Saturday, April 9, 2011

We've spoken about the 61 percent of rejections that come from areas completely within your control.

What about those that...aren't?

Take writing, for example. You cannot sit down (even for Malcolm Gladwell's prescribed 10,000 hours) and guarantee yourself a bestseller.

But you can improve your odds significantly.

10 percent of queries, after the first 61 percent, are rejected solely because of writing.

What do you do if your writing "isn't there yet"?

Much as writers hate to hear it...write more.

I've seen writers go from ho-hum to amazing. How, you ask?

By writing another book. The skills you learn in writing book one make you far more capable in writing books two, three, four...and on from there.
What's the next largest reason I reject a work?

You'll remember that 33 percent of queries are rejected right off the bat because of lack of research.

Concept comes in second, with 18 percent.

How do you know if you have a good concept? Well.
  • Ask your critique partners
  • Don’t just give them one concept; give them two or three and let them pick
  • Most friends/CPs are too embarrassed to say “I hate that” but will pick their favorite out of a few
  • Often, when you have something easily summed up in a sentence or two, you’re on the right track.
Third, after genre and concept, comes taste: 10 percent. 

These have good writing, and did some research but not enough to know our taste versus genres repped. They're essentially a more advanced version of the 33 percent--often these are writers who used only one book when finding agents. It's important to also look at our websites, blogs, interviews, etc.

So, right there, that’s:

33 percent (complete lack of research)


18 percent (unappealing concept)


10 percent (good writing, and did some research but not enough to know our taste versus genres repped)


61 percent of your competition’s mistakes that are 100 percent within your power to address.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Eep. Totally behind schedule--was at another conference this weekend.

More soon. And certainly by this weekend.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

On personalized first lines

So, as you may remember, even I was surprised by how much of a difference there was in the success rates between cleverly personalized queries and standard, "Dear Agent" letters.

The tailored queries received an amazing 42.4 success rate--that said, these were, of course, January queriers--to the average will be lower than that (my guess would be around 30 percent).

The "normal" query--the "Dear Ms. _______" and then continuing on with a copy-pasted query--had a 10.5 percent success rate.

And those who made mistakes--who got my name wrong, etc--had a zero percent request rate (and not just because I found the errors somewhat annoying). Those who don't do enough research to spell an agent's name correctly are often the same writers who don't bother to learn what we're interested in--or how best to present their work.

Now, what am I considering tailored?

I don't mean, Dear Agent, I hear you like YA, and this is YA, so you'll love this, right?

Here are some of my favorites from January:

I would love to work with someone else who remembers Surge fondly. When I read your  latest blog post and found an interview  stating your interest in YA fiction with  crossover appeal, I knew I had to query you.


I was very drawn to your "If you can write a  book that's officially about one thing but really actually, about so much more...“  comment—which makes me think you might  take an interest in my manuscript.


I saw in your interview that you are actively seeking  works that go beyond “shopping/romance/school issues” and “examine the emotional nuances of this life stage, with writing that is beautiful but accessible to young  adults,” which has been my goal with my manuscript.


I’m sorry to say, I’m totally team Peeta.

Now. What do these lines do for these writers?

  • They prove that the writer has done his/her research--thus preventing them from ending up with the 33 percent who did not.
  • If you read the agent's blog, mention it--this is a great way to connect.
  • With these lines, I get an immediate sense of the writer's voice. As you can imagine, I reject a lot of queries and manuscripts because the voice is off--especially for YA. This proves right away that you're less likely to fall into that camp.
  • If these manuscripts are as amusing as their pitches, I'll be giggling for hours.
  • Keep in mind that I request a lot of queries simply because I want to read them. Your query functions, in this way, like book jacket copy.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Finally...the pie charts!

Now. As surprised  many of you, the largest percentage of queries were rejected for something completely within the writer's control: these were projects in categories that our agency had gone on the record--many records, in fact--to say were not for us.

At the time of the making of this pie chart--and this has since changed--we did not represent sci fi, fantasy, or thrillers.

But we received hundreds of these projects--some with headings like, "I've read that you're especially interested in sci fi, so..."

This is easily prevented with the use of my favorite work for this purpose, The Jeff Herman Guide.

There's a new edition out every year. And it's much more than just lists of genres--it also includes detailed interviews, so that you can get a good feel for each agent as a person.

Now, sometimes I get emails like this:

According to Agent Query, you are interested in literary and women's fiction, and you are also actively seeking new clients. Does Jeff Herman know something Agent Query doesn't? Somehow, I doubt it. You seemed like a good fit for my work, which is precisely the reason I queried you. If your listing on Agent Query is  inaccurate, then perhaps you should consider changing it.

Best wishes,

Now. This is an issue of far more than just rudeness (it's never a good idea to take this frustrated tone with an agent): this shows that, when finding an agent, it's not just a matter of genre--but a matter of taste.

For example, all three of these works fall under the umbrella of Women's Fiction:

But most agents would only be interested in one or two of these. 

As you can see, it's very important to do your research--or we will lose respect for you immediately. 

After all, if you haven't bothered to learn who we are--why should we want to know more about you?

The very easiest remedy? 

Cleverly personalized first lines. 

For example: 

Query personalization
The big magenta section is 76.6 %
The blue wedge on the right is 10.6%
The green wedge, top-left, is 10.5%
And the tiny yellow sliver on the left is 2.2%
76.6% of writers wrote "Dear [Agent's name]" and the rest was a form.
10.6% wrote merely "Dear Agent"
2.2% made errors--misspelled my name, called me by another agent's name, etc.

And only 10.5%--keep in mind these were taken from a batch of relatively smart January writers, too--bothered to make a real, personalized query. 

Next time, I'll show you how that makes a huge difference in success rates.

Hope this finds you well.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why You Shouldn't Idealize Your Competition

I took 200 randomly selected queries from those 808 received in January, 2011 to see how far off the mark most of these queries are.

Of those queries, 13 percent were perhaps right for someone else—but not for me or anyone at our company.

30.5 percent were interesting but not quite there yet—with further work, the query and project could be marketable.

And 56.5 percent need to go back to the drawing board.

Some had interesting takes on punctuation:

“if you respect self-promotional maniacs, then you'll understand where i'm coming from n going ;-) ...just google me 4 an example of what i'm willing to do to promote my book. how often do ya find such career dedication? Lol”

Some attempted to use quotes from readers as “proof” that the work was worth reading:

“[[Author] has an interesting and unusual  writing style.” --Author’s friend

Some have word counts that are far enough from the norm that I stop reading:

“I have recently completed a 352,000-word novel of literary fiction...”

And, though I’d never reject someone for use of one cliché or for formatting…

Eleven used my least favorite query cliché: “Then [Character]’s world was turned upside down.”

Thirteen of them had obnoxious formatting:

  • Bright colors and fonts
  • Emoticons :)
  • An email forwarded so many times, the line breaks don’t work
  • Pictures of how the author imagines the book cover
  • Instead of paragraphs, one big block of text

Ten of these queries were only one paragraph long.

Eleven had more than five punctuation errors.

Three compared their works to two or more runaway bestsellers, ie, “This is Harry Potter meets Twilight meets Eat, Pray, Love.”

Which, as you can imagine, did not make them appear particularly well-read.

And six of those CC’d about forty other agents, so I could see what other agents were receiving this--way to make a girl feel special.

Next week on (as I'm calling it) The Pie Chart Show, we'll...actually have pie charts!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Stay tuned!

I'm in DC visiting family, and my cousins (five and seven) have worn me out! This week's installment will be posted tomorrow--when I return to NYC, my computer--and have had some much-needed rest.

Hope this finds you well.