Monday, March 15, 2010

Query Etiquette - Part 2

The last post received such awesome feedback, that I figured I'd write up another post and not only finish my list, but also include a couple submitted by other agents/readers.

To recap from my last post:

I find myself somewhat shocked by the lack of professionalism in queries lately. I mean, it's always existed, but recently it seems to be getting worse and worse.

I feel that it has to do with either A) writers are becoming increasingly frustrated with rejections or B) writers are just getting plain lazy.

I'm not writing this to point fingers and say everyone does it, because that's certainly not the case. But a response to a form rejection last night was the icing on the cake for me, and I feel that a blog about Query Etiquette as opposed to "how to write a query" would be beneficial....or just plain amusing so you can see what people actually do and think is acceptable.

In a previous job, I was trained to read and critique resumes and cover letters for both students and professionals. Everyone compares queries with cover letters, and I think that's going to be the best way to illustrate the points I'm going to make.

How it's going to work is that I will write a sentence in bold that has actually appeared in a query before (all genres/specifics have been modified to protect the original author). I will then write how ridiculous it would sound if you tried the same thing in a cover letter and explain why you shouldn't write it.

To keep it uniform, I'm going to pretend the cover letter is for a job with Microsoft's XBox team (::prays that everyone knows what Xbox is::).

  • I have almost completed my manuscript X. Would you apply to a job and say "I've just finished my freshman year at college and I really want to be a doctor/teacher/accountant/etc! Would you please consider me now and I promise to complete all of the necessary prerequisites!" 'Almost completed' means that they're only about a quarter of the way through to the submission process. Because that means, not only have they not finished writing the manuscript, but they haven't even thought about revising and polishing yet, which all writers should do before submission. (This one is courtesy of the most awesome Joanna Stampfel-Volpe).
  • There's a lot of paranormal out there that sucks, so I thought I'd write one that's better. (I know I wrote this already in the last post, but Kristin Miller offered up an epic comparison that I just had to post. Just remember that if you're bashing the genre the agent represents, they will probably take offense). Would you say:

    Dear Microsoft,

    The game system you produce - gawd, not to mention the games - are such garbage that I have decided to lower myself to working for your company so that I elevate your poor-a$$ product to the quality only I can possibly produce. I await your million-dollar a year offer and remain your loyal servant, should you get your heads out of your butts and utilize my awe-inspiring services.

    Joe Jacka$
  • CC: Undisclosd Recipients or CC: Agent1@agency1.com; Agent2@agency2.com; Agent3@agency3.com.... This is about as tacky as mass e-mailing your cover letter/resume to several prospective employers. It shows lack of motivation (because it's just lazy) and lack of preparation (because if you check out 'how to query' blogs and sites, you'll find this is a big no no). Instant delete, usually without response.
  • When possible, let's discuss my book TITLE X. I think some authors may use this because they think of it as "I look forward to speaking with you in the near future regarding how I may benefit Company A." However, this is one case where in a query letter, it comes across a bit pompous. Because before we even discuss it, we're going to either reject or request a partial...and then a full....and then perhaps may or may not dialogue a bit via e-mail...so it's slightly different than a simple ::ring ring:: "Hello, we received your resume..." with a job. Best to just leave that part out.
  • My book, TITLE X, can be considered a political romance western with a touch of sci-fi and dash of horror. When choosing a genre, try to think about where you see it shelved at Barnes and Noble - NOT BarnesAndNoble.com where it can be under a zillion categories, but at an actual, physical bookstore. If you give us a zillion genres, it's going to read like you're saying, "I'm writing in response to your ad for the game designer position with XBox; however, I also saw you have ads for tech support, copywriter, game tester and janitor - so I can actually accommodate all of them, as you can see by my skills outlined below." Just choose a genre and go with it. It shows us you at least know what your book's audience is, which is a great first step.
  • This letter is a request for you to be my agent. Would you say, "This letter is a request for you to hire me." This is one of those scenarios where....well, quite frankly, "no duh." The purpose of a query letter is to tell us about your work so you can find representation - it's assumed you don't have representation. Same with a cover letter - it's assumed you're seeking a job.
  • I shall be in touch within 10 days. Would you say, "I will follow up in 10 days." in a cover letter? I really, really, REALLY hope not. You can't give us this type of deadline. Again, our job is not to read queries all day - most agents will list expected response times so you're not waiting, and there are even web sites (see end of this post) that offer up the opportunity for others to post how long it took for them to hear back (for me, it's a day to 3 weeks on queries and 4-6 weeks on partials). Use your resources.
  • ::knock knock:: "Hello. I'm here to meet with an agent, because I have a fantastic proposal that needs to be published." Ever see those job ads that say "no phone calls/walk-ins"? It's NOT appropriate to drop by. It's downright creepy, actually. Nathan Bransford has comments on this: This one falls into the "Yes, it needs to be said" category. I know 99% of you wouldn't think of doing this, but hopefully this will reach the other 1%. I made a comment on a YA Highway Video about this. Actually, I'll go as far as saying that I'm fairly confident that every single agent will back me up with saying that drop-ins to query are completely unprofessional and creepy. Don't. Do. It. Please. Same applies for phone call queries - not cool. Sorry.
  • Attached are sample pages. Best. Please, please, please...include a query letter and don't attach something unless the agent's site says to. Most agents delete e-mails with attachments without opening them. Viruses are scary. We don't want them. If a job application says to fill out a form and instead you just e-mail the HR person directly (without a referral), you're most likely going to have your email deleted.
  • How would you like to read the most amazing book ever? is kind of like saying, "How would you like to hire the most amazing person ever?"in a cover letter. You come across a teensy - ok, MAJORLY - full of yourself. Again...just be professional.

