I’ll not bury the lede. After a long, involved process of writing, editing, querying, repeat, I’m over-the-moon excited to announce that I’m being represented by the awesome Susan Velazquez at the esteemed JABberwocky Literary Agency. I don’t want to oversell it; I know this is only the beginning of the publishing journey, and there’s plenty of hard work, heartache and (hopefully) happiness in my future. But for now, I’m going to jump up and down and scream my joy to the heavens.
To commemorate the occasion, I wanted to do the standard New Babby Author query stats post. While splurting out this data is a rite of passage at this point (possibly to make us feel like we haven’t wasted our time gathering it), I do think it continues to be useful for authors who are just starting the querying process.
“You’ll get a lot of rejections” is a common refrain in the publishing industry, yes, but I don’t think people realize how common the inverse is. I’ve attended multiple “how to get published” panels where the stories given were “I queried a few agents, got multiple offers, chose one, got into a bidding war and then they made my book into a movie.” I don’t want to take anything away from those highly successful authors (except maybe a few million dollars, venmo me plz), but I want to make sure as-of-yet unagented authors know that the long hard slog of cold querying can reap rewards. You are not alone.
With that said, let’s jump into the time machine and travel waaaaay back to Matt’s First Query…
Book One – 120k Epic Fantasy, 05/2012-06/2012
Queries Sent: 15
Requests Received: 0
Request Rate: 0%
Ouch! Suffice it to say, this book was not ready for prime-time. There are a few likely reasons: one, though I still love the novel’s characters, the plot itself is bog-standard fantasy, and thus doesn’t pop particularly well in a query. Two, 120k is generally too long for a debut novel, even in fantasy. Longer books occasionally sell, but they’re the exception. Three, I was a young writer, and the writing itself just didn’t shine as much as it needed to.
So was querying this book a mistake? Well, if the goal is solely to land an agent, then sure. But I found learning the query process with a “test project” invaluable. I picked up query-writing and synopsis-writing skills first-hand, became familiar with agents, agencies and publishers, and shed my fear of rejection (indeed, as the stats show, rejection became my base assumption). It became clear after a relatively small number of queries that the manuscript hadn’t gathered the kind of reception I’d hoped for, and the time spent querying didn’t stop me from working on my next project, which I did simultaneously.
Now, the caveat is that you should never query a project you’re not willing to stand behind as publishable. Hands-on learning is great, but the risk of querying a project that’s laughably, cringingly bad (thankfully not the case here) is that your name becomes memorable for bad reasons. If that’s the case, maybe just shelve that manuscript.
Book Two – 100k Fantasy/Adventure, 04/2013-08/2013
Queries Sent: 75
Partial Requests: 4
Full Requests: 3 (includes 1 partial->full)
Total Request Rate: 8%
Better! At least, a little. 8% is still a low request rate (from what I’ve seen and experienced, a 10-20% request rate is what you want to shoot for). The higher number of queries sent here indicated my higher confidence in the book. I’m still really proud of this one, and though I’d tweak several things about it if I were to try to sell it again, I think it’s overall a strong manuscript.
Looking back on the query, I believe it could stand some improvement. The biggest problem is the opening pages, though. The book starts with a professor musing, quite vaguely, about equations, and if there’s one intro more boring than detailed math, it’s ambiguous math. If I could go back in time, I’d definitely make the first few chapters more engaging than they were when I queried.
Book Three – 100k Epic Fantasy, 02/2015 – 05/2017 (!!!)
Queries Sent: 67
Partial Requests: 8
Full Requests: 4
Revise and Resubmit Requests: 1
Total Request Rate: 19.4% (!)
This one stings. That request rate is right in line with something I’d expect to get a representation offer (though it should be self-evident that there are no guarantees). This novel kind of ended up with the opposite problem as the previous MS. The opening pages were solid, if I do say so myself, and I worked a very long time on crafting an engaging query, and that resulted in a lot more requests than I’d received previously (or, to be frank, even subsequently!)
The issue ended up being that the novel was a bit too … let’s say, ambitious. I pitched it as an Epic Fantasy Cloud Atlas (a concept I’m still 100% in love with, so feel free to @ me with recommendations), but Cloud Atlas was not a debut novel, and likely wouldn’t have sold if it had been (also, I just checked, and it turns out I’m not David Mitchell).
