Monday, September 20, 2010

Query Letter Rejection Rate

People always ask agents, how many queries do you actually request?  The number is staggeringly low.  How low?  I wanted to find out.  So I started keeping track of all the queries I was responding to over a month's period.  I counted only the initial response to the queries, whether it was an automatic no or if I requested a partial or proposal. 

It turns out that I have an 86% rejection rate  I think this is actually rather low.  Other agents will probably say their rate is 90% or higher.  Many of the queries I should have rejected, but something about them made me pause.  Next round (reading the partial or proposal) will see maybe 80% rejection.

Here are a few reasons I requested a partial (fiction) or proposal (non-fiction) based off the query.
  • great platform (non-fiction).  More times than not, it's the platform we are looking for.  Evaluation of whether the idea is marketable comes in the next round.
  • good story and/or concept.  This includes ideas that are hot right now and highly marketable.
  • something got me hooked.  I can read the worst query in the world and be left wondering what happens.  (I should not be requesting these.  Bad query more times than not means bad writing.  As an Agent-in-Training I am allowing myself a stupid period.  One day I will be all knowing, but for now I am a grasshopper.)
If you aren't getting requests from your query, you might have a bad query.  One of my favorite blogs is Query Shark, which walks readers through real queries and fixes them.

Here are some of the biggest reasons I reject queries:
  • no platform (non-fiction).  Platform sells, if you don't have it, get it before you query.
  • screenplay.  We do not accept screenplays, yet I will see a query for one about once a week.
  • bad bad bad bad query.  About once a week I'll stare in disbelief at my computer screen and want to cry.
  • wrong genre (fiction).  Check out the agent's list before you query.  It saves everyone a lot of time.
  • Simply not interesting.
I took some notes while responding to these queries.  I see these mistakes so often and agents are constantly complaining about them on Twitter and their Blogs.  Another of my favorite blogs is SlushPile Hell, because it's what every agent wishes she could say to the writers.  I know you (my very intelligent readers) will not make these mistakes.  It's the writers (I think, I hope) that aren't doing their research that make these mistakes and give you (my wonderfully intelligent readers) a bad name.
  • If we can't figure out what you are requesting/offering, we won't spend time trying to figure it out.
  • Full length novels are 60,000-100,000 words.  Too much over and it's a no.  Under, and it's a no.  Even the first Twilight book was under 100,000 words.
  • Use the agent's name, not "Dear Sir or Madam."  Do you even care?  If you don't, then I don't either.
  • Make sure I can understand the first sentence of your query.  Don't use words that I'll have to look up.  I have a large vocabulary, but I'm not a walking thesaurus (which you obviously used).  
  • Use some specifics in your query, what exactly is the protag fighting against?  It's the conflict we, as humans, love.  I don't care that you have been writing since you were two and are going to be the next Hemingway.
  • Get your genre and word count right.  For example, "chick-lit" will never ever be 130,000 words.  To me: chick-lit=mindless chatter.  130,000=philosophical debate on life.  And the two shall never meet!
So, what's today's lesson?  Learn to write a query letter.  It will make your positive response rate so much higher.  And it will make the agent's lives so much better!

As I wade through the "slush" that will be my career (some days I'm just not sure what I was thinking!), I wonder if I will ever find a good manuscript.  Then I find a good manuscript (these are the days when I rub my English degree in my Dad's face), and it's all worth it.

Happy (query) writing!


Ricardo Bare said...

Hey Vickie--interesting info, especially the ratio of rejects to partial/full requests.

In your list of top reasons why you reject queries, it's not entirely clear what the difference is between "bad bad bad query..." and "simply not interesting." I *think* I know what you mean, but I'm not sure.

Also, are you sure about Twilight being under 100k? It remember it being sort of cinder-block-like! I thought it was around 120k, though clearly it seems to be an exception in terms the usual YA book work-count.

Vickie Motter said...

Ricardo, I may be mistaken on the Twilight count, but I did count one page of text and multiply it by the page numbers and came up just under 100k, not by much mind you, but it was under.

Thanks for your questions (I'm still in the learning stage of the blog posts), I'll address the "bad bad bad query" in another blog post. Briefly, the difference is that a "bad bad bad query" defies every single query writing rule known to man. "Simply not interesting" fails to get my attention even if it is a good query letter, ie unoriginal plot.