Oct 7, 2010

Clarification on the agency's NEW submission guidelines

As you may well know, we’re changing our submission guidelines here at Nancy Coffey Lit starting November 1, 2010. For those of you who haven’t heard yet, please read the post on it here.

We invited readers to respond/pose questions at this time so we could better understand what about the new guidelines works for querying writers, and what doesn’t.

This was one of the comments made:

Anonymous said...

For a mutually dependent relationship (the agent needs her author's ms to sell, the author needs the agent to sell her ms), the power structure between a querying author and an agent is completely one-sided. The author pursues the relationship with the agent. I do not find it unreasonable for the agent to in kind show professional courtesy and say that the query was not only received but reviewed and rejected (automated response or not, there's nothing else that can confirm for an author that the query wasn't lost after the fact--which does happen).

There is free software on the internet that allows a user to enhance her copying and pasting abilities. You can write a standard rejection letter (or multiple variations to cover the most frequent responses you may encounter [this isn't right for me, keep trying, look at our submission guidelines, etc]). CTL+ALT+# and you've pasted and sent your form rejection in a matter of seconds.

Even if our work is not to your liking, we are worth a couple of seconds.

Anonymous brings up some good points that I’d like to address.

I think where the confusion lies is in the very beginning of Anonymous’ comment. What he/she says is absolutely correct. An author-agent relationship is mutually beneficial and dependent. And yes, the power structure between a querying author and an agent is one-sided. But these are two different things. The first line refers to clients, and the second refers to querying writers.

I can completely see how from a writer's perspective, queries are the most important part of an agent's job. And because there are so many blogs about queries, and posts about queries, and websites devoted solely to crafting a query, it may seem like agents spend most of their day looking at and evaluating queries.

But that’s not what agents do.

An agent’s job is not to read queries or submissions. An agent’s job is not to attend conferences, or judge contests, or do interviews, or offer critiques for auction. In fact, an agent has very, very little time to spare to do any of those things at all. 98% of an agent’s time is spent on his/her clients: submitting, negotiating contracts, reading, writing up editorial notes, advising, acting as liaison, brainstorming, meeting with editors, planning with publicists, etc. And in truth, if we (at NCLMR) wanted to close to queries completely, we could and it wouldn’t affect our job at all (which is why so many agents have employed this guideline).

But that’s not what we want.

We love to find new talent. We love to discover a treasure among the pile, a writer who has all of the right tools and just needs a little help to finish creating. I know that is one of my most favorite things to do when I read my queries late into the night (because I often don’t have time while in the office). I love, love, love when a new voice has me captivated.

But this doesn’t mean that every query/submission in between isn’t worth anything.

It’s actually not a question of worth at all--as in, this writer/query is not worth a couple seconds of our time. The issue is not copy-pasting a form rejection. It's that sending any kind of response to a query can, and does, lead to a snowball effect. A form rejection, I'd say at least a third of the time, leads to a follow-up email from the writer in question. Either thanking us for taking the time to look at the query (which is well-meaning, but does take time to read), or asking for help revising the query, or asking for a more detailed explanation about why the query was rejected, or asking us to refer them elsewhere, etc. It occasionally leads to follow-up phone calls. Any response to these responses always--always--generates further communication. And the writer can say, at any point, "Aren't I worth the two seconds it takes to reject? The two minutes it takes to tell me why? The four minutes it takes to talk to me on the phone?" And it is never about worth. It's, do we have the time to talk to each of the hundreds of writers that we have to reject every week to explain why we can't take them on as a client?

The answer to that is No. We simply don’t have the time to do all of that and do our jobs. And just to clarify, our job is to represent our clients.

But I can say for us at NCLMR, whenever we DO have free time, we devote a fair amount of it to unagented writers whether it be critiquing, attending conferences, participating in contests, or even writing for this blog. And I’ve personally been on the querying end of this business before…I would have much rather the chance to win a critique then try to decipher what a form rejection means.


Em-Musing said...

Thanks, I now have a new perspective and respect for an agent's time.

storyqueen said...

Well said. And I appreciate that you are clear about what your policy is. When I was querying, there were agents who just never responded. At all. And there was nothing on their website that said the policy was no response means no. At least you are giving writers a time frame and a confirmation that their work was received. This seems more than fair.

And, as a client of a fabulous agent, I appreciate that my agent spends the bulk of her time on existing clients. Yeah...I know...easy for me to say. But being a writer (who wants to be an author) means attempting to thoughtfully understand how everything works. I never knew all that agents did until I finally got one. I am convinced that an agent must have one of those time-turners that Hermione used in HP3 to get everything done....and get some sleep now and then.


Meagan Spooner said...

In a perfect world there'd be time for responses to every query. When I first started doing agent research I was horrified at the notion of "no response," but the more I read and the more I hear about it, the more I understand it. And frankly, your "query log" does exactly what the form rejections would do--makes it clear when you have passed. That's the only thing about "no response" that bugs me now, is the not knowing.

The fact that your response time is so quick is awesome. Two weeks is a pretty fantastic turnaround. Does this apply to rejected partials/fulls, too? Or will those receive responses?

Heather said...

I find it very sad that Anonymous took a form rejection so personally and negatively. An agent's first and foremost responsibility is to the authors they already represent, as all writers would want it if they were the one represented. We are lucky and honored that agents take the time to read queries and scout for new talent.

Joanna said...

Dear Meagan,

Good question about the partials/full requests! Those will get a personal response.

Anonymous said...

@Heather Assuming you're talking about me anonymous and not another anonymous, I've never had a bad form rejection experience. I value them.

