Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, April 12, 2010

How Would You Handle the Query Deluge?

I'm not complaining. That needs to be said up front. Not. Complaining. I love queries, I want queries, that's not what this is about. Cool? Cool.

Now that we have that out of the way, let me just level with you: the number of queries coming in is rising every single day, and it's kind of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, just by sheer numbers there are more good projects coming in than ever. This is great!

On the other hand, the "frivolous queries" that read like a Craigslist personal ad are also on the increase, and disproportionately so. For every one extra good query I receive a day I'm receiving two extra bad ones. This is bad! (and it seems it's not just me)

As you probably know, query-answering time is in addition to day-in/day-out tasks that are very much a full-time job on their own. It's not like I can divide my day between mornings dealing with clients and agent stuff, and afternoons devoted to queries. Every minute/hour/several hours I'm spending answering queries is a minute/hour/several hours extending my day. So far I have been able to manage everything and still maintain a roughly-twenty-four hour response time for queries, two weeks for partials, and a month for fulls, but that pace is getting more challenging by the week.

So. What would you do? How would you manage the unsoliciteds when they are forever threatening to overtake the ramparts? Would you only respond to the ones that follow guidelines? Still respond to everyone? Develop a more stringent incoming-query system?

As you answer, let's say for the purposes of this discussion hiring an intern or assistant isn't possible. What would you do if you were an agent?


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All Adither said...

Your response times are absurdly short. You could double them and we'd still think you're awesome.

Nathan Bransford said...

all adither-

Thanks, though I have to say there's a practical element to my response times. I find it easier to try and stay on top day-by-day rather than trying to tackle a herculean pile.

Sheila said...

I agree with All Adither.

I've seen agents close their inboxes to queries for short periods. I know you don't want to miss anything, but nobody can do it all.

Good luck.

Miss Tammy said...

Personally, I would probably automatically delete the ones that don't follow guidelines. If they don't have the time to research what you are expecting from them, why should you take the time to respond?

Patty said...

Hm. That's a good question. Since query guidelines vary from agent to agent, it's very likely the writer either failed to check yours, or is using a multiple "one size fits all" version.

I see nothing wrong with an auto-response. You could set up an email rule that replies with a checklist that corresponds to your query guidelines, perhaps a link to the submission guidelines.

"If you don't receive a response in x days, it's likely you did one or more of the following:

* Violated guideline 1
* Violated guideline 2

See my submissions guidelines at LINK.

I did something brainless recently... went through all the guidelines, spent hours drafting the perfect query, made sure I had all the i's dotted, but failed to note this particular agent did NOT represent the genre for which I was seeking representation.


Kate said...

I'd take more time to respond to queries - in my experience, 1-2 weeks is a fast turnaround from an agent. 24 hours is almost absurdly short, and almost feels like you're not giving enough consideration to the pitch (not that you aren't, but when everyone ELSE is taking 2-4 weeks...well, it's the same old argument about pricing things too cheap, you know?).

So take some more time. If that doesn't work, only respond to queries that actually follow your guidelines. If you set rules, enforce them!

Ngaire said...


I'd get a query reader.

Film has run on the spec reader idea forever, because it works.

Very poorly paid people shift through the raw incomings. They do it for experience, insight, a lot of reasons that are their own and are not reflected in what they are paid.

These people aren't "junior producers," they are readers. They ditch the clearly stupid.

YOUR time is better spent making money for you and your clients.

Find someone who has their own reasons for wanting to read queries, pay them a sum that will embarrass you - but be just fine with them, hash out what you really want - and don't, and make better use of YOUR time.

There. You did ask my opinion. :)

Jourdan Alexandra said...

If I was receiving two craigslist style queries for every one decent query, I would probably draw up a form rejection letter that politely states that the writer did not follow my query guidelines, and that they may re-query in the proper format. However, I have no idea if something like that would actually work since I'm not actually a literary agent, haha.

Nathan, you are awesome! And all the other agents too! I have no idea how you deal with all those queries, still have time to do client stuff, AND blog. You guys are gods.

Anonymous said...

Longer response times simply delays the inevitable and creates huge backlogs. Get an online system in place to ensure the submission is in a uniform format. At least that way you can scan the right box for the content you feel is most important and then go back and review the really insteresting ones more thoroughly.

popsicledeath said...

I would hire more unpaid interns to weed out those seem to have written their queries while high on weed... ferret out those who are, ummm, the types to be high on weed and decide to buy a ferret, I guess.

Not that being a stoner means one can't produce a quality query. Just that if it SEEMS like the person was high while writing it, then it's probably not a good query, and the novel they're pimping probably isn't very good either.

Basically, find someone (pay an intern!) to keep the sloppy, unprofessional, not-a-chance-in-hell queries from wasting your time.

Then, draft 4-6 different form rejections, all mentioning monkeys in various degrees of subtlety, and let the professional intern(s) you've hired send 'em out.

Once the stems have been sifted from the good stuff, you should be good to go, no more time problems.... mmmm coookies. What would be really cool is if I had a ferret, amirite?

Anna Bowles said...

This is one of the reasons I'm sticking with being an editor!

But if I was an agent, I suspect I'd find that cold calculation would be the only emotionally and professionally viable response to the barrage of human need that comes in with the slush. Bottom 90% would get an instant form response, top 10% would get 60-120 seconds' attention before being assigned to either the 'form response' or 'request more' pile as appropriate.

But if someone comes up with a plan that is both more helpful to authors, and viable, hurrah for that.

Jourdan Alexandra said...

I would like to add that I really like Patty's suggestion--seems pretty feasible!

koflatf said...

Since this appears to be a genuine question and not a "put yourself in an agent's shoes" thought experiment, have you considered heavily automating the process? I can envision a submissions form with drop-down menus for the basic stuff, followed by a big text input for the query letter itself. Someone chooses "other" for the genre, because you only list the ones you rep? Form rejection! Someone selects "0-20k" or "200k+" as their novel length? Form rejection! It would serve as a pre-filter, allowing you to spend only a few seconds per frivolous query. You could even set up a few different form rejections for easy selection: "This is not a query letter; see my blog posts and try again." "We don't rep this genre, good luck elsewhere." And one for the decent queries, the old "Not for us."

Have you seen how Clarkesworld takes submissions, for example?

Will Entrekin said...

First, I applaud your response times. Not only that, but I applaud that you have response times in general; too many agents are falling back on a "will simply not respond if not interested" position.

I get what you mean about query-answering time being in addition to day-in/day-out tasks that are a full-time job on their own, but I'm of the mind that queries are part of the full-time job. A small part of it, perhaps. A one-hour-out-of-forty part of it, even, but a part of it nonetheless. I realize it requires some time, but let's be honest; you're a good agent, Nathan. Can't you tell within a paragraph or two of the query whether a project is of interest? I would personally wager that out of 100 potential queries, it would be pretty obvious 90 of them warranted rejections (wrong genre, too long, too short, etc).

I just can't imagine it takes all that long to Ctrl+v a form letter to prospective authors. Which is what I would do to handle queries: one hour, every week, with a template rejection ctrl+ved to every single query I wasn't requesting pages from. Well. At a minimum; I'm sure there'd be cases when I'd go a little more personal than ctrl+v (like, if I had some personal interaction with a prospective client via Twitter or something, or had met him or her at a conference).

So once again, well done on your response time and your continued commitment to being professional. Because you are. Because queries are part of the job.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea to have an auto-response to reply to those who don't follow the guidelines. That way they're not left hanging, but you still don't have to spend a ton of time drafting replies.

Bravo to you for staying on top of your work. It must feel good to be on top of things.

Joseph L. Selby said...

This may seem a draconian response, but I'm impressed by Janet Reid's query shark submission. Point number 6 is to include "yes I've read the directions" as part of the subject line.

It's an easy step from there to create a filter for incoming mail that routes any email with the word query in it but not "yes I've read the directions" into a specified folder.

You would effectively separate your queries to those people who are taking the submission seriously those that are not. Accepting that some may just make a mistake, you could still go through that second folder at your discretion. You wouldn't have to worry about missing out on the next genius because you auto-deleted it. If however you're drowning under a tidal wave of queries, this might serve as a life preserver.

Richard Gibson said...

As one who queries, I kind of hate that I say this, but: I actually find it totally acceptable that many agents simply don't reply to the craigslist style "queries". You must be able to tell at a glance that it's impossible. Just move on. And if that "no reply" grew to become "no reply means no," as it does for some agents, well, I'd accept that, too, even though it can be frustrating on the author end. We have to understand how the volume affects the way agents work, IMO.

Mark Barrett said...

Funnel all queries to an online form, which includes:

1) Specific/separate blanks for all the info you want to receive.

2) Prompts that force each blank to be filled out appropriately before the form can be sent.

3) A character-limited space for submitting pages/chapters, if you allow such with queries.

4) A database that collects all of the submitted info, and ties it to the submitting IP. (For tracking spam/griefers.)

5) An automatic response which is send to each person who submits a query, letting them know that you're busy as hell but that you WILL get back to them.

You're getting killed in part because of your high profile. Your high profile is a function of your visibility, which is a function of internet technology. I'm fairly confident that the people submitting queries to you would not be put off by a form-driven process, provided it was reasonable in length and debugged prior to launch. (It would also help if you made the entire form visible so that people knew what information to gather.)

Rachel @ MWF Seeking BFF said...

I understand what everyone is saying about response times, but when I was querying my non-fiction proposal, I heard back from four agents--good and bad--within the 24-hour period. The others never responded at all. So I can see why you'd want to respond quickly, for fear of perhaps missing the boat on something great. (I'm not an agent, so I'm just guessing here...)

Could you develop some sort of "If you don't hear back from me in X amount of time, assume I've passed" kind of thing? I can already feel people burning me at the stake just for typing that. But, for better or worse, there were a few agents who did that to me.

Terri Tiffany said...

I've gotten different kinds of responses. Yes, I love a personal reply but know that isn't always possible. I think the automatic reply where it says you will be contacted if interested in x amount of time works for me:)

Elizabeth Flora Ross said...

My office was once located next to our company's recruiter. I loved to sit in there and watch him sort his daily (huge) pile of resumes. He would go through and decide which ones were worth reading, and could do that in 10 seconds or less per resume. A bulleted resume is certainly easier to scan than a letter, but I would be willing to bet that you can tell from the first paragraph if a query is worth reading in full. If it sucks, the rest probably will too. Maybe you read the first paragraph, scan the rest quickly if it is bad, to make sure you didn't rush to judgement, then make your decision and move on.

