How to Take the Sting Out of Query Rejections

Image: pair of knitted boxing gloves
Photo credit: lealingo on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Today’s post is by author Emma Lombard (@LombardEmma).


Throwing your new manuscript into the query trenches can be an exhilarating but nerve-crushing experience. I use a systematic and business-like approach to help take the sting out of rejections and keep me focused on moving forward with querying.

Before querying, I ensure my manuscript has been through multiple revisions, critique partners, beta readers and edits to give it its best shot. I also have a polished and professionally critiqued query letter.

1. Find agents who represent your genre

Here are some sites where you can research agents online:

Helpful Hint: Properly screening the right agents takes an extraordinary amount of time! Start collating your list of agents during your breaks while you are finishing off the last of your revisions or edits on your manuscript, or else this task will seem monumental if you leave it to the last minute.

2. Create a spreadsheet to track queries

Keep track of all suitable agents, including their contact details and submission rules. Here’s a ready-made tracking spreadsheet template for you to download. Feel free to modify it as required.

How to Use the Spreadsheet or Set Up Your Own

First, I create four tabs on my spreadsheet. On the first tab, “All,” list all agents who represent your genre. Categorize agents depending on where their details are found, and fill out the info in the corresponding columns.

Image: Query tracker spreadsheet, tab labeled All

Columns under the ALL tab

  • Agent Name
  • Agency
  • Submission URL: I don’t enter submission details into the spreadsheet in case they change. I refer to the live URL when the time comes to query that agent.
  • Submission email: this might be different from the agent’s normal email address
  • Policy on querying multiple agents at the agency
  • Response time
  • Information of interest: jot down any interesting tidbits along the way

Within each category, prioritize the agents by highlighting them:

  • Red: agent is a fabulous fit for me
  • Orange: agent is a good fit for me
  • Yellow: agent represents my genre

Helpful Hint: Even if an agent is currently closed to queries, still add them to your spreadsheet. By the time you get around to querying, they may be open again.

Image: Query tracker spreadsheet, tab labeled Red

Your other tabs: red, orange and yellow

Next: Transfer the color-coded agents from the ALL Tab onto their own tabulated sheets (red, orange, yellow). Remove all the color highlights after you do this.

Then: Categorize the agents by their response timeframes. Send out queries in batches of ten, ensuring they have different response times, so that responses will start to roll in at different times.

Then I color code the query rows based on the status; I change the color as new information comes in. These are the colors that I use:

  • Red: Query sent, awaiting reply
  • Green: Partial or full request
  • No color: Still need to send query
  • Gray: No

I add the following columns of information:

  • Date first queried
  • Requested materials sent
  • Date to follow up
  • Date to cancel query
  • Response

If a rejection comes in, highlight the agent gray and immediately send a new query out to another agent. Try to keep ten queries out there at all times. Keep the rejected agents on the spreadsheet so as not to double query them.

Image: query tracker spreadsheet, columns H through L

Helpful Hint: In the Red, Orange and Yellow categories, pick your top 10 agents who you’d like to query first and place them at the top of the spreadsheets.

3. Create separate email folders

To keep track of all the emails that come and go, create a main folder with subfolders in the email menu so that they don’t clutter up in the sent and in boxes.

  • Out on submission: for all sent email queries
  • Full request: to see who is reading fulls
  • No: move all correspondence for an agent who says no into this folder
  • Partial request: to see who is reading partials
Image: email folders for query tracking

Helpful Hint: Set a goal of how many agents you plan to query. For example, I have screened and collated 170 world-wide agents on my three color-coded spreadsheets, and I’m not giving up until I’ve queried every single one of them!

Remember, it’s just business

I find that by using a systematic color-coding system to track queries, and by filing my emails, it’s not as disheartening when a query is rejected because I have a call to action in place to immediately send another query out.

Getting into a business frame of mind helps. It’s a bit like keeping a balance sheet: money in—money out. Or submitting bids: you win some—you lose some. My favorite quote from a literary agent on the topic of query rejections is from Janet Reid (aka The Query Shark), on her Rules for Writers guest post on my blog:

I tell you this here to illustrate one more time that when you query agents and you get a form rejection, it’s not always about YOU. It could be about ME.

It’s ME if I’m not enamored of the topic no matter how well written;

It’s ME if I’m overwhelmed with work this week, and just can’t read one more partial;

It’s ME if I’ve got a project very similar to yours and can’t sell it for spit;

It’s ME if I can’t think of an editor who would buy this book and have no idea where to even start;

It’s ME if a colleague handles this genre and I don’t want to encroach on his/her turf.

I don’t tell you any of this, and I don’t apologize for using a form rejection in these cases. I do, and you’ll just have to know that.

Janet’s advice helps me focus on the fact that a query rejection is not personal—it’s just business!

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