Q4U: Does the Query System Work?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed one of the refrains popping up around the blogosphere every now and then is the idea that the “query system” is inadequate. There’s got to be a better way, people say. This system is inefficient and unfair and just doesn’t work.

I actually think the query system works. It may be inefficient and time consuming, but it’s incredibly democratic, which is something writers should appreciate. In the query system, everybody has access. All the other possible systems I’ve heard proposed are not nearly as democratic—they limit access somehow.

In the query system, you don’t have to know someone to get discovered. It’s not necessary to have previous publishing credits. No particular formal education is required. Everyone has a shot.

So, does it work? You tell me.

More importantly, if you don’t think it works, do you have a suggestion for a better way?

You already know my thoughts, so I’m NOT going to jump into the comments and argue with your opinions. I’m not going to tell you why your idea won’t work. I really do want to hear your thoughts.

But try to approach this with some level of objectivity—don’t just say it doesn’t work because it causes you great frustration. Think of it in context of how people get chosen for all kinds of elite positions in our society. How does one get chosen for the Olympic team in any sport? How does one become a Top 40 recording artist? A Hollywood superstar? How does one become an elected official?

I’m sure any of those systems could be seen as unfair, frustrating, subjective, based on who you know, or being in the right place at the right time. Or worse, based on things like how attractive a person is, or how much money they have, or sheer dumb luck. The process of finding your way into publishing isn’t easy but it certainly could be worse.

Does the query system work? Why or why not? What would make it better?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Have a great weekend!

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!

116 Comments

  1. :Donna on March 5, 2010 at 1:05 AM

    >Hello. This is the first time I'm here and it looks like you have a lot of valuable info on your blog! 🙂 Thanks for that.

    Of course, my comment here is somewhat negative, but it's something I feel strongly about:

    Sorry, but I will never agree with the "no response" is the same as a "rejection form" because at least a "rejection" is an answer and doesn't leave you in limbo, wondering WHEN you MIGHT hear from someone (I've received a rejection letter 6 months after sending the query!).

    At least if you get the rejection, even if it's just by returning a pre-printed postcard (which I think makes the most sense), it's a closed door, rather than one still left open with some measure of hoping to hear. And also, if the query is by email, it takes literally two seconds to hit the reply button and then one click to paste in a form response. In two seconds, the agent or editor can put the author out of his/her "limbo misery". Being left in limbo is cruel, imo.



  2. Anonymous on March 3, 2010 at 1:23 AM

    >Sure, but they also need to spend their time effiently. And, like it or not, if you can't explain what you're book is about, people aren't going to spend time reading a chunk of pages on the hope it's something. There's just simply too much else to read.

    –Oh, please. Why on earth would you expect a busy agent to read the first 10 pages of your novel if you can't even explain what it's about.

    It is that whole thing about it being oh… their JOB to find great books. Or did you forget that part in your zeal to be snarky?–



  3. Nelson Leith on March 2, 2010 at 8:32 AM

    >I am surprised to see so many comments that essentially define success by reference to the status quo.

    What I would like to see is a convincing defense of the accuracy of a process in which a book that later breaks sales records could be rejected multiple times — and not for legit reasons like genre incompatibility with the agent's publishing contacts, etc. — before finally being recognized for its potential.

    It's a touchy thing to point out professional failures, but let's be honest: publishing and literary agency are for-profit enterprises. Every agent, for example, who assessed King's "Carrie" as a no-sell failed, and the query process failed. Every rejection there was an objective, measurable error, and it nearly cut short King's highly profitable career before it started.

    There's a reason why "weather the rejections" is such a common piece of advice, and we can reasonably assume from the discouraging nature of the process — and the reality, however anecdotal, of King's own near quit — that many Stephen Kings simply get tired of (or convinced by) the erroneously negative assessments of their writing, and drop out of the process, thus losing the publishing business substantial profit.

    Agents and publishers who minimize those short-sighted rejections (and short-sighted selections) will out-perform those who do not. Simple business reasoning.

    No process is going to be 100 percent error free, but judging the query process by the number of rejections the average profitable new author receives before being selected would be a *conservative* estimate of the need for reform of some sort.

    But, to get a complete picture of the query process: it's not only about the books that are selected and never sell, and the books that were almost not selected but sold, but also the books that would have sold but are never selected, a figure about which we can only speculate.



  4. Anonymous on March 1, 2010 at 9:24 PM

    >Oh, please. Why on earth would you expect a busy agent to read the first 10 pages of your novel if you can't even explain what it's about.

    It is that whole thing about it being oh… their JOB to find great books. Or did you forget that part in your zeal to be snarky?



  5. Anonymous on March 1, 2010 at 10:53 AM

    >The reality is that a lot of those books bylined by doctors and lawyers are ghostwritten by pro writers. The doctors and lawyers' names are on it just because it's easier to market books on legal and medical topics.

    –Have you noticed how many LAWYERS and DOCTORS are getting book deals? What about giving professional writers a chance?00



  6. Anonymous on March 1, 2010 at 2:06 AM

    >Have you noticed how many LAWYERS and DOCTORS are getting book deals? What about giving professional writers a chance?



  7. Anonymous on March 1, 2010 at 12:43 AM

    >Well, maybe your stuff isn't thst good.

    –Many of my friends write and produce art for a living. While secular editors pay us, none of us can crack the Christian fiction market. None.



  8. Anonymous on March 1, 2010 at 12:28 AM

    >Oh, please. Why on earth would you expect a busy agent to read the first 10 pages of your novel if you can't even explain what it's about.

    –You aren't being forced to evaluate each book on the strength of its idea AND the strength of its writing. You are forcing the author to become a marketing pitch man — boiling a 300+ page idea full of situations and characters into a few lines of marketing doublespeak. If authors could think like they they would be working in advertising selling Jenny Craig to overweight housewives and not writing 'The Great American Novel'.
    ==



  9. 5kidswdisabilities on March 1, 2010 at 12:11 AM

    >I've queried like 1,000,000 book agents to no avail. I don't think they even check me out because I fail to see how they could not be blown away by the content of my book proposal! (based on my blog…)
    So, no, I don't think the book query system is working!



  10. Anonymous on March 1, 2010 at 12:01 AM

    >Personally, I think this is just stupid and naive. Agents and editors love books, and they want stuff that will make their pulse race. But realistically, they need to make a living, too.

    –No, it doesn't work. While Agents say that they are looking for great books and great authors to represent what they really mean is, "I want an author who has written a book almost exactly like a book I have previously sold." and publishers are saying, "I am only buying books that are almost exactly like books that we are currently selling."



  11. Anonymous on February 28, 2010 at 11:24 PM

    >@Mira:

    Your wish is my command:

    http://www.authonomy.com/

    Or Harper Collins new slush pile.

    Even the publishers are bypassing the agents these days. And if you search around the blog-o-sphere, you'll see some other publishers have opened up their slush piles.

    I'm not sure what the future will hold, but authors have a lot of opportunities to put their work out there for the public to consume. The dynamics are just changing.



  12. Anonymous on February 28, 2010 at 10:01 PM

    >No, it doesn't work. While Agents say that they are looking for great books and great authors to represent what they really mean is, "I want an author who has written a book almost exactly like a book I have previously sold." and publishers are saying, "I am only buying books that are almost exactly like books that we are currently selling."

