Standard disclaimer: I do not claim to be an expert. But that doesn't mean I can't share what I've learned.
Even the best queries will still get form rejections. There is no such thing as a 100% request rate. Then how do you know if your query is doing its job? With all the variables, I think if you have a 50% or higher positive response you're doing just fine. But that's my opinion. Others say to shoot for 75%. To figure out your request rate, brush up on your basic algebra skills (your high school teacher was right; you will use math in real life, even with a career in the arts).
Let's say I've sent out 20 queries, but I've only received a response from 10 agents. In those 10 responses, I had 2 requests for the full manuscript, 3 requests for a partial manuscript, and 5 form rejections. I don't get picky on whether the requests are for partials or fulls. A request for more material, no matter how many pages, means I've done something right in my pitch and the agent is interested enough to spend their precious time reading my work. So the total requests is 5. The total responses is 10. Divide the requests by the total, and you have a rate of 50%. (Notice: Do not divide the total by the requests, or you will end up, in this case, with 200%. And that's just wrong. This is why it's important to know algebra and how percentages work.)
So YAY! you've got 5 requests. But look at the flip side: you've also got 5 form rejections. Every query will have rejections, and sometimes those rejections come from the agent who was top on your list. Don't sweat it. The agent you end up clicking with could be number 79 on your list. Does that matter in the long run? No. Not one bit.
I kept the numbers low in this example because I believe in sending out query batches. Send out a batch of about 10, wait and see what your response is, then go from there. This is especially important when you first start querying because you may find you need to revise. Better to have sent a bad query to only 10 agents rather than 30. Which leads me to the next point...
Be patient. Your "queries sent" may total 100+ before you land an agent, and if you're sending out batches of 10 (or later, maybe 15-20) and waiting in between... it takes time. Agents are busy. They're busier than us, if you can believe it. They already have their own clients to take care of first. It is not unusual for a query response time to be 4-8 weeks, and then if they request more material, you could potentially be waiting months. Some agents are quick to respond to both queries and requests--very quick, as in, hours or days--but don't count on that being the norm. Once you start querying, be prepared for a few seasons to go by before the proverbial ball gets rolling. And if it ends up being sooner, then it feels like a bonus.
There really isn't any rush to get your novel published. Seriously. You should endeavor to write stories that have a lasting appeal anyway (aka, don't write to fit a trend), so don't get your panties in a bunch if your novel isn't picked up when you think it should be. And if you're writing to get a paycheck by such-and-such a date, then you're writing for the wrong reasons and you'll be sorely disappointed and you should just quit now. Getting an agent is not even a guarantee that an editor will buy your novel. With that in mind, you must also...
Be aggressive. This may seem to contradict with what I just said in the above paragraph, but I mean this in a different sense. I recently made the mistake of thinking I could just sit back and relax while waiting to hear back from agents about requested material. I had three agents reviewing my novel at the same time, and thought it wouldn't be fair to them if I continued querying. But I was wrong. And I was told I was wrong by an agent, Mark McVeigh, during a live workshop at WriteOnCon.
He said, "This is a cutthroat business." I was advised to keep querying, as long as none of those agents required an exclusive read, which they hadn't. If one of those agents missed the opportunity to represent my work because they were too slow, that wasn't my fault. And then he emphasized the next point to remember when querying...
Be professional. Most of what falls under professionalism has to do with communication skills. A professional writer will communicate freely, yet only when necessary. In other words, don't annoy an agent because you're on pins and needles waiting to hear what he/she thought of your novel. Or even your query. Agents state response times in their guidelines for a reason. READ THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES CAREFULLY. I cannot emphasize that enough. Many of the frustrations you see agents complaining about on their blogs or on twitter stem from writers not following their simple guidelines.
In the above situation where I have more than one agent reviewing the manuscript and I'm still sending out more queries, Mark was very specific on what protocol to follow. And it's simple: Let them know. I currently have two agents reviewing requested material, so every query I send out must inform the agent that this is the case. And whenever a new agent requests material, I must then change my query to reflect the new number of agents, and also go back and email every agent that is reviewing my manuscript to let them know what ball game they're playing in now. These emails are short and to the point. Professional. And in my experience, the agents involved have been extremely grateful for keeping them in the loop. The ball is then in their court; be patient again and wait for their response. It's their decision whether they want to bump up your ms on their reading list or not, in lieu of this new competition.
You can also show your professionalism in the very first thing the agent sees when they read your query, whether it's email or snail mail: Use a formal greeting. Always in a query letter. Mr./Ms. No Miss or Mrs, just to be safe, unless it's someone you know personally and know exactly what they prefer to be called. And please please PLEASE take the extra minute to find out if the agent is male or female. This is actually something I've never had trouble figuring out, even with agents who had odd or gender neutral names, because I spend a good deal of time researching an agent before I query him/her. And you should too. To me, that's a standard part of the process. But I've heard of writers getting the greeting wrong, and quite frankly, that would be worse than spelling their name wrong, in my opinion. Do your research, thoroughly. Add "what gender are you?" to your list of things to remember while querying.
The next step in greetings comes when the agent requests a partial or full, and this mostly refers to emails. Follow their lead. In the query, you always address the agent formally. If the agent responds to you by using only your first name and then signing with only their first name, they've given you the go-ahead to be casual with them. It's okay to email them back and address them with their first name. If that makes you uncomfortable or you're the type of person who likes to err on the side of caution, I don't think anyone will ever fault you for continuing to use a formal greeting during the pre-signing phase. And if the agent responds to you formally, then of course, the professional thing to do is keep things formal in your communications.
I hope some of this has been helpful. Part 2 will be posted on Friday.