Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Rant on #queryfail and #agentfail brouhaha

This is all kind of old news by now. I mean, The Guardian has even done a story, but somehow I can’t keep myself from wanting to comment.

If you twitter, or if you read writer blogs, you’ve probably heard about #queryfail and #agentfail.

For those of you who aren’t twits, (and really, seriously, the moniker is fitting -- twitter is a huge time suck--fun--but a time suck), twitter is basically micro-blogging. Posts of 140 characters or less. If you add a tag, like #queryfail within your 140 chars, then people can search on that tag and see all the posts using that tag in one long list.

So, in early March, an agent, Colleen Lindsay, had the brainstorm to do a #queryfail day, where she invited other agents to make short posts about things they’ve seen in query letters that made them an obvious rejection.

And the examples were pretty bad. Almost without exception they were things that anyone who’s done ten minutes of research about query letters would know not to do.

Some random examples:
Do not start your query by saying, "I suspect you're inundated with (certain genre), so forgive me for sending you another one.." #queryfail

Why send us a proposal for a television series when we clearly don't represent that sort of thing? #queryfail

“I have designed a unique cover for my book.” Unrealistic expectations #queryfail

Asks me to be patient with their 300,000 word novel because it really picks up steam after the first 50k words? #queryfail

Insists on calling me to tell me about their book because it's too difficult to describe in writing. Uh.... #queryfail

Tell me that God told you I would be the perfect agent for you? #queryfail

Tell me you have an idea for a novel and want to get my opinion of it before you start writing it? #queryfail

And then the backlash started. Crazy backlash. Some writers went berserk. “Agents are so mean.” “They don’t realize how hard we work on our novels.” “How can they publicly deride people like this.” “How come they have time to twitter but they don't have time to respond to my query/read my submission?”

Crazy. Ca-ra-zee.

First, it was all anonymous. Where was the public derision? Second, it was meant to be educational, not mean.* Don’t aspiring writers realize info like this, straight from the agents’ mouths is gold? Third, agents are human, not machines. And they have more things on their plates than just you. The world does not revolve around you. Do you get angry that they take time out of their days to eat and pee, too?

*Okay, it was a little bit about venting and agent bonding/networking, too, but where’s the harm in that?

I glanced at #queryfail a few times the day it was happening, kind of shrugged, ‘cause it was all stuff I’d heard before and I'm not currently seeking an agent… But then I could not believe when I started to see blog posts and tweets about backlash. Apparently, the agents who participated got hate mail and horrible things said about them not so anonymously** such that they felt the need to defend themselves against a barrage of negativity calling them things like insensitive, unprofessional and cruel.

** by not-so-anonymous, I mean one-sided anonymous. The opposite to how the agents handled it. Hateful, personal jabs posted anonymously, but naming the agents.

I was kind of appalled. Okay, I was a lot appalled. ;-)

Then, a few weeks later, agent Jessica Faust decided: why not give the writers a voice? But instead of doing it on twitter, where posts are limited to 140 characters, she invited writers to post comments on her blog venting their pet peeves about agents.

And that’s where things started to get ugly. Oh, the vitriol. And I only read the first 30 comments or so. Last time I looked, it was up to 304.

A few comments were from authors who have or have had agents and wanted to complain about things that they'd experienced, but the vast majority were from aspiring authors who'd been unable to land representation.

I get that it’s frustrating to find an agent. Been there, done that. Have watched friends do it multiple times. It’s a tough, ego-destroying process.

But I also firmly, *firmly* believe that if you have a great idea for a book that’s timely and fits into a recognizable genre, if you do your research about who to query and how to write a great query letter… You’ll get requests for pages. At least from a sampling of the queries you send out.

That said, I do believe the query process is a bit of a roulette wheel. Writing/reading/publishing is subjective, agents are human, plus they all have their own pet peeves. I’ve seen lots of examples on panels or on blogs of one agent citing one thing as a reason for rejecting that was the exact thing that caught another agent’s eye… Sub-ject-ive. But it’s not *that* hard to get requests if you've done your homework. Trust me.

