Pub Rants

Following Directions

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This rant came on yesterday.

It clearly states on my website (and in every listing imaginable where my agency might be featured) that I only take queries by email.

I just don’t want to open up a letter and deal with the recycling. Not to mention the cost of printing out my standard rejection letter in terms of paper and ink. And then envelopes have to be stuffed and mailed.

Gee, I’m getting cranky just writing this.

Invariably, there are quite a few people who can’t seem to follow this simple direction. Queries by email only.

Once every couple of months, when the stack gets too high, I sit down and open them all up and give them a cursory glance. For the most part, if you can’t follow directions, I’m really not all that interested in signing you as a possible client so it will have to be an AMAZING query letter for me to not to send the reject letter. Doesn’t happen often.

But I’m so dang nice, I can’t quite bring myself to just pitch them. I usually have my assistant handle them (and I don’t even look at them) but she’s been busy reading the partials inbox.

So last night I tackled them.

It was also my turn to host book club. If you’re curious, the book we discussed was THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY by Erik Larson. Our next book will be THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P. Jones.

The gals came over about 5 p.m. but arrived early. There I am, sprawled on the floor of my living room with paper queries all around me.

Immediately they sprang into action (gosh I love these gals). One friend opened the letters, one folded the response letters, and the last friend stuffed the envelopes and got them ready to mail.

What did I do? Well, I read the query letters aloud so I could share it with them.

And then it hit me why I should share this story with you guys on my blog. Have you run your query letter through the read aloud test?

Let me tell you. It was quite revealing. Some of the queries had my book club members in tears laughing—and it wasn’t because it was a query for a humor project or a comic novel.

Some of the letters were just that poorly written or they had really outrageous storylines that became extremely apparent when read aloud.

My book club was so entertained (and probably not in the way you, as writers, would prefer); they offered to come over one night in the future just to do the queries with me.

Moral of the story?

If you follow directions and just query by email, guess who reads them? Me. And I may chortle at a few of them but I rarely read them aloud to others for their listening pleasure.

31 Responses

  1. Faith said:

    ROFL! Thank God I follow directions!

    I read THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. I love history of any sort, but this novel bugged me. I love the parts where the protagonist performs his strange and bizarre rituals, building his weird home/store, etc, but the part where the city officials build the park was as dry as a popcorn fart. I had a tough time getting through it (having read it over a year ago) and don’t really recall anything other than the protag’s side of the story.

  2. Gayle said:

    Why would anyone send a paper query when e-mail queries are not only allowed but encouraged? Sheesh. 🙂

    I loved THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY and I had the opposite reaction. The serial killer parts bothered me a little (still a riveting read) because there was more “creative” than “nonfiction” in those sections of what is supposed to be a “creative/literary nonfiction” work. To Larson’s credit he explains everything he did in the endnotes, but I would have appreciated a disclaimer at the beginning.

    I thought all the details about the Chicago World Fair were fascinating and took great pleasure in educating my family about how Chicago became to be known as the “windy city,” the origin of the Ferris wheel and all sorts of other tidbits.

    I highly recommend the book.

  3. Ewoh Nairb said:

    I can see where someone might be tempted to mail in a query if they did not have an email address… but the fact is that it is so easy to get a free web based email address today that it can only be out of a sheer lack of motivation or blissful ignorance that someone would choose to not follow your directions.

    Of course, my opinion could be wrong. Based on the remarks posted about the reactions to the query letters, I would say that I am not too far off the mark. It almost seems like some people really don’t want to get published. They are obviously not interested enough to take the time to abide by your request, or even see if you have a preference.

    Thank you for the excellent suggestion of reading the query letter aloud. Actually, we as writers should read our whole manuscript aloud so that we can get a sense of how it lands with the reader. We know what it _should_ sound like in our own heads. But the only way to make sure is to just read it aloud. The book “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman suggests the same thing. His point is to check for the ‘sound’ of your writing, but I think it works well for Agent Kristen’s suggestion too. Over the years of writing poetry I have found that reading aloud, especially at a poetry reading, will give you a really good sense of what you have written and how sounds to someone other than yourself. It can really tighten up your writing as well. That is never a bad thing.

  4. December Quinn said:

    Oh, my.

