The 75% Rule

Submission protocol, query etiquette, and strategies that work
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Leonidas
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The 75% Rule

Post by Leonidas » August 1st, 2010, 12:12 am

I was reading a blog post by Jane Freidman and she mentioned the 75% rule when querying. Basically, if your query doesn't receive a response that is 75% positive, there's something wrong with it. This does seem rather high to me, based on some stats that I've seen of how many queries agents receive and how many partials/fulls they actually request, so I'm opening it up to you guys. What do you think? Do you think this is too high of a percentage or do you think it makes sense based on the market of today?

I'm particularly interested to hear what Nathan thinks if he sees this.

If you guys want to read the entry, it's here

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ryanznock
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Re: The 75% Rule

Post by ryanznock » August 1st, 2010, 2:48 am

I got a good response when I posted my query for critique here, but I'm getting 80% form rejections when I send it out. Maybe that means I'm targeting the wrong agents, or that the folks here all have terrible opinions. I'm guessing it's the former, or perhaps just a fluke.

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HillaryJ
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Re: The 75% Rule

Post by HillaryJ » August 1st, 2010, 4:26 am

I read Jane's tweet on this as well, and instantly had a negative (and somewhat defensive) reaction. After thinking about it, I guess what I'd be interested in seeing is what the positive response rate was on recent (last two years) authors who have received offers of representation.

If you're targeting agents who are currently accepting queries in your genre, I would think that a 40-50% hit rate would be very good. That takes into account agents who simply aren't interested in that particular area of the genre, who maybe have an active author working on something similar-sounding to your query, to those too busy to take anything that doesn't knock them out of their chair, and bad days.

Now I would say that, if you're querying in the right genre to active agents and are getting less than a 15% hit rate, the query has at least one major problem.

Agents aren't reading slush hoping to say no; they're all hoping to find something to say yes to.
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Re: The 75% Rule

Post by djf881 » August 1st, 2010, 7:58 am

The difference between a query with 25% request rate and a 75% request rate is not the quality of the letter. If there was something wrong with the letter, 25% of agents wouldn't be requesting materials. Most authors who get agents do not have a 75% request ratio; if they did, every author who gets an agent would be choosing among 10 different offers. In general, the only way to get a very high request/query ratio is to have a very commercial genre manuscript and to carefully target agents who specialize in books like yours.

Also, agents are not uniformly open to debut fiction. There are some folks out there who have interns sifting queries in case the next "Twilight" comes in, but they're not really willing to get out of bed for what the commission would generally be for a debut novel. The reason agents say they need to love a book is the same reason you need to love writing: the money probably won't be worth the time investment. If you're writing literary fiction, or something odd or quirky that straddles genres, you're going to need to find somebody who loves your idea and your writing.

There are also agents who may list your genre as one they represent on AgentQuery, but seem to mostly sell something else. You might as well query them anyway if they take queries by e-mail, but they may not really be interested in your book unless it's something that hits a hot trend.

Some agents may sell your genre sometimes, but aren't looking for it now. Agents only take on a handful of new clients a year; they can't be spamming manuscripts at editors or their clients will get treated like slush. If you send them a mystery and they're looking for a YA as their new client for this quarter, you might be out of luck.

Anyway, if you send out 30 queries and get 7-8 requests, that gives you a good shot at landing an agent.
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Re: The 75% Rule

Post by AMSchilling » August 1st, 2010, 12:08 pm

I have a very hard time accepting this percentage, since every other agent blog I've ever read has said something completely different. At a 75% rate you know two things: 1. You've got a perfect book in the perfect genre at the perfect time for the market, and 2. Your query letter is a work of art worthy of hanging in the Louvre.

How many of us can realistically attain that? It doesn't mean we're bad writers if we don't, or that there's something wrong with our letter. Our query could be a work of art, but if the timing isn't right for the genre or the subject, or the agencies have already picked a book in that genre to shop and aren't looking for more, we're not going to get a 75% succcess rate. She doesn't address those factors in her formula, but instead talks about word count and story progression. Most of the agents I've queried so far JUST want a query, with no synopsis or sample page. So how does story progression (other than communicating it in the letter), and every scene having a point, factor in?

