First off, more big news in publishing — Jane Friedman is stepping down as CEO of HarperCollins, and Brian Murray is stepping up. And Gawker broke the story. Really big news!
So during the contest two weeks back there was quite a bit of angst about rules and the breaking thereof. And one of the things that was pointed out in the comments section by our friend Patricia Wood (LOTTERY out in paperback!!!) was that she broke all sorts of rules when she queried her agent and it worked out swimmingly.
Needless to say, for people who spend months combing the interweb for information about how to write the most perfect, proper, and impeccable query letter known to publishing and then spend weeks drafting a squeaky clean query, such news about successful rulebreaking makes heads explode aplenty.
If there are plenty of stories about people who successfully cast the rules out the window and yet we agents still blog obsessively about things we do and don’t want to see in query letters, why should anyone listen to the rules? Allow me to try and explain why all this is so (and it be so).
I think when someone’s query is rejected they want to know why, and when people want to know why something happens, they tend to look for that one reason to explain why. It’s human nature, I think, to want to find one thing to explain everything. Such as: Oh, I spelled his name wrong. That’s why my query was rejected. Or: it was that joke about monkeys, wasn’t it?
There is No. Such. Thing. as an automatic rejection. Well, one such thing: if it’s screenplays or poetry. Otherwise I’m looking carefully and weighing a host of complex factors, and yes, you can spell my name wrong, write an entire query out of rhetorical questions and/or insult the Sacramento Kings, and I still might request a partial.
Does this mean you should cast all rules out the window? NO!
Once you’ve set aside the idea that there’s only one reason for a rejection, the query points system begins to make sense. Now, just FYI, I’m not sitting at my computer with a pen and scoresheet, but here’s what’s happening in the back of my mind as I’m reading a query.
Let’s say you have to get to 10 points in order to for me to request a manuscript. Here are the categories, which I’m scoring 0-10:
– Professionalism (appearance of query, spelling of name, personalization, absence of strange pictures)
– Book Idea (presentation of hook, marketability, writing style/quality, resonance with me)
– Qualifications (writing credits, celebrity status)
So let’s just say someone writes a query letter entirely out of rhetorical questions in purple typeface (0 points for professionalism), the book is one day in the life of a literary agent, told in second-person stream of consciousness (0 points for book idea), but the qualifications section of the query is “I am Michael Chabon.” 10 points!! I’m requesting the manuscript!!
Or, let’s say the person has no writing credits, wrote an unprofessional letter, but the book idea is incredibly awesome and even involves a jelliquarium. 10 points! Manuscript requested!
But most importantly for the average querier out there, you want to earn points however you can. Sure, you can break the rules if you want, and if your idea and writing makes a perfect 10 you may find success. But your odds are so much better if you earn as many points on the “professionalism” scale as you possibly can. I have requested a large number of partials where the idea did not immediately strike me (let’s say 3 or 4 points), but the query letter was so impeccable (8 or 9 points!) I wanted to check it out.
I still say your chances are better if you try and stick to the rules, but I’m also not going to miss out on a perfect 10 book idea just because someone misspelled my name.