Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hoops vs. Hints

Some of you may have noticed while perusing agent blogs that there are quite a lot of "rules" about the querying process. You know: not too long, not too short, novels need to be finished, and some wacky agents out there even loathe rhetorical questions.

Some of the more jaded writers among us have taken this as evidence that we agents delight in making the unpublished jump through hoops. Every new "don't do this" blog post, in this view, becomes one more thing a poor author has to remember, and given the number of opinions out there, it's impossible to keep every single rule straight.

And you know what? They have a point.

While we agents are not diabolical sadists (most of us anyway), there is a truth at the heart of these complaints: there are hoops that you will be made to jump through along the way to publication, not all of which will make perfect sense, and some of which are based strictly on individual agents' preferences.

I think what really rankles some authors is that it's time-consuming to keep up with all the rules, and they begin to feel like they're made to run around in circles trying to get everything right, while at the end of the day the agents may not even respond. I understand this feeling, and I'm very cognizant that this is part of the power imbalance between agents and the unpublished, which itself is a source of a lot of the angst of the query process. I understand how incredibly frustrating it is to spend hours personalizing a query only to receive a rejection five minutes later or even not hear back at all.

So let me say: I hear you.

But might I suggest a new way of looking at this?

The fact is, you don't have to follow any of the "rules." Where's the law that says you have to follow someone's guidelines? What's stopping you from writing a hand written query on pink paper that you dashed off in two seconds? You won't get arrested! (At least not until I'm sheriff).

I use the extreme example to illustrate a single point: these query rules we blogging agents blog about? They're not about making you jump through hoops or because we hate pink paper or because we're meanies. We're just trying to help you improve your odds.

Let's take one particular element of the query process that particularly seems to get under some people's skins: personalization.

Many writers associate personalizing a query with kissing up. This is not the case! I get queries that are personalized along the lines of, "I read your blog and I kind of think it sucks, but here's my query anyway." And you know what? I don't stop reading.

But here's the reason why personalization works so well: there's a correlation between personalization and the quality of the query.

The type of person who researches the proper way of writing a query, who personalizes, who follows the "rules," who goes the extra mile and takes the time and who somehow avoid getting all freaked out about the way their pride is being vanquished by jumping through a few hoops: these are the people who tend to go the extra mile when they're writing their manuscript. They're the ones who tend to listen to critiques, who don't suffer from excessive pride, and who understand that this is a business where it pays to be professional.

In other words, the type of people who personalize their queries are the type of people we want to work with. This isn't always the case, obviously, and there are non-personalizers who are incredibly professional and personalizers who aren't professional. But there's a fairly strong correlation. So I pay extra attention when someone personalizes and urge everyone to do so on my blog.

These "hoops" you're seeing are merely hints. We're just trying to tell you what the good queries look like and what we respond to positively so that you can imitate them and conduct yourself professionally. You don't have to follow the rules! But this is a business where the odds are long, and it pays to make them as good as possible. Even if it means jumping through some hoops.


Bane of Anubis said...

When I saw the tagline, thought this was gonna be a basketball tie-in :)...

Good points - if you don't like the cooking, eat at a different restaurant (or, for self-publishing, cook your own meals)

Nathan Bransford said...


Check the last link.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

I'm not complaining. Being a writer requires patience. Yeah, there are days when I want to bitch about agents, but I understand why there are guidelines and hoops for us to jump through.

Still working on my query... it's been 6 weeks and I'm still NOT satisfied with it.

Bane of Anubis said...

Wow - that is messed up. As someone who's had major skull surgery (from basketball, of course), that made me cringe.

Nathan Bransford said...


No need to cringe, I'm pretty sure it's fake.

JoAnna said...

Thanks for the post Nathan. I'm about to start on the agent hunt and it all seems a bit daunting, so I appreciate you taking the time to provide hints and tips that make the whole process a little less intimidating.

D.M.Cunningham said...

I find short and sweet gets me in more doors than anything else. I add a small personal note, but leave it brief. I want you to read my manuscript, not a long letter on why you should read me. Words are powerful, use them wisely.

Use the hints that work for you. It's simple. Do or do not. There is no maybe.

Bane of Anubis said...

Yeah, probably, but I'm still gonna cringe - And if I'd hurt myself that way, at least it would be a good story - in my case, I got head-butted by a guy twice my age and my brow bone dented in - now I've got a nice titanium plate and a hairband scar (nope, don't set off metal detectors) - the best thing about it, though, (much to my wife's chagrin) is that I was able to get back on the court 6 weeks later.

Dawn Maria said...

Maybe I'm in the minority, but I don't feel upset or frustrated by the hoops. It's part of the business. I like the personalization aspect of a query because I think it's important to show a side of who you are beyond a professional query writer. I took a big risk in the personal section of the query I sent to you Nathan, and I honestly appreciated your kind and personal rejection email. I appreciated that you replied to me at all and that you encouraged me in my search for an agent. Not everyone does that, but again, that's part of the business.

Joelle said...

Haha! I just read your rhetorical question post. I wrote an article for SCBWI about starting nonfiction with a question (and also how it can hurt your fiction) being a bad idea and it got everyone all riled up. I'm sure you ended up with lots of rhetorical questions after that post just to "prove" to you that it can be done well.

serenity said...

"who don't suffer from excessive pride" - I love this. My process so far has been such a nice pride-squasher. The writer's journey - like any in life I guess - is so good for softening your edges and helping you find the balance between bravery and humility, professionalism and heart.

Sarah said...

Nathan, I for one LOVE the rules. It gives me (and my obsessive attention to order and detail) a chance to rise above the riff raff. I care, and I want the agent to know I care enough to read the submissions guidelines.

What's really so hard about that?

Laura D said...

Don't worry, Nathan. The entirty of the university experience is jumping through hoops to get what you want, so most of us are used to it anyway.
As far as I'm concerned, if only typing in purple, #6 font size, is whan an agent requires, I will oblige. Any increase in chance helps!

Kristi said...

Hoops are part of life. Also, there's something to be said for the sense of accomplishment you feel knowing that you went through the wringer and succeeded. I had to jump through so many hoops for my Ph.D. that my head was spinning - but it was worth it in the end.

After that, this whole writing hoops thing seems totally doable.
I also agree that if you take the time to research the agents you're querying, you likely took extra time with your manuscript too - as a general rule. When I was hiring people, I actually tossed out the ones who had grammatical errors in their cover letter and the job had nothing to do with writing. I figured it represented how much effort they put into things in general. Good post as usual. :)

Melanie Avila said...

Great post, Nathan. I really don't understand why some writers get upset that agents blog to give us tips on how to write a better query letter. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

I'm glad you brought up personalization. While I understand it's important to let an agent know that we stalk -- er -- follow them on their blog, to me it does feel like sucking up. Are you saying that a sentence or two is all it takes?

Nathan Bransford said...


It really doesn't have to be much. Just something that shows that it's not a form query. It could even be "I read your blog" or "I note that you represent so and so." I don't see how that could be construed as kissing up. You don't have to say in the query that you think the agent is the greatest thing ever, and in fact that would probably work to your detriment because it would look like kissing up.

Court said...


Just kidding. ;o)

At the OWFI Writer's Conference in Norman, OK, ten days ago, Jason Ashlock of Movable Type Literary Group spoke on writing good query letters. He, too, brought up the point that many authors feel as they have to jump through this hoop to get anyone to pay attention to them.

Jason, however, encouraged us writers to change how we view the query letter: Instead of seeing it as an annoying hoop, we should look at it as our very first opportunity to present our writing (letter) to a reading public (agent). The query letter isn't a magic formula to follow; it's a chance to craft something attractive that catches the eye.

Just as a shop owner doesn't stick his entire inventory in a show window, instead displaying only a few selected wares to whet the appetites of passersby, so the writer has in the query letter a golden moment to make the agent drool over said writer's potential.

That's the ideal scenario, anyway. I kinda like it, myself.

(STOP) ;o)

Daisy said...

An encouraging anecdote for the frustrated: I recently went to a talk given by an agent to a group of writers. In it, she laid out some do's and don'ts for queries-- nothing outrageous, just what a lot of agents recommend. But afterwards I was talking to an author whose first novel she (the agent) is representing, and she confided that she was embarrassed during the talk because she realized there were several rules she hadn't followed in her own query. Which got her representation anyway. so, my take-away is, try and learn the rules and follow them, but just because you miss a hoop or two, it doesn't mean you're out of the game. (Although badly-mixed metaphors are probably something to avoid.)

Barb said...

If I wanted any other job I would fill in an application form exactly as asked and send in what was requested in the format it was asked for.

In this circumstance, I am asking someone to employ me to provide a product. Therefore, I make it as easy as possible for them to say yes and to hire me.

I don't get what the problem is with that.

Myra said...

I personalized my query to you last Thursday - but you needed to know you were made of awesome, because you are.

