'#Queryfail' by Mary Cunnane

There’s a hashtag used among the publishing Twitterati to denote the laughable efforts of would-be authors whose approach to agents and/or publishers is not up to snuff. #Queryfail appears regularly in the tweets of one Major Publishing Player in particular, signalling the sins of yet another supplicant who failed to contact her in the preferred manner, didn’t read her submission guidelines, or asked her to be friends on Facebook and then sent her a publishing pitch. The nerve.

She also details – exhaustively – how exhausted she is from her many travails: manuscripts to read; rights fairs to prepare for; dinner parties and literary festivals to attend; administrative work that takes up her weekends. #Queryfail, though, is what seems to send her over the edge, scrabbling for the smelling salts to ward off the vapours.

This publisher is not alone – there are any number of publishing blogs and Twitterfeeds about #queryfail and that other terrible burden – the slush pile. A New York agent tweets ‘NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month]: Agents: Get Ready for a December Slush Pile Avalanche!’ Or the blog SlushPile Hell – ‘One grumpy literary agent, a sea of query fails, and other publishing nonsense.’ (Which isn’t to say I’ve never tweeted about a silly query, e.g. ‘To The Mary Cunnane Agency. Dear Sir’.)

The tone of exasperation, irritation, and sometimes even downright anger is telling. Someone is trying to get the attention of a publishing professional and is breaching the rules and/or being unrealistic and/or totally clueless. Those folks are the outsiders, the others are the insiders. God help the first if they annoy the second. And if they manage to submit a manuscript, it is consigned (if they are lucky; many publishers no longer read unsolicited work) to the limbo if not the purgatory or indeed the hell (see above) of the slush pile, a term whose first use is thought to date back to the 1930s.

Its derivation is obscure. Does it come from the term for muddy, half-melted ice, for ‘excessive sentiment’, or for paper pulp in water suspension? I don’t believe so. Instead, I would suggest – as someone who started her publishing career in 1976 as an editorial assistant – that perhaps it is a corruption of the word ‘sluice’, one of whose meanings is, in relation to gold mining, ‘a channel or trough with grooves into which a current of water is directed in order to separate gold from the ore containing it’. Sometimes – not often, but sometimes – there is indeed gold among the ore. Even when there’s not, editorial sluicing is valuable for both publishing tyros and veterans.

At W.W. Norton in my early days, unsolicited manuscripts were also referred to as ‘over-the-transoms’ (the transom being the window above the doors in office buildings) and it was the editorial assistants’ job to read them. I relished this task because it was an important way to hone one’s publishing skills and judgement. The slush pile revealed the Zeitgeist – what preoccupied the nation was contained therein. In the 1970s and 1980s it included Vietnam War memoirs; ruminations on Watergate; and the early stirrings of the fitness/nutrition movement as the baby boomers donned running shoes. Later on in the 1980s and into the 1990s it was alien abductions, missing children, and recovered memories. More recently, as an agent in Australia, I found the Zeitgeist to be made up of, among other things, family history (especially lost World War I diaries), tales of child abuse, the so-called misery memoir, and, as the boomers face retirement, manuscripts about ageing and death. As for fiction, the gamut has included chick lit, hard-core erotica, novels featuring vampires or Harry Potterish characters, thrillers involving people smuggling, and rural romance.

I never felt I was wasting my time dealing with unsolicited manuscripts and queries. Sometimes I found gold and always I learned something about what people were anxious to communicate and what, therefore, others might want to read about. And there was, as well, for me a sense of anticipation – what would the next large envelope or email attachment bring?

Of course, most unsolicited manuscripts (or the queries that precede them) are unsuitable for one reason or another. People may be earnest and well-intentioned, but that doesn’t mean they write well or knowledgeably, or that they bother to read submission guidelines. But whether they’ve produced gold or not, all writers deserve to be treated courteously. Which is why I shied away from rejecting work and preferred instead to offer thanks for the submission while declining to publish or represent it.