Some random FAQs re: questions some people asked/comments made:
  • Query Etiquette? What about a form query, like your agency's submission guidelines? Form or no form - you should be professional. Our agency's form doesn't offer a spot for you to paste a query, and instead offers up spaces for you to place information that can be found within the query. Therefore, it's not necessary to say "Dear Ms. Ortiz," because it's clear that Barbara and I have our separate forms for query submissions. If an agency has a form where you should copy/paste a query, and it's sent to the agency rather than to a specific person, then yes I think you should specify "Dear Mr. X."
  • Why should we use YOUR name when so many agents won't even respond to my query with a rejection? Here's my take on this. *Most* agencies specify on their web site whether or not you should expect to hear from them in the event they aren't interested in pursuing your work. If you don't like the fact that they say they don't respond to queries they don't want samples from, don't query them. I'm not saying they aren't good agencies because of that - don't misunderstand me. Everyone has their preferences, and I don't judge. I'm just saying that you should know, especially if you did your research, who does and does not respond to queries; therefore, don't be upset if you don't hear anything. You knew from the get go that there was a chance you wouldn't hear anything. And if you're curious about response times? Check out Absolute Write and QueryTracker. SO many sites out there to help authors with the road to publication. Again, this is your project - your craft and potentially your career. Would you stop applying to jobs because you didn't hear back if they didn't want you? Pickings would be slim. Guaranteed.
  • Reading queries is your job. No. My job is to work with my clients and their writing careers. Do I find clients in slush? Yes, absolutely; however, I don't sit around focusing just on slush and jumping up and down every time my e-mail chimes. I love to find great queries - I do! However, my main focus is on my clients and their works. I guarantee if you have an agent, you'd want them to focus on your contract, your foreign rights, your line edits, your pitch letters, your publishing-related issues rather than reading queries eight hours a day.
  • If Sir Paul McCartney were an agent, would 'Dear Sir' work in that case? I'd still say "Dear Sir McCartney." ;-)
  • Why don't you respond to those responses like Mr. F-bomber? I do, but only out loud to myself. There's no point in starting a neverending dialogue with the person. It gets me nowhere. Instead I just hit "block e-mail" and continue to either focusing on my clients' works or reading other queries in line in hopes of finding something fabulous - better use of my time, no?
  • What gives with the unprofessional agent who doesn't reply to my partial he/she requested? I have no idea. I can't speak for them. I'm sorry this happens, truly I am. But I think in this scenario, it's imho that this is why exclusives...well, suck really. But don't lump all agents together based on this - if we lumped all authors in the same catagory as Mr. F-bomber, well...I'd be a referral only agent...which I most certainly am not...
  • You can kick back, pry open a can of beans and warm them over a rusty barrel of burning manuscripts. Nah. I'm environmentally friendly. So manuscripts come to me via e-mail. And I'm not about to burn my laptop.