@Jo I would ask for a follow-up to this post six months from now. Does such a policy reduce unwanted email or does it increase it by adding "Did you get my query" email and then the back and forth you mention above.

Keith said...

Sooo a big part of Joanna's reasoning is that folks ask for follow-ups, and your response is to ask for a follow-up? Sorry, I just found that ironic.

The fact of the matter is that word processors, email and the internet make for easy querying and the resulting numbers are astounding. Add to that the websites where people workshop queries.

Here's something that happens every day. A writer posts a query on a message board and people critique the writing, not the Q, advising that he's not ready to query. Someone rewrites the Q to make his point and the poster uses this rewritten query to pitch the same unrevised manuscript. This often results in requesting material. How much agency time and effort does this take away from polished submissions?

Here it is from a client prospective. There are only so many hours in the day. Judging from the 2 AM emails my agent sends me, she is only too aware of this. She spends gobs of time and effort on my work, and hopefully these guidelines enable her to continue without compromising her love of searching for new gems. Here's hoping you sign with an agent willing to give you the same commitment.

Anonymous said...

Assuming form rejection letters for every query sent and the enhanced cut and paste I mentioned previously, it should not take more than five seconds to hit reply+paste+send. I think it would take less than that, but I'm being generous. Assuming those conditions, the agent would spend less than 14 hours replying to 10,000 queries.

It's the follow-up questions that Jo lists as the true burden of time, and that's a point that can't be argued until the "no reply" policy has time to be measured. Say six months.

If the follow-up questions only come 1/3 of the time, and those follow-ups are then ignored and deleted out of hand rather than responded to (allowing the resultant back and forth stated to be so time consuming), would the time required to send form rejection letters be tolerable with new practices and a more disciplined approach? Or would the "no response" strategy in fact reduce the amount of total follow-up questions, saving the agent more time?

Only way to know is to try it out. Of course, there is the variable, "How much time is too much time?" Is 14 hours per 10,000 queries still too much, or is it a reasonable investment? That's something only Jo can answer.

Anonymous said...

I think some of your arguments are a little off.

While it's true that agents have more pressing responsibilities than reading queries, it IS part of an agent's job to read them. When you invite people to send you queries, outline what you are and are not looking for, and promise to consider each query you receive, it becomes part of your job to read them. The only way it is NOT part of your job is if you don’t solicit the queries, or you make it clear you’re not planning on reading them. But when you post in different places encouraging authors to query you, you are responsible for reading those queries.

The argument that agents are oh so very busy and therefore can’t possibly be expected to respond to every query (which they have asked for) is getting tiresome. Authors are busy, too. Many of us have lives. Some go to school full-time, work part-time and squeeze in time to write between scholastic and familial obligations. Some just work. A lot. And still have TONS of other stuff to do.

Yet we’re expected – almost required – to take the time to research each and every agent we want to query. We’re told to personalize so that the agent feels special. Form queries? Unacceptable. Sending to more than one agent to save time? Automatic rejection. “Dear agent” instead of a name? Don’t you dare. It’s like agents think their time is more valuable and they use the argument that query letters are business letters to justify it.

It’s like telling an applicant to dress professionally for an interview, but you can sport jeans and a t-shirt because you’re in a hurry and didn’t have time to pick an appropriate outfit. It’s not the best metaphor, but it’s close to what I mean.

Even with the provisions you have in place, emails can get lost. Janet Reid has a post about TWO requests for material that got lost. It’s here if you’re interested: http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2010/06/would-you-please-quit-assuming-stuff.html

Why not just set aside the rejects and, at a certain time during the week, just copy, past and send rejections one after the other? Or have an intern do it?

Maybe, since you don’t need more clients, it doesn’t matter to you if material requests go awry. But it sucks for those who really want you to represent them.

Also, you’re complaining that you respond to questions, which generates responses, which takes up time. Has it occurred to you to NOT answer questions and thus prevent the time-consuming back and forth? It really seems like you’re blaming authors for your choice to respond to their questions. It’s not your job to answer questions for non-clients, so just don’t. But don’t blame us because you decided to.

I bet this new policy doesn’t cut down on emails. You’ll probably get a slew of them asking if you got and read the query or if it got lost post-automated response. Or asking if you requested materials because they might not have received it. And so on.

Laura Pauling said...

For some reason, the no response has never bothered me, as long as I know it's in place. I don't need to see the form R to know an agent has passed on my work. What is hard is when they say no response and then respond anyway, so you think and hope for a second, it's a request, and then it's a personalized R. :)

But I do love an automated response email back.

Anonymous said...


Your comment bothered me because it's so typical of a lot of writers who just sort of dismiss themselves and their contribution in the face of the Big Bad and Awesome Literary Agents. It's really annoying. Honored? Because they asked for a query, you sent it, and they read it? That's sort of what's supposed to happen. And I'm not saying this as some arrogant writer. I'm saying this as someone who read an agent's rant on the same thing. Janet Reid said, in response to someone who said they would be humbled to send their manuscript (which, in my opinion, is not far off from "honored", though you may disagree):

NEVER EVER EVER dismiss yourself this way. Be humbled my ass. You are not a beggar. Don't act like one.

You've made every single mistake in the book, including being published by PublishAmerica but you are a writer, and as such you deserve courtesy and respect.

Pleased, sure. Grateful, ok. Humbled, no, no, no.

I never want to see this in a query from a writer EVER. I don't care if you ARE, don't ever say it. Don't even think it.

If you become my client, we are on the same team. We are colleagues. You're not a fucking supplicant.

And I agree with her. Writers aren't beggars. They are potential co-workers. Few people go to a job interview and say, "I'd be honored if you hired me". Of course, that depends on the job, but the point is still pretty much the same.