Quite frankly, her suggestion to tack on the first page at the bottom scares me. A lot of agents have said, VERY clearly, that if we don't follow their submission guidelines to the letter we won't even get looked at no matter how good it is. An agent that tells me no story, just query, means just that. I would think ignoring their instructions would lower my success rate, not raise it.
-Amy

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Re: The 75% Rule

Post by JaneFriedman » August 1st, 2010, 2:27 pm

Hi all -

Appreciate the discussion here -- thank you. I thought I'd add a couple clarifications & comments:

* The 75% rule came from novelist Marcus Sarkey, who has a background in advertising. I think this detail is important, because from his point of view, the query letter is a marketing piece -- all about selling the sizzle. Or, as he said, "the query seduces the agent."

* Most queries I read & critique are so focused on the intricacies of the work (and have so little distance from the work -- or perspective on what makes it salable) that the query is dead on arrival.

My initial reaction to Sarkey's percentage was also along the lines of "It's much tougher than that." But if it IS tougher, I think it's because the writer doesn't have a very compelling/salable premise to begin with, and the industry is far too competitive for an agent to be curious about average-sounding stories.

Aside from that, I do believe it's possible to seduce an agent with a sizzling query that makes your book sound un-freakin-believable -- so they simply HAVE to know if the manuscript delivers on the promise. Think of it as a game to make your project sound as amazing as possible (by showing, not telling/editorializing).

If your book really isn't that amazing, time to revisit the project. Commercial publishing wants material that makes target readers pay attention within about 7 seconds of hearing the premise.

Jane Friedman, Writer's Digest
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Quill
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Re: The 75% Rule

Post by Quill » August 1st, 2010, 3:12 pm

To get snarky for a moment, it is suggested to send queries out in batches of fives and then ascertain a 75% response. That would be 3.75 positive responses. Even measuring two batches of five wouldn't get you to a whole number. One would actually need to send them out in eights, to get a whole number (6) for 75%. Or fours.

Other than that I support the general idea of the piece that the key to a high(er) success rate is to write one's query into the stratosphere of greatness.

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Re: The 75% Rule

Post by Down the well » August 1st, 2010, 3:29 pm

JaneFriedman wrote:If your book really isn't that amazing, time to revisit the project. Commercial publishing wants material that makes target readers pay attention within about 7 seconds of hearing the premise.
That's a cold bucket of water in the face, though the statistics probably back it up.

As far as the 75% rule goes, I had an acquaintance who achieved the 100% mark. Yep, one query, one agent, and one nice book deal. Can you spell e-n-v-y?

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Re: The 75% Rule

Post by djf881 » August 1st, 2010, 10:13 pm

JaneFriedman wrote:Hi all -

Appreciate the discussion here -- thank you. I thought I'd add a couple clarifications & comments:

* The 75% rule came from novelist Marcus Sarkey, who has a background in advertising. I think this detail is important, because from his point of view, the query letter is a marketing piece -- all about selling the sizzle. Or, as he said, "the query seduces the agent."
I understand what he means, but this is the sort of advice that confuses people. The idea of "marketing" or "selling" the book in the query letter leads people to lard up their queries with inappropriate self-adulation and embarrassing puffery. Then, they end up getting mocked on sites like Slushpile Hell.

To the extent that the query is a marketing document, the sales strategy should be to highlight the author's talent by demonstrating it, not by talking about it.
* Most queries I read & critique are so focused on the intricacies of the work (and have so little distance from the work -- or perspective on what makes it salable) that the query is dead on arrival.
As I understand it, poor writing is the fatal defect in most queries.
My initial reaction to Sarkey's percentage was also along the lines of "It's much tougher than that." But if it IS tougher, I think it's because the writer doesn't have a very compelling/salable premise to begin with, and the industry is far too competitive for an agent to be curious about average-sounding stories.
I think talent prevails eventually, but the idea that brilliant or marketable books are instantly and universally recognized just doesn't ring true. The mechanism that generates the sort of buzz that drives gargantuan debut advances is mysterious, unpredictable, and not necessarily tied to the quality of the manuscript.