You said no, but out of the ten queries I sent, I got six requests for fulls. It all goes to show that an agent who enjoys your work is *really* the one you want.

Marilyn Peake said...


I appreciate that you really seem to listen to writers. I also appreciate the huge amount of helpful information that you and several other agents post on your blogs. Since I discovered agent blogs, I’ve learned A LOT; and yours is one of the best blogs around (fun as well as informative). After reading these blogs for months, I really get that posts about "rules" are actually "hints" about what works most effectively ... and who wouldn’t want that kind of valuable insider information?!!?

I’m planning to finish my adult science fiction novel in the fall, and then begin querying agents by the beginning of 2010. When I wrote my earlier novels, I didn't have a clue about how to even begin finding or querying reputable agents, and I eventually gave up. I’m almost looking forward to the process this time around.

Speaking of authors typing manuscripts in odd formats, I found this fascinating 2007 Publishers Weekly article about Jack Kerouac’s book, On the Road. Love this line: "He added that Jack had a new manuscript typed on a 120-foot scroll of architectural tracing paper. That would be my problem to deal with." His agent advised that he retype it, which he did. :)

Melanie Avila said...

Nathan, that makes sense. I hadn't thought of it in terms of differentiating from a form query.

Thanks. :)

Cyndi said...

I believe if you've done your homework and have learned how to write a good query, the agent just might think maybe you've done your homework and learned how to write a good book.

I'm very grateful for everything I've learned from this blog. I've been researching agents (I write/illustrate PBs or I'd start with you, Nathan) and I'm almost ready to start querying. I feel a lot more confident about writing a query letter knowing the 'rules'.

PurpleClover said...

This actually made me "LOL out loud" as Monk would say.

The "So let me say - I hear you" gave me warm fuzzies. You're incredibly kind. *wipes nose*

I must admit I didn't know there was a word limit (scary) on queries. Pretty sure I've been failing miserably there. I love to personalize my queries but I'm sure it doesn't help the rest of my query shine. I'm pretty sure I'm a pathetic query-er.

As for the rule about not having a finished novel - it sounded like a pretty firm rule. :) It's the only one I wish I could break but I'm sure it would take a resume of book sales to bend that one.

So I'll continue to bang my head thru hoops. :D (um...fake or not - OUCH!)

Anne Louise said...

Overall, I have no problem with agent preferences, even if I occasionally question one or two. If somebody's really out there, I don't query that person. Obviously, he/she is not the right agent for me.

What does annoy me is when an agent with an unusually persnickety preference insists everyone does it that way. Especially when I know durned well said agent is the only one because I check in with agents on a regular basis and no one else seems to have that preference.

There. I feel better now.

Anne Louise Bannon

Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...


Oh, if only it were that easy to get your book into print!

Jil said...

Nathan, your paragraph describing how we feel when writing a query was exactly it! How nice that you understand.

However,my first two novels were accepted by agents before I knew anything about query writing. I only wish I had known how to follow up on what happened to them afterward!

Now, all the hoops make me take forever.

I hope the grammar police are snoozing this afternoon.

Marc Vun Kannon said...

have no problem with the personalization. If I've read your work, read one of your authors' work, or met you I'll say so. What kills me is the synopsis. I've discovered some sort of annoying rule to my writing, 'the best synopsis for the book, is the book.' Lots of people doing lots of things, not one of which can honestly be called THE plot but all of which contribute to 'the way the story goes'...that's the synopsis I've been trying to write. Maybe that's why they call them yarns, because of all the strands. Are there query types that don't depend on linear plots to follow, and how do I write one?

The First Carol said...

Waaaaa. Now we have to understand sports? I am dead.

T. Anne said...

Point well taken. The most hits I've had on queries are the ones that were personalized beyond just the name ;)

Vancouver Dame said...

Thanks, Nathan, for such an honest posting on a touchy subject. It does seem like there are lots of opinions (some better than others) on what is needed in query letters.

If there's anything that makes my query have a better chance at catching an agents' eye, I want to know what that is (such as this posting). I appreciate the way you try to explain the situation without a lot of trendy hype. (BTW - can't picture you as a sheriff.)

Thanks for addressing our concerns. We don't mean to whine, but we get so frustrated. I prefer the agent route for getting my novel published, so I'll play by the rules, unless I have a good reason not to.

Thanks for clarifying the issue.

Justine said...

Ha, I totally thought we were going to get a basketball speach there...

I love Court's analogy to the shopkeeper making a display window. That's such a great way to put it.

But really, I think this is a wonderful issue to blog about. I know a few writers who have gotten down and out about this. I think this really sums it up and helps to clerify the issue.

Thanks Nathan


Fawn Neun said...

Oh, I don't think personalization is all that complicated or difficult. In fact, it makes a query easier to write by providing a seamless lead-in to your pitch.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I haven't started writing queries yet, but I have thought about how I can personalize them when I do. There is a fine line between personalizing and sucking up.

I just take comfort that if others don't want to jump through hoops, my queries will probably look better in comparison if I do.

Kat Harris said...

I made this connection awhile back when I was researching different agents.

Agent Kristin Nelson has examples of winning queries on her blog, and the first thing I noticed was that one of them started with a . . . rhetorical question.

As a faithful reader of your blog, Nathan, I laughed.

Another agent's favorite said her book was "This movie" meets "That book." I've read on other blogs not to do that.

That's when the personalization of queries really started sinking in.

I guess the only thing a writer can do is research first, pick your dream agent, write query accordingly. If all you receive is a rejection, then rewrite and resend someplace else.

This is a great post. I'm glad you pointed this out.

I think a lot of writers out there correlate personalization with sucking up, and that's just not what it is.

That's a really good thing to know before you start sending queries.

Ian said...

One rule is that you must NEVER write or say 'at the end of the day' and now you've made me break it. We can learn together.

Dan said...


You're only pretty sure the video is a fake? If that's the case, I've got some great property to sell you....

It looks as though they spliced a swish shot video with the girl doing the trick.

Ian said...

PS Is the, 'If you don't accept me as a client, I will kill myself' bit still acceptable? If not, I really don't know what I'm going to do with my weekends.

Nathan Bransford said...


A rule against "at the end of the day" is a pretty good one, I have to say.

Also that rhymed.

jimnduncan said...

It would be nice if agents could presume professionalism on the part of writers. That it's given that the writer has checked the agent's website to see if they have any specific requirements regarding submission. That the writer has checked to make sure the agent does indeed represent their genre. And if they have a blog, you've gone to check it out to see if there is anything pertinent regarding querying.

Sadly, that's not the case. A lot of writers don't do these simple things. It honestly doesn't take all that much time to do these things. It's the basics of building a query list. I wish that I didn't have to personalize my query to make note of these things. I wish the vast majority of writers could invest the effort to do these basic things so that agents could presume they were getting professional queries. The query itself may be crap, but at least they would know that we did our homework.

That said, it seems personalizing is just a way to verify that you've only done what you are suppose to do in the first place, and shouldn't need to state it in writing.

Jen C said...

As someone mentioned, on Kristin Nelson's blog she has a list of her client's queries. I was particularly interested in Jamie
Ford's letter, which you can read here:

Jamie Ford's Query

Jamie wrote Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is an NY Times bestseller. I thought it was an awesome letter, which definitely breaks a bunch of rules. Yet, he still got good representation and that holy grail of bestsellerdom (there I go inventing words again. Yay).

What I took from that and from a lot of Nathan's posts is to just write a query that feels right for you and the work you're presenting.

John Darrin said...

In your last link, it looked like the person jumping through the hoop got a concussion while all the instigators high-fived each-other. Is there a lesson there?

Jen C said...

Hey turns out bestsellerdom is a word. I'm totally smarter than I thought...

Robert said...

Some people have said that I suffer from more pride then could be contained in any other ten mortals, but they are mistaken. They have confused pride with AWESOME of which I have placed my ownage.

Anyway...I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about queries and such now that I am getting closer to the completion of my first draft. I know that I will not be ready for many more months yet until my prose is all shiny and such, but the thoughts have been there. In my day job, I too have a process that I ask people to follow because while it may not make their lives any easier, it does make mine a touch more pleasant (though some have thought my need to have things done my way nothing more than an over weaned need to control others...and they may not be exactly wrong...).

I find that being an unpublished writer is an balancing act of knowing the worth of what I am doing with the realization that I do not know as much as I think I know and that when I do get into the process of agent searching, it will be an awakening to another facet of life that I have but had a glance at to date.

I do know that being tossed into the air to slip through a basket ball hoop will be something I WILL NOT DO, but if an agent is willing to work with me I am sure we will be able to come to a compromise of some sort or another.

BTW - Nathan you will of course still be my first query that I send out as I have promised in the past :)

Dorothy said...

If writers (and I am one of those) think preparing personalized queries according to suggested guidelines is too demanding perhaps they should try writing government grants. (wicked cackle)

lotusgirl said...

