#QueryFail: Debunking the Myths

Wendy Lawton

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?

25 Responses

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  1. Nicole says:

    For me, it’s just the particular preferred “form”. As you pointed out some agents expect them in a certain “format”. Others just want certain information prominent.

  2. Deb Wuethrich says:

    Wendy, it’s already helpful to be reminded to consider the query as being a way to “pique the interest” of an agent/editor, rather than the be all-end all that you know you can’t cram into a one-page letter. Thanks. As for that “one thing,” I know it helps me to be able to believe that my queries ARE being read when there can be this sense of them just spinning around out there when writers can’t know if it’s the query, the agent, the publishing house, or whatever circumstances preventing a request for more. Looking forward to more.

  3. Wendy, thanks for such an encouraging post! QueryFail is not WriterFail and certainly not PersonFail.

  4. Thank you, thank you for number three. I’ve never queried you, Wendy, but I cringe when I think of some of the queries I’ve sent. I’ve sounded like an idiot or a stalker or both. (And unfortunately I have a weird name that people do often remember.)

    I don’t have an agent or an editor, so I guess I haven’t learned the most important thing about querying yet, but the most important thing I’ve learned so far is that it’s better for me to not write the book until I have the query already set in my head. If I have a concept I can pitch in a few words before I start to write the book, when it comes time to query it’s so much easier.

  5. It’s tough not getting any response. I know that agents have no obligation to respond, and that their time is limited. But for us authors there is this dwindling, dying, desperate hope that’s just tough. What’s that verse about hope deferred making the heart sick?

    Part of knowing when to cut your losses comes in when the agency guidelines are clear. I.e. If you receive no response after x number of days, assume a no. Sometimes it’s just experience. I’ve noticed that if an agent or editor is interested in what I submit they jump on it almost immediately. I’ve gotten to the point where if I don’t here anything after a week or two I assume a no. If I were to get a yes after that it would be a pleasant surprise, and who doesn’t like those?!

  6. It took me years to understand, “thou shalt not digress into synopsis.”

    The vast majority of queries I’ve critiqued make this mistake, as my own did for years. To show what the book’s about, and not just tell what happens in it, is to let the aroma of your best cooking waft out into the street.

    Now, who wants some Hasenpfeffer?

  7. I think a lot of writers will especially appreciate your debunking of myth #3. What a breath of fresh air, Wendy. 🙂

  8. oops, I meant #2.

  9. Okay…somebody shoot me, but I truly find the whole process exhilarating. We first must get past the big lie that there are talent scouts with loads of time on their hands just waiting to “discover” us and write a life-changing check. Once we do, we can then can make the shift to realizing we are always selling our books. We’re selling our characters, plots and imagination to our readers, feeding their desire to escape and to grow. The critical prelude to this process is selling our concept to our agents and our publishers. Then we move on to selling it to the media, bookstores and ultimately our customers. It will never stop (if we’re successful), so we should learn to enjoy the process, and embrace what God will teach us in the journey. We just need to look back to classic writers like Charles Dickens to see that even he was doing book tours and trying innovative steps like serial stories. We’re all in sales, and part of sales is rejection, getting back up, making the necessary adjustments and coming up swinging once again. Sometimes, this swinging will need to come in the form of re-concepting or re-writing. Unfortunately, as the old adage goes, sometimes the dog food doesn’t sell, simply because the dogs won’t eat it. But, even then…make some changes and keep writing! It’s what we do.

  10. What a great post, Wendy! I’ve got a PR/Marketing background, so queries and pitches don’t scare me. They’re part of what I do professionally.

    I have found myself frustrated with some of the queryfail posts on Twitter, though. They’re a professional extension of the agent. Most of the queryfails are helpful reminders for writers. But some of them…not so much. I understand we all deal with people who make us want to pull out our hair, and I tend to deal with people like that sarcastically myself. So, I totally get where they’re coming from. But, some of the queryfails honestly make me question whether or not that’s an agent I want to work with and that I’m so glad that’s not my query they’re poking fun at in front of the free world. It’s as much of a reflection on the agent sometimes as it is on the person who wrote the silly query in the first place.

    So I’m really glad to see your fresh take on the query process and #queryfailing here. Thanks! I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the week’s blog posts.

  11. Wendy Lawton says:

    Kristen,I know what you mean. Sometimes I cringe when I read queryfail agent Twitters, but you are right– it helps you sense the way an agent handles delicate issues. It’s a great way to know who will be a fit and who will not. Some writers are most comfortable with an agent who will represent them with tact and finesse. Other writers appreciate a cut-to-chase kind of dynamic, blunt and honest.

    The frustrating thing is that what irritates one agent is what attracts another. A writer can’t possibly try to implement every suggestion– it would be a surefire recipe for paralysis.

    As with everything else, we can only do the best we can. Happily, despite the system, hundreds of writers find agents every year and most of these writers go on to be successfully published.

  12. Wendy Lawton says:

    Michael, it’s nice to hear there are some who enjoy the process. Back when I was writing I did too. Loved creating proposals as well. (Good thing since I do more querying and proposal work now than any writer will do in a lifetime.)

    Keep chiming in with your comments. You are so good and connecting with agents and editors, we’ll look forward to hearing your suggestions.

