Query letters. I say those two words together and most aspiring writers, and established authors alike, cringe. It’s a necessary part of the business if you’re trying to find an agent or publisher. Query letters are the basis for trying to gain the attention of an industry professional. It’s a bit like speed dating, you have to get the awkward chat out of the way real fast to see if the relationship is worth pursuing. Therefore, the information is quick, concise, and very difficult to stand out.
And very few people would envy the agencies that have to sift through query letters every day they work. Imagine being an American Idol judge, but you are perpetually in a state of initial auditions. They’re searching for the one or two they can advance to the next round. However, while they move on to the next round with contestants, the auditions don’t stop. They never stop until they have their their maximum amount of clients and stop taking submissions.
In submitting my first novel, Current, I decided to bring my advertising agency experience to the submission process. I looked over the agency tirelessly, customized every package to cater to that agent in excruciating detail. It’s what you do when you are trying to acquire a new business client in advertising. You win them over. However, I came to realize over time that was a terrible Return On Investment (ROI).
If you’re unfamiliar with ROI, it’s a business comparison model in which you assess the amount of work, hours and money go into a specific facet of your business. You then see what you’re getting back in return. Business with successful ROI see a profit, a return on the time and efforts put forth. A negative ROI means you are losing both more time, money, and effort than its worth.
The reason my approach was terrible for ROI came to light when I assessed what I was getting back from agents.
About 40% of the responses weren’t even responses. They just never responded. That’s not uncommon. Many agencies have a “don’t contact us, we’ll contact you if we’re interested” approach. It’s because they don’t see responding as good ROI. Is it a little hurtful? Yes. Is it their business model that has made them successful? Yes.
55% of the rejections were form letters, in which it was a basic “we’re not interested” e-mail they send out to all the authors being rejected. The only personalization was the “Dear Mr. Fowler,” part. Again, that’s how they acquire ROI. They can’t write a personal rejection every time or it’s literally all they would do with their time.
The remaining 5% were personal rejections or request for more pages. While I’ve made it in the short story world, I’ve yet to reach the mountaintop regarding a full-length novel. Hope to remedy that soon along with all of you marvelous people enduring the exhausting process.
I was pouring 1-2 hours into each and every submission, determined that the ad agency new business approach would work. But the responses were almost entirely form rejections or being ignored. Therefore the time invested was not equal to the return. In fact, it was so far over that if it were a tangible retail location, we’d have been bleeding money because we’d spend $50,000 on marketing and have barely $5,000 to show for it. It’s not sustainable. So what is?
If the majority of your rejections are going to be no response or the only element personalized is your name, then think about how you can still exceed what you’re getting, but not exhaust your resources. In looking at the amazing list Chuck Sambuchino posts of successful query letters on Writer’s Digest, I saw something. A lot of the query letters had little customization for an agent. There was some, but not a lot. The customization was basically the agent’s name, and a sentence upfront personalized for them. That was it.
That’s a successful ROI. The rest describes the book, word count, key characters, the guts that all query letters need. Do the math. If you’re writing one customized sentence and writing the agents name, you are already doing at least twice more work than 95% of what the agents are undertaking, if not more. That’s accommodating your “client” without breaking the mental bank of your time and efforts. So read through query letters that are getting books sold, understand that too much customization and work won’t benefit you for how many agents and/or publishers you are going to have to court before getting the proverbial “yes.”
Comments? Questions? What do you think is a reasonable ROI on query letters and submissions? The conversation’s always live on Twitter @ThomasAFowler, use the hash-tag #WritersConquest. As always, keep checking my official website for the latest updates. Thanks so much for taking on the Writer’s Conquest.