The Naked Truth (about submissions)

December 5, 2011

The debate on agents’ responses to submissions has roared even louder in recent months – or it has in the USA. We’ve seen agents changing their policies in various ways (only replying if interested/replying to some under various criteria/giving Twitter updates etc etc), and others contemplating doing so. Everyone has an opinion on what’s appropriate, and Lin Oliver and Steve Mooser’s open letter to the industry in the SCBWI Bulletin of Nov/Dec 2011 neatly and graciously summed up what we all know to be true – that it’s really helpful for authors to get a response to their query, even if it’s a No.
Like all agents, I have many thoughts on the subject and wanted to share them with you. As you will know, if you’re reading this via the Greenhouse website, we have responded to all queries since we opened in early 2008 and intend to continue that policy into 2012. There are only 2 exceptions to this. 1) If we think you are likely to shoot us (ie, we pick up a really scary vibe). 2) If you are rude. If you send us something we don’t represent, we may or may not reply, depending on how much time we have or how nice we’re feeling. It’s such a waste of time typing, ‘We are sorry but . . . .’ when our submission guidelines – details of what we rep – are so widely available.

There are some problems associated with replying to queries and, so you can better understand an agent’s perspective, here are the main ones:

1 Being constantly open to queries AND responding to all, especially in a market as huge as the US, is like being sprayed continuously with a power hose. The volume of submissions often feels intimidating and overwhelming. They come on Christmas Day, Thanksgiving, Sundays, birthdays, New Year’s Eve – in fact, every single day of the year. Julia and I receive 10,000-15,000 subs annually. On top of this, we likely each have 5-10 manuscripts (ie, where we’ve asked to read fulls) on our Kindles at any one time. By the time we’ve read one full manuscript, there’s often 150 more subs waiting for us.

2 To read and respond to this number means it is almost impossible ever to take a day off, let alone a weekend. Most agents will push their subs-reading into the weekend because there just isn’t time in the week, given the volume of client work. And we are committed legally and morally to give our clients the best of our time and efforts. All this means we must scrutinize queries with great focus and speed. We make a decision (yes – we want to read more; no – not for us) and then we have to move on fast. Opening, copying, pasting replies – or giving a truly individualized answer – really adds up. And that can mean most of Sunday gone – or the time needed to read a hot manuscript (which could be out with many other agents). And that hot manuscript just won’t wait. It can be very tough on families, who so often – OK, mostly – come second to the inbox. Time, and decisions on how/where to spend it, are hugely important to agents. A great year or a dreadful year for the business? The difference often lies in the decisions we make about use of time, and we guard not only the hours but the minutes.

3 If you are reading this, you are almost certainly the kind of submitter we love. Here’s your profile: you are eager to learn writing craft and about the industry; you’re probably a member of SCBWI, with access to all the teaching which comes with that; you do your research, try your best, and are respectful and pleasant. You are very welcome! However – people like you make up a max of 50% of our subs inbox. The rest are not so welcome. They pepper us with spam, mass submit (ie, to lots of agencies on the same email), ignore our guidelines (either because they’ve not read them or because they want us to make them exceptions), and shower us with stuff we don’t represent. They send us attachments that we won’t open – like the man who attached three 110,000 word manuscripts to his email last week. Sometimes there’s no query at all. Often we’re addressed by wrong names (at least a third of those who submit to me spell my name wrong) or no name at all . . . I could go on, but you get the picture. Grasping the significance of every email, what it contains, how to deal with it, whether it’s for Julia or me, takes a lot of time, but once an agent says they reply to queries, they are committed to replying to these people too – if we don’t, we are chased. Like the man who emailed me on Boxing Day (what Brits call the day after Christmas) to ask why I hadn’t replied to his sub sent a few days before. And of course all our stats – what words we use to reply and exactly how many days that takes us – are logged all over the internet. Anyone can complain about us, very publicly.

