Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Changing the Query System

By this point we’ve all heard the many complaints from authors that the query letter system needs to be changed because, basically, it’s too hard. The reasoning authors use are that agents are too stupid to recognize a good book based on a query and because of that many great pieces of literary fiction are being lost to the times.

Do you really believe that drivel? Come on! That’s like telling the corporate world to do away with resumes and instead personally interview every candidate who might be interested in the job. That’s like saying that corporate leaders are not resume writers and expecting applicants to be judged on a resume is demeaning.

Do you believe that if a book is really that great, if you really think you’re the next Dan Brown, or Philip Roth, or Tolkien, or Nora Roberts or Stephen King, or whoever it is you aspire to be, that no one in the entire publishing community will ever see that? That you’ll never bother to meet another writer who might refer you to her agent or that, shocking idea here, you’ll never learn to write a good query?

I don’t think the query system is perfect, but I don’t think there’s ever going to be a perfect way to try to introduce a creative form into a business world. Mostly though, I don’t believe that the readers of the world are missing out on great literary fiction because of query letters. There are hundreds of agents out there, there are only a few publishers, and sometimes I feel that there are even fewer readers. More books, more manuscripts, get read than you might imagine. Fewer are published. Self-publishing and POD publishing is becoming a bigger option for many. What’s interesting however is that, while there are always a few exceptions, for the most part readers are agreeing with agents and editors. We all want good books and I strongly believe that good books will be found and published.



Jason Crawford said...

I agree with you Jessica. But like so many things in life, it's easier to attack than deal with the hard truth.

Surely good manuscripts get passed and are never pubbed. But I think that's mostly the fault of the writer for a lack of perseverance. And bad books do get pubbed--I've read a couple myself.

But for the most part the good/great ones are going to make it through and the bad/mediocre ones get weeded out.

The system is not flawed nearly as much as our writing can be.

Anonymous said...

I agree as well. Besides, I'd take writing a query any day over having to do multiple, face-to-face, nerve wracking pitches! We're writers. As they say, the proof is in the just practice query letter writing. Blame is an easy game, but it won't make you a better writer (or a published one).

jessjordan said...

Man ... starting my day off with the "It's not me, it you" breakup speech. :) j/k, of course, and telling post as always. Writers: stop whining, wrtie what you love, and get those queries agent-ready!

Mark Terry said...

Just another "work culture," I would think. If you're a genius that can't get it through your head you need a suit and tie to work at a Fortune 500 business, then you've got a problem that has nothing to do with your abilities.

Queries are the same. Just part of the work culture.

SharonK said...

Email has created the illusion that many ahem, writers, should be published for no better reason than they are able to send a query.

In my other world I have strict guidelines during the hiring process. No matter how wonderful their resume is, if they don't include the information requested in the job posting, the candidates email is deleted. It's a test - if they can't follow directions or didn't read the posting thoroughly, how will they perform their work?

Since most agents and publishers have submission guidelines on their website, queries that don't follow those guidelines should be deleted. I'm sure that will eliminate a good portion of the queries.

Dawn Maria said...

I think accessibility makes things simpler for anyone and everyone to contact an agent. I've met people who've told me, "I wrote a book, my wife liked it so I'm going to get an agent." They're always going to "get" an agent, like you can just pick one up at the store. What I wonder is how many of these folks ever get it at all.

Querying is good because it forces the writer to pay attention to the economy of her words, much like a poet. It's a good exercise and a necessary part of the business.

B.E. Sanderson said...

I admit it. I was one of those people - a long time ago when I was so wet behind the ears I'd like to go back in time and slap the ignorance out of me. But I never never never said anything about it outside my own head. I sat around the house and mentally whined about it instead.

Looking back, that attitude was just frustration and envy surfacing alongside an overabundance of inexperience. I got over it. Here's hoping the rest will, too.

The system's as good as it can get. Those people just need to make their books the best they can, and hope they'll catch someone's eye. Oh, and write the next book. ;o)

Anonymous said...

I am definitely a query hater. I see points on both sides. In the end, it's indicitave of a wider problem. Just like the corporate world wants to find the brilliant employee without having to interview every applicant, agents want to find the great writing without reading every mansucript. I understand that. Similarly, we think that SAT scores are a great way to determine a student's capabilities... yet here we are, suffering because Investors across the land (with great resumes and great SAT scores) made investments look sound on certain pieces of paper, when in reality they were creating a mess. Are resumes and query letters great ways to find employees or artists? I mean, I guess it's better than a spelling contest.

What's the answer? Who knows? But I think it's best not to celebrate a system so flawed.

