In The Blink of an Eye
April 12, 2022 § 14 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?
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?
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 and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!