letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 208
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: thriller

I have no idea how I managed to read almost twice as many queries this week as I did last week. Still have another 200 and change to go….

In the most recent query wars post, a commenter asked whether feedback from a random test audience for their unpublished novel was useful in a query. Based on my reading of their comment, they don’t mean professional referrals (see this entry for thoughts on those) or even their own friends and family. Just test readers from their target audience.

I may have written about this in the distant past but since I saw several queries this week that included exactly this sort of thing, maybe it deserves another look.

Getting feedback can be very helpful, whether from a critique group or other test readers. I’ve heard many writers explain how they are too far inside the story and too close to it to see things and that having another perspective gives them insight. The place to discuss this, though, is not in a query letter. Really, an endorsement works best if it’s from someone that the person about to read the story knows (if not personally, then at the very least by reputation). The potential reader also has to have some kind of confidence in that person’s opinion.

To be plain: The opinions of random test readers are incredibly unlikely to be relevant. I don’t know them. So how much weight could their opinion — good or bad — possibly have for me?

Or, let me put it this way: If you were in your local bookstore and a complete stranger walked up to you and recommended a book, what would your reaction be? What would you feel or think, about either them or the book? What effect would it have on your decision to spend your hard-earned cash and rare-spare-time on that book?

13 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. I was, in fact, in my local bookstore today, and the clerk had a sign attached to his nametag that read, “Ask me what I’m reading.” My gut reaction was, why should I care what you’re reading? I don’t know him from Adam, and I have no idea whether his tastes are even remotely similar to my own. I very much understand why comments of random test readers mentioned in a query wouldn’t interest you. (Aside from the fact that you don’t even know if they are real reader comments, as opposed to just BS from the person querying.)

  2. If someone’s browsing the same section, a quick “Picked up the new X yet?” can establish if they might have similar tastes, and then one can attempt to recommend books (“Read X? You might like Y…”) and examine things one’s handed.
    But that is face-to-face and with a quick back-and-forth to establish whether one likes the same sort of books.
    I suppose if agents enlisted yet another “gatekeeper” of a Trained Reader who knows what sort of thing a given agent likes, who can pass on the gems… I think that might get a bit recursive, though, and everyone’d need a chunk off the book price, so it gets… cumbersome, to say the least.

  3. If you were in your local bookstore and a complete stranger walked up to you and recommended a book, what would your reaction be?
    It would depend on how they looked, what kind of vibe I got off of them, and whether they appeared to know the genre. At the very least, I’ll take the book off the shelf and thumb through it to see if it looks interesting.

  4. That’s a good point. It seems to me as though the people who include this in their query are following the same logic as the ones you talked about here.
    “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.”
    It seems like they’re sending you a sales pitch, instead of a query.

  5. I find myself struggling with what to put in the last paragraph of the query which is suppose to have a little bit about me. I always end up just writing that this is my first novel, and I hope to one day establish a career in writing. So, I see where these people are coming from. What if I have never been published before or do not have some sort of a degree in writing? Well, it kind of becomes a desperate situation. We feel the need to have something substantial in that paragraph. So, some people turn to writing about who liked their story. I understand it’s the wrong way, and I do not do it, but I also understand what makes people do it. For those of us in the aspiring column, these are years of hopes and dreams. We feel the need to include anything positive.

  6. It’s like those folks they interview in an infomercial. Even if they AREN’T shills — even if the HydroSmasher 2000 really did change their life — why should I care? Maybe their life really sucked.

  7. Having worked in a book store, I was always amazed when people would tell me what they should read. Umm I don’t know your tastes? And generally when I asked what they liked, their interests were so different from mine or they read authors I didn’t know/like. So how was I qualified to find them (or their mom) a good book? At the time I was just recommending Vernon God Little and Persepolis to everyone, and nobody wanted to read them.
    Same thing when I work at movie theatres. “What movie should I watch?” Ummm I guess everyone’s watching this blockbuster but I have no idea if you’ll like it. Jeeze.

  8. Actually, I’ve sold people on merchandise in stores just by talking to them about why I liked it. My boyfriend has done the same thing. A friendly endorsement in person of a product someone is considering works quite often.

  9. I regularly get complete strangers to buy books (or whatever else) just by enthusing about it, and I find I’m more likely to check something out if someone else has enthused about it, even if I don’t know them and in the end don’t agree with their opinion.
    That said, I can see how “random sample liked my book” is not a useful statement. I do have a question about “X people have bought my self-published work” and whether that is relevant, though.

  10. If you were in your local bookstore and a complete stranger walked up to you and recommended a book, what would your reaction be?
    I actually pay a fair amount of attention to the reviews on Amazon–which are really the cyber-equivalent of strangers recommending books to me in a bookstore.
    That said, a writer’s own “random test audience” is probably a lot less useful than the reviews on Amazon. For starters, it would be very hard to find a “random test audience” that is anything at all like the people liable to buy the actual book. I’m a social scientist, and I know that getting a representative sample is *hard*!

    • “X People from the [other author’s fans] mailing list have beta-read this book and enjoyed it?” (Of course, with a big enough mailing list, you could probably find a minimum of X who liked any book you cared to name…)
      Edit: And it’s still no good as data to an agent since it’s self-reported and easily made up out of whole-cloth. One would have to be able to point to the mailing list’s archives or something, where X people posted and said they liked Manuscript Y, and digging through archives (or even just a couple digests of a busy list) is probably a bit more work than plugging in a couple small-press titles or the like.

  11. Actually, if someone is so enthused about a book that they want to share how much they enjoyed it with complete strangers, I pay attention to their recommendations.
    It’s called word-of-mouth, and when it’s genuine, it’s a great way to learn about talented authors you haven’t tried before.
    That said, I don’t buy books based on people’s recommendations. I only pick them up and consider buying them. I still make my decision based on the book itself and whether I think it will resonate with me, personally.

  12. Hello Ms. Jennifer Jackson. Perhaps this isn’t terribly relevant to your post, but I’m currently preparing a submission for you (complete with query letter, synopsis, AND the first five pages of the manuscript) and I’m afraid I’ve run into a bit of a problem. I’ve scoured your past posts but cannot find anything to suggest a preferred length for the synopsis. I’ve also studied the agency website and guidelines for this information, but to no avail. If you would be so kind as to share what you’re looking for in synopsis length, I would sincerely appreciate it.
    I do recall that you’re preparing a post on “the dreaded synopsis” sometime soon. If this question is to be addressed there, then I’ll be more than happy to wait.
    Conversely (or concurrently), I would also like to ask the aid of others. Any assistance regarding the length of synopsis that Ms. Jackson is looking for, any assistance at all would be more than lovely.
    Thank you.

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