Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Can I Get a Ruling: Do You Think the Query Process Works?

It's that time again! Yes, it's that semi-regular blog feature wherein I ask people to rule on the pressing questions of the day, or at least the questions that I have randomly alighted upon and deciding they are pressing.

This question is a simple one. I thought I would poll the authortariat with a rather basic question. Agents across the land have decided upon a system whereby authors may send a brief description of their work to agents, who then decide whether or not they would like to see more.

No one much likes it, nearly everyone, at some point, has to go through it if they want to be published (including me).

Do you ultimately have faith in the query system? Do you think it works? Do you think it succeeds more than it fails? Do you think there is a better way?

Here be the poll (e-mail and feed reader subscribers will need to click through to see it):







217 comments:

«Oldest   ‹Older   1 – 200 of 217   Newer›   Newest»
Richard Kriheli said...

i think the work should speak for itself. a nice little note about the author is a good touch.

brown-nosing an agent is kinda drab. and most writers stink at marketing. says very little about the power of their prose.

Michelle said...

I'm just beginning to query, so I can't say yet in my case, but I don't know how else you would possibly handle the submissions process. Bribery?

Stacey Graham said...

It worked for me. :)

Queries are tricky beasts but they are a great way to hone your skills as a writer and write tight.

Nick said...

I think there's a lot wrong with it, but only one drastically wrong thing springs to mind. Everything else is the sort of niggle you'd get in any system; nothing's perfect. On the whole, it works well enough I suppose. Whether or not I think it works, though, is zilch reflection on how much I like it.

Tahereh said...

i have to say yes. it worked for me :)

i mean, it's an incredibly arduous process, but it works. and i think all the huffing and puffing it takes to write a good query letter is just preparation for life as a writer. it's necessary to struggle.

and it's so so so necessary to get rejected.

rejection is such a huge part of the game.

stata said...

This question demands a definition. What's a "working" system? One that only gets great books on the shelf and filters out the stinkers? One that makes money for publishers, agents, and editors? One that delivers to readers the books they want to read? Or is it really more simple: One that matches agents with the most skilled authors with the best, most marketable books?

I'm sorry. I know that terrible books get published, books often lose money, readers are often left in the cold, and great authors fail to find an agent. No matter which definition we go with, I have to say no.

L. T. Host said...

I, too, feel that the work should speak for itself. Query writing is considered a necessary evil, except agents say they can tell in the first few sentences sometimes whether they want to read on or not.

I don't know, I guess I'm on the fence. The query is like the book jacket, and any requested material is the inside of the book.

I personally as a writer feel that it would be really nice if I could just send my first page or first five pages and get a response that way. But at the same time, I can see how that wouldn't work for an agent.

I think there's probably a better way, I just have no clue what that could be.

S R R Colvin said...

I think reading a query letter is not an effective means of assessing a work. Although I'm sure it's a great way to assess a marketing letter. JMHO

Thermocline said...

I think the process works. It's just the pace of it - too much crap for agents to wade through and long response times (if any) for authors - that seems to be the main gripe.

Ink said...

Great writers can write. And that includes queries.

Patrice said...

Well, the problem is that the query adds another layer. And most agents say it's all about the writing, so they don't really know until they read pages 1-5, or more.

Agents seem to need some general info, such as genre and word length, along with reading your actual pages. At this point, they use the query to eliminate before reading any pages. I suppose if writers sent pages instead, agents would have to read more...

There's no great system to sort through all the work that doesn't interest. Soon we'll have agents for agents...

Susan Quinn said...

Authortariat. Where do I get my card?

You slay me. :)

Johnaskins said...

The process might work better if it could be automated a bit. What if online submitters had to go through a series of checklist-type steps before the site would accept their queries, wherein they had to answer the questions you would wish they had answered before attempting their query?

Anonymous said...

It worked for me, thankfully. But honestly, it’s a different skill. It’s like telling someone who paints as an impressionist to go out and try to be Dali for a day to attract attention. I have read some amazing mss and the authors’ queries, while well-written, with intriguing premises, have been rejected too many times to count because they’re not “POW!” in your face. So it’s an imperfect system at best.

Tracy said...

I don't think it's a perfect system, but I do think my chances with querying are a heck of a lot better than waiting until I have some sort of "insider" connection.

I'd rather trying to woo an agent using a 250 word or less pitch in a query, than have my sample chapters buried in a slush pile under mounds of other first chapters (some of which have no business being submitted in the state they're in)

Veronica said...

Johnaskins -- ooh. then there could be an autoreject for all the folks that pick a genre that an agent doesn't rep. Time saver!

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

As mind-numbingly hard as it can be to write queries for some types of work, I think it is ultimately possible to write a query that interests an agent. But that query isn't necessarily going to accurately reflect the work, which will result in a waste of time for both the author and the agent.

Given the technology available, I wonder if it wouldn't be better to have a standardized form and ask for the genre, word count, and first chapter of the mss. It might ultimately be more efficient to read the first words of the actual work and then get to other elements of the submission, including:

1) The reason you believe the agent might be appropriate for you.

2) Book jacket copy for the book.

3) Any bio or marketing info the author might use to help sell the book.

4) Whatever else the agent wants to know.

J.J. Bennett said...

Funny that you posted this today. This is just what I blogged about for the most part. I think the query process is a paper interview on how you will do business with your agent. I read an artical from Yahoo that gave 7 things to say in an interview. I thought of it just as a query. Here's the link http://finance.yahoo.com/career-work/article/109366/7-things-you-should-say-in-an-interview
or you can check out my blog.

Other Lisa said...

Um...yeah... (insert smiley here!)

Hillary said...

A query plus 5-10 pages seems to me to be the best balance for a first-stage screening. If the query shows a genre the agent doesn't represent (or that the writer is insane...I've been seeing some of those and they are freaking me out), there's no need to proceed to pages. If the query is so-so but the writing is excellent, the agent has the opportunity to see that without being overwhelmed with full manuscripts.

I can't right now think of anything more efficient and fair.

Annie Tietje said...

Well... I think it's a frustrating system for a lot of first time authors, myself included. But I also think it's a good system. Agents abound in this industry, and each one is looking for something a little different. The work will shine with the right agent, and first time authors need to be stubborn and persistent. After all, it took over 1,000 rejections before Laurie Halse Anderson got an agent for Speak.

Moira Young said...

I voted "Yes" mainly because I don't see an alternate solution.

Well, unless we make an international replication of what happens at my local writer's conference: host an Idol competition. I got an request to submit to an agent that way, back in 2008.

How it works: a volunteer author (in this case, Jack Whyte with his sexy Scottish brogue) reads the opening of three-page submissions aloud to a panel of agents and the audience. Eventually, one of the agents says "Stop right there" and the panel picks apart why they would or would not take it. The first agent to say, "I want that" gets dibs, and the author speaks to the agent after the competition. I thought it was great.

(Except, silly me, I'd just begun writing my WIP back in 2008, and I had a lot more learning to do, so I'm still deep in rewrites. Ah well, even if the offer's expired, it was good for my self-esteem.)

Kelly said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Right now, it's the mouse trap of choice and until someone builds a better one, it does the job.

Sure, it may not be 100% accurate, a few may get away, and it can really leave a mess sometimes, but it is what it is.

Queries aren't always easy, but it would be far worse for agents to have to wade through full manuscripts in a slush pile on the floor. The amount of time to read - and wait - would be a lot worse.

The internet makes submitting so much easier that there needs to be some way to wade out the ones that don't fit an agent's needs easily.

Lydia Sharp said...

The query system has worked for many authors that I know, even ones that had no prior publishing credits, so my answer is a definite YES.

K. E. Carson said...

Querying is frustrating, imperfect and often leads to a lot of authors giving up and searching for easier ways to get published.

For the authors who really want to be published, they find a way through it. They practice their query writing skills, they get feedback, and they get better. If we can spend years learning how to write a book, how to edit and perfect our skills, why can't we spend a little longer lerning how to market it?

Is querying perfect? No. Does it work? Yes.

D. G. Hudson said...

The existing query process works to some extent, but like all things needs some upgrading. It seems very much a 'hit or miss' strategy in the selection. Add this to an agent who has already been aggravated by bad submissions, and your query may get an unfair assessment, if it even gets assessed.

All we can hope for is that our story stands on its own merit, our query avoids all the prohibited mistakes, and that the agent has had a good morning or afternoon.

IMO, a gatekeeper such as an agent is necessary and preferable to judgment by the masses (such as the Amazon ratings). Not all those who like to cruise & drop reviews on Amazon are purchasers. They have their own agendas.

Faysie said...

I think the whole query/slush process is flawed, because editors are the ones who buy books, but agents read slush. That's backwards.

It would be nice if the system allowed agents to focus on getting the best possible deals/contracts for their author clients. The system now seems to force agents to focus on reading the minds of editors, even though they are supposed to work for the WRITERS, not the editors. And it forces writers to write to agents tastes rather than editors, and the editors are the ones who actually buy the book.

It makes no sense at all, really.

Margaret Yang said...

When I go into the bookstore, the first thing I look at is shelf of the genre I like. Then I look at covers and read the blurbs. Of those, I select a few and read the first pages.

How is querying any different? In other words, agents simply use the same criteria that future book buyers will use.

Kris said...

I think it's very possible for someone to write a great query and a blah novel. They're completely different types of writing. Not so sure if it's likely a writer would write a blah query and a great novel if she's properly done her homework about queries.

As someone already said, it's in the definition. It does NOT work if great novels aren't being discovered, but none of us know whether that's the outcome or not.

Melissa said...

Yep, I think it works.

If I were to improve the system, it would be to standardize what was sent to agents -- query letter, first five pages, and synopsis seems to cover all the bases. Agent could then pick and choose as needed.

crow productions said...

I want to believe

Ruth Horowitz said...

I would have said no six weeks ago, when I was furiously sending out queries and receiving rejections at just as furious a pace. Then an agency I had approached months earlier, and had long since written off as not interested, expressed interest

My query hit the right note with the right person at the right time. But my email may have never even gotten read if I hadn't been able to include in my subject line the name of a friend the agency already represented.

Now that I'm happily signed with the agency, I'm inclined to say that the process works. But I'll probably whether it was my letter that made the difference, or the connection.

Mira said...

First, thanks, Nathan. Thanks for opening this discussion and letting us weigh in on this.

My take:

Oh my goodness, no, the query system doesn't work.

I agree with Strata. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding says:


a. Agents are absolutely overwhelmed.

b. Writers are spending literally months of their lives on the query, when they should be spending it on their genre writing skills.

c. 15% earn out rate.

Queries screen for the wrong thing.

Also, there are just too many of them, and their format is too cumbersome to allow for any clarity.

In addition, unfortunately, there's a logical fallacy in the idea that any writer can write anything. I wish that were true. I'd try to make a killing writing country lyrics.

If every single writer could write in every single genre, then every single writer could write: screenplays, poetry, sales copy, horror, romance, children's picture books, erotica, literary fiction, comic strips, science fiction, country lyrics, opera lyrics oh and business letters.

I'm not sure even Shakespeare could to that!

On the other hand, there's no arguing that the query is better than the referral system. But it's a stepping stone. There is a better system out there that the query is leading us to - one that doesn't exhaust agents, one that allows writers to hone the right skills and one that brings the cream of the writing crop to the top.

I firmly believe that.

Anonymous said...

No, it doesn't.

Let me follow that up by saying - mostly. :)

I think the idea that some agents read a query - but no pages = and make their determination based on that is inane.

It's like a job interview (I do zillions of them a week - that's zillions!!) Sure I can spot a few wackos before I even talk to them. I had a lady show up in pajama pants once - no I'm not kidding. I have also had people interview for 75k/years jobs in Metallica t-shirts. Yes, I form a first impression, and yes I am often right.

But you know what? I ALWAYS talk to them. I have had my mind changed. It is NEVER worth dismissing someone based on their resume/clothing choice. The number of quality people I would have missed is not tremendous, but it is significant.

By the same token, if an agent is not reading pages, I would have to wonder just how serious they are about finding new work/clients.

