Wednesday, 27 June 2012

DEAR CRABBIT: how long till I can follow up a query?

Hooray! The very first Dear Crabbit post! (If you don't know what I'm talking about, see this post from last week, in which I announced a change of direction for this blog.) From now on, most posts here will answer YOUR questions, in an agony auntish sort of way.

So, to kick off, you asked:

"I find it so frustrating when submitting work that it takes so long for people to get back to me - if indeed they get back at all. I know agents and editors are really busy people and have lots of manuscripts to consider, but what I would like to know is whether it is acceptable to follow up a submission when you haven't heard for months, and if so, what is the best way of doing it and after what length of time."

Let me first tackle the "I know agents and editors are really busy people and have lots of manuscripts to consider" bit, although I do realise you weren't asking that! I just want to make it absolutely clear.

It's not just that they are really busy and have lots of MSS to consider. It's also that considering an MS takes a long time; giving the feedback for a rejection takes a long time (which is why they usually don't do that) and can be fraught with problems. They may also have to consult someone else - an editor, for example, no longer makes the decision herself; she has to consult with other editors and then, if they all think it's a good idea, take it forward to an acquisitions meeting.

Only a small fraction of an agent or editor's time can be taken up on reading submissions.

But, back to the important questions. First, "whether it is acceptable to follow up a submission when you haven't heard for months" - absolutely.

Second, "after what length of time." It is acceptable to follow up after 4-6 weeks. I'd opt for six. (Unless the submission guidelines for that agent/publisher specifically specify another length of time.) Sometimes, an agency will say "If you haven't heard from us in eight weeks, assume it's a No." I think this is a little unfair because it IS possible that the thing went missing, whether posted or emailed, so I still think it's legitimate to follow up, politely, briefly, and making it very easy for the agent to reply and to know that you will not start being irritating.

Third, "what is the best way of doing it"?

An email, which needs to have the following info: your name, the date you submitted your work, the title of the work, whether you submitted by email or post.

If you submitted by email, I strongly suggest you have your original email below the reminder, so that the agent can easily scroll down and doesn't have to go searching.

An acceptable wording might be, "Sorry to bother you but I'm just checking that you received the synopsis and first three chapters of my YA historical novel, FLESHMARKET, which I emailed on June 3rd. I also know how busy agents are and I realise that it can take longer than six weeks but I just wondered what the situation was. I very much hope that you are interested but if you aren't, I would like to be able to try elsewhere."

It isn't annoying or pushy. It's perfectly reasonable. I also know that the "checking you've received" thing is a bit disingenuous, but it's very human! And emails do go missing.

There are many similar forms of wording that would work. Basically, you're just giving a little nudge without pressurising.

I think it's very important for writers to realise that agents and editors are not ogres or unreasonable. They know how much you want to be published; they know how stressful it is. There is no way that they will think less of you for sending a polite, professional and friendly email.


I have quite a few Dear Crabbit questions from you guys already. Keep them coming! See the Dear Crabbit page above.


Sally Zigmond said...

After having waited 8 weeks from a reply from an agent to my initial query email I politely asked for an update (as you suggested along with with the previous email).

She replied within two hours to say she hadn't received the initial email but having now looked at my query she did not wish to take things further.

I sometimes think it's better to live in hopeful ignorance!

Lesley said...

I just wanted to add that it might take a little time for an agent to respond to your query about your query. I'm an intern at an agency and when we do get a follow-up email, I have to contact the other interns to find out who (if anyone) dealt with the original query so that we can trace it.

I agree it's unreasonable for people to use the "if you don't hear from u in X weeks, assume it's a no." Unfortunately, it looks like that's starting to become more common, especially when job-hunting. Sigh. How long does it really take to write a quick reply? I bet most agents have a form rejection that they could send in seconds.

Nick Green said...

Heck, I've waited that long to hear from people who already represent / publish me!

Follow-ups can definitely pay off. My first publisher was one I'd written off completely, as they'd had my book for half a year at least. It turned out they hadn't even glanced at it.

Anonymous said...

I'm starting to suspect that this side of the business is erring on the side of unprofessional. However, before I launch into a negative criticism of the process, I'd like to check my facts…

Is there any concept of a difference between a response to a submission and the result of a submission? By this I mean:

Response: An acknowledgement that the submission has been received. Probably nothing more but perhaps some expectation of processing time might also be given.

Result: The actual decision. Your manuscript has been accepted, though, of course, further work may be required; or it has been rejected.

Most other businesses I've come across have both. Certainly the more professional ones do. It could be a long time before you get a result, but a speedy response is polite and good business practise.

Thoughts? I'd like to hear people's experiences on this one, as I've submitted very little myself.

DanielB said...

The problem as well is not so much that they are busy people but the hierarchy of how they deal with work. An agent's first priority will be to the current work of her established clients (which can still require a lot of work after publication - overseas rights, TV & radio, etc.). Then it will be the newer, as yet unsold work of her established clients. (Oh, yes - we published folks still get rejected too!) Then in the pecking order comes the new work of new clients they've just taken on. So new work by speculative clients is always going to be bottom of the pile. Having said that, all good agents are constantly on the hunt for new work and new voices.

