letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 123
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 0
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: N/A

This week’s casualty — the author sending a query to my personal email that read “Dear Sir: Attached please find a file of my novel.”

Dear Authors:

I was just trying to come up with something to write about this week that didn’t sound like the same old list of things not to do in your query*, and while doing that I decided to just read a few more and see if something jumped out at me…. In an odd twist of inspiration, I read an email that wasn’t exactly a query. It was a request for advice, and I realized that I had seen several similar emails over the course of the week. These are people writing to say they don’t know how publishing works and asking for me to tell them how to get published. Of course, this blog and many other agent blogs, as well as writer blogs and other sites around the internet already offer more advice for free than any person could read in a year if they did nothing else with their time. So, I thought my post today would be about this, and then saw Justine’s response to Maureen’s rant in which they both explain the usefulness of guidelines, and this dovetailed quite well with my feeling that people need to do their own homework. But of course, I am preaching to the choir probably; the people who read this blog are already doing their homework and researching guidelines and agents and figuring out how the system works. So, this is me appreciating you for doing your own homework and presenting the appearance of patience while you wait for a response to your query.

*And since I seem to be suffering from a lack of inspiration otherwise, I would welcome suggestions for topics of future letters from the query wars. Or comments on which kinds of query wars letters are helpful.

31 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. Sending a little humor your way, as seen on the blogosphere 50 reasons no one wants to publish your first book including this gem–
    37. You may want to revise the query letter you’re sending to agents so it’s more about the book and less about how much you love kittens.

  2. As strange (and unhelpful) as this is going to sound, if authors are at all like actors, what we need information on are the questions we would never think to ask.
    Aspiring actors often ask me how to get their SAG or Equity card. I always answer with an extensive discussion about the relative merits of joining the union early in your career. Not something they would ever think to ask, but much more useful to them, and puts them on a path to get their SAG or Equity card when they’re ready. Similarly, when I started writing (nonfiction) prose, I could formulate, “How much does such-and-such a publication pay?” But what I really needed was an understanding of contract terms, assignment of rights, etc., and how that relates to how much an article is worth. Now that I’ve begun dabbling in (prose) fiction, I’m sure there are key differences between it and non-fiction, it and scriptwriting, etc. that I’m just plum clueless about because I’ve not yet encountered it. I’d love it if you could figure out what I don’t yet know how to ask.
    Yes, tall order, I know, but it would make you even more of a hero to me than you already are if you could pull it off. 🙂

  3. I was just trying to come up with something to write about this week that didn’t sound like the same old list of things not to do in your query*
    Dear Authors,
    I prefer brandy, VSOP or XO only.
    O.o (I jest, but only just…)
    Speaking of writers doing their own homework, maybe a list of publications (outside the interwebs…or, shoots, links you find helpful) of craft guides, market guides, etc etc that you think all pre-published writers should read before dropping their first query.

  4. Query topic maybe
    I’d be interested in hearing about a few of your ‘zing’ moments, when you knew you just had to represent the author who wrote what you were reading – right now, this is it, gotta have it – kinda moments for some of your big clients: Butcher, Scholes, Bear.

  5. Suggested Topics
    Etiquette Issues.
    1. Thank you’s: When does a writer send them? When an agent passes on the query with a personal note? On the partial? On the full? Do agents want to receive thank you’s?
    2. Disclosures: When does an agent want to know a requested ms is in the hands of other agents? When you send a partial? A full? Do agents want to know when another agent has a partial or should you just mention when another agent has a full in hand? Does mentioning someone else is reading the ms make the writer sound haughty or is it good business?
    Dealing with form rejections: piece of cake.
    Dealing with personal rejections and requests: agony trying to decide what to say or not to say — and when.

  6. Where are the vampires??
    What’s amusing is seeing all the similarities between the music and publishing industries. But it’s more satisfying to bear in mind that there’s probably a bazillion times more people sending in their demo tapes that they made in their parents’ basement with a portable tape recorder and a battery-powered casio.
    And dear lord, the floods of those unsolicited submissions would just make your ears fall off.
    In the plus column, though, most demo albums are only a half hour to an hour long, whereas most manuscripts are soooooo…. soooooooo much longer.
    Oh! And now that I’ve rambled on: Topic suggestion!
    What was the soonest point during the reading of a manuscript that you just KNEW you wanted to represent someone?

