The Absence of Yes: Why Agents Don’t Answer Your Email
April 21, 2022 § 17 Comments
By Di Brown
I’m querying a memoir.
Is there any single sentence in a writer’s life that is as debilitating, exhilarating, and soul-crushing?
Got a gut-wrenching story that took a decade to live, two to recover from, and five years to write? Summarize it in two to three paragraphs. Synopsis. Outline. Show the arc. Outline your platform. Demonstrate the market. Do it really well and an agent might glance at the first ten pages. Or not.
In most cases, I’ll never know. Because agents don’t write back. I’ve sent out ten queries this month, and I’ll be lucky if I get a response to even one of them. Is there a silence more deafening than a four, six, eight, twelve week wait that ends in…nothing?
“If I handled my mail the way agents do,” I whined to another writer, “I’d get fired in a heartbeat. Months-long waits? No status updates? Don’t bother to respond at all? Not a chance.”
“But…you do the same thing.”
“Are you KIDDING me? I most certainly do not!” I work in IT. I have the stats to prove how quickly and consistently I reply.
“You answer every person, every message?”
“I’m sure I occasionally miss a few but overall, yes.”
“Every network management company, training provider, security vendor…”
“Well, not all the cold-call sales spam, unless it’s something we have a need for, but all the people…”
And that’s when it hit me: In that agent’s inbox, I’m the spam.
I see my queries as a business communication: Dear Agent, let’s chat about this project and see whether we can team up to get it off the ground. I can’t conceive how they could simply ignore it, disregard the courtesy of even the most perfunctory reply.
But to the agent, I’m not “people.” I’m one of a hundred cold-call messages they received yesterday. A hundred messages they need to dispose of to make room for the hundred that will arrive today. The people in their mailbox are clients, publishers, editors, media outlets, reviewers, lawyers, and book club reps. I’m the sales spam. And that agent is managing their day the same way that I manage mine.
But I’m a writer, not a salesperson.
A lifetime ago, I worked for a telemarketing company—in the office, not on the phones. I was not cut out for sales. I worked with some amazing sales reps, and even the best loathed cold-calling. The success rate was awful, no matter how talented you were. Cold calls didn’t convert to sales often enough for the commissions to pay the rent.
And here I am, thirty years later, cold-calling agents in batches of ten. One of a hundred voices invading their inbox and demanding “check out my product.”
If I was not cut out for sales, am I not cut out for this? Would I be better off just self-publishing, and avoiding the endless black hole of querying? Tempting, but the reality is that if I self-publish, my success would still depend on my ability to market and sell my book.
Maybe I should just give it up altogether.
Or maybe I should climb out of the center of that black hole and get a different perspective. Embrace the silence.
I am the spam. I send cold-call emails to agents, calling out to them to look at MY product.
Choose me! Choose me!
The majority of my queries get deleted. The handful of agents who want to know “what happened next” often decide it’s not topical enough, it’s too similar to something they already represent, my platform is insufficient. With or without regret, they click the delete button just as fast as I do for the vendors who email me each day.
And it doesn’t mean anything. Not when I do it, not when they do it.
Some days I am still tempted to mass-mail every agent on Publishers Marketplace a link to my how-to videos, and suggest they set up some automated rules for their email accounts so I will get a darn kiss-off note when they categorize my query as “decline”. (I’d get a lot of agent attention, but probably not the kind I’m looking for.)
But I’m staying in the game.
I have something to say. I believe it matters enough, can matter enough to enough readers that it’s worth the effort to find an agent and a publisher to partner with. I think about how many times those telemarketers—the really talented ones—would get hung up on before finally making a sale. They needed continuous sales to pay the rent. I only need one to turn a dream into reality.
When I send my next ten queries, I won’t expect any of those agents to answer me, because I know I am the spam. I will shout into the void, “who wants a memoir about a girl who runs away from home to become James Bond!” and I will be greeted, over and over, with silence. A silence that isn’t rude, dismissive, insulting, unprofessional, or a cosmic chorus of “no”. Just the absence of “yes”.
I don’t need those ten people to take time out of their day to tell me that I’m the spam. I only need to hear from the one who wants to know what happened next.
Di Brown can’t decide what to do when she grows up, so she’s put off growing up until she has a plan. In the interim, she’s been a Cold War spy, learned to knit (badly), program computers (well), and had stories and essays published in anthologies on three continents. Find her on the web at www.dianabrown.net, or stop by her YouTube channel for technology tips (including how to “Automate Your Inbox”).