Everywhere I go I hear writers complain about the black hole that is every literary agent’s in-box—the slush pile—that dark and dangerous place where their queries and manuscripts go in, never to be seen again. Kind of like all those socks that go into the dryer, never to be seen again.

I sympathize, up to a point. Here are the slush-pile facts of the matter, and what to do about it:

Some slush pile stats

  1. I receive some 10,000 queries a year. I got more than a thousand of them my very first week as an agent, and I’ve been behind ever since. Way behind. Most of my fellow agents are drowning in a similar tsunami of unsolicited material. Note: This doesn’t count all the material—queries, proposals, sample pages, partial and full manuscripts—that we’ve asked to see.
  2. For this reason, many agents do not read unsolicited queries at all. Nor do most publishers. I know, I know, it’s a Catch 22.
  3. For many of us who do read unsolicited queries, well, that’s why God made interns. I can hear you cursing at me from here, mortified that the precious job of finding talent should be relegated to interns. I repeat: 10,000 unsolicited queries a year. And may I point out that my actual job is not to read unsolicited queries, my job is to sell my clients’ work.
  4. Only 1 in 200 queries is well-written enough, well-conceived enough, and well-targeted enough to prompt me to ask to see more material. Why? Because many writers simply write a one-size-fits-all query, set up a mail merge that includes every agent in Literary Marketplace, and hit send. This means that they haven’t done their homework and they know nothing about me or the kind of projects I represent. Note: The salutation “Dear Paula Munier” is a dead giveaway.

What to do about it

You can beat the odds, simply by making sure that your queries and proposals and manuscripts fall into the solicited, rather than unsolicited, category.

Research the literary agents you pitch, and only pitch those who rep your genre. Go to conferences, and meet the agents. Hang out on twitter, and meet the agents; participate in online and offline pitch contests and meet the agents; go to your genre association functions and meet the agents. Then, when you follow up, you can set your communication apart by referencing your previous contact in the subject line.

As in: “Requested material from Bouchercon” or “Nice meeting you at the Boston Book Festival” or “Twitter pal writes mystery” or “Loved your panel at the MWA meeting” or “WD says you’re looking for Domestic Thrillers.”

By putting this kind of headline in your subject line, you’re far more likely to catch the agent’s attention. I always skim the subject lines of all the emails that come in, and if I see something from someone I’ve met, I’ll look myself. (The rest of the slush pile I often leave to the interns.)

Beat the in-box odds

Whenever you send out an unsolicited query, you are in effect making a cold call. Any good salesperson will tell you that cold calling sucks, and that the best leads are the qualified leads. So use these end-runs around the slush pile to figure out which agents to approach, make initial contact, and beat the query game.

Research and networking pay off in publishing as in any business, and they beat cold calling any day. All evidence to the contrary, agents are people, too, and face-time and familiarity make a difference.

Just remember to spell my name right.