I think that queriers need to keep in mind that most blogging agents aren't giving them hoops to jump through and making their lives more difficult. They are giving them ideas to make their queries better--more acceptable--more likely to get requests for partials, etc.

Neil said...

Good post, Nathan! Almost could have featured in Positivity Week, couldn't it? I for one like a bit of personalisation (I'm English, it's spelt with an "s" over here). In my current job (in education) I have to respond to a lot of emails every day -- perhaps twenty or thirty on average -- and though I often have to use templates as responses, I find a little bit of personalisation and a few pleasantries generally helps ease communcation paths and allows me to smooth over the creases sometimes. Additionally, when I receive enquiries, I always end up responding more quickly/ in a friendlier manner than if it's just a form enquiry. So I guess what I'm saying here is: good points, well made. (But don't spell my name wrong, enquirers! That's just lazy!) On a separate note: can someone tell me where all the English Literary Agent bloggers are please???

Mira said...

Nathan, I appreciate the empathy, but I'm not getting your argument.

Are you saying that it's okay for agents to have varied, arbitrary requirements because making writers jump through hoops will help the agents know who is the easiest to work with? I can understand that's a compelling argument for agents, but I'm not sure why writers should somehow appreciate that?

Is there something I'm not understanding here? Maybe I'm not getting the logic.

From my stance, I would like to be evaluated on my writing, not my ability to jump through hoops.

I know you're trying to build bridges but this one didn't work for me at all.

Have agents ever considered standardizing requirements across agencies? That might be very helpful, create better access and help minimize frustration.

Lucinda said...

Jumping through hoops helps us learn new tricks.

Just so long as you don't put fire around that hoop, I will do my best to jump through it.

Another nice blog, Nathan

and that last link made my head hurt just watching it.

Magpie Lucy

Vic K said...

Interesting post Nathan, thanks.

It's quite timely actually, because I was reading a friend's query the other day and my comments on it were that it seemed too 'cardboard cut-out'.

You know, like she'd taken the 'how to write a great query' formula and delivered the novel on those lines. And since I've read the novel and it is far more interesting than the query conveyed... well the formula did her a disservice in that case.

My suggestion was, (paraphrasing here...) to let go of the rules. Have a play. Right the query you want to write about the novel.

I see query formulae as a bit like, well, the pirate code. They're more like...guidelines really. You still have to let your individual voice come through and speak for you.

That all said, I am of the sneaking suspicion that the reason so many writers whine about query rules is they're missing the point. If their queries aren't getting them anywhere, it is time to consider that it isn't the query that is the issue but the story.

In such situations, it is easier to blame the hoops than the ball.
Maybe the ball is flat...?

annielaural said...

Sent out a few query emails on my Sunday – used your exemplars to craft what I hope is an interest catching note. Thanks for posting 'what works'.

Chuck H. said...

You want me to jump through hoops? Okay, I'll jump through hoops. There *pant pant* I've jumped through all the hoops. *pant pant* (tongue hanging out). Do I get a scooby snack now?

Most of life is a series of jumping through hoops. Why should trying to get published by any different?

Henri said...

Very well said. Actually for me, the agent hunt is kind of fun. Definitely , a nice break from writing a novel. There are so many different agents out there and so many different genre that the hunt, although unsuccessful at this point has been very interesting. Thanks for the well-written and informative blog.

Nathan Bransford said...


Aside from the occasional pet peeve, I don't really think agents' preferences are that arbitrary, and we agree far more than we disagree. It would be nice if everyone completely standardized submissions, but I don't think it would be realistic to do that because of the differences in preferences. At the end of the day (sorry ian) I think agents deserve some leeway on this because of the volume of submissions we receive. Agents are free to craft their own requirements and it's up to authors to decide if they want to follow them.

Marilyn Peake said...


Checked out your link to rhetorical questions. OMG, am laughing so hard, I must be very careful not to spit mocha latte all over my computer keyboard. Dang, I wish I had discovered this blog back in 2007. Don't you want to have another rhetorical question contest? Or is that just a rhetorical question?

Laraine Herring said...

Hey Nathan,

It might help when explaining this sticky wicket to make a comparison to all the rules you have to follow in college. Professor A likes Times New Roman font. Professor B only wants .rtf files. Professor C only wants work on MOndays -- they seem ridiculous when you're a student, but they make perfect sense on the other side! :-)

I'm a college prof and I do have goofy preferences, and I'm clear about them in my syllabus. It's not to be mean; it's because I have 90 students per semester and I have A LOT of papers to read :-), and I want the process to go as seamless as possible so I can be the most effective instructor I can be. The more streamlined the process is for me, the less likely I am to be irritated at the student before I even read their work.

I'd expect with the volume of reading agents have to do, it's much the same sort of situation. It's very very hard to read a lot of short stories or poems in a day and make constructive comments. Your brain can only do this for so long. :-) If I don't have to track down the person who sent a .wps file that I can't open, I'm that much happier, which means all my students are better served.

Your blog is fabulous -- it's linked in to all my creative writing courses. Thanks for investing the time in it!


sex scenes at starbucks said...

I always like to tell about one of my favorite stories I ever published. It was embedded in the email, the formatting was all fucked up, there were weird squiggles and font stuff. But I could see a glimmer of a great story in there. I wrote the guy back and said, "Dude I'll probably buy this if you'll just send me a decent copy of it."

It took him all of about ten minutes to reply with a good mss, which we bought.
He was professional and courteous and the writing was stellar. He was just following some other magazine's guidelines.

Point? As the esteemed Miss Snark always said, Good Writing Trumps All. I'd add professional courtesy to that, too.

I have my preferences. This guy broke them all. But still...

You write well and behave reasonably and professionally, no agent worth their salt is going to shout at you about two spaces instead of one after your periods, or if you send 56 instead of 50 pages because that's where the chapter ended.

Those were in my early days of editing, but I'd break my own rules, within reason, for a story like that again. I think most agents would, too.

Mira said...


I skipped over the first part too quickly, because my buttons got pushed on the second part. I over-reacted, I'm sorry. I have a bad habit of typing too quickly and pushing that send button.

Thank you for the empathy. It felt like you really understood how frustrating it can feel for writers. I appreciate that.

Cass said...

Jumpin through hoops is okay for me, my doc says I need more cardio anyway.

Thanks for hints Nathan!

Mira said...

Okay, I re-read your post. So, what you're saying is that agents are letting writers know what works best for the agent. Writers can ignore that, or take advantage of the information. That's a valid point.

Yes, I definitely over-reacted.

Phoenix Rising said...

What will the agents do if all the writers stop jumping through the hoops? Not that I see that happening any time soon, but it's a question worth considering. What is going to happen when the writers wake up to the fact that they are, in fact, the bread and butter that these agents dine upon daily?

I've taken the classes and bought the books. I've written and rewritten my queries. I'm done jumping. My writing stands for itself--published or unpublished.

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm more than happy for anyone who doesn't want an agent to either self-publish or try to find publication without an agent. That's their choice.

But the number of successful authors who do have agents and are extremely happy with them should tell you something about whether or not it's worth it to jump through whatever hoops necessary to get one.

kdrausin said...

Well said-

Madison said...

Thanks for posting this, Mr. Bransford. It is frustrating when you go that extra mile and it seems no one notices, but we will be rewarded when they do. :)

Nathan Bransford said...

Also, this may be a topic for a future post, but I'm sliiiightly tired of all the lectures about agents needing to remember who is buttering our bread (no offense to you personally, Phoenix, you're just expressing a common sentiment).

I know perfectly well who I'm working for: my clients. Yes, I'm looking for more clients. I spend hours a day reading queries and manuscripts. But the only people I work for are those writers whose work I can sell and who want to work with me. I don't work for "writers" en masse.

Fawn Neun said...

Back to read all these great comments. First rule of business is to ALWAYS make it easy for people to give you money. (Take every kind of payment there is.) As a fiction 'zine editor, I like it when people make it easy for me to read their work (right format, right size, per guidelines, etc.). Give me a good pitch line in the cover letter and I'll read it right away. Give me NO pitch line and it will sit in the slush pile for a month. It's the same principal.

Send it to them according to their submissions guidelines; they are there for a reason and the agent/editor knows why one format works, one doesn't, etc. As Nathan says, they aren't "hoops" they are just ways of making it easier for people to give you money.

Mimm Patterson said...

Hi Nathan,

Thanks for the reassuring blog. I'm taking tentative steps towards querying. Guidelines are helpful but are sometimes paralytic. Whenever I have a brain freeze, I'll re-read this post to remind's a guide line; not the rule...the Query Police won't arrive at my doorstep to drag me's all good....

Kristi said...

Nathan - you would make my life so much easier if you would just acknowledge that you in fact, love picture books and have been waiting for the right moment to spring this realization upon us.

I wouldn't have to work on compiling a list of agents to query which would be one less hoop. What if it was a literary picture book with political undertones involving basketball? C'mon! :)

Mira said...