I also agree with the other comments about lengthening your response time and automatically rejecting anyone who does not adhere to your guidelines. If they can't respect those, what would they be like to work with?!

Anonymous said...

I would implement an auto-response that reads something like: "Thank you for your query. If you don't receive a response within one week, please assume I'm unfortunately not interested in representing your project and I wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere".

As long as you give an auto-response (query was received) and a time frame (query was read, don't call me, I'll call you) you have upheld your side of the query bargain.

If you want to give a non-form response, you still can, but you don't have to send all those form rejections. Each one eats up just a little bit of time, but add it all up and you could probably be playing a few rounds of golf each year instead.

Natalie Whipple said...

I'm assuming you mean besides curling up in a ball in the corner, because that's what I'd do.

But are such a "generalist," so to speak, so that could add to numbers quite a bit. Specifying genre more might help, if desired.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Maybe you could try adding a "form" to your query process. That way you're certain to get all of the pertinent information.

Or go Janet Reid's route with her list of "What's not a query" that you don't even answer because they didn't bother to read the guidelines.

Tracy said...

That's a really good question!

I would suggest you put a note on your submissions page that you do not always have time to respond to queries you are not interested in pursuing.

That way, you can still respond to people who follow the guidelines, but don't ultimately snag your attention, while completely bypassing the people who haven't taken the time to learn how to craft a proper query letter.

Wendy and Charles said...

I agree with All Adither,
I too had submitted to you, I don't know which side of the fence I fell on but have to think probably something I missed in the guidelines. I too have been submitting to many different agents and one guide line I found quite clear from an agent is if you don't hear from by by this time, figure I will not represent you. I marked my calendar and when I didn't hear from him I took it as a no. I didn't wait in his alone either. I kept querying! So I say go with what you think best, and what works best for you. Take the advise you want to use and politely throw away the rest.

David Alton Dodd said...

"Would you only respond to the ones that follow guidelines?"

Those deserve an auto-response, along with any that you know are not right for you.

Denise said...

I agree with bouncing queries that don't follow guidelines. In addition if you did a monthly or so update on the type of work you are really interested in seeing in your query box,YA,paranormal, whatever,as well as the work you've had enough of, it may lighten your load a bit.

kurzon said...

Replying even to the strangest seems to be the best option to me. First because a form rejection takes a few extra seconds, so even times a hundred a day is not costing you much more than the reading time. Second because you will be saving the writers an infinite amount of angst.

But most importantly of all, you will be saving yourself from all the people who, receiving no reply, will send you status queries.

I'd probably also consider having a "month on, month off" submission status, but I expect you'd still get queries anyway.

on Chris said...

I would state publicly on my blog that all queries henceforth would be made PUBLIC. That would cut some down. Then I would set up a forum where readers could read and rate every query that came in.

Writers wanting to know how to write queries would happily read these. They could rate the queries (like Amazon, 1 to 5 stars) and you could read the 5 star ones.

It would get rid of all the craigslist queries at any rate.

William said...

I would bounce queries that I didn't feel ever had a shot with any agent and queries that didn't follow guidelines. Period.

Jane Gassner said...

Craig's List queries? Sounds like a book to me. Keep them, annotate them, publish them--an Anthology of the Bad and the Worse.

Suzannah said...

Hi Nathan,

One of my former English profs said of our final essays,"If you turn up for class every day and do what I ask, I'll give you feedback on your essay. If you don't do the groundwork, you get a grade and nothing more."

In my mind, if you don't follow query guidelines, you haven't 'done your homework,'and that doesn't bode well for their manuscripts.

I'd simply not respond to those queries and continue to give form rejections or partial requests to the ones who've researched the process.

Dr. Nick said...

I have the an iPad. I love mine and it has nearly doubled my procrastination time.

LurkerMonkey said...

I'd throw out any queries that don't adhere to submission guidelines. It's too easy in this day and age to find out the correct guidelines. It only shifts the burden to you to wade through queriers who aren't serious enough to format it correctly. (And anyway, the odds of finding your needle in a haystack seem exponentially smaller if the query is formatted in Sanskrit and barely legible.)

Todd said...

Use two email addresses. One for business. One for queries. Have an auto-responder for the latter telling the recipient that you'll get back to them in 2 weeks (or whenever) if you're interested. Otherwise wish them well and give them a list of helpful resources.

Then use the "5 second rule" in going through your query emails. If it looks bad, delete it immediately. Go back and cull again. You're gut instincts have to be pretty good by now so you probably can tell what you're not interested in after a few secs

Then look at the ones who are promising and sign some quality clients.

Renee Collins said...

Nathan, I gladly offer my services as a long distance assistant for no pay.

All you have to do is take me on as a client.

Problem solved.


Amanda P. said...

Truthfully, as much as it would kind of make me sad (as a querier - is that a word?), I'd go with an auto-responder that the query has been received and then drop form responses all together. Go to the no response means not interested.

You seem like a nice guy, so that might be hard, but there is only so much time in a day. As long as you weren't a snot about it, I think everyone would understand. And by snot, I mean being all, "Your project sucks - I will not waste the time it takes to press the send button!" Just be upfront about WHY you made that change.

And knowing your response time, if we didn't hear something w/in two weeks, we could safely assume it was no.

I would think it would be a lot quicker to just hit delete to the no's than to take the time to send the form response, especially to the craptastic ones. Precious seconds add up over the course of reading 100's of queries, I would imagine.

To do that, though, I'd want a specific e-mail address specifically for queries and another for my personal business if I were you.

So there ya go. Amanda's non-professional, have no clue what I'm talking about, advice.

Dan Holloway said...

OK, I'd be VERY strict about the kind of work I represent - I would want to establish myself as a specialist in a very narrow field (in my case contemporary urban fiction from very independently -minded authors). I see the future of agents very like the PR people in the music industry, and I'd run my agency like that. I'd do as much scouting as I did accepting subs - in this genre, the web is the place to look - I'd trawl for an hour a day, I'd go gigging in the evenings, and I'd ask people to send me what they thought I'd like to see - leave it to their imagination, but make it clear that wasn't my rpimary method of finding. The current model's broken, for this genre at least. So I would want to make sure what I was doing was as far from current practice as possible.

That's pretty much how it works at Year Zero Writers - I've read work by thousands of writers I've found on the web - every once in a while I see something that stops me in my tracks and I send the writer an e-mail. In an interweb world, I just don't get why agents complain about the lack of what's out there yet wait for people to come to them. Go looking in the remote corners of the blogosphere and forget slush.

Bane of Anubis said...

Online form -- would filter the fly-by-night queriers.

Angela Dove said...

I agree with Patty's auto reply idea. If a writer can't put in the effort to follow your guidelines, you should not feel obligated to reply personally. It runs to professionalism; I doubt you and author good-enough would have a fruitful relationship.

T. Anne said...

As much as I like the response time and it pains me to say this, you don't have to respond to the ones you're not interested in. Really, there is no law. Except for the ones I send. ;)

WriterGirl said...

Personally I wouldn't respond to any queries that don't follow basic guidelines that are easily available. I also wouldn't answer queries by anyone without a good grasp of grammar or spelling. A typo here and there is one thing but a query in text speak would get a swift delete! The Query Form is a great idea too though.

annegreenwoodbrown said...

Put something unique in your Submission Guidelines--like inform would-be clients that their query will be automatically be deleted if the subject line doesn't say: NBLA QUERY (And set up your email so it actually does delete). Then you'll at least only get the queries from people who bothered to read your guidelines.

Liesl said...

I had all these thoughts, but honestly I have no freakin' clue, which is only one reason I would stink as an agent.

It's a tough job being popular, but someone's gotta do it. Good luck!

Flavio Q Crunk said...

I would only take paper queries. Make people work to get the query into you.

Steve Masover said...

How often does a query that falls way outside your guidelines turn out to be a project you want to represent? How many accepted projects that started as unprofessional queries turned out to require inappropriate amounts of hand-holding on your part?

Whatever cuts net response time to those who contact you without following your posted, well-articulated guidelines seems fair to you and those querying.

owlandsparrow said...

What about this:

1) Continue to respond to all queries, even if they're terrible. You've been doing this for a while, so there must be a reason you haven't just ignored them in the past. But, to do that...

2) Maintain the 24-hour response time ONLY for those you know you're rejecting. Since there are way more of the bad queries, it makes sense that a) it takes less time to respond to them, and b) you'll cut your pile down by, oh, 60 or 70%.

3) As for the queries you may be interested in, give yourself the week. (I'm thinking, treat each Monday-Friday as a unit, instead of each 24-hour period.)

4) Obviously, it's not viable to block out every afternoon, every day, for query response time. Is it possible, though, to devote one afternoon - say, a Thursday, perhaps - for that? That way, since positive feedback takes more effort, you'll have a chunk of time devoted to whatever personalizing details you need to put into your responses. If my assumption is right (that it takes more time to respond to those you're curious about) you'd have more free time in all your other days if you tried to knock out a bulk of positive responses in one block of time. Plus, you save mental energy by focusing on positive responses all at once, rather than going back and forth between the rejections and the requests all day.

6) Why a week for positive responses? If you consistently respond "no" within 24-hours, and people are aware that this is how you work, a non-response communicates "I might be interested" without you having to do anything. Giving yourself the week allows you more time to decide on a "yes," and more freedom to respond at your convenience. I suggested Thursday earlier as the day you'd use for personalized responses: you could respond earlier, here and there, as time allows. If you get behind, though, you'd know Thursday was there for you. It would allow you to get caught up within the week, vanquish your inbox, and free you up to respond within 24-hours to all queries that come in on Friday. Voila: happy weekend to you.

Anyway. I think this is how I would approach it.

PS: I think it's kinda funny that, in a post where we're talking about people not following query guidelines, a number of people have suggested an intern/assistant. Did you add the last paragraph after people had already begun to comment?

Mary said...

I would set more stringent guidelines, not read queries that don't follow the direction, and lengthen response time.

Time is money!

Taylor Taylor said...

Perhaps you could have a query form on your website that queriers (?) would have to fill out. Said form would then ask specific questions of the queriers...

Or, like one of those tests we all took in 7th grade, have some special instruction 1/2 way through your guidelines that alerts you to queriers that actually HAVE read the guidelines. For instance: In your subject line write the title of your novel, your name, and the word "Query-tastic."

The Pollinatrix said...

If I were an agent, I would assume that queries not formatted correctly were sent by people who don't take getting published seriously, and I would ignore them.

And I like Patty's suggestion at 1:30.

Marilyn Peake said...

