Ask The Agent: When Should You Stop Querying?

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Navigating the rough terrain of today’s publishing industry shouldn’t be a solo event. This week in Ask the Agent, I’ll explore and dissect one of the industry’s mysteries, straight from the shoulder.


Question from Tiffany

What do you think is the "right" amount of rejections? We all expect to get a good bit of them, but it's hard to tell when you're getting rejections because the project just doesn't match the agent, or because the project needs work (or just sucks!). How do we know when we should stop querying and either revise or switch projects?

I love this question! As agents, we deal with these questions as well. When we send projects to editors, we have to develop a keen eye and a shrewd intuition in order to determine if the project needs revisions, or just needs to keep being submitted until it finds a home. So trust me, we all feel your confusion.

Your goal as a querying writer is to also develop a keen eye and a shrewd intuition. The sooner the better. Hopefully my advice below will aid you in that process. 

The first thing you need to realize is that there is no magic number of rejections at which point you throw in the towel. 

This is a classic case of quantity vs. quality. It’s not about the quantity of your rejections, it’s about the quality. Some things you want to look for:

Are your getting mass amounts of form rejections?

If this is the case, you are probably not sending your query to the right agents for your project. If the majority of your rejections do not indicate that the agent has read past the query (i.e., no personalized feedback on the subject matter, etc.) you have to consider the fact that you may be sending your query to agents who either represent different genres than your manuscript or have no interest in the subject matter. Agents are fairly good about listing the subject matter they are interested in, so make sure to double check that on their websites.

Are you getting a lot of the same feedback?

If the rejections are starting to feel familiar to you, meaning you are starting to see a lot of the same feedback from agents across the board, that’s your sign that revisions probably need to be made. Two or three rejections with similar feedback, in a pile of many rejections, might just be coincidental. But five, seven, eight rejections with the same feedback? You definitely want to look over those areas of your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb and prepare to make some changes. At some point, you have to set aside your writer’s ego (we all have it!) and listen to the industry professionals.

Are you getting rejections with contradicting feedback?

This is the worst! This is always so hard to suss out. You may get three rejections telling you that your protagonist is too abrasive, two rejections telling you that your protagonist is too soft-spoken, and four rejections telling you that they think your protagonist is the biggest strength of your story. In my opinion, this is a call for more opinions. You keep submitting and wait to see where other’s thoughts will fall.

You asked specifically: when you should stop querying? My advice to that is always query in rounds. Small rounds of about 8-10 agents. This way, you could possibly query forever (whether that is a positive or negative thing is for you to decide). You may, over the course of time, change things in your manuscript. What you are querying months from now may be very different than what you are querying today. But you can continue to query it as long as you are making positive progress. You’ll only want to stop querying when things start to feel incredibly stagnant, like you are making no progress and you feel it is time to shelve the project.

With each round of querying, analyze the data. Look at the three points I made above and decide whether you should stop and revise with help from agent feedback, conduct better research on your next round of agents, or just push on… continue until you find the right agent for you. It may be tempting to send your query to 20 or 30 agents right off the bat, but if there is a fundamental flaw in your query or manuscript, which you could have changed with the help of your first few rejections, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot with those other agents. So…

  • 1. Query in rounds of about 8-10 agents
  • 2. Analyze the data from the rejections after each round
  • 3. Decide what direction the data is pointing (stop & revise, different query approach, or continue submitting as usual) and follow that direction
  • 4. Always set your writer’s ego aside (not only be willing to make changes but be ready to recognize when you need to make changes)

Pro tip: There is no magic number. You have to go with your instinct and often times read between the lines of different types of rejection letters in order to determine where you are going wrong.

Thank you for all the wonderful questions this week. "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch" -Garrison Keillor


Have a question about the publishing industry? I would love to discuss the specifics of researching and querying agents, finding the right agent, proper publishing etiquette, how to go from idea to completed manuscript, marketing yourself, social media for writers, and anything else you can think of! I am now taking questions for Issue 16 of Ask the Agent. Issue 16 answers will be posted Monday, February 4th.

Bree Ogden

Column by Bree Ogden

Bree Ogden is a literary agent at D4EO Literary Agency, a comics columnist and reviewer at Bloody Disgusting, and a judge for the Ghastly Awards, which recognizes the best of the best in horror comics.

When she's not agenting, compulsively watching horror films, reading comics, hiding out at the Pacific Science Center, or killing off her bee colonies, she serves as the managing editor of the macabre children's magazine Underneath the Juniper Tree, which she co-founded in 2011 with artist Rebekah Joy Plett.

Bree teaches query craft and graphic novel scripting at LitReactor. Unless you are an exciting new piece of taxidermy, she'll probably never let you in her room. You can find her at agentbree.wordpress.com.

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Comments

Tiffany Turpin Johnson's picture
Tiffany Turpin ... from Atlanta is reading Go Ask Alice January 21, 2013 - 2:38pm

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer this question! This is something I'm sure all writers struggle to figure out, and it's reassuring to hear that you guys have to deal with it too. :)