Query 101


One of my favorite agent blogs is written by Rachelle Gardner. Almost as interesting and informative as her posts, are the comments. Today’s post asks whether the query system works, and I’ll certainly be reading the comments on this post.

But first, I’ll attempt to define what a query is for those of you who don’t know.

A query is a one page letter that describes you and your book. You send a query letter to an agent to acquire representation from that agent. Which means, the agent will do all the work to hunt down a publisher for your book.

A query letter for fiction describes your novel as succinctly as possible, but in a way that really hooks the agent onto your plot or character, so that they will request from you a “partial” manuscript. After reading your partial manuscript, an agent will either decide they are not interested, or they will request to read your full manuscript, after which point they’ll either offer representation or decline to represent you. (Queries for fiction are not sent out to agents until the entire novel has been written.)

A query for nonfiction serves the same type of purpose. It is a description of what your book will be about. (For nonfiction, you don’t submit the entire manuscript — you write a book proposal — which is like a business plan for a book, with sample chapters.) The query for nonfiction also needs to show an agent that you have a platform — a means to reach a wide audience of readers.

Agents receive a gazillion queries a week, and offer representation to very, very few authors. So it’s difficult to write a compelling enough query to grab an agent’s attention. Many times, people who are great writers, are terrible at writing queries. And if you can’t write a good query, you won’t be able to get an agent to read your manuscript or book proposal.

If you have a 75,000 word young adult novel that you’ve spent 5 years working on — imagine how difficult it would be to write a one-page letter to convey what your book is about. The problem, too, is that you may choose to highlight one aspect of your book, when the potential agent might have been far interested in another.

Or, if you have a forty page book proposal outlining a nonfiction book you want to write about sex toys for middle aged women — how do you convince an agent in one page that it’s worth their time and attention — particularly when that same agent has 2,496 queries in their inbox that they received in the past two weeks? How, in one page, do you distinguish your book from other books about sex toys and convince them that your blog traffic is enough of a platform?

Authors spend several months, and even years researching and sending out queries for just one book. In January and February of 2008, I sent out 75 queries for a memoir. I got 75 rejections. (In hindsight, though, I see that both my query letter and book proposal sucked.) Last summer, I sent out 25 queries for a picture book. I got 25 rejections. It’s a tireless, consuming process, and some writers/agents/editors wonder whether the query process is as effective as it could be.

I’ve no doubt that the query letter system works — but as I commented on Rachelle’s post — I do wonder what percentage of authors who successfully secure agent representation — did so from query letters alone. I say this because between 90-95% of the authors I personally know secured representation from an agent using other means. Some of them were referred by someone else, others met their agents at writers conferences/workshops, and others had built a large enough platform that an agent sought them out.

The anthology I’m hoping to co-edit with my friend, is about a topic that is taboo in the publishing industry. I can’t imagine that the traditional query system would have yielded us representation. Moreover, the most popular agent guides such as Jeff Harmon’s and Writer’s Digest often don’t distinguish between which agents are willing to represent anthologies and which aren’t. (An unfortunate thing, since many agents won’t do anthologies. Thus, if I had queried agents, I would have likely emailed a bunch of people who were just not interested in the type of book I was hoping to sell.)

We got our agent through a referral. In fact, the woman who referred us, who I will herein refer to as “Fairy Godmother,” was a virtual stranger to me. I found Fairy Godmother on a message board, and simply asked her how one goes about doing an anthology. She wrote me back with a detailed explanation, and then asked me what ours was about. After I told her, she then asked whether we wanted an introduction to her agent, who represents her own anthologies. A few weeks later, we signed with the agent.

The books I tend to want to write, are not books that easily acquire representation, because they are not big sellers in the publishing industry (I’ve heard this directly from a few agents — not my own). I think the only way for me successfully find representation, was through networking.

And really, it’s no different than any job search. How many people actually find jobs by just blindly sending them to employers through job websites, verses through connections?

On another note, I came across this post the other day, about voice journals. I’m finding it very helpful — even though I write memoir as opposed to fiction. Specifically, the essay I’m working on for our anthology involves a relative, and I’m having trouble getting inside her head. So I plan on writing a voice journal for her over the weekend, to see if it helps.

Have a great weekend!

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