Opinions? Anything I missed?

22 comments:

For children's and YA authors, another good source for query response times is the Verla Kay Blueboards. http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php

I do check agent stats on QueryTracker, and the ones I find most puzzling are the ones who reject about 30% of their queries, request on 5-10% of them, and don't respond to the others. What makes some of us important enough to reject and others not so much?

HR Professional/Writer here again. Laughing once more, especially about the "Don't show up uninvited" comment. I once had an individual return from a lengthy leave of absence without telling anyone. This person proceeded to harass the receptionist until she called security because I happened to be out of the office that day and unable to meet immediately.

All the more reason to wait for an invitation and an APPOINTMENT time first. : )

Kathleen -- thanks for the entertaining and informative posts!

Dear Philangelus

Although QueryTracker.net can be very helpful, it is not always accurate and/or current. Most agencies will send form rejections to everyone they reject. It can take a while, but if the guidelines were followed it is very unusual to simply not hear back, and I refuse to believe that as much as 60-65% of those who submitted went unanswered. It is more likely that those submissions were sent by querytracker members who either did not follow guidelines or they didn't give feedback about their experiences. It doesn't necessarily mean that their queries were unacknowledged.

This is a great post (they all are of course).

With my tongue firmly in my cheek, the only thing I'd add is that the correct salutation for a knight of the realm is Sir (first name), So one would address one's query letter: "Dear Sir Paul" or "Dear Sir Paul McCartney". If he were a Lord, then one uses surnames: "Dear Lord McCartney".

I'm the token Brit here, so I just thought I'd share ;-)

Thanks again for the post. I've always considered a query letter in the same way as I do a cover letter to my CV when I'm applying for a job. So I appreciated your Microsoft references!

Torie, I'm used to the data at QT and it's not unusual to see the occasional hole in the data. The ones that puzzle me are the ones who clearly have a "no response" policy but have four rejections in a sea of empty spaces and "C/NR" entries, or else the ones that have approximately half the spaces empty or C/NR and half of them rejections.

Of course there will be people who fail to fill in the data after getting a rejection, but it's hard to believe that 50% of the queriers mysteriously failed to fill in their data for just this one agency--harder than to believe that specific agency only sends rejections half the time and deletes the other half.

There aren't that many of these, which is why it's amusing when they turn up. I wonder if it's like "casual day" at some offices: at these agencies, there "delete" days and "reject" days? :-)

So I'm the only one who likes bad queries.

Hm. Interested in what might account for the decline in professionalism and whether it's tied in some way to the frustration that people are also experiencing in the job search. You keep comparing to cover letters, but people are actually not even bothering with cover letters much any more, because it seems pointless... you go to a huge online HR portal and fill out all the stuff that's on your resume, PLUS upload your resume, plus answer a bunch of questions that have nothing to do with anything, such as the month/year when you started and left your previous jobs (as if you remember, 8 years ago), your exact degrees (which may not be relevant if you have 10 yrs experience in a different field), your GPA (which again may not matter if you've been working for 20 years)...and you really have no idea if a human being is ever going to see your application or if a search algorithm is going to toss it out. So, unless they're applying for some unusual type of job like literary agent, few people I know bother with the cover letter. Either the headers on the job titles will catch the search engine or they won't. (And NO ONE will answer a salary question before an interview, sorry--that's totally inappropriate.) That is, if you were actually applying for a job with Microsoft, for whom I happen to work, you'd just put your resume into the system and that's it. :)

So, you probably are seeing an increase in widespread cynicism that may or may not be warranted about whether there are human beings on the other side of any system like this... and whether content even matters any more. The more we see you guys on Twitter the less it seems that it does. It's all guidelines, guidelines, guidelines... and personality, personality, personality... and platform, platform, platform. Actual story doesn't seem to interest any of you, just how the query is presented.

That may not be true, but that is how you're coming across. So far on Twitter I've learned only about what agents I would *not* want to submit to... Just saying.