  7. Pehaps this?
    I’m a lecturer and, although I’m not a published author, I have written hundreds upon hundreds of student manuals, a heap of conference synopsis,and loads of course curriculum. These all have to be scrutinized for accuracy and content, and addressed to meet the criteria for which the written material is needed.
    Agents and agencies are a wonderful species, and just like every other species in the world, they are extremely diverse. Agents/agencies require different criteria from their writers’ queries, so it stands to reason that a writer can’t afford the luxury of writing one standard query letter.
    My point being, perhaps you could generate a discussion on the reasons for, and the need to thoroughly check the requirements for each agent that a writer queries, and the utmost necessity for having the written query proofed by a friend or editor, before sending it off by slow mail or email. Because, as many people know (although it seems a lot don’t), after working on something for a while, we tend not to be able to see the forest for the trees.
    Having said all of this, I’m sure that this topic has been raised many times, but from the number of badly written queries you seem to be getting, maybe it’s time for a refresh.
    Just a thought for you to consider.
    Chris Ballantyne.

  8. I really find it useful when agent’s put up query letters that worked for them and why.

    • My thoughts exactly. I was reading through QueryShark the other day, and the letters she liked gave me an “aha!” moment. We’re not looking for a formula to follow (at least I’m not) so it helps to see effective queries that are actually quite different from one another. I think it’s about confidence and voice – a little taste of what you’ll get if you read the book. Am I right?

  9. I keep seeing agents who say that they represent graphic novels, whose guidelines say only that they want sample pages pasted into the query e-mails and no attachments… but doing that for graphic novels is difficult, since so far as I know one can’t copy-paste pages that are images without causing the dreaded “attachments in an e-mail” situation. I would love to know the right way to address that, since offending an agent with attachments they specifically don’t want, or a link to the pages, seems like a very bad way to get published.

  10. I often wonder what the query breakdown looks like in different piles, so to speak — maybe the “didn’t follow guidelines” pile, the “good but not good enough” pile, the “great but not for me” pile, and the “ooh, interesting!” pile? I can see how a detailed breakdown would be far too time-intensive, but perhaps a quick anecdote or occasional glimpse of different examples?
    I tend to see more posts by agents on queries that don’t follow submission guidelines, for example, but that’s the part I feel I’m pretty good at. I’m focusing on whatever other piles exist, but I have the least clear picture of them. I imagine generalization is less useful with these categories, but I’d still appreciate any hints, tips, numbers, etc.

  11. On the subject of those who write to you asking for help: why not create a form help letter, much like a form rejection letter? You could link to your blog, as well as to various help articles that an author might need to get started. Obviously, it’s not your job to compile such a list- but if I had personally been given such a helpful tool earlier on, I imagine I would have educated myself much sooner. Plus, that means you only have to write it once.
    I think those that even think about asking for help are already on the right track, and should be encouraged: the flip-side of those unfortunate souls who don’t bother to read guidelines. 🙂

  12. Do editors ever ask if you happen to have something in particular?

  13. But of course, I am preaching to the choir probably; the people who read this blog are already doing their homework and researching guidelines and agents and figuring out how the system works.
    Actually not so much. I could never figure out how to pick agents from just lists of names and short descriptions. So I kind of gave up. I’m never very good with working without guidelines of some kind.
    I mainly just read you for amusement and to remind myself I should be writing, even though I never do.
    But perhaps that’s something you could possibly shed a little light on. Translating minuscule details into something a lost author could use (that doesn’t involve darts and a blindfold).

  14. A topic?…Well, how about this?
    YA — There seems to be a point in the YA genre where it could be touted as either YA or Adult fiction. (ie. the characters are closer/if not in their twenties, the storylines become a little more complicated, etc.)What is the best way to decide which category to present them as?
    Then I have one side question which really doesn’t have to do with the query process but it is something that I’ve been really curious to hear your opinions on. How long is too long for a YA manuscript? I know it probably depends on the manuscript itself, but is there a rule of thumb the industry uses? Or is it just by discretion?

  15. This may not fall under query wars, but I would love a post on book covers. I viewed Amanda Downum’s cover for “The Drowning City,” and it was breathtaking. It got me to wondering why publishing houses take the time to be amazing with some covers, and not so much with others. It also made me wonder what makes them decide to do covers over, such as in Jim Butcher’s Dresden File Series. First impressions matter so much, so I was curious to see how these companies make these decisions.
    I was also curious as to what you think of an author doing research and comparing herself in a query to other authors in their genre. Such as, “I believe fans of Thomas E. Sniegoski would enjoy my work, as we deal with some similar subject matter.”

  16. “So, this is me appreciating you for doing your own homework and presenting the appearance of patience while you wait for a response to your query.”
    Honestly, this is me presenting not just the appearance of patience, but actual patience. I haven’t even sent you a query yet, I’m so patient. (I’ve been really slow to decide I’m done tweaking the thing. Plus, I’m up to my eyeballs in family and day job. Also, I know way too much about the unreliability of email for initiating business correspondences for me to feel good about querying those agents who prefer it that way.)