I am currently editing what is hopefully the final draft of a novel. It's been received well by a lot of people(from published, prize-winning authors, to English majors, to screenwriters, etc). I know it's a phenomenal novel. But after my experiences trying to sell screenplays in Hollywood, I have my doubts that I'll get a good deal, or any deal at all, or even get it read. There's just too much out there. I could spend the next year on my query letter, but it will never do an ounce of justice to my novel. It's a crude, crude form of expression. I would prefer to paint images from my novel on the wall of a cave than write a query letter.
I know what everyone will say: "suck it up and deal." I already have. I just think it's sad that after a decade of developing my craft, I am competing with a one-page letter that any old Joe could cook up.
And don't tell me that great work doesn't go by the wayside in this system. That's outrageous.

Anonymous said...

I understand your point and agree with much of it, querying is the system we have, and I don't know how it could be done better (maybe being able to include a few pages with the query?)

Here's the thing, though. Most agents can't even keep up with their own clients, and are NOT looking for more. Why don't they close to queries for six months a year? State as such on their websites and agentquery?

Why agree to be queried and then act offended when unpolished/unreadable queries come through? To appear "available" in case that "one" best-selling ms might come through?

It's naive to think you can have it both ways. I once overheard two agents talking in the ladies room of a writers conference about how overworked they were and weren't looking for new clients, but then both of them invited "conference subs" during their panals. Who is misleading who here?

Rick Daley said...

Murphy said, "If you try to please everyone, then no one will like it."

There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. Dissenters will always be in the crowd.

I think agents are very accessible. Those who are serious about success will keep at it until they have a manuscript and a query letter that is in shape to sell.

Eric said...

If you'd already sucked it up and dealt, you wouldn't be crying about it anonymously on the Internet.

As for query letters being something "any old Joe could cook up"--have you ever read one? 90% of the time they're absolutely dreadful. Good writers are good writers, and if you can write a good novel, you can write a good query to pitch it. Period.

Anonymous said...

Not crying about it. I already wrote my query letter; I'm just waiting for notes on both before I send it out. But thanks for the tissue, friend.
I'd say also that, "just because you can't write a good novel, doesn't mean you can't write a good query."

Aimless Writer said...

Instead of asking to change the query system they should "learn" how to write a query. I believe it's a skill and like any other you have to learn how its done. There are lots of places on the internet with sample query letters. I've also taken query letters to my critique groups. If we don't query how is the agent/editor supposed to know what we're offering?

Mary Hoffman said...

"They" do increasingly say "the proof is in the pudding" but it doesn't mean anything!

The expression is: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." Now that really does relate to querying.

Michael Edelson said...

I don't think the problem is with the query system per se. I think the problem is with agents not taking the time to be clear about what they are looking for.

Agents are bogged down with thousands and thousands of queries, which means that they have less time and attention to devote to each one. I believe this is because most agents have very nebulous descriptions of what they’re looking for. The more detailed that description, the easier it is for writers to determine if you are the right agent for them, before they query.

Look at Wylie-Merrick's Robert Brown...his blog has a ton of info on exactly what he's looking for in each genre. I read his requirements and said "this guy is not for me", and I didn't have to query him to see he wasn't the right fit, which means his time didn't have to be wasted.

Even if you have nothing specific you're looking for except "great writing and a great story", you can spend some time explaining what your idea of a great story is. If you tell me you love Cormac McCarthy, for example, you’re not the agent for me, and you’ve just saved yourself some time.

This is just a suggestion, but I think it's a good one. It doesn't take much time, helps the writer determine if you are the right agent for their work, and might even save you hours and hours of query reading, which means you will have more time and energy to devote to the ones that do come your way, and everyone wins.

Kimber An said...

Anyone can *learn* to write a strong query letter and the story will shine through enough to snag an agent or editor if it's what they're looking for. There's no point in complaining about it. Writing a strong query letter is the one thing an aspiring author has complete control over.

I'm much more annoyed with things like never getting any kind of a response, yes or no, from an agent or editor after putting in all the time and energy into learning, writing, and editing the dickens out of that letter.

But, I've learned to let go of that too. Life's too short and I don't want to work with someone who can't respond accordingly anyway. I do retain the power to cross names off my 'To Query' list.

Eric said...

@Anon 9:07--this is probably true. However, an agent receiving an abominable partial after reading a good query will almost certainly reject it.

Word verification: basesh (bas•esh)

1. basesh (n.) "Bases," in Connerese. ("Look at that shun of a gun round the basesh!" Sean Connery said.)

Laura said...

To bemoan the querying process means they don't get it, to me. If someone putting words together to describe what their book is about is beyond them, they're in the wrong game.

Yes, it's hard. So is writing well. Would they want to be successful at something simple?

AE Rought said...

I have been on both sides of the querying fence. I think I like it better on this side, actually. Dealing with rejection of my own query seems easier than sifting through slush piles, suffocating beneath the sea of files, digging my hands into shale escarpments of printed paper and disks, praying for a gem.

The query system is like the skin of the publishing industry--the ultimate filter, projection against harmful organisms. The agents and editors can be seen as the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. They deal with the myriad stimuli, intake what is beneficial to the publishing beast.