So do queries work? Probably not,

Do query PACKAGES (w/ pages, synopsis etc) work - seems to me they are a better yardstick at least...

reader said...

I can say this as someone who has been agented, sold a novel, and is now unagented: I don't think it works at all. I think, honestly, it's more luck than anything else. It depends what the mood of the agent is, what other queries he's just read, how busy he/she is and numerous other things.

I think being able to paste five or ten pages is a better indicator than the query. Certain plot-heavy books are easier to query because you can automatically give a sense of urgency. Character X needs Y or T will happen, etc... Other, more conptemplative or character-based books don't fare as well. And if you can't get that initial interest, no one asks for pages to see they'll love it.

Mandy said...

I think the process works. It worked for me! But what writers need to remember is that it doesn't stop at the query letter. Waiting is hard, I KNOW. But you wait on queries, and then you wait on revisions, and after that you wait on subs, then you wait on editorial notes...

It's one in the same. The process is a necessary evil. And I am aware that MANY GREAT writers are overlooked in the query process. Agents receive hundreds of emails per week. And they read these queries and sample pages and requested subs for free. They're doing the best they can, just like us. You just have to be persistent and keep at it no matter what! :D

Nikki Hootman said...

Queries work swimmingly for plot-based books. They do not work so well for literary or character-based fiction.

Carl said...

It works within the current publishing model, though there is room for improvement in regard to processing and responding to the queries.

In order to be published, an author's work has to get through the gatekeepers to get to the publishers who decide what is marketable. The high cost of printing and the difficulty in placing books in bookstores limited the number of players in the industry and there is no easy way for a limited number of publishers to consider such a vast number of prospective books. However, as the cost of printing goes down (demand printing and ebooks) and the number of books sold online goes up, this model will change.

If books don't have to be printed first in order to be available for sale, there is going to be much less risk and cost involved in making a novel available for sale.

I don't think it will be long before some agents, editors, and marketers come together to offer a service whereby they bypass the regular publishers and become "micro publishers" themselves. When and if that happens, more routes to publication will open and then the process may change. It will be something between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

Until then, there has to be a way for a virtually unlimited number of prospective manuscripts to be screened and considered for publication. I do think that agents that request a sample and synopsis with the query are much less likely to miss a gem, though.

Emily White said...

Of course it works--new writers are getting published all the time. I'm sure some really great books are passed over, but that's going to be true for any system.

Reena Jacobs said...

I don't like the query process, and I don't think it's ideal for any party (publishers, agents, or authors). However, it does seem to be a valuable tool for agencies and publishers seeking new material while trying to weed through the massive amount of submissions.

It's far easier to read a 200-400 word query letter than 5-30 pages. Furthermore, reading the first 5-30 pages doesn't really give an idea of the storyline, it just shows whether the writer has talent or not. A successful story needs both the writing skills and the great story.

As an author, I think of the query process as burning bridges. Sending a query is a one shot deal. If the query doesn't hook the agent the first time, it's a no go for that project even if the writer makes changes. The worst is not receiving feedback, which can mean the author ends up shooting blindly the next time around also.

Still, what other choices are there? I can't imagine agents have time to sift through pages of a writer's work without knowing the storyline. And why bother even reading the pages if the story sounds drab or not the agent's thing?

In the end, queries are a matter of practicality. Until someone develops a better process, it's the one we have.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, yes I did write a perfect query after about two hundred tries, a lot of research, and year after my MS was done. Problem is I lost the one I wanted to send out, now I have to read all two hundred of them again to find that perfect one.

Oh well the world will have to wait a little longer.

Terry Stonecrop said...

I voted, no, because I think the work is more important. But I can't speak for agents, it may work for them.

I do wonder why the obsession with query letters. They use to be needed only for non-fiction writers, or so I'm told.

popsicledeath said...

The 'it worked for me' reasoning is like asking a group of lotto players if they think the lottery is a good way to make money. Sure, a lot are going to say it worked for them, but that doesn't mean the lottery is where folks should be building their retirement nest-egg.

The query system is dumb. I know, my falutin is pretty high, eh? But seriously, think about it this way. If you owned a sports team, would you want your players to be on the field practicing, or up in the front office negotiating their contract? You want them practicing, which is why agents come into play; so the writers are writing, not wasting (err spending) their time on all the b'niss. But now, with the amount of time, skill and effort wasted (errr, again I mean spent!) on queries, it's about time writers need query agents to help them get an agent-agents.

If I'm an agent (I'm not), I don't want my writers spending copious amounts of time--and from the people I've talked to they've spent TONS of it--on the querying process (much more than just the query itself, mind you). I want them WRITING.

On the flip side, if I'm a writer (I'm not, really, lol), I don't want an agent who spends copious amounts of time reading queries. Surely, that's the hugest waste of time possible... there are so many better things the agent could be doing.

So, where are we... the writers need agents to get agents, and the agents need assistants with assistants... all, imo, because the bloated corpse that is the query system.

But what alternatives are there? Well, this is why I'm a believer of the short story. The only one left in America, granted, but I still believe! Writers practice their craft, find their voice, learn how to actually formulate an effing story arc, and publish short fiction which makes their parents proud and makes them a little scratch (very little). Win for the writer, right? But how will the agent know about the writers?

Well, they read the effing plethora of short stories that are being published. Or, better yet, word of mouth and assistants lead the agents to the short stories. And guess what, they HAVE a sample of your work already. The best part is the short fiction publishers do most of the filtering. Even bester part, the agents are reading contemporary fiction and aren't becoming out of touch (novel idea, eh?).

And yes, this DOES currently happen, though it's not the norm I don't believe. Why? Hell if I know. Probably because writers don't want to write short stories, because they aren't marketable and there is no reason to... but there would be if it was THE way to find agents, as they would find you, and wouldn't have to dig through the shit-tillion queries of people that found them, but aren't what the agent is looking for.

I know, I know, there are those that say short fiction and novels are just such different writing... horsepoo. Sure, some people are better with different forms, but as someone said here about writing queries, good writers can write good. The notion that one can be an amazing novelist, but crappy short fiction writer, is mostly, imo, grounded in the fact that the competition to get short fiction published in a reputable journal is even harder than getting a novel picked up (imo!). The standards for short fiction seem higher, the level of writing expected to be better and more tight. So, god forbid, by encouraging more novelists to 'have to' write short stories to get agents, maybe the quality of novels would actually go up a bit, which imo is sorely needed.

In conclusion, shrug.

Jeni Decker said...

My first instinct is to answer:

"Yes, it works...like Health Care in this country."

But, that would be very wrong of me.

Truth is, as horrid as it is to have to write a query, it's the author trying to 'sell' the agent on their book (and ultimately them as a client)

So it's a necessary evil. Sure, I've seen many great queries that didn't have the great MS to back it up. And vice/versa. Sucky query, great book--that will never get read because the writer didn't appropriately convey the tone, plot and 'voice' of the book in question.

So many 'rules' about queries, but funny thing, I had the best luck (publication) from a query I wrote in first person POV. Rule breaker alert!

So it's a very dicey, subjective thing. Lots of luck involved, IMHO. Right time, right place, right agent/publisher.

But what are the alternatives? I do agree that agents that accept the first 5-10 pages with the query probably have a more accurate representatation of the work being submitted. Because the writer should be able to hook the reader by that point. If not, shame on us.

(Or them for not 'getting' it, depending on your perspective!)

atsiko said...

A lot of people here seem to be answering the question: "Is the query system perfect?"

Well, of course not. No system is perfect.

But the query system has managed to put more books on the shelves that I would want to read than I could possibly afford to read in my lifetime, either through time or money. That's my qualification of if it works or not.

The problem here has nothing to do with the query system, or publishers trying to shove work off on agents. It has to do with far more prospective writers than the current publishing ecology can handle.

If writers are preditors and reader are prey, there's just not enough prey to support the number of preditors. Even with most of those preditors being prey themselves.

What happens when you have too many preditors? There's more competition for each prey animal. None off the bitching and moaning about the query system that goes on is addressing the real problem: There aren't enough readers.

No matter how efficient you make the system for picking the best preditor, most of them are going to starve.

Linda Godfrey said...

I think it is working in a hit-or-miss fashion because that's all there is right now. However, I think that the present system of writer-targeting-agent will eventually give way to a more mutually searchable online system where agents can also hunt for what they want. Wish I knew how that would work, exactly (because I would run to the nearest web developer and do it!), but I think something like it is inevitable given the crushing numbers of queries agents are now dealing with.

Anonymous said...

I think there was a time when it worked and was the best way for an author and agent to connect.

But now, no I don't think it works, or at least, it's not as efficient as it could be.

It's become such a hard fact that you have have to follow the "successful query formula" to be noticed, but so many people now know how to follow that "formula" or at least are able to fake it that it all just become a big mess again.

I think as the Internet has changed publishing and the book industry and I think the agents who find ways to adapt are going to have the best success. Look at this site. I guarantee that most people are here because they think that if they interact with Nathan enough that he'll sign them. I suspect that Nathan receives more queries than most agents.

On an unrelated note, I get the impression that many agents strongly dislike even having to read queries and that most writers consider querying a notch above gambling - you can read all the strategy guides you want, but if you happen to send your query on a bad day for an agent, you're s outta l.

Anonymous said...

No. I think there are so many markers that make people say no to queries.(word length, misuse of a word, clunky line, too like other represented works, not in their undefined genre, etc.)

Agents often blog about why the no-s but not why the yes-s.

I think accepting 5-20 first pages helps a LOT.

And even for the first pages, I have read books that it took me 95% of the way through to get to the perfection of the book - the reason it should exist.

Most editors I've heard from don't believe queries work either.

Maybe queries are the best of a poor system, but I wish agents would just say... I am interested in Vampire novels -send me all you've got.(or whatever).

Anonymous said...

In my writing group, there are eight writers - all different.
I think they could all be found a market.

Yes, some need more grooming/developmental time, but all have something going on.

Maybe completely unpractical, but it would be cool if agents kept taking on new writers until they couldn't and then closed down until they could again as opposed to, well five great projects passed my desk and I just chose one today and we'll see what next week brings in.

Ron said...

Saying that if you're a good writer you should also be able to write a good query is like saying that if you can write a good historical novel you should be able to write up a good business plan. They really aren't related.

In addition, some books/writers just don't lend themselves well to a query. Do you think that you could write a query that aptly conveys Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" or William Gibson's award winning "Virtual Light"? I can't even imagine what those would look like.

Okay fine, I hate the publishing "hierarchy" said...

Here is absolute proof that the query system is flawed and doesn't work - What would you rather have: a flawless query (which says NOTHING about whether a book is good/marketable or not), or a friend who will hook you up with their agent?

Nathan Bransford said...

okay fine-

Well, I think your premise is flawed because there's really no such thing as a "flawless" query that is not reflective of a good/marketable project. There's really only so much lipstick you can put on a pig.

Also, referrals are great, but even still all things being equal I'd probably choose the flawless query if it were my novel (preferably you have both). Finding an agent is about fit, and you ultimately never really know who is going to be a fit.

Anna L. Walls said...

Well, I suppose it works - I certainly can't think of a better way. But it sure hasn't worked for me. :-(

Ashley A. said...

I voted "yes." I don't have an agent, but I do have a general sort of faith in the people who have chosen to work in publishing.

Agents who request the first 5 pages of a ms along with the query seem to improve the odds of everyone's success. Neither writers nor agents exist in a vacuum; we cannot become rich and famous independent of each other!

And really, a query is just a business letter, the basics of which, I believe, are taught in seventh grade.

P.A.Brown said...

I don't think it works. I'm not selling my query, I'm selling my novel. Having to write some 3 paragraph piece that won't look like a million other 3 paragraphs that cross an agent's desk and in the end tells the agent nothing about my skill as a writer is ludicrous. All I want is the agent to look at the first page of my ms. Forget the query, forget the synopsis, look at ME.

I imagine after the first thirty or forty they scan in a day their eyes glaze over and all the queries blur together. How can anyone stand out in that? If your query is at the top of the list read that day, then maybe the agent actually reads it. Chances are, as the day goes on and the eyes start crossing, they don't get really read, just skimmed.

bethhull.com said...