I hate to say this because your open approach is awesome ... but, if you’re asking what we would do, I would personally consider the following: 1.) have less than a huge web presence because a huge web presence obviously leads to large numbers of queries (or keep a huge web presence but realize that a large number of queries will be part of it), 2.) close to queries whenever you feel that you’re already working with enough authors and have signed enough book contracts for the time being, 3.) resign yourself to putting in huge numbers of overtime hours, as I did without pay on several jobs, and/or 4.) realize that it might just be physically impossible to answer all queries.

Alma said...

You could run an automated process that would dump them into a database and then run a query against it with the keywords of the SPECIFIC things you're looking for "(monkey + dinosaur) + protagonist", say, and a stoplist of the things are you don't want ("on lithium", "the next stephanie meyer/jk rowling"). Then you only read the queries with the desired keywords and don't hit against the stoplist. (And, uhm, yes, repeat offenders' names could be on the stoplist.)

And for god's sake do NOT publish the keywords you're looking for in your blog or announce them at writers conferences.

Jil said...

As my rejection from you arrived almost immediately after I pressed "send", and I swear I followed all your guidelines, that means you could read at least thirty queries an hour. Perhaps having only certain days when queries are accepted would whittle down the numbers for you and take off the pressure. I know, I for one, would rather be left a little time to hope, but maybe others don't feel that way.
Your job is important and demanding, and I'm sure I would panic, but response time isn't everything.

owlandsparrow said...

(*Amendment to my #2: I wrote, "Since there are way more of the bad queries, it makes sense that a) it takes less time to respond to them.

That's unclear, sorry. I meant to say, though there are more bad queries to respond to, a rejection takes less time to write than a request. Therefore, responding rapid-fire to the "no's" could burn your inbox down rather quickly.)

Marilyn Peake said...

I agree with Dan Holloway. I would also go out on the web, actively looking for writers you want to represent.

Amy said...

I think it's fair not to respond to queries that don't follow guidelines. Though I hope you'll continue to send replies to queries that do follow guidelines.

I always follow guidelines carefully, and I'm frustrated when agents don't reply to my query at all, especially since I track my queries and try to close them out when I get a response (this is so I don't annoy agents by querying them twice!). If I don't get a reply, how do I know my query didn't land in their spam folder? (You'd be surprised at the number of legitimate emails directed to me end up in my spam folder.)

An automated reply helps; at least then I know my query didn't get lost.

It's frustrating to me that the bad queriers (people who don't follow guidelines) are overwhelming agents' inboxes and thus ruining things for those of us who try hard to query correctly--and then in many cases don't even receive a form rejection for our efforts.

JEM said...

I think koflatf has a good idea about a webform query system.

Not sure how feasible it is, but maybe having two email addresses? As in, a more "elite" email address for serious queries so you can sift through the higher priority queries...or a stricter format for the query email that helps you weed out the less serious queries. After all, if they can't even format it correctly, the odds are they're not going to be the client you want to work with...

Erin B said...

Could we all look at them for you?

No wait, go with me here. This site already has the way cool Forums –potential authors could post their queries then readers could flag ones that show promise. Make the flag system blind to non-administrative people so it does not turn into a popularity contest, users can only flag queries once, author names are not shown – and so on.

Your readers could help you whittle down the slush pile – you could see what readers are interested in buying.

I mean none of us are as smart as all of us – or is it none of us are as stupid as all of us?

Anyway, good luck!

Maya said...

I think Mark's idea for an online form might help you. You could have a reject button for the craigslist ad-type queries that sends a form reject.

Also, you say you will accept any genre. I can understand that you don't want to limit yourself but tightening the guidelines might help.

Finally stop being such a nice guy! Just kidding. That's why we <3 you.

Steve Masover said...

Nathan, what I meant at 2:27 was whatever cuts the net time you spend responding to those who contact you without following your posted, well-articulated guidelines -- that's what you ought to do, in my opinion.

Sorry for the garble.

And I'll add too, no response to queries that don't follow guidelines seems fair from my POV.

Liberty Speidel said...

Personally, I'd say if the writer isn't self-respecting enough to spend the time to write a respectable business-format query letter, they're not going to be anyone you'd want to work with anyway.

Therefore, I'd say if it's in an un-business-like manner, you're not going to dignify it with a response. Or have a form letter that essentially reads, in one line, that since they're not respectful enough of your time to put some actual effort into a query, you're not going to be able to assist them in their future literary aspirations. May sound tough, but people like that probably make it that much harder for those of us willing to spend the time to do our research and craft a proper (and hopefully winning) query.

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

I think that if you ask for a specific subject heading, and if people don't follow the subject heading, they're rejected. That's just being professional - of course, you can have an automatic form stating that they can resubmit with proper formatting, etc.

I mean, really. Why should someone be rewarded (eg - you looking at their work) for not following the submission guidelines?

And - Do you use Agentinbox? I'd be interested to know how you feel about it.

Props to you for really caring about responding to queries.

Stacey O'Neale said...

I honestly don't know how agents get any work done. It seems impossible to read queries, partials, MS, and also tend to current clients.

Sadly, I don't think there is an easy way to solve your problem. I would say just do the best you can and hope the crappy ones decrease.

BTW - I would LOVE to know what some of the really bad ones look like. I know it would be mean and unprofessional to post but I'd love to be a fly on your wall.

Good luck Nathan, I love your blog and think you are awesome!

Kristin Laughtin said...

Yet another response in agreement with All Adither, at least for the queries. (You can keep your partial and full response times that short if you want, if the main challenge is queries). Extending the "official" query response time from one to two days would give you a little more flexibility, even if you still tried to maintain a personal goal of a 24-hour time.

I'm trying to determine whether using a web form would help people adhere better. Granted, I think aspiring writers should be doing their research and adhering on their own, but it might be worth it if it creates less of a headache for you. Koflatf's ideas about pull-down menus are good, especially for things like word length.

Phoebe said...

I think a web form is the best way to handle it. Drop down menus for genre and word count (don't even offer options for genres or word counts you're not interested in), require that all fields be filled out, have character limits to keep them from getting too long.

Please do continue to respond to all queriers, though. A polite form rejection makes me much more likely to submit a future project to an agent. And, since I follow guidelines, then hopefully agents don't mind the prospect of my querying them down the line!

I do wonder if the increase in queries has something to do with the economy. More people unemployed, more people finally sitting down and writing those novels? I know applications to writing programs are way, way up as well.

E.J. Wesley said...

During the early days of the Republic of Texas, the Mexican army captured a group of Texas soldiers. On the march back to Mexico City, the leader of Mexico (Santa Anna) ordered that every tenth prisoner be executed. Not wanting to be forced to make the hard decision themselves, the Mexican soldiers filled a bag with beans and ordered the Texas prisoners to pick one bean each out of the bag. If the prisoner drew a white bean, he would be spared, if he drew a black bean ... well, we'll just say that he caught that big Greyhound Bus headed to the sky.

There are a couple of lessons to be learned here. First, sometimes we are given hard choices to make amid the chaos and strife of life. All we can do is try to make the process of choosing as fair as possible while recognizing/regretting that some will get the carrot while others will get the shaft.

The second thing? Don't make dictators angry. So, if you get a query from Kim Jung-il make sure you give him the 24 hour treatment; the rest of us can probably wait a couple of days.

Susan Quinn said...

Some magazines have a form submission that also serves as a tracker - you get some idea of where you are in the queue. Then again they also have slush readers to facitiltate the process.

As a querier, I would much rather submit via form and have some idea how long it will be before I get a response - even if its a form reject from a slush reader - than to wait and wonder.

But then you don't make people wait very long. :)

Ashley A. said...

There is an agency nearby that requires a snail mail query with SASE from anyone wanting the guarantee of a reply. "Email queries will be read," they say, "but not necessarily responded to."

I like the idea of having an auto-reply (from a query-specific email address?) so the hopeful masses will at least know our queries have not been sent to the spam folder. This could be written in your oh-so-polite manner, and it could also clearly state that IF YOU ARE INTERESTED, you will be in touch within 2 weeks. Those who simply must have a response could go the old fashioned route, and once a week you'd spend a few minutes stuffing form rejections into envelopes.

Kristi Helvig said...

By only responding to queries if interested. Or clone yourself. One or the other.

Phoebe said...

I'm trying to determine whether using a web form would help people adhere better. Granted, I think aspiring writers should be doing their research and adhering on their own, but it might be worth it if it creates less of a headache for you. Koflatf's ideas about pull-down menus are good, especially for things like word length.

Oh, and as someone who's done my best to stick to guidelines--not without mistakes, mind, as I found more than one agent had seemingly conflicting guidelines on different sites or stated different guidelines in interviews and at least once I sent a query intending to attach pages and somehow, the horror!,forgot--I find web forms really helpful and intuitive. It restricts the writer to giving you exactly what you want, streamlining the process at both ends. I'm not sure I agree with those who are arguing that queries should be like some kind of entrance exam; sometimes mistakes are made even when someone has the best intentions, and it doesn't mean you're a bad writer. Making the process more intuitive will help you weed through a lot of the cruft, I think.

worstwriterever said...

I'd have the writers querying me make their query letters into audio files. Then I'd put those files onto my technology of choice and listen to them rather than read them.

This way I can judge a person by their query letter and their voice, and not have to read a bloody thing.

D. Ann Graham said...

I would alter months for the various categories you represent. Such as, April for middle-grade or YA, May for mystery or thriller, etc. Maybe even alter every other month with your favorite. Seems this would at least deter those who are submitting on a whim.

I would also start a "query reader club" of your faithful blog followers who would be willing to read X amount of queries in trade for your personalized comment on their own query. Human filters have better eyes.

I appreciate how your sincerity and integrity comes through on this blog... many thanks!

Eric Christopherson said...

Design computer program to toss frivolous queries automatically based on key word searches (e.g., the phrase "Dear agent") and more than one grammatical error in the text.

hannah said...

What if you were only open to queries, on, say, Monday thru Wednesday, and everything from Thursday on got an auto-response (to try again on the right days) and a deletion? That way you could schedule your query reading time no problem.

Derek Osborne said...

There're a lot of smart people here saying some pretty smart things. Sadly, I'm not one of them. Ya can't kiss all the pretty girls, but if you're lucky, you'll get to kiss a few worth remembering.

Anonymous said...

