The other day at the wonderful BookEnds blog, authors and perspective authors were given the opportunity to rail against everything they don’t like about the traditional write, query, and wait submission process that has become standard in the publishing industry. I applaud the agents at BookEnds for opening up this particular Pandora’s box, particularly considering how much vitriol and frustration is out there. For many wannabe authors, agents rank somewhere between food poisoning and double amputation on the list of things they want to deal with, but as gatekeepers to that mystical realm of publication they are a necessary element of any writer’s quest to print.
I did not participate in the blog commentary the other day, but that doesn’t mean I have nothing to say about it. I’ll address the most common complaints that authors have and-don’t be shocked–I’m not always on the side of the authors.
1. No response means no. As human beings, much less as writers, our minds demand closure. If I send a query for a novel I have spent months, even years, creating and polishing, I do believe that an agent can spare a few moments to even send a form rejection saying that they don’t like it. I do realize how busy agents are, really I do. I understand that reading queries is basically a pro bono activity, providing little to no return on investment. I further understand that the advent of equeries and the ease of submissions has created an explosion in the number of people with books to sell. I get all of that. Still, it is no more than professional courtesy than to let an author know where the agent stands on his or her work, for good or ill. This is a cost of doing business, the rough equivalent of prospecting for gold or drilling wells in hopes of oil. If an agent is truly so overwhelmed by queries that the mere thought of reading them makes him or her wince, then what Colleen Lindsay has done–stopped taking them until further notice–makes a world of sense. Perhaps agents should move to a format like some magazines follow, allowing submissions only during certain times of year. That would allow them to manage that time more effectively while ensuring that they are not overwhelmed. Yes, this may mean that good authors and good books are missed, but it would also afford the agent a more positive mindset when it came to reading the culmination of so many hours of work from the author.
On a personal note, I have had a full out to an agent since last May, have sent three follow up emails since October, all of which have garnered no response. Am I mad? Hardly. I recently received a rejection for the same manuscript, also out since May, telling me that she was on the fence and even had others in her circle read it to give her some additional insight. That’s fine by me, encouraging even, but I would love a quick email letting me know about said fence-sitting.
2. Not updating submission guidelines. Every agent should be responsible for keeping his or her submission guidelines updated in a few select locations where the agents are contacted direction for feedback, particularly an agency or agent website. Agents should not, however, be responsible for updating sites they have no direct contact with. That duty falls to the administrators of those particular sites and any author with a complaint over them not updating should leave the agent alone. Most agents I follow in the blogosphere give their readers advance notice on any change in guidelines and I believe that most will allow a certain amount of leeway for those not up to the minute on the specifics.
3. Making fun of query letters. If I do something stupid in a query and an agent want to make fun of me, then I deserve it. Agents have a thankless, frustrating job that requires them to be talent scouts, writing instructors, business professors, sales people, marketing whizzes, editors, psychologists, and creative sounding boards, among others. It’s no different from any other job–people look for humor where they can find it. Do you think doctors don’t make fun of their patients while they’re unconscious on the operating table? Do you think lawyers don’t ridicule their clients? I work in retail and if I couldn’t have a little fun at the expense of my customers, I’d go crazy. If you have a serious problem with how agents discuss authors on their blogs, then stop reading them and go coach little league baseball where everyone gets a trophy and everyone’s a winner. Let me know when you are ready to come back to the real world.
4. Spending too much time watching television or on Twitter, Facebook, etc. I admit to being divided on this one. On the one hand, authors like me who gave up television and the like to write the book now being ignored in some agent’s inbox, have a hard time relating to someone not wishing to make that kind of sacrifice. On the other, I want any agent I’m submitting to have balance in his or her life. If an agent wants to watch television or read a book for pleasure, I’m all for it. I don’t expect agent’s to make the kind of sacrifices I have. I have a day job and I don’t work it more than I have to; it would be wrong for me to expect my agent to do the same. Obviously, my novel is a lot more important to me than it is to you and my job is remembering that.
5. You can’t judge a book by its query.. Perhaps this is true. I’m sure there are wonderful books out there that never saw publication because they query wasn’t strong enough. However, until someone comes up with a better way of selecting books, we’re stuck with the query letter. I find it odd how often the same person will complain about how long it takes to hear back from an agent while also complaining about how agents should read the manuscript before making a judgment call. We can’t have it both ways.
6. Agents don’t take email queries. If an agent wants prospective clients to actually print something out and spend a few cents to mail it as a sign of their dedication, then so bet it. If an author wants an agent enough, he or she will do what it takes, even if that means taking a trip to the post office. Email makes the query process almost too easy, so I can understand adding another test for the fledgling writer. We must remember that the agents are not there for our convenience, nor are they obligated to bend their practices to our will. Besides, you never hear agents who don’t accept equeries complain about how overwhelmed they are.
Is the traditional submission process flawed? Absolutely. But until someone comes up with something better, we are stuck with it. I am never going to change the system by complaining about it; the voice of one unpublished writer doesn’t travel very far. I won’t say that I do not get frustrated by the odds stacked against me, but I know the only answer, the only thing I have any control over, is to write better. A better book and a better query are the only means I have of influencing my chances of finding representation. If I don’t like they way things are, I can always try something else.
I have as much reason to be negative about the novel submission process as anyone else, but I also have confidence that I’ll break through at some point. That, the certainty that I am good enough, keeps me from giving up.