Hell yes, good stuff gets over looked. Asparagus is good for us. Liver is too. Not every mouth in this world likes either.

It is not the fault of the agent. It is not the fault of the editor. It lies in the writer's hands to make the query appealing enough. It lies in the writer's hands to choose the correct person to query. Taste is subjective, but no matter how good something may actually be, if that first taste isn't appealing, we're not likely to ask for more.

Sorry if I rattled any cages, but I've been in the trenches, I know what it's like. I've whined and cried when my work was rejected. But since then I've learned to hone my craft, love what I write even if others don't, and grown a thicker skin.

Eileen Wiedbrauk said...

"Too hard"??????

In the age of instant gratification there already is point and click publishing.

Everything else you have to work for.

Anonymous said...

I am so bored with the querying debate. Though your post references Nora Roberts - interesting, too, since there's a long piece about her in the New Yorker. She doesn't mention queries once. And her career, which began in the late 70's, is now - thirty years later, in full swing. I knew very little about her - except that she's ubiquitous in the check out line - but I found her take on publishing to be contrary to a lot of what I read on these blogs. Which, though relevant to a beginner segment of writers, are not the be all and end all ( as you point out) of publishing.

Kate Douglas said...

I've read enough query letters and first chapters over the years to know one thing--an author with a powerful voice, one that makes a story work, can generally write a query that showcases that voice. In that respect, the process works perfectly.

ryan field said...

Maybe my take on this is off, but I didn't get my agent through a query letter. Don't ge me wrong. I worked hard to learn how to write a query, sent many out, and had a balanced list of rejections and requests for partials and fulls. It's not an easy process. And after all that hard work of querying, I wound up not getting an agent through a query letter.

But learning to write a decent query was well worth the time I invested. I use the skills often. And even though my story is a little different, I still think the query system works well for both agents and writers.

And, it's so much easier nowadays to communicate with e-mail. I'm 38 and when I started querying agents almost twenty years ago the tenacity you needed to survive as a writer was far more intense than it is now. You had to re-write, re-write, and re-write to get it perfect. Now, thanks to technology, you edit query letters in seconds. You had to wait weeks and months for a reply from the SASE. You found agents through books or through Writer's Digest Magazine instead of easy to navigate web sites.

I don't want to sound smug, but I can't help wondering how many new writers would stick it out if computers disappeared and we went back to the old ways. I do think that if this happened for just a few months, as a test, there would be far less complaints about the query system as it is right now.

Sorry this was so long.

jjdebenedictis said...

I don't know how it could be done better (maybe being able to include a few pages with the query?)

You totally can do that already. Miss Snark taught me to understand the phrase "query" can be safely interpreted to mean query letter plus your first five pages.

If the agent asks for a "query letter", then just send the query letter. Otherwise, send a few sample pages!

Eduardo said...

If it wasn't working, agents wouldn't use it. Magic of the market.

If you don't like it, become an agent and develop a different system. Then see if it accepts your own manuscript. And then see if you can sell it.

Sara J. Henry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mira said...

Oh, Jessica, sorry but I disagree with this.

My main complaint about the query system isn't that good writers are being passed over, although I think they are. Definitely. Not everyone can write a query.

But my main complaint is that I believe it wastes both the agent and the author's time.

Reading queries is a very inefficient way to assesss writing. Reading the first couple pages of any work will give you all the information needed.

Spending time writing queries is waste of time for the author as well. Writing a business letter may not be a skill the author will ever really need for their writing, so you can't even convince me that it's time well-spent. They could be putting that work into writing.

A quick fill-in form on the internet, and a couple of pages attached would give an agent all the information they needed in one quick and easy shot. It would let everyone turn their attention to more productive things than reading and writing queries.

Stephanie said...

In my opinion, good writers can sometimes write bad queries and bad writers can sometimes write good queries. If the book and the writing is truly amazing, it will shine through the letter, no matter what.

jimnduncan said...

Ah, here we go again. Querying itself is not hard. It takes time but the actual process itself is pretty straight forward. A little research and you know what an agent is looking for and what they want from a query. Building a list of agents to submit to takes time. Not digging up the required info is just being lazy. Would it help if all agents had the same format for querying? Sure, but like all businesses, they all have their preferences and are entitled to do so. Put in the time and you can at least be sure that you are sending the appropriate materials in the appropriate format with the appropriate names attached. People want to be lazy, than it's their own fault they get rejections.

Writing a good query is tricky. It takes practice. It isn't something you can slap together and click 'send.' Lots of help around the net to make a respectable query. Again, people are often lazy or too impatient. You HAVE to have patience in this business. HAVE TO! That said, queries do not have to be perfect. They need to be clear, concise, and give some indication of your writing voice. There is no perfect here because again, agents have their own tastes and preferences, so perfect for on is blah for another.