    Your (the agent and the publisher) mindset is in the wrong place. Instead of being out there looking for the next Twilight, Fight Club or Raw Shark Texts you are only looking for books you think you can sell and the query system is allowing you the luxury of hitting delete on any idea that doesn't exactly fit your current mindset.

    You aren't being forced to evaluate each book on the strength of its idea AND the strength of its writing. You are forcing the author to become a marketing pitch man — boiling a 300+ page idea full of situations and characters into a few lines of marketing doublespeak. If authors could think like they they would be working in advertising selling Jenny Craig to overweight housewives and not writing 'The Great American Novel'.

    As hard as it is to imagine, it might be better to go back to the old school 'slush pile' where you have to sit down and read part of the novel itself to see if it is a great novel instead of relying on a few lines of marketing doublespeak.

    Let me finish with this thought — if you don't change the way you do business then the authors are going to change it for you. Ebook readers like the iPad, nook and Kindle are making it possible for authors to take their work directly to the public without the need for an agent or a publisher (though I imagine editors will still be in high demand).

    If you don't find a better system, then in a few years time we might be looking at both Agents and Publishers the way we now look at manual typewriters.



  13. Anonymous on February 28, 2010 at 9:18 PM

    >You're not looking at it from the editor's viewpoint. He is only not answering people who send him material he has no interest in. That's a common practice in the business world today — non-response to stuff you're not interested in.

    So what do you do if he doesn't respond and you wonder if he never got it. Resend. Resend. Resend.

    –If the editor has no intention of answering, why is he accepting queries? Just solicit material from those you know.–



  14. Sue on February 28, 2010 at 8:56 PM

    >Sue 11:04: "First, there are no qualifications required for a first-time novelist. None."

    That is a truth that makes the current system really great.

    "In fact, the query system works *best* for the types of books that require qualifications."

    That's what I was getting at- although it works for everyone, it works best for those with qualifications (and projects that require qualifications).

    "And yes, if you're writing the kind of non-fiction book that needs credentials or a platform in order to sell well, then you'd better believe I'm jumping straight to the "qualifications" in the query letter."

    Ah ha! I knew it! (And it's completely understandable).

    "It sounds as if you'd prefer a system that somehow hides a writers qualifications or lack thereof. How, exactly, would that help the system?"

    In terms of fiction, I think a better system, (along with the standard format), might also include a dynamic, first rate query letter set up made specifically for people without "qualifications" since as you said they aren't actually required.

    That way someone like myself isn't stuck delivering a query that could be considered second rate because the standard format has a space designated for qualifications. There also wouldn't be any sort of "hiding qualifications or the lack thereof" in that case.

    There would just be a standard format for those with, and also those without.

    I do see the point of qualifications, and how they help in a query letter, and boy do I thirst for some!



  15. Mira on February 28, 2010 at 4:29 PM

    >Okay, as promised, I shall now provide a stunning improvement to the query system.

    Well, I would have, except my secret plan, which was to google 'stunning improvement to the query system' did not…um….work.

    So, here are my suggestions, all of which have been previously thought of and, evidentally, discarded.

    However, in light of a couple of things:

    a. Like Dana Bryant said, we lose great writers through the query system, and

    b. We need all the great writers we can get for various reasons, including making MONEY, so

    the systems I've seen suggested are:

    a. Centralizing a website of authors works that industry pros can view and select. These may or may not include reviews by the public and/or professionals to exhibit salability. The upside is this is efficient and much easier. The downside (for agents) is it requires them to compete and entice more actively.

    b. Eliminating the query letter and instead including a cover letter and/or electronic fill-in form, and including more of the original work. The upside is that it's easier to sort and access since fill-in is more readable than narrative. It also puts the focus on the writing where it belongs. There is no downside, unless you believe that it's important to select authors based on their personality and cooperation within the system. This is, of course, a form of social control that is not only beneath the intelligent, self-realized agents that I know, but completely self-defeating, since there is zero correlation between cooperativeness and talent. In fact there may be a negative correlation.

    Which may be why most books don't earn out.

    c. My new personal favorite. A variation on the above: A cover letter/fill-in form plus the full. Stop wasting time. Get the whole darn thing at the start. All you need is the genre and an extremely brief synopsis. The upside – this is brilliant. The downside, see b. above.

    Okay, Rachelle, I hope some of this was interesting. Thanks again for the opportunity to discuss this with you and your commentors!



  16. Anonymous on February 28, 2010 at 2:00 AM

    >It feels like a lot of folks here are saying that "most" agents don't respond, but that hasn't been my experience. Of 52 agents I've queried, only 10 did not reply. Two of those 10 said up front that no response means no. The 42 replies were all form rejections.



  17. Anonymous on February 27, 2010 at 10:09 PM

    >I don't see the query as an obstacle to overcome. Most agents request pages with the query. The query is simply an introduction. The writing tells the agent if your partnership can be profitable.

    Some agents only request queries. You can choose not to query them. It's not like there's a shortage of agents.

    At the end of the day publishing is a business. I think many people confuse publishing with art. Also lots of people are delusional about their writing ability ( I just know my book is worth millions=). People aren't ever going to stop whining about about the query system because it gives us something to blame for failure. "It's not my writing, it's the system!" But I digress.

    One is always a business. The other can be both, but not always.



  18. OmNomNomBooks on February 27, 2010 at 9:01 PM

    >I've been an intern for a year now, making my way through the slush pile and requesting promising ones, and I agree with you: I think the query system works.

    Some authors will call us on the phone, trying to pitch us their story that way, but we just tell them that sending a query letter is really the best way for us to evaluate their writing.

    So you're right, it really is very democratic. No one is even allowed to cut the line by calling on the phone.

    I'm trying my hand at writing my own stories now, and if I ever finish one, I don't think I'll use the connections I've made to try to get published. I want to anonymously query the agents I've met to see if they honestly think my manuscript is worth it, not just because I'm their intern. So yea, I really believe in the system, too 🙂

    -Judith
    (ps I follow you on twitter too, as jujubeantea!)



  19. Madeline Sharples on February 27, 2010 at 5:41 PM

    >I think the query system is fair. Every author can submit a query to any agent that accepts them.
    However, I'd like to see a better way for would-be authors to get responses to their queries. So, many say they'll respond only if interested. And, so many agents do not even say that and don't respond.
    That says to me that they might not ever see the query at all — that a gatekeeper assistant might see it first and dump it in the trash before the agent even has a look.
    So, I think the query response system needs a looking into.



  20. Anonymous on February 27, 2010 at 3:17 PM

    >I’ve accepted that it works for lots of folks. Just not me as a writer or a reader.

    Many of my friends write and produce art for a living. While secular editors pay us, none of us can crack the Christian fiction market. None.

    I can recall only The Shack as a Christian novel someone has recommended to me in the last 15 years, and I think that’s because it is more of a curiosity than anything else.

    Christian publishing in particular seems to be geared toward housewives.

    On the non-fiction side I see self-help, love and marriage books and memoires.

    Fiction is filled with saccharine romances.

    People have to make a living I guess.

    The remainder of Christian books are the same two or three sci-fi writers, the latest end-times speculation, money management books and one or two thrown in from the political right’s newest celebrity.