To elaborate, there seems to be an extreme degree of unprofessionalism among agents on Twitter... for example, a LOT of chitchat ALL DAY LONG about trivial things like what you're eating, where you're going drinking, what your cats are doing, silly little things your kids said... you don't see people who actually do work for Microsoft or who have other professional jobs tweeting about these things in such volume... I have columns in TweetDeck open for literary folks, healthcare people, social justice/education people, marketing people, MSFT techies, and funny folks, and the lit peeps surpass everyone in the mundane crap. And yet they whine incessantly about their workloads, which you also don't see the *real* (ie technology, healthcare, and education) professionals doing.

In other words, you all act like you're around 25 years old, just out of college... Maybe this lack of professionalism and informal tone is part of why you get approached in such an unprofessional manner. Just a thought.

But the hectoring from agents on Twitter, contrasted with the unprofessional behavior of agents on Twitter (content that communicates that you really have tons of time on your hands to chit chat among yourselves about really stupid things like your cats and your candy choices + whining about your inboxes when your inboxes are no worse than any other professional's in any other industry) is totally out of hand.

Not necessarily true. Folks with jobs that require a large portion of the day online chat in forums, Twitter, AIM, whatever. It's the equivalent of the water cooler. All jobs have something similar. There's nothing wrong with socializing, and it isn't unprofessional to do so. And tweeting several times a day isn't an indication of "tons of time" - you could send dozens of tweets in a few minutes time if you wanted to.

However, if you don't like what an agent does on Twitter (or anywhere else!), just don't query them! There are tons of agents who aren't active on Twitter.

Agreed. And I appreciate that I've learned whom not to query. And I agree that plenty of professional people tweet all day. But most of the people I follow from other professions don't tweet *as much* about inane topics. It's kind of funny--you'd expect literary types to be deeper, but the amount of small talk they seem to engage in is really numbing.

It's sort of a standard that you shouldn't tweet about your meals and such and doing so labels you an amateur. Well, writers and agents and editors are the worst offenders, as far as I can tell. Other professionals do so, but only occasionally, and it's much more mixed in with relevant links and information sharing that enables colleagues and peers to improve performance. Publishing professionals aren't entirely null in this arena--that's how I found this blog--but in general there is a much higher ratio of "I'm chewing gum right now" tweets to links to reflective articles on what is going on in publishing. You WILL get the personal tweets from the other professional types, but in the course of the day, there will be a lot more that are on-topic...even if they are personal, they are at least related to work... but usually they are links to stuff that I can use professionally.

No one minds the occasional glimpses into personality, or the moments of humor. I'm talking about balance and the view from my TweetDeck, that's all.

I ended up having to make a backlist/frontlist of literary tweeps, and moved most of you as far to the right (off my screen) as it gets, since there is so little value-add. I love my cats, but I couldn't care less about yours. And when 30 people are tweeting about cats in rapid succession *they are all the same.* :D

I also agree that you can send a lot of tweets in a short time, and sometimes I do this myself (though followers usually hate this & speaking of etiquette, there are standards in social media...like tweeting about your meals, sending a bunch in a row is considered bad manners)...but I always hope my boss isn't watching. Because even if it's true that it isn't necessarily a sign of sloth, it still *sends that impression.* It looks unprofessional, and that's that.

@Anonymous

I think there's definitely a degree of unprofessional people in a variety of careers - agree 110%. However, I don't think Tweeting and Blogging about professional/personal things makes it so that we're a target for bad queries. I know agents who won't approach social media with a ten-foot pole and still have the same problems. This (unprofessional queries) started way before social media was even a trend.

On the other hand, I feel it's important for me, as an agent, to show that not only do I know how to use social media, but I also know how to connect to an audience by using it. Publishing is changing rapidly and authors are expected to do more and more on their end to help promote. Imho, how can I tell them (prospective and current clients) they *have* to learn to get comfy with social media if I myself won't even do it? It's hypocritical.

Why are publishing professionals on social media *all* the time? Why are entertainment professionals on social media *all* the time? Probably because they're two large entities that actually require self promotion. Doctors really have no need for Twitter. Teachers really have no need for Twitter (though I guarantee that those who teach classes on technology will Tweet their fair amount - I follow a few). But publishing people? If publishers are going to require authors to step up and do some promotion, then I'm going to do my part as an agent and stand right there next to them to ensure they not only know what they're doing, but they do it to the best of their, and my, ability.