You've really only got 2 choices:

1) you hire assistants (either paid or unpaid) to replivate yourself and thereby get more work done without more effort on your part

or, since you don't want to do #1, you are left with:

2) You simply let some slip by, allocating a certain amount of time per day or week that you feel good about for queries, and state in your information something to the effect of:

"Due to the sheer volume of queries submitted, I cannot respond to all of them. If you get no response within 8 weeks, feel free to re-submit."

That way queries are constantly coming in, some being repeats, but you never need to worry about a timeframe.

Anonymous said...

I would take on as many great projects as you think you can and then post: At this time not taking queries until further notice.

That way you can do justice to great projects you want to handle and take on more when time frees up.

You can't probably handle the whole world, Nathan. Might as well have a list you are thrilled about and grow it as you get more time.

J. T. Shea said...

Glad to hear you like queries, Nathan. I was beginning to imagine you as Charlie Chaplin in one of those silent movies where he pulls the wrong lever in a factory and is deluged in ticker tape or invoices! Or Mrs. Nathan complaining in the morning:- ‘Nathan, you were reading queries in your sleep again last night!’
Don’t worry. I won’t send you a frivolous query. Frivolous comments are another matter...

Anonymous said...

As for guidelines, yes and no.
Sometimes, someone has seven great pages and whereas they could format them to fit into five neatly, they like the flow as it is.
Or maybe they have 400 words they need to describe their project.
I wouldn't throw them out for that.
Would you?
Close enough. So long as they tried to get it in the ballpark.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anon 3:12, #2.

The goal is to have an endless parade of possibl projects to choose from. You've got that. Therefore your work is done. You don't have to repond to them at all, except the ones you're possibly intereted in. I'd switch to a "no response whatsoever unless interested but query as many times as you want until you get a response" and just pick and choose whenever you have time to deal with it.

Anonymous said...

I'd say Anon 3:17 has the answer.

Bear in mind, though, that htis approach only works for agents in nathan's situation where they are deluged with interest. For now, you can get away with it. As long as you keep crankin' out the hits, you'll alwys get away with it.

Anonymous said...

Another way to do it is just to forge new ground and discontinue the query submission process altogether. Be proactive and find your own clients by identifying unrepped rising stars and making them an offer. You could probably operate that way, too. Instead of spending time reading and reponding to and tracking Q's, you're spending time tracking down the rising stars. Same thing, really, but you're more in control with seeking them out.

Sissy said...

Yes, your response time is FAST. I got my answer back within an hour. Now, I appreciated that because I didn't sit there wondering what you would think, but I didn't expect an answer that soon either. I wouldn't have taken offense to waiting longer. I think I was more nervous about sending to you than anyone else, simply because after following you for so long, it seems as if we all know each other. And criticism from a friend is worse than from a stranger, but even your rejections are polite.

Okay, on to a suggestion now. Let us help you! LOL. There are probably four or five people that follow your blog that could be pre-screeners/readers etc and would do it for free. I'd do it. I would find it fascinating. They would have more time to send read the pages attached, in case the query is horrible but the manuscript is awesome, and could forward you the best of the best.

All we'd need is an iPad to do it. :)

Francis said...

Kristin Nelson recently hired an assistant to help with the query deluge and other daunting tasks... maybe you should consider hiring more hands and eyes to help?

Anonymous said...

"no response whatsoever unless interested but query as many times as you want until you get a response" and just SIP FROM THE FIREHOSE!

Alyson Greene said...

You need to be rude and snarky on your blog, ridiculing anyone who doesn't follow your guidelines. Have one of your clients trash you on Twitter and AW. That ought to help.

James said...

You're getting some consistent suggestions here: if they don't follow submission guidelines, nix the query. And set up a standard rejection response. Somehow both of which I suspect you already do in one form or another.

I'd recommend experimenting. Consciously trying different methods week to week. Perhaps also have a look at other professions that involve a high email intake. Surely there are comparable situations on the internet that have developed some oddball systems of their own that work very well. Look outside the publishing box.

Having no contextual data to use (frequency, date, time of arrival - how many, what time of week, and how you manage them now) it's hard to make a realistic suggestion. But I think I'd go with a basic email filtering technique. You tell them what to put in the email subject, if that format isn't followed it gets place in its own folder that is targeted for occasional automatic deletion, but also sends a standard rejection response. Then I'd have two or three different standard rejection emails ready with programmed paste buttons so I can choose which to send as I read.

I'd also consider doubling my response time for a little while to see how that affects whatever buildup you've got. The key is to be organic, experimental, and open to weird ideas.

Good luck!

M Clement Hall said...

Use a macro -- key stroke answer -- but every one gets answered,

Peace Be With You said...

Consider "closing shop" for a while, for a couple reasons: the obvious one of your current work load and also because it will give you time to refresh. Another option: make your submission guidelines more restrictive, while still accommodative of what you really want to see.

Sam Hranac said...

Do you enjoy skeet shooting?

Once a week, print out and grab a random pile of queries. Press them into a suitable shape – perhaps using one of those things that turns newspaper into firewood. Take them down to a skeet shooting range, yell “PULL!” and blast them out of the sky.

Let authors know that when things get deep, you need your tension reliever just like everybody else. There are times when gin is not enough. If they don’t receive a response within 7 days, it means that their query is floating back to earth in shreds like the feathers of a dove.

Chris Eldin said...

Start your own e-pub.

Call it "Multi Story" and offer dynamic pricing.

Hire interns to wade through the slush.

Curtis Brown clients receive special privileges.

And start a surfing blog.

In other words, imagine the day when you won't have to read bad queries.

MJR said...

I read unsolicited queries and mss for a few years (paper, not email). I tried not to spend more than about 45 secs on a query. I wouldn't personalize any emails unless you truly want to hear from the person again. I also wouldn't have a special email or any other system for those people who don't follow guidelines. That might make your job harder. It's easier to send them a form reject along with everyone else. I don't think the "don't respond" method will save you time. Those people might follow up, email again, etc. if they don't hear from you. Good luck...

ElizaJane said...

Find a trainable highschool student who wants volunteer experience in the publishing industry and have them clean out the obvious losers--wrong genre, don't follow basic guidelines, patently illiterate. I have 3 teen-aged daughters and it's really quite hard for them to find good volunteer experiences. I think a lot of smart teens would leap at a chance like this. I'd send you one of mine if we didn't live in California...

Ashley A. said...

OK. I have to weigh in one more time and say: I think that eliminating the query process is a bad idea. That would play to an antiquated, albeit deliciously romantic, fantasy we writers have of being "discovered," while allowing us to feel victimized and unappreciated if we are not. It all goes back to the question of how much we want to be published and whether we are willing to do the necessary work.

Matthew Rush said...

I would sit there all day and read every query. Twice. Just in case the author forgot to repeat the rhetorical question at the beginning.

That way I would have to REALLY think about their question AND wonder what was wrong with me for thinking, even for a second, of passing on their project.

Actually Nathan, in all seriousness, there is a reason that you are considered one of the coolest, kindest and most giving agents in the world. I'm guessing you could get away with being a little bit stricter, and still get all the love.

In fact, because of my blog, I've even met (through email) a couple of people who know Nathan personally, and apparently he is even NICER/COOLER in person/real-life.

Keep it up and you'll be reincarnated as you're choice of Cormac McCarthy, Donald Maass, Jacob Wonderbar, or Larry Bird.

J.J. Bennett said...

I would think it would make life hard getting that many queries a day. My concern would be trying to get all my other work/responsiblities done besides reading queries. I'm sure time plays a huge factor here. I think I would only accept queries every other month to keep up with demand. I understand wanting to read them all yourself. That's something you couldn't just hand out to someone else. It seems that you're moving into being an author yourself so some of your time is working on something other than being an agent.

Shelley Watters said...

I would change my submission requirements to be very strict. Delete all queries that do not follow your format. Perhaps have some key phrase that they must quote in the query so that you are positive that they did their research first before querying you. That should cut down the queries that you would ultimately reject anyway. Set up your spam filter to filter out those queries that didn't follow your directions for the subject line.

After visiting a writing message board, I was apalled to see the lack of attention to detail and proofreading some writers have. I can't even imagine how you must want to scream at the laptop when you read queries that look like they were written and submitted in 30 seconds!

Just a thought.

The Pollinatrix said...

ElizaJane is actually onto something there! My seventeen-year-old's school has an internship/mentorship thing going on, where she works for free for someone to learn the ropes and get experience.

Surely there's a school somewhere in that vast golden city of yours that does such a thing.

Carpy said...

I love it that you asked us! I think I'd go with selecting those who follow guidelines vs. those who don't. Maybe those who follow guidelines could get your personal reading response action time vs a free intern who might scan through those who don't just for their own experience. If writers follow your blog and guidelines, then they work harder to get through to you. I know that the US Supreme Court has interns who go through the cases first and quite possibly, unknowingly toss out the one that matters. If I send you a query, I'm sending it to you in hopes that you, the agent I hope to form a relationship with and trust, is the one who actually reads it. Take more time if you need, and leave time for your own book! Don't drive yourself crazy!

Tricia said...

Forgivith if someone already suggested this, but I didn't want to read the hundred comments before it to check.

I suggest having one place only with your query-specific e-mail address. And that place is at the bottom of your submission guidlines.

If you have the e-mail address other places as well then it's too easy for the querier to by-pass the guidelines.

My last suggestion is to make said querier take a simple IQ test prior to sending.

Kourtnie McKenzie said...

I'm normally not a frequent commenter, but I had to mention something considering the trend I'm seeing with other people's answers.

I think it's great that you respond so quickly, and lowering that response time isn't the ideal solution. Not only does it help you tackle query piles, it's really attractive to writers seeking agents. It was reason #153 that you're my first pick agent. (Okay, maybe I don't have that many reasons, but it was on a mental list somewhere.)

Writers like to hear back about their queries, and it's also a Polaris-guiding sign that the agent is lightning communicative through the rest of the potential author-agent-relationship. No reason to slow your response time when that's an awesome quality.

I would delete any query not addressed to you. "Dear Agent" is auto-kill. Misspelled names are a turn-off too. It takes 30 seconds of Googling to get these things right, no real research required! I'm not sure how much easier that would make it.

Also, the people mentioning webforms: maybe it's just me, but I intentionally put the agents I researched that use webforms on the bottom of my "Seven Agents a Week" list. Above the ones I know nothing about other than Query Tracker, of course, but I like the ability to organize all the queries in Gmail and webforms don't do that.

I'm not sure why people are mentioning readers and interns when you said you didn't want that suggestion!

Good luck getting through the gargantuan amount of queries and finding Hobbit and LotR time. :)

Zachary Grimm said...