Do these things and you at least clear the hurdle of looking professional. This is basic and required. Your writing is another matter. It can't be emphasized enough, and I've seen it enough times to know it has, don't submit a novel as soon as it's finished. Remember the patience thing? Do it! Wait. Let the novel sit for a month or two and start the next project. Have others read and critique. Come back to it then and edit again. I think if you asked ten agents, ten of them would say that most of their rejected material wasn't ready to be seen. I have the patience problem. I want to send it out the second its finished. It's hard to wait, but if you're serious about making a career in writing, practicing patience is one of the most important skills a writer can develop.

Finally, writing is not just about the art. It's not just about writing a great book. It's a business. People who publish want to put great books on the shelves and they have to make money to do that. Having a great story does not equate to deserving publication. I think many writers fall into this trap. There a far more wonderful stories written than there is space on the shelves. Publishers have to choose ones they believe will sell. Pure and simple. Markets change. Tastes change. Your rejected story, fabulous as it is, may be marketable a year from now. You can't take rejection personally. Great stories are rejected all of the time for very practical reasons that have nothing to do with your talent.

The system works fine. It's just overwhelmed. So unless people decide to stop writing, that won't change. Agents are swamped. They continue to accept queries, because yes, they do indeed hope to find that book they can't put down, that fits perfectly with the current market. They are in business too, and the right book will make them money.

So, be patient, hone your craft. Write another great story. Make sure it's actually ready to go out. Do your research. Take the time. Be professional. Accept the fact that it's not only about the writing. This is a game for the skilled, persistent, and lucky. You have control over the first two things. You can't control the luck factor, so quit frustrating yourself over that. It's not just about whether agents like your work, never has been and never will be. You have to get lucky to win in publishing.

Melanie Avila said...

I'm working on my query letter now and it struck me during one late night that they are essentially cover letters for a job. Same thing. You need to present yourself in the best light, make yourself stand out from hundreds of other applicants, and hope the person reading it is in a good mood. :)

If only you represented what I write... :)

jimnduncan said...

I have to disagree a bit, Mira. Pages are certainly good to read for voice and skill, but agents also need to know what kind of book they're looking at. Just stating a genre in a form won't help. They need to know who the characters are and what the central conflict is. This kind of 'whole story' info doesn't necessary come out in the first couple of pages. Even if the agent likes the first two pages, they are going to want to know the bigger picture, if the story as a whole is something they are looking for and believe to be marketable.

I for one, believe writers should always include the first few pages with a query even if it's not specifically asked for. It doesn't hurt anything. YOu won't get rejected for doing it, and they're there if the agent likes the query. Agents are pretty good and picking through even poorly written queries for the kernels of what they're looking for. Sure a good one makes it easier to decide, but so often I think, they see some particular thing within a query that makes them want to read pages. A query of some kind is a necessity.

John said...

Coming at this from an entertainment perspective, I analogize trying to become a commercially-successful writer to trying to become a professional basketball player. Only a select few make it in both fields, the ones who do can be compensated quite handsomely, and millions of people aspire to both.

However, in basketball agents seek out players to sign, often competing with other agents for young talent in hopes that in the future that young talent will bear financial fruit. The agents cultivate the young talent, hire coaches to guide the player along, and then hope for the big payoff down the road. Whether a particular player pans out or fails, the agent still makes his 5% commission on enough successful players to make a great living.

Yet, literary agents do no such things. They sit back and wait for writers to come to them, to beg them for representation, and then complain when they don't sign great talent. They want writers who are "finished products" and have no patience to waste on cultivating young talent. They don't realize that proactive searches for great young talent bear financial fruit, whereas sitting in one's office waiting for the Dan Brown query is just a luck of the draw crapshoot.

Jessica's analogy to a regular job is misplaced because being a writer is not a regular job. It's about being an entertainer, the same way being a professional athlete is an entertainer. Perhaps if literary agents conducted themselves more like sports agents we wouldn't read posts such as this, and there wouldn't be countless would-be writers complaining about the process.

Yes, I am a commercially successful writer with a wonderful agent whom I met through personal contacts, so this is not some woe-is-me lament about the process. These are just the cold hard facts.

imabooklova said...


I came to the same conclusion not long ago. And that thought led to the next one... if I, as a college grad, could spend hours hunting the internet for tips on writing the perfect cover letter, attending appropriate critique sessions, and asking for peer reviews, why can't authors do the same thing for query letters?

imabooklova said...


Agents are more proactive than you may think and the last thing an agent wants to see is an author who has thrown self-respect to the wind and "begs" for representation.

In attending conferences, meeting with editors, and making themselves available for workshops and seminars, agents are both proactively seeking and cultivating new talent.

green_knight said...

I think that query + five pages is going to beat just the query hands down - because some people have great ideas and can fit them into queries, but can't maintain that level in the prose, while others might write well but fall down on the query blurb.