It works okay. No it isn't perfect. I read about this idea or dreamed it: some online database where authors upload their pitches, and agents in the market for authors to represent can then click on whatever genre they want, read through the pitches, and shop for authors & manuscripts. Does this exist, and if so, is it used? Would it even be feasible? I don't have time to check because I'm busy revising (er, procrastinating).

ElizaJane said...

Poor unpublished me voted "yes" out of pure blind faith: I believe! Yes, I believe that the system WILL work for me.
I feel slightly like a figure from George Orwell.

M Clement Hall said...

Works for whom? It's designed and operated by the agents and editors, not the writers, and only the agents and editors can change it.
The face to face opportunity at a meeting seems to me to be a better system, especially if a few pages of the manuscript precede the meeting.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

The process was long, exhausting, and often discouraging, but it worked for me.

Kristi Helvig said...

I'm an optimist by nature so I voted yes, although I have yet to go through this process. I might have a different response in a few months! :)

Julieanne Reeves said...

What I think would be really cool is a genome project for books.

I listen to Pandora Radio, while I write, or clean house or... well pretty much anything.

It's a database that lets you listen to music, you like.

It takes each song and divides it into catagories such as symphonic metal, classical overtones etc etc etc. YOu enter a song. Say "Forever" by Kamelot or "Soldiers Of The Wasteland" by dragon force (both good songs by the way) And the database says: "That's a song A so if you like song A what about Aa, Ab, Ac and lets throw in B just to see what you think.
You decide you like song Aa, Ac and B and it throws more at you until it has a very clear idea of which songs you like, then it plays those type of songs occassionaly introducing new songs for you to decide if you like or not.

So lets apply that to books for a moment. If every book was assigned in such a manner and tracked which ones were purchased, what made them hits, what sunk other ones (kind of going back to the BUZZ article the other day) and Agents knew what people liked, what made books sell, then they could create thier own Agent wide database.

I as a writer could go in and enter all the information about my book, maybe even download the entire MS or sections of it. Have drop and drag menu screens to put as much info about the book out there then pick the agents I'm interested in.

Agents X, Y and Z take a look at my "query" size it up based against the market and say "Hey, this has potential because the readers out there say this is what they like."
So X and Z contact said author and make an offer for representation.

Just a thought.

Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado said...

At one time the query process must have worked well. That time being when there were far less queries. When an author had to type up original hard copies and mail them off, you can bet fewer went out. Now, ten, twenty or more can be generated and emailed in no time... Agents must feel completely overwhelmed and sometimes miss a pearl.

Tyler Davis said...

Queries work... It's that simple. Once you are an established writer, you really don't have to deal with them. It won't take you years to become an established writer if you can't write queries. It will take you years because you can't write a good story. Face it. The hardest part of writing is WRITING. Not writing queries.

Genella deGrey said...

I think the process works for the most part.

However, if the agent is distracted, not on top of their game for whatever reason or just having a bad day, it can color their judgment.

Heck, I've had a distracted EDITOR before.

:)
G.


It happens.

Alpha Otter said...

What I LOVE about the query system is that it gives everyone a fair shot to be looked at by people in the heart of the industry. This is one thing I love about the publishing industry and writing in general.

I am also a musician/composer and the path into the heart of the music industry is much more opaque and troublesome in my opinion (there is no query system or even a clearly defined path to getting music published or getting a record deal).

Compared to what composers/songwriters go through, I think there is much to be thankful for about the query process.

Cheryl Gower said...

Querying is an aruduous process on both ends. I'm helping a person re-write a query letter that you rejected--and I recommended you to be her agent!!
An agent has such a pile of letters to plow through; the response should be a little more personal, which takes time--I get that; and authors want the AGENT to read their work, not an intern. But there must be a lot of great writing that is being passed over because the query letter intimidated the hell out of the author. Gosh, what a conundrum!

Anonymous said...

Along the same lines, do you think the agent querying editors is working? It's a side of the business that we don't hear a lot about.

As a writer approaching this process, I sometimes feel like I don't know have enough information to make informative queries. I think more agents needs to provide lists of books they're selling, so that writers can find the right agent. Although a lot of agents say they will represent a lot of genres, agents' selling behavior don't always follow suit. So more information would be nice.

Jeffery E Doherty said...

In an ideal world, the agent would read the manuscript and judge the entire work. But then you would be swamped in paper an never get to even a fraction of the submissions. I can't see any other way than the query process.

Jeff

Priya Parmar said...

it worked for me. it was tough and took tons of research and i am sure oodles of luck but my book found the right agent and now the right publisher and i couldn't be happier.

Liesl said...

I don't have a personal opinion, as I haven't started the query process, but lately I've been thinking that it's probably flawed. I see books that have a great "hook" or "high concept" and I get all excited about them, but they fail to deliver the goods on the actual story and writing. It seems like these authors got in because they understood the business and marketing in general, had good ideas and their writing was passable. But I sure feel cheated after reading their stories.

I think there are probably some amazing writers who are incapable of boiling their work down to a 200 word pitch, who really don't know how to maneuver the business side of things. Query writing a different art-form. Incredible artists often has difficulty thinking about the business part.

I can't really think of a solution, as no editor or agent can read thousands of books every year to find the hidden gems, but I think we're probably missing out on some amazing stuff. All I know is that many of the new books I've been reading lately, books which got a lot of marketing hype, failed to impress me. And they all had agents.

Cassandra said...

Nathan -- what do YOU think? Presumably if you thought there was a better way you'd be using it for yourself, but if you could decree an industry-wide model what would it be?

Suzann Ellingsworth said...

It works. It's about as effective a sales tool as jacket copy,movie trailers and commercials: an unquantifiable element will resonate for unquantifiable reasons, while the majority will not, many also for unquantifiable cause.

Determining effectiveness by a percentage who go on to land representation and/or a contract is as silly as deciding queries are fatally flawed by the number that fail to elicit representation and/or contracts. Somewhere upward of 90% are awful.

It is as and what it is. Getting off duffs and meeting prospective agents and editors at writers' conferences is often the best business practice. No words on a page can express story-passion like a face-to-face.

nomadshan said...

It worked for me, though my agent wasn't the one I queried at his agency; the one I queried shared my manuscript with him. So there was some goodwill involved, too.

Anonymous said...

The query process is dehumanizing.

I put hundreds of hours into those queries, writing and rewriting, printing and sending. My reward was a series of form rejection letters.

I continue to write books, but I won't query again. I publish ebooks, and I've sold over 5,000 in the past 6 months. If my work is good enough for big publishing I figure I'll be found out here on the interwebs.

Nathan Bransford said...

Cassandra-

If I could think of and implement a system that worked better than queries I'd do it in a heartbeat. Haven't found it though. In my opinion there's no real substitute for seeing a concise description of someone's work and a brief sample. Anything more is too time-consuming. Anything less doesn't give you what you need to make an informed decision.

Moira Young said...

Oh, wait. What about Authonomy.com?

JEM said...

I said this before. Compare results.

Pick an agent and determine his/her success rate: books published using the query process that made money.

Then number all his/her new queries, and pick a few of those out of a hat. Work on publishing those as if they were the result of fantastic queries.

If the success rate for the hat is better than the success rate for the current query process, the hat wins and some other process needs to be created.

I'm not just being a wise ass. If we first assume that identifying publishable books is truly random, then we can ask what additional info could the agent request to find out who got into the hat and who didn't?

That info is where agentry should focus, because everything that goes into the hat is therefore worth publishing.

An agent can only process so much material in a 40-hour week. So if the agent can do justice to only 3 new works per week but gets 200 queries, let the sorting hat determine who gets in and let the agent give that material his/her full attention. Everything else gets returned to authors. The agent gets a workload he/she can manage. The writers may have missed the lottery at that agent, but they can quickly go on to another. And the 3 books the agent can actually work on get his/her full attention.
If the agent is good, those books get published, the agent gets paid, the publisher makes money.

Lia Keyes said...

I prefer to meet agents and editors in person via conferences and workshops. By submitting pages for review, wonderful things can and do happen. I took a class on how to write a query letter (taught by a top agent), but I couldn't reduce the breadth of my story without the result sounding generic. Yet each time I submitted pages at conferences and workshops I received offers to submit a full manuscript, and offers of representation.

I signed with one of the three big name agents who made me an offer. I doubt it would have happened if I'd queried.

It's a pity that workshops and conferences are so expensive. But it's certainly a test of how badly you want to be published. I had to make a lot of sacrifices to attend each one, so each one had to be a calculated gamble. But I did my research, chose carefully, and came out smiling.

Renee Sweet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Renee Sweet said...

(sorry! blogger freaked and double-posted my comment)

scott g.f.bailey said...

It worked for me. If you can't write a couple of convincing paragraphs regarding what's cool about your own book, then either your book isn't that cool or you don't know your own book very well or you don't write convincingly or some combination of the three. And that's probably enough--in the general case--for most agents to judge by. Also, I included the first 5 pages of my novel with every query I sent, no matter what the agent's policies said.

Anonymous said...

"A father and son travel along a lonely road facing canibals and starvation as they head toward the ocean in a post-apocalyptic tale."

Would you have requested more?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I would have if the author signed their name Cormac McCarthy. I wouldn't even have minded that he spelled cannibal wrong.

Cyndy Aleo-Carreira said...

Personally, I hate it. It's the equivalent of asking a singer to sing two notes for an audition. The ability to tell a story isn't the same as writing a query and I think it does a disservice to some writers who may not be able to write a concise marketing piece, while it might help those who are better at marketing than writing.

However, it's not like I can think of any other idea for the process.

Jeffrey Russell said...

No. I think it is a flawed way to go about finding new talent, or even new works from previously published talent. Advice on query writing usually includes some version of “think jacket copy - but include the ending.” And it’s universally accepted that a writer is, or certainly should be, qualified for the task. But let me ask you this: How many publishers ask the author to write the jacket copy? I’d guess none. Why is that? After all, wouldn’t it save the publisher money?

They don’t ask authors to do it because they wisely employ skilled, trained marketing people to do it. People in whom they have much more confidence than they have in the author for something so important.

The music business has an intense, never-ending need for talent too. But they don’t ask for a demo tape of 10-20 seconds which somehow magically encompasses everything the artist has created. They listen to the actual music, not a summary of it. I get it that listening to a 3-5 minute demo tape is a lot different than spending an hour or two reading 3-5000 words of a manuscript. And I get it that publishers and agents are deluged with submissions. But I’d guess there are just as many new musical acts seeking recording contracts as there are writers seeking publishing. Finding new talent, and new works from established talent, is equally vital to both the music business and the book business. But the music business takes it more seriously. Publishers rely on established authors for everything, and devote little time seeking new writers. If the music business went about things like publishers do The Rolling Stones would still be chart toppers.

I’m not saying I know how to fix it. I don’t. But I don’t know how to fix the furnace in my house either, but I can tell when it’s broken.

Jeffrey Russell said...

No. I think it is a flawed way to go about finding new talent, or even new works from previously published talent. Advice on query writing usually includes some version of “think jacket copy - but include the ending.” And it’s universally accepted that a writer is, or certainly should be, qualified for the task. But let me ask you this: How many publishers ask the author to write the jacket copy? I’d guess none. Why is that? After all, wouldn’t it save the publisher money?

They don’t ask authors to do it because they wisely employ skilled, trained marketing people to do it. People in whom they have much more confidence than they have in the author for something so important.

The music business has an intense, never-ending need for talent too. But they don’t ask for a demo tape of 10-20 seconds which somehow magically encompasses everything the artist has created. They listen to the actual music, not a summary of it. I get it that listening to a 3-5 minute demo tape is a lot different than spending an hour or two reading 3-5000 words of a manuscript. And I get it that publishers and agents are deluged with submissions. But I’d guess there are just as many new musical acts seeking recording contracts as there are writers seeking publishing. Finding new talent, and new works from established talent, is equally vital to both the music business and the book business. But the music business takes it more seriously. Publishers rely on established authors for everything, and devote little time seeking new writers. If the music business went about things like publishers do The Rolling Stones would still be chart toppers.

