Journal

WHEN IS THE RIGHT TIME TO QUERY?

Hello. I’m Maggie Slater, and I am a non-botherist. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one, isn’t it? Well, I have one: I am too patient as a submitter.

What does that even mean?

I think it all started when I began seriously submitting short fiction. No, honestly, it probably started way before that. I am a non-botherist to the core. Save on a very few occasions, I am not a troublemaker. I don’t always ask the tough questions to people’s faces (though they may plague me in the night, hours after our conversation). I don’t like to make people uncomfortable. I honestly, sincerely, and WHOLE HEARTEDLY believe that, YES, SOMETIMES IT HURTS TO ASK. Maybe this is because I am A) an introvert, and B) slightly socially anxious, and C) I genuinely like helping people, and D) I have enough people in my life who honestly believe IT NEVER HURTS TO ASK that have on any number of occasions seriously ticked me off by requesting something obnoxious that I really didn’t want to do/accommodate, which put me in the position of having to say “No,” which is incredibly difficult for me, because of A/B/C. *huff huff huff*

But seriously, I know I have a problem with not wanting to rock the boat, and I know this can be a big issue for beginning authors, because I’ve talked to a whole lot of people in the same position as me, who have this very same problem. What problem?

They’re terrified of querying.

You submit a story to Super Cool Magazine market. Their guidelines say they typically respond to submissions in 30 days. It’s now been 62 days, and you’ve heard nothing. What do you do?

Before I worked at a short fiction market, my thought process went like this:

Maybe they’re actually considering it!

Maybe it’s on the editor’s desk right now!

Maybe for once, please, please, please, I’ll break into this market at long last and OMG that’d be so gratifying and validating!

Oh man, what if I query them, and they think I’m being impatient and say, “You know what? We were really thinking about publishing this story, but the author is SO IMPATIENT and UNPROFESSIONAL that we don’t even want this stupid story anymore!”

I’ll just give them a little more time.

Okay, so besides revealing that I’m a little insane, does anything like this ever happen to you? It’s been ages since you submitted, yet you haven’t heard anything, and you’re pretty sure you should have heard something by now, but you’re paralyzed knowing what to do? I’ll tell you:

Query.

Why? How do you know if it’s been enough time? Honest answer: you don’t. But I’ll tell you a little anecdote that helped me get over my query-fear. Back when I worked as a slush reader, there was an incident. For some reason, one of our submissions editors wasn’t responding to submissions. I’d been sending him his slate of submissions as usual, but then, about three months in I got a query from an author who was curious about the status of their submission. I emailed this submissions editor, and got no response. Weird. (Note: many online markets are run by folks spread out across various countries, so our main communication, at least at that time, was via email.) I ping him again. And again. Nothing. I check with the Editor to see if that story had been pushed up to them, and no, they haven’t seen it. So I send that submission to another slush reader and apologized profusely to the submitter.

This happened for a lot of stories sent to this slush reader. NO RESPONSE. FOR MONTHS. I had one person who was so patient they didn’t email for ALMOST A YEAR when our response time was generally about 30 days. Turns out the submissions editor just *fwip!* vanished. Quit, and ghosted us, without telling a soul he was no longer doing submissions. So we had a huge amount of fiction submissions which we had to trace back MONTHS until we could find the last one he definitely responded to in order to get them all speed-read by other slushers (who were ROCKSTARS and worked overtime to get those neglected submissions responded to and/or pushed up to our editor in chief). The thing is, we didn’t even know submissions had gone awry until someone queried.

Queries are helpful.

The thing is, shit happens. You think you sent it to the right place, but turns out you missed a letter in the email address. A market’s email categorized your submission as junk by accident. Someone actually DID send your submission up to the big ol’ Editor in Chief and it got lost on the way. You accidentally attached a document that had the right name, but the wrong story inside (#personalexperience), so people are just confused. They DID send a rejection, but your email marked it as junk mail. Or your email address that they replied to had a typo in it, and it went off into the interwebs to who knows where.