But I also think that there are certain types of novels that are not served well by queries - if a novel is not 'high concept' and its strength lies in an intricate network of subplots and character interactions, it does not lend itself to a snazzy query blurb.

'Blackberry Wine' by Joanne Harris comes to mind as a book that I adored, but that I would never ever have picked up on the strength of the description.

Anonymous said...

Querying is not so much about the writing as it is about the sales pitch. Hook, conflict, and marketability are what I think agents are looking for. I suppose voice too. Lots of people can write well, but will their idea turn pages? Of course, your query should show you have adequate writing skills. However, agents will assess that later. This is a business which means either your name sells your books or your concept. And new authors have to have a really, really great concept. After finally facing this truth, I began my second book after writing the query.

However, I will agree with several others here, and I wish agents would admit it; some great books with great concepts fall through the cracks. Most likely a small percent, but come on, it happens.

Lunatic said...

When in doubt, I blame anyone but me. Makes me feel better about myself and my writing. I don't see why you agents just don't seem to get that. The sooner you agents accept this, the sooner we'll all get along. :)


Scott said...

I think including 3-5 pages of the manuscript along with the query is a good compromise.

I have never been an agent, but I have to believe there are a fair number of borderline queries that get passed on. Having a few pages of manuscript available would allow the agent to make a better determination.

Sheila Deeth said...

I've got to admit, I hate applying for jobs too. I seem to fail equally at both tasks, and feel the same about each. But as I read more, I learn more about how to write better. So maybe one day...

DebraLSchubert said...

Call me crazy, but I like writing query letters. They're fun and challenging - like writing novels on a micro-level.

Anonymous said...

Agree, Jessica. It is easier for unrepresented writers to blame the query system than to look at their own writing.

bunnygirl said...

My only problem with the query system is that agents can vary so significantly in what they want.

Some want query + first chapter, some want query + 1-page synopsis and 5 pages, another might want query and 50 pages, or query + 30 pages + 2-page synopsis.

Some want you to fill out a form on their website. Others want you to send everything as in-line text. Some want attachments, while others still insist on snail mail, and let's not even start on the ones who have very particular font requirements. Yes, TNR 12 or TNR 10 usually satisfies, but not always.

In sum, the permutations are nearly endless. Querying ten agents can require 6-8 different types of packages.

By way of comparison, when I'm job-hunting, the same resume works for every similar position I'm applying for. I don't need a unique resume for each bookkeeper opening, for example. One resume highlighting my qualifications is sufficient for all bookkeeping jobs. I may have to fill out a job application, but those tend to be standardized across places of business, and I can put "per resume" for the more redundant fields.

If a potential employer wants reference letters and examples of my work, that request comes after the initially expressed interest in application, not at the very beginning when I don't even know if I have a chance.

There have been a lot of agents I didn't bother querying even though I thought I had something they would like, because I couldn't face yet another permutation of the query + this + that scenario.

Sometimes it feels like agents and small publishers do their best to make it complicated, just to see how badly you want it. I can understand the temptation, but given the high ratio of rejections to acceptances, it's not really in a writer's best interest to jump through a lot of extra hoops at the beginning unless all other avenues are exhausted. What agent wants to be somebody's last resort?

And FTR, I have a novel coming out next year, so I'm not some bitter whiner. I just think it would benefit writers and agents if there were a common standard for the initial query package.

Kim Lionetti said...

John --

I have to disagree. Most agents are well aware that NYT bestsellers don't grow on trees. We work hard with our authors to grow their careers. One of the aspects of my job I love most is helping an author revise and shape his/her manuscript to its full potential. I've never taken on a new project that I considered a finished product.

I think the process has less to do with the industry's mindset and more about the circumstances. Agents never sit back and wait for books to fall into their laps. How can weeding through hundreds of e-mails every week be perceived as something so passive? This is just our form of "recruitment." But there's a hundred times more people out there that think they can write a book than there are those who think they can be a professional basketball player. The logistics just make it more feasible for them to come to us.

Paige said...

@ John

When it comes to finding athletic or artistic talent in the entertainment industry, it's not as 'reversed' as you seem to believe.

Let's take a quick look at hockey, since its what I'm most familiar with. (I can't guarantee 100% accuracy, and this is a very general look, but the point is buried in here!)

Young kids join sports teams, usually because of their parents, and start out playing to have fun. As years pass, the better players tend to move forward and join junior leagues. Out of the various junior leagues, scouts start skimming for the best players to move up to professional leagues, and it's usually those players that agents look for.

Yes, sports agents probably go after their talent a lot more than literary agents do. But there are also a lot more gateways that allow those with real talent to shine through. Literary agents (and editors!) have no previous gateways to help; the only way for talent to shine through is for that writer to find a way to stand out among millions of people that want a writing career.