4 When we reply, even with the most courteously worded email, we get a lot of responses. Many simply pop back with a ‘thank you’. While there’s no need to do that (and it takes more moments to open that email), we always appreciate the courtesy and good wishes. However, others respond less desirably. Some are downright rude, aggressive and disrespectful. Like the man who, in response to Julia’s very courteous rejection, shot back: ‘Kiddo, hold up a mirror and you’ll see you’re not even a professional.’ Or the woman whose questions I answered with two personal emails on a Sunday, who spat back two messages of outright snark. Others ask more questions or for editorial follow-up, even when we’ve said in our turndown that we can’t give that. Now fewer agents reply to rejections, some writers come back with: ‘Thanks SO much for replying. I appreciate that so much, you can be sure I’ll query you again soon with my other five manuscripts . . . .’

5 Rejection never makes people happy, however it is delivered. Researching online, I saw lots of blog comments from people saying they hate getting agent responses; they’d prefer to hear nothing rather than read yet another ‘Unfortunately . . .’ turndown. Many object to getting a ‘template’ response, however carefully worded. For lots of people, the only desirable thing is to be offered representation – and if not, then a full, individualized critique. Sorry, but that simply can’t happen. Interestingly, it also seems that some writers would prefer an agency close completely to queries rather than fail to respond (I find this mystifying!). So how on earth do we make everyone happy?!

6 One solution would be to farm out sub reading/responding. I have lots of young people longing to intern for me. Do you want a college-leaver reading your submission? You might get a personal response, but it wouldn’t be from me. I think not.

Again, I come back to the fact that yes, we do reply. And yes, Julia and I personally look at all submissions. So WHY do we stick with this policy?

1 We are friendly, open people trying to behaving decently in a brutal business. That’s not to say that equally friendly, open people can’t make different decisions on this. But we are famed for working with debut writers, we nurture our Greenhouse seedlings, and we have a genuine interest in the development of new authors. At the moment, it still feels right to demonstrate that by responding. We were raised to have good manners!

2 Many of our clients arrived via a simple query email. They didn’t meet us at conferences, they weren’t referred, they weren’t already published. They just queried us. There’s a purity, a simplicity, to that basic opportunity which is democratically given, and we have respect for that.

3 We enjoy the interaction with real people, learning the craft. We like seeing what you’re writing. Many friendships have been made – even with writers we’ve turned down – and it’s always a pleasure to meet you at conferences.

4 We know that many of the biggest books of the next few years are lurking among the tens of thousands. This encourages us to maintain our professionalism in dealing with subs.

5 It really annoys me that the opportunists, the haters, the sloppy, the cynical, should spoil things for everyone else by their inundation. So far, they haven’t.

6 We’ve signed several authors because they came back to us with their new manuscripts as a result of our courteous turndowns first time around. And we do often add personal notes if we feel a query has merit but isn’t quite there yet.

7 In short, we reply because it still feels personally and professionally right. It reflects our values.

I won’t lie. Julia and I discuss our subs policy every few months, and after an uptick in disrespectful writer-responses, we’ve been sorely tempted to change our policy. We are very busy and our response policy costs us dearly in time and personal life. If you value it, there are ways in which YOU can help us to maintain it:

1 Always do your research before you submit to an agency. Take your time, even if it means submitting to only a couple in one day. Treat the process like a job interview; every submission matters, so get it as right as you can.

2 Remember that agents are human beings, not robots. Agents need to cook dinner and sleep, like everyone else. And we’re running businesses, not dream factories.

3 Don’t pepper us with multiple queries. If you send us 5 queries in two weeks, you are taking an opportunity from someone else. If you want to re-query with another manuscript, wait a while.

4 If you have writer friends who are about to query, pass on these tips.

5 If you see disrespectful, mean comments in posts about agents, consider sharing in the self-policing of the writing community. We are an exceptionally open, approachable lot, but professionalism means agents can rarely answer back in their own defence; as a fellow writer it’s a lot easier. Just remember, whatever their response policy, most agents work their butts off.

So to all of you careful, friendly queriers – we warmly welcome you! And we look forward to seeing more of your work in 2012.

Good wishes from us both.

Sarah and Julia

Pix: 1) Neptune Statue, Florence, Italy 2) and 3) Fort McHenry barracks,Baltimore, Maryland. Where Americans pounded the Brits out in the Chesapeake Bay, having been attacked in the 1812 war.