In the publishing industry, many badly-written queries are considered especially heinous, and they are probably the reason why you didn’t get published yet.
The dedicated people who reply to query letters are members of an exclusive elite squad known as literary agents.
These are their stories.
A big thanks to agents who take their time to tweet their queries. This series would not be possible without them.
Agent Analysis – Part 2
Previously on Query and Publish…
In one of my blog posts, I did an analysis of what genres agents are looking for in the US. Unfortunately, the main tongue-in-cheek question – why the agent doesn’t love me – wasn’t addressed. The problem is that this differs from agent to agent, so it’s hard to answer it. Part 1 of this series looked into agent’s X preferences. Part 2 is about agent Y.
Agent Y is a literary agent that posted information about at least 200 queries on twitter in the last few years.
She’s looking for Young Adult (light SFF, Contemporary, Mystery, Horror, Romance), Middle Grade, Picture Books, and several non-fiction genres.
Agent Y requested partials from 16 letters (out of 200), or about 8% of the queries. This seems to be the norm, and in contrast with Agent X, who accepted about 15% of her queries. Also, take this with a grain of salt – the agents may not have tweeted about all queries they received at that time.
Of course, requests are not offers of representation. The odds of an agent signing a new client after they request fulls or partials is between 3% to 20%, depending on the agent. 3% of 16 is half a book.
Bad queries led the reason for rejections, followed by saturated themes, genres she doesn’t represent, query guidelines and others. I’ll discuss each one of them later.
Agent Y seems to have a preference for Young Adult, Middle Grade and Picture books. For this set of 200 queries, they were the only genres that she requested chapters.
YA (Young Adult), MG (Middle Grade), PB (Picture Book), LF (Literary Fiction), F (Fantasy), Nov (Novella), CB (Chapter Book – aren’t they all?), NF (Non-Fiction), Mem (Memoir), MR (Magical Realism), R (Romance), Thrill (Thriller), HF (Historical Fiction), H (Horror), SF (Science Fiction), WF (Women’s Fiction), GN (Graphic Novel), Comm (Commercial Fiction), NA (New Adult). N/A = Not Available.
On the other hand, most people submitted Young Adult, Middle Grade and Picture Books, so maybe this is just a reflection of the incoming queries.
Agent Y is one of the few that tells us about the subgenres of her queries. This gives us better insights of what type of Young Adult and Middle Grade queries she receives.
Out of 71 Young Adult queries, 24 were Contemporary fiction, followed by 19 letters submitting Fantasy. She clearly has a soft spot for Young Adult Magical Realism since she requested all submissions she received in this genre. Note, though, that she had 2 Young Adult Paranormal queries that she rejected. Obviously, Paranormal and Magic Realism are not the same. I’m not going to explain to you why they’re different because that’d make you look like a fool, and I’m not exactly sure anyway. You can also check this Lara’s post about genres in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Below it’s the same information in pie format, because why not.
Most Middle Grade queries for agent Y are Fantasy and Romance (57%), followed by generic MG (N/A).
Again, Magic Realism seems to be the key here. Time to read One Hundred Years of Solitude and and create a Middle Grade or Young Adult version of it. Shouldn’t be hard, right?
So now the juicy and gossipy part of this series: the reason you were rejected.
Most rejections (37 out of 200, or 18.5%) were due to bad queries. But what does it mean?
- Some pitches or queries were too short – even though she likes short queries.
- Query focus on the reason or theme behind the story rather than the story. This happens a lot.
- Pitch explains all the things that it is not, but not what it really is. This is not a game of charades.
- Query explains the concept, but not the story.
- Referral from someone she doesn’t know. Nice try, though!
- Stakes weren’t clear. Sometimes the query talks too much about characters and not enough about the plot. It’s the story of Steve. And Alice. And Frank. And Emily. And their parents, grandparents, plus everyone living west of the Mississippi.
- Over-confident author. “There has never been a greater story!”
- No pitch, just the pages in the query. Dear Agent: Chapter 1.
- Query written from the point of view of the main character. Maybe some agents like this, but agent Y definitely doesn’t. “Dear Agent, I’m Dexter, the creepy serial killer.”
- Query is just author’s bio, or focused too much on his or her bio. Unless you’re a former president of the United States when the republic was still around, or the professor from the BBC video where his children walked into an interview, this probably doesn’t matter.
- Bad crossover – we should write to the audience. I know, Space Ghost Olympics does sound interesting, but it’s probably hard to sell.
- Lots’ve gramar erorrs.
- Weird format: multiple fonts, bad paragraph breaks, pitch is all over the place, everything is highlighted in pink, or it just doesn’t make sense.
- Query was too long.
Every agent has his or her own beliefs of what are saturated themes. 27 out of 200 queries (13.5%) were considered saturated.
Here are her comments in this category of rejections. (Gosh, I just realized I’m categorizing rejections. Maybe I need a better hobby.)
- She heard the story a million times. She looks for an unusual premise in Young Adult queries.
- Dystopian novels are not selling very well right now.
- Almost identical premise to a recent novel, or way too similar to what’s already in stores. Your pitch needs to highlight what’s unique about your manuscript.
- Character being bullied at school is very common in MG stories. She says that a lot of the MG pitches sound the same. Since queries can be really repetitive, you have to make yours stand out.
- Too similar to recent horror film. What if we had a dinner party just to murder people? First of all, this has been done. Second, don’t invite me for dinner.
Sadly, many queries (19 out of 200, or 9.5%) didn’t follow basic guidelines (explicit or implied).
