letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 203
# of partial/full manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partial/full manuscripts requested: fantasy

Though it might not be apparent from this weekly posting, I’m actually not a big fan of statistics. There are so frequently other variables to take into account. For example, looking at the numbers above one might think an author had only 1/2 of 1% chance of garnering a request based on a query. Which is, well, technically true (this week). But there a host of other factors. Does the book fall into a category the agent is interested in representing (or, even reading)? Did the query contain the information needed to actually make a decision possible? (Too amazed at queries that actually say barely anything about the book and also don’t include the first five pages as per our submission guidelines.) Did the query convey an impression of a professional author (e.g. spell-checking and at least a vague attention to grammar would be a plus)? It hardly seems fair that these queries should count but they do mean that good queries actually have a higher chance than it at first seems on the surface.

Lately, I’ve noticed some people including statistics in queries. And, as an agent assessing a work, I find them particularly useless. Sure, one needs to have a readership for one’s story, but, again, there seem to be factors not taken into consideration.

These queries say things like x% of people in the U.S. are women and my book is about women therefore I will have an audience of x% of people in the U.S.; or, x% of people have an alcoholic / cancer victim / popular over-diagnosed disease of this year / etc. in their immediate family; or x% of people are of this or that racial ethnicity, religious persuasion, have this or that alternative lifestyle, etc. and so forth. Or x% of people in the world are secretly paranormal magical creatures, and therefore…. Well, you get the idea.

Many of the queries that cite these statistics seem to make an odd assumption. And this is that everyone of whatever vector they’ve chosen is a reader. Would that it were so. These queries do not take into account how things like literacy rates or capacity for leisure income being spent on books (particularly in this economy) impact any of these groups. Did you know there are people who can’t even conceive of the notion of reading for pleasure? Seriously.

But most of all, the implicit assumption here doesn’t address the fact that the story itself still needs to be well-written and have a hook of its own. The statistical group on its own just isn’t sufficient. If it’s simply treated as marketable window-dressing, it doesn’t belong there. Would I read a book with a strong cultural basis? Yes. Western, Middle-Eastern, Asian, Slavic, etc. I’m all for it. Do I represent authors who have novels with characters that are living alternative lifestyles? Why, yes, I do. But whatever flavor or texture the world in the book might have, it’s the story that carries the day.

Just out of curiosity: Is there a statistic that would make you pick up a book and read it based on that alone?

26 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. “EIGHTY-FIVE PERCENT OF ZOMBIES POLLED CRIED OUT, ‘BRAAAIIINS’ AND TRIED TO EAT THIS BOOK.”
    Maybe.

  2. *thinks* I used to be a sucker for angel books, but so few of them have what I want from them. *sigh* So I am reduced to writing my own fic.
    “Loved by [large %] of people who like Bujold and Barbara Hambly books” might get me to pick up a book.
    Sometimes something in a book or story hits certain deep buttons, but it’s hard to express those as a statistic.
    Um… Written 100% by a personal friend?

  3. 4 out of 5 koalas stayed awake to read this book!

  4. 100% of all people who read this book went on to win a lottery prize of 100,000 dollars or more. Money back guarantee.

  5. Heh, I like the silly statistics presented so far.
    I went away and thought about this for a while, but honestly, I can’t think of a real statistic that would make me pick up a book. Fake example: 97% people like X book? Well great, but lots of people also like mmmphhhhffff and I didn’t, so that stat does nothing for me. And 97% of what people? Those polled? Did everyone get asked? Only teenagers from ages 14-17? Only people who bothered to go online and complete a survey?
    I like statistics as much as the next girl, but I also don’t trust them.

  6. No real statistic would sway me one way or another, to be honest. There are just to many variables, and polls can be skewed so easily.
    “Did you know there are people who can’t even conceive of the notion of reading for pleasure?”
    An acquaintance of mine told me that he’d rather stick needles in his eyes than read for pleasure. I guess we don’t want HIM polled, eh?