I’m not saying I know how to fix it. I don’t. But I don’t know how to fix the furnace in my house either, but I can tell when it’s broken.

Jeffrey Russell said...

No. I think it is a flawed way to go about finding new talent, or even new works from previously published talent. Advice on query writing usually includes some version of “think jacket copy - but include the ending.” And it’s universally accepted that a writer is, or certainly should be, qualified for the task. But let me ask you this: How many publishers ask the author to write the jacket copy? I’d guess none. Why is that? After all, wouldn’t it save the publisher money?

They don’t ask authors to do it because they wisely employ skilled, trained marketing people to do it. People in whom they have much more confidence than they have in the author for something so important.

The music business has an intense, never-ending need for talent too. But they don’t ask for a demo tape of 10-20 seconds which somehow magically encompasses everything the artist has created. They listen to the actual music, not a summary of it. I get it that listening to a 3-5 minute demo tape is a lot different than spending an hour or two reading 3-5000 words of a manuscript. And I get it that publishers and agents are deluged with submissions. But I’d guess there are just as many new musical acts seeking recording contracts as there are writers seeking publishing. Finding new talent, and new works from established talent, is equally vital to both the music business and the book business. But the music business takes it more seriously. Publishers rely on established authors for everything, and devote little time seeking new writers. If the music business went about things like publishers do The Rolling Stones would still be chart toppers.

I’m not saying I know how to fix it. I don’t. But I don’t know how to fix the furnace in my house either, but I can tell when it’s broken.

Anonymous said...

"A young girl remembers life with her family in racist Mississippi as her father defends a black man in a rape trial while she and her brother try to catch a glimpse of the mysterious loner at the end of their street."

Nathan Bransford said...

jeffrey-

I don't know, how the music industry treats demo tapes sure sounds a lot like the query process. 3-5 minutes for a good query plus sample pages sounds about right. I somehow doubt they listen to the whole 3-5 minutes of every mix tape.

Marilyn Peake said...

It depends on how this question is interpreted. I think there are many agents out there who are really great people and who love literature – and this definitely includes Nathan. I know quite a few authors who have received phone calls and long emails from agents telling them that their manuscript is outstanding, but probably won’t sell enough copies, so they have to reject their book. Years ago, I read about mid-list authors who were happy to remain mid-list authors, and the big publishing companies were happy to keep on publishing them. One such author had something like thirty books published by a large publishing house. Recently, I’ve read quite a few blogs by agents and authors talking about how authors selling only at mid-list level in today’s market have been refused future contracts because they didn’t bring in enough money. Some of those authors (and I know some of them personally from online writers’ groups) were told to consider using a pen name, in order to appear to be a debut author, if they ever wanted to get another book published. There are many excellent books out there. Many of the best books are published by the big publishing houses, but others that would have been great mid-list books are now published by indie presses. This year, an indie press novel by a debut author who had trouble getting published won the Pulitzer Prize in Literature. The novel only sold 15,000 copies, considered "nothing by commercial standards" according to USA TODAY. Here’s the article: Paul Harding’s debut, 'Tinker,' takes Pulitzer Prize for fiction. So, I answered "No" for "Do You Think the Query Process Works?" because, for me personally, the query process will work when agents are free to offer contracts for every submission they consider exceptionally well-written and no longer feel compelled to reject outstanding manuscripts because they might not sell enough copies. Until then, I buy some of my books from big publishing houses, some from indie presses, and some that are self-published.

And I don’t accept the argument that publishing houses have to do business this way in order to stay in business, considering that CEOs of corporations that own multiple publishing houses are multi-billionaires. They’re nowhere near going out of business. Here’s an article about Albert Frère who sold back his 25% percent stake in Bertelsmann to Bertelsmann (Bertelsmann owns many companies, including Random House which in turn owns many publishing houses): The Relentless Hunt for the Next Deal. This excerpt is particularly interesting:

Deals, Mr. Frère freely acknowledges, while sitting in his favorite high-backed crimson chair in an apartment furnished with 18th-century antiques, are his drugs.

"Listen," he said with a mischievous smile, "it’s so enriching and really amusing to succeed at a deal. It’s like when little children receive gifts. For me, it’s the same thing. It’s why I often say to work hard, but do it with pleasure."

Mr. Frère’s heady, high-stakes play is just as intoxicating to analysts and rivals eager to anticipate the next move of this self-made billionaire, sometimes called the Warren Buffet of Belgium because of his diverse portfolio of value-driven investments.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Does the author mention that she can get a blurb from Truman Capote?

Also: I've seen S.E. Hinton's query for The Outsiders. There are so many debut classics that went through the query process it really disproves this whole "would you have spotted such and such" game.

Anonymous said...

I'm tired. I can't help my spelling when I'm tired. *lol* But what if he hadn't signed his name Cormac McCarthy? Who would have taken a chance on that book had they not known the author?

What if he'd been a completely new author?

I'm not saying the world couldn't have lived without The Road, but it is one of my favorite books and I wonder how many other amazing books are turned away because of a bad or non-descript query letter...because no one took a chance to read even a few pages. You can usually tell within a page if the book is going to be horribly written. Wouldn't it make much more sense to have authors send in their first page? Or maybe the query and first page?

Sandy Shin said...

Considering most agents ask for the first 5-10 pages to accompany the queries, YES, I do think the query process works.

The query is to "hook" agents with your premise, your pitch -- frankly, if the premise of your book won't hook agents, how will it do readers? And if agents can always read the first 5-10 pages to judge your actual writing. Personally, I've stopped reading books after fewer pages, so I believe 5-10 pages are perfectly sound numbers.

I can't say I'll enjoy going through the query process, but yes, it's fair and it works.

Ink said...

Anon, I find that sort of funny. It's not a question of whether your most simplistic description of The Road is enticing. It's a question of whether Cormac McCarthy could write a single page query interesting enough to get a request from an agent. I'm pretty sure Cormac wouldn't be bitching about the impossibility of the query. I have a feeling he can write a bit. And that would include a query. Hell, I'd read that man's grocery list.

Neil said...

I didn't do an actual count, but by what I read, "not sure" would have gotten the most votes. But that option wasn't available. Most of us who read you and other agents blogs are not published authors or have even queried. So how can we assess a system that we have so little information or experience with?

Marisa said...

Okay, here's an idea I've got.

It's still querying but has a few elements that might eliminate a few friction points...smooth out the funnel from wannabe to rejection/acceptance. Because while we all want acceptance, what is needed is quick and relatively painless exchange..."want to see this?" "um, no." OR "hell, yes!"

Have a big SUBMIT QUERY TO NATHAN button on your website homepage. No more emails. (agent gets his email in-box back, woot!) When an author clicks on it they are sent to a simple form (I am thinking it would look like wufoo's forms).

The first fields are the basics: name, contact info, word count, genre and/or category.

Radio button the genre/category options and ONLY options are the areas the agent reps (here is next major friction point reduction effort: this would hopefully contribute to massively reducing the submissions that don't fit the agent). Include one "other" type-in field for the hybrid or "hey, I never knew I wanted to rep that!" gem; yes idiots will abuse this field but they'd all be together since the database report can be sorted by the radio button entries.

Then a field for the query itself. Limited word/character count visible on the screen = set by agent's preference i.e. 150 words.

Then a field for the author info, background, publishing history. Limited word/character count visible on the screen = set by agent i.e. 150 words.

All elements are coded so if author skips/forgets...say contact info...form won't submit. No more incomplete queries!

Form submissions dump into simple database report...sortable by genre, word count, type of genre/category, etc.

Plus length of query/author details is controlled with the agent's preferred word count, so pacing through the day's subs might be more predictable and hence more manageable and quicker to process.

The beauty is more for the agent than the authors but anything that makes process simpler, quicker and flow better for Nathan/agents... the better for us authors.

stupid idea or a maybe?

wufoo is free for a single form with report and 100 replies. easy to test-pilot!

Fawn Neun said...

As you've declined mine, I would have to say no. ;)

Seriously, my own work aside, I can't think of anything better but I'm not happy with the query process.

As an editor, I really feel I need to read more of the work than a query + five before I can say whether or not I'm interested in publishing it. On the other hand, a query letter will definitely indicate if it's something I will never be interested in publishing.

Queries with synopis? Query with a larger writing sample? Query with an outline? Query with the whole manuscript?

I say yeah. We use a submissions management system that works great, filters out a lot of chaffe, doesn't bomb our computers with viruses and has an automatic confirmation email and a set up for a form rejection and form acceptance. We can read the cover, read the submission in pdf, no obligation to go past page five, nothing standing in the way of reading to the end if we are intrigued.

I can't imagine what kind of query letter some of the most recent great novels would have read like. Can you imagine querying 'Atonement'. Or 'The Road'? :)

I would say that it works for some writers and most agents. I would guess that it doesn't work for the majority of writers. The editors, on the other hand, are having a field day.

Anonymous said...

The process works, but its overall relevance has shrunk in the last few years and will continue to do so.

Anonymous said...

"Also: I've seen S.E. Hinton's query for The Outsiders. There are so many debut classics that went through the query process it really disproves this whole "would you have spotted such and such" game."
-------
The Outsiders was published in 1967, not 2010. Completely different universe as far as the publishing industry.

It's funny, the biggest no-no in a query is to say that your book will make soooooo much money, when really, that's all they want to hear anyway.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why writers always say, "they should read the wholel thing before deciding." How sillyl is that? How do you pick which 2-hour movie to go see? From the 30 second trailers they show you online and on tv, or from the 2-sentence descriptions on the netflix site. When your book is for sale in the store or on Amazon, how do you think people will make the decision to buy it? By the cover and the jacket copy.

So if you, the author, can't convince agents/editors/publishers to at least take a look at the opening chapters, then how are you going to get book buying consumers to plunk down their cash and time to read an unknown writer's book? Many naively think "the publisher will get people to buy it with ther magical promotion wizardry," but that's not true. If you lack the skills to sell it to agents and publishers now, it means you also lack the skills to sell it to the public at large--perhaps because of your pitch, perhaps because of the book itself, perhaps both.

Most stuff just isn't that marketable, economically viable, commercially competitive, pick your phrase of choice.

Rick Daley said...

It's worked for me so far, I have an agent and a manuscript on submission (and fingers crossed).

ryan field said...

I voted yes. I think it does work.

And the only alternative I can think of would be if writers just submitted sample pages with contact info and a list of publishing credits. But that would be so impersonal.

Francis said...

It works because it's fair.

Everyone is playing on the same level, everyone has a chance.

All of us is allowed a one minute chance to get published. It might not be the ideal for the writer himself, but the system is completely unbiased.

So the answer is yes.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Um. Do you think 1967 was the last time a book was published due to the query process?

Megan Van Eyck said...

It can be confusing. Take an entry from the Query Shark:
http://queryshark.blogspot.com/2010/04/153.html

and compare it to this one from Rachelle Gardner.
http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/2010/04/query-critique-franklins-ladder.html

This is all very confusing and makes me wish for form letters...fill in the blanks or mad libs.

Kristin Laughtin said...

From an outsiders' perspective, I say yes for the majority of cases. I'm sure there are some fine books out there that could have been published and loved, but the author just couldn't figure out the query thing. Does this mean there aren't frustrations? Of course there are! Writers want the process to move faster, agents want fewer poorly-written or ill-researched queries, and writers don't want to live in fear that 200 words could make or break their chance of getting published.

That said, my perspective could change once I start querying. I've done my homework, though, so I hope I'll be successful without too much fuss. (Who wouldn't want that?)

I don't know what a better system would be, though, unless a magic device was invented that allowed agents to actually read all the manuscripts in the normal time they devote to queries.

Anonymous said...

Let me just state for the record that I know for a fact that those 3anon posts with the 1967 Outsiders one in the middle were not all by the same poster.

Anonymous said...

Is Amazon the new query system? Sell enough there on your own (say 10,000+ copies within a year) and be selected by the bigs?

Seems like new writers have more options these days, and that, yeah, if you rise high enough, you'll have--and need--an agent, but the agent isn't the only way to break in anymore.

