Thoughts on Querying, Contests, and General Slush Aversion

I have thoughts, folks. Lots of thoughts about querying. And pitch contests. And this general feeling I've picked up on social media that newer writers are worried about this nebulous thing known as "the slush pile" and are looking for ways to to avoid being in it. Every week a new "agent" seems to pop onto the playing field, and each month there seems to be a new website to help writers "skip" the slush pile.

There's a lot going on right now in the querying world, and I have stuff to say about it. Apparently.

First, a little bit about me for those new to the blog that will, hopefully, lend some context to what I'm about to say.

I'm a writer. I do not have an agent. I recognize the value of having an agent and have been on the combined writing/querying journey trying to get one for a few years now. I queried my first novel in the fall of 2013. I learned a ton from that experience, most poignant of which was that I was not ready, my writing wasn't good enough yet, and that I needed to keep writing. I wrote a second novel and queried that starting the summer of 2014. Again, I learned a lot. I got a lot of requests, followed by many encouraging passes. I'd made it to the "nearly there" stage of writing that author Robin LaFevers talks about so eloquently on her blog.

While it was pretty crushing to reach that "magical 30% request rate" I'd heard so much about and still end up without an agent (though admittedly, there are still a few fulls out 8 months later), I used that time to follow Robin's advice, focus on craft, and really dig deep with my next novel. About two months ago, I sent out query letters for my third novel.

To be clear, I'm not here to talk about my personal querying process. I don't think it's generally a good idea to share the details of your querying process while you're living it. The world (aka social media) doesn't need to know who has rejected or requested what. I share all of the above to illustrate to the querying masses that I get it. I really do. I'm right down there in the query trenches with you. I've been researching the query process, researching agents, and reading advice blogs since before I queried that first novel, and I haven't stopped since. And doing all that reading and researching has illuminated some trends that I want to explore.

As a disclaimer, despite choosing to blog about this, I certainly don't consider myself an expert. Every writer's journey is unique, but between what I've learned and what I've watched friends go through, I do have some thoughts I hope are insightful enough to share. That said, I'm totally open to dialogue, so if you have thoughts, feel free to post a comment to offer a perspective I have not considered.

The query process is slow, but it is not broken.

Querying is stressful. It's often very slow (see above about having fulls out for 8+ months), but the process is not broken. It works. It's how many, many writers find their agents. I understand the stress and the total lack of power querying authors have to make things go any faster, but those feelings--as valid and frustrating as they are--do not mean the process doesn't work. Do great projects get skipped over? They do. I'm sure they do. But the sites popping up that are supposed to "fix" the query process are not the answer.

The most common "fix" I've seen pop up over and over again are websites that want writers to upload their pitches, claiming that agents will read them. The sites say you can get your work considered without you needing to research agents, craft a targeted "to query" list, and send out individual queries. I understand why this would be enticing for authors. Less work! Fewer rejection emails! One stop shopping for all your querying needs!

Not so much.

When I see these sites go up, I have two questions.

1 - Who's behind this website? How are they connected to publishing? Do they have any inside knowledge that agents will use this site?

2 - Will agents, who are super busy already with the hundreds (sometimes thousands!) of queries they already receive, not to mention doing all the important agent-type things like selling for their clients, putting out all sorts of fires, negotiating contracts, etc., actually even look at this site?

Question #2 is probably the most important. Will your pitch even be seen? The answer, as Victoria Strauss discussed over on Writer Beware, is a resounding NO. (Really, head over and read her full post. It goes into detail and shares agent responses to her question of whether they'd use it.) Agents do not have the time nor the inclination to browse those sites.

So, what's a writer to do?

From everything I've read and seen, your best bet is to query and query well. 

How do you query well?

  • Write the best book you can. Get beta feedback. Revise, revise, revise. 
  • Research agents so you target those who are most likely to be a good fit for your work
  • Read query guidelines and follow them! Do not ignore query guidelines or think they don't apply to you. Agents have guidelines to make sure they get everything they need to make an informed decision.
  • Query, nudge when appropriate, and write something else. Repeat as necessary. (See above about this being my third novel/third query experience.)