Then, after you get requests, your work speaks for itself. Either it’s great or it isn’t. Either it’s that particular agent’s taste, or it isn’t. Either the agent thinks he/she knows editors who might love it, or he/she doesn’t. It’s that freaking simple. There’s no conspiracy. There’s no purposeful desire to be cruel. There’s no master plan to keep the best, most interesting work away from readers. Yes it’s subjective. Yes the system's not perfect. But it’s the way it works and if you want to play in the game, you need to know and accept the rules.

And if your writing is strong and polished. If your idea has commercial appeal (publishing is a business!!!), then I can virtually guarantee you’ll get some positive responses to your pages--even if it's only a personalized rejection the agent took time out of her day to write.

If one agent rejects your work? Don’t despair. Sub-ject-ive. If ten reject? Same thing. But if 50+ reject? Then it’s time to take another look at your work.

Ask yourself:
  • Is it really well-written? Polished. Sparkling.
  • Have you studied your craft or did you just expect to know everything about writing a novel by osmosis? (I know how to be a novelist, I’ve read books and wrote some short-stories and essays in school. Oh, yeah? Well, I know how to be a doctor, I watch House and took biology.)
  • Is your storytelling tight, well-paced, exciting, different?
  • Have you read enough in your genre (and outside your genre) to know your work isn’t cliché or derivative?
  • Do you have a strong voice?
Until you can honestly answer yes (or at least I think so) to all these questions (and more), unless you've questioned your skills, recognized some of your weaknesses and improved, you’re not ready. You need to work harder. No one said writing or getting published was going to be easy. And lord knows we at DWT know that landing the agent is only the first hurdle to leap...

So here's my message to the angry commenters on the #agentfail blog:

Dear angry writer:

You wrote a book. Congratulations. Seriously. It’s a big accomplishment. Huge. But it doesn’t mean what you’ve written is publishable.

Just because you’ve poured all your hopes, dreams, money, time into writing and submitting your opus, doesn’t mean enough people will want to read it to justify an agent or publisher putting *their* hopes, dreams, money and time into trying to get it into booksellers’ and ultimately readers’ hands.

If agents are consistently ignoring you, ask yourself the above questions. Then no matter what your answers, continue to work on your craft. Get better. Don’t rant and rage and spit venom.

Get a grip.

And read this essay I stumbled upon today, or a gazillion other great essays and articles easily available (google, anyone?) about what it takes to be a published writer. And then if you still want to have a career in mainstream publishing, put on your big-girl pants and grow up.

11 comments:

Amy Ruttan said...

Yeah I totally agree. I did a blog post on writers shooting themself in the foot. But this was after an editor talked about the HATE mail she was receiving and it made me frustrated, because I have SEEN time and time and time again people get their noses out of joint because they have been rejected.

They take it way too personally.

It's not personal. It's business.

Auto Reply (as Kimber Chin said) is a bad tool for some people.

Because people don't forget vitriol against them personally.

Sinead M said...

Love the Get your big girl pants on line...

so true... this is a business and a lot of writers forget that. Writing a book is personal, marketing that book is not.
An important distinction, but one we have to keep in mind.

Did not read the comments on bookends, only because I knew they would make me mad and suck up too much time..

Kimber Chin said...

LOL at Amy quoting me.
Does that mean I'm famous?
Or, even better, infamous?

Actually I can vouch that if you write a half decent book that is not marketable at all (at least not for large press), you'll STILL get a positive response from agents. They'll say something like 'Love your book. Can't sell it.' And they'll ask you to resubmit a more marketable story.

So it comes down to the writing. Tough to hear but it is reality.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Maureen,

See - the problem with your questions - is most writers (real writers) will always answer "NO" to them.

No, this isn't good enough. No, it's not as tight as it can be. No, it's all wrong wrong wrong! But at some point you have to make the call to send it out anyway.