Nicola makes a good point about feedback on the MS taking a lot of effort. It's also worth saying that, sometimes, they won't send it because they don't want to create the impression of a dialogue where they don't desire one (i.e., if they know the work is totally unsuitable). Otherwise, the same unsuitable work will then come winging back a few weeks later with minor changes and the author may not take kindly to rejection again: "But you said it would work if I cut out some of the minor characters! I have!!" (Apologies, Nicola, that's a minor diversion from the question - but one which I hope people will still find relevant and useful!)

Nicola Morgan said...

DanielB - don't apologise: I was actually about to come along and say some of that in response to several comments, so thank you!

Captain Black - I understand what your saying and your disapproval of a failure to respond at all is quite understandable and justifiable. However, you're hoping for an ideal world, a world in which every writer behaves in a sensible way and every agent has time and systems and manpower to treat every writer decently. The thing is that, as Dan says, any dialogue takes time and can be unhelpful (to the agent). The agent replying by saying "Received - will be in touch" is likely to generate a reply from the writer. Every second counts when you're busy. I get driven demented by the pure admin aspect of emails - the need to make a note of when I said I'd reply, for example, the need to look back in correspondence to see exactly what was said and when. And i have to admit that nowadays I simply can't reply to everything. (I know I'm not an agent, but I'm just saying.)

So, (still to Captain B!), the answer is that response or result, the same applies: you should get a speedy reply but if you don't you can follow up. You may not get a reply at all. You can and indeed probably will be really annoyed at not getting a proper reply at a reasonable time, but it's not going to change anything. It's an imperfect world. I do agree that some people behave unprofessionally but I'm afraid that a slow or absent response is nothing compared with the outrageous rudeness of some writers to some agents. (Which i agree is not a reason for agents to be rude or unprofessional.)

Derek said...

My fastest response by email was a matter of minutes. And my slowest, also by email, was a year and a quarter. I think there are some great points on this post and the comments that follow. Ultimately, writing is a profession so the best approach is 'do as you would be done by'.

Dan Holloway said...

Nice to hear that you don't rule it out altogether. When I was submitting, it was back in the days when you mainly did it by post. I submitted to my dream agent and heard nothing for weeks, not even the prepaid acknowledgement postcard. I agonised because I didn't want to appear pushy but eventually sent another quey with an apology and "I hope you don't think I'm being pushy" note - I got an e-mail asking for the full the next evening - they had never received the first sub - things *do* go missing.

Jean Atkin said...

Very helpful post. It occurred to me only this morning that I must chase up some stuff that's been 'out there' for too long.

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan Holloway and Nick - hooray! And my point exactly. which is why "assume it's a no" is unreasonable.

And Nick, re not hearing back from one's own agent - indeed! Some aspiring writers think that once we're published it's all plain sailing. If only! I think it's quite hard for some people to understand just how time-consuming many aspects of an agent's job are. Many hours to read on MS, and there may be more urgent ones than ours at any given time.

Jean - go for it!

Sally - I sympathise, but I'm afraid I can't agree. (Though you possibly had your tongue in cheek.) Yes, I know it's a horrible moment when we get a rejection, but the way I think about it is that the book has been rejected hours/days before we get the message, and during that time the book was going nowhere, whereas, as soon as we KNOW, weou can do something. And I like being able to DO something :)

Anonymous said...

Given what's been said here, I fail to see how the submissions aspect of the business can be considered professional in its current state. How hard would it be for agents and publishers to set up a code of conduct (for both themselves and their prospective clients) and to communicate this to all concerned, say via their guidelines? The whole process seems unduly crippled, due to a few bad apples. If they don't want to engage in difficult "dialogue" with the authors, then they simply need to state this in their information.

I mean, who's in control here? In what other area of commerce would you expect the policy to effectively be dictated by a minority of customers who don't behave perfectly?

Not an ideal world, no, but surely there's room for improvement.

Jaxbee said...

Thank you, Nicola. I have two outstanding submissions from January and February which I had written off sometime around May and tried elsewhere (still waiting, but I can see from your post that that's fair enough!). Guess who I'll be emailing first thing in the morning - thank you! Invaluable as ever.

Nicola Morgan said...

Captain Black - I sense and understand your frustration. But you say "How hard would it be for agents and publishers to set up a code of conduct (for both themselves and their prospective clients) and to communicate this to all concerned, say via their guidelines?" They do have a code of conduct for many aspects (to be honest, more fundamental and, in my view, serious, aspects) but I'm not sure why, as independent companies or individuals, they should commit to answering in a certain way or a certain time. What would be in it for them to do this? Don't get me wrong, I wish they *would*, but realistically I don't see why they should or would. I, too, believe in politeness and professionalism, but sometimes we expect too much, I think. Who's in control? I think that agents and good, clued-up, sensible writers who behave tactically are in control. Mostly!