Mystery Girl said...

I'm voting no.

This is my experience of using the current query system.

It generated requests for a couple of full ms and about five or six partials. The first full was rejected with comments the second the agent's intern lost it and after re-submitting it nothing happened. I have a file full of rejection letters and some queries that just vanished into the ether - some of them snail mailed with SASEs. Nathan you rejected my query but at least I know you saw it and you replied that day.

I think luck plays a huge part in getting an agent. That and being in the first ten or so queries an agent reads.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

I'm still new at it, like others, but I have always hated the idea of becoming a 'sales person' for my work. Isn't that the agent's job?

If agents are supremely gifted at picking out a good story just by the first line, or paragraph, shouldnt' we then just send the first page? They should be able to, from that,(and maybe a post saying what kind of book it is:paranormal, romance, historical fiction, etc.) tell if it is good enough to sell...right??

Also, since we are using e-mail, how hard is it to simply send the entire book? Then the agent can continue reading if he/she likes what they have read so far, cutting out the middle part of saying 'I like it, send more'.

Just a thought. I really do hate queries. But I am willing to sacrifice my comfort for the ones (agents) I love. *sniff sniff, smile*

Peter Dudley said...

The query system succeeds for publishers, but it fails as a system.

The theory is that it allows authors and agents to connect in order to sell a quality manuscript to a publisher. That does happen, and the publisher never has to sift through mounds of crap. But a system should also work efficiently.

The query process actually encourages the exponential proliferation of crappy writing. What is the most repeated advice about querying? "If you get a rejection, it's a step closer to an acceptance! Send it out again!"

Agents complain about the abysmal quality of the majority of the slush pile. They also complain about how much slush they get each week. Yet rejections are, by and large, form letters without usable advice to the author... and most of those form rejections say something like, "it's not right for me, but it might be right for someone else." So the crap not only gets into the system at the front end--it's encouraged to multiply once it's in.

How to fix it? I don't know. But I believe it's generally a poor system.

Anonymous said...

Mystery Girl,

Yes, luck plays a part, but the luck evens out when you query over time. If you keep re-querying, especially when you don't get a response, eventually you'll be one of the Q's the agent gets with fresh eyes (or whatever it is you think makes a difference).

Persistence is key. the approach is imporatnt too. Don't blow your wad, so to speak by sending queries all at once to your A-list. Have an A-list, B-list and C-list (say with 10 agents or so per list), and query in waves of 10 with about 3 agents from A, 3 from B, and 3 from C. That way, in case you realize a cpuple months later that you can make the Q better, you haven't already blown it with your top guns.

Also, never forget that no response does not equal no. Onyl no means no. Keep querying until you get a response. Don't be rediculous about it, and never call them, but hey, if 6 weeks go by and you've heard zilch, send it again. Every 6 six weeks. You'll get a response.

So how you go about the process can make a difference.

But more and more I think new writers don't even need an agent. An agent to do what? Handle all those massive sales and deal inquiries that are flooding your inbox? lol

Anne Pfeffer said...

Nathan:
Have you spent any time looking at Inkpop.com? I think the folks at Harper Collins are geniuses. They have created what is a essentially an online slush pile. It is the most exciting thing to happen to publishing in a long time, and it's going to replace the query system.
A number of agents turned down my manuscript LOVING EMILY because they thought the story was unmarketable and they didn't think girl readers would relate to a male protagonist. But I knew, if I could just get my book out there to girls, they would love it.
So I put it on Inkpop, and in two days it went from # 18,600 in the rankings to # 137. Now, it's at #62 and climbing daily. I have a growing fanbase and a pile of comments from readers telling me how much they love my male protagonist and my book. And I can contact any of them any time I want. My readers are my friends.
Inkpop is the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. I think I could even self-publish and sell directly to my fanbase, without going through an agent and publisher. Check it out! And check out LOVING EMILY! Cheers, Anne Pfeffer

J. T. Shea said...

That blurb for THE ROAD would have intrigued me even if I'd never heard of Cormac McCarthy.

Vincent Kale said...

The query process seems like a fair way of weeding out people who haven't done their homework or can't follow formatting instructions. If you've got a good premise that resonates with the agent and your writing is strong, odds are with you.

On the flipside, I really appreciate the agents that share the specific projects they would love to see come across their desks. Oh and of course the agents who blog regularly (brownie point!)

WriterGirl said...

I voted yes. Not because I think it's infallible, it's clearly not- we're always hearing stories about how the likes of JK Rowling was rejected a bazillion times or whatever but I simply don't see another realistic way of tackling all the would be novelists out there. I'm sure that if you have talent and you persevere (and you're open to looking at what might be wrong with your query) then eventually you'll get somewhere. It might not be easy to get published but the Query + 5 pages process really isn't so overwhelming? Admittedly I'm not at the querying stage so maybe my opinion isn't worth as much but the thought of querying doesn't bring me out in a cold sweat the way it seems to for the many many people who complain about it.

Anonymous said...

The art of the blurb is indispensible, especially down the line when you're established and need to send proposals for possible new books to editors. You don't want to have to write the whole thing out in order to find out if they'll buy it. There's no time for that--yo've got bills to pay, kids to feed, politicians to pay off...

How 'bout this 1-liner:

============================
A down-on-her luck history professor sees a chance to redeem herself when a serial killer with a penchant for participating in civil war renactments using live ammunition terrorizes the south.
============================

Do you really need to read the whole thig to 'get it'? Especially when accompanied with the word "thriller" in the query?

Anonymous said...

I think it used to. That is, I've sold novels by querying publishers.

Doesn't work with agents, though. I queried damn near every agent on the planet, yourself included, and got nothing but rejections. I finally got an agent when a friend recommended me to hers.

Beth Terrell said...

I voted yes, but I do think the process would be more effective if all queries could be accompanied by at least the first few pages of the manuscript.

Kimber An said...

I voted 'No,' but I actually really don't know.

I can tell you this. I've worked myself into a wicked case of Tendonitis learning how to write the very best book I can and learning to toe the genre line.

I've cranked out FOUR novels in four years.

My fourth one was my best, of course, after all that hard learning. However, I queried it AFTER the economy crashed.

***READ Mr. Bransford's 'Stepping Up Your Game' post. Read the line about publishers wanting 'the surest of the surest thing.'***

I got a truckload of requests for pages on all three of the previous novels, including tons for Fulls and received personal feedback.

This time I've received ONE request for a partial, no feedback.

Now I'm having a hard time believing the Query process will work for *me* and I really do not want to put in all those hours of research and such for a snowball's chance in heck at publication.

My hands hurt.

Time's they are a-changing and my stories are too wierd for New York. I am not a 'sure thing.' So, now I'm looking for ways to adapt to that fact.

ePublishing!

Chocolate!

Kittens!

Adapt or die.

Anonymous said...

I like Johnaskins idea of a checklist for filtering queries such as right genre for that agent, is ms finished, length, whatever that agent deems important - I really hate the no reply unless we're interested thing - I'd rather an auto reject than suffer that!

Francis said...

Jennifer Jackson, two months ago, posted some of her query stats. She works for the Donald Maass agency which isn't small. She probably gets 500 queries each month if not more.

Do you know what the percentage of people that followed the guidelines were? 48%.

MORE than half of the people who queried her for that period couldn't even follow a simple list of guidelines. How difficult can it be?

I've been following Nathan's blogs, among others, for months. I'm officially following him and others with my blogger account, but I choose to post anon because I don't want people to click my profile and head to my website just yet.

Why? I feel it's not polished enough, and I'd rather they not see it until I feel it is 101% polished.

A lot of people complain about rejections, but if 52% of those couldn't follow guidelines, it ain't the system that's broken!

Here's the blog entry in question for those interested:
http://arcaedia.livejournal.com/221529.html

Dan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sissy said...

I find the process to be frustrating and a little overwhelming. Everyone wants something different, from just a letter, to five pages to fifty pages. And I know everyone admits up front that the publishing business is subjective, but so much plays into it that we have no control over. But I guess that is life. What's a girl to do?

Francis said...

Forgot to add something...

Rachelle Gardner recently blogged about the query system and there were many comments. Many believed that the sheer load popular agents have to deal with makes it impossible for them to give the same consideration to each query they received.

It's probably so, but the same is true in all professions. When I was a med student we were taught that each patient must be treated equally and fairly. In practice, we all knew this wasn't possible... you're not gonna have the same level of energy, or patience, after a 8 hours shift. We're human beings, not cylons... we are imperfect.

Erik at Pimp my Novel also blogged about how luck plays a HUGE role in a writer's success. If you query an agent who just signed his divorce papers this morning, he might not be receptive to a romance manuscript... what can you do about it? Nothing.

The truth of the matter is, we all want to be published, but the space is limited. Would we be more happy if we absolutely needed a referral? I've seen people who suggested it, but I bet you if we went back in time and talked to them around the time they sought representation for their first novel, they wouldn't feel that way.

Agents also need to protect themselves. Everyone can learn how to write a query, and there is no barrier to query any agent you want. It's fair, it costs nothing, presents no risk to us, once written takes seconds to send... but THEY are stuck with the load.

Agent also deal with the risks... People in black hats and sunglasses show up without an appointment, some received white powder in a cup, other granola bars... and let's face it, there are many crazies and assholes out there: http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2010/04/what-not-to-do-when-you-get-rejection.html

This morning I sent an e-mail to Nathan about a possible solution to his query deluge problem... a custom solution we developed for a clinic around here that allows to drag an e-mail from the Inbox to a folder to automatically send out a response... no copy/pasting, just click & drag.

When it dawned on me it could be applied to queries treatment, I thought it was a chance for me to give back. It was only after I sent it that I thought he could think I'm just some crazy lunatic who wants to send him a nasty virus bomb... it doesn't occur to us that crazy shit happens, but we've read enough about them to know it does.

The query system allows agents to be unbiased and to be impartial by giving everyone a chance to submit. If you're gonna vote no, then at least try to provide an alternative that would preserve the same fairness!

My 2¢

Ganz-1 said...

I'd say YES. Writing is a skill, query is a form of writing, therefore writing query is a skill. You only get through once you're skilled enough.

Lucinda said...

The query is much like a degree on a resume. It indicates how dedicated a writer is to becoming a serious writer, how willing the writer is to listen to editor's, agents, and other professionals in the industry.

Striving for the query that will sell our hard work is worth working hard, studying, learning, and proving our abilities.


I have learned more about writing since trying to write a query letter which led to many revisions in the novel itself.

Nobu said...

I think a short query letter and a few sample chapters plus synopsis is a good package. I hate the whole query only thing that some people want. I think the novel itself should be key, thus some sort of sample is needed. Fortunately, the editors whom I submit directly to all get a sample of the work with the query, not just the letter itself. So it works well enough.

Thomas Sinclair said...

The process is imperfect, certainly, but what are the alternatives? It's easy to say that the process prevents good writers from making it, but that's really not what the process is about. It's about getting rid of those who are not ready for publishing while giving those who are a chance to have their work examined.

Yes, it's hard, and it's horrible, and I want to tear my hair out at the number of drafts I've written. But I'm fine with it. I'm fine with it because I teach college, and I've hung around online and these people should not be published, nor should they be taking time from agents with their lengthy material when others are more deserving.

We all look at the query process with dread, but what would the world be like without it? I shudder to think of the fanfics, un-proofread forum-posted stories, and more that would be churned up because of the internet's ability to convince people that they both know how to write and deserve to be published.

Furthermore, the system did not evolve arbitrarily. Nathan's unearthed 110 year-old query response is proof of that. I have no doubt that in the early days, the query process involved more than just a synopsis or 5 pages, but I know that it always involved some kind of letter very much like the modern day query.

It's important to remember that authors who query are asking for a job. The query actually is more akin to a cover letter than any other type of writing. The manuscript itself is the job interview, but the resume and cover letter need to shine before even getting to that point. Like the query, the cover letter system evolved because it works, and it has been around for a long, long time. Just ask Leonardo Da Vinci: http://tinyurl.com/yeu33dh

Anonymous said...