    I don’t know why anyone would send a paper query when email is asked for, either-perhaps they thought they would get more of your time/attention? Although they probably didn’t imagine it would happen the way it did!

    I really liked THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, and I didn’t think there were any slow bits, really. But then, I’m a history buff, so I enjoyed both “parts” of the book for different reasons.

  5. Anonymous said:

    This reminds me of advice given to me by an agent at a social event. We had been chatting when another writer approached and plopped a full manuscript box in front of him. She walked away saying, “Let me know what you think.” Once she was gone, he looked at me and said, “ALWAYS follow directions.” I already knew his MO, e-query with a synopsis and wait for further instructions. Unsolicited manuscripts are “recycled.” He recycled her manuscript before we left the party.

  6. Anonymous said:

    As a Chicagoan and a history nut, I loved DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY.

    The serial killer parts and the parts concerning the design of the park (which led Chicago to develop the beautiful and unspoiled waterfront that I enjoy today) were both equally fascinating.

  7. Anonymous said:

    I followed directions and sent an e-query on 1/30 but haven’t heard anything yet. Anyone else at the four-week mark without a response from Agent Kristin?

  8. Eileen said:

    I also loved Devil in the White City. The comparision of this man with his facade slowly falling apart and the building of this gilded faux city were really interesting to me.

    Maybe agents can start having query parties like Tupperware events. Games, treats…

  9. Amra Pajalic said:

    Reading aloud-best advice. I don’t know how many times I’ve read my short story MS on screen or paper and interjected a word that isn’t there and only when reading aloud do I discover it.

    It’s pretty daunting though with a full novel MS but I’ll be giving it a pretty good shot.

  10. Duke_of_Earle said:

    To: Anonymous who followed directions…

    I emailed my query to Agent Kristin on 1/23, and had my sweet, polite, but heartbreaking “No thanks” back on 2/6.

    I’m still recovering. They say they’ll let me cut back on the meds and begin interacting with the public in about three more weeks. Better luck to you!


  11. Adam Selzer said:

    Hi, Kristin! How’ve you been? Found this link on a friend’s blog; I’ve been working with Firebrand for the last several months.

    I actually just read Devil in the White City – it was one of the things I read in preparation for my new job as a ghost tour guide here in Chicago. Questions about HH Holmes and his “castle” come up all the time. Personally, though, I was even more fascinated by the “park design” parts. Politics and city planning in Chicago are terribly entertaining.

  12. Simon Haynes said:

    Re: reading aloud. Try a text-to-speech program. Yes, they sound robotic but you can still hear the words and it’s like having someone else read to you, which avoids the problem of familiarity.

    You can download a free text-to-speech prog for Windows here (Disclaimer: it’s my website, but then I also wrote the software.)

  13. Folklore Fanatic said:

    I’m kind of curious as to what stupid things people include or mess up, as I have to take you at your word that slush piles are actually as bad as everyone says they are. 🙂

  14. Tempest said:

    I have to admit, I sometimes share choice sections from my slush pile with friends. If I had to deal with paper submissions, I might do it more.

    People who don’t follow guidelines bug the crap out of me. And 99 times out of 100 if they haven’t followed simple formatting rules they can’t write very well, either. I’m now at the point where I reject people on that basis alone, since our guidelines are online, free, and right next to the email address they had to click to send us the submission in the first place. arg.

  15. Glenda Larke said:

    I read all my MSS out aloud at least once before submission – and the number of mistakes I find is startling. Haven’t actually fallen apart laughing. Yet.

  16. The Beautiful Schoolmarm said:

    It reminds me of when my old English dept. would take a day and read all 650 student writing assessments. Some were horrid, some hilarious (for all the wrong reasons) and some were actually touching. Donuts, coffee and lunch out were must-haves for surviving the day.

  17. Dana Y. T. Lin said:

    Yes, reading out loud helps. It also helps to read your YA novel to your teenage niece and nephew. Seeing the reactions on their faces has helped my editing tremendously!

  18. Cindy Procter-King said:

    I take it you also don’t want phone queries–for obvious reasons. However, wonder if someone has a contract offer on the table and is interested in your agency? Is it okay to phone in that case or do you still want email queries?

    I realize you don’t answer questions from your blog, but this might be something to address in another post.