Uh oh. You know it just occured to me that someday Nathan may be too full to take me on as a client.

Oh, that would so totally suck. I'd better get writing.

Okay, Nathan. I'm going to write something and query you.

And I'll jump through the hoops because you would be cool to work with.

Of course, you might turn me down.....hmm, what will I do if you turned me down?

I guess I'd go back to stalking you.

Well, that's okay. I like stalking you. I'm a winner either way.

Besides, I've heard you write such a nice rejection letter, I'd like to see that.

Expect a query from me in a few weeks - non-fiction. I hope you represent non-fiction. If not I'll just have to stalk you until you do.

Phoenix Rising said...

No offense taken. I understand your position. And I know there are many agents--like yourself--out there who are offering hints and not hoops to jump through. However, there are also just as many agents who not only put up those hoops but keep moving them.

And you are correct, there is a growing mood of discontent among
many writers today. And yes, they are talking about it. Writers are questioning why they are being asked to set up their own platforms and market themselves while querying agents in hopes of getting that big deal. It's like we're courting the agents and offering a dowry at the same time.

Thank you for affording just one of those writers the opportunity to share her feelings.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think you articulated the sentiment well. I think there's something of a notion out there that if someone just writes a good book everything else should just take care of itself. It's an appealing notion, but one that's not really grounded in either reality or history. It never was the case that it was just that easy, nor is it true in other industries.

Chefs don't just have to cook, they have to network and manage businesses. Actors don't just get parts handed to them because they're talented.

There's always a system. Authors are free to work outside of it and either self-publish or strike out on their own, but I don't know that frustration with agents' submission guidelines is a very sound reason to do so.

Phoenix Rising said...


I don't think it's just the query guidelines in and of themselves. I think it's a little bit of everything added together. On many agent blogs there seems to be a total lack of respect for the writer. I've read many blogs and tweets that make fun of writers and their ineptitude in the query process. It's like the writers are a joke. I have read your blog, so I know you are not one of those agents; however, there are many out there who show a total lack of respect for the writer and his/her efforts. Then, they turn around and teach a class or write a book to tell the writer how to speak to them so that they can be published.

Writing is hard work. Most writers know this and most are willing to work hard. Your blog hit the nail on the head. There is a difference between jumping through hoops and taking hints. As I said, I am not willing to jump through hoops.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see a blog entry on personalization gone too far. Like did it turn you off when during your Bachelor show fetish, I referred to my MS as "the rose you should accept". Seriously, I kinda did that (hence signing in as anon). Oh, the embarrassing queries I've written when I've tried to break da rules! What about if I made your name into an acronym? BRANSFORD = Bold Ransom Ask Now Send Full or Richard Dies (Richard being my main character). Seriously, do you see instances when "personalization" gets mucked up by people thinking they *know* you from your blog, so they get too casual or try to emulate wit they don't have, etc.?

Jill Lynn said...

It's difficult to personalize queries to agents who aren't as accessible as others. It would be easy to personalize a query to you, Nathan. You're easy (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) and we know how you feel about queries that start with rhetorical questions, etc. But I just chose another Curtis Brown agent at random (Mitchell Waters), and googling provided very little information to use for personalizing a query to him. Other than “I read you represent mysteries,” what more could a writer say to make a query more personalized to low-profile agents?

p.s. My apologies to Mitchell Waters for the guinea pigging :-)

Anonymous said...

IMHO, agents solicit queries for a much broader range of genres and subject matter than they are honestly interested in or capable of selling. In this regard, they should respect the authors’ time and narrow their scope of solicitation.

With fewer queries, agents would spend less time sending out form letter rejections, and they would have time to conduct better “interviews” with potential “candidates” who are buried in the deluge of queries.

Authors would certainly query fewer agents, and think of the time we'd save, too.

What would I want to know? I know that evaluating the quality of the manuscript would be ridiculous, but it would be a great help just to know whether the query and the sales pitch are hitting the mark or not.

Is the idea even in the ballpark? Are the genre and the subject matter selling today? Is the plot overdone?

What publishers are buying today will not be on the shelves for another 18+ months. Authors have no visibility to this timely information. However, agents do know what is selling today. Don’t they?

I think we all have to agree that the topic, pitch, and the marketability of the plot plays a key role in getting a manuscript published. If the pitch is off base or the story line is not marketable today … and we know it … then we can fix that.

I’m just saying. Please, don’t yell at me.

I’ve got query structure nailed down – I've been coached to death on this one. But it doesn’t matter if I’ve got my dribble down, if I’m playing ball on the wrong court and aiming for the wrong hoops, then I’m not winning the game.

I’m just beginning to query, and I don’t want to become bitter, disenchanted and exhausted because I’ve been trying to sell snow cones in the Antarctic.

If you’re not too irritated with me, could you blog on this topic?

Can you tell us what is and is not selling today ?

For example, I wonder if publishers will be interested in a story were terrorists create a time machine and go back to 1999 to initiate a diabolical plot to bring about the end of days? ;))

Polenth said...

I doubt I'd personalise queries. Even if we'd grown up together, I'd attended your wedding, and was going to be the godmother of your children... I would still open the letter with a standard opening. It's just how I cope with having to write formal letters.

Robert Chazz Chute said...

Hey Nathan,
Love the blog. Three comments:

1. The YouTube vid of the stupid anorexic girl nearly getting killed by her idiotic friends is definitely cringe-worthy. I hope they don't try it again and that there are no jackass attempts at replication.

2. As an editorial assistant, I've slogged through ugly slushpiles myself and I know the lure of getting cynical about submissions. I don't mind agent rules so much. Many are reasonable and others help me eliminate certain agents as potential targets. It's especially easy to eliminate the agents with too many rules when the subtext of their guidelines smells downright pissy. (Any writer who browses Writer's Market knows those of which I speak.)

3. Power differential? Maybe not so much as is generally presumed. There are a lot of writers out there, but there are also quite a few agents to choose from. Someone is bound to find my query packed with mercurial wit and charm. (And if they're wound too tight, I don't want to work with them. I have options.)

I've often nailed writing assignments as much because I made them laugh as because the query was dead on. If it was a bit off, they still wanted to work with me, so we hammered out the details.

The Dude abides.

Mira said...


I feel like I should give you some space, and I will, but I also want to say again that I'm sorry for not acknowledging your kindness and empathy right from the start. I should have. I'm sorry and thank you.

For all of my advice, I also want to acknowledge that you're trying to work out something I'm not familiar with. I've never been in such a public place, and had equal parts of adoration, demand and rage thrown at me almost constantly. It's easy to stand back and think of how I'd deal with it, but I'm sure that until one has been there, it's hard to completely understand what it would be like.

I can see that you're trying to navigate the tricky field of standing up for your truth, while acknowledging other people's. That's truly admirable. And very challenging.

Okay, now, I will give you that space.

Oh, and work on writing something so I can query you. I wrote two words so far. I might throw out one of them, but I think one word is pretty good. Think I'll keep that one.

Yamile said...

I've been reading about the rules of query letters for a few weeks, and you know what? I was stressing more about remembering all the rules than on my novel. So I thought, "I bet JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer were very spontaneous with their own query letters, and look at what's happened to them."
Thanks for the pointers Nathan. I love reading your posts.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Oh, I'd love to own a hoop painted by Van Gogh who was considered a riff-raff painter in his day, and passed on by every major collector/gallery because they said, "Oh, hoop it all, Vincent! You apply too much paint to the canvas! Your colors are garish. You lack refinement and your characters are rude!"

Thank you, Vincent, for side-stepping the conventions of your day! Yes, it cost you dearly, but today you soar above them all. Could they not see? Did they not want to? Was it just easier to accept the status quo? Should you have painted inside the hoops?

Haste yee back ;-)

annielaural said...

read a statistic the other day that said most individuals doing the self-publishing dance sell about 40 copies - at $3,000-$7,000 cost per title, that's a tad expensive.

Robert Chazz Chute said...

On further consideration, when I said I made them laugh with my query, I meant in a good way. Yes, we still have to demonstrate we've got the teeth and traction.

An example of rule-bucking: I attended The Banff Books and Magazines Workshops. That's nice, but really, so what? My CV conveys the experience, but the sentence starts, "In an experience not unlike bootcamp..."

The people who call me back are often fun and they always mention that line as what spurred them to talk to me further.

This is serious business, so we should really lighten up. It's business (and life) so it should be fun. There's far too much internet porn to distract us if our work is past funereal and beyond earnest.

Two cents poorer.

Yvette Davis said...


My God. It's like you want to be queried by a real person instead of a form letter.


Anonymous said...

Hey! I just noticed.

Congrats Myra!

I believe Nathan said a 50% ms request rate is indicative of publishing success.

Good luck. Keep us posted!

katrina.rue said...