    So I think the system works for women, better for women with a tale of woe, even better for women celebrities, best for women celebrities with a tale of woe, and perfect for women celebrities who have overcome woe and have attained guru status on the lecture status.

    Tyndale House, meet Gayle Haggard.

    Otherwise, your book is likely to be met with a lot of “your query makes me look fat” rejection letters from a market that seems overly feminized.

    Just look at the best-seller lists, the agent blogs, the clients those agents represent, the catalogues of major publishers and, well, Rachelle’s 2,000 followers. 🙂



  21. Dana Bryant on February 27, 2010 at 1:38 PM

    >I believe the query system is a must but I am certain we lose so many great writers in the process. It is simply the best option due to the ratio of writers to agents.

    Never giving up, regardless of rejections, is the only key to persevering.



  22. frapoBlue on February 27, 2010 at 10:18 AM

    >Query system? I have yet to prove that with my query, if it does work or not.
    Theoretically speaking though, if it didn't work how come there's books out there in the market that i love? which also have gone in the process of query.
    The point is I think it works, BUT the better question to ask here is DOES IT WORK ALL THE TIME?
    cause sadly it doesn't. I think its safe to say that a lot of good material are passed up because of the query and a lot of materials are being taken just to be rejected when they read the book.

    While a query is a foot in a door, the book always keeps you inside the house.

    And of course, we know it works cause people use them. Simple. If it didn't, why waste your time using it?



  23. Shrinky on February 27, 2010 at 9:34 AM

    >It worked for me, so I guess I am biased. If what you have is worth publication, it will reach the right audience to achieve that.. however, that doesn't mean to say doesn't need a little marketing first. I was happy to queue the slush piles, everyone has to start somewhere!



  24. John C. Stipa on February 27, 2010 at 7:49 AM

    >The query system hasn't worked for me – yet, but I won't go so far as to say it's broken. The issue is the tonnage of queries an agent receives. Their staff is only able to deal with a certain amount, thus the need for efficiency. What the system needs is a method for determining the quality of the manuscript. We already have a robust review system in place, why not leverage that? If critiques from quality review sources and an excerpt were reqired as part of the submission package, both agent and author benefit.



  25. Anonymous on February 27, 2010 at 12:45 AM

    >I think the query system is dated since the Internet let's you source opinion very quickly. The site Digg is a great example. The best stuff goes to the top. It's all most like the book: "The Wisdom of Crowds."

    In the near future, I think, writers will have more skin in the game and will put their work out for the masses to consume. The good stuff will rise to the top.

    I think editors will work freelance or work for companies that provide editorial services. Writers will just pay for editorial services themselves.

    I'm considering publishing some short stories directly to the Kindle. I will workshop them first in my writing group, and then send them out for copy editing, which is really cheap. I can find artists on deviant art to do cover artwork. This isn't rocket science. If my stuff isn't good, then people just will not buy it.

    The smart agents will find ways to help writers through this process when they want to bypass their publishers. Anne Rice recently asked about eBook publishing on the amazon kindle forum, so other authors are thinking about this stuff.

    Check out Michael Stackpole's blog. He talks about this stuff a lot, and I think he captures the future for the DIY writer in the near future.



  26. Sean on February 27, 2010 at 12:28 AM

    >Query doesn't work. Neither does submitting partial samples. Speaking as a write who went POD, got GREAT reviews and is building a decent following (even got two film companies to look at my novel to consider for optioning), but still can't get an agent to do more than look at 30 pages of my book, query and agents in general are epic fail. But, in this age where publishers are sued left and right by people who sent in material only to see the publisher print up a book similar to what they sent in, is there another way? I doubt it.



  27. iamfrightenedtoo on February 26, 2010 at 11:19 PM

    >It would be cool, if there was a strict universal format for query letters. Every Lit agent wants something different in their queries… they all basically need to be the same, but the same query format sent to 100 agents will end up upsetting a third of them. It’s annoying



  28. David A. Todd on February 26, 2010 at 10:50 PM

    >My only objection to the query system is the lack of an answer, either yes or no, from so many editors. The writer is left hanging, wondering if the query ever got there.

    If the editor has no intention of answering, why is he accepting queries? Just solicit material from those you know.

    I've not queried agents, so this criticism is directed against agent, mainly in the freelance/literary marketplace.

    DAT



  29. Anonymous on February 26, 2010 at 10:47 PM

    >Really, that's from the viewpoint of a writer who can't get his stuff read. From the publishing industry's standpoint, the slush pile is a waste of time and money.

    The problem of the publishing industry isn't finding more material. The fact is, there are too many books. It's finding better ways to market their material.

    –I'm not jumping on agents here. I just think the idea 15-20 years ago that Publishers closes themselves to subs and said 'get an agent' is about the worst business decision the industry could have made.–



  30. ~Jamie on February 26, 2010 at 10:08 PM

    >It ABSOLUTELY works, I am proof.

    But what doesn't work is the no response to email thing. There has to be SOME way letting writers know you got their query, or else we just don't… and that is beyond frustrating.



  31. Rachel on February 26, 2010 at 9:28 PM

    >I believe the query system works, and I'm not published.

    It is always reasonable to assume that I might need to make a change as a beginning writer (work harder, learn more, give up) rather than the system, when hundreds of thousands of books get published every year.



  32. Joylene on February 26, 2010 at 9:21 PM

    >Querying works better than anything I can think up, and it is easier than giving birth. But it's no guarantee that you'll get published. I've had three agents, one from NYC, and still they were unable to sign me with a publisher. I did that on my own. And although many have said I should return to querying, it's too frustrating to comprehend doing so right now. There is something debilitating about rejection, and I need all the energy I can get to work with my editor in preparing my next book. I have to conserve energy where I can get it. (grin)

    Bravo to you, Rachelle for such great discussions.



  33. Carol J. Garvin on February 26, 2010 at 8:52 PM

    >I've heard the argument that writers can't get to publishers because they can't get passed agents, but there are more agents than publishers. It seems to me the agents are our best chance. Querying hones the approach as we seek an advocate to represent us. Perhaps I've just been lucky, but I've received helpful feedback from my querying and I'm happy with the system.



  34. Adam Heine on February 26, 2010 at 7:38 PM

    >Mira wrote: "85% of books don't earn out."

    Okay. That makes more sense to me than selling out (and I've heard a similar statistic). CKHB and XDPaul already noted that just because a book doesn't earn out doesn't mean it failed (i.e. didn't make a profit). Here's a link to help explain why (as much as it can be explained).



  35. Anonymous on February 26, 2010 at 7:28 PM

    >Kudos to Anon 3:03! Not only should publishers employ more readrs and reopen to unagented writers, but I hear that only NEW agents are actively seeking new clients. But the new agents aren't making much money yet, so they have to look for that potential bestseller to pay their bills and justify their jobs. So it's definitely a Catch-22.

    And if you're not writing YA or paranormal romance or whatever is the hot "new" trend, then you're out of luck!



  36. Susan DiMickele on February 26, 2010 at 6:18 PM

    >I actually have pretty strong opinions that the query system works. As a "nobody" who knew nothing about the publishing process, I wrote a textbook query and sent it to a couple dozen agents. I was surprised at how quickly I received email responses (both positive and negative) and was more than thrilled for the dialogue that eventually led to representation. Of course, I'm not completely objective because the query system worked for me (that's probably why I like it). I can't think of a better way for a non-name author to get a shot at representation.