Does my work suffer? Absolutely not. You'll see me disappear at times because I do take time to do my work. I keep Twitter open at work, and sometimes I Tweet more when I'm at lunch and other times I don't. And yes, I have the Twitter app on my phone. Do I read every Tweet on my feed? Nope. Definitely no time. Do I respond to every @ response? Nope. But I make it a point to connect with my audience whenever I can - when it's appropriate - because I genuinely care about reaching out.

I chose Microsoft's XBox because a friend of mine applied for a job and was required to send in a cover letter. Also went with it because Microsoft Windows Tweets like mad every day, which is interesting considering their XBox account doesn't (really interesting for me!) :)

I appreciate the feedback, though, and hope this explains a little. I'm definitely with you on the fact that some personal things don't need to be Tweeted, but as I tell my clients - you have to show some humanity in your Tweets/blogs. If you just promote, promote, promote, you'll bore your audience as well as possibly turn them off at the neverending self-promotion.

Oh, and my boss definitely knows I Tweet. I'm fairly confident in saying almost all agents' bosses (if they have one, as many own their own agency) are cool with the Tweeting.

Anon,

I'm an agent on twitter. Go ahead and blame it on my age. I'm 27.

Do I think I'm receiving more unprofessional queries due to twitter? No. Quite the opposite. The ones who mention following me on twitter are largely more educated about the industry and more aware of what is supposed to be in a good query. If they're on twitter, they're probably on blogs, facebook, etc.

As far as comparing it to other industries, well, most other industries work differently. You're paid by the hour and you're on the clock with a boss/company that gets no benefit from you being on twitter. Agents are generally paid commission only. How we spend our time is our prerogotive.

Great post, Kathleen. From a writer's perspective, agents and editors tweeting on Twitter is nothing short of a blessing. Getting to know agents in a somewhat more personal manner is incredibly useful in helping to determine who to query. My agent spotted me on Twitter, went to my blog, and e-mailed me. I know this is unusual, but things like this do happen.

Agents are professionals and they're regular people, too. They have every right to tweet personal things, and there's no doubt they can still get their work done. I manage to write many pages throughout the day and still find time to Tweet. In this day and age, we are all multi-taskers.

I would imagine it's true that writers who tweet are better informed and, therefore, send more professional queries. If you're on Twitter, you're more likely to go to the agent's websites, Agent Query, Query Tracker, Publisher's Marketplace, etc, to learn each agent's preferences for queries.

That is all. Thanks for this great post. I'm off to tweet it on Twitter!

Great post. My favorite part? Confirming I was doing all the right stuff in my queries. Wa-hoo!

I'd also like to mention - since the conversation has changed direction a little - that I've just read a blog post from an agent who shared a query letter from an author they rep. There were a huge number of blog followers who said they couldn't wait to read the book after that entry.

It seems to me that agents are being ultra-professional in using all available media to promote their authors. All those blog followers wanting to buy that book were followers of the agent, not the author. So if I were to choose an agent - it would be one who blogged and tweeted, especially if their high profile helped my sales. That's my tuppence-worth.

What I've seen some agents doing on Twitter is creating something of a "tribe" of their authors, hooking up the authors with one another and forging a sense of community among them all.

I can't help but think that would be good for all the authors and for the agent as well, since s/he would know the authors felt comfortable with her and with one another. (By contrast, I never felt comfortable with my previous agent and had contact with no one else he represented, and I think that caused communication barriers.)

Great post - lots of smiles and great info.

Personally I think agents and editors on Twitter is a good thing. I've learned a lot :)

this is an awesome post, and so so helpful. i'm so grateful for agents like you who go out of your way to help out aspiring writers. i know i wouldn't have found my agent any other way.

thanks for all you do.
this is excellent.
your blog is a wealth of information!!

Thank you so much. You even answered my query as to whether you would cover a topic in your blog. You are great! You encompass professionalism at its finest. Thanks again. Though you may never take one of my books, I will follow you until the end.

Politeness is the art of choosing among one's real thoughts.

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