Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Musings On The Query Letter

When I was a kid in the middle ages, just when humanity started emerging from the dark ages, we used to travel to Florida for a couple of weeks during winter vacation. Plane rides were a hoot then. You could talk to the pilot, go into his cabin, and actually not worry about too much. Mom though, was scared to death of planes. She would get nervous and antsy every time we got on one. She would also insist on asking the pilots if they had a drink or were coming straight from having a fight with their wives. Mom was a great believer in the psychological equilibrium and happiness of the person who was going to take her up a few miles into the sky.

Every time I had to send out a query letter I wanted to ask the agent the same thing before she or he read it. Did you have too much drink today? Did you have a fight with your spouse, the kids, your parents, the dog? Are you calm and relaxed? Are you ready? Can I get you a cup of tea? Coke? Water? Buy you a meal? Does Fido need to be fed?

I have admitted quite a few times in Cobwebs Of The Mind how I really suck at Query letters. I have also posted quite a few times about the importance some agents (or maybe most agents) put on the query letter. Now it is time to get real.

Query letters are for those who really don't have an agent. Or even for those who have a publisher but not an agent yet (though having a publisher without an agent is usually just a matter of saying "I have a bona-fide publisher but I do not have an agent yet.") I know many hopeful authors spend oodles of time and aggravate themselves endlessly on the right words to put in a query letter. Many put more work into the query than they would into the opening sentences in their books. They spend hours putting letters together into words and words into sentences.

There have been gadzillions of books written on just how you can write a query letter that will sell your material. There have been gadzillions of conferences and courses teaching authors just what to get into those 250 words on that one page of a query letter. And for sure knowing how to write a good query letter is probably an important thing. It is like writing advertising copy for yourself and your work. Think of back jackets on books that you know. Punch lines, leaders, teasers.

The agent you are writing to in effect says: "Tell me why I should look at something you wrote, when I have at least 1000 other query letters in my in box." That is a fair request. Though it is not your fault any agent feels overwhelmed by their in-box. They wanted the job, they want to make money, they want to do it, I have no pity for their in-box even when you are astonished by the numbers as you can see in this post over at Bookends, LLC - "Query Recap". Hey, it is your business and job. So if queries do really get an agent new and good clients, why complain at the numbers?

If you have not yet guessed this already, at many agencies your query letter is going to first be read by some intern, college or graduate student who has been hired to weed out the bad queries. Just read the blog of the one calling herself "The Rejecter" if you don't believe it. Her subtitle of the blog, which irks the hell out of me, though I happen to think "The Rejecter" is a cool lady - "I don't hate you. I just hate your query letter."

You pray they will know how to read, they take their job at least 25% seriously, and they can understand more than three word sentences. And you hope they actually get to read most of the queries sent to them so they can pass them on to the "real" agent, if they deem it warrants it.

So if you are an unknown your query is going to be first read by an intern than maybe by an agent. In other words that image in your mind of the agent sitting down with a happy smile and loving your query has to be amended most of the time. To be sure there are agents who read query letters straight out but many, just for you knowledge, don't see those queries until the intern lets them out of their computer.

That is the nature of the business, or so it seems. Either get that query letter right or hope your Mom is a literary agent. Well, that is what they tell you.

I have a few friends (and yes they will remain anonymous) who are in the publishing industry. I have had many discussions with them about the query letter. Some from the perspective of authors who have sold books, others who are agents, and a couple who are editors. As you may be able to tell the subject of query letters bugs the hell out of me even though I know agents sometimes have to "query" an editor. Imagine that! Your query to an intern than an agent who in turn has to query an editor.

Ack! Queries. Ugh!

So where am I going with all this? Well, here is an honest to goodness quote from one of the most successful literary agents in the non-fiction arena. I kind of take liberties when we email, and I began an email once, "Here is my sucky query letter." I would not suggest you try such a thing unless of course the one getting your query is your wife and you are on great terms with her!

So here is the quote. Take it or leave it.
...and there are no really good query letters - the ones I get that tell me this will be the next best seller or everyone loves this, I delete after that first sentence, lol
So lesson to be learned. In your next query letter resist the urge to tell the agent how great your writing is, and how you are the next best-selling author. And pray the intern is in a good mood, the agent has not fought with their spouse, and the sun is shining and the angels smiling.

Remember all that stands between you and your ten million advance is a great query letter and a few years in the White House.

And never forget the true, real purpose of the publishing industry:

Posted On: Cobwebs Of The Mind

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