54: Streamlining Queries & Submissions to be Inclusive
Updated: Jul 18, 2022
Howdy! I've done my fair share both of querying agents and submitting to small presses, and I always find it funny when they hit up social media to ask how they can be less ablest, more inclusive. Agents are a little better about streamlining their process than most of the small presses I've submitted to, but across the board, neither have been great.
For the record, I get that agents do an insane amount of work essentially for free. So, I'm not calling industry reps bad people for not making querying/submitting a simpler, standardized, process. I just also don't take anyone seriously who asks how they can improve the process but then refuses to implement those suggestions offered.
Right now, to find agents to query, I hop on querytracker.net, and search for agents by name. In the beginning, I literally went through all of the agencies labeled with a USA flag, then through their individual websites to see who was relevant for my work. Do you know how insane that is? Like yes, there are other websites. PublishersMarketplace.com can list an agent's wishlist. Cool. Except locating that page without a paid membership is difficult for the querying writer. I used to check AgentQuery.com but their information tended to be out of date, and now querytracker doesn't even link to them. Yes, twitter can be helpful but there are agents on twitter that aren't on querytracker, and vice versa. Likewise, I've managed to get ahold of digital copies of books professing to list agents active in recent years, and their manuscript wishlists. Those books also tend to be at least months out of date. Meanwhile, the beautiful user-friendly website, ManuscriptWishlist.com exists and most agents refuse to use it. It even lets writers search by genre!
There was recently a Twitter event which was supposed to bridge the gap between agents and writers because there is a growing enmity amongst writers towards agents, who are widely perceived as elitist gatekeepers. Everyone's read tweets or heard stories about the randomest reasons writers were rejected. For instance, one agent confessed to rejecting writers for emailing out of office hours. I'll never be able to find the tweet now, but after all the work just to pinpoint who is worth querying, so the writer isn't wasting the agent's time, then personalizing the query to meet that one agent's standards, and they're rejected over what time they sent the email? Then there are the agents who don't respond at all, which lately, seems like the majority.
So, first off, agents should make themselves and their wishlists as findable as possible if they are serious about not wanting to be ablest. That means putting their wishlist not just on their agency site (which some agents cannot even be bothered to do!), but also on ManuscriptWishlist.com. Writers shouldn't have to check a multiple websites per agent to see what they're looking for and how they want to receive that query.
My next big suggestion for agents, you know, if they really want to be inclusive, is to streamline the querying process. Every agent should be using querymanager.com or submittable.com, right off the bat. Then, setting the standard, the larger agencies need to all meet up, virtually since that's easy, and decide what they really need in a query. Obviously they want a letter, so great. Include that requirement. Then, I'd suggest everyone agree both to requiring a synopsis, and a set length for a partial manuscript. It could be one chapter or three or a set number of pages. I'd advise against demanding a set word count regarding the partial manuscript length required to query, because it's a lot more time consuming to search a manuscript for a word count cut off point, than it is to search by chapter headings or to scroll to a certain page number. Yet I have absolutely queried agents who demanded a word count. This is not saying writers don't need to meet the word count standards of their genre for their overall self-edited manuscript. Agents can ask for the bio paragraph, sure, but it's already in the average query letter. Agents need to stop with the cutesy questions about mood boards or theme songs or favorite super heroes. They're not bad, but they require excess personalization that can feel like a lot on top of the actual necessary requirements for querying. Agents needs to decide on a file type. Do they all want the text copied and pasted into the box on submittable or do the agents want a docx file? I don't care which they prefer but it should be put to a vote and stuck to. These are simple actions agents can take if they want to be as inclusive as possible.
Now, for partial manuscript requests or full manuscript requests, or for edits, agents should be expected to be pickier. But for just cold queries, Sticking to a baseline format relieves much of the anxiety involved with querying. It saves time and energy and is frankly, considerate.
With regards to submitting to small presses, my complaints are about the same issues but so much worse. I've seen small presses ask to have cold submissions formatted in text to meet their standards, and I'm not talking about easy bulk changes to make. I'm talking massive amounts of menial editing within documents, and for what? Any small press asking for a marketing plan, demanding excessive editing that cannot be done by merely changing settings in a word file, are ablest. Point blank. This is not about spell checking. Every writer should be editing to the best for their ability before they start submitting, but if a press demands the manuscript not have a space between paragraphs, or anything else throughout that cannot be easily changed in settings, it should not be a requirement for a cold submission. One small press had a box writers had to check promising not to mention any brand names in their manuscript before the document could be submitted. Seriously? That's pedantic as hell. That's a fix that could easily come about after the manuscript is submitted, if accepted. To top it off, they'd only opened their submission window for a single day. One. Day. To go through a manuscript and check for any brand names? How about no? I submitted to them, not the manuscript that I thought was the best fit, but the one with the least amount of brand names needing last minute removal, because they were not the only press I was submitting to that day and I have a life beyond writing. Asking a ton of uber specific questions just creates homework for the writer, which may be a useful tool for weeding out authors who aren't set on only submitting to that one small press, but it discourages anyone with a tight schedule from trying. Obviously, entry fees and submission fees are likewise limiting. I've also come across a small press that only accepts printed, mailed, submissions. What decade is it? Do they hate the earth? I spent $175 one month submitting a manuscript to relevant small presses and contests. I'm privileged to have had the excess funds where that was an option for me. It isn't for many writers.
I think small presses are less gung-ho, over social media, about inclusivity, so I don't expect any to make these changes, but I suggest basically the same points I made for agents. Small presses should make their wishlists and submission windows as findable as possible. Small presses should host a virtual meeting and decide how they want submissions to look, so it's consistent from one small press to the next. They need to decide if they want the text copied and pasted into a box or if they want a docx file, and they need to decide if they all want a cover page, and what they cover page must include. If they want the page count to begin on the second page, they should both state that, make it consistent from press to press, and include instructions for those less knowledgeable about dealing with Microsoft Word since not everyone types in the same program. Acquisition editors need to agree to a set amount of necessary recent comparison titles and all stick with that number. Anywhere from 2-5 is fine, but make it consistent. I suggest sticking with Duotrope for the wishlist and Submittable for the submissions, but frankly, I don't care where/how they want their submissions as long as it's consistent.
I do not expect agents or small presses to streamline the querying/submissions process but they could if they wanted to and choose not to. I know this turned into a rant, but it was honestly tame. I could've gone on for way longer in how rude some of these small presses come off, and I'm sure I'll be adding more specific examples to this post in the coming months.
If you are an agent or an acquiring editor with a small press and you actually streamlined your submissions process to be as inclusive as possible, thank you. I hope your clients/authors/whatever appreciate you. Because jumping through a billion different hoops with each new manuscript is exhausting. There are so many reasons a writer shouldn't have to revolve their whole day around a small press submission or a whole half hour over a query. Just like it's disrespectful to bulk query agents or bulk submit to presses an irrelevant manuscript, with no regards to their actual wishlists, it is disrespectful and ablest of gatekeepers to turn querying or submitting into an ordeal.
I hope any of this was helpful to you, or at least cathartic to see someone else is frustrated too. I drop a new blog post every Monday. Toodles.