  17. Re: letters from the query wars
    Of course, this blog and many other agent blogs, as well as writer blogs and other sites around the internet already offer more advice for free than any person could read in a year if they did nothing else with their time.
    I agree! In many ways, it’s a really wonderful time to be a writer. There’s such a HUGE amount of information available for writers on the Internet, it’s impossible to read it all. I love the websites and blogs of literary agents, including this one, that describe in great detail exactly how to query.
    – Marilyn Peake

  18. Query Wars Topic Inspiration
    I would love to see a post with some advice aimed at already multi-published authors who are agent hunting. Especially geared towards authors who don’t have a specific novel to query with, but a solid body of work, and are looking for career guidance as much as someone to sell their work for them.

  19. The ‘Zing’ moments
    I’m also interested in hearing your ‘zing’ moments, when you knew you just had to represent the author…
    Knowing what not to do is great, but also knowing exactly what gets an agent thrilled about a query would be helpful too. Examples are great!
    Or have you blogged on that already and I missed it?
    Another thing I am curious about with queries you get: subject matter and trends…
    Do you get a ton of queries about the same subject/theme?
    What are the most popular themes you get in queries?
    And how do you think those subjects/themes will survive in the current market?
    Just curious…

  20. “zing moments”
    I agree with others who asked about your ‘zing’ moments. In December Jessica Faust posted successful client query letters (with permission from the writer) and pointed out what inspired her to ask for more. Query Shark, Janet Reid, had a zing moment from a query as well, where she said “Send me more, right now.” A post on what gets you jazzed would be interesting. Knowing what works is just as helpful as knowing what doesn’t work. Maybe more so. BTW, in both instances, the agents said voice is what grabbed them. Possibly a post on the importance of voice in a query?
    Another suggestion, procedure related. I’ve read that not knowing if an agent received a submission is a heavy duty anxiety producer and a reason many writers bug an agent. I’m not sure what can be done when using email, but there is an easy solution if using snail mail. USPS delivery confirmation. It doesn’t cost much and the mail carrier does the work of scanning it on arrival. At the end of the day, the scan is downloaded into the computer and is accessible on line. You will know the precise moment the agent receives it and the agent does not have to sign for it. I use it frequently when asked to send my submissions via snail mail. Yes, I work at the post office so I know how the system works. And it does.

  21. Could you do rejection stat (i.e. how many queries did you rejection due to poor writing, idea didn’t grab you, idea too similar to those on your list, etc.)?

  22. contrasting query letter
    Your blog has a tremendous amount of information on it already, so, thank you for that. An interesting addition would be to see a compare-contrast of 5 queries that have nothing in common, but still were excellent in your mind. It’s clear there is no one perfect query, as there is flexibility within your guidelines; to be able to see the widest righteous spectrum at one go would be great.

  23. Someone above me suggested clearifying the difference between YA and Adult Fiction. Great idea! I’ve been told countless times that everything is on the table as far as topics and description for YA. I’ve been told that you can write as if for adults when writing for YA. If that is the case, then what’s the difference?! Is it the age of the protagonist that makes the book YA? Can an adult book not have a hero/heroine that is a teenager? What are the grey areas? What about historical fiction, where main characters based on real historical figures are teenagers just because they are, like Anne Boleyn…. Where is the line drawn?!?! *whew* I’m taking a breath now….

  24. I would like for you to discuss ideas/queries that almost made it, but not quite, and the reason(s) why. I’d also like to know what has caught your attention as of late and why? 🙂

  25. query wars
    I’d like to see something about queries that grabbed you that didn’t follow the ‘usual’ as far as format/structure. What was it about them that snagged your attention?

  26. What are your personal likes?
    I’d love to see a blog about what you like in a query.
    There are so many different opinions out there, by agents, on what makes them work and what doesn’t. These blogs go as far as stating how many sentences to paragraphs. Rhetorical blunder or genius. High-concept vs. unique- make sure it’s different, but don’t write something different because it doesn’t sell…huh? And the list goes on.
    I’m not asking for a cookie-cutter query, but what are your personal likes and/or dislikes?

  27. The publishing decline: digital or economical
    Thank you for your blog and all your input.
    I was wondering if you had a thought about the decline in publishing (or so I hear) and if you think it is based more on the digital wave or the economic situation.
    I ask because I spend a lot of time and effort creating digital content for the novel I wrote thinking it might help. Also I have sent dozens of queries with only 1 nibble of interest and thought I should stop sending for a year or so.
    Thanks again,
    Bob Winberry

  28. Response to your query wars
    Perhaps you can discuss your “hands-on” approach to agenting. Specifically, how much editorial feedback and criticism you give to your clients…Do you ever say, these last 50 pages are deviating, or You need to revise the entire manuscript?
    Agents probably say that they want a completely polished manuscript, but when they bill themselves as hands-on, does that mean that they want rough drafts?

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