There are a million ways a submission can go sideways, and unless you query in a reasonable amount time, you may not know the market didn’t even get it. For months. (#personalexperience) And that doesn’t do you, or the market, any good. Because like in the story above, markets may not know if things have gone sideways unless you ask about it. On more than one occasion, I’ve queried a market only to find out that, yes, they did get it, and a slush reader meant to send it up to an editor, but they forgot to hit send, or accidentally deleted the email instead. No judgement here: things happen. Life is messy. And any market worth its salt WANTS to know if a submission got sucked into the vortex while in their system, because it probably means other stories have, too, and that’s a problem they do want to fix.

Somewhere along the long, long road to becoming comfortable with querying, I learned two cardinal rules:

1) If the market lists a “query if it’s been X days/months,” DO.

This is coming from a veteran non-botherist, so hear me when I say: you will not be bothering them, you will not annoy them, you will not get auto-rejected if you query on their “query by” date. If the market says they typically respond in three months, but query if it’s been more than four, QUERY. It’s okay. I mean, give it an hour after midnight, but honestly, they DO want you to query by that date. Markets don’t want to be losing things, and chances are, if they ask for you to query by a specific date, it’s because they’re trying to stay on top of their submissions and don’t want things to slip through the cracks. A number of times I’ve queried on market dates like these I’ve been informed that I’ve got a story up with an editor still pending decision, I’ve gotten a notice that they sent a rejection weeks ago that I somehow missed, or that submissions were never received. It’s worth querying. Consider it your helpful way of making sure the market’s cogs are well-oiled and efficient.

2) If there’s no “query-by” date, then: (Stated Response Time) x 2 = Reasonable Query Date.

This is my go-to mental math when dealing with delayed responses from markets. If more than double their stated wait time has passed (because let’s be honest, sometimes that “we typically respond in 30 days” is more of a hopeful goal than a reality), I query, and what’s more, I don’t feel bad about it. Doing so has on numerous occasions caught lost submissions, and I’m glad I didn’t wait longer than that to find out I needed to resubmit.

The ultimate goal of querying is just one thing: to find out if your submission is still viably at a market. If it is, and it’s made it to the editor’s desk, hooray! That’s just good news for you! If it’s been lost or rejected already then it’s better to know so you can get that story moving again as soon as possible.

After all, the worst thing that could happen is that you wait patiently for months, maybe even years, only to find out a market never got your story in the first place.

Sidenote: What about when you sell a story?

Okay, so here’s a random side note regarding patience that I’m still working out. How long do you wait before you pull a story from a market? Suppose you query, and yes, they’re interested, but they want to hold it a bit longer. And a bit longer. Still longer. Weeks, months later, when do you know if it’s time to pull your story?

This is a tough one, and I honestly don’t have an answer. If you’ve signed a contract, be sure to read it to see what it says about how long the publisher has to print your story before you’re legally free to cut loose. Some contracts are super specific, some are really hazy, so just be conscious. One of my stories took over five years to go from acceptance to print, but the end result was gorgeous and fantastic and I still love that sale, despite all the headache that went into waiting for it to come out.

What about during that weird, “we’re interested, but we maybe want it for a future issue/anthology/etc., but we’re not sure yet,” before any contract has been offered? That’s totally up to your personal tolerance, and–I’d add–how far your story has travelled already. If you’ve submitted it to nearly every market you can think of and this is the last one it’ll fit for? If the pay is decent? If the market is one you really like? Meh, maybe worth it. You’ve got nothing to lose if your story’s next stop is the “retired” pile.

If it’s early on in your story’s career, though, and you’ve only sent it to a handful of places, that may come down to the market. If it’s an SFWA pro-level with excellent pay? Okay–that might be worth biding your time for. If it’s a tiny market with for-exposure-only rates? I wouldn’t waste much time on that if you have other potential places to send your story. Get it out and moving where it can find a better home. But again, this is purely personal. My only advice would be this: make sure wait is worth it.

And as for general querying? Don’t be a non-botherist.

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