- Work that’s already self-published, and in many cases with low sales. Query agents before self-publishing your novel!
- Resubmissions with practically no changes. She remembers. They all remember.
- Book is not finished – just pitching the idea, or it’s just a work in progress.
- Querying for multiple books. Stay focused and submit your best work.
- Query sent from a company the author hired. Don’t do this, it’s tacky. Unless you hire me, but I’m very expensive and I have no idea how to do it.
- Query includes sample chapters, which literally goes against the query guidelines. Note that agents have different guidelines and some may actually request sample chapters.
Congratulations, if you’re query is in this category, she truly despised it. Many queries are just ‘meh’ or bad queries. But these 17 (8.5%) crossed the line: they are personal.
- Racist pitch. What the hell? This is the second agent that complains about it. If you write racist novels you should look for a racist agent, move to a racist place and take your racist business elsewhere.
- YA set for teens in the recent past. Write for teens today, not for teenage you.
- She doesn’t like the art of some picture books. Sorry, not much advice here, except don’t draw shitty stuff.
- Too didactic, as if she’s being talked down to, and she’s not even the target audience.
- YA that is too issue-driven. She wants more lighthearted and fun YA.
- Personal story that won’t have universal appeal.
- Too many ideas and twists smashed together into one story. It’s the cornucopia of YA.
- Novel stereotypes genders. For some reason, I always think of the movie Grease when this subject comes up. Also, Stephen King says you’re a lazy writer if you write “for some reason“. Guilty as charged.
- She’s particularly picky about fantasy concepts, but doesn’t elaborate too much about it. Based on other tweets we know she’s not looking for paranormal, so even if you say fantasy but there’s something paranormal about it, she’ll probably reject it. Maybe she’s afraid of ghosts.
- Concept is too complex for a short picture book.
- No portals to another world, please! Uh… I guess I shouldn’t submit my novel to her. Or rename portal to subway, and other worlds to Cleveland.
- Historical MS that is historical for no reason. Otherwise, why isn’t it contemporary?
Not For Her
I had to add a new category for rejections, and one that I particularly like. 14 of the 200 queries (7%) were about great queries that were just not for her. They are completely subjective passes.
- Funny queries. You can never go wrong with funny. Unless it’s “The Fault In Our Stars.”
- Short, easy to understand query that creates mystery.
- Great query about time travel. Are you taking notes? No portals, no time travel.
- Good query but in a period of history she’s not interested in, like royalty, or maybe 2017-2020.
The remaining 26 queries were rejected for a variety of reasons. They were:
Unexciting (10, 5%): Very quiet query, nothing to hook the reader, concept doesn’t intrigue her, text not grabbing her, not something she’d pick up and read, doesn’t sound appealing enough to her. Feels like dating, doesn’t it?
Too long (9, 4.5%): Fantasy with 300k words, Picture Book with over 1000 words, multiple full-length 100k+ manuscripts, Literary Fiction above 100k, Literary Fiction with 200k words, word count too long for Middle Grade (she didn’t specify).
Too short (3, 1.5%): Novella 15000 words too short, or word count more towards a novella than a novel.
Confusing (3, 1.5%): pitch is difficult to follow, or it has too much information that doesn’t link together. She reads the query and has no clue what the book is about.
Has similar: One query pitched a novel that is very similar to what she already has.
Outside of Young Adult and Middle Grade, she only picked one Picture Book.
And, as I already mentioned, Magical Realism is her favorite, followed by Fantasy and Contemporary.
Here are the specific reasons she gave to request more information from a query:
- She likes personalized pitches. Some agents don’t care (except that their names should be at the top), but it’s better to err on the side of personalization.
- Magical Realism where the pitch is filled with mystery.
- Pitch with enough intrigue to make her request it.
- A fantastic title made her want to request pages before she read the pitch. My guess is “The Exciting Vulnerability of the Palm Tree Inspector.”
- Fun, fresh, cool, unheard of or unusual premise.
- Pitch that incorporates folklore she never heard before. Maybe I should write about Saci Pererê, who’s also the mascot of my favorite soccer team.
- Mystery pitch that sounds… mysterious.
- Middle Grade Horror that’s delightful in a super creepy way.
- Awesome and original fairy tale retelling.
- Picture book with unique art.
Clearly the publishing industry is a buyers’ market. Or sellers market. I’m kind of lost in my analogy here. Anyway, it’s easier for agents (in a way) than it’s for authors, unless you’re already famous, or if you’re god’s gift to publishing.
Your chances of getting an agent are low, but you can still improve them by doing your homework. If you do your diligence, research the agent, get feedback for your query and follow the guidelines, your letter will be above the pack and still be rejected. I mean, you’ll have a better chance than most.
Navigate to posts in this series:
Part 1: Agent X.
Part 3: Agent Z (first or second week of April 17).
- I’ve made a lot of assumptions about the tweets. Some of them didn’t have enough information, so this study is partially subjective.
- Some of the information here can be generalized to other agents, but not everything – especially the agent’s personal preferences. Research your agent before submitting.
I’m actively looking for agents and publishers for my book. More info here.
Default Disclaimer: I’m not a writer, I have a hard time paying attention to detail, I overuse adverbs, I start a lot of sentences with ‘I’, and I often confuse words that are similar. More importantly, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time, in which case I’ll deny I ever wrote it. Please let me know if you find something that is too embarrassing. This blog is riddled with typos and creative grammar problems, but it’s mine. Luckily, I can always blame my mistakes on the fact that English is not my first language. Or hackers.
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