Query-writing has become a niche skill in itself, creating more and more distance between the writer's writing and the agent. Let the writer's work speak for itself. If a writer sent a sample 5-10 pages FIRST, the agent could skim through that; if interested, could ask for more info such as the writer's biography, etc.

After all, when a reader goes to a bookstore and picks up a novel, he/she reads the first few pages...this is what sells books. It should be what sells a writer to an agent!

John Overman said...

Having to craft a compelling query has helped me to review and revise my story. Whether or not my query attempts are successful, I see the good queries you have posted here and I do believe the process works. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us so we can learn!

Kimber An said...

What the others have said about learning to write a query improving all over writing ability is absolutely true, so I don't regret it.

And I really can't imagine how to improve on the process either.

Wendy Delfosse said...

I think they do. Of course I also most often decide on reading a book based on the blurb with it (okay, only after I judge its cover. That looks so bad in writing.)

That being said, I would imagine a query letter plus sample pages would give the best results.

Clayton said...

First off, I think we should change the name. Instead of query process, we should call it Microsoft.

You try to open a file, the gray box appears that says "file failed to open. Close and try again."

So you do.

"File failed to open. Close and try again."

And you think: I wonder if I'm opening it from the wrong place. So you try another route.

"File failed to open. Close and try again."

Hmm... maybe I'm supposed to open it using another program.

"File failed to open. Close and try again."

OK... how about on a different computer.

"File failed to open. Close and try again."

So you start fiddling.

And you don't get the message box. instead, the hourglass starts to spin. Ah-ha. Finally. Then:

"File failed to open. Close and try again."

And you wonder what you did that gave you the slightly better result. You try moving in that direction. The hourglass spins for a long time, and then:

"File failed to open. Close and try again."

So you do and this time you get the message immediately again.

I realize that it's not at all feasible to respond to all queries, or even more than the few truly promising- especially since it seems to encourage the crazies- but I also can't help but think of how much I'd have been able to refine both my query for my first book, and the book itself if, instead of "not for us, try again" I'd even got one sentence like: this doesn't sound like a mystery. or: this sounds really dull. Does anything happen? Or: The query letter is good, but the sample pages don't work. Etc.

I get why it has to happen, but I don't think it's actually beneficial to either side of the process to have people tweaking and tuning based on nothing more than, Ehhhhhhh...no. Try again.

SammyStewart said...

It seems that people with agents tend to lean towards the "it's a great system that weeds out poor writers" camp, while those who are frustrated without agents claim it's a little unfair. I think the system could be much worse. And I can't think of anyway to make it fairer while being practical with an agent's time, which is valuable because it moves books. So I think it's the best system.

mapelba said...

I'd like there to be a "kinda sorta" option.

Mira said...

You know, I'm wondering if my comment was a bit harsh, in terms of bull-dozing right over those who might not agree with me - like Ink....

Sometimes I get lost in the pleasure of debate.

But I want to acknowledge that those who see things differently may have a valid and legitimate perspective.

Um, except about queries.

ha, ha. Little joke there.

Seems to me it's about evenly lined up, in the comments anyway. I'm surprised, actually - I would have predicted mostly pro. That's interesting.

Munk said...

It hasn't worked for me, but maybe I just suck.
Or maybe i'm just saying I suck so that you think I am that writer who just thinks he sucks but really doesn't. OOooooh, there's that pain behind my eyes again.

Erica75 said...

I've heard so many horror stories about the query system, I now tuck my ms into bed, give it a hug and kiss, and wish it good night. For the past three months. Why? Because I love my book and have no trust in my query. I have no suggestions for improvement. I just am very scared of the process.

Nancy said...

A good agent knows a killer query right off the bat. Nothing further should be necessary to know whether the work is good or not. If I were an agent I would look for four main elements in a query:

1) A tight logline, premise, thesis, or a two-sentence "story blurb" in the first paragraph, including title and number of pages.
2) The author knows how to write.
3) The material is something I want to rep, is not corny, stale, or too convoluted to grasp.
4) If I read this far, I would then look for a tight, detailed paragraph about the book.

Authors who think this does not work and that they need 5, 10, or 50 pages to explain their book are missing the point. How many writers have we encountered who cough and look around the room, trying to explain what their story is about? We have to be able to nail it on the spot.

No agent, editor, agency rep, has the time to sit around and listen to a long explanation. And often, in reality, if the writer can't nail the thesis or plot in one or two sentences, that's an indication of meandering, sleepy work. It's probably time to go back and chop, hone, or revise.

The beauty of a one-page query is that an agent can tell a lot about an suthor's skill and what he or she has to offer. It works!

Rage said...

I think it works well enough considering the alternatives. We can't expect agents or publishers to go through entire manuscripts. It would be brutal and the response time would be eternal. Of course like most processes (I hate the sound don't you) it could be improved.

Jenny said...

A query letter is the business letter--you cannot escape it because it is necessary. Call it a cover letter, call it a resume, call it a c.v.

You cannot expect someone you want to do business with to just jump into your project (read: read your whole manuscript) without telling them what it is and why they should invest in it and in you.

Project Savior said...

My last few books dealt with big concepts, the value of individuality, A grand conspiracy that stretched out over 100 years and three major wars, a war for the destiny of the solar system so people can live with dignity in the post scarcity economy.
Agents say they like big concepts but end up going for the tried and true so my next one (You'll get it next month) deals with a pizza guy battling vampires, devil worshipers, the invisible man, werewolves and aliens while trying to woo the time traveling babe of his dream.
Condensing the big concepts to three paragraphs makes sure the fluff (but fun to write) stuff gets more consideration then the big concepts you want.
One thing that would help would be a note, no bigger than the individual touches you put on two out of your three (The first one sucked) form letters to me, if the query needs work or the sample chapter.
I don't mean for this to sound bitter, but on my fourth novel I feel like I'm writing it so it will have a great query letter with a self contained first chapter instead of working on grand concepts.
But maybe that's a lesson I need to learn to be an author as opposed to a writer.

Jenny said...

I love the references to music, because it reminds me of when I was doing musical theatre. The directors commonly said that within 8 bars they knew whether or not a performer was going to work--none of this 'Let's hear the whole song and then make a decision'.

Kaye George said...

I'd love it if we could just send pages to the agents instead of the query letter. That's all they really need to see, since they all say the most important thing is the writing, right?

Dan said...

A lot of authors claim that the ability to write a query is a distinct and separate skill from the ability to write a novel. I disagree; the query is simply a short writing sample, and any author who is capable of putting together a coherent long-form narrative should have no trouble writing a short business letter.

A query is not a blurb. It's not a sales pitch. It's not a marketing material. Larding it up with puffery or advertising lingo will reduce the effectiveness of the query. Your goal is not to tell the agent that your book is good; your goal is to appear competent. The query is a test of the author's proficiency at communication in the English language, and it is a useful tool because the vast majority of people who submit fail this test.

If you can write four coherent, grammatical paragraphs that explain what your book is about in a way that makes sense, and if you send that query to twenty-five appropriate agents in a form that meets their individual submission criteria, you are likely to get at least a couple of requests.

If you can manage one clever or elegant phrase in your letter, your results might improve a little.

Anonymous said...

I think the query system succeeds more than it fails. But this notion that 'good writing' and 'good storytelling' will always find a home just isn't true. Maybe it's true most of the time, but there are great books that slip through the cracks on occasion.

Clayton said...

Reading the last few comments, I'd say the query process works best, but I think most of the problems we have with it probably just goes back to the sheer number. it means agents are all pressed for time.

Think of the difference between when you go to the book store or library with two hours to pick a book or two, versus a trip where you have fiteen minutes, your parents, or spouse are waiting in the car and irritable.

When I'm rushed I just glance at the title, barely take in the cover, and then read the first few lines of the inside flap and it's a whole lot of:

This? No.

This? No.

In a world born of-- no.

Tommy Mcginty knows fear-- no.

This? No.

After the death of her husband-- No.

But when I've got hours to kill I'll take in the whole cover design, read the entire inside flap and then usually give the first page a shot, even when it's not something I normally go for.

When I'm rushed, I rarely end up with more than two books that I read to the end and enjoy. When I've got time to consider them, I usually end up with at least four.

I think if we could filter out all of the "Craig's list" queries, and get to where the agent inbox doesn't look so overbearing, the query process might work as advertised.

India Drummond said...

I originally started this post with a bit about my personal experiences with querying. Deleted it. Everyone has battle scars.

The system is obviously flawed. It works for those who get through the gate. I liked the analogy above that said "that's like asking lotto winners if the lottery is a good way to make money".

As to another system... that's a tough one. I assume this system has evolved because it works for agents. It's fair for you to dictate how you want to receive information. But since you asked...

I have considered the Authonomy model for getting a work pubbed, but it has problems. Frankly, I don't have the time to devote to the level of participation it would require to get my book(s) voted to the top (because it seems to be participation and voting that determine the positioning of one's own work, rather than quality), plus I don't feel comfortable putting my whole (or even 95% of) my mss online.

The agent-for-a-day model though (referring to last year's NB query game)... Hmm, what if there was a website where writers submitted queries and <1000 words of the work. So instead of "Dear Mr. Bransford" it would be "Dear Community". Registered users could vote and leave a comment about why they would or would not want to read the rest of the book. The agent(s) could troll through it, see what was popular (and appealing to them, naturally), and if they saw something they liked, they could request more. Something like this would eliminate the feeling among writers that queries just go into a black hole, never to be seen (or replied to) again, they'd get feedback on why the book does or doesn't appeal, and they'd be given the opportunity to revise their query or even revise the book's premise based on user feedback.

Like any website, a lot of things would have to be worked out to make it fair, appealing, and workable, but anyway it's an idea.

Now that I'm thinking about the possibilities, I find myself planning the database structure in my head (sorry, I'm a geek programmer as well as a writer). I like the idea... if an agent or two would use it, we could make it happen.

Ted Cross said...

I believe it works to a point, but I also think that agents can get certain ideas in their heads that may be flat out wrong. For instance, from what I read on AW I would get the impression that no one wants to see books that have elements of Tolkien in it, so I imagine many agents would ignore such queries. Yet, I believe there is a large fan-base out there that does want to read more Tolkienesque fantasy. I know I am one.

People seem to believe it is overdone, yet who has done it well besides Tolkien? Perhaps the first couple Shannara books by Terry Brooks and the Iron Tower trilogy by Dennis McKiernan, but that's about it as far as I can see.

Edward W. Robertson said...

I don't think it's fatally flawed, but I've got reservations.

First, there's numerical data suggesting it misses a lot. Jim C. Hines' survey on first novel sales shows that even in the '00s, nearly 30% of first books were sold straight to publishers. Some number were books where agents are less common (e.g. category romances), and other authors may never have tried querying agents at all, but we're looking, I think, at a fair percentage of published books that couldn't land an agent through a query. (Unknowable: how many perfectly fine unagented books failed to land a publisher, either?)

The second problem's structural and likely unavoidable. Any given genre's got what, 50-80 reputable and available agents repping it? If your request rate on fulls is a decent 10%, that's only 5-8 individuals making the final call on your book; if your work's tricky or on the bubble, maybe it's as few as 1-3.

Great work may get snapped up, but when that few people are making (admittedly educated) judgment calls within a flood of other queries, I see a lot of room for publishable work to slip through the cracks.

Last, I am suspicious of the one-page query (despite netting a partial from a one-pager I started querying two days ago). Some books sell on concept, but others sell on voice. On authority.

Even if great writers write well no matter the form, the one-page query is a filter between the agents' eyes and that novel's narrative authority, and will inevitably disinterest some agents who might have been grabbed by the book's particular voice. It isn't hard to tell when a book's got it; I trust an assessment of the first 5 pages (hell, the first paragraph) much more than for a description of that book, no matter how well-written.

So define "works." It self-evidently provides a living for a lot of good writers, agents, and editors, and readers with a lot of good books. But it seems like it's got a recognizable margin of error, too.

Ted Cross said...