  7. Nearly 80% of the top authors of this genre liked this book.
    Although seriously, I have to agree with you. Statistics don’t mean much without a clear state of reference. If you want to hook me as a reader, have an interesting cover and title and then a terrific description on the back cover.
    One of the worst things I can see on a book cover is a useless quote like: “I give it four stars!” -Local High School Newspaper, or “A rollicking good ride right through to the end!” -Some guy or gal you’ve never heard of and could care less about.
    Unless I see a name like “Stephen King” or “Neil Gaiman” after it those things just take up space. Give me the nitty-gritty details of the story! That can be the greatest hook of them all!

  8. And, yes, there is a statistic I’d give heavy credence — % like books you’ve loved before.
    Of course, this requires massive databases of books like those you’ve loved. I’m thinking the Amazon ‘recommended based on previous purchases’ statistic comes closest. Of course, this isn’t something that could easily go in a query letter.
    In a query, I guess I’d be interested in;
    % like authors represented
    % like books currently on market
    % NOT like any book currently on market
    Of course, those are completely subjective, and better described in the text anyway. 🙂

  9. Waaaaiiit a minute, are you looking forward to the Dresden Files RPG too? 😀 I’m debating picking it up, myself. Kudos!

  10. Not for fiction. Maybe “95% of the people who followed the advice in this book then sold a novel.” Maybe.

  11. “100% of everyone on the Earth was human… except for Bob.”
    That I would read.

  12. 98% of polled Baptists object to having this book in their local public library!
    85% of Polled Herefords… oh, never mind.

  13. Maybe something really weird that I didn’t know before; something obscure might get me to read the summary, but it certainly wouldn’t serve as a premise to devote my time to an entire book unless the writing and story were equally interesting.
    My personal favorite stat listed so far: zombies.

  14. I could be true, but also misleading in all the right ways
    47% of the people who read this book weren’t Zombies before they read it.

  15. Only two
    I can think of two (other than some of the funny ones on here).
    If there was a statistic that identified a number of my friends (those who had similar reading tastes), and said they loved it, then I would. But that’s turning word-of-mouth into a statistic.
    And then, If they said that 80% of my favorite author’s readers loved this other author, I’d pick it up. But only for that one author.

  16. I’d be interested in book that are also liked, but even that gets vague. I love Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion series, but don’t really read her sci-fi. So, even knowing that they like EM’s books won’t sell me.
    If I did, it would be just a silly thing like cmpriest mentioned.
    As a note, I also ignore quotes from other writers. And I only use the “by the author who wrote” to figure out what came first. 🙂

  17. 95% of this book is interesting and brilliantly written.

  18. Statistics in queries
    I wonder if this is an attempt by aspiring authors to show that they’ve done their homework on the business of publishing. After all, we get a lot of advice from agent blogs to learn how publishing works and to know the audience for our work. It strikes me as progression from that line of thought.
    I’m personally terrible about buying books based solely on recommendations, particularly those made by people in my critique circle or other writers in my genre. I can’t see stats affecting my purchase decision in any way, especially as I’ve always considered myself something of an outlier when it comes to my reading selections (which is of course an illusion since I read series like the Dresden Files that have a huge mainstream following).

  19. Statistics
    “One hundred percent of the people who read this book became millionaires within one week of finishing it.”
    I’d read it and retire.

  20. I love statistics. They’re so malleable. George Easterbrook said, “Torture numbers and they’ll confess to anything.”
    When it comes to judging the worth of a manuscript, though, I agree they’re little help. Maybe, “Thirty-six out of fifty-two agents queried have offered to represent this book,” would get my attention.
    So would “fourteen percent of the words in this book are ones I made up myself,” but not for a good reason.
    But then, half the people are thirty percent wrong eighty percent of the time. Of course that’s only true one time in six.
    — Ulysses.

  21. I’d be curious to see the statistics broken down for percentage of “bad” queries vs. “good” queries you receive. It definitely would put things in perspective.

  22. 100% of this novel was made using recycled words.

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