Chip MacGregor

May 24, 2013

How long before I hear about my query?


Someone asked, “How do you feel about writers following up on a query or proposal submission? What is an acceptable time period to wait before following up?”

Let me set some ground rules. First, if I didn’t ask for your proposal, I don’t owe the author a response. (I’m sorry if that sounds rude, but look at this from my perspective: If I had to respond to every proposal that comes in cold, I’d have a full-time job just responding to proposals… and I’d never make a dime.) So if I read it and give a response, even if it’s a “no thanks,” I’m doing the author a favor. Second, I’m going to try and get to it quickly, but there’s no guarantee it will be immediate. I’m the type of person who hates having a bunch of stuff sitting around the desk, so I’m bound to get to the proposals as soon as I can. But I can get busy with travel or meetings or simply working on projects for the authors I already represent — so sometimes things can slow down considerably. Third, I understand this is a business on the writing side, so if an author needs info, I want to be fair about it; if she decides she needs to go elsewhere, I’ll probably be understanding. 

When an author sends me a proposal I’ve asked for, I try to get back to people within four to six weeks. The fact is, I’m often much faster. But I’ll admit something: I hate having people send me short notes in order to remind me that I’ve failed them (“I sent you my proposal a month ago!”). I think perhaps they’ve forgotten that I don’t owe them a reading. If I agree to read their proposal, it’s because I choose to. (Okay, sorry if I sound cranky, but I got one of these today, from a woman I’ve never heard of. My first reaction is to say something snarky like, “Okay, if you’re forcing me to decide, my answer is no. Now leave me alone.” But no, I’ve never done that.) So while I realize it’s your baby, and I know there are websites that will encourage you to check in regularly, my preference is that you give me adequate time to get to your project. 

Looked at that way, I guess following up after a few weeks in a short, polite note (maybe thanking the editor or agent for looking at it) is fine. I prefer just a quick email that reminds me I’ve got your proposal, and asking me if I need anything else. No whining, no blame, no shaming me for having to do all that crazy stuff like take care of the authors I already represent so I can pay my bills. Of course, I have heard from several authors recently about some editors who have kept things for a YEAR without a reply. I find that unconscionable. You wonder how these folks keep their jobs. Look, if the person hasn’t responded in a couple months, move on. Move on emotionally at least. If they haven’t responded in a year, I’ve got news for you: they don’t want it. Really. So stop holding out hope on that one and move on.

What else do you want to know about the query process? 

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  • David Todd says:

    Chip, your third paragraph confuses me. It’s about proposals you ask for, yet you say you don’t owe the author a response because you don’t know them. Are you talking about proposals resulting from unsolicited queries or from conference meetings? Or both?

    FWIW, my record of agents responding to requested material is 0% in the CBA and 100% in the general market.

  • Chip, I’d be curious to know what percentage of your agency’s clients come from meeting them at conferences, referrals, vs. unsolicited queries. I know you and many others recommend going to conferences in part for that purpose. My personal success has been mostly through contacts at conferences. Wonder how much of an advantage it provides as a whole.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      An excellent question, Dennis. I’d say more than half of our clients came to us via referral of someone we already represent. Another chunk came from meeting people at conferences. As for unsolicited queries… very few. A handful, perhaps.

  • Jonathan says:

    A few years back I sent a query to you. Not only did you respond, but you told me what no other queries had–novellas are too hard to publish as a first work. While this seemed odd at first, because so many great authors wrote novellas, they are a casualty of the current publishing world. Your response showed me the marketing process for a novella would be the same for a novel yet with a reduced ability to produce a return making it undesirable for an unknown author.
    Your response to my unsolicited query was a huge favor to me. I began to write a full novel that if published could make the novella publishable. Will that ever happen? Perhaps, perhaps not. But your response to me nudged me along to where I should have been all along. It also means that once I finish the work the first query I send will be to you. That could be seen as a negative as one kindness created a future query. However, that future query will be better and the work it demonstrates will be a better product because of input from that un-owed response.
    I may not be a client, I may never be a client, but your favor of a response has set me on a path that I am truly grateful for and both my future agent and publishers will benefit as well.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for saying that, Jonathan. And, of course, these days novellas are making a comeback on the digital front. There may be new life for that novella yet!

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