Querying & Submitting in 2023: Q&A with Jeff Herman

Photo of Jeff Herman with the following quote: There’s an old Jewish saying, You can only dance at one wedding at a time. I think that sums up why so many writers never hear back from agents.

Jeff Herman is the author of the long-running marketplace directory Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, now in its 29th edition. He’s also the coauthor of Write the Perfect Proposal. He has presented hundreds of workshops about writing and publishing and has been interviewed for dozens of publications and programs. His literary agency has ushered nearly 1,000 books into publication, including many bestsellers. He lives in Stockbridge, Mass.

On the occasion of the release of his 29th edition, I asked Jeff the following questions about today’s environment for querying and submitting work, given his decades of experience in the industry.

Jane Friedman: I’m hearing a new level of frustration from writers about agents and publishers who don’t respond at all to queries and even requested manuscripts, not even to send a form rejection. Do you think it’s true there’s been an increase in “no response means not interested,” and if so, what do you make of this?

Jeff: I don’t think any agent or editor can accurately assess if ignoring or ghosting prospective clients has become more common in recent years, but I can be candid about my own experience. It’s always my intention to respond to each author’s submission. That said, I sometimes don’t, at least not in a timely fashion. Why? Because I don’t always get around to reading their submissions. This doesn’t mean I don’t have empathy or that the work isn’t publishable (how can I know that if it’s unopened and unread?). There’s an old Jewish saying, You can only dance at one wedding at a time. I think that sums up why so many writers never hear back.

Most nonfiction authors realize they need some kind of platform—visibility to the intended readership—in order to secure an agent. One question that gets asked a lot: How big of a social media following is necessary? Based on your conversations with agents or publishers, do you think there’s a magic number that makes a difference? Or are agents/publishers looking at this more holistically? I guess what I’m asking is: Just how important is social media?

Tough question to answer. In my opinion, the power of an author’s platform, which includes a social media footprint, is in the eyes of the beholder. And even when someone clearly has a huge platform that leverages a large advance, the book’s sales more often than not never recover the advance. I’d like to say that publishers have learned that a great platform won’t necessarily convert into great book sales, but I’d be mistaken. The platform/sales metric is a moving ball with a mind of its own that doesn’t care what everybody thinks is supposed to happen. Some editors probably suspect that some advances are too high but will go along to get along. And bidding wars usually override smart math. Regardless of reality, publishers want to believe that platforms matter. It follows that writers and their agents need to accommodate their belief system.

Memoir seems to lie in a gray area as far as what materials authors need to prepare. Some agents/publishers want a full manuscript, some want a proposal. Maybe some even request both. How do you advise memoirists to navigate this efficiently? Should they prepare a proposal before starting the submissions process or start by trying to sell on the basis of a manuscript?

In my experience, memoir can be sold on the basis of a traditional nonfiction proposal. However, I think it will need an expansive outline of at least 250 words per chapter and at least 2500 words of sample text. This should be enough to enable editors and agents to assess the work’s viability. Sometimes they might request more, which is a good thing.

If an author has been self-publishing for some time, and decides they want to pitch a new project, should they disclose that in the query letter? If their self-published titles didn’t sell very well, will that be a problem for securing agent or publisher interest?

If the self-published book has sold more than 1000 copies, I think most traditional people will think that’s pretty good. However, if the sales were due to a one-time promotion and the current Amazon ranking is poor, I advise briefly mentioning the book(s) near the bottom of the query. Interested editors and agents will want the writer to explain why their new book won’t share a similar fate, which can be challenging. Fortunately, most book professionals know that most self-published books don’t accurately reflect what the writer might have achieved with a traditional publisher. In such scenarios, the writer will have to make extra efforts at proving they are in a much stronger position to sell sufficient numbers of the next book if attached to a traditional structure.

Based on the book Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, 29th Edition. Copyright © 2023 by Jeff Herman. Published by New World Library.

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