I suppose if it were me, Nathan, I'd probably respond/take the time to really read those queries that followed my guidelines. And to that end, only the ones that REALLY followed them. If it's going to grab my attention, it's going to do it quickly.

Those people who are in the query stage are (perhaps) very in-tune with the publishing and agent world at that point; therefore they should really be able to figure out that most agents have specific guidelines, and writers should REALLY do their best to follow them. It should probably be second nature, actually. I haven't come across an agent yet who doesn't spell things out pretty darn specifically for us writers.

reader said...

You could do what a lot of agents are doing, no respons= no.

Yes, that would suck for writers, but also save your noggin.

Otherwise, make a narrower list of queries you'll accept -- by saying, when in doubt query me, EVERBODY is gonna query you!!

(um, including me...)

Anonymous said...

I know you said leave out the possibility of an intern or reader, but why? If you get the right person, they'll be an enormous asset, and I'm sure there are tons and tons of smart, literate people who would work for an agent for free or a very small salary. You have to invest in training them on the front end, but on the back end, they will be priceless.

Kelly said...

Well, you could always make up a "secret" password and post it on your blog, PM listing, etc. Then set up a filter to delete all emails that include the word "query" but don't include the word "magicalunicornsfrolicintheforestsofsandiego" ... ;)

Satan said...

Make it harder to find where to send a query. The folks who are sending you weird stuff are not the ones who take the time to read your various posts on what to do and what not to do (right?), so make people work for it a little: create a new query address, and make it a little harder to find.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

We're facing the same thing in submissions at Electric Spec. Unfortunately, the amount of time each story gets to wow me is shorter and shorter as the years go by.

I like how you say 24 hour response time. Every email, however small, I've ever sent you has had a response in MINUTES, not hours.

Scott said...

Nathan, I'd make it public policy that only good queries get replies. If yours didn't get one, you can query again by getting in the back of the line, but unless it's good, it's getting skimmed and tossed again. If you want to make a note of the bad ones and give a limit to two or three queries per MS, it's another option.

This allows you to still become aware of a good book by a bad query-er, and forces submitters to work on their game without striking out first time up.

Time is of the essence and it's shrinking. Time to be draconian, but fair without weakening your prospects.


Quick rude question: Using your current process, what percentage of the queries you accept actually make it to a published book?

And what percent of those published books you generated because of your query process actually make the publisher money?

If your current query process does not generate a very high percentage of winners, then the current system you use is no better than a lottery.

Have an intern place slips of paper containing each query's name in a hat and draw out 10 each day. Follow up on the 10 and see if your percentage of winners increases, stays the same, or decreases.

If you find that your current process generates a string of publishing miracles, then why change it?


sex scenes at starbucks said...

If you did the form query, you COULD only include options that fit your guidelines with a clear statement at the top that if it doesn't fit within these paramaters of genre and length and lack of rhetorical questions, don't bother. That way it combines your queries and guidelines in one easy format.

Anonymous said...

The following is just a hypothesis. Cool? Cool.

1) You blog week-daily.
2) You appear to read most--if not all--of the blog comments.
3) You are active in the forums.
4) Activities 1-3 consume time. (Well, at least if I participated in 1-3, I'd need more than 24 hours/day to accomplish everything. Just reading your posts and skimming through the comments a few times a week is a luxury that I have to purposefully build into my day).
5) Therefore, you quit blogging.

Heaven forbid you ever consider 5 but it certainly is an option.

And I answered your post's question so that hopefully you'd answer mine: how much time do you devote to this blog?

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I have to say I very much disagree with not responding at all. It's not courteous and not good business. Even door to door salesmen get a "no thank you" from me before I slam the door in their faces. :)

Kelly said...

er ... sanfrancisco ... my query was clearly deleted ...

clubschaaf said...

As someone who hasn't quit her day job and answers queries of a different sort I recommend you require the query format followed. Also, I'm sure you have problem children who are frequently fliers. If they haven't submitted anything of substance to you and/or continually submit badly formatted queries could you set an auto response or auto delete for those email addresses? I don't mean to sound harsh, but volume over quality takes some balance.

Ink said...

Hail query, full of grace
Our time is with thee
Blessed are thou amongst writers
and blessed is the fruit of thy hand, genius.
Holy query, on the iPod
Pray for us query readers,
Now and at the hour of our slush reading.

John Jack said...

The question seems to me to be how to handle an escalating deluge of queries without sacrificing personal involvement.

That conundrum has stymied artists for millenia. A restaurateur knows the answer. Customers are standing in lines around the block in the rain waiting to get in? Convert to reservations only. Walk-ins take their chances. In other words, make the query submission process more self-selective.

ryan field said...

Don't get mad. You're obviously looking for a solution and this isn't going to do it. But I'd like to think that I'd handle the whole process as dignified and as professionally as you do.

I've been around for almost twenty years and I've seen a few good train wrecks with regards to how queries are handled, and even abused. I've seen and heard more than I've wanted to see. But you're a class act. Hold on to that for as long as you can.

mkcbunny said...

I agree with several suggestions here.

First, you do a great job of getting back to people promptly, and your reason for doing so makes sense. But I don't think you have to respond to everyone.

Here's what I'd do:
1) Set up a separate e-mail address for queries.

2) Send an auto-reply to all submissions with an acknowledgment of receipt indicating that you'll respond to queries of interest. (Basically, a "no response means no" approach.)

3) An online submission form would help as a next step that could generate different auto-replies and weed down the list of queries you actually had to read.

But you could move to the "no response means no" approach immediately and then spend a little time thinking about what you want to include in the form.

D. G. Hudson said...

This is a tough question. I notice that a lot of commenters want you to change your approach, as long as it doesn't affect them. For my two cents, I say cut out some of the 'frills' that draw the hordes to your blog. The frills (contests, blog challenges) must bring in many more queries from those more likely to be casual drop-bys who probably don't bother to read your guidelines. You also tell everyone when you have contests to tell all their friends - well this is what happens when you throw the doors wide open. Reduce the frills - contests, one-liners etc, and you'll reduce the number of casual readers who clog it up for the rest of us. (But then, weren't you trying to bring more traffic to this blog with the contests?)Hmmm.

I come here for the writing information, and for the 'writing atmosphere'. Please don't change too much -- that's what we liked about you and why you're tops with your blog.

Anonymous said...

Can't afford help?

Charge a $5 reading fee. Use the money to hire an intern to screen and give a short response to each reject, one that gives a specific reason you declined.

Professional standards aside, it would be a bargain for the intern, you and the writer.

Ten stock answers would probably answer 99% of the queries, wouldn't they? And they would be answers the writer needed to hear.

I bet your volume would go up.

The present system, overall -not just yours, sucks. Yours is pretty un-suckey as such things go.

Until it kills you.

Anonymous said...

You could always get someone(s) to read through queries and at least sort out the terrible ones. And since they're email queries, it seems that this could be anyone with internet access. As a writing struggling to write a decent query letter, I'd be interested in helping, just so I can get a better sense of what makes a good query letter but being in Hawaii, there aren't too many agents here where I could go in and work in their office. I may not be able to pick out the gems from the decently-good-but-not-quite-good-enough queries, but I could at least get rid of the crap.

Also, I'm sort of okay with the no reply means no, but if an agent does that, I really like it when I get an automated response saying that the agent received the email. That way I at least know I sent it to the right address and it's not in the junk mail.

Kelly Wittmann said...

Auto-response, all the way. Heck, I wouldn't even see anything wrong with just not responding at all. In this age of email querying, writers really need to grow thicker skins. If I don't get a response on a query within a week, I just assume it's a "no" and move on. No big whoop.

mkcbunny said...

Sorry, I realize my suggestions might have been confusing.

I was advocating for an auto-reply response that lets the querier know their query was received and also tells them that if you are interested you will contact them.

That way, the querier knows their query was received, but you don't have to send a reply to everyone yourself. So," yes" to a reply of *some sort* for everyone, but not a reply that necessarily takes your time.

Moira Young said...

My initial response was to tell you to create an automated form, but unless you can find controllable variables, that doesn't quite work. And many of the problems you've mentioned are subject to opinion and probably require a human.

So, is there any chance you can acquire an unpaid intern? (This is assuming a secretary isn't in your budget.) But more importantly, would you be willing to relinquish control over that aspect of your job? It would mean that you wouldn't be the first to look at it, and then there's always the chance that someone would slip through the cracks.

Otherwise, I agree with everyone who's suggested closing your submissions for a given period of time. Maybe even just one day a week, or weekends -- or if you really want to give yourself blocks of times when you won't receive queries, choose certain hours of the day where you close up shop. There are definitely ways to automate your e-mail to do that.

I know it's not exactly the same, but an acquaintance sent me a short story for feedback, and he admitted to me that he sent it completely raw. I told him this:

"I could do one of two things, here -- I could give you feedback now, or you could take a week or two and look at it with fresh eyes, make the edits that seem apparent to you, and then send it to me. I'm just a tiny bit hesitant to edit something completely raw, because I know once I've had a break from my first draft, I notice lots that I didn't notice at first."

If you do go with an automated submissions form, maybe a "think before you submit" post/warning would be helpful.

BTW, I don't normally participate in this game, but today's word verification is "natesec", which is kinda on-topic. Nathan needs a secretary! XD

Chazley Dotson said...

Nathan, what is your query response process like now? I mean, people have recommended form rejections and only reading the first paragraph to start with, but I assume you already do something like that. Also, could you let us know if we come up with any ideas that help you?

K. M. Walton said...

I know I'm commenting late in the game but honestly, you are only one person. I would only respond to queries that follow your guidelines and send nothing to those who didn't. Again, you are only one guy and there are only so many hours in a day.

Vegas Linda Lou said...

Your followers are probably going to hate me for suggesting this, but if you're looking for more time in your schedule, you might consider cutting back on your blog activity. You've already made a name for yourself, and at this point I think you could cut back to posting twice a week. Between your posts and the forum, your site offers an amazing amount of valuable information. Considering the service you've already provided, you could ease back without an iota of guilt.

Meghan said...

I also think that you could just delete the submissions that don't follow your guidelines. Your blog site says precisely how you want the queries organized and if they haven't taken the time to do the research, I'm not sure they would be dedicated enough to promote their own book.

Cushnoc said...

