As of last night, I have an email sitting in my inbox that I’m afraid to open. I fear it will be disappointing news, so it’s easier to skip past it for now. I’ll have to open it eventually, and there’s a small chance it could be positive news, but my mind doesn’t work like that. You know that old adage, “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst?” My personal take on it goes more like this: “Daydream about the best, hope for the least damaging, and prepare for heartbreak.”
What’s the email about, you might ask? I’ve been querying my second novel—a middle grade superhero adventure—with literary agents since March, and it’s not going as I’d hoped, let alone daydreamed. Thus far, I’ve sent personalized queries and sample pages to thirty-six agents. Of those thirty-six, I’ve had two requests for the full manuscript. The rest have been a mix of polite form rejections and non-responses. (In the publishing industry, because of the sheer volume of queries agencies receive, they often note on their websites that they can only respond to projects that interest them.)
But, two FULL requests—that’s a positive sign, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, because the fact that two agents wanted to read the entire story means the content of my query, synopsis and sample pages is at least compelling and well-written enough to draw some interest. But then again, if you believe the numbers given on some sites, I should be getting a lot more requests. One writer insists that if you’ve written a solid query, you should get a seventy-five percent request rate for either fulls or partials.
Let me put that in actual numbers for emphasis: 75%.
Yes. He is saying that a solid query should result in an overwhelming positive response from agents you send it to. This is only one opinion, but even if that is a gross overestimation, my percentage is hovering at a paltry 5.6% requests with one of those already returned as a rejection. Does this mean my query and sample pages are weak? Boring? Turning to dust as soon as they hit agent inboxes?
I’m honestly not sure. I’ve had the query and first five to ten pages critiqued by other writers and industry professionals, including a junior agent/freelance editor and a new traditionally-published author. I’m fairly confident the structure and content are good, so maybe it’s just the story itself. Perhaps the market on superhero stories is saturated. Or agent slush piles are so overloaded, they are looking for the absolute best of the best, those manuscripts without a single verb out of place. Or, maybe my plot and hook are too formulaic. I personally don’t think so, but don’t all writers believe their ugly babies are perfect?
It doesn’t help that tales abound on the internet of writers who found their agents on the sixth or seventh query they’ve sent of their first manuscript. But then, for every one of those testimonials, you can find dozens of others who report that they didn’t find representation until their 100th query on their fifth or sixth manuscript. There are many great and encouraging words from agents and writers alike to be found in the responses to this young writer’s tweet:
Still querying my broken little heart out, but it is very hard to have hope after 33 rejections. If 33 people don’t like something, why is the 34th person suddenly going to like it? Can 33 people be wrong? #amwriting #amquerying Feeling discouraged. #writingcommunity
— Becky M. (@BeckyM9637) July 31, 2019
Given the beautiful words of encouragement in the above, I shouldn’t be afraid to open that agent response to my full manuscript. Even if it’s a rejection, it doesn’t mean I should give up on my brave little superhero and her story, let alone on my writing career. I haven’t even queried half the agents available who represent middle grade novels. The agent who falls in love with Cora/Colossa and is willing to don their own superhero cape to champion my story could still be out there, dying to see a story like mine in their inbox. That’s the optimistic approach to take, right?
Unfortunately, I’m not what you’d call an optimist, though I try not to be a negative Nancy, either. Rather, I shoot for eternal pragmatist. I don’t expect that email to contain the much-desired “let’s set up a conference call” message. Nor do I think it will tell me to torch my manuscript, pull the plug on my writing career and never, ever contact any literary agent again.
In all likelihood, given the competitiveness and wildly subjective nature of the publishing industry, I expect it will be a very kind, maybe even detailed rejection. That’s okay. It will be disappointing, and I might seek out a pint or two of ice cream to soothe the wounds, but I’m nothing if not resilient. I’ll dust off the hurt, seek more feedback on my work, and send out another batch of queries.
Still, I fear the unknown, the potential of rejection, so I’ll leave that email unopened, if only for another hour or two. For now, I need a bit more time in which to daydream. To hope. And most importantly, to prepare for the expected and move on like the determined and resilient pragmatist I am.