That said, I believe anyone who says "I can't write a query letter" is telling the truth; if you're not even going to put in the effort, then don't bother. You won't do it. Means more room for those of us who WANT to use the Query System.

Leigh Lyons said...

I agree whole-wholeheartedly, Jessica. I think a lot of people who complain about querying want the process to be easy so they can make a million and three dollars without putting in hard work.

PurpleClover said...


I agree with you.

Basically, I think the problem is people can't fathom the blame may lie within themselves. It isn't always the case that it does though and since the public knows this (thanks to all the best sellers that admit they were passed by dozens to hundreds of times) they assume they are in this minority.

Really great writers DO get passed by because the query didn't sell it. But the query process is the best option anyone has and perseverence is the only way to work around rejection. Is it flawed? yes. But is it unfair? No, not really.

Sure, maybe improvements can be made and this is something everyone should always strive for - process improvement. But it still won't be perfect and unless you are offering up a plausible suggestion there is no point in bemoaning the current process.

Agents shouldn't be afraid of change if it improves the process. On the other hand, writers need to realize that sometimes change won't fix the issue at hand.

Anonymous said...

@john 12:32 maybe it's a typo but your agency comission is 5%??? the standard for lit agents in NYC is 15%. you must be very successful & powerful. or, totally full of s**t

Anonymous said...

'...for the most part readers are agreeing with agents and editors.'

I'm sorry. How do you know this? Do you have readers look at the queries that you pass by and ask if they would have liked the work?

In this same post, you mention readership is dropping.

I'm not sure how these two things fit together?

Anonymous said...

Spending time writing queries is waste of time for the author as well. Writing a business letter may not be a skill the author will ever really need for their writing, so you can't even convince me that it's time well-spent. They could be putting that work into writing.

Well, Mira, let me tell you a story. When my novel was on submission, an editor at one of the big houses asked to see pitches for the next two books in my proposed series. (Basically, a query letter without the intro and bio stuff.) And because I'd learned how to write a good query letter (I got a 50% request rate from agents), I was able to put together a couple of solid pitches for the editor.

Writers write. Query pitches are a difficult form to master, but claiming that they waste time simply isn't true. Believe me, you'll need those skills to pitch future ideas to your agent or editor, and to sell your book to readers--so when someone walks up to you and asks, "What's your book about?" you can speak in an intelligent and compelling way. In addition, your agent may use aspects of your query letter in her pitch to editors. I've also known authors whose back cover copy was lifted directly from their original query letter. Pretty cool if you ask me.

As for query letters wasting the time of agents--if that were true, they would have developed a different system by now.

Mira said...

Well Anon - people do things all the time that aren't the easiest or the most simple. It's habitual. It's actually very hard to change a system that is already in existence.

I also disagree: Writers do not write anything. I don't care how many guns you held to my head I could not write poetry, narrative non-fiction, a western, dystopian fiction, screenplays or horror.

And many other types of writing.

My writing talent is very specific. It actually includes writing queries, so please understand this is not bitterness on my part. I just don't like the system.

As for needing to write pitches, those writers who can't write them should hire someone who can.

Yes, yes, I know. That's considered a sin. I actually think it's a very practical solution.

Anonymous said...

"That’s like telling the corporate world to do away with resumes and instead personally interview every candidate who might be interested in the job."

Agree. I pretty much agree with this entire post, which is a rarity for me.

Anonymous said...

The query is the instroduction to the essential art of the short form--being able to summarize your novel in synopsis, outline, 1-sentence pitch, logline, 1-paragraph pitch, 1 page, blurb, jacket copy, catchline, storyboards, video trailers, verbal description, keywords, etc... It's an absolutely indispensible skill. Those who are good at writing in general will master it.

Also, here's the thing: you want tobe good at writing short, catchy descriptions of your novel so that publishers can offer you a multi-book deal--they give those based on sample chapters and outlines. So to the writers saying they can't summarize their 400 page novel in a query letter, I say, then you don't understand what you've written.

Good practice is to read a novel you bought in the store without looking at the back cover. then, when you're done reading, write your own jacket copy as you would if this was your book and you had to market it. Then compare tothe real thing. This is a fave hobby of mine, and I've gotten so good at the short form, that I now use agents as my future story selectors by querying non-existing projects under a pseudonym and fake title, so that whichever gets the most positive response, that's the one I write next.

Bane of Anubis said...

One of my favorite quotes:

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." - Emerson

Now, whether (or if) this applies to the query system or the queriers, I don't know, but I agree w/ Rick - you can't please everyone (personally, I prefer query letters to agents vs the form queries some agencies prefer - e.g., Firebrand).

Anonymous said...

I thought it was, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds."

Elyssa Papa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elyssa Papa said...

Sorry...just one too many typos in previous post to ignore.

I agree as well with Jessica, and I have seen a huge difference with myself. I've written three manuscripts, and I've tucked away the first two. The third mss., which I'm querying at present, has gotten an overwhelming response for requests from agents. Is it because my query is "stronger?" Well, all my queries are strong but this one just has that special something that makes it a whole lot better.