Melissa -
I can completely imagine authors writing great books but blah queries, because the author is passionate about the book they are writing, but often just dreading writing the query. That's how it is for my anyhow.

wendy said...

As a member of the *clears throat* authortariat, I think the query process does have its strengths. Within a few short paras, the agent can discover if the proposal might work and is something that might interest him or her and, also, if the writer has skills. I quite enjoy the challenge of composing queries now I'm more use to them. Can't think of a better system right now. A better system might be one where my work was snapped up and published and thoroughly enjoyed; however this is something I need to make happen, through increased self-confidence and positivity - not through trying different paths or doing more work.

GhostFolk.com said...

Query is good.

I admire (and thank) the community of agents for allowing (and, in fact, encouraging) multiple submissions among agents at the query level.

New writers have no idea of what we used to go through and the huge amount of time that was wasted to get three agents OR publishers to pass on sample chapters and synopsis (let alone a complete Ms.) sent snail mail. That was a year or your life.

Alternatives?

Writing contests? Amazon.com's breakout novel contest has seen agents approaching a number of the runners up and several of these books are finding publication besides the one selected for AmazonEncore publication.

Another alternative is getting your work in front of an established author who will pass it along among publishing professionals (be it editors or agents). You don't want to know the truth why this doesn't work most of the time.

The blog frontier? Post your writing on a blog until someone notices it/you... and, uh, likes it. Longshot and best with non-fiction.

Self published, create huge sales, then seek representation?

What am I leaving out. Be really famous?

Pitch in person? Lots of travel expense but if you choose the right conferecnes the hotels are reasonable.

Get an mfa and hope an agent reads your master thesis in your college library? An mfa seems to be one of the most exspensive forms of self-publishing known today, especially if you throw in the cost of your undergraduate tuition.

Write a screenplay based on your novel and get it made into a hit TV series or movie?

Even if agents accepted full manuscripts, instead of queries, for submission for representation, they'd only read a page (or two, or less) for 90% of the stuff they'd get. The query process is a much more honest up-front system.

Kidnapping the next of kin of power agents and/or editors?

Okay, I vote query.

GhostFolk.com said...

Ted Cross: I can completely imagine authors writing great books but blah queries, because the author is passionate about the book they are writing, but often just dreading writing the query. That's how it is for my anyhow.

There's a big hole in there somewhere, Ted. Screw your passion to the query hitching post, buck up, and get 'er done. And so on.

GhostFolk.com said...

Nikki Hootman: Queries work swimmingly for plot-based books. They do not work so well for literary or character-based fiction.

Same could be said for publishing, actually.

What works for queries is a direct reflection of what works for the marketplace (assuming the agent is getting her/his clients publishing contracts and, uh, they seem to be doing just that).

I wouldn't really blame the query process for disliking or rejecting literary or character-based fiction, I would blame the publishers (or credit them, whichever).

Beryl Hall Bray said...

Queries benefit agent and writer alike because it's the quickest way to learn whether it's a fit--or not.
One thing that will never change, there are only two eventualities: acceptance or rejection.

VIP: An agent knows in a split-second if the writer researches and is willing to follow guidelines.

G said...

You should have put in a third option "I don't know", for those people who are either doing the querying the process for the first time, or (like myself) return to it after a long hiatus.

I know when I did it the first time around, I was so bad that it really was hard to tell if it worked or not.

But, considering what I do for a day job, querying is a necessary evil. Just like a good cover letter and a knock out resume will get your foot in the door for an interview, a query must do the same thing.

And unlike how your first commenter (Richard Kriheli) states it, it's not considered brown nosing but simply sellig yourself to a head hunter for an industry that we all want to be part of but very few qualify to be in.

Anonymous said...

I think rather than send a query, the agent should require the first three pages. That would give the agent a better understanding of the book. Query letters can be very misleading and an agent might pass on an excellent novel and later regret it.

Anonymous said...

Umm, i'm not so sure but i like it!

J.S.

Jason said...

It works, there's no doubt about that. But is it the best system or can it be improved upon? That's a whole other issue.

Anonymous said...

I have an agent. My second. I had multiple offers in both instances. Yet I don't think the system works at all. And as a client, I REALLY resent the time it takes away from, well, me.

If you follow the threads on AW, for ex, you see something interesting-agents constantly turn down projects that you then see repped and sold. Some, quite well. As a matter of fact, some writer-friends and I were joking over one agency in particular who's notorious for it. If you look at the people reporting they'd been formed by them and counted how many had gone on to be published, you'd be shocked.

Donald M@ass even posted about how he got sick of hearing people he'd passed say they'd gone on, with his advice, to be published.

If you added up how many agents and time it takes a writer to get a yes, it's alarming. If you added up how many queries and time it takes an agent to find a marketable ms and make the correct call on the query, it's alarming.

Queries, via Internet in particular, don't work so great. They just don't. And agents' success rates with them, low. Writers' success rates with them, very low. And ohhhhh the time and energy wasted in the process.

Just because no one has yet come up with a better system doesn't mean one doesn't exist. It does. It just needs to be discovered. And if it were me, as an agent, I'd be looking REAL hard. Because it's not necessarily the smartest, most efficient way to do business.

Melissa Sarno said...

I'm torn on this topic. Having just entered the query wars, I feel the whole process is incredibly daunting. I agonized over the pitch and the query and I'm frustrated that without it, no one will ever see the 2 years of serious, serious work I put into my manuscript. But I don't know what the alternative could be. I don't have any connections in the industry and I can't imagine trying to pitch my book in person as effectively and tightly as a query does.

Tamara Narayan said...

I hope it works, because I've spent a lot of time reworking my query, researching agents, and so on. But it is mucho frustrating. I ranted about my past query fiascos on my blog today.

Amy said...

I think it works. I do like when an agent requests pages with the query -- 3, 5, 10, whatever, but something.

Of course, if there weren't so many writers with no respect for anyone but themselves, maybe we'd have a better chance of "fixing the system." Everyone here - obviously, we are taking the time to get to know an agent. But we are competing with lots and lots of people who just send mass queries out to anyone with an address. And they send them several times.

magolla said...

I've queried seven stories over the past nine years, and until the last two stories I never tweaked my query DURING the process. So far, I've tweaked my query seven times while querying agents.
Yes, I think the system works.
If you aren't getting bites, then there's a reason--re-evaluate the query and rework it. Oh, it could be due to the lack of agent/editor interest in that particular topic, but most likely it's the query.
--I DO like to paste the first page of my story since it gives the A/E the true 'voice' that I might not have been able to duplicate in the query.

Mystery Girl said...

Anonymous

I am still querying agents and only keeping ten out at any one time. I do think that the process of querying is rather like having a part time job where you pay your own expenses:-)

I think I may checkout Inkpop though.

Mike Martinez said...

Is the query process imperfect? Absolutely. Got a better idea?

Um...er...uh...

Writing is highly subjective. What one agent might dismiss as unvarnished crap, another agent might see as brilliant. You have to hope lightning strikes and the stars align.

But before we start complaining at how unfair it is, think about what it takes to get a job, for example. You have to be in the right place, at the right time, and strike people just the right way...and hope that you're the best candidate. (There's always someone better...you just have to hope they haven't applied for the job you want!)

It's the same thing with querying, really. You have to have the product, sure, but you also have to be able to find the right person to take it on, and impress that person with your query, synopsis and pages.

Now...would it be nice if it were standardized among agents? Absolutely. It'd be great if the association could come together on some guidelines and processes for everyone to follow. I ain't holding my breath.

It'd also be nice if agencies could invest in someone who could weed out the obvious crap. Let's face it...anyone with access to a computer could submit a query. Agents could devote more time to the well written queries if they could find a way to sift through the junk.

It is what it is. It's obviously worked for many good authors, even first timers. And until someone comes up with something better, it's all we have.

krisula said...

The answer to this question really lies in the question of whether or not the thousands of books filling the bookstores (and discount stores and e-stores...) are qualitatively better, more worthy books than the ones hiding in thousands of drawers and hard drives across the country. Probably not.

Ulysses said...

Consider the agent's job at this stage: assess the work for publishability and the author for professionalism. The best way to do that would be to read through the whole work and then interview the author.

For 300+, 250-page books a week (semi-informed stab at query incoming rate and book size), that's 75000 pages. Impossible.

So we shorten the process. For fiction, writing skill and plot are most important. For non-fiction, it's writing skill, organization and subject expertise. Instead of reading the whole book and interviewing the writer, take a look at a few sample pages, an outline and a note about qualifications and experience that might indicate a professional attitude.

Of course, some good stuff is missed because five pages doesn't showcase the writer's brilliance, and an outline doesn't convey the depth of the work.

But still, 300+ sets of 5 pages and 2-page outlines? Who's got time for that? (That's 2100 pages a week!)

So we speed things up further. We ask for the essentials combined in a single page. For fiction: a plot description. For non-fiction: a proposal indicating topic, approach and qualifications. Both of these need to give some indication of the writer's skill.

Yes, more stuff is missed.

But 300+ one-page summaries? That's something that can be read over lunch and after work and while brushing teeth... although we'll probably have to max out our free time to do it.

The number of manuscripts seeking representation is massive, and the market available for them comparatively tiny. To be absolutely certain every good book reaches the shelves we can increase the number of markets (the economics make market growth rare), decrease the number of manuscripts ('tis a consummation devoutly to be wished), or rely on the query system to reduce the task of finding good ones to something manageable.

Does the query system work? If you want it to give an agent a reasonable chance of finding marketable books without the time required for the search exceeding their lifespan, then yes. If you want it to ensure that all good books make it to the shelf and all bad books make it to the shredder, then no. If you want it to ensure that YOUR book makes it to the shelf, then... well, no. Sorry.

Margaret Yang also makes a great point. The back cover copy is different, though, in that it's (supposedly) written by a professional pitch writer, not the author.

Yes, I know Nathan@3:56 summed up my whole argument in 1/15th of the words. There's a lesson there, I think.

Ink, can I have that grocery list when you're done with it?

Kim Batchelor said...

Since I haven't had any luck with people showing up at my house to request work, I still have faith in the query process and have to keep at it. Marketing is a whole nother skill set you have to develop if you ever hope of publishing. My wishes: (1) that there was some way to sort out the mass queries/queriers so that those who follow the rules have a chance of getting out of the query pile and (2) I respectfully wish that agents would say no to pitches at conferences if they're not interested so that we don't waste their time. At a conference two weeks ago, I constantly heard the excitement of those whose work was requested, as was mine, but I've been around enough to know that those requests are very common.

Watery Tart said...

I would have to throw out a definitive SORT OF. I think 95% of the stories that manage to make it through the whole process deserve to, but would bet about 30% of the stories that DON'T are even better than a lot of those.

I think the process is conservative and uses a lot of rules, but I blame the publishing business model more than agents for that. I think there is just a lot of great literature that never sees the light of day because the process requires skills that a lot of great writers don't have.

Dara said...

It's not a perfect system but it's the best that we have. It's daunting, stressful, etc. but the whole publishing process is. I take it as part of the road to publication. It's not something I look forward to and I may get lost along the way, but it'll be worth it eventually.

I have to look at it in a positive light or I'd go crazy :P

Hillsy said...

To paraphrase Winston Churchill:

"The query process is the worst form of submission, except for all the others that have been tried."

S. S. Post said...

The system is nothing short of painful and frustrating. But is there another way to do it? No! To ask you to sit down and read the whole book is insane. And sometimes the first few pages won't give a good taste for what the book is. Considering these, a query letter is the best chance a writer has. Which is sort of depressing, considering the number of rejections I've gotten already. But it's time to get more... If you'll excuse, I have a letter to try and write! ^_^

Walt M said...

I voted yes, as I can't think of a better method yet. I remember the first time I got a full request from a query. My wife got excited and asked if it meant I was going to get published. I told her it more like sending in a resume online and being offered a first interview. Still a long way to go.

Ted Cross said...

I imagine there could be some innovative ways to use the internet to help with the process. What about a site where people could all post the first 50 pages of their novel (but only complete novels should be allowed) under their specific genre (not just all lumped under, say, Fantasy, but under more specific labels such as YA Fantasy, Vampire, etc.

