In The Blink of an Eye

April 12, 2022 § 13 Comments

Last week, literary agent Lauren Spieller tweeted:

Ms. Spieller also said she’d answered 206 already. A writer acquaintance huffily responded this must be why he wasn’t connecting with an agent: Most queries probably aren’t even read.

I can empathize with the throes of discouragement when a creation you’ve spent years on isn’t finding a match…but that’s not accurate.

First, some context. Ms. Spieller had reopened to queries after closing for four months. She updated her Manuscript Wish List and announced that on Twitter, creating immediate interest. Some of the volume was pent-up demand—authors actively waiting for her to open, queries ready for “send.” More typically, agents get anywhere from 20-200 queries a day.

Can they truly read them all?

Think about something you are very, very good at. A subject you’re an expert in; a skill you’ve truly mastered; a product or craft you make or repair.

For me, it’s casting street theatre performers. Super niche, right? Here’s how that works:

Performers fill out an online form with basic details and their promo video link. I only get 400-500 submissions a year (it’s a small festival). Most videos are 90 seconds-5 minutes long. Sometimes they send their whole 45-minute show.

How long does it take me to assess a fire-eater or a trapeze artist or a juggler and know whether I want to hire them?

15 seconds.

After years of experience I can tell, in the first 15 seconds:

  • Are they good enough to be in my Pick From Among These Performers pile?
  • Are they appropriate for a family-friendly, daylight, outdoor show?
  • Do they excite me and make me want to watch more?
Kilted Colin playing bagpipes on fire

I do not need longer. In fact, I can tell in under five seconds that the solo aerialist in theatrical lighting can’t rig her trapeze at our street festival. That the acrobats in flesh-colored bodysuits with toothy mouths painted on their groins (NOT MAKING THAT UP) aren’t right for our family festival. That the juggler on the ground with three clubs is less entertaining than the juggler on the unicycle playing bagpipes on fire (not making that up, either). I can immediately see which performers are beginners with boring costumes and hack public-domain jokes, and who’s invested time and money in looking like—and being—seasoned professionals.

Think again about that thing you’re great at: how long does it take you to know that tennis serve is off or that calligraphy looks terrible or that garden is a hot mess?

I bet it’s under 15 seconds.

You might take longer to figure out why, and longer still to assess what needs fixing and how. But is it any good, and is it right for you? You know that right away.

Reading queries—and submissions—is EXACTLY like that.

Every editor, publisher and agent I have ever spoken to says this ratio is true (or nearly so) for every submissions inbox:

  • 50% are wrong (regardless of quality). A novel sent to a poetry publisher. Picture book queries to adult crime fiction agents.
  • 25% are terrible. Poorly spelled, first-draft writing, vast misconceptions about publishing or openly rude and dismissive (yes, insulting the agent/agenting process in the first line really happens.)
  • 20% are good, but not good enough, timed poorly for the market, the story doesn’t grab the agent, or they already have a book like that on their roster.
  • 5% call for reading closely and responding carefully.

Agents can dismiss the first three categories in 15-60 seconds each. From the last category, agents assess:

  • Is the writing good enough?
  • Does the story captivate me and make me want to read more?
  • Is this concept marketable right now?

An agent needs a “yes” to all three to ask for more pages, which they read with care and consideration and yes, taking more time. Authors can work on their craft and get a sense of the publishing market through self-education (getting an agent may not even be your best path!). But we cannot control whether our story excites an agent based on their personal taste and depth of knowledge—and understanding how quickly an agent can assess our work and move on is a hard pill to swallow.

Most agents truly do read every query. Most agents open every submission with hope, thinking, Maybe this one will be glorious literature that entertains millions and makes us both rich! Their No’s are 95% fast, gut-level decisions based on years of expertise and market knowledge. A rejection may or may not be based on the quality of your book. But if an agent is good enough that you hope to entrust them with your precious creation, they’re good enough to know what they want.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Is an agent your best path? How can you build platform, promote and sell your book without feeling like a huckster? Join me for Writer Mind, Marketing Mind May 11th at 1PM Eastern (recording available). This webinar will help you discover the best way to connect to your audience—and how to enjoy making money with your book.

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§ 13 Responses to In The Blink of an Eye

  • Nina Gaby says:

    Thanks for putting this in context.

  • Agree with Nina. Good post, A.

  • It was decades ago now, in the early internet, and a doctor/poet Poetry Editor described on the Poets & Writers discussion board how quickly he sorted submissions to an important literary magazine (top ten important). Writers threatened to kill him.

    But here was what I understood even at the time: his time was donated; he knew what he was doing and he received hundred of submissions each day; the journal he was editing was a life goal, not a stepping stone to a future for a poet; and making mistakes in submitting to a journal with an international publication resulted in him tossing them into the waste basket because it demonstrated a lack of attention and naiveté he had every right to consider given his goal of reviewing so much work between his time at the hospital.

    A few years later while at a workshop in Georgia, the fiction editor of another journal stated almost the same thing.

    Editors have to know what they like and why, to recognize what their readers will find appealing and challenging, and to be able to make judgements quickly. They receive enough fine work that the piece with the typos or slow beginning or weak ending or “whatever” is not worth their limited time.

  • dreliasonwriter says:

    Thank you Allison. Knowing that the path is to continue to improve ones work is heartening. If one keeps working to get it right, there is hope.

  • Anne Rudig says:

    Yes. Thank you. And also: many agents prefer to find new clients rather than to be found via query. They rely on referrals, conferences and trips to MFA programs, and discovery of writers by reading something they’ve published.

  • On the semi- positive side, I was told by a big NY agent who visited our annual lit Fest that “no one in NY would touch a Ms on my subject” but gave me some good advice about how to focus the project. I queried , for starters, about 15 agents, and yes, I immediately got three who “touched ” it, read a few chapters, and one who (supposedl)read the Ms. ( Her comments lead me to believe it needed revision which it did. ) I did find that looking up what an agent said about her/himself and what he/ she was looking for was helpful as I could refer to that statement in my query letter. That got me some respectful “No thanks!” Writers need to band together and start small publishing companies. There are too many of us and too few of them.

  • judyreeveswriter says:

    Thanks for this post. Comparing the decisions each of us can make, do make, in just a few seconds–is the bouquet saying what I want to say? is this dress right for me? Am I hungry for street tacos right now? makes the reality of an agent’s or editor’s work so much more real and understandable. And gosh I’d like to see some of the acts in your street festival! Unicycle/bagpipes/fire? Wow.

  • Melody says:

    BRILLIANT!

    Allison, thank you for this gem.

  • stacyeholden says:

    Great piece! Writing a grant proposal right now, and a welcome reminder to be clear and interesting from the get-go!

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