Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Enter the Slush

You spent two years writing the novel, three months rewriting the opening chapters, and four seconds reading the submission guidelines.

QUERY: letter sent to literary agents to submit a manuscript

SLUSH: unsolicited submissions (i.e. queries)

I sent out my first query letter 10 weeks ago today; the first of 76 queries in total. I am writing this post today because I have to do something besides constantly hitting "refresh" on my email, hoping that another agent will ask to see a partial, or a full, or better yet, that this will be the day an agent actually asks to represent me.

There are many, many writers out there trying to break into publishing through the vast slush pile, and we all spend hours ...days, weeks, months... trying to figure out What Agents Want. For those of you just starting out, here is some statistical insight into one facet of the query process: What Do Literary Agents Want to Receive In Their Slush?

Many people (and Wikipedia) define "slush" as the unsolicited manuscripts received by literary agents and publishing houses, but if you do your research, you will quickly learn that no literary agent wants to get a full, unsolicited manuscript. Not one. What they want is a query letter describing your project and telling a little bit about yourself, and maybe saying why you chose to submit to that agency in particular. Agents who blog are usually very good about providing detailed posts on how to write a high-quality query letter, so I won't repeat their expert advice, I will simply refer you to the blog roll on the right over there (you may need to scroll) =>

...but I will provide the statistics I've encountered for what agents who represent my genre are looking for in addition to the query letter, if anything. Here we go.


Query letter only: 37 (50%)

Query plus 1-5 pages: 18 (24%)

Query plus first chapter/10-20pgs: 16 (21%)

Query plus first 3 chapters/30-50pgs: 4 (5%)

TOTAL: 76 queries

That's right, fully half of all literary agents make their initial decision based on your query letter alone, without seeing a single word of your book. Better go check out those agent blog FAQs, huh?

Here are some other numbers:

Agents requesting mailed hard copy materials, with SASE: 12 (16%)

So, that's good news for those who are trying to save money on printing and postage costs (indeed, many agents now only accept e-queries, so don't go mailing anything out without double-checking).

Agents requesting a synopsis: 14 (18%)

Writing a synopsis is really, really hard, so I was grateful that it's not a requirement at most agencies, and I sent out queries for two weeks before I managed to write a synopsis I was proud of. I recommend writing some sort of synopsis before you start querying, however, because it's an excellent way to see if there are any real problems with your storyline. Can't write the synopsis for Act Three of your novel because nothing really "happens" in those chapters? Yeah, that's more than a synopsis problem, that's a manuscript problem. You're going to want to do some rewriting first.

Next post: more news from the querying frontlines

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