I would allow no commenting or voting or anything, and only legit agents should be allowed to interface with the pages. If perhaps 3 or 4 agents who do that genre all mark a manuscript as mediocre then it would drop off the site. This would allow agents to go to one place and look for what suits them and is good, while altogether filtering out the spam.

S. S. Post said...

@Ted Cross: First off, I actually really love this idea. It's simple, concise, and not impossible at all!

If it were 3 or 4 agent rejections, I'd be dead by now. The agents would begin to overload the writers instead of the writers overloading the agents. 9 or 10 might be a safer bet.

I love the idea of first 50 pages- my story starts off fairly mild and really fires up around chapter 3- chapters 1 and 2 get the very basics of the world across. Without those basics, the rest can't make sense without clogging the action with explanation of things the reader should already know. The fact that the first couple chapters are a little calmer really causes problems when submitting, though.

Ted Cross said...

I really mean, though, that only agents who do that particular genre would vote on the MS. Perhaps it would need more than just a few votes to drop off completely. I'm sure it would need tweaking, but why not a one-stop online shop for first-time authors to post their stuff (in a manner that protects their rights), and only real agents get to cull through and separate the wheat from the chaff?

Hillsy said...

OK now I've got my pithy remark out of the way - let's at least try and solve this.

Please - Follow the link and participate: http://forums.nathanbransford.com/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=1285. Lets crack this thing!!!

Just to touch on something that's come up a bit: Agents workload.

Firstly, it's obvious it's a large part of the reason a query exists. But seriously, you CAN'T deal with this. It's impossible! Who is arbitrator of the right to send a book idea to an agent????? Get real!

AND the easiest way to increase this workload is to drop the query and just send pages. Everyone who has an MS has pages, not everyone has a query. If 1 in 10 are daunted by a query, and an agent gets 100 queries a day, remove queries and they now get 111 a day. *headdesk*

If nothing else this shows that an author is 1 in a few million. Whatever you apply to yourself to make it easier, you apply to millions of other people. Look up Emmanuel Kant's universal imperative and apply it to everything you want changed, because the consequences can easily be missed otherwise.

Andrea said...

If it would be more helpful (and if I was an agent I'd be open to this) I would make the first couple pages of my novel available as an audio file. You could just listen whenever. I think that it would add convenience to some agents. Perhaps.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I said yes as far as getting people published. I think the query system puts decent books in the hands of agents.

That said, I think the industry falls down on marketing and selling. Otherwise we'd all be making a hell of a lot more money. And I have to say, there are a crap-load of BAD books out there. There are good ones, obviously, but too many bad ones to make me believe the industry doesn't still have some serious maturing to do.

Remus said...

From everything I can see, from watching and participating in the query process for several years now...it is not much better than selection by lottery. Good stories are picked up, or left behind, at random. Bad stories appear to get picked up at the same rate.

The query process works very well for the publishing industry, whose main concern is filtering some good out of the enormous torrent of submissions they receive. It's like a miner panning for gold -- they get enough to sustain themselves, but also a lot of silt, and the process also dumps a lot of gold back into the river. But it's the most cost effective method anyone can think of.

For authors the process is the worst thing imaginable. Rolling dice would be kinder.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Lots of people, btw, have mentioned sending pages. ALWAYS send the first five pages (just add it to the bottom of your email and mention in the query that they're there). Miss Snark even said to do it.

If the agent doesn't want it, then they don't have to read it. And seriously, if they're going to reject you on the bases of sending a few "unrequested" sample pages, then it's probably not someone I want to work with anyway. Agents are just people, too, remember, and they WANT to find fabulous writing.

Those pages get read, too. I've gotten comments on mine too often for it not to be true.

Hillsy said...

Remus - the dice analogy is perfect.

If you have a 10 sided dice, and you need to roll a 10 to get published, that's why you query multiple agents: to give you more chances to roll a 10

If you've only got a 6 sided dice, you never will

Memoirs of a Heroinhead said...

Nathan,

Well done you've got nearly as many 'followers' as me... and I can offr people nothing but words.


All My Best, Shane.

Mary McDonald said...

If I get an agent, I'll think it's a great system, if I don't, I'll think it sucks. ;-)

Ted said...

I think the query system is broken, overwhelmed by the tidal wave of queries. If you think it works, ask yourself if it would still work if the number of queries doubled from its current level (and the number of books purchased by publishers stayed the same.) Still working? OK, what if it doubled again?

I think a new model will emerge. One possibility would be for unpublished authors to post their completed MSs online (on their own websites or Scribd or Smashwords), and let agents find these works by referral from trusted readers. Those trusted readers could in turn be informed by casual readers. Validation of a work could bubble upward. An agent's interest might be piqued once 2000 or 3000 readers had commented on the work.

The agent could sign the author, help improve the book, and encourage the author to launch it as a $5 ebook on Smashwords. The author would be responsible for all marketing efforts (which is where the industry is heading anyway.) If the ebook sells reasonably well, the agent could try to sell the book and ebook rights to publishers.

Lots of potential issues and problems, but not necessarily worse than the status quo. And agents wouldn't have to process the huge percentage of queries that are instant rejections.

JDuncan said...

It works and it doesn't. The main problem I see is that for many authors, writing a good one is more difficult than writing the book. It's a different skill. I couldn't right a very good one. I also marketed it as the wrong type of story which hurt my chances as well. However, in the end, an editor saw it and liked the story and I got an agent (this agent) because of them. It only takes one, and I agree it's a very fallible process. Too many good books out there that can't be published. There just isn't shelf space for them. It's a very tricky thing indeed to be compelling in half a page of writing.

Anne R. Allen said...

I would have said yes yesterday, but that was before I got back the requested partial of my romantic suspense novel with a personalized rejection letter saying "We don't represent nonfiction." This is a wild-ride adventure story with a high body count. Anybody who suspected it was remotely true should have called the police, not just sent a rejection.

It's not the first time I've had a rejection that makes it obvious nobody's read my submission--usually a requested partial rather than an initial query--but the system does seem to be too overloaded to work. Is there another one that would work better? I haven't the foggiest.

Nathan Bransford said...

anne-

I'm sure it was a failure in the reply, not that no one read it. On the flip-side, I request plenty of partials from people who wildly misspell my name.

Candy said...

I queried an agent who used a form; the form asked some interesting questions I never would have included in a query: favorite line from my manuscript, what writer influenced me the most, and so on. At first I was intimidated, but then I saw how I could make the form work to my advantage. (The agent also requested a query and opening pages.)

If I were an agent, I'd take this approach, too--ask some questions that would help me understand the writer and his or her work a little better, things a query and/or the first opening pages might not reveal. I think a lot of good work slips through the cracks because it doesn't fit into the query/first five pages mold.

Marjorie said...

The query process would work if the literary agents handle the process in a professional and structured manner. What writer will send in a query thinking it might become fodder for a mass joke? It certainly gives pause for thought.

Having said that, literary agents need to be intuitive. They need to look past the structure of the query and determine if the content of the described project will interest the public. The rest is all nonsense.

It would be like a comic "selling" his set to a booker. Shut up with the well-honed pitch already and let's hear the meat: the material.

This would be a great query:
"My book: How a great manicure cured my fear of sex. Literary agent, are you interested in seeing more of my memoir?"

You do not need more than a one-pitch line. 'Nuff said.

Lavender said...

I would like to take issue with this claim I see a lot: that a writer should not have to be good at writing a query, because writers aren't salespeople, and therefore queries are a bad method for finding agents. I completely disagree. As writers, we are salespeople to the core. If we write fiction, we need to sell readers on an entire cast of characters, plot, and often a new world; convincing them they want to read on and making the above items believable.

In fact, they need to be so believable that readers will knowingly choose to care about people and events that they know for a fact are fictional. We have to do that using only words. If that does not require good sales ability, I don't know what does.

It is even true for nonfiction; we need to present things in an exciting way that says: this matters.

For a good book by a good writer, the query should be a simple afterthought. A matter of learning the format and just fitting it to the book. If I were an agent, I would be concerned if an author couldn't create the tension and present the conflict and relatable main character in a few paragraphs, or summarize their book in a synposis. I would expect the author to be so excited by their story and character that they can easily show what makes their book special in a few words.

If I saw that an author used the excuse that "writers are not salespeople" to explain a poor query, I would lose interest and wonder how they missed this very basic truth: Writers are nothing but salespeople who use the written word to convince readers of something. I think convincing a reader that an entire imaginary story is worth hours of their time; worth shutting out the real world--that takes more sales ability and convincing than selling used cars by a long shot. So don't say we aren't salespeople.


Just my two cents.

Emily Anderson said...

There is no way to have a perfect system on a subjective process. I don't envy agents having to scan through the mass of queries, but it's no fun being a writer being scanned over either. I read books all the time that I can't believe made it to publishing when I know there are great works out there being overlooked because writers don't like to market themselves or they haven't found a way to spark an agent's interest.

If I were an agent, I'd go for an online submission to weed out form queries. I'd ask questions about genre with specific instructions about what I was interested in and what I wouldn't read. I'd ask if the ms has been critiqued to encourage first-time authors to edit and get feedback. I'd ask what books writers read during the process or influenced them to see if they are serious about improving their craft and what style they are aiming to achieve. I'd ask if they saw their work as literary or commercial, plot-driven or character driven which isn't something you can tell from a blurb. I saw an online submission form that asked for a favorite sentence; I liked that. I'm sure as an agent you could come up with other things that you can't find out from a query but are nonetheless important and then include a small space for experience and blurb. More than anything, I'd want to see those first 5 pages. You can get a better feel for a writer's ability to write by reading the first paragraph of an ms than you can from a query.

Marjorie said...

Lavender:
You wrote at the end of your comment: "Just my two cents." I hate seeing that at the end of anything. It seems so darn apologetic. You should be strong and confident in your opinion. It is interesting. I think you should lose that expression, "just my two cents."

Francis said...

Marjorie, it has absolutely nothing to do with a lack of confidence with one self when you sign "my 2 cents".

It's simply a humble way of saying "in my opinion" so you don't sound like an arrogant ass,

Lavender said...

Marjorie,

I agree with Francis in this case, haha. Thank you for your support though. My point in adding that "my two cents" was to clarify I know not everyone will agree with me, nor am I claiming to be 100% right. Also, that I am not brushing off the thought and work many people put into queries at all--I know that is not always easy. I simply think that the reason some people give for disliking them (about "sales") is incorrect; since sales is about convincing people of ideas, and so is writing fiction.

Adam said...

I don't think the querying process works as well as it could. It is the quality of the manuscript that matters in the end, and adding a query letter on top only makes it more difficult to get the manuscript evaluated. How many good books get missed because some arbitrary thing in the query wasn't up to snuff?

But at the same time, there is no feasible way a publisher or agent can read as many manuscripts as people send them. So the query process was meant to make things more efficient.

I think the best solution is for publishers (and maybe agents... I'm not sure if it is a good idea for them yet...) to hire sub-editors who are trained to critically evaluate manuscripts. Then then search through the slush pile and hand over the cream of the crop to the editors, who end up with much less junk to sift through. But why would they add the expense of pre-readers? By requiring the submitting author to pay for the service. Perhaps a payment of $40 or so with every submission. Not only would it keep many people who aren't as serious or professional from submitting, but even in the unlikely event a screener spent an hour on each manuscript, it would be profitable ($40 an hour? To read? Sign me up!) The publisher doesn't lose any money, nothing good is as likely to slip through the cracks, and the editor has more time.

As an author, the only way I would accept paying that money is if I got some type of evaluation back. For a work I've spent a year writing, doing my best to make perfect, I'd pay $40 a few times over for someone to give their honest feedback on sample chapters. But the way it works now, I have to rely on friends (not too reliable), online critiques (can't really trust them), pay a book doctor ($40 is ok. $4000 is not), or hope that the editor gives a good critique back with a rejection... which due to the fact that they are busy reading too many queries just won't happen.

So that's my dream world. Authors pay for the time to get their book reviewed. Everybody wins, and it eliminates the frustration that an author just can't get their foot in the door.

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