Midwest Writers’ Workshop- Query Math

Hi, all! I returned from the MWW conference just last night with tons of notes on some awesome things.Ā  One of the most helpful sessions was John Cusick’s “Amazing First Lines.” During that hour-long session on yes, just first lines, he also discussed some basic “query math,” which I found very interesting.

Mr. Cusick stated that .002% of the queries he receives result in signing a new client. This sounds about on par with the stats I’ve seen from other agents. The competition is that tough. But really, I’d rather not think of it as competition. It’s not like if author X gets signed, it makes it less likely for me to sign with an agent. (In very specific cases, if an agent has already signed a certain kind of book, he or she may not want another too similar to that first one, though.) The way I see it, that stat doesn’t really mean there are that many other writers for me to beat in the race for an agent. A signed author’s success doesn’t undermine my own chances of success in finding an agent. What that .002% really means is it’s tough to write a good book and it’s even tougher for someone to love that book enough to put in a ton of work just on the chance that the story will sell.

Think about the books you’ve read and loved this past year. Sure, some were fun, some were great, some were incredible. How many of them were you crazy enough about to risk your salary on whether or not you could sell them?

As an editor, ex-agent-intern, and querying writer, here are some things I’d recommend doing to get those stats more in your favor:

  • Don’t think of filters and gatekeepers as people keeping us out. They aren’t. They’re looking for us. Think of them as a part of the process meant to sharpen our skills. Because we need those skills, and we WANT those skills.
  • Don’t be discouraged by how much work it takes. Most professions take years of deliberate skill building, and even then most people start at the bottom and have to prove their determination and passion for the job. Talk to a lawyer about how long it took him/her to get to a similar place. Three years in the query trenches? In comparison, that’s not bad at all.
  • Realize the work can be fun. We’re writing! Sometimes I have to remind myself it’s not manual labor outdoors in August; we’re shaping a world and creating characters. Love it. It’s awesome.
  • Follow directions. A huge portion of the queries I read were for things we didn’t represent– paranormal nonfiction, for example. A lot of the queries weren’t even real queries– rave reviews from friends or librarians won’t help us sign with an agent, especially not if the query doesn’t pitch the book itself. Use 90% of the query to tell about the story, not about you (for fiction. I stay out of NF for the most part.)
  • Be intentional with your time on social media. Follow content producers in areas you want to learn about, and interact meaningfully. There’s a big difference between scrolling and chatting for hours, and listening/interacting while learning. Most importantly, realize that social media won’t get your book written. Set a time limit and get back to writing that brilliant zombie-fae space opera.
  • Write a good book. Nothing else can beat this. Write a good book, and start a new one that’s even better. Make it a great book. Move on to the next and make it as awesome as you can. Because that’s the whole point- we’re not writing to get an agent, and our careers aren’t on hold until we find one. We’re writing to write. We’re already doing it.

Keep writing, keep learning, and it will happen. You’ll be in that .002%.

5 thoughts on “Midwest Writers’ Workshop- Query Math

  1. I just got back from the PNWA Writer’s Conference in Seattle. It was refreshing to be surrounded by writers and agents who view the gatekeeping process as a worthwhile one. Plus, the whole thing about writing a good story… yeah that helps a ton. Though I’m still amazed I got through the pitch sessions at all! Interest was high, but that won’t mean anything until I can revise, revise, revise šŸ™‚

  2. Liked this. Agree that you can’t be negative about gatekeepers…but you must be realistic. Great books have been turned down and everything was done perfectly. Why? The agents missed the boatl they are not perfect; their assumptions for good or ill may, again, miss the mark. It’s a matter of preference…and picking a winner. A great agent will recognize a great book and see it as a winner and get behind it. History is filled with agents who weren’t winners and who missed the mark, only to have their competitors snap up a book and receive the $$$ and kudos for recognizing a winner and backing it. šŸ˜‰ It’s a matter of roulette…and the gatekeepers don’t control like they used to and it is getting downright impossible for them to gauge what will succeed in the market place. I do not think the past spate of vampire books that sold millions are good. Many agents turned up their noses…one was clever enough to see the promise and went with it. Now, there are so many of these on the market it is laughable. JK Rowling was passed by gatekeepers so many times, she went straight to the publisher. So you can dress up a pig in beautiful clothing, but it is still a pig. What is needed is a very, very smart pig to avoid falling under the butcher’s knife and genociding itself with arrogance and untruths about “a great book.” A lot is accidental luck and unseen forces. I have read books, i.e. The Women’s Room (years ago) that were replete with errors. No matter…it was bought and became a best seller. So while it is not productive to b negative, it is productive to write smashing work and realize these realities…and continue being persistent. After a while, the slush pile is so tremendous, an agent can pass up on something that is phenomenal from sheer weariness. So…that’s why people in droves are self-publishing. They know the reality and they are VERY POSITIVE about agents… and they are still self-publishing, keeping the money for themselves.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post! An important part of signing with an agent is making sure the agent loves the book. Agents often turn down quality work not because they can’t see the quality, but because they have to be personally passionate about the story. Someone who doesn’t enjoy Harry Potter wouldn’t have made a good agent for Rowling’s career. Agents have to be able to love the story, work well with the author, and offer skills that will build and sharpen the writer’s career. There’s a lot more at play than just whether or not the writing/story is good, which is why it can be so hard to find the right agent!

  3. Really solid points – I can’t agree more about enjoying your writing and not getting down/bitter because of rejections. My day job is engineering and I spent years in school for it – if I have to spend years querying before I get published, that’s cool with me, and it should be obvious that writers need to learn about their craft just as professionals do in ANY other field. Writing is a labor of love and both of those things are worth noting: labor AND love.

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