoy reading about the journeys of other writers. This is not only interesting, but very helpful and timely! Thanks for sharing!


Amie B, I'm supposed to speak to a writer's group on the topic of "perseverance" in October. Suffice it to say, I have a lot of experience with it :)

Abby, indeed, everyone has YOU to thank for this post, since you were the first to request it (I had a bunch of others chime in after that, but you were definitely first!) Gotta admit, I'm a little stunned how popular it's been so far. It's been up for less than six hours right now, and has had almost 600 unique viewers. Crazy!

Linda G, I also have boobs. Does that count for something?

P.A.Brown, from what I've heard, your story isn't all that uncommon. Perseverance is definitely the greatest skill an author can hone.

Elizabeth, glad the specifics help! I never really thought about it, but I guess I don't remember reading anything like this when I was in the query stage. I wonder if I would have fallen into the trap of comparing myself instead of recognizing that every author's journey is different? Dunno. Guess I'll never find out, eh?

Stephanie, yeah, that surprised me as well. In both cases, I learned things about those agents after the fact that made me thank my lucky stars they didn't follow through. Things happen for a reason, I suppose.

Jill, I still have all my rejection letters in a folder, plus I never delete emails, so those are all somewhere in my in-box. Kinda fun to go back and read every now and then!

Matthew, sure thing! I figured I might as well make up for the fact that I neglected to show my underwear yesterday.

Karen Amanda, you know you want my dog to lick your feet. She's doing it to mine right now, as a matter of fact.

Elizabeth, glad it helps! Querying can be a slow, lonely, and soul-sucking experience. It's nice to know we've all been there.

Thanks for reading, guys!

Beth said...

Great, timely post! I'm just starting the query/business of writing. I had requests for two partials and received one very nice email rejection and another long, handwritten note. That agent said, "After careful consideration, she decided to decline..." That was a hard one.

So far, I've sat on those rejections for three weeks but you've inspired me to send out more queries for every rejection.

Question #1: Do you mix it up and query first and second tier agents or just start lower, i.e., with newer, less experienced agents in the beginning?

Question #2: How do you keep track of all this? I'm having trouble getting organized and have piles everywhere. Did you go the spreadsheet route or drop responses into files?

I have two very different genres that I'm querying (so different agents). I've written a novel (women's fiction) and two children's picture books, so I have to keep them separate. And I hate piles.

Jen J. Danna said...

Thanks so much for sharing the details of your query journey with us. I think querying is a time of such uncertainty for so many of us, so it helps to see that those that are established fought the same battle in a very similar fashion. And were ultimately successful. So thank you for your openness.

From my own perspective with just under 50 letters sent out and this week's batch of 6 sitting in my draft folder to be sent out later this evening, it was really helpful to see the numbers. I've been lucky enough to have several partial and several full MS requests, but there is a LOT of dead air currently. For instance, I've only had 13 actual rejections and have heard nothing back from over 30 letters. I'm sure a number of them are silent rejections, but I've got responses from letters over 4 weeks old, so it's the summer and I'm chalking some of it up to 'I just haven't heard one way or the other yet'. At least that what I keep telling myself...

Harley May said...

Wow. So you would recommend saving your "dream" agents for a few rounds out vs. first thing?

Makes me queasy. You smell nice.


Jeannie, I just realized I missed your question earlier about re-querying. Sorry about that. No, I never re-queried an agent who had already rejected me, though I know some people do it. I've heard some agents don't mind terribly if you say, "I've made substantial revisions to the story, have added 10k words, and the book now takes place on Mars instead of on a farm in Ohio, would you mind taking another look?" But just changing the query doesn't seem like enough. (Any agents reading can feel free to correct me if I'm wrong). As for querying agents at the same agency, that's a tough one. I've heard it's a definite no-no at some agencies for the simple reason that if Agent A thought a story had merit but wasn't right for her, she'd certainly pass it along to Agent B if she thought it might be right for her. On the other hand, I know there are some larger agencies where the agents don't work so closely with each other. For example, I queried an agent at a larger firm and never heard a peep from her. I ended up querying an agent who had no connection at all to that firm, and she was one of the ones who said "this isn't my thing, but you should try my friend so-and-so." It just so happened that so-and-so was an agent at the aforementioned firm that employed the agent who'd never replied. I went ahead and tried so-and-so, who wound up being one of the four agents to make an offer. Clear as mud? Bottom line, just use your best judgment :)

Beth, every author will have different strategies, and there's no "right" or "wrong" about it, but since you asked my opinion, I'll give it. If I were going to query agents again, I'd divide them into groups: 1) the dream agents, 2) the ones you'd still be delighted to work with, and 3) the ones you're a bit ambivalent about. Then add a fourth group, which would be one or two you really aren't interested in at all. Query that fourth group first just to test the waters. If you get a lot of "send it now!" responses, you might have something hot on your hands and should probably go right ahead and query group 2 and maybe even 1. If responses are lukewarm or negative, start working through your list from 3 to 2 to 1. By the time you hit group 1, you've refined your process and won't risk making an ass of yourself in front of the very agents you adore most. I should also add that you should NEVER query before you're ready. Polish and research and do the very best you can, but understand that you're still going to miss a few things on that first round of querying. Make sense? As for keeping track, I had a table in Word with fields where I entered the agent name, the date of initial contact, how I made contact (email/snail mail), what I sent (query, # of pages, synop), and what response I received. I'm sure there are other ways to do it, but that was my method. Hope that helps!