It's the writers out there who think they're greatest thing since sliced bread - and are getting rejected by everyone - who don't get it.

But that said - I think the one legitimate beef people have is the no response response.

I'm a published writer. For this last book I targeted 10 agents. 3 never responded. Had I not gotten an offer - I would never have queried those 3 agents again with any project. But that's just me. Communication for me is numero uno when it comes to having an agent and I think the "no response" says something regarding how that agent operates.

Steph

Maureen McGowan said...

You're completely right Stephanie... and that's why I loved that confidence vs delusion post that JA Konrath did a while back.

If I'd written his post I would have added:

Confident writers sometimes question whether or not they might be delusional.

Serious, sane writers are always questioning whether they're good enough and trying to get better.

It's the ones who say "yes" automatically to all those questions who will never get better and will always think the agents are in a big conspiracy to keep their work from the big time.

One particular commenter really irked me. Actually, it was the comment that set me off. Here's a bit of it:

"When Agents say time and time again "I am looking for something different, edgy, boundary pushing and new" then when you send them exactly what they are asking for, they reject you."

This reads to me of 100% delusion. Um... We'd all like to think we were different/edgy/boundary pushing/new... Isn't that in a way what most of us are aiming for? What the *** makes you think you accomplished it? And even if you're right that your stuff is all you say... it simply didn't do it for that agent. Get over it. ;-)

As for the no response thing. I may be alone here, but I'm okay with that, too.

Anyone who's ever applied for jobs knows that it's very common not to hear anything back.

If work was requested, I expected a response, on a query? Not so much. Although I think I could count on one hand the number of agents who didn't respond--eventually.

Maureen McGowan said...

Oh, and Sinead you hit exactly on something else I'd planned to say (ran out of rant)

Yes, writing is personal, very personal. Publishing is not.

Hard to keep them separate. Can't claim to do it well, myself, but writers really do have to remember that the publishing part is a business, even if the writing part rips our guts out.

Stephanie Doyle said...

The thing about the no response - isn't necessarily the no response.

You didn't like my work, you don't want to see more. I get it.

I think it's more of this agent doesn't see a problem with receiving an email and not responding. Now I know the argument might be... "I would never NOT respond to a client's email." But having had an agent who didn't respond even though I was a client - it would just trigger my warning levels.

Because what all those angry people (and my goodness there were a lot of them) don't realize getting an agent is one thing. Getting the right agent is another.

But even as I type this I think... bottom line is if I was an AMAZING BESTSELLING WRITER ... the agent probably would have answered my emails. Like anything else they're going to spend their time where the $ is. If you want to get attention - make more $$$ for them.

Steph

Maureen McGowan said...

Ah, Steph, I misunderstood.

I totally agree.

Agents need to respond to clients, even if they've fallen out of love or said client isn't making agent any money.

In that situation I'd tell the agent to put on her big girl pants and break up with the writer, rather than avoiding them. That is rude and passive-agressive and unprofessional.

I know a few writers who've had that issue with their (now-fired) agents.

My comments were about non-responses to queries.

Maureen McGowan said...

Oh... and I had an interesting talk with an author who shall remain anonymous... who switched from starter agent to big-name agent... and then was having trouble getting big-name agent excited about sending out any of her proposals.

Author finally confronted agent: what gives?
Agent: send me something great and I'll get excited.

Author said it was the wake-up call she needed to write a bigger/better book.

Straight talk in the publishing industry. It does exist. Just not that often.

Kwana said...

Wonderful and well written post Maureen. Such a nice kick in the butt one that need to be said. As an often times crybaby that always picks herself back up I really appreciate it:)

Maureen McGowan said...

Kwana,

I'm often a cry-baby, too. I think we all go through those stages in this business. It's so, so hard.

The dif between us (IMO) and some of the commenters on #agentfail is that we recognize we're not god's gift to the publishing world.

Funny quote on The Office last night.
Vikram to Michael: Confidence is the food of the wise, the liquor of the fool.

So true.

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