SlushPile Hell, rejection, #queryfail – all signal an air of entitlement and a sense of besiegement, the last perhaps a sign of the anxious, proverbial-over-tea-kettle state publishing has been in since 2008. But without writers, publishers are nowhere: should they therefore be made to feel they must storm the battlements in order to get even a look-in?

Mary Cunnane

Mary Cunnane

Mary Cunnane has worked in the publishing industry since 1976. In 2013 she closed her literary agency and launched a new venture: Mary Cunnane: Editing and Consulting. See: www.marycunnane.com

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Comments (6)

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    DAMNED good article! And DAMNED well written!

    Our Yank publishers would do well to remember that without the fodder (manuscripts), their cannons fire only blanks.

    I -- and, no doubt, many others -- thank you for your sentiments.

    There is indeed -- as you so graciously and generously suggested -- gold "in them there hills." But it takes a miner(ess) to mine it -- and a mind to find it.


    Thursday, 12 December 2013 12:50 posted by  Russell Bittner
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    The publishers' vanity and disdain outed here so vividly by Mary Cunnane, is an attitude that pervades all the creative industries, and includes curators and theatre owners, so many of whom do not have the means to recognise talent; simple, fresh curiosity. To be a successful 'creative' one requires either a pathological ego of proportions and aggressiveness to match that of the 'gatekeepers', or to adopt the posture of an echidna; neither being desirable character attributes. To read that there are still those in the industry, like Ms Cunnane, who still value the writer and their writing aside from status or CV, is heartening. How do we recognise good writing except by reading as much as we can, both good, bad and indifferent, and in that way more deeply understanding our culture?

    Thursday, 12 December 2013 10:47 posted by  James McArdle
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    Thank you for taking the words out of my mouth. I loved this blog. Snark like what you've described seems to be heavy duty these days and reminds me of high school antics. Thanks for telling it like it is.

    Thursday, 05 December 2013 09:10 posted by  Denise A. Agnew
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    I was so naïve when my first novel was picked up by a big publishing house some years ago. I couldn't get a grip on the culture, the instructions were clear - edit this, do that - but the stand-offish demeanour of the publishing people, the underlying contempt for writers, the patronising rationing of information, the strict demarcation lines, basically the lord and serf relationship really surprised me. Coming from another industry where most people accepted you at face value bumping into this wall of disdain messed with my mind at first. I wondered if I'd said or done the wrong thing, failed a deadline or whatever. Like someone caught up in a relationship with a narcissist I started to blame myself. But then I slowly realised it wasn't me. It couldn't be. I delivered in every sense and was unfailingly polite and professional. It was them. From top to bottom, the disdain for authors was pervasive. As a writer I like to think I'm perceptive, but when you're in the thick of something it's sometimes too hard. If I'd paid attention to my own observations I would have realised very early on when I was invited to a party at a writers festival being thrown by my publishers. I saw the older men, the money guys, chatting and networking, the next tier down was the middle aged women, the creative and editorial engine, dragging authors around and shoving them at booksellers, then the publicists, beautiful girls in red lipstick flitting about, and then there were the authors , on the other side of the room, talking to each other, looking a bit shabby and eating most of the food. Why aren't they mixing? I wondered. Well, I know now. It's not just at the query phase, I expect it continues on and on and on, until you start bringing in serious money, and even then it probably wouldn't be enough for respect and a sense of equal collaboration to replace the tribal barriers. As a culture, publishing is rather unattractive, really. A disappointing discover to have made.

    Wednesday, 04 December 2013 09:54 posted by  anon
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    Thank you for this. It's one thing to post something funny and it's another to post with the bitterness I've witnessed myself on Twitter. I understand that the job of agents is difficult, but isn't everyone's job difficult nowdays? Seems to me that anyone overusing the hashtag needs to consider a new profession.

    Wednesday, 04 December 2013 07:28 posted by  Leslie
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    Ah yes, I remember being at a dinner party one night trying to explain to a group of normal people (non-writers, editors publishers) that writers are expected to grovel to publishers, editors and agents. Twelve heads went down as they considered all that I told them before they concluded in unison, "But they're dependent on YOU for their business."

    #Acumen fail.

    Monday, 02 December 2013 16:18 posted by  Buttercup

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