  37. Beth on February 26, 2010 at 5:55 PM

    >The query system is an equalizer and works well. But it works slowly, and that is what some writers don't like. It also means that if you write a good work and a lousy query, it will be tough. You have to write the query as well as your book.



  38. A.L. Sonnichsen on February 26, 2010 at 5:29 PM

    >I'm on my third book and I think I'm actually starting to appreciate the query system. Don't get me wrong, I hate writing queries and often I don't feel I'm doing my book justice. BUT, queries force us writers to get to the meat of our books. Queries show flaws in a plot that a lot of clever writing can cover up. So, I'm starting to appreciate queries and write them at the beginning of my novel-writing process instead of at the end. That way I can tell if I'm headed in the right, not to mention a saleable, direction.



  39. JDuncan on February 26, 2010 at 5:15 PM

    >I believe it works in so far as a writer can put together a decent query.The only time it really fails is when you have a rather poor query but an outstanding story. I know this is more the exception than the rule, but it does happen. It happened to me. However do changes really need to happen to cover for a minor exception? No. The query system as it is probably balances out the pros and cons as well as any system is able in my opinion, taking into account the need for a brief format for agents to examine that allows them the time to cover the vast number of writers submitting. Writing a brief, compelling summary of your story is a learned skill. Some do it better than others, but no matter how much some writers may want, agents can't just read partials of everything that comes through the inbox.



  40. Anonymous on February 26, 2010 at 5:03 PM

    >I'd say it doesn't work – sort of… Ya I know that helps!

    It doesn't work because Agents should never have been stuck reading them – editors should be (or their assistants)

    Agents don;t buy books. So we go through hoops writing queries to people who can do what? Send them on to publishers. You can do that yourself. I know, I know, publishers X,Y and Z do not take unagented material..

    BLAH

    Agents had enough work to do before they became slush killers. The query system doesn't work because no editor ever gets a chance to buy your book if an agent doesn't like it.

    Why does it matter is Rachelle (just singling you out cuz you own the place 🙂 ) hates your book? Maybe an editor would. Editors can buy it – Rachelle pays NO ONE.

    I'm not jumping on agents here. I just think the idea 15-20 years ago that Publishers closes themselves to subs and said 'get an agent' is about the worst business decision the industry could have made.

    I need Rachelle (or whoever) for their expertise and reading isn't an area where agents have it allover the rest of us. They have knowledge of contracts and rights that we need negotiated. I don't. You don't.

    Agents may know editors and what they like but how many editors have you seen on blogs or at conferences say 'I don't know what I like until I'm reading it'? TONS.

    I think the idea that agents screen things is odd. They don't work for publishers. Why should they screen for them? They shouldn't. An agents job should be their clients #1 (and most good agents like Rachelle make it very clear their existing clients ARE #1 ) Becoming query readers for publishers necessarily detracts from that.

    I think the whole publishing model would be well served by publishers returning to handling submissions ont heir own and let agents get back to being agents. Maybe if they stopped paying celebs WAYYY too much money for overhyped books, they could rehire the readers they used to employ and let agents worry about their clients instead of needing to be slush readers to build their lists.



  41. Suze on February 26, 2010 at 4:54 PM

    >The query process works.

    Sometimes I get a sample of Kotex products in the mail (I have no idea why). It's a free sample and some marketing blurb pointing out the benefits and features of the product. If I like the product – I'd probably go to the store and buy more. And that's what a query letter is. It's a sample of your writing AND some marketing blurb. If an agent likes it, he or she will ask for more.

    The fact that we can't just go out and pay for an agent is really protection for us! For every person that can really write well, there are 10 who can't – but think that they can. I shudder to think of the money they would waste if they were paying someone to agent them.

    Perfect – no, but like democracy, it's probably the best system.



  42. Anonymous on February 26, 2010 at 4:02 PM

    >Here's a secret to life:

    THERE ARE NO RULES.

    There really aren't. There are only best practices.

    If you can think of a clever way to break the "rules" you can certainly do it. I've effectively ignored or broke the "rules" all the time.

    The problem is that most of the time that people ignore best practices, they do stupid things that backfire or get no results.

    –It's fair. Follow the rules and be ready. —



  43. Anonymous on February 26, 2010 at 3:57 PM

    >Of course, the query system works. Unlike almost every other kind of creative person, we can easily pitch our materials to buyers.

    Frankly, a lot of these comments don't make much sense.

    One person wanted a "referral system." We already have that, too. However, you have to get the referral first.

    You want a system where you bypass the gatekeepers? Sure — publish a blog or self-publish. Then of course you have other challenges.

    The reality is you don't have to query. If you think of a better way to sell your material or reach buyers, you can simply do it. You don't need permission. You just need to be creative.



  44. Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God on February 26, 2010 at 3:50 PM

    >Rachelle,

    You and every other agent in this industry have my sympathies. Yes, I think the query system works – better for some than for others – but it is crazy labor intensive. I think of it as panning for gold in the California gold rush era – lots of work for little or no return.

    Now back to the sympathy part. Besides Authonmy.com, fanStory.com allows writers to post their work (for a small fee, of course). However REVIEWING is free. Your readers should try reviewing the pieces that are written there. I did. I found some well written work, but by far the majority was very poorly written.

    My point is that anyone who reviews on fanStory.com will be able to see what you and other agents see every day. The query process may work, but agents pay a high price for using it.

    Be blessed,

    Lynnda



  45. Kristen N Bailey on February 26, 2010 at 3:23 PM

    >Before querying, I read the agent's blog, their website and google them for any additional information. The guidelines weed out those who don't. Pretty simple. The query letter is also the first marketing step, so if an author can't write a good query, they may not be able to market very well either.



  46. Carl on February 26, 2010 at 3:07 PM

    >I don't think I can agree with some of the analogies that are being made here. An author is not applying for a job or auditioning for a part. In those instances the "gatekeeper" must make a judgment about the future performance of the applicant, and about whether or not they want to work the applicant. That's a very subjective judgment, as it should be.

    An author is trying to sell a product. I realize that it is more than a product, but we are talking about industry right now, not craft. The objective marketability of the product can be tested. The trick is to find an economically viable way to do it, if that's even possible.



  47. Anonymous on February 26, 2010 at 2:55 PM

    >It obviously isn't working… because I would be a millionaire now if it were.

    You think I'm kidding?

    mmm hmmm…
    -nate



  48. JustineDell on February 26, 2010 at 2:44 PM

    >Lance hit the nail on the head with his comment. Hiring managers are no different than literary agents in being able to quickly pick up on the 'cream of the crop' with a query.

    It's fair. Follow the rules and be ready.

    ~JD



  49. Mira on February 26, 2010 at 2:37 PM

    >Anon 12:28, I just said that I'd stop posting for today, so let's pretend I'm not writing this.

    Oh. It's percentage. This is starting to look suspiciously like super-advanced math. I know it's super-advanced math (things like percentages and anything with a decimal point) because it started to be completely incomprehensible to me.

    That said, I stand by the simple math that the publishing industry is not profitable and, not only that, could be making tons more money.

    I'm off now to go think of some brilliant alternatives to the query system. If anyone wants to get there first, that would be cool, too.

    Thanks again, Rachelle.