The query process requires a lot of patience, diligence, and a willingness to let go of unsaleabe books. I've learned a lot from my many rejections on first two mss, especially that they wouldn't sell. When you have something good, you will see the requests pour in.

Bane of Anubis said...

Anon - I've seen it both ways, though more frequently in quote books w/ "little" - either works for me though :)

Leona said...

To ANON 3:29 Thank you! I was on the vergo of depression from so many forceful opinions that you can write a query letter if you can write a book. I write books and my voice is the characters. I freeze up writing query letters like I do when taking a test. I have the knowledge (one of my teachers proved it to me to help me get over test anxiety a story for another day) but the pressure to make it perfect interfers with my brain synapses and something overloads and I go into meltdown.

The idea you gave is perfect. I do it all the time, even after having read the back cover. I'll get frustrated because the back cover can be so misleading! If I approach it the way you suggested, I may be able to get around my "test phobia"! So Thank you!!

Eric said...

@Mira 11:56, I disagree 100%. How can an agent necessarily figure out plot, genre, character development, &c, based on two pages? Good writing is key, but a well-written book on a boring subject won't sell.

Anonymous said...

I also disagree: Writers do not write anything.

I'm not suggesting that if you're a writer, you should know how to write anything. That's silly. What I'm suggesting is, as fiction (or non-fiction) writers, we need to learn how to present our work to other people because it's part of our job.

Mira said...

Eric - you could create a fill-in form to capture that information.

Anon - I'm sort of arguing that it shouldn't be a part of our job. Writers should write. Then they will become better writers, and sell more books. Having writers spend literally months working on queries takes them away from improving their talent, and writing books.

Anonymous said...

"Having writers spend literally months working on queries takes them away from improving their talent, and writing"

This couldn't be further from the truth.

To be able to present the story in various lengths willl only increase your understanding of that story. Looking at it from every angle, in different light.

If you're unable to summarize the story satisfactorily, it could well be that the story itself is flawed in some way.

The 3:29 post is good on this subject.

Mira said...

Well, I'm new here. I don't want to ad infinitum.

I always feel like it's rude not to respond if people address my comments directly, but for now, I'm going to let my comments stand.

As always, I'm fine if people disagree with me. Debates like this are fun and interesting; thank you, Jessica.

Anonymous said...

here's another example:

Imagine if you're tryingto figure out what movie to rent next, but none of the DVDs have a blurb on what the moive's about, because "there's no way I'm going to summarieze my 2.5 hour movie in 1 sentence--I need to be writing more screenplays, not blurbs for movies I've already written." Could you imagine! How the heck would anyone be able to decide what movie to watch?

And how do you think that movie went from a screenplay to a movie in the first place? By the writer not being able to summarize it?!

Mira said...

Post ad infinitum, is what I meant.

Anon - I feel like I'm cutting you off. If you want to continue debating in private, e-mail me. It's on my profile.

Anonymous said...

Writers should be able to focus on writing? Not Queries?

Come on. So scientific researchers and professors should focus on their research instead of writing grant proposals. How are they going to do the research without the funds that are obtained by writing proposals...and then journal publications? That's just one example. The career world is full of "query" equivalents. Heck, none of us liked writing those college application essays but we did it anyway. Likewise, a query may not be your favorite part of the writing process but getting a contract is like getting that grant. It in turn allows you to do what you love and do best. Don't expect everything to come to you on a silver platter. Work hard, get good at it and, in the end, you'll be prouder of your accomplishments.

And more power to people like Jessica, who dedicate their time to helping us navigate.

Anonymous said...

It comes down to the difference between a writer and a commerical writer. Commercial writers have to be effective summarizes in order to place their work. Artistic writers who refuse to compromise their art just do whatever they want and if it sells, it sells, if not, oh well, that's what the dayjob is for.

Anonymous said...

"So scientific researchers and professors should focus on their research instead of writing grant proposals."

Outstanding point!

wonderer said...

As a reader, when I'm browsing in the bookstore looking at authors that are new to me, how do I choose a book? I read the back cover copy to get a general sense of what the book is about, what the tone is, whether there are elements that appeal to me. If that sounds interesting, I flip to the front and read a few pages to see if I like the voice or character or what have you. If I'm not hooked in a few pages, too bad.

Now, I know the authors don't write their own back cover copy. But if that's how readers (or at least one reader ;-) ) make their book choices, why is it so unreasonable that agents might want to do it the same way?

Anonymous said...

I somewhat disagree. I was watching an interview with an agent a few days ago and he was talking about how so many of our 'great' books would never be published today and the sad thing is how right he was, it was clearly heartbreaking for him as well.