Hi Nathan,

I really think that the larger problem is a generalized frustration that comes with the querying process that gets reflected back on the agents. We're just human, and humans look for reasons for things that happen, from "it is the will of the gods!" to "XYZ is just a miserable person!"

Another thing that adds to this is that there is so much that the writer doesn't know about what goes on between the respective agent's ears when they venture across the query. Is it really, truly not right for the agent in question, or do they just use that polite euphemism to mean, "thanks for the searing migraine, you no-talent hack, please inflict your personal brand of torture on someone else." Even though you're very enlightening on what goes on at the agent's desk, there's only so much we really can glean.

And then, of course, there are those cases when you've Done Everything Right (personalized query, networked with said agent, commented on said agent's blog, wished them well while they were sick, etc) and you still get shown the door in a form letter...

Michael said...

Thanks so much for clarifying why we're going through this. It's not so much that it's a daunting task to follow the rules and jump through the hoops.

The difficult part is trying to determine — after you've written and polished, and re-written until you have what you feel is the best darned query letter on the planet — exactly what it is about the pitch that the agent didn't like. "It's not right for me," doesn't really provide a lot of information or help in making it better the next time.

I understand that most, if not all, agents are looking for specific things and manuscripts that fall into specific genres. It would be very helpful for the writer in search of an agent if the agent could include just a snippet of info regarding anything specifically that was wrong with the writing of the query itself. Was it too detailed, not detailed enough, too long, too short, whatever. Anything that would provide some constructive criticism or some encouragement regarding anything they did like about.

I'm going to throw away my pink paper now.

Richard Lewis said...

I've read manuscripts for writers who say they eagerly want suggestions for improvement.

I make said suggestions, basic ones, like start with the story, not the culture lesson.

The writer gets huffy and hot, argues why she (twas a she in this case) is right, the exception to the rule in her case.

I remain polite, but think, good luck, because you're gonna need either it or PublishAmerica.I suspect that writers who refuse to take the hints are not all dumb, but that they truly do believe they are the exception to the rules.

Mira said...

Okay, that's enough space.

So, I was looking at my two words I've written so far:

"And the"

I don't know. I could go either way with this.

Which one, which one....

I think I'll go with "the."

Yes, "the" is definitely the right choice.

Wait. Maybe it's "and." Uh oh. What if "and" is the right choice?

I don't suppose agents get involved on this level. I could sure use some help here.

Which one, which one, which one.

Boy, who knew writing was so hard. I think I'm getting a headache.

Stephanie said...

Hey Nathan,
Wow, that was so refreshing! It reinforced my own approach. I love how personalized and human your posts are. It makes the whole process less scary. When my memoir is finished, I am going to sent it off to you and personalize it, because in my experience, it's nice to know people have done their due diligence.
Love your blog!

Laura said...

It's funny, I don't think all of the hoops are a big deal or out of the ordinary. Maybe that comes from grad school applications -- talk about hoops -- I just got used to everyone wanting things in a certain way by a certain time, etc.

Memoirs of a Bulimic Black Boy said...


Please keep a look out for my query letter. I'll be sending it via Twitter 144 characters at a time.


annielaural said...


Niki Schoenfeldt said...

Great post, Nathan. However, I find it kind of sad you have to spell that out. Does nobody have common sense anymore? In this business, like any other, a lot is based on relationships; working, professional, business relationships. You'd think that would be a no-brainer.

Anonymous said...

There's one agent I'd never query. She makes it hard for herself by acting like a gatekeeper at the Temple of Venus.

Why would anyone bother.

Any author with any self respect at all would not jump through those hoops.

Jen C said...

Laraine Herring said...

Hey Nathan,

It might help when explaining this sticky wicket to make a comparison to all the rules you have to follow in college. Professor A likes Times New Roman font. Professor B only wants .rtf files. Professor C only wants work on MOndays -- they seem ridiculous when you're a student, but they make perfect sense on the other side! :-)

Tell me about it! Except in my experience, at college they rarely tell you how they want it done from the start. I normally get lower marks on my first essays for each unit because I've formatted or referenced differently to the way they like. Then in my later assessments I know what rules to follow and get better marks. Then I start a new unit and it all repeats...

At least agents give us nice, clear guidelines that we can follow from the start...

Simon said...

The thing I'm most surprised about regarding this issue, is that agents feel they have to defend their submission rules.
I think it's perfectly reasonable for them to state: this is my preference, fail to adhere and it will be held against you.
The choice still remains with the writer.

I suspect that the people that take the greatest exception, are those who've little or no experience of working in a business environment, or even having a real job. In many jobs the handling of information is the single most important factor. The more uniform the information is, the more simple it is to process. It might only take a small deviation from the correct format to grind things to a halt. At that point it's often easier to discard the offending article rather than take the time to wade through it.

Scott said...

Personalization is simply nothing more than knowing how to write a good business letter. I agree with what Nathan is saying: be the kind of person someone wants to work with. It's so easy to imagine a wannabe author as an oily-headed toad living in unwashed squalor down by the river. Okay, maybe not that bad, but why come off unprofessional--or worse, and an attribute writers in the whole are often saddled with--crazy?

I think the "rules" of a query are fine and not hard to follow, but I also think that for every one, agents need to reinforce that it's the concept and marketability of the story that's going to get a request. This is about making money, not being a great writer who plays by the rules.

That said, and I ask this question seriously: why don't more agents advertise what they'd like to see. I may not be the best writer on the planet, but I do think I have a strength in being able to adapt to a number of genres or story "types" with considerable depth and commercial nous.

So come on Nathan, throw us a few clues. Who knows? You might get a great query that follows the rules AND gives you what you're looking for. I understand that many agents don't know it until they see it, but you can't honestly tell me that there aren't ideas being passed around at these conferences after a few martinis.

So, speak up! Be general, specific or somewhere in between. What harm could it do? :)

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert said...

Phoenix Rising said...

I don't think it's just the query guidelines in and of themselves. I think it's a little bit of everything added together. On many agent blogs there seems to be a total lack of respect for the writer. I've read many blogs and tweets that make fun of writers and their ineptitude in the query process. It's like the writers are a joke. I have read your blog, so I know you are not one of those agents; however, there are many out there who show a total lack of respect for the writer and his/her efforts. Then, they turn around and teach a class or write a book to tell the writer how to speak to them so that they can be published.

Writing is hard work. Most writers know this and most are willing to work hard. Your blog hit the nail on the head. There is a difference between jumping through hoops and taking hints. As I said, I am not willing to jump through hoops.
Phoenix -

I am feeling you with this statement!

Writing is a great deal of work, and for many of us it is not the only "job" we have. I have figured that during each week day, I put in an eight to nine hour day at work, and then at night I spend another two to three hours writing, with the same amount of time spend on writing on the weekend. So on average (if I am following my writing schedule), I am actually working a good 60+ hours per week, while trying to also spend time with my wife, two daughters, and also keeping up my social connections with friends.

Nathan is totally correct in that agents do not work for the average writer that sends in a query, but the only way they can get clients or grow their client base is to deal with writers. It’s an interesting conundrum that in the end, is one without a satisfactory answer for anyone.

But, and this is not directed at our most honored blogger but as a general issue, I think that as a whole, there should be a bit more personalization coming from any agent that blogs hints that personalization is something that they would like to see more of. If, after I have put in my 60+ hour work week at job and writing, and then spent the time to not only get to know a bit more about an agent in order to craft a personalized query letter, it would come as a slap in the face to then receive a stock rejection letter.

Quid pro quo my good agents! A stock rejection letter after what is clearly a solid effort on a writers part could mean that the next time they tighten up their existing novel or write a new one, they could pass you over for such a perceived affront...

(I posted this before, but for some reason my spacing was off and I wanted to fix it)

Justus M. Bowman said...


Have you forgotten who butters and jams your toast? Let's hope not; wives expect appreciation. But wouldn't it be cool if writers actually cooked meals for you? You could add "and a burger" to your submission guidelines.

PurpleClover said...

Justus. Justus. Justus.

I hope you aren't implying that it is a wife's duty to butter the husband's bread? We may have to some words. Tsk. Tsk.

Scott - there is an agency that I know of that does that now. They have a page dedicated for what they are looking for that month. I actually think it's a great idea for those that can kick out novels in like...a minute or something. :) (Hey, some people can do that)

Nathan - I'd be interested to know if you can give us an idea of what you want to see (like six months from now would be helpful...hehe)!!

A sample outline would help too. ;)

hehe. No but seriously.

terri said...

I practice in federal court and before some federal administrative courts and let me tell ya, when it comes to submission rules, you agents are a bunch of fluffy pikers.

A few years ago I coached a law school moot court team and told them that if they made so much as a single margin size error in their writeen submissions, that they would lose.

They didn't listen . . . they lost. . . on a formatting error.

If you wanted submissions typed on a roll of parchment and delivered by carrier pigeon, I would be googling for a cheap source of papyrus.