  50. Kate Grace on February 26, 2010 at 2:28 PM

    >I'm on the fence, I have to say and for one simple reason – the reactions I'm getting from readers.

    The query process has not gone well for me at all. Very little to no agent interest, yet I've already been contacted by interested parties including an editor at a big publishing house (that doesn't accept unsolicited materials) after posting my manuscript to a website to get feedback. Also, a web following has started and I'm getting messages from all over the country and world (in some cases) from people I've never met raving about the book and wanting to know what happens next. In addition to these, I entered the book into contests and it's slowly moving up the ranks.

    I ended up taking the book down for the time being while I give the agent query process another go, but I can only wonder how is it that readers love it, editors who have seen it (and are considering it) love it, yet agents won't come anywhere near it?

    I've done my research. I'm only querying appropriate agents and the feedback I've gotten on my query is solid.

    So what explanation is there for this gap between agents' responses to the piece and readers'/editors'responses? Is it possible that the audience and the world of agents could become disconnected?



  51. Anonymous on February 26, 2010 at 2:28 PM

    >Mira, the term earn-out is used to describe the author's percentage of earned royalties against the advance, not the total profit of the book against the advance. So if the book in Paul's example is, say, a trade paperback with a royalty rate of 7.5%, the author's royalty portion from sales is only $3,750 (that's $50,000 times .075). That means the book has only earned out less than half of the $10,000 advance.



  52. Mira on February 26, 2010 at 2:27 PM

    >Rachelle,

    You're being very generous and giving us a forum here. I really appreciate it, and think you're pretty wonderful do this, given that you think the current system works well.

    I'm going to stop posting today and think up suggestions for better systems. Those suggestions will be so great, and so wonderful, so marvelous, that you'll say: Wow. I think the query system works, but these would work even BETTER.

    Now, I just have to think of them. 🙂



  53. Anonymous on February 26, 2010 at 2:26 PM

    >I've been querying to varying success for about ten months. Has it been hard at time? Yes. Has it been disappointing at times? Yes. Have I questioned my sanity through the process? Yes.
    But yesterday, an agent who had requested my full off a query, emailed to say she's enjoying my ms and asked if we could set up a call to chat on Monday.
    Does the query system work? I certainly hope so!



  54. PatriciaW on February 26, 2010 at 2:25 PM

    >I think it works although I have yet to query. Because as you pointed out, everyone can submit a query. Now, in truth, from what I understand, there are ways to leapfrog the query line–by referral or by prior personal contact with the agent. Still, every one can query so it's fair.

    I'd suppose those who find it unfair are those who have experienced rejection, especially where they've received no feedback as to why. That might be disheartening such that they blame the system rather than assume they just haven't knocked on the right query door yet.



  55. Rachelle on February 26, 2010 at 2:00 PM

    >Just to clarify, I don't think (and please correct me if you can prove me wrong) I've ever said I liked the query system. In fact, some days I really don't like it at all. I wish the magic query-fairy would bring me exactly ONE new author a week who would be perfect for me, and I'd never have to look at any others at all.

    Failing that, I think the query system works well and suits my purposes.



  56. Mira on February 26, 2010 at 1:54 PM

    >:)

    Wait. Rachelle, I thought you weren't going to argue. 🙂

    I could be wrong, but I think you really, really like the query system. 🙂

    XDPaul, I admit to confusion. Looks like the author did earn out their advance in your example, and the book made a $5,000 profit.

    And of course the query system affects profitability – it's how books are selected. It may not be the only thing – I think you can look at some other factors, as well. For example, the complete lack of marketing might also impact sales – but you can't let the query system off the hook.

    Or if you're going to, please back up your argument. If the publishing industry is not profitable, how does that not reflect on the query system?



  57. XDPaul on February 26, 2010 at 1:18 PM

    >I know Rachelle is going to address this later, but I just want to nip something in the bud – "earning out" is an _entirely different thing_ than "making a profit."

    This is important to understand: a book that doesn't earn out its advance can still be profitable. Simple (oversimple, with stupid numbers, for clarity) illustration: if you are given a $10,000 advance for a book that does $50,000 in sales, for example (and, say, incurs $25,000 in other, non-advance-related publishing costs) the book has made a $15,000 profit _even if_ the author didn't "earn out" her advance.

    "Earning out" is an important benchmark, but don't assume the system is broken just because you've heard that most books don't earn out. It isn't the same thing as profitability.

    The fact that not all books earn out has nothing to do with the relevance of the query system.



  58. Rachelle on February 26, 2010 at 1:17 PM

    >Sue 11:04: First, there are no qualifications required for a first-time novelist. None.

    Second, the qualifications needed to successfully sell a non-fiction book have nothing whatsoever to do with the query system. In fact, the query system works *best* for the types of books that require qualifications. And yes, if you're writing the kind of non-fiction book that needs credentials or a platform in order to sell well, then you'd better believe I'm jumping straight to the "qualifications" in the query letter. If they're not there, you're right, I'll pass. This is the beauty of the query system and why it works. I can avoid wasting time on projects that are not going to sell, no way, no how.

    It sounds as if you'd prefer a system that somehow hides a writers qualifications or lack thereof. How, exactly, would that help the system?



  59. Sue on February 26, 2010 at 1:04 PM

    >I think the query system works well for everyone but better for those with qualifications, since,in a query, there is a spotlight for them if they exist and a glaring hole if they don't.

    If agents don't jump straight to the missing qualifications and form reject, then the system is great.

    Unfortunately I think that inevitably happens (time constraints, looking quickly for the cream), so in those situations the query system doesn't work as well for those without qualifications.



  60. Jessica on February 26, 2010 at 1:01 PM

    >I definitely think the query system works, and here's why.

    In my opinion (which is subject to change *grin*) queries are about selling the story. Lots of great stories with mediocre or lazy writing get published. BUT great writing with mediocre story is probably less likely to be published. So in my opinion, the query is not necessarily about the writing, but the story. Now I know pacing, emotion, effectiveness, etc have to do with the writing, but to get someone to say, I want to read that, I really think we need to get them interested in the STORY first.
    So the query isn't a showcase, necessarily, for our writing (though good grammar etc, is a must).
    That said, who would buy a book without knowing what it was about? Or spend money on a movie where you know nothing about it? I've gone to movies before without seeing a preview, but before I went I said, wow, that cover looks interesting, what's it about? And then the movie people give me a one or two liner and I decide whether it sounds interesting enough to plop down money on it.
    I think in many ways the query is like this. Only the agent isn't spending money on the story, but time. They have to say, is this interesting enough to spend hours on?

    Also, (I know, this is going to be supper long and I'm sorry!) I think queries work because if you don't know your story, you can't write an effective query. Every story has a beginning, middle and end. They all have protagonists and conflict. These are things the writer must know. Sometimes we're too close and that's where a crit partner or even a friend can help.

    Whew. LOL Those are the reasons why I think queries are effective, plus the reasons Rachelle and many others gave. 🙂



  61. Adrienne on February 26, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    >Mary Ann said: "One gets out there and plays the sport, sings at local clubs, or acts in small productions. You get the gig by doing the gig and even if the big break doesn't arrive, you're doing what you love."

