Every aspiring writer, or at least every querying writer, has faced the dreaded CNR—Closed No Response. For newbies, that means you queried an agent and after a certain number of months you closed out the query because you received no response. CNR often comes from agencies who bluntly state something like the following: “due to the volume of emails we receive, it is our policy to respond (usually within four to six weeks) only if we are interested in seeing more material.” They irk me like nothing else and I know many other writers feel the same way. Yet, there’s a reason behind its existence, which does not include that “agents are just meanies,” but is rather something out of their control.
In no way do I wish to bash literary agents, who are incredibly hardworking individuals. In fact, I understand where this “new” trend comes from. Unlike the days of yore, when authors like Stephen King had so many rejection letters a nail couldn’t hold them to the wall, many aspiring writers can’t even get that satisfaction. Along the same vein, where earlier writers could sometimes expect feedback on a query and sample pages alone, a writer is now lucky to receive feedback on partial or full. And it’s not literary agents’ fault, well, it’s no one’s really.
Going back to my lovely college application days, fall of 2014, I faced a similar dilemma. The Common App was formed forty years ago to streamline the admission process. For those of you who didn’t apply through the Common App, it’s basically a standardized college application for around 700 institutions. Seems like a great idea, right? And it is an excellent one.
The problem created from this inspired solution is that more students can more easily apply to multiple institutions. Some of these students are not qualified for the institutions, some are just applying for the heck of it, some are perfect for the institutions, and some are overqualified. Sounds like the querying process, doesn’t it? Now the top schools, like Stanford, the Ivies, and even my dear Emory University have shrinking acceptance rates. Perhaps, the students are more qualified than ever? That’s the case in some ways, however, a large part of it comes from an oversaturation of applications.
For example, in 1973-1974 the admission rate for the Stanford University class of 1978 was a “whopping” 31%, but compared to the admission rate for 2016 which was 4.7% that’s insane. Are people my age really that much brighter, athletic, accomplished, etc.? I think not. I mean, hey, these are my peers—I think I would know. Emory’s acceptance rate for my class (class of 2019) was 23.6% and they’re saying it dropped this admission cycle.
What’s changed is that more students are applying to these top schools. In 1973-74 around 8,025 applied to Stanford. In 2016, 43,997 applicants applied for a chance to be the class of 2020, only 2,063 were ultimately admitted. WOW. Does that mean 41,934 students were not worthy, were stupid, etc. No way. It just means the “market” is over saturated. There were probably thousands of students who would have excelled at Stanford and would have been a good fit, but it came down to small margins of error and subjective taste.
I hope now you can see how the querying process mirrors the college application process. With the advent of email, many agents don’t accept SASE or prefer email over SASE. This means that more people are able to query more agents at an increased rate. This “oversaturation” has caused more selectivity and time constraints. In addition, one must not forget that the publishing industry took an economic hit in 2008 and is still working to recover. Many agents feel pressure from the publishers to find books that are “easy” sells and pressure from their overflowing inboxes. Some agencies receive a thousand queries in a week. That’s a lot of reading, without pay no less. That’s why many agents have moved over to CNR, mainly as a time saver.
However, this does not fully justify CNR. Many agents and agencies do in fact respond to ALL letters (normally a form letter unless you’re extra special). So it’s definitely possible to respond to all letters for some agencies, the key word being some. Even the college application system says “yay,” or “nay.” The Common App was used by one million students to create four million applications, and everyone got a response (form for acceptance and rejection).
Awesome resources like querymanager.com have been created to answer queries for agents. Perhaps, filling out a form will be the new form of querying, as email allowed agents and writers to shift away from SASE. It is my bias opinion that every query deserves a “yay,” or “nay.” I am obviously not a publishing professional and it truly might be impossible to respond to every query for every agent. But to those who do always take the time to respond, thank you for taking that extra step.