I knew while writing the manuscript that it would be a hard sell, so I wasn’t exactly disappointed. And ultimately the structure (five disparate protagonists whose stories only marginally converged by the end) proved too unwieldy, and if I revisit the manuscript, I’ll likely prune a lot.
All that said … see that date range up there? I spent over two years querying this novel, and that is frankly unacceptable. A big reason is because of that sole Revise and Resubmit noted above. For the record, I am not blaming the agent who requested the revision at all; their issues with the novel were 100% on point. But the changes essentially required me to write a second novel (I wrote something like 60-80k worth of new words), tack it onto the original manuscript and edit the whole thing into some semblance of cohesiveness. Needless to say, this did not work.
Am I advising people not to consider R&Rs? Absolutely not. Lots of R&Rs turn into offers of representation, and if those revisions align with how you already feel about the manuscript, it’s totally worth the effort to make changes that will likely improve the manuscript for future querying in any case.
For this particular project, though, the R&R came at the tail end of my query list, which meant unless I wanted to re-query agents, I was revising for this agent alone. In addition, the revisions were so substantial that I spent nearly a year on them, which meant an entire year not working on a new project. My advice for R&Rs would be to take a long, hard look at whether the advised revisions align with your particular vision for the book, and also to make a realistic cost-benefit analysis. It’s hard not to be swayed by the temptation of an offer; BELIEVE me, I know. But in many cases, spending a year crafting something brand new (with the benefit of everything you learned from writing previous works) will turn out better than spending a year futzing with an older manuscript with only vague guidance from an agent or editor.
Book Four – 100k Science Fiction, 03/2018 – 10/2018
Queries Sent: 58
Partial Requests: 5
Full Requests: 3
Offers of Representation: 2
Total Request Rate: 12%
Four books (five, if you want to count the ‘second half’ of the previous manuscript). Six years. Over half a million words. And finally, finally, we see some success.
What’s interesting here is that, especially compared to the stats for the previous novel, this set of queries was not a mind blowing success! My request rate stayed above 10%, but was not particularly impressive on its own. I liked my original query, but it was vastly improved with professional critiques from Dongwon Song and Katherine Locke, to whom I am incredibly grateful. And after a first round of queries, I decided to punch up the voice in my first few chapters, which I believe brought me over the finish line (if you take any advice from this, let it be that your opening pages have to be solid motherfucking platinum. Good enough is not good enough).
You’ll see from the plural in Offers of Representations that I did indeed end up choosing between two stellar agents to represent my novel. I don’t want to pretend that this isn’t an enviable position; I, like so many others, worked my ass off for the better part of a decade trying to get one offer, and it turns out when it rains, it pours. That said, I also don’t want to pretend that it was all sugar and rainbows. Making a decision of that magnitude was more anxiety-inducing than anything else I’ve done in my life, and rejecting people, even in a purely professional capacity, sucks. It really does.
But I am proud as hell of this book, unsurprised that it succeeded more than previous manuscripts, and so excited for the world to read it. I really hope I get to announce its publication before the heat death of the universe!
What to make of all this? As I noted above, the conclusion I drew is that your query+opening pages are by far the most important keys to query success. If I had to choose between the two, I’d much rather have a great opening than a great ending (though, of course, you should have both). An agent might see the potential in a great manuscript with a meh ending; they won’t even bother reading a great manuscript with a meh opening.
But more than that, what I want to highlight here is that PERSISTENCE MATTERS. I’m sure I took this from someone more clever than me (and if so, let me know so I can credit them!) but I like to think the only three aspects to being a successful creative are luck, skill and persistence. I don’t think anyone knows the true relative ranking of those aspects, but persistence is the only one you can really, truly control. You don’t choose your luck, and while you can absolutely focus on your craft, it’s never as simple as an RPG, where x amount of grinding will give you y number of levels. What you can do, though, and what no one can ever stop you from doing, is showing the fuck up. You can keep submitting stories, keep querying novels, keep finishing work until you succeed. And if you never do (hey, who knows — I could totally strike out with publishers!), at least you can say it wasn’t for lack of trying.
And now, y’all, I’ve got some editing to do, and new projects to bang out. I’ll see you on the other side.