    I'm sorry, I really did have to laugh when I read this. I'm also an actress. And was an actress before I started the writing thing. For an actor to really get to the next level, get auditions for those quality plays, films, tv shows, you absolutely need . . .an agent. And even if you don't need an agent, you still have to audition for the part. And you know how you get an agent or an audition? You send a picture and a resume. Neither of which demonstrate your acting ability. One says what you have done, the other shows people what you look like frozen in time. And 9 times out of 10 you are rejected solely based on those two items alone, before you even get a chance to show the agent or casting director your abilities.

    When I started subbing as an author to agents, I was over the moon. Because like it or not, a query is a demonstration of your writing. A query shows that you can write competently, shows that you have a sense of humour, or a sense of drama or whatever. A query is like that first casting call in acting, where you and 100 other actresses read one line for two seconds and then "Next!". It's not a demonstration of everything you can do, but at least it's a demonstration of your talent to some degree.

    In writing you aren't judged by how you look, you don't have some casting director going through photographs saying, "No, no, no, maybe, no, yes" without having a clue if you are a good actor or not.

    So don't say that the writing process is somehow more unfair than the world of acting. It is patently untrue.

    Now.

    As to what I'd like to see change with the query process. I'd like to see the North American query system take on the UK system, that is to say – a simple cover letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters. So many agents now in NA say that the standard has become authors sending the first five pages without them being requested anyway, so why not make it an actual guideline?

    The second part of the query process that I hate is the "exclusive". I understand why an agent might want to do such a thing, they are investing their time on a manuscript. However at that stage, I do think it is unfair for an author to be told that they can't submit to anyone else and be at the mercy of that agent's timeline. Agents have other clients, other prospects in their submission file, all the author has is this one submission. And if the author has to wait on an agent for months, not being allowed to try with others, not being allowed possibly the chance to make the choice herself between offers, I do think that's unfair.

    Yes it's unfortunate for an agent to make an offer on something and to learn that the author wants to go with someone else, but at least the agent has other clients to fall back on. An author who has been on exclusive submission for months who then gets a rejection has to start from scratch again. There's a difference.



  62. Liesl on February 26, 2010 at 12:53 PM

    >I think the query system is awesome.*

    I come from a performance background and view the query as I do an audition. It's a totally different muscle, but you gotta flex it. Lots of performers groan that if the director would just give them a chance, just watch them and work with them for an hour or two, they'd see how amazingly talented they are. There's no time for that and in my experience the best auditioners really are the best performers. They've got what it takes.

    Okay, in all honesty, I do appreciate those agents who ask for the first 5-10 pages. I think it benefits both the author and the agent, but at the end of the day…
    Suck it up. Figure out what isn't working. Join a critique group. Follow Query Shark.

    *Disclaimer: In a few months I will start the query process. If I get 100 form rejections I will eat my words, come back and rant about how stupid and unfair the whole query process is.



  63. Rachelle on February 26, 2010 at 12:42 PM

    >T.Anne, I think we've already successfully done away with the exclusive query. Majority of agents don't want them, prefer not to receive exclusive queries.

    And yes, more and more agents are requesting a few manuscript pages along with the query. However, the agents who don't are doing this intentionally, because they already have a system that works for them. That is, they acquire authors and sell their books just fine without requesting pages in the query; they have no reason to change their system.



  64. T. Anne on February 26, 2010 at 12:37 PM

    >I'm going to say yes and no. Yes it can and has worked. BUT, I think all agents should do away with the exclusive query and start requesting people send in the first five pages along with it. The novel itself is in question, so I feel a sample should be sent along with the query. I'm happy that more and more agents are doing this. To me this is the only method that makes sense.



  65. CKHB on February 26, 2010 at 12:21 PM

    >I think the query system works.

    It is nothing more complicated than an industry-specific COVER LETTER for your book. Cover letters are required in dozens of industries. And plenty of people hate writing resumes and cover letters, and think that these short summaries don't really do them justice, but guess what? Not every employer can hire you on spec for a week to see the "real you" and not every agent can read every book all the way through.

    OF COURSE some books will get lost in the shuffle. Just like every other industry — the best person for a particular nursing job could have a terrible interview for no particularly good reason, and that opportunity would be "unfairly" lost. But these are all subjective decisions, and we have to have some system in place to keep the process controlled. I think a cover letter for each book is the most fair way to handle it.

    If you write lousy query letters, GET A CRIT PARTNER. I'm fine with queries, but not as good with cover letter for jobs where I have to explain why I'm the best for a job. So, I have a friend who proofreads all cover letters because she's got a knack for telling me how to sell myself best without coming off as a braggart.

    I don't have an agent yet, but I think the system works in general, and will also work for me in particular. I think that most of the books that don't get representation through the query system DO NOT DESERVE TO BE PUBLISHED. Yeah, it's special to get chosen. That's not because the system is failing, it's because not everyone can be a professional writer.

    Oh, and books that don't earn out their advance can still make a profit for the publisher. There is not an 85% fail rate in the industry from a commercial perspective.



  66. Kay on February 26, 2010 at 12:07 PM

    >I think people tend to forget that agents are salespeople. Fortunately, agents tend to believe in their product — manuscripts that can be turned into books people will buy — than just chase the money.

    Having watched the publishing industry since the 70s, I think the agent query system is fairer than the old publisher's slush piles.



  67. M Clement Hall on February 26, 2010 at 11:58 AM

    >re Authonomy:
    It gives you a chance to show your wares, but don't expect it to lead to an agent's offer, it has happened, but not very often in the thousands of submissions.
    You will receive comments, and you may find them helpful.
    But it costs nothing, and it's one more stone to look under.



  68. Arabella on February 26, 2010 at 11:51 AM

    >The query system works if you send the right query, for the right book, to the right agent at the right time. It's as simple as that.



  69. Anonymous on February 26, 2010 at 11:37 AM

    >I think the query system works, to an extent. Last year I had six fulls requested (out of 20 queries)–only half even responded with a rejection. Two were snail-mailed with no response. So, yes, it works–but then what?



  70. patriciazell on February 26, 2010 at 11:35 AM

    >Since I've been writing since the early 1990's (long before blogs), I guess I've accepted the query process as a fact of the writing life. It's just part of the learning curve involved with writing. Remember, when we sell our books to agents and publishers, we still need to be concise in our books' messages in order to market them. If we can't sell our books to agents or editors through queries, how are we going to sell them to the public? If we want our books to be sold and read, we need to give people concise reasons to choose our books. Thus, if nothing else, the query process is great practice.



  71. Rachelle on February 26, 2010 at 11:30 AM

    >Carl, thanks for posting the link. I was going to post it anyway in response to Sofie Bird @ 4:50.



  72. Carl on February 26, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    >I found the site I was thinking about. Harper Collins publishes it to "flush out the brightest, freshest new literature around."

    It's called http://www.authonomy.com. I hope it's okay to post the link. It's an interesting concept and I think someone had to try it.



  73. Mira on February 26, 2010 at 11:09 AM

    >Rachelle – thanks. I guess the phrase I really mean is 'earn out.'

    85% of books don't earn out.

    I don't believe that's misinformation, since I've heard that from industry professionals, but I'm always open to correction. 🙂

    Thanks again for the discussion!