In the 'agent for a day' the queries that stuck with me were the ones in an easily recognizable and digestable format, brief and to the point, and had an engaging voice that made me interested in the storyline. Gasp! Professionalism!

Gotta go format a brief!

Melissa McInerney said...

So true, it took me nearly two months of tweaking to come up with two good query letters, and weeks of research to find suitable agents. However, I am enjoying the fruits of my labor: a 30% request rate for my two manuscripts. IMHO, people who bitch about the process aren't ready to be doing it. Their mss isn't ready, or their head is in the wrong place.

Anonymous said...

Still one wonders if Hemingway or Faulkner or Henry Miller would have had the patience for these hoops.

I appreciate that difficult clients are...well...difficult and that you may want to weed these folks out, but don't all the rules and guidelines encourage a certain docility in your clientelle? (Maybe it's just me, but I get the impression that "professional" is code for "docile".) That approach may make an agent's life easier in the short run, but hardly seems to promise great fiction.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think your post is well-stated, but there's a misconception in your assumption that an agent who thinks personalization is a good strategy owes writers a little more: personalization is not for us. It's for you. We don't have a pressing need to receive personalized queries. We're just trying to help you improve your odds.

Nathan Bransford said...


I also don't think that Maxwell Perkins was receiving 15,000 e-mailed manuscripts a year.

But more seriously, back in those days it was incumbent upon an author to socialize in the right circles and live in the right cities. Networking was everything. Compared to that, personalized queries is a walk in the work.

Sarah Jensen said...

Okay, that girl jumping through the bball hoop was awesome!!!!

If you work to get that perfect query, and then take the time to see what the specific agent wants, then it's not hard to rework your query, and sometimes, you even improve that perfect query in the process.

Anonymous said...

"there's a correlation between personalization and the quality of the query."

I bet there are a lot of these correlations between queries that don't follow the rules and a novel that can't sell.

Maybe, there's a correlation between queries that open with a rhetorical question and novels that open with the main character getting up and in the morning and standing in front of a mirror, describing herself.

Or there could be a correlation between queries written on pink stationary and novels where a dog dies in chapter 4.

Nathan would give better examples.

I guess every agent has learned to correlate query and manuscript. And while some of their pet peeves may sound hopelessly idiosyncratic, most of them agree on what attracts them: clear prose, fresh voice, a good concept.

Instead of trying to abide these rules one by one, we writers should take a step back and look at the whole picture. All these hoops or hints are just examples to explain how to make a query enticing.

MzMannerz said...

I'm totally going to send you a query that criticizes your blog (and maybe your clothes and hair, too, just for kicks) and then pitch my novel. Excellent idea - why didn't I think of that first? :D

I dunno. The fact that my first offering was summarily rejected by everyone I sent it to makes me think the work was lacking, not the agents. And if I look waaaay deep down, I might even have known that before I queried. It was the first, though, so required my enthusiastic push.

If you or your comrades reject the one I'm working on now, however... well that will totally mean you suck. :D

Robert said...

Nathan -

I think "owes" is a bit strong for what I was attempting to convey. There is no duty to perform here for either party at this juncture. Of that I think we can both agree. I do not think that I was implying that there was, and if it was read that way, I would like to say that was not what I was attempting to do.

What I was making a stab at with my previous comment was one that followed on the heels of Phoenix's statement about respect. It is not that I believe someone owes me something if I go about crafting a personalized query letter, but it would be respectful for an to agent recognize such an effort in as slight of a way as reciprocating with a personalized rejection. I don’t think that a line-by-line dissection of your reasons for the rejection need to be provided, but it would be nice if it was slightly more tailored. I will admit that I do not know the full extent of what I am suggesting, but I also do not think it would fall under the category of being a herculean task either.

Stock rejection just does not jive well to me in light of such effort.

Now, clearly you have a job to do and you are flooded with queries that range from "WTF was this person thinking" to "Wow, this one is amazingly well put together”. Now I would assume that most of those that fall in the latter category are more likely to get partial requests, and those of the former would be sent a stock form (if one at all?), but there must be a range in there that would clearly be solid, but not something you can see yourself representing at this point, that should perhaps get more than just a stock rejection.

It is really a moot point though. As I said before, this is an issue that opens a veritable Pandora's Box of things that have no satisfactory, clear-cut answer.

(oh – and this is counting as my warm up writing for today  )

Anonymous said...

Depending on the manuscript, many authors could make adjustments to make the story/pitch more marketable.


If terrorists are overdone, and the mere mention makes an agent grimace... fine, we can change the villains into a merry band of dwarf bank robbers led by a beautiful woman. Most of us are creative that way.

When an agent advertises that he wants to see thrillers, don’t we deserve to know that the agent is passing because they think the query or writing is weak -- or -- the agent doesn’t think they could sell a 145,000-word manuscript titled "Snow White and Her Merry Band of Thieves"?

Our time is important, too. We need to know where to put our time and effort.


I know it would be tacky to ask you to reveal here which agency is actually advertising what their publishers want to buy - but I appreciate you mentioning it.

I am searching for them now.

Thank you.

Simon said...

playing agent's advocate, I'd say that a writer's ability to construct a query in a way that directly appeals to the recipient, could well be indicative of a wider ability for that writer to nail the right voice for the intended audience of their book.

By definition, if you contact a specific agent, you are targeting them as your audience. If, given the information you can glean about them, you're able to write a query that pushes all their buttons, then they're more likely to assume that you might have applied a similar level of aptitude in finding the right key for your fantasy/sci-fi/romance etc.

Anonymous said...


I'm sorry, but I don't want to feel around in the dark for an agent's buttons. ;)

I need more light to see if I'm even interested in his buttons.

Forgive me. I couldn't help myself.

Eden said...

I just said something similar to a friend. She was working on a query and getting bad advice from another writer who was telling her to "do" all the "don'ts" and then got huffy when I suggested she follow the modern standard. He said she shouldn't follow any rules, especially the advice I gave her.

I said, "She can write "I like pie" in green crayon on a piece of toilet paper and send it. Doesn't mean she's going to get a request for a partial."

Simon said...


I'm not going to go there.

Nathan Bransford said...


Thanks for the clarification. I do agree with you, which is why I personalize my responses to personalized queries, or at least, as far as I'm able to. But different agents have different ideas, and there may come a day when I'm unable to do that.


It would be nice if I could tell you precisely what I wanted to see so you could go and write it, but that's really not the way it works. In fact, it's precisely the opposite of how it should work. YOU should write something spectacular and show me what I should like.

I don't understand the drive for more specificity from agents on what they're looking for. I'm not looking for a book with rabbits, but red ones, not white, and oh yeah, if you could get some shrubbery in there that would be great.

I'm looking for GREAT books. Books that are well-written and tell a moving story. Go write those, and then we can talk about the genres and what's "hot" in the marketplace later.

Stephanie Faris said...

It's the nature of the beast. There's one agent for hundreds of thousands of queries per year...and you guys would go crazy if you didn't have some standards. That said, though, I'll bet every agent out there who lists these rules would throw them out the window in a moment if a query came along that sparked their interest. Presentation is only part of it. But yes, it's a competitive world out there and only the best will make it and an author would do well to learn the business before submitting. Period. There are plenty of workshops and writer's groups, not to mention information online, to help aspiring authors learn their craft.

Robert said...

The Lady Faris does have a good point. Learn the craft! Right now, I am writing out my novel in longhand...yeap that's right and I have filled almost six notebooks to get to my almost 90k word count. I have toiled away at this thing and at times shelved it out of frustration when a chapter was not flowing. But it has been an exercise in learning and I have made numerous notes already that will cause me to go back and rework sections because I think they are weak or something has changed as I have developed it more.

Though, I do wonder at her supposition that only the best will come out on top to be published. I have read several books where by the end (or if I could not force myself that far) somewhere near the middle, I have thought to myself what the hell was happening that this novel or that had been put upon paper and bundled into a pretty cover (those covers are my bane sometimes), and actually sold to people. Of the ones I have actually bought that fell in this category, I felt like I had been bamboozled by a snake oil salesman.

Jane said...

This past summer I attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference and met with an agent who couldn't have been a nicer, more helpful person. As we were discussing the novel I am working on (he had read a chapter), he was giving me all kinds of advice. I was really eager and grateful to hear what he had to say. His response was something like, "You're so receptive to my comments," which he seemed surprised by. I told him that he was giving me exactly what I had come to the conference for. And it was true. I really needed some advice about plot and structure, as I mainly write short stories that are not especially plot-driven. Anyway, the upshot is that I have maintained correspondence with him, he continues to be supportive and helpful and wants to see the novel when it is finished. I haven't had that much interaction with agents (like I said I write short stories =), but only one has been bad. So I kind of don't get all the griping. There are a lot of agents out there. Follow the guidelines, be polite, and find one you can work with and who wants to work with you.