I agree with All Adither's comment--your response time could be at least twice as long and we'd still really appreciate it. Maybe even three times (at least for query letters). And I like your idea to only respond to queries that follow guidelines--as long as you include a warning to that effect along with your guidelines.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I think, for the sake of my own sanity, I'd be really tough with the basics on queries. I'd insist in my query guidelines that all subject lines have a certain subject, such as "I have read your query guidelines", and setup rules in my e-mail program (Outlook, Thunderbird, whichever) to send these to a 'to-read' folder. Anything else, I'd be brutal and delete... If folks read your query guidelines, then they'd know to include it :)

Well, I'd like to think that's what I'd do... I might feel too guilty.

You DO have really short response times, but I think maybe that's a good thing--it'd stop you from ever going crazy about the massive backlog you'd otherwise accrue.

otherside89girl said...

I would definitely say only respond to the ones that follow the submission guidelines. If they are already wasting your time by making you read the email, no need for you to waste more of it by responding.

The people who are serious about their queries are the ones who have taken the time to read your rules!

Christi Goddard said...

This is probably less friendly than you'd like to hear, but if they don't submit to your guidelines, then they should be auto-rejects. So many of us are trying really hard, reading all the guidelines, researching agents for a good fit, and do you really want to work with someone who thinks they are so special that THEY don't have to follow guidelines set up to make YOUR life easier? It's the first sign of disrespect, personally.

Yes, some edge in extra pages, or offer up more bio info than you need, but blatant disregard and poorly thought out query letters are a red flag of an author who doesn't want to try hard, and who wants a client who doesn't push themselves to be better?

ami said...

New concept:

Query gladiator.

Non-referred queries submit excerpts to the Roman - er, commenter forum. Commenters have the opportunity to vote (thumbs up/down) or rate (1-5) each query, perhaps in batches. Queries that 'survive' the trial by fire make the short list for review by Emperor, er. Agent Nathan B. Who can grant freedom (from query prison) or not.

Kay said...

Sorry. I fell into that "extra bad" category a couple of months ago.

If it were me, I would delete the emails where queriers are trying to bribe you with wine and salsa.

You're too nice, Nathan. That's why people show up at your work incognito-style and try to get you to take their queries.

Be mean! ERRRG!

Kidding. Thanks for being so nice with my horrible, horrible query...I would still delete the wine and salsa emails, though.

Nathan Bransford said...

Wow, what great responses! Sorry if I missed some questions, but here are some responses:

- I've thought a lot about an Internet form submission, but truthfully I learn a lot by how someone sends a query. Make it too easy to follow my guidelines and the people who do follow lose their advantage. Since the people who take the time to learn/follow guidelines also (but not always) tend to be the people who take the time to learn craft, revise, and are patient in general (mandatory) I wouldn't want to diminish the advantage people get for following guidelines.

- To those who have suggested an intern or assistant: one reason I asked for suggestions besides that one is that as I was writing the post I was envisioning everyone saying "get an assistant." I've considered an intern, and it may be something I do in the future, but I prefer to read all the queries. That's still the ideal scenario for me, and it's tough to give up that control (though I may need to at some point).

- To those who suggested multiple forms - I actually have that and will blog about it soon. I pick and choose from a series of canned responses. Changed my life.

- To those who suggested I go out and contact writers myself - I definitely do this, quite often actually, though I think you'd be surprised at what a needle-in-the-haystack type of process this is. Not everyone who could write a great book wants to or has a project ready to go.

- JEM - I've posted query stats elsewhere. It's a small fraction, but it's not random either. It's not the lottery.

- anon@4:27 and VegasLindaLou: if my goal were to reduce the number of queries I get I'd stop or cut back on blogging, but that's not my objective. I'm trying to cast a wide net. I spend about half an hour per blog post and write them in advance so when I'm very busy I don't feel pressure to write them (I wrote today's post about a month ago). I do read all comments, but it really doesn't take that long. They're usually pretty short. Responding to a question usually takes less than 30 seconds (well, except when I respond all at once like this comment). Blogging has been the biggest boon to finding great writers out of anything I've done as an agent, so stopping it would be counterproductive to the ultimate goal.


If you didn't receive a response it means I didn't receive it. Please re-send.

Ultimately, while I'm still able to stay on top of things now, if I'm still going to read all queries I think step 1 would be to stop responding to those way outside the guidelines and step 2 would be a combo of auto-reply/no response may be the way I have to go. I'm not there yet and hope it doesn't come to that but we'll see.

Thanks again to everyone who has weighed in! There are some really great ideas that I'll be mulling over.

Nicole L Rivera said...

Those are tough questions. Not being an agent, but able to sympathize with not having enough time this what I would do:
1.Do not respond to queries that do not follow submission guidelines. (If they don't follow them for the query they won't follow them for proposals)
2. Keep response time at 24 hours so you don't get overwhelmed.
3. Schedule a specific time limit per day you are willing to dedicate to queries and stick to it, even it you may have to go past your 24 hour deadline.

I'm not saying this is the right solution, but it's a start. :)

Bethany Brengan said...

I was an Acquisitions Editor at a small publisher, and while my query load was *nothing* compared to yours, I'm getting PTSD flashbacks just reading your post.

I think we all want you to do whatever is necessary to keep your sanity. I suspect that using web-forms is only going to increase your query numbers--unless you have some auto-rejection process built-in (as has been suggested). But I'm not sure I could trust a computer-process to see the possibilities that are (occasionally/rarely/mythically) found in seemingly inappropriate queries.

Your choices seem to be variations on A) don't respond to/read everything, or B) give yourself more time. I like owlandsparrow's idea about only responding within 24 hours to the queries you know you're rejecting, and giving yourself more time on the "possibles."

I also find myself wondering how often you personalize your rejections, instead of using your perfected and vaguely-encouraging form rejection. (I only bring this up because it was one of my problems. I wanted to help every writer who submitted to get better. But I'm not assuming you share all my neuroses.)

Kendra said...

I'm a real fan of the auto-response for lit agents, I know the Angela Rinaldi Lit agency use this, but it depends on the individual agent, their professional preferences and their guidelines overview.

Debra L. Schubert said...

Nathan, I agree w/your last comment about not responding to those way outside the guidelines. Your submission requirements are clearly stated. If someone isn't inclined to read them, you shouldn't feel inclined to respond. IMHO, of course. ;-)

Sommer Leigh said...

I believe that an agent's time is gold and if someone is investing themselves into this world and this line of work, they need to appreciate agents enough to read guidelines and adhere to them. If they can't take the time to query an agent the way an agent requests, why should the agent take the time from other more Take-Me-Seriously author hopefuls?

Maybe I don't have a soft enough underbelly, but I probably wouldn't respond to people who have carelessly disregarded all of my guidelines and maybe consider form rejections at most.

I might even consider, like some other suggestions have said, creating an auto-response for my email box that says thank you for submitting, here's a link to my blog where I post my query response dates and if your submission date has passed but you haven't heard from me, I wish you the best of luck in your pursuits but we weren't a good fit. Or whatever nice thing you want to say. Then you can tailor who and how you respond to submissions and those that completely disregarded you as a professional will get as much attention as they saw fit to give you.

Anonymous said...

I would write a short response to the effect of "Does not follow guidelines, see URL." Then I would save it so I could insert it into my replies with a keystroke. Also, I would stop reading when the query doesn't follow the guidelines. I wouldn't go on to read their five pages.


Mina said...

Nathan, if you are still reading (I stopped around response 85), stop giving time to these comments and go back to readng the queries.

Patrice said...

Set your inbox to accept a certain number of queries per day. When the limit's reached, cut us off. Those who have taken the time to perfect their queries and who have really researched you specifically will try again tomorrow. Like when you try to leave a voicemail, but the mailbox is full. If it's important, you call back.

DMBeucler said...

Have you thought about having a coding system in the email subject line for your queriers? Submissions have to read "Query: Genre length" and the rest of the email would be as normal.

If people aren't following that guideline you can delete unread and if someone made an error they can just resubmit with no harm but a little lost time. You would also be able to see directly if the novel is too long or to short for a market at a glance or if it's something you don't represent and deal with those queries quickly and spend the lion's share of your time on the researched queries. This is the only really helpful if you get most of your queries via email (I am not at a querying stage so I haven't checked).
I'd post the rules for a set time (like 6 weeks) and once you have your implementation date an automated response stating that the guidelines weren't met and linking to your guidelines. I don't know what sort of email program you use but if it is exclusively for queries you might be able to filter them into categories by genre for further organizational bliss.

Kaitlyne said...

Someone might have mentioned this already, but I saw a suggestion yesterday on another blog to make a particular word be required in the subject line in order to filter out everyone who didn't do their homework and read the submission requirements. Something other than just, "Query" of course.

I actually thought that was a great idea. I imagine most of the people who are sending you the really bad queries are those who haven't bothered to research your guidelines, and it would probably knock out quite a few of them. Good luck.

Josin L. McQuein said...

The suggestion of coded subject lines isn't a bad one.

Pick an unusual word to have included in the subject line (which means you know people have read your guidelines). Anything without that word gets zapped by your spam filter.

There's an editor who does this, even for snail mail. Submissions are supposed to come with "SQUID" written somewhere on the envelope.

Maggie said...

I completely understand not wanting to give up control and wanting to make the call yourself on whether something is good or not rather than letting an assistant or intern do it. Maybe, though, instead of letting an assistant make value judgments, could you possibly just let them weed out the obviously wacky queries and pass on anything remotely serious to you?

Like if you get a query opening with, "My book is wayyyyy better than Hary Potter and your stupid if you dont want it," could that one be auto-rejected by an assistant before you even have to deal with it? (and I really hope that this is an extreme example and you do not actually get queries that read like that...)

I'm not sure, but judging by what I've seen on some agent blogs, just bypassing the real crazies could save you a chunk of time!

Mira said...

Oh cool. I love ideas and I'm good at thinking of LOTS of them. Can't vouch for the quality, but glad you asked, Nathan. :)

And I believe this is a real problem, Nathan, and likely to get worse, so you have my support! You deserve to find ways to ease your workload so it's manageable within the time you get paid!

But first, I thought Ryan's comment was lovely, and Alyson Greene's comment was really funny, and Ink's poem was..... lol.

In terms of not following guidelines there may be innocent reasons people don't follow them - like maybe they got your name out of a book and didn't go to your blog or something.....I don't know.

But maybe they can WRITE.

After all, you an teach someone to follow instructions. You can't teach them to write.

So, I hope you'll still read them. You never know when that diamond in the rough will come in a non-guideline following package.

Okay, the actual ideas on another post, this one is too long already.

beebee723 said...

I agree with many comments that say that you're amazing in that you get back to queriers within 24 hours. Most other agent take weeks longer than that. I also think you should state in your guidelines that queries that don't adhere to your guidelines won't be read, and stick to that. If someone can't follow your guidlines, you probably don't want them as a client, because they probably can't write or follow directions.