  74. David Jarrett on February 26, 2010 at 11:02 AM

    >I agree with what Tracy said above. For those of us still receiving form rejections, it would be very helpful to know exactly which portion of our query the agent did not like. The 5-point approach Tracy defines would correct much of this. In addition, unless one has actually met the agent (which most of us have not), the only information we have about him/her is from her (and I use "her" because most agents are now female) web site. Her submission guidelines will say she represents many genres, into one of which a querying author's book falls, but then the author gets a form rejection saying the work was "not right for my list". This appears disingenuous to me, and is utterly no help to the author. Now, whether the agent should care about helping the author is debatable, but I believe in treating others the way I would like to be treated, and if I were an agent, I would try to be more helpful than I am finding them to be.



  75. katdish on February 26, 2010 at 10:59 AM

    >If you can write a good book, if you've poured so much of your life into creating something you think is worth reading, but you don't know how to write an effective query, how could you possibly THINK about submitting one without doing your homework?

    Do your research. Your query is like a job interview. Put your best foot forward.



  76. Rachelle on February 26, 2010 at 10:56 AM

    >I'm enjoying reading everyone's thoughts. A couple things I've noticed. First, there's a difference between whether you personally like the query system, or whether it "works." As one commenter mentioned, I don't "like" doing my dishes, but the process works to keep my kitchen clean.

    Second, there's quite a bit of misinformation and misunderstanding about publishing being tossed around here. I'll try to address it in a later blog. For now, let's stop altogether using the term "selling out." It's not a term that's relevant to publishing. See my post, "Sell-in, Sell-Through and Earn-out."



  77. Minolta White on February 26, 2010 at 10:46 AM

    >I'm not a huge fan of the query. I've had more fun on job interviews than writing a query. I don't like query's because not only are they tedious but u spend too much time trying perfect the letter just to get rejected. It's kinda like dressing your kid up for picture day and the teacher says you're not good enough for class photo, so go back home and try again. Bad example, maybe. But you get my point. I propose a more agent friendly way as in workshop, book signings, or author search party. I want my potential agent to be as open and receptive as my next door neighbor and not as untouchable as the president.



  78. Cliff Graham on February 26, 2010 at 10:42 AM

    >There is a lot that is broken and outdated in publishing, but for once, I would have to say that this part of it actually works. Not perfectly, of course, but if you want or need an agent, it's the best shot.



  79. Rosslyn Elliott on February 26, 2010 at 10:41 AM

    >Mary Anne, it's interesting that you compare the query process to the process of becoming a Hollywood star. Actually, the query process is much, much fairer than the acting audition circuit. Everyone has potential access to decision-makers (agents) in publishing, which is totally not the case in film. Physical beauty does not determine your likelihood of being published. And best of all, under ordinary circumstances, there is no "casting couch" in the publishing industry. 🙂



  80. Mira on February 26, 2010 at 10:36 AM

    >I love this discussion – once again, thank you, Rachelle.

    Sofie and Jason – I agree that there may be other reasons for the 15% success rate! However, the query system is how books are selected. So, it has to be a part of the problem. I think there is something wrong with the selection process if 85% of those books that are selected don't sell…..

    Adam – Actually, I could be wrong, but I think 'selling out' means that the profit the book made doesn't cover the cost of producing it. So not selling out means that the publisher lost money on the book.

    I'm still thinking about what other options there are. But I'll also join the discussion on why I have problems with the query system.

    For the writer:

    a. It is EXTREMELY time consuming. That time could be spent writing!!!

    b. It is confusing. The writer doesn't know if they were rejected for their writing or their query, so they don't know what to work on.

    For the agent:

    a. It is EXTREMELY time consuming and labor intensive. I think an agent's time is valuable, and queries are becoming overwhelming, at least from what I hear agents say…

    b. It is confusing. It doesn't put the sharp focus where it should be – on the writing. It confuses the issue with personalities and mannerisms. All that really counts is the book.

    People say this is a business. Okay, let's make money then. Let's get that success rate up and sell some books.



  81. Jan Cline on February 26, 2010 at 10:34 AM

    >While I have yet to send a query, from what I have been reading about the industry, it's the only way to go. I suppose in the "old" days, sending complete manuscripts was ok since the community of aspiring authors might have been smaller.

    All I know is that I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of the massive amount of queries you receive!



  82. Sherri on February 26, 2010 at 10:28 AM

    >I like what Richard Mabry said above: "The query is the application. The partial and the full manuscript are the interview. It's all part of the process."

    Queries are the best system to handle the incredibly high numbers of wannabe writers. In a query letter, an agent or editor can tell if the author understands sentence structure. She can tell, without spending hours reading the whole ms, if the subject matter is repugnant or unoriginal. You wouldn't expect a company to interview every single applicant regardless of ability.



  83. A. Grey on February 26, 2010 at 10:21 AM

    >I believe that the query system works. Period.

    That said, I also would disagree with people who say that the cream rises to the top. I don't argue against that simply because I'm someone trying to get an agent. I argue against it because I've been told that I should 'expect to land an agent with this ms soon!' quote un-quote, from more than one agent who requested fulls and then chose to pass.

    They sent me personal responses. Two offered to look at other work if I had it. They explained that they chose to pass on my current ms because they both had authors they represented working on books similar enough that they felt it would be a conflict of interest. I can appreciate that. I understand it. Those agents told me that the ms I'm querying is strong and would do well in the market.

    Did the query system fail me? Not exactly. But does that mean that my work isn't 'rising to the top' because it's not part of the cream? No. At least not according to some of the agents I've queried.

    Which throws me into turmoil the likes of which only someone who's been through it can understand. Which is most of the population of currently published authors.

    So while the query system 'works' I don't think it's perfect. But nothing is. So now I'm off to organize some more queries…



  84. Tracy on February 26, 2010 at 10:19 AM

    >My suggestion for making the system better would be for agents to consider going with a standard 5-category form rejection letter. Maybe:

    Guidelines : The writer didn't bother to check – or misunderstood – the type of work the agent represents, word count, etc.

    Query Letter : Something about the query letter just didn't appeal to the agent, rejected without reading further materials.

    Writing : The agent read all materials, but does not care for the writing style, grammar, voice, dialogue, etc.

    Story : The agent read the material, but does not care for the story line.

    Other : The agent's decision to reject was based on something beyond the author's control … too similar to other clients' work, too many clients who already write in that genre, etc.

    These could be five different, pre-printed letters (or email forms), or it could be one form where the appropriate option is circled or highlighted.

    This system may seem a little skewed towards the writer, but I think it could benefit agents too. There's nothing to be done about the clueless writers … but the serious ones are going to take that information, and put it to good use before querying again. That will help agents all across the board.



  85. Dee S. on February 26, 2010 at 10:16 AM

    >My take, my personal take…

    The query system works if you know how to work the system.

    That’s not an opportunistic statement or a claim that I have cracked the code for query success. At DGP I offer proposal and query writing services, but I don’t guarantee a contract. That’s ludicrous.

    What it means is that a writer must now understand the publishing business. And frankly, there’s no excuse that a writer shouldn’t in this day and age. The internet has afforded us a gateway into the publishing world. Literary agents, publishing house editors, literary publicists, industry insiders, bookstore owners are blogging and sharing this world to us. So why aren’t we taking advantage of it.

