Sarah LaPolla is an agent with the Bradford Literary Agency. She represents Adult, Middle Grade, and Young Adult manuscripts. Each year she tallies all the unsolicited (slush pile) queries she received and writes a post with the statistics. Many other agents do this, too, including Kristin Nelson and Janet Reid.
First, the Bitter Pill
The bottom line: LaPolla received 3,855 unsolicited queries in 2015! Out of these, she requested 55 manuscripts and signed six new clients (only five of whom came from queries).
That’s a .014 request rate and a .001 success rate.
Whoa! Those are some pretty daunting statistics for an author, new or seasoned, trying to snag an agent. But take heart, those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Now the Real Story Behind the Stats
LaPolla doesn’t include queries that come her way through conferences, contests and referrals. It also doesn’t include R&R (Revise and Resubmit) requests that may have been in the works prior to 2015. That actually makes the number of manuscripts she looked at much larger.
But her total doesn’t indicate how many of those queries she received were for manuscripts IN GENRES SHE DOESN’T REPRESENT. Subtracting those makes the number much, much smaller. Unfortunately, those queries were a total waste of both the author’s and the agent’s time. As LaPolla says,
“I read and respond to 99.9% of my queries, but sometimes queries are so off base that there are simply no words.”
But you’d never do that, right? You research agents through online resources and the “Acknowledgements” section of books you love, right?
Do you commit any of the other query no-nos that would put you straight into the rejection pile? LaPolla also doesn’t respond to
- Mass queries, where she is just one of many cc emails.
- Queries sent as attachments. (This is just common sense in today’s hackable world.)
- Copy and paste fails — when the address line contains the name of some other agency.
- Publicity announcements about self-published novels.
If you follow all the agency’s rules and send out well-written queries for good manuscripts, the odds of you getting a rejection are much less than these statistics would predict. But rejections are still the rule, not the exception.
The (Unfortunately) True Story Behind Rejections
No agent can take on every fabulous manuscript that comes their way. Why? Because there aren’t enough hours in the day to read, edit, help revise, and then find editors, negotiate contracts, and oversee publishing details for all of them, not to mention holding the newbie author’s hand during this entire process and tending to all the paperwork on the business side of being a literary agent.
So LaPolla is selective. She keeps her list small in order to serve all her clients equally well. That means she sends out a lot of rejections. But she doesn’t want authors to take them personally.
“It’s always a business decision based on our time and expertise and skill set, and is rarely because your book is “bad.” Agents want you to succeed even if we, personally, can’t be the ones to take on your projects.”
Query LOTS of agents, in groups (top tier favorites, next tier down, etc.). Tailor your query to the SPECIFIC REQUIREMENTS of each agency. PROOF every part of your query, including the address lines. If you’ve had self-publishing success and now want to be represented, include sales stats and promo history–not just a link to your Amazon book.
And develop a thick hide for the inevitable rejections. When that perfect acceptance come along, it will be all the sweeter!
Query Workshop in Houston
On Tuesday, April 19, 2016, I will be presenting a workshop in the Houston area. “The Short of It – Synopsis, High Concept, Query, Blurb” will be hosted by the Houston Bay Area chapter of Romance Writers of America (RWA) at the Kirkmont MUD Building, 10102 Blackhawk Road, Houston, TX 77089. The meeting begins at 7:30 PM, with social time starting at 7:15 PM. Visitors are welcome, so stop on by! Check out the HBA RWA website for details.
Donna Maloy is a published author of fiction and plays for adults, teens, tweens and young adults. Her first book for middle grade, CELIA AND THE WOLF won the Lyra Award for best juvenile fiction in 2014. She has been teaching writing at the college and community level for more than ten years.