Very few of the books I've read in the last ten years and would consider 'great' would ever make it through the query process if from a first time author and it's something of a mystery that those writers ever get published at all. (I'm thinking writer's like Wendell Berry or Fredrick Buechner or Walt Wangerin.)

On the other hand, I understand that publishing is a business and all that that entails and I understand the need for agents and publishers to find ways to separate the wheat from the chaff without reading every work.

I think part of the problem is that the type of person that is often gifted at the art of query-writing and business acumen is often less gifted at the art of telling a truly 'great' story. Whereas many 'great' writers are classically hard to work with, particular, and loathe the idea of writing as business.

Miss Mabel said...

I agree.

Anonymous said...

anon 2:31 You missed John's point. He was talking about sports agents when he mentioned 5% Before you get nasty next time, read the words carefully.

Anonymous said...

In the words of King, the phrase is best-SELLING author, not best-WRITING author.

Andrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew said...

Ah....good to see some people have finally managed to fracture the space-time continuum and pull extra hours out of their own, personal, black holes (Namely their arse). Could you send me an e-mail on how to do this cos I could use a few extra hours a day for sleep purposes.

Precisely how is anyone supposed to sift through 60 or 70 full manuscripts A DAY, huh?

This infuriates me sooooo much. Why do people think only they exist? When did solipsism become the prominent philosophy in writing.

You, me, any writer are but one in up to one hundred others per day all clamouring for a slice of attention (which by the way is probably 25% of an agents working day). Go down any book shop, wander round and without reading the blurb, choose a book you think a friend of yours will like from 100 titles, none of which you are allowed to have any prior knowledge of. To GUARANTEE your friend will like it you have to check the quality of the writing, the quality of the plot itself, originality and good characters (in other words that it's a good novel). Now do it in 2 hours. Now write a short letter for every book and tuck it inside. Bet you can't. No, really, bet you can’t!!!!

You could very well be right. There could be an as yet undiscovered psychological trend in the human psyche that means great authors can't write good queries and so three books of a higher quality for every one book published are missed. This could all be true. BUT FOR THE LOVE OF GOD HOW ARE THEY FOUND!!!!!!!

For my own sanity I need a look into this weird, egotistical, arrogant, solipsistic world. Using only the 30000 manuscripts queried in 1 year (no query letters, no pitches, nada) how are you supposed to filter the wheat from the chaff in just 730 hours (assuming an agent never has a day off). For the record reading at 50 pages per hour, average 400 pages a book, you’ll read 91 books out of that 30000 (or 0.3%)

Please I'm listening cos I can't see anyway on earth this can be achieved using known laws of physics. I'm pretty sure I can knock most out of the park.

60 queries in 2 hours. So you've got 2 minutes, using whatever method you've invented, to prove you deserve publication. If you think you DESERVE more than 2 minutes because you KNOW you’re better than everyone else, then well done: your arrogance is so noxious I nearly choked to death on it.

"But," I hear you complain, "I can't shorten it, I need more than 2 minutes. If we could just sit down over breakfast, we'll work through it bit by bit and I can..." Whoa, let me stop you there. There's a queue behind you. You have two minutes, that's it. And by the way you've wasted 30 seconds whinging.

Eric said...

Mira - How is the fill-in form any different from a 200/250-word query letter? The fill-in form would require word count, genre, brief description of plot, brief description of characters, and a maybe a few relevant words about yourself.

Sounds like a query to me. Maybe a little lazier.

Mira said...

Eric -

A fill-in form isn't lazier, it's easier. This is true for the agent as well.

One of the best things about a fill-in form on the net is the ability to sort.

An agent could sort based on the catagories. For example, let's say an agent doesn't represent screenplays. With a fill-in form, they could sort all screenplays to automatic form rejections.

Reading queries is time-consuming. The agent has to read through enough of the query to be sure they aren't rejecting something they would regret. I really don't want my point to be lost here; I think the query is a hard on the agent as well as the writer; it's a time consuming and inaccurate way to evaluate writing.

Eric said...

Mira -

So really, you're advocating a more uniform query system (e.g. all queries are submitted via on-line form, sortable by genre, &c).

What I'm saying is this: In terms of sortability, yes, that would be easier. It would involve no less time on the writer's part, though, since he or she would still have to summarize the book, describe characters, list publishing credits, &c &c and input that in the on-line form.

Mira said...

Well, that may be true for some writers, Eric.

But I know authors who spend hours and hours and hours on their queries. I know someone who almost every day for about 3 months.

That's alot of time.

Mira said...

Oh. That sentence should be:

I know someone who worked on a query for hours almost every day for about 3 months.

Maybe I could learn something from that person about complete sentences. :-)

Anonymous said...

"I know someone who worked on a query for hours almost every day for about 3 months."

It will pay off.

Publishing is a lot more about marketing and salesmanship than it is art.

Anonymous said...

I was searching for some reference about this particular topic, glad that I found your article in google. Great insight.

Work from Home