To Follow Up or Not To Follow Up…

Q. If you don’t mind, I’ve got a quick question.  You indicated in one of your talks to us that it was probably okay to re-query an agent if he or she had not responded to your initial e-mail query after about a month or so (and hadn’t stated somewhere that no response meant no interest). On the other hand, I came across the following “warning” on (another) website: “Do not re-query agents if they have not responded to your initial query. Especially if it was an e-mail query.”  So which do you see as being the preferred protocol?  Re-query or not?
       – Buzz

A. I think you mean “follow up,” here, Buzz. When people use the term “re-query,” they usually mean a scenario where you send a query, it’s rejected, but then you resubmit the book a year later or whatever after significant overhauls.
       Now, on the subject of “following up,” I say do it – but it depends on some important things. First of all, it has to be a little while after an expected time of reply. So – if an agent says they will reply within 4 weeks, maybe give them 6-8 and then send a nice follow-up. In the follow-up, you basically say (very humbly and gently) that you had queried 6-8 weeks ago and heard nothing. You say that the original query probably goty caught in a spam filter or lost in cyberspace, so you have simply pasted the original query below. And then you have some nice sign off like, “Thank you for considering my query.”
       And you’re correct, Buzz, in saying that some agents will only reply to queries that interest them. So keep an eye out for that little tidbit in their submission guidelines.

How I Got My Agent: B.A. Binns

     


B.A. Binns is the pseudonym of Barbara Binns, a

Chicago Area author who finds writing an exercise in
self discipline,
and the perfect follow-up to her life as
an adoptive parent and cancer
survivor. She is a
member of RWA, the
Chicago Writers Association,
SCBWI and YALSA.
Pull
(Oct. 2010), her debut
YA novel, tells the story of a young man who
fears biology will force him to repeat his father’s

violence, before he realizes the future is in his
own hands.
(Buy the book here.)



A MINOR CHARACTER NEEDS A MAJOR ROLE

I have never met my agent, although I’ve seen her picture on her website and plan to meet her next year during a trip to New York. I’ve never pitched to her, or sent her a query, nor was I referred to her by a friend. I signed with her the old-fashioned way: sheer luck.

After dabbling for a number of years, I began writing seriously in 2007. By 2009, I had finished a couple of adult manuscripts that will probably forever remain on my hard drive. My pitiful queries garnered a series of form rejections. Then, in February 2009, I went to the Association of Writing Professionals conference and attended a panel discussion on reluctant (primarily teenaged male) readers. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was engaged in market research with the customers who matter most in this industry. Booksellers and librarians present voiced their desire for more books designed to appeal to this group.

I went home and thought about a character who continued kicking around in my head. A truly obnoxious fellow who played a minor role in one of my books and kept demanding more page space to explain himself. Since the roots of his problems came from his teen years, I decided to get him off my case and write his backstory as a young adult novel.

SUBMISSIONS: QUERIES AND CONTESTS

The book, told from the POV of a 17-year-old boy, almost wrote itself. Five months and 350 fifty pages later, I had a complete manuscript that I titled Pull My String and affectionately nicknamed PMS. I entered PMS in contests for feedback I could use to improve the writing. Simultaneously I struggled to create an agent-attracting query. I investigated a number of agents before sending out my queries. I received several requests for partials and fulls, but they all ultimately returned rejection letters. I was told I showed great potential, dynamic voice, moving plot … but sorry. 

Meanwhile PMS garnered high marks in contests. I reviewed every comment, making changes where they seemed appropriate. Since finding ways to improve the story was my sole contest goal, I seldom checked who the final judges were. I never expected to get that far. Even in November when I heard I was a finalist in Oregon’s Golden Rose contest, I didn’t look to see who the judge was. I was too busy sending out luckless queries.

I received another request from an agent I knew for the full manuscript after a query. I also got an e-mail informing me that the final judge at Portland’s Golden Rose contest had ranked PMS number one and wanted to see the complete manuscript. I still didn’t know who the judge was, but I sent her the manuscript on a Friday, then settled down to relax. Past experience told me that weeks or months would pass before either got back to me, and that both replies would be additions to my growing pile of rejections.

THE CONTEST JUDGE COMES CALLING

Then came Wednesday and an e-mail from a woman I didn’t know working for an agency I had barely heard of. The final judge of the Golden Rose contest, Andrea Somberg from the Harvey Klinger Agency, said she wanted to represent me. Suddenly I’m doing a frantic internet search and e-mailing writer friends for information. I know I did things totally backward, but I swear I never once thought I would final, much less win the contest and get an offer. When I called and spoke with her, she was friendly, enthusiastic, positive-and she loved my book.

There was still the matter of the other agent. Andrea agreed to wait for my answer. I let the second agent know there was another offer and she asked for time to complete her read. She promised to get back to me the following week. Eventually I received a two page e-mail from the second agent documenting pluses and minuses about the manuscript. She liked PMS. But Andrea loved it. And don’t we all believe that love conquers all?

I signed with the Harvey Klinger agency in January. Andrea found a publisher in April. And PMS, re-titled PULL, was purchased and fast-tracked for release in October 2010. And that rush to publication is truly a story all by itself.

Agents generally respond to submissions with three types of rejections.  Cracking the code when it comes to a typical agent’s rejection protocol can help you determine whether or not the project you’re working on has publishing potential.

Scott Hoffman is an agent with
Folio Literary in NYC.

1. THE FORM REJECTION 

The most common (and least valuable) type, a form rejection tells you only that someone—not necessarily even the agent herself—glanced over your manuscript and didn’t think it could be sold at a high enough price to justify signing you as a client. By itself, one form rejection tells you nothing. Twenty in a row, however, may serve as a pretty convincing sign that your book, or at least the beginning of it, isn’t ready to hit the shelves quite yet. (Remember, agents read until we can stop, and then we do.

2. THE PERSONALIZED REJECTION

This can be either a form letter with a personal note added or a letter obviously written directly to you. If you receive one of these, it means your manuscript is head and shoulders above the majority of submissions an agent has read. I’d guess that most agents add a personal and encouraging touch to no more than 5 percent of the queries they read. I’d also wager that most published authors have received at least one personalized rejection in the course of their careers.  By itself, a personalized rejection is actually a good thing: It means you’ve got the writing chops or some other compelling factor on your side that will likely lead to you eventually becoming a published author. You’ve convinced a publishing professional to pay attention to you—and that should be a tremendously energizing event.

3. REAL-TIME INTERACTION

This is the rarest (and most valuable) rejection, and it comes in the form of either a phone call or (rarer still) an in-person meeting.  If this happens to you, don’t be shy—be sure to ask the agent exactly what he thinks your book is lacking. In Rachel’s case, I thought the book she sent me wasn’t the right project to launch her literary career. Despite her raw talent, my experience with the publishing process led me to believe that if her book were to find a home at a publisher, it wouldn’t break out in a way that would lead to long-term success.

Take notes when an agent responds this way, because—and I may get in trouble with some of my colleagues for saying this—if an agent is going to take the time to call you or meet with you, he almost certainly will represent you at some point in your career. It may just be a matter of finding the right book, or making changes to the on you’re working on now.


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