And remember, that slush pile so many people seem wary about? That's where agents are looking to find new clients. Query, get yourself in the slush, wait.

But querying is the woooooorst.

I agree. Querying sucks. It's stressful. It can drain you creatively. It feels like it takes forever (I have friends who've had fulls out for over a year, and I've had queries responded to after 8 months). It sucks to get rejections (and you will get rejections, no matter how awesome your book is--it will not be everyone's cup of tea), but the publishing industry is FULL of rejection. Querying is the perfect time to grow that thick skin needed to weather editor rejections and harsh reviews.

The best thing you can do is get yourself a support group of writers who are either currently in the query trenches or have survived to the other side. Better yet, get a group with both. Being able to complain about the query process in a private sphere is invaluable. (Reminder: it's probably a bad idea to discuss who just rejected your query/partial/full on twitter.)

But agents don't even respond to queries. I have to do something!

Yeah, the "no response means no" policy is probably the hardest part of the query process. I find it worse than "dear author" form rejections. Why? Because it allows for an endless loop of worrying. Did the agent see it and pass? Have they simply not gotten to it yet? Did it even get through? Did email gremlins eat it before the agent saw it???

Yeah, that's a fun stress.

Agent Janet Reid, whose blog is full of awesome query advice so I definitely recommend checking it out, talked about the no response policy here. That post is from 2011, and anecdotally it seems more and more agents are going that route. It sucks, but I don't really know of anything we can do about it. If anyone has any ideas on this, please share in the comments, because I really don't know.

Of Contests and Twitter Pitch Sessions

For context, I did participate in a couple of twitter pitch contests for my first two books but I opted not to do any contests or online pitches for my third novel. I never particularly liked the idea of publishing contests, but I think that's a personality thing more than anything inherently wrong with the contests themselves. Because there tends to be a peer aspect (other writers choosing who gets selected for the contest) it brought back too many "being last picked in gym class" and "being the awkward girl no one wants to dance with" memories for me to make participating as fun as it could be.

Benefits

For me, the biggest benefit of participating in things like #pitmad, #pitchmas, etc. was the social component. I met a ton of writers on twitter through participation in these contests, writers who I continue to talk with on a regular basis. Since writing is often a solitary pursuit, cultivating a community can be incredibly rewarding and helpful. I've learned a ton through conversations with other writers. I also find a lot of support there, too. 

I admittedly don't have any experience with the mentoring type contests (such as Pitch Wars) where a mentor critiques your work to help you improve your craft. I can see how those types of contests can have great value, but that value does depend on who, exactly, is participating as a mentor.

Considerations

Let's start with the issue of mentor quality in those critique contests. Again, I've never participated, but I know people who have. I've also looked into the contests a few times and considered participating. There are some traditionally published authors who participate as mentors. There are also writers who are agented but have not yet sold a project, and writers who have sold to small and medium presses. Basically, there are all sorts of writers who serve as mentors. 

My advice? Consider focusing on mentors who are where you want to be. Every writer has different goals. Some love the increased control of being with a small press. Some have more of a "Big 5 or Bust" mentality. It's up to you to decide what you want and to find the mentor who can best advise you on that path.

But remember that a publishing deal does not guarantee someone has a strong editorial eye. Writing and editing are different skills.

Unintended Outcomes?

I noticed two things during the March #pitmad that prompted the thought process that led to this post. I don't personally know the creator of #pitmad, but I assume the intention behind it was to help writers connect with agents. I'm not sure if the intent was to open closed doors (i.e. open access to agents who might otherwise be closed to queries), speed up the process, or be an alternative to querying, but I think some writers have come to think of these contests in those ways. Let's examine those ideas a bit.

Opening Doors

Do these contests open doors otherwise closed to writers? I think the answer to this is sometimes yes. I have seen agents hop on the #pitmad feed and say that they'll take queries from pitches they favorite, despite being closed to queries overall. So in that way, yes, these contests can open doors for some writers to some agents.