Anonymous said...

I read a few comments saying it's tough to personalize queries and do research. It's easy if you read Publisher's Marketplace Deals Page. You'll find all the latest sales and figure out easily just who might suit your book, as well as who won't.

Justus M. Bowman said...

Many bloggers need to read and reread the following:

"I don't understand the drive for more specificity from agents on what they're looking for. I'm not looking for a book with rabbits, but red ones, not white, and oh yeah, if you could get some shrubbery in there that would be great.

I'm looking for GREAT books. Books that are well-written and tell a moving story. Go write those, and then we can talk about the genres and what's "hot" in the marketplace later."

People get so caught up in clicking their heels that they forget the goal.

Scott said...

Nathan, I appreciate your response concerning letting us know what you might be looking for, but there are a myriad of qualifications that you could offer. Many readers go into bookstores with some criteria, even if they're not overly specific. Some are, however. Your personal interests are varied and you're more reactive, but as Purple Clover stated, some agents are throwing some stuff out there.

To wit: "apocalyptic speculative fiction, with interspecies romance and a some great battle scenes" might trigger my imagination or call to mind something I've already written. And surely someone might have said "teenage vampires" about two decades ago and gotten rich. Heck, they do this kind of thing in Hollywood all the time. And sites like Inktip.con have grown extremely popular from being incredibly specific. Of course, that industry is bringing a different set of rules to the table, but if we're asking agent subjectivity in some degree to lead the market, I would think some subjective information could be shared to everyone's benefit.

I keep coming back to this example: when I'm looking for something to read, I've got an itch to scratch. I may not be fully aware of what will do that, but with practice, I bet I could come close. And much like the stock market (bad time, but still a decent example), those "agents" that can feel the zeitgeist do best. And those with more specific tastes who are looking to get 150% behind something do even better.

I know, as a writer, I should write something spectacular that you would like, but 6 months to a year is a lot of time to invest for both of us if I'm going on nothing more than "great and moving".

Teri said...

Good post, Nathan. I agree with giving the agent whatever they ask for. Anything to improve one's chances of getting a deal. It just goes with the territory. Different folks for different folks. I think any aspiring writer should be professional enough to recognize what is needed to get the job done.

Simon said...


going slightly off topic here, but I think 'best' is a dangerous word to use.

I think if we get hung up on the idea that the publishing industry or best seller lists are the barometer of what should be unviersally considered the 'best' writing, then we'll go mad.

A lot of the books that sell in large numbers are —for lack of a better word— trash. But they're trash that is at just the right pitch for their audience. That in itself is a skill that deserves some reward.

I think aspiring writers should only use other writers as a benchmark, when those writer's aims are similar to their own.
(and I realise this wasn't remotely the point you were making)

Nathan Bransford said...


Honestly, I think throwing out a really specific request out there is more of a parlor trick than something realistic. What if someone follows the idea to a T and it's not any good?

I want a good story. Period. Don't really care about the genre or what's currently hot. There are other agents out there who may follow the marketplace very closely, but I'm not one of them.

Lilith des Cavernes said...

Namaste Nathan,
I don't know about a lot of people, but pride is not the problem for me. Mostly I don't understand the hoops and, although I research as well as I am able, the publishing industry is a vast ocean of personalities. I find it hard to personalize someone of whom I am completely ignorant.

I sincerely appreciate what you are saying however... Your openness is most appreciated as is your blog.


Simon said...

Can't help thinking that people are giving out mixed messages with 'their tell us what you want' pleas.

I thought the bane of the writing communities life was having what we can or can't write about dictated by the industry and its current trends.

Would we really prefer to 'write to order'?

Robert said...

Simon -

I actually only used the term best because I was referring to the comment made by Stephanie Faris, nothing more really.

brian_ohio said...

Speaking of queries... how about that Lebron James? Huh?

JMK said...

There is so much chatter on the web, blogs, PMP, and any vehicle that "runs on writing and publishing" about what's happening today. Very little of any "words of wisdom" pertain to what to gear up for in the coming months. By coming months I mean 2011, 2012.
The car's that are on the drawing pad in Detroit, Japan, Germany and everywhere else where "plans for the Auto' are dreamed and set into motion are for product several years from now. One of the admonitions I hear from the "blogging agents" is start you next book now if you are having trouble selling the one you've been working on for the past years. Start it for what market? Plan for the publishing/agenting business to be the same lack luster organ it is now? Come on, publishing moguls, tell us where you're going to be in 48 months. What will a query letter look like then? Or will it be the current agents who are querying for positions in the future.

Simon said...

Robert -

I realise that. I was just using it as an opportunity to go off on my own tangent really.

Nathan Bransford said...


Was that sarcasm? I couldn't tell. Anyway, it's the writer's job to predict the future, so there.

Anonymous said...


Obviously, I pushed the wrong button.

There is no comparison between asking for guidelines on what the market considers “overdone” and asking you to provide specific scenery suggestions.

No one has asked you to specify what color the rabbit should be. Really, Nathan? Is that what you got from those questions?

I’ve asked – what do you think is selling in publishing today?

Isn't that what an agent does: Help authors navigate the publishing industry? I thought that was what your blogs were intended to do.

Publishing success is obviously not just about great writing.

We can go to any bookstore and see that for ourselves. It's about business and marketability – and what an agent thinks he can sell.

A rhetorical question: Would you seriously consider trying to get ‘War and Peace’ published in today’s market?

I agree with Faris, we need to learn our craft. However, we also need agents to help us navigate the business side of story writing.

I’ve read the Writer’s Market, and
I’ve selected ten agents – who are very specific about what they are selling. I also ruled out several agents, whose time I will not waste. Details help everyone.

I’ve obviously made the mistake of thinking that you, Nathan, whose opinion matters to me, might address this subject, too.

However, I do appreciate knowing that you are looking for ‘moving stories’. It is also beneficial to know that you do not follow the market place very closely.

There is nothing wrong with either statement - and that is just the kind of insight I needed.

Thank you, Nathan. Your blog has once again been very helpful.

I am truly appreciative.

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm going to blog about this today, which will hopefully answer your questions. But just a preview: yeah. I could tell you what's selling today. You could find out yourself if you subscribed to Pub Lunch.

But does it do you or me any good to pay attention to that? That's what I'll be writing about.

PurpleClover said...

Teehehe. dropped an article. ;)

Don't really care about the genre or what's currently hot.

Feels like a whole weight has been lifted off my shoulders!

But wow. Someone has pushed a button. I have to admit. I like the snarky Nathan.

Anon 7:40- you are more than welcome to email me if it is that important to you. :)

Nathan Bransford said...

Whoops! I didn't mean to be snarky. Sorry -- sometimes brevity will do that to you. It even results in dropped articles.

PurpleClover said...

Aww. You didn't mean to be snarky? Bummer.

Lara said...

The thing is that I would have very little idea how to write a query if agents didn't tell me. I'm surprised how often writers lose sight of the fact that agents who give tips on the best way to reach them are actually being helpful. And of course agents all have different preferences--they're not all one person.

Lara said...

Or to put it another way, agents would still have these little personal preferences, even if they weren't telling us writers what they were. So it's actually quite helpful of them to tell us what the preferences are and not keep them secret.

R.J. Self said...

I think the requiremts make it easier for us to query. It's not like your shooting in the dark wondering what to include with your query, and it does not take too long to personalize a query. I consider it to be good manners. I do personalize everything though, from birthday invites to thank you cards. It relays emotion and lets the person recieving it know that you care about your manuscript and your query that you have worked so hard on, and that you are willing to work on it some more to make it perfect. I always check the agents requirements, in a way it makes it easier on me.

SeaHayes said...

There's no magic formula. Keep writing, keep querying, keep reading informative blogs like this one and you'll eventually find success. All the snarking may cause agents like Nathan to throw their hands in the air and say, "To hell with you writers!"

Cyndi said...

Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I don't think knowing what's currently selling will help authors all that much. If you start writing now based on current hot sellers, by the time the ms is finished, the market might be closed to that specific type of book. Also, if every writer wrote based on this information, the market would be flooded with the same types of books. And let's face it, agents aren't looking for clients whose books are too similar to books already on their lists. Just my opinion.

Mira said...

I'm having trouble now participating in this discussion. It was easier when I first joined this blog, because I didn't know Nathan. Now, I find myself worrying about how he's taking things, and whether I bugged him or hurt his feelings. And since I can't see his face, I then end up chasing my tail indefinitely.

This is a problem. I'm going to have to work out how to be considerate and have integrity at the same time.


Sort of what this blog entry was about, in a way.

That said, I settled on "The." Yes, "The" is definitely the right word.

I think.

Now for the second word. Did you know there are at least 204,445 words in the English language? (I made that number up, but I'm sure I'm in the ballpark.) How am I supposed to pick one?

I'm thinking of taking a poll on what my second word should be.

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan said:
"Anyway, it's the writer's job to predict the future, so there."

