#QueryFail: Debunking the Myths
Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office
Weather: Return to May sunshine
Great responses yesterday. You communicated the limitations and frustrations of the query system. Truthfully? It’s one of my least favorite parts of this job. I agree that you can’t capture the essence of a book in a page. The best you can do is pique the interest of your target agent enough to make him ask for more. Katie mentioned that she met her agent through a writing conference. That’s where I’ve connected with the bulk of my clients. There’s nothing like having time to eat a meal together and look at more than a page or two. Contests are another way to get your work in front of agents and editors. But conferences and competitions aren’t possible for everyone so the query remains your introduction.
Before we get into specifics, let me address some common misconceptions. Just remember that these are my opinions and preferences– there is no one size-fits-all when it comes to agents.
Myth #1: When I get a form letter or no response at all, it means either my book is no good or my query was no good. Debunking that Myth: You cannot make that leap. You don’t have enough information. In a perfect world you’d receive a response telling you why the agent passed on your query. Unfortunately we live in a fallen world. There is not enough time to answer the sheer volume of queries. Not even if I worked twelve hours a day– which I sometimes do. And even worse, if, in a moment of weakness, I have taken time to give a reason for passing on a query, I invariably get a return email asking for clarification, seeking help, proposing rewrites, arguing with me or just striking up a relationship. We’ve all learned we cannot risk opening the dialogue. Sad, but true. So what does the form letter or no response mean?
- It could mean that the agent can’t think of a particular editor for your book at the moment. It might just be that the editors in her particular Rolodex aren’t buying that kind of book right now. Could it change tomorrow? You bet.
- It might mean that the agent’s client list is full or nearly full. It takes a huge chunk of time to take on a new client. The agent needs to set up files, become familiar with the body of work and all the projects underway. It’s a significant commitment to take on a new client. We open up our calendars and think long and hard before making that decision. No agent reads a query and asks to see a partial on a whim.
- It could mean the market is not right for your subject or genre now in that agent’s opinion. And of course, this is subjective. And even if you knew this it wouldn’t help because the next agent may be looking for that exact thing.
- It could mean that the book just doesn’t interest that agent. Again, totally subjective. Nicole commented yesterday that she wished agents would give a list of books they love to help writers unravel this subjectivity. It’s an interesting idea and we do it here on the blog with our “What I am reading” feature, but. . . I represent a wide variety of books and authors. My personal reading tastes are far narrower than the breadth of wonderful books I represent.
- It could mean the crafting of the query indicates that the writing may not be good enough.
- It could mean that the writer didn’t do his homework and the query represents a book outside the agent’s area of interest. I can’t tell you how many queries I receive for books on generic “spirituality” or novels with “hot, hot sex.” *rolls eyes*
So what do you do when you don’t get any information? You keep doing research and you keep sending queries. After a number of passes, you may want to revamp the query in case that is the problem. You’ll also want to hedge your bets by saving your pennies to attend a writing conference and enter writing competitions that are judged by agents and editors.
Myth #2: If I don’t follow the rules for a query an agent will dismiss it out of hand. It’s easy to debunk this one. You will make yourself crazy trying to find the secret decoder ring for the perfect query. Every agent is different. If you follow agents on Twitter, note what they call a #QueryFail one day. You might see them say the exact opposite the next. For me, it’s more about grace than the letter of the law. I may not like queries that open with rhetorical question but I sure wouldn’t discount a promising book and author on that one point. Don’t obsess about the “rules.” Write a query that uniquely represents the book and the author.
Myth #3: Agents remember the queries they receive. If I sent an amateurish query early-on to an agent I’ve got that mark forever against me. I’ll speak for myself here. There may be agents with photographic memories but I am not one of them. I do not keep a log of rejected queries. I remember stories so yes, I may remember seeing a particular query if I receive a duplicate but I will never remember the author’s name. You can always count on me to see you with fresh eyes.
I’ve only skimmed the surface here, but it’s a start. Any other things you’ve heard about the query process you’d like me to address and possibly debunk? What do you think is the one most important thing to know about the query process?