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Querying Agents

"Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil-but there is no way around them."

-Isaac Asimov

"I love my rejection slips. They show me I try."

-Sylvia Plath

Rejection stings. You've worked countless hundreds of hours to give birth to the best story you can write (and, if you haven't, get to it before you solicit agents and publishers). You have careful crafted a query letter that makes your book sound like the second coming of Harry Potter as written by Hemingway by way of David Sedaris. Then, all you receive in reply are form letters that do not respect you enough to address you as anything other than "author" or, worse, "applicant." It is more grating than adolescent, romantic reiterations of "it's not you, it's me."

Rejection is an essential part of the process that one has to accept before starting the journey. When I first submitted We Shadows to publishers, I received so many rejections that I covered the refrigerator door with them, since they stood as proof positive I continued to try in the face of uncertain odds. The woman I then lived with found this morbid and insisted I stop.

Most publishers and agents ignored me. Of those that responded prior to Double Dragon Publishing, only one wanted to see the completed manuscript. Once they did, I did not hear from them again, unless it might be said that finding a contemporaneous copy of my book on a pirate site years later might be said to be a reply.

Here is the closest, tongue-in-cheek approximation of the letter you will see dozens of times before finding your agent, with my assumed subtext in brackets. I did my best to match up the overlapping sentences of a dozen rejection letters that have graced my inbox.

Dear Author,

It is with kind thanks that we respond to your query [that you sent too long ago to remember]. Allow us to apologize for the impersonal nature of this standard form letter, but the sheer volume of letters we receive daily makes it impossible for us to do anything else [than sending this letter in unread reply].
Thank you for the opportunity to consider your work, but we are sorry to say that we do not think this material would be right for our agency, and therefore we would not make your most effective advocates. We represent a very full list of writers, and must be highly selective in adding to it. We realize that it is difficult to judge your potential from a query alone, [more so when we simply scanned for the titles of currently popular novels and/or authors and/or mythical creatures]; nevertheless, please know that we give [glancing] attention to every letter, outline and writing sample that we receive [before sending this letter 99.999% of the time]. We regret that we will not be offering to review your work further at this time [or ever]. [Please also know that the aforementioned "we" is not a person we pay, but instead an increasingly embittered intern or preadolescent relation.] Because this business is so subjective and opinions vary widely, we recommend that you pursue other agents. After all, it just takes one "yes" [from an agent's tween daughter] to find the right match.
We strongly encourage you to keep submitting elsewhere, in the hopes of finding an agent who will be an enthusiastic champion for you and your work [because we certainly are not]. We thank you, once again, for letting us consider your materials.
Good luck with all your publishing endeavors and keep writing. Don't give up!

[An Agent Who Has Already Emptied the Recycling Bin]

Despite how vexing these letters become, isn't it better to know where one stands? At least I know that the agencies that rejected me are off the menu and I can focus my energies of those who might be a bit more open. It's no use stewing over someone who turned you down for a date.

I feel almost disloyal in querying agents because I like my publisher. They have been nothing but good to me. When I combed through a contract for a potential SyFy Channel series that never came to fruition, they did not bat an eye at my pages of requested changes and amendments. However, I have to admit to myself that I am not the best person to manage all aspects of my writing career, however arguably competent of a job I have done so far. There are markets that are closed off to the unagented, venues that won't host readings because I asked them instead of a stranger in business casual.

I respect what legitimate agents do. Agents have the access and resources to bring qualified and talented authors to the forefront. Yes, some use it to bring dreck there instead of your opus, I hear many complain. Absolutely true, but I prefer to think that the sales of that popular tripe might allow them to be slightly more daring when it comes to more unusual projects. I don't know this is true, mind you. I just prefer to think it.

To get a more informed perspective on the process, I broached the subject with Kimberly Sabatini, an author I know who has an agent she seems to love. She is quick to mention that, over the course of a year and a half, she queried thirty-three other agents via QueryTracker before she hit upon the one who saw the promise in her book, Touching the Surface.

Among her suggestions are that prospective authors should:

"As a joke I tell kids at school visits that finding an agent is about as easy as finding a unicorn... Give yourself room to remember that the process has a lot in common with dating-it's as much about luck, timing and the right fit as it is about the work. Make the mental decision that you love what you do and you're in it for the long haul, no matter what comes. This gives you some space and perspective to let things happen in their own good time."

Some essential links (feel free to share your own in the comments):

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.

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