I'm not personally familiar with Sakey; he's evidently a very good writer and his debut got starred reviews. But it sold in 2005, shortly after "Mystic River" hit big at the Oscars, and in the middle of Da Vinci fever. It was a hot market for thrillers, and publishers were buying more books in general and they were looser with advance money.

Maybe now, when the trend is Young Adult and supernatural and the acquisitions market is cool, the same query would have had a lower success rate and his advance might have been lower.

And there are some books that agents and editors know are the thing they want; like a well-executed supernatural romance at the peak of the market for them. Then there are other things that are great, but they're new or odd or sort of hard to classify. Jonathan Lethem's "Gun, with Occasional Music" is a sci-fi/noir mystery with literary qualities and talking kangaroos. It's brilliant; earth-shattering, really. He got a six-thousand dollar advance for it.

Paul Harding's "Tinkers" was published by a tiny independent press and went on to win the Pulitzer. See also: "The Hurt Locker," an amazing film that no studio would touch. It was independently financed, made on a shoestring budget and it barely got theatrical distribution. Then it cleaned house at the Academy Awards.
Aside from that, I do believe it's possible to seduce an agent with a sizzling query that makes your book sound un-freakin-believable -- so they simply HAVE to know if the manuscript delivers on the promise. Think of it as a game to make your project sound as amazing as possible (by showing, not telling/editorializing).

If your book really isn't that amazing, time to revisit the project. Commercial publishing wants material that makes target readers pay attention within about 7 seconds of hearing the premise.
I agree that it's possible to seduce an agent with a query. I just don't agree that it's necessary to seduce every agent. It's great if everybody loves you immediately, but you only need one agent who believes in the book.

A mediocre premise, a boring, cliched story or a poorly-written query will probably get zero requests.
If you like my posts, please check out my writing blog; http://somethingpersuasive.blogspot.com.

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Mira
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Re: The 75% Rule

Post by Mira » August 2nd, 2010, 3:19 pm

I think it's cool that Jane Friedman came on to discuss this with us.

Well, Chicken Soup for the Soul got 144 rejections.

It's really hard to chalk that up to a bad query letter. Although, I will admit, I haven't seen the query itself. Maybe it's unbelievable horrible.

Also, frankly, I don't think most agents actually read the darn query letter anyway. I think they skim it and move onto the pages.

For me - I prefer to let the work sell itself. I plan to write a decent, friendly, simple letter and attach my pages. Fortunately, my work will be so brilliant, so stunning, so beautiful, so magnificent that even attaching a query letter to it will be overkill.

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HillaryJ
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Re: The 75% Rule

Post by HillaryJ » August 2nd, 2010, 4:55 pm

Mira wrote: For me - I prefer to let the work sell itself. I plan to write a decent, friendly, simple letter and attach my pages. Fortunately, my work will be so brilliant, so stunning, so beautiful, so magnificent that even attaching a query letter to it will be overkill.
Jeez, Mira...I wish that had occurred to me. Just write something magnificent and skip all this query nonsense. Brilliant! :)

The marketing background makes that "rule" more understandable. I still find it a little stiff even for a well-written query, due to the subjective nature of the readers.
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Mira
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Re: The 75% Rule

Post by Mira » August 2nd, 2010, 5:08 pm

HilaryJ - I know! It just hit me one day that if I wrote something magnificent, someone would probably want to publish it.

I plan to put that in my query, btw. "I am seeking representation for my work, because it's magnificent." That should clarify things for the agent. You could use that line too, I don't mind.

Oh, and your point about the subjective nature of the readers - that rang true.

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