Jen, it's always hard to say if no news means "no" or if it means "stuck in the spam folder." To this day I wonder if some of those unanswered queries just never reached their intended recipients.

Harley May, see my long, convoluted response to Beth above, but the short answer is "yes." When I suggest this, people always say "but what if other agents offer to represent me and I haven't even queried my dream agent yet?" Then you hurry the hell up, query your dream agent, and follow up right away saying "I have other offers, I'll give you a week to read if you're interested." (More politely, of course).

Other authors or agents out there - feel free to chime in if you disagree with me on any of these points. I'm just suggesting what worked for me or what I'd do based on my experiences, but clearly there are other ways to skin a kiwi.

Thanks for reading, guys!

Unknown said...

Tawna, People may be interested in a site called querytracker.net. It's a good website that helps writers keep track of queries and provides good information on agents. There are also comments about agents from other writers, articles about the query process and lots of statistics.

Deborah Blake said...

Great post! So glad people are liking it.
My story was kind of like this, but it took 2 years and over 60 rejections before I got my agent.

Who in fact worked at the same agency as one of the agents who'd read ALL 3 BOOKS I wrote in that 2 years (bless her heart), finally loved the last one, but had just signed someone who was writing something too close. Argh. So I asked Agent A: what do you think about sending it to Agent B? She was happy to do so, Agent B REALLY loved it, and huzzah!

So it never hurts to ask.

Anonymous said...

Oh, wow. Thanks for sharing...I've been discouraged about querying after sending out around 30 and receiving maybe 10 rejections...this gives me hope!

Stephanie said...

Another huge thank you for this post. I'm at the point in my writing where I'm starting to get to that point of querying, and every time I think about it, I want to vomit myself inside out. Reading posts like yours helps immensely!

My cats lick my feet. Is that weird?

Purple Cow said...

You are amazing! all this running around and time to blog also. i'm not a book writer but I love your blog and personality. Interesting figures. I wonder if its the same for smaller markets such as the one I live in - Greece.

PS I did see an ad in the local paper once asking for people to e-mail someone manuscripts without giving further details. i thought it was weird. who would send their worked-on novel to some anonymous e-mail?

Claire Dawn said...

Four of 71 doesn't sound so bad for an offer/query ratio. I've done lots of things with worse odds.

But then, you're awesome and it took you 71 tries. And I have to compete with people who are on that same awesome scale. And there's no way I'll only need 71 tries.


Rob Flumignan said...

71 different agents? Dang, I'm having a hard time getting more than about 30. Did you query more than one agent at the same agency? I feel like I'm running out of places to send queries, but I know I haven't come close to 71.


Jeannie, great suggestion! I haven't used querytracker myself, but I've heard good things about it.

Deborah, what a small world! Glad it all worked out and you found your fabulous agent.

writelies, at 30 agent queries, you're barely getting started :)

Stephanie, my cats lick my hands, but the dog stays focused on my toes. I need to get someone to work on my elbows though, they're feeling a little rough.

Purple Cow, you're in Greece? I didn't know that (or if I did, I've forgotten). We spent several weeks there last summer and loved it. Where are you? You're right about that ad - sounds like a scam to me.

Claire Dawn, it's different for everyone, and there's no magic number. Some authors take only a couple queries (and you may very well be on of them) while others hunt for years to find the right agent. Hang in there!

Rob, nope, I steered clear of querying more than one agent at the same agency. That's generally frowned upon. Are you writing in a really small genre? There are over 1000 agents listed at agentquery.com, so I'm betting you can find a pretty good list there. Good luck!

Thanks for reading, guys!

Jessica Lemmon said...

Negative on going to Mexico... never did go. Spent my check on fun things like bills (BLARGH!) and savings (BLURG!) though I did buy a nice little netbook with part of the money...

Jemi Fraser said...

Really interesting numbers - thanks so much for sharing them. It's fascinating to see how different writers journey through the process - gives us all hope :) Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Lots of interesting posts, but this one is particularly enlightening, specific and encouraging.
Do you have a pep team to keep your spirits up when they are in danger of flagging, or do you manage that unaided?

Meghan Ward said...

Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Tawna! So interesting getting a glimpse into the agenting process of a published writer.

Mandy said...

This is great information. Thanks for sharing. I do have a question though.

How did you pick your 4 groups of agents? What was it about the "dream agent" that put them in that category?


Anonymous said...

This is absolutely fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing your query stats and interesting tid-bits! I feel like such a newbie, but clearly I have a long journey to look forward to. I've only sent out a few querys. Thanks again, you're blog has been thoroughly enjoyed this morning!!!