Dear Miss Snark,
While rejection isn't a pleasant thing, I find it preferable to no reply. When I don't hear from someone by the top end of their suggested wait time plus a little extra (if it says three months, I may wait four or five), I send a polite yet brief note containing key info needed to identify my work and ask if they can verify that nothing was lost.
This has happened with query letters as well as complete submissions. More often than not, I receive replies explaining the reason for delay or a resub request stating that something cannot be located. Sometimes the problem continues after the reply, or I receive no reply after repeated, though well-spaced, attempts atcontact.
I've even seen anthologies go to print while waiting for a reply. I follow guidelines, so that is not a contributing factor to this ongoing problem. This has happened with both snailmail and email, so it can't simply be the work of rogue stamp collectors hunting down SASEs.
Is there a way to prevent or minimize these incidents? When dealing with these situations, at what point does it become appropriate and prudent to withdraw one's work and submit or query elsewhere?
Well, I'd get out my soapbox, wave my arms and screech about bad manners except I have about 25 unanswered two month old query letters (not partials! LETTERS!!!) on my desk right NOW.
Mostly these are sitting here cause they aren't auto rejects but that's not a uniform standard to apply to all agents across the board. A couple are sitting here cause they're people who've queried more than once and I'm trying to figure out how to say "stop" without sounding too cruel.
And then, there's this thing called 'what I get paid to do' which isn't query letters.
Stuff happens. We get behind, the paperwork is insane, it's really impossible to get off lists and stop queries when you don't want them, let alone manage the stuff that comes in when you do.
Ok, all my justifications are now in order.
Given people are sending SASEs and we're sending back form letters, it's not all that hard to stay up to date. It's fucking rude to not respond, and worse to not respond to a follow up.
I think part of the problem is that multiple submissions are now the norm, so no one really has the sense there are people waiting with bated breath on the other end of the SASE. I figure you're querying one gazillion of my colleagues despite that coy little line of "a few select agents".
And actually, you SHOULD be querying widely. Waiting around for Mr. Glacier and Miss Mesozoic to answer your queries isn't a good use of time.
If you don't hear back, don't write to withdraw a submission, just keep following up for a pretty long time (and when you get an agent THEN you send them a nice note saying "neener neener").
Don't burn your bridges till you're on the other side as Grandmother Snark told me more than once as she held a match to ignite the hatpin of death.
As to how to avoid this, not much beats the Puritan model of public shame: some clever beasts amongst you may want to start a blog wherein you keep track of who answers their query letters and how fast. That way you know if Miss Snark is a speed demon or a tortoise (or dead) and you can plan/plot accordingly.
Meanwhile, I better go answer those queries before you get that list developed or I'm gonna be turtle soup.