  13. Wendy Lawton says:

    Lisa and Deb, I agree that the awful part of querying is the silence that often follows. How I wish we could fix that.

    With the advent of computers multiple queries became so easy that the sheer number of queries we receive each day has grown exponentially. Add to that those misguided souls who think it’s attention-getting to send the same query every day for 168 days in a row. Without a huge staff an agency is hard put to answer queries.

    At Books & Such we read every query. Sometimes more than one person reads and considers it. We promise that if you haven’t hard from us in X number of days, we are passing. In reality we get to the queries soon after they arrive. When you don’t hear, it’s a pass. Lisa is right, if we do ask for more, the request usually comes soon after receiving it.

  14. Teri Dawn Smith says:

    Thanks, Wendy, for helping us to understand the process from your side of the table. And really, there are other ways of getting feedback. Some contests give feed back, and many editorial services are available. We have to let agents do their job and not expect them to do someone else’s job as well.

  15. Wendy Lawton says:

    Teri said, “We have to let agents do their job and not expect them to do someone else’s job as well.”

    Bless you, Teri. We do get beat up for this but we are called to be good stewards of our time. We have an obligation not to shortchange our clients.

  16. Timothy Klingerman says:

    Wendy, a light came on over my head when you wrote about the time and energy it requires to pick up a new client. That helps me understand what it’s like on your side of the query letter. I am not just selling you on my idea, but on me too. As my agent you would want to represent me and my work. That is the kind of agent I want to have, so it motivates me to improve my part of the deal.
    Of course I believe my current project is salable, but am I capable of producing this quality of work on a regular basis? Would it appear that way to an agent reading my query letter?
    I don’t mind admitting that I am new to this whole industry. Since sending my first query letter to your agency ten days ago, I have been awakened to my resume deficiencies and how they must appear to an agent. Rather than feel sorry for myself, I am writing more, entering contests, and targeting my future work to areas that my background particularly qualifies me to write about.
    Thank you for your help.

  17. Eva Ulian says:

    I agree with you on that Wendy- the kernel of a good query rest in being able to arouse the interest of the agent. After which, of course, there are a number of things why an agent will need to have to say “no” as you have pointed out- hardly any of them are because a writer can’t write.

  18. Wendy,
    I haven’t queried many agents, yet. The past several manuscripts I’ve sent to editors have ended with handwritten notes on office stationary. My writing friends say this is a good sign, but I curious on your take.

  19. Wendy Lawton says:

    Sharon, I would agree with your friends. Keep those note and keep track of the editors who took the time to encourage you. Those notes probably meant that the book was not right for them but they liked your writing or liked you. When you have something new you’ll want to make sure they see it, referencing their past notes of encouragement.

  20. Thanks, Wendy.

    I keep any response that gives me information or input, but I hadn’t thought of reminding the editors about their previous comments.

    Again, thanks. 🙂

  21. #3 is unfortunately not debunkable for all agents. I recently did an overhaul of my query letter and re-queried an agency that had sent a form rejection 8 months ago.

    But I just got a second rejection, saying, “I rejected this project on August 22, 2009 at 11:09 AM. Do not query me again!!!”

    I’ve had several requests for full manuscripts from other agents, so I have no idea why the agent was so offended by my project, which is in a genre she says she is looking for.

    Nowhere on her website did it say re-queries were forbidden. Needless to say, I won’t darken her door again, and I’ll make it a point not to patronize her clients.

    Not all agencies are as writer-friendly as Books and Such, so I’d say writers should still beware the re-query. I won’t be making that mistake again.

  22. Thank you for posting this. It is very encouraging. I have had a hard time getting anyone to even glance at my query, let alone my novel. It is wonderful to know that there are still people out there who truly care. I was starting to wonder if going to a convention might help me, the only issue is I hardly have the funds for even necessities and have no idea how I might be able to afford one. In your opinion would it be a worthwhile investment for someone like me who might have to give up something else to be able to go?

    Emma Michaels
    [email protected]

  23. Wendy Lawton says:

    Emma, it is worth it.

    When you go to a GOOD writing conference you make connections that will take your career to a whole new level. And I’m not just talking about editor or agent connections– I’m talking about fellow writers.

    When you’ve chosen a conference you’d like to attend, check to see if they have scholarships. You might be able to get a partial scholarship. Also, let friends and family members know you are saving for a conference. They may want to invest in you. Birthday gifts, Christmas gifts– all can go into a conference kitty.

    But… and this is an important but— don’t expect a miracle at your first conference. Sometimes when a writer sacrifices so much to go, they put a horrible pressure on themselves– as if it is all or nothing at this one conference. Getting published is a process and it usually comes in little steps.

    As an agent, I sometimes read something from a writer at a conference that interests me and I start to follow that writer on Twitter or read their blogs. We agents must do our due diligence as well. I like to see how a writer interacts with others in person and online. It might not be until I see that writer a second or a third time that I really start to connect with them. You will have no idea who’s noticing you, so don’t get discouraged too early.

  24. Thank you so much! That is so encouraging! I will definitely have to look into steps I can take to get myself to a GOOD one. Thank you!

    Emma Michaels
    [email protected]

  25. I’m not likely to query you any time soon as I don’t think you’re looking for what I write, but you answered questions I needed answered, so I’m appreciative. Thanks! ;D