Speeding up the process

On this count...I've seen mixed results. I'm sure there are some agents who will jump ahead in their query list to read those queries that come in with #pitmad (or others. There are plenty of pitch contests, but #pitmad seems to be the most popular that I've seen) in the subject line. That said, I've also seen writers not hear back from pitch contest requests for months (as seen in the comments on agent profiles in QueryTracker). Either way, your query and sample pages need to do their job well or you'll still see the same rejection you would have gotten if you queried normally.

Alternative to querying? Better than querying?

Probably the most interesting thing I saw during the latest #pitmad were the agent posts that indicated what to do if they favorited your pitch. Having researched a ton of agents over the years, I know a lot of agents' query guidelines.

Want to know what agents requested writers send when they favorited a pitch?

You guessed it. Often exactly what they want you to send when querying normally. A few requested an additional chapter or 10 more pages than normal, but on the whole? Identical to their posted query guidelines.

So in this respect, I don't think a pitch contest gives you any kind of "leg up" in the querying process.

Does this mean there's no value to be had? Well, no. But I hesitate to say it's as big a step up a lot of writers think it is. Because if an agent doesn't favorite? Query them anyway. The feed is too full and too fast for an agent to see everything, and many agents don't participate at all. Besides, they only get 140 characters of your idea (less, actually, because you have to include the hashtag). Would you rather be judged on a 140 character pitch or a 250 word pitch?

This brings me to my biggest question about pitch contests, and I think it falls into this category of unintended outcomes:

Who benefits the most?

From what I can tell, many of these contests were created by writers for writers. I think it's awesome that writers want to reach back and help those who are starting out. But what I've seen from the past couple years of watching (and sometimes participating) in pitch contests is that writers are not the ones most often benefiting from these events.

Who benefits most often? Newer agents and smaller/start-up presses.

Disclaimer: I don't mean to say that writers get zero benefit. There are plenty of people who participate who get agents and then awesome book deals after these contests. I don't mean to discredit their accomplishments or the role these contests played in them. I'm trying to look at what groups are benefiting most proportionally.

Disclaimer 2: I also want to note that there's nothing inherently bad about newer agents or smaller presses. But just as there are good agents/small presses, there are not-so-good ones. Writers need to do their due diligence in researching and vetting these places/people. Some of the top agents today were brand new not all that long ago.

How new agents/publishers benefit

These contests flip who is approaching whom on the query front. Typically, writers send queries to the agents they want to work with, but with these contests, agents/publishers get to approach writers who have a pitch they find intriguing. New agents, who writers may not have come across during their search, have a chance to say, "Hey there! I'm here, and I think your idea sounds rad!" As a result, these agents and small presses receive submissions they may not have gotten otherwise.

I spoke with a friend of mine who runs acquisitions for a small press. She shared that the submissions to her press double or triple whenever there's a pitch contest on twitter that her staff participates in. That's not small potatoes!

Do writers see their rate of full/partial requests go up 2-3 times if they query regularly vs query after a favorite in a twitter contest? I don't know, but I doubt it. I'd love to see those numbers, though, if anyone has them--knowing of course this is going to be different from writer to writer.

Again, I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is probably not the outcome the creators of these contests had in mind.

Closing Thoughts

Publishing is a long journey. Writing takes time. Revising, querying, signing with an agent, revising again, subbing to publishers, revising again all take time. Patience is a tough but necessary skill for writers to hone and develop.

To the querying writers out there, I say this:

Participate in contests if they seem like fun, but don't worry if they don't go your way. You can still query. You should still query. And make sure you do your research before sending anyone materials.

The system isn't perfect, certainly, but please be wary of those sites that want you to upload your pitch for agent viewing. Agents aren't using them. They simply aren't.

Perhaps the best thing you can do as a writer seeking publication is to get good at doing research. Ask questions. Get involved in the online writing community. Read blogs by reputable agents.

Now you tell me. What are your thoughts on querying and pitch contests? Am I way off base? Happy to discuss and happy to learn.

-Isabel