  19. Anonymous said:

    The one thing I always felt you had going for you (or your persona) as an agent Kristin was your impeccable professionalism, but after reading this blog post, I just want to cringe. And I certainly don’t want to send you a query letter by email or any other way…

    Maybe you and your book club pals did have a good laugh at the writers who queried you by snail mail, but is there any real reason to let them (and the rest of the universe) know? Except you’re just feeling PMSy or something?

    Perhaps some writers don’t have access to a computer to email you. There was a book w/in the last few years, I think called Travels With Lisbeth, that arrived at its publisher or agent handwritten because the author was a homeless man and wrote of his experiences living on the streets of San Francisco with his dog. It’s done quite nicely I think. The author is no longer homeless anyway.

    Yeah, it’s a pain in the neck for YOU to read and reply to a snail mail query – but there may yet be gold in them thar hills… And a little compassion for your fellow human beings would be a nice touch too.


  20. December Quinn said:

    Actually, anon, according to the writer of Travels with Lizbeth, Lars Eighner, he was a) already a writer, b)wrote the book on a typewriter, and c) had a friend who recommended the work to another friend who published a literary magazine. From there it was published in Harper’s, and from there he was contacted by publishers.

    Perhaps the writers who don’t have access to email should query other agents, who don’t specifically request email only. Perhaps when you submit work to an agent they have the right to wipe their bottoms with it if they want. Perhaps in not mentioning names or titles, or any identifying details at all, Kristin has been quite professional, and perhaps if the thought of your sub being shared with an agent’s close friends for a giggle or comment bothers you so much you’ve chosen the wrong profession.

    Sorry…but I don’t think this was an unprofessional post at all.

  21. The Beautiful Schoolmarm said:

    Considering that every Tom, Dick, Harry and teenager can go to the public library and get a free e-mail account from Yahoo! or Hotmail or Excite, I don’t find the “author doesn’t have an e-mail address” as a very good excuse.

    Those who can’t follow clearly posted rules (and hers are) set themselves up for both failure and mockery.

  22. Anonymous said:

    My point was (December and Becca) for every “rule” there’s an exception… except for this one.
    Kindness and compassion are never inappropriate.

    Writers are not automatons, they’re artists. We’re all doing the best we can, even those who snail in their queries. Kristin always has the option of tossing them out if she really doesn’t want to read them.

    The message (mixed) I take away from this post is – if you snail her a query, she’ll ridicule you with her friends BUT if your query is good, regardless of making fun of you with her pals, she’ll request the manuscript. So at the end of the day, isn’t that all what we care about?

  23. Delan said:

    I had the same reaction, Anon. In every business, people who work together share war stories and make fun of others behind their backs. No surprises there. I’m disappointed that she’d post about it here, though. Unfortunately, it reminds me of that discussion on Miss Snark’s blog a few weeks ago about the intern at MacAdam/Cage who was ridiculing submissions he’d read at work.

    Ms. Nelson was fourth on the list of agents I planned to query this year. If none of the first three agents were interested in my manuscript, she probably would’ve gotten my query sometime in May.

    I’ve changed my mind.

  24. December Quinn said:


    Again, if you’re so sensitive as to think agents don’t so this sort of thing, or shouldn’t, and they shouldn’t write about it in their own blogs in which they can say whatever they please, you’re in the wrong business.

    What’s unprofessional is failing to follow clear submission instructions. Not using a story to illustrate a very helpful tip-read queries aloud before submitting. She wasn’t telling us this to point out how cool she is, but to help us write good queries.

  25. Anonymous said:

    I don’t think it’s half so unprofessional as people who can’t be bothered to follow the rules of the business. Is it so hard? Even if you’re homeless, libraries have free internet, (postage isn’t free)and where are you having your mail delivered to, if you’re querying snail mail?

    It’s no different than clerks refusing to wait on customers who won’t queue up.

  26. Bernita said:

    It’s always possible some of the benighted were following the advice of some writing gurus or the other – such as the one who suggested recently omitting SASEs in written queries.

  27. Anonymous said:

    That’s great when they only ask for an e-mail query. (I live out of the country and it would take at least 2 weeks for it to arrive via snail mail)The only issue I have is that everyone and their great aunt is probably sending e-mail queries (especially if that’s the only ones they accept). I do believe at times, just to empty an agents e-mail box of queries, many good stories are passed over.