I don’t know if you were kidding or not, but I happen to agree. In futuristic science fiction, writers guess what’s going to happen in the future, and hope to get the book done before the future arrives. In regard to marketing, political and economic realities are forever changing the world at large and the type of books and other entertainment that sells.

Something I find extremely interesting and ironic is that the very thing that allowed more people to write and publish books is the same thing that created a huge surplus of writers: technology. Computers and the Internet have allowed many more people to write, but that has placed a huge amount of overload on the publishing industry. I think it will all get sorted out ... but how it gets sorted out will only be known in the future. It will probably include greater popularity of eBooks, and an evolution of language in which nonstandardized spelling and abbreviations become part of normal language. (OMG, say it ain’t so ... ROFLOL.) As we become more global, various languages will probably also continue to intermingle. I thought Joss Whedon did a great job of intermingling English and Chinese languages in his futuristic world of Firefly.

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mira said...


There's not a surplus of writers. There are just more people who have access to leisure time and writing tools, and they choose writing a form of expression.

Part of the trouble is people really confuse the goal of writing with the goal of being published.

They are very different things. I'm not saying one goal is worse than another - who am I to stomp on anyone's dream? But they are different goals.

So, what we may have is a surplus of people who all want to be published.

Etiquette Bitch said...

interesting on the personalization, and i agree. nathan, i did personalize my then-rejected query to you (mentioned my SF-dwelling and surfing career), but I've also personalized to other agents who then asked to see more.

It's kind of like researching a company before you interview. I recall one famous story from college -- an applicant, interviewing at IBM was asked (first question): "What does IBM stand for?"

applicant: "I don't know."

interviewer: "good bye."

Anita said...'s kind of like as a parent, you want your daughter's date to come to the door when he picks her up. Is it all about coming to the door? Nope. But you're hoping if the guy is respectful enough to honor your wishes on that point, he'll also drive safely, get your daughter home before curfew, etc.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,
I understand you're not a synopsis guy,
but on another agent blog I just read that the rule that used to tell writers to capitalize a name the first time it is used is OUT.

Things like this can make a girl dizzy.

Can you speak to this (the synopsis change) at all?

(I honestly wouldn't have thought it was that important of a detail and I am a little confused.)


Nathan Bransford said...


I always thought the name-capitalizing thing was more of a screenplay convention.

Marilyn Peake said...


I meant writers in general, not just those who want to be published. There are many people who write fascinating blogs, for instance, but never want to be published. Many of those blogs, on gardening or travel or many other topics, decrease the number of books that people need to buy about those subjects.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Go on over to ABSOLUTE WRITE. There's a great article. Some agents drinkin' wine sitting around talkin' about the biz... Now, here's a pithy little tidbit.

Agent... "There's only 100 authors today making a living writing fiction."

So, chill folks! Your chances at the $$$ word lottery... are measured in microns. And today, publishing is in BIG FLUX! The ground is movin' under the entire industry.

(Have some fun! The surest sign of an impendin' nervous breakdown is takin' yer-self too seriously)!

Haste yee back ;-)

Marilyn Peake said...

Thanks, Haste Yee Back. I will haste me on over to Absolute Write. :)

Mira said...


That's an interesting point. Information abounds on the web. That probably has put some books out of business. Encyclopedias, for example. Does anyone need to buy them anymore?

I guess that's what you meant by things getting sorted out. The information explosion means the world of publishing is changing. That makes it harder on some people, for sure.

But in the bigger picture, leaving money out of it, isn't it wonderful, though? Nathan was right about limited access to writers in the past. Women, for example, had a terrible time publishing. If you were of a different race, class or religion than mainstream, might as well forget it, too.

In some ways, isn't it cool that someone who really knows gardening can get that information out to people? And isn't it cool that people who might not have had access to that information now can get it.

Maybe that sounds silly in terms of gardening - access to information - but encylcopedias used to be very expensive. Now, anyone can access that knowledge.

Mira said...

Haste, can you link it? Or tell us the name of the thread?

So many forums....

Anonymous said...

Haste, A 100 - that many?

I'm glad you feel that way, if everyone else chills, then the competition gets that much lighter.

No, seriously, isn't it more about publishing than the living? Don't you want to publish?

Thanks for the Absolute Write info.

Anonymous said...

It's the writer's job to predict the future...No it's not. It's the writer's job to be true to themselves and write what they're passionate about. If they're sincere, empathic and plugged-in to the greater consciousness, this will speak to more than just their sensibilities.

Anything else is fakery and pandering.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think you're going to like today's blog post (assuming I can find the time to finish it).

JS said...

Personally, I would see trend fitting as a huge hindrance as I work best when I’m allowed to write what I love and feel most passionate about. I can’t just take someone else's ideas and write, it has to be personal to me and I have to enjoy it.

There's a fantasy writer I have a lot of respect for that has been kind enough to give weekly tips in a podcast. Meaning the best, I’m sure, he said that current fantasy writers needed to 'stop writing Tolkien fan fiction' and cut out anything that resembled it in their work; including pseudo-medieval societies, any of the 'established' races or heavy hero quest/episodic themes. I personally was offended by that as my love for epic fantasy didn't come from Tolkien, it came from reading the 'fan fiction.' I also was in the process of writing a book with a few of those concepts and felt I was personally being attacked. As if having those elements suddenly made my work an inferior hack job; no matter what plans I had to develop it into my own work and style. Eventually I got to the point where I decided I liked my stuff and I wanted to continue to write it, even if just to spite those that said I couldn’t. :P

I also found that is hard for me to narrow my tastes as a reader by concepts or even story. There are emotions and voices that transfer through writing that I just love. I may not have had much interest in giant lizards or aliens with one eye before reading, but the writer’s passion fed through to the point that I found my self caring.

So I think it makes a lot of sense to find something that you personally enjoy and strive to make it the best book possible rather than trying to fit something as fleeting as trends or as subjective as certain agent’s preferences.

Or at least I hope that’s the case because adding space monkeys to everything I send to Nathan would be a huge hassle. ;)

Anonymous said...

I read your blog daily! Thank you!
There is one question that no agent blog has yet to answer and that is: what to expect after you sign the contract. Should your agent give you deadlines and then in return provide you with their own? How often should you ask for updates on the revision? How long does a revision usually take? This process is such a mystery...

Mira said...

Which forum?


I've clicked on a dozen. Which forum, which?

Marilyn, I'm sorry. I just realized I was arguing with you because I didn't want to argue with Nathan. I'm sorry. I apologize.

But which forum? There are sooo many.

Please, someone tell me. Or I'm going to have to turn this into a five week long comedy thing about a search for the forum. When that happens, don't blame me. You were warned.

Marilyn Peake said...

Mira, I'm also having trouble finding the forum discussion at Absolute Write. Haste Yee Back, did you mean this one?

Mira said...

Thanks Marilyn, at least I don't feel so bewildered now, that I can't find it.

Too bad, it sounded like a fun post.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

BIG SORRY, BIG SORRY... I told ya wrong... here's the right stuff. Go to --

Scroll down to, AGENTS TALK SYNOPSES, LITERARY JOURNALS AND MORE... click highlighted link... (because it's here online for free)
It's a five page interview with four agents contributing.

Will someone please teach me how to link!.... Please, oh please. Seriously, I don't know how!

Haste yee back ;-)

Mira said...

Haste ye back,

thank you, thank you! No worries, it was fun to look over Absolute Write.

Thanks for the link!

I hope you come back to this thread to read this. This is what Marilyn wrote to me. I followed it exactly and it worked!
First you write:
< a href=

Then you attach the actual link to that, leaving no space after the =.

Then, with no space after the link, you type: >

Then, with no space after that, you put in whatever name you want to appear, e.g. Come in Character Blog ... Spaces between words in your title are O.K.

Then, with no space after the name, you add: < /a> ... BUT WITH NO SPACE AFTER <


Try it - it's always worked for me.

See? (I'm going to show off my linking skills now.) Here's the link:

Interview with four agents

lisanneharris said...

I love researching--anything and everything. While combing the net for interesting tidbits on an agent I think might be a good fit for me I learn cool stuff along the way.

Oft times you guys say wacky things that really make me laugh. I'm a sucker for good humor.

I don't care how much time I spend researching agents. Each query, request, rejection puts me one step closer to my goal of publication. I've turned it into a game to make this a job I love instead of one that depresses the crap out of me at every turn.

I haven't queried you, yet, Nathan. I assumed you wouldn't be interested in what I write, but since you say you're open to almost anything... :)

Have a stellar day!


2KoP said...

Now that I've completed my manuscript, the hoops — I mean submission guidelines — are helping me switch hats from fiction writer to query writer/marketing professional. It's a little daunting to have to learn your craft and the business side of the (ever-changing) publishing industry all at the same time.

Frank Marcopolos said...

Cool, that makes a lot of sense.

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