Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Plague of Non-responders

There was a time, especially during the hard-mail submission days, when all you had to do was sit back and wait for an agent or editor response. It was almost guaranteed, especially if you provided return postage (SASE), and even in some cases, when you didn't but still received a polite reply or acknowledgment. The waiting times were just about what they are today, anything from a few days or weeks, on up to six months and beyond. Now that we're totally consumed in the cyber-world, where digital communication is instantaneous, you would think that our replies and responses would be plentiful and faster. Not so. Along with every email program comes the convenient but dreaded...

Delete Button.

Email has made it so much easier to send material and queries off into the cyber corn field, never to be seen again and leaving the writer scratching their head and wondering what the hell happened to their submission. We can understand that some agents and publishers admit in their guidelines that they will not be able to respond to queries, and even in some cases, partials or fulls. That's because their in-boxes are flooded with a deluge of queries and submissions every day, week after week, month after month with no letup. The most popular, coveted agents and publishers no doubt bear the brunt of this deluge, so we can understand that--they post it--we're prepared for it and can make notations in our spreadsheets and query tracker forms. But when they list an average response time, for example six to eight weeks, and time flitters away, we wonder if nudging them is the proper thing to do. Thank God there are some agents and publishers that send out acknowledgement receipts, so we know our material has landed safely in their office. It's the non-responders (who claim to be responders) and the vast majority of the others who really piss us-me off.

How long does it take to paste a form rejection into a reply letter and hit send? Apparently too long for many. And yes, we all know and have been taught that no good news still means "No." 

Let's face it, with the amount of the would-be writers on the increase every day, thank you very much, Internet, and the tremendous influx of inquiries and submissions, it's no wonder that the intern or reader behind the desk is hitting the delete button more and more these days. What better way to wipe out your in-box than to read a few lines of the query or synopsis and stab the delete button. This tactic works perfectly in a non-personal world, where the agent or editor holds God-like decision-making powers and the only contact they have with you is through electricity. I've seen this change over the last couple of decades, and today it's worse than ever before. Especially with agents or publishers who have limited staff and time to answer every inquiry that comes their way. What better way to clean house? It wouldn't surprise me in the least if some agents and editors were filling check boxes and performing mass deletes, especially if they were drastically behind schedule or already had their stable or publishing rosters filled.

Just as an example, I sent out 440 query and page packages to agents over a four-month time period. This book had a a huge genre following, thus the incredible number of opportunities. Each email was precisely and personally crafted to each agent, with no forms or pasted material other than the original query or synopsis. I went right to work on my next book, knowing that I was in a long haul for responses. What I wasn't prepared for were the total number of non-sponders who failed to send me anything after one year of waiting. In all, 280 agents never got back to me. This included 12 fulls and 13 partials, which was astounding to me. Fifteen of those were agents who claimed to respond within a certain time period. When I nudged them with an inquiry, five responded with apologies and rejections, and the others never made contact, even after a second nudge and an additional couple of months.

I always allow about a 30 percent addition of time to nudge. In other words if the publisher says to nudge or resubmit after eight weeks, I'll let go for another 18 to 20 days or so, just to give them a little margin. In some cases, if I'm following their blog and they look very busy, I'll up it to 75 percent, or even allow them twice the time needed to get a read. Generally speaking, if it isn't mentioned in their submission guidelines, I'll resubmit or query on a full or partial after the six-month mark. For the very large publishers like Daw, Tor and Baen, I'll let it ride for a year. You can always check Duotrope and Query Tracker for average response times, and resubmit according to the figures you see listed. It really does no good at all to resubmit before any listed response times, or even shortly after. It just makes you look like an impatient amateur. And don't nudge more than twice--this borders on harassment or spam, and it's a good way to get you blocked from their address.

I wish I had some special weapons and tactics to advise you on how to handle non-responders. This part of the industry is devastating to all writers. We have no idea if we've been overlooked, lost in the cyber slush, rejected without any consideration, or rejected because the agent or editor never wants us to blacken their email doors again. It throws us off so badly that we're left with that never ending sense of confusion and wonder that will never be appeased. I can only suggest that you make notations of all non-reponders, particularly the habitual offenders, and place them at the bottom of your submission list. You can strike them altogether, but that will take a hefty chunk out of your submission population. Keep heart--grin and bear it. We can't penalize them--there's no official precedent for it, nor do we have the resources or organization to do so.

But don't every give up on the query process because you're hearing crickets and your email in-box is as blank Napoleon Dynamite's expression. Don't retaliate, claim claims or curse at your adversary. Look at this way, those who showed you the delete door without ever commenting or responding, have probably missed out on a very special book or story, and in the long run, they'll be the worse for it--not you. You'll keep on, and find a home for that story, whereas they will just keep deleting thousands of pages, day after day, week after week, year after year.



Planet Janitor: Custodian of the Stars (Engage Science Fiction) (Illustrated)
 "An intriguing and exciting cross between Aliens and 10,000 Years B.C. - Stevenson shows us a future filled with proof that we should listen to Stephen Hawking's warnings about alien life forms and what they want to do to us." --Gini Koch, author of `Touched by an Alien' & `Alien Tango', December 1, 2010