I also wonder, as did Kate, that your replys within 24 hours may send the person being rejected the message that you didn't take much time with their query. Maybe you could sort them into 3 piles: Probables, Possibles and Non-Guideline Submissiions. Send the rejctions to the non-guidelines ones within 24 hours.
then read the Probables and request partials of fulls, and then read the Possibles when you have time. Consider an auto-response to everyone saying you got it and you will get back to them soon. That buys you a little time. Just some thoughts. Good question, BTW.


Melinda Mahaffey said...

As a magazine editor, I never received quite as many queries as you do - I got maybe 100 per week -but it was the same thing, with most of them being unusable and/or unprofessional (I'd be lucky to get one that was worth a personal response).

I set up signatures with various responses since I tended to see the same errors over and over again. That way, I could just push a button to reply (our policy was to reply to everyone). When someone sent a well-written query and seemed to have made an effort (which was VERY rare), the stock message encouraged them to look at our guidelines and pitch something else in the future. For the rest, the depressing lot, the response just said thanks but we couldn't use it at the time.

The signatures saved me a lot of time; it usually just took me 15-20 minutes in the morning to go through the inbox. (They also came through a different email address than my own so they queries would be available in Outlook, but in a separate area from my regular emails.)

Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado said...

Nathan, you are an amazing agent. It would be a shame if (from total burnout) you lost the passion and honesty that sets you apart. I agree 100% with Mark Barrett's comment. Create an on-line form that takes all the queries through the first steps. You scan them and ask for more from the ones that seem right for you. I know you'll figure it out and I also predict there's an incredible book that's going to come to you soon. Within a short time, you will be handling best selling authors that you have discovered. You work extremely hard and you have integrity. You will do very well. Hang in there!

Nathan Bransford said...

Oh - also meant to mention regarding delaying responses to people I might be interested: I've had times where I was out of the office and couldn't get back to people for a couple of days, and by the time I was back they were already signed. Hopefully that also helps explain why I jump on things quickly - I send requests for partials just as fast as I send passes.

Cyndy Aleo-Carreira said...

I'm giggling a bit at thinking what a dream job it would be to get to read all an agent's queries. Even better than seeing queries dissected on agent blogs, you'd get to see SO MUCH DONE WRONG. I think any aspiring author would jump at the chance, even for minimum wage.

Julia said...

I would not reply to unsolicited manuscript submissions unless they are great - and I'll know if they are because I do not see how one can avoid taking a peek at something that's already in a mailbox. I read very fast and within 2 pages I can tell if the book is worth my time. So I'll spend that minute and check out the first few pages even if it's in violation of my terms of accepting queries, just in case there is a gem created by a clueless person who made an honest mistake. I will however reserve the right to not reply to queries that are not in a correct format.

T. Anne said...

OT; I happened to be at Borders tonight with my DD and purchased TSY. Excited to read it!

RBSHoo said...

I'm still curled up in a fetal position since trying to tackle the 50 queries from your "Be an Agent" exercise last year.

No clue.

Word verification: "gothook" -- seems appropriate for an agent's blog.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

As someone on the 'scary side' of the desk, I would have to say that I wouldn't have my feelings hurt one bit if you didn't respond at all to me if I didn't follow guidelines. Anyone who doesn't follow them isn't worth your my very small oppinion =)

OR-- just take my manuscript and be done with all other queries =)

*that was a joke-sort of

Mira said...

They were already signed? That sucks. Sorry.

Okay, ideas.

a. I couldn't help but notice that many recommended a fill-in form. I also couldn't help but notice you rejected that idea. I wish I could get you to reconsider. I'm not sure what you mean about the advantage thing, but people who come to your blog already have an advantage by their name recognition.

I wish, wish, wish, wish you'd reconsider this. I think it would be heavenly for you - the organization, the elegance, the ease, the simplicity, the auto-responders. Lovely.

Then you can find out who you're working with when you request the partial.

Also, you can create the form to meet your needs for information.

Okay, wishing on a star and moving on:

b. Request the partial with the query. Why not? Saves you time.

c. If you don't want to do that then only request fulls and skip the partial. Saves you time, and if you're worried it sets up expectations, you can clarify your policy.

d. Hire an intern/volunteer and have them work on non-query related things. I agree - don't hand over queries to anyone else - but filing? Research? Quick business letters? Thank you letters? Not important phone calls? Let your helper do that stuff.

Well, that's all I got. Hmmmm. Feels like there should be more. If inspiration strikes me, I'll be back.

Good luck, Nathan!

Anonymous said...

Eliminate the draconian query system.

Ask the aspiring writers to upload the first fifty pages of their book to a site (linked from here) where your readers can parse and rate the quality of the submissions.

Once a week: Nathan checks the site, reads the reviews and reads the highest-rated partials. Nathan then requests a synopsis and manuscript from the 3-4 most promising writers.

This would save you many hours, and that's time you could spend working for your clients.

Jen Weingardt said...

Stick with your response times so you don't get bogged down. Trust your instincts. You know which ideas will succeed and which ones won't. Immediately reject the Craig's List queries and tell the writers to resubmit after reviewing your guidelines. A turnaround like yours is almost unheard of in this business and makes you stand out in the literary agent crowd.

Janalyn Voigt (WaySinger) said...

I vote for deletion of queries from those who don't follow guidelines. That reserves your time for those who respect your wishes enough to deserve it.

Anonymous said...

Could you use an autorespond to let queriers know that the email has made it to the inbox, but only reply to those you're interested in ("Congratulations... Your email has made it safely to my inbox")?

The most common objection to "if I don't get back to you, it's a pass" is that people worry their emails have been eaten by spam filters.

Dawn Maria said...

It's easy to say just ignore the folks who don't follow guidelines, but I know that you sincerely like helping writers, so I would suggest that you have a form letter response you can send to guidelines violators. That way, maybe they'll learn from their mistake. I imagine that this will cut your reading time down too, since those errors are so easy to spot. I doubt you'd need to read the whole query.

Terri said...

Nathan - I have good news and bad news. You've become America's #1 "reach" agent.

Just like the deluge of wannabe lawyers flood Harvard every year ("Hey, I don't have a chance, but what if lightning struck?"), everyone with a manuscript is going to throw it at you and hope something sticks.

That's both the good and bad news in a nutshell.

I have to admit, I giggled a bit when you answered an email I sent you with a link I thought you might like. And I am a lawyer for heaven's sake! In our world, you are a rock star.

Now, my "for real" suggestions on dealing with the inbox problem. I also work part-time for our family company and the "got a question?" button on our website comes to me. The questions range from serious to idiotic to blatant spam.

How I handle it (you've heard a few variants on this, but this requires no programming, no intern, no fer-special macros):

1. Make it real clear on your website that answers are not coming instantaneously. Give yourself a break and say that if there is no answer in two weeks assume the manuscript has been released back into the wild. No law says you have to take two weeks, but cut yourself some slack. For me, I say answers in 2-3 days.

2. I have a list of keywords that are common in the spam and useless emails. When I open my email, I run a word search on those keywords. Any that pop up go into a folder to be dealt with last.

For your situation, it could be the real common clunkers like "Dear Agent" and "fiction novel" and "What if".

Also keywords like "twilight", "Rowling", "vampire", "sparkly" and anything else that makes you cringe.

On the flip side, you could also keyword search on interesting words like "monkey" and "bacon" to help float the cream to the top.

2. Now that the morning's take is sorted, open the folders in priority order and deal with them. The lower the priority, the longer the response time.

3. Lather, rinse, repeat as needed to keep the influx sorted.

4. This goes quick once you get it down. It takes me about 10 minutes 2-3 time a day.

4. A dedicated query email address is essential. Make it real clear that anybody who thinks they are showing moxie by using the correspondence email will be deleted unread.

Keep it up! The good news is we love ya! That's also the bad news!


Andrea Franco-Cook said...

I get the feeling you want to give potential clients as much individual attention as possible. Although this is admirable, there are only twenty-four hours in a day. You can't do it all.

Perhaps you should limit your responses to queries that meet the submission guidelines. This way you will be concentrating on people who took the time to do their research.

If all else fails, you could try the KISS method (Keep It Simple Stupid). Sort all the queries in two piles. Label the first, "Hopeless" and the second, "Hopeful." Create a standard rejection letter for the first pile and devote more time to the subsequent stack. Joking aside, I hope you find a solution to your problem.
All the best

Sarah Scotti-Einstein said...


My first thought is that sometimes it simply isn't possible to manage an increased workload with increased efficiencies. Like many other posters, it feels like the best solution--an intern--has been ruled out, though, and so here are two suggestions that have worked for me. (Different field, same problem.)

First, consider an email solution that will allow you to put individual queries into specific folders and then batch-reply to everyone in that folder. This cuts out having to individually respond with a form rejection. It isn't a huge improvement in efficiency, but if you are rejecting 150 submission a day and it saves you 10 second per submission, that's almost half an hour.

You might also consider finding other places to cut your workload in order to make time for the increase in the submission load. (I am about to make a lot of enemies!) Your blog is pretty prime web property and it's obvious that you put a lot of time and effort into each day's post. I don't imagine you'd have a difficult time finding "guest bloggers" to cover one or two days a week, and I don't think this would hurt the brand equity that the blog is building for you. A small stable of "guest contributors" might free up more hours in your week than any non-intern solution to the increased time spent responding to submissions.

It's a thorny problem, and one I imagine will only get worse. Best of luck to you!

AstonWest said...

Set up an online query submission form, and you can auto-respond to all queries that are for a genre you don't represent (or set up the form to not allow those to get through), a word count you won't accept, etc.

I'd say that would take out about 30% of your query load.

Other than that, just set up specific times during the day when you're going to review queries, and stick to it...get what you can done in that time, leave the rest to the next scheduled time. Heck, that's what many of us have to do with our writing time.

Steve said...

I think an agent should respond even to bad queries, because often the querier just didn't know better, and they should get feedback.

That being said, I expect that bad queries are both more plentiful and easier to handle quickly. Make form rejections for the most commonly found categories of bad queries. The more inclusive you can make these the more you will benefit. I.e. you want (say) the top 10 = not just the top 3. As the stereotyped problem queries come by, just click reply and shoot back the appropriate form rejection, which should provide at least general insight into why it was a weak query. This part of the process should go pretty fast. Needless to say, also include either full text or a pointer to your general query guidelines, and a link to your blog.

With that much chaff blown away, you can now start to winnow through the unstereotyped material.

Good luck,

Anonymous said...

I would identify a set of guidelines on your website and state in bold that if you do not clearly meet the guideline (info)requirements then the query will not be dealt with. This can be said politely. You could have a online form to fill in or you could ask people to provide information under particular headings, similiar to seeking a grant.

This will allow you to quickly skim to the most relevant information to determine if you are interested in spending the time reading further.

A standard reply can be sent to people who don't meet the information requirements pointing them to the online guidelines. Then it is up to them to take the time to meet the requirements. You haven't crushed their egos nor offended their aspirations.

Your required fields or headings can be identified in a way that will assist you culling your queries, for example, story synopsis is obviously the first level, next might be the writer's background, they might have written good stories before and, whilst the synopsis put you to sleep, the query might be still worth considering, etc.

If it is clearly stated up front what is required in a query then people cannot reasonably get annoyed. Your response time is incredible and thanks for the great well considered blog.

JDuncan said...

Sounds like most of the ideas are in here, Nathan. In order to stay on top and keep the same response rate, you have to obviously find a way to do it even faster than you do now, which already boggles my mind or find a way to cut down what you look at. So, you either create a way to filter ahead of time, i.e. use a form to cut out the crap or stop responding to the "no's". I know form rejections don't take much time, but it's still time to be saved. Another filtering option might be to require folks to put genre and or wordcount in the subject line. So, you get something like Query-Memoir-75k or some such as a way to knock out a few more of the automatics.

Tori said...

Maybe not respond to people who obviously are not even TRYING to follow the guidelines? At least, that is what I would do if I were an agent. Your time is precious and should not be wasted on people that won't even take the time to do their research. Is that too harsh?

KFran said...

Switch to forms and have required fields, also have minimum, maximum field length so that your submitters will submit the right stuff. You could have drop down menus for your genres and leave out the ones you don't represent. Then, you have three buttons to push, reject which sends them the standard form reject, reject with comments and request partial. I'm going to go design the webapp right now and distribute for free.

Lorel Clayton said...

You could eliminate replies entirely by establishing a policy where, if they haven't heard from you in (say) 72 hours, then you are not interested or suited to the work and they should query elsewhere. Then you only have to reply to the ones you like!

Marewolf said...

I get the responding quickly thing. I have an outlook account at work, and when that little envelope pops up in my task bar my OCD kicks in and I HAVE TO get rid of the envelope.

You know Miss Snark's first victim blog? She set up a new thingy (yes, I am a writer and "thingy" was the best I could come up with there)that automates the Secret Agent contest. Perhaps it would be worth the time setting something up that auto-rejects anything not formatted correctly.

Or, just stop sleeping, maybe invest in some Depends so there are no wasted trips to the restroom. :)

Remilda Graystone said...

I think you should only look at the ones that follow the guidelines and/or develop a more stringent incoming-query system. I don't think you should reward someone with your time when they couldn't even look and follow your query guidelines.

Anyway, good luck!

Beautiful said...

Go with your gut Nathan. You are a very intelligent man. I understand completely.

Jil said...

Why not forget the whole query idea. Isn't it the first page of the book that grabs the reader - and therefor should entice the agent to want to see more? It's being able to write a great book that counts ; writing a query is not the same thing at all.

treeoflife said...

Too many queries to read? How about too many blog comments? :P

But on a serious note, how about restricting your queries to ones that have been professionally edited? That would weed out a lot of garbage, plus people who are not willing to handle criticism.

Caledonia Lass said...

I agree with Adither. Your response times seem far too short. Good for you for trying to stay on top day-by-day, though.

I would suggest more stringent guidelines and reading only those who have gone by said guidelines. That's just me, I can be mean that way. ;)

blgrgurl said...

I agree with everyone saying make your guidelines a little more strict. If someone doesn't at least bother to try and meet them then are they really that serious? Your response time is awesome no arguments there.

Lucy said...


I think my conclusions are probably ones that you're reaching for yourself.

I hate to say it, but you're up against a flood that's only going to get deeper. Unfortunately, I see the time coming when even the most responsive agents are going to have to limit responses in sheer self defense.

At this point, I'd start by setting up an autoresponder that says "Your query has been received. It is now impossible for me to reply to all queries, but if I am interested in reading more, I will contact you within {X time-frame). Thank you for your submission."

Thus the writer knows you have the query, a time frame has been set, and you can delete as necessary.

Good luck with whatever you decide to do--it doesn't sound like a fun decision.

Stephen Prosapio said...


Seriously, I understand what you mean about the practicality of it, however think of the implications. By responding so quickly to the poor queries, you're encouraging more poor queries. If only by the law of "what we focus on expands" you put that out there that "To query me you'll get a no faster than anyone" -- it's great and all...but really time needs to be focused on the "yes" queries.

And if you can't get an intern/assistant to skim queries and rate them into an A pile, a B pile a C pile and horse crap pile, then no one in the industry should have one!

howdidyougetthere said...

I get your response time. It's the way you work / stay on top of things. And very much admired and appreciated by all.

Perhaps add to Guidelines if they do not hear back within 24 hrs then you (regretfully) must say...

It's still a definite answer, and doesn't take your time.

Mel said...

Looks to me like you have a couple of options.

1. Be aggressive (in a nice way). Make it clear that if your attention isn't grabbed in the first 5 (or whatever) sentences, the query is binned.
2. Get yourself some helpo kiddo. An assistant can tell you what seems interesting and you just read those.

Keep up the good work.

Zoe Winters said...

I'd take up drinking.

Maybe crack.

Probably agenting isn't the career path for me, huh? :P

Anonymous said...

Couple of things: Sometimes when I didn't hear back from an agent, I was pretty sure they didn't even read my query. This was even though I knew that a "no meant no." So, even one sentence saying you read it and it's not what you want right now works for me. I don't love the no response option on queries that are decently put together and follow guidelines, at least.

Also, you love queries. You prefer to be queried than not to. So, what other part of your job can be cut back to help your query time? Forum interaction? Contracts (not).

Can't your "go to" publishers simply trust your good eye by now and just take what you give them? That'd save you all sorts of time! Wouldn't that be great?

This post is wasting your time.

sri said...

Maybe this is the moment I have been looking for. As an aspiring/budding/almost frustrated but not yet given up writer, I have now developed a website which manages queries for agents. With this tool agents will get only serious queries - no more email queries - no slush pile. I want to test the website which will be up in a couple of days. The tool manages all the elements of the query process.

The issue here is that I plan to charge aspiring writers for the service. What do writers feel about paying for such a service. This is free for agents .Still , how would they react to this new development.There is no such website existing as of now.

I look forward to the reaction of writing community.


Margaret Adams said...

You're probably worried about missing the opportunity to represent that really superb undiscovered writer who has sent you a query but hasn't quite followed your guidelines.

If you're being overwhelmed by incoming e-mails then you might miss this communication anyway, or overlook it or fail to recognise its value because you're tired and overworked.

Why not ask every one who submits to put a specific phrase in the e-mail title? Those writers who follow the guidance go to the front of your queue to be reviewed. Those who don't will be reviewed if and when you have time.

Rough and ready, but it might give you more space for the rest of your life.

JTB said...

one more thought

Have a 'query holiday', have set time when queries can be submitted up to. Put up a note saying no more queries until [date]...

Clara said...

Hi Nathan,

I know where you are coming, I also had a very tight window to respond my emails at work, and I liked it.

However, you are indeed very fast. First step to a solution would be taking longer to respond queries (I think you have a good timing regarding partials and others). Make it 48 hours to 1 week.

Second step, and most important, is that you have to expect writers to do their research. So, if you receive a query that is abnormally not following the guidelines, toss it away. Notice here, that you don´t need to be picky. One, or two mistakes can pass. But not more. Every writer has to be a researcher, and a damn good one.We are sellers and our books are out products, we have to know the business in order to be able to sell them to the market we want.

I hope this helps you. Good luck!

Ian said...

It sounds like you have a really long day. For sanity's sake, you shouldn't respond to queries that don't follow the guidelines.
Maybe you could also close for submissions for a bit if you're swamped. Either that, or you hire an assistant, or get an intern.

teacherwriter said...

Month on, month off. Close your door to queries, etc for a month to give you time to read. Post that no submissions will be accepted at that time. Then open it back up when you are ready.

Clara Rose said...

I am sure you are pleased with the number of quality suggestions and I have to say I agree with some of them.

You could of course simply delete them when they don't follow the guidelines but then you run the risk of missing a gem because of their oversight.

Patty and Mark offered the first things that came to mind for me, both simple solutions, however my personality type would not allow me to eliminate the human element.

You might consider using the reply with stationary option in your email system (if you are using outlook or express). It is simple to set up and the reply would be a form letter with the added flexibility of an additional comment if you desired to add one.

Wow, that idea came to me prior to my morning coffee!

Thanks for making me think and as always... making me laugh.

Clara Rose

Kermit Rose said...

I would, in every blog communication,
refer to my page wherein I explain concisely and precisely exactly
what kind of query letter I prefer, and can read quickly.

Claire Dawn said...

I've notice that several agents take time off for the query scene once in a while to concentrate on their existing clients.

If I was up to my eyeballs in queries, I'd shut shop for a month or so. It won't kill authors to wait a month if they're really that interested.

I might miss out on the next Twilight/Harry Potter/LOTR, but I would also miss out on mounds of headaches waiting to happen.

jongibbs said...

I think if your guidelines are clear and easy to locate, then people have no right to complain if they receive a form rejection.

I know we all make mistakes on submissions (at least I do from time to time), but let's face it, if someone can't be bothered to figure out how to follow some basic submission guidelines, what are the chances that they bothered to figure out how to write a good story?

Just my 2 cents :)

Gabriella said...

You need more hours in a day...and here's how to do it.

Have a person in the future who reads queries for you....and sorts the queries into 'must read', 'slush pile' and 'junk'.

The person who reads queries for you should live in a timezone that is several hours ahead of yours. When you arrive in the office in the morning, you are greeted with queries that have been pre-weeded for you.

I'm a Canadian living in Croatia (9 hours ahead of California), and lots of businesses in the USA/Canada use this sort of overseas system (web design, editing, business writing, translation, etc). It is a great way to stretch out your business hours!

If you'd like to give it a try... me and my query-sorting abilities are standing by :-)

Kate Evangelista said...

I wish there was some way to program the inbox to sort the good queries from the bad, so that you know which ones to reply to with rejections. Alas, that isn't possible yet. Right? Or am I missing something?

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