    For the past two years I shopped my novel series to become published. In the beginning I submitted queries to agents and editors whom were referred to me or whom I personally knew. Every agent except one responded to my query. One. And I know these agents personally. One! The one agent told me that my writing had some work to do and thought it was too edgy for Christian fiction genre. Granted I have been reviewing Christian Fiction for Romantic Times and various other print publications for seven years and been a book critic and book awards judge for five. I know this genre like I know that I’m African-American. I have read and noted books released in CBA that shares the same theme, tone, and content that I had written. et…

    But because I know this game. I know the words that is being said between the lines. What she meant was that the editors I close well with wouldn’t buy the book and don’t have the time or the resources to shop it to someone outside my circle. In short, I don’t know how to sell your book. Period.

    Newsflash most agents don’t. (you have to read the rest of my comment at my blog because i maxxed out my feedback limit. click on my name to continue reading)



  86. Rowenna on February 26, 2010 at 10:10 AM

    >I think a lot of people feel and express frustration at the query system that they really want to direct at the state of publishing in general. I don't necessarily agree, but I can see how it's frustrating to write something really good (no, really–objectively good), but too artsy or different or otherwise "uncool" for publishing to take a risk on it. It's not the query system's fault that the agent is looking for publishable, and the publishers are looking for saleable. I keep coming back to perseverance–if that first book won't cut it, maybe not because it's bad but because it's not going to get picked up, mourn a little bit, put it aside, start again. In ten years either you'll have moved on to something bigger and brigher in the literary world or that rejected piece of work will be hot stuff and you can trot it out again 🙂

    No one said that the query system was efficient or a quick way to get published. But ever notice how sometimes efficiency doesn't turn out the best results in the end?



  87. Dana King on February 26, 2010 at 9:56 AM

    >The query system works as well, and for the same reasons, as our system of government. It's imperfect, yet no one has come up with anything better. It's primary imperfection is that imperfect people use it. How well it works is directly proportional to whether it's used properly.



  88. XDPaul on February 26, 2010 at 9:52 AM

    >The query process is the natural outgrowth of the very nature of employment as an author.

    In the history of the world, no author (aspiring or otherwise) has EVER gotten fired from his job. He can always write another book, whether or not someone wants to buy it.

    That's nice, except that means there is an extremely low barrier to entry for a career with an extremely high threshold of paying work.

    The query process is an appropriate earlier barrier to entry. Unlike the medical school example above, where a good writer can mask scientific or care-centered weaknesses with a decent essay, in publishing, good writing is a core competency – you need it to write the book and communicate clearly with the multitude of publishing elements and potential readers.

    If you can't write a decent query, you can't write a decent email to an editor, you can't respond appropriately to a bookseller, you can't engage a reader's fan mail, you can't build platform…even if, by some random miracle, you actually can write a good book. In short, it only makes business sense to ask for a good author to also be a good communicator.

    The query is, in part, a test of your writing skills (and an appropriate one) but it is also a test of your business skills.

    Long live the query.



  89. Anjali on February 26, 2010 at 9:44 AM

    >I think it works, but I wonder how well it works.

    For instance, I'd love to know what the percentage is of writers who get representation from query letters, verses through referrals/writers conferences, etc.

    All but one of the writers I know got representation because of some sort of connection/personal meeting, not a query letter.



  90. Richard Mabry on February 26, 2010 at 9:40 AM

    >I don't doubt that there are writers who can string words and thoughts together to create beautiful prose, but who can't craft a query that's good enough to get them noticed. Then again, there are probably writers who can hone a query until it cries out, "Read me," but are incapable of producing a book that keeps our interest past the first chapter. But the query system is a start.

    When I was interviewing medical students who'd applied to train in my department at the medical school after their graduation, we first looked at the application, which was very much like a query. But then came the interview, when we learned more about them. That's when the important decisions were made.

    The query is the application. The partial and the full manuscript are the interview. It's all part of the process.



  91. Matilda McCloud on February 26, 2010 at 9:32 AM

    >I think the system basically works. My only concern is do agents' and editors' tastes always coincide? Would a ms that doesn't fit easily into an category and might be rejected by an agent as a hard sell actually be something an editor might like? That's the only part of the equation I wonder about.



  92. Nicole on February 26, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    >I think it works. Nothing in life is going to be 100% fair. Who you know is always going to matter. Instead of fretting over it get out there and meet people. I admit I don't like writing queries, not many people do. However I also don't like washing the dishes, taking out the garbage, or balancing the check book but they are necessary evils. Learn to love them because they are going to get you where you want to be: An author with a sanitary living space 😉



  93. James Scott Bell on February 26, 2010 at 9:03 AM

    >The most important part of a query, as Rachelle defines it, are the opening pages. It's a fair shorthand to see if your writing is where it needs to be. I just spent a few days going over first pages only, at a writer's conference. A dozen of them. None were ready for prime time. Yet there were things that could be done that helped a great deal, that enabled those pages to quickly stand out from all the slush. Learn to do those things, and the query system will work for you.



  94. Caroline Starr Rose on February 26, 2010 at 9:00 AM

    >It works if you are willing to put in the work.

    That means writing, revising (again and again, if necessary), and keeping those queries out there.

    It took me almost eleven years and a dozen mid-grade and picture book manuscripts to sign with an agent. We had no previous contact. She responded to a query.

    If you commit to the process and fearlessly revise, it can happen.



  95. M Clement Hall on February 26, 2010 at 8:59 AM

    >Jason's suggestion:
    only picking up clients through face-to-face meetings at conferences

    I was surprised and perhaps a bit disheartened to read a very experienced agent say she never got a client from going to these "face to face" conventions, and only went to socialise with the other agents, and only if all her expenses were paid.

    I'd be interested to read Rachelle's experience of meetings.



  96. Carl on February 26, 2010 at 8:52 AM

    >Does it work? Sure. Pencils work too, but they're not the most efficient tool for writing a book.

    If we try to take an objective look at the process, it's flawed on its face. Book selling is a volume business. The best way to determine a product's appeal to a market is to determine its appeal to its particular market through statistical samples before the product is launched.

    The current process is controlled by individual gatekeepers. Focus groups and committees might be better able to predict the popularity of a novel than individuals. Rather than reading queries, a focus group/committee might just start reading submitted manuscripts and each member of the group could rate the novel, presuming they even finish it.

    I don't know that publishers would ever be able to cost justify that kind of process, but it arguably would do a better job at predicting the success of a novel. The publisher would probably still need a person who reads the book before the committee gets it to weed out the obvious train wrecks, but not to determine marketability.

    Isn't there a publisher that is trying something like that. They allow people to submit their manuscripts to a website, allow non-affiliated readers to rate them, and then consider the highest rated manuscripts for publication?

    That sounds like it has merit.



  97. Fawn Neun on February 26, 2010 at 8:51 AM

    >Part of my thinking is that it works as well as anything else.

    On the other hand, part of me also doesn't understand why an author doesn't have the option of hiring an agent on commission like any other professional service. We pay editors, lawyers, physicians. We don't have to wait to find a doctor that finds our disease interesting enough to treat. Certainly lawyers don't turn down cases unless they're overloaded or because of conflict of interest.

    Judging from the quality of some of the complete sh*te I've seen published lately, I can't say that it's working really well right now, but I think that's a publisher problem, not an agent problem. I don't think the holy 'gatekeepers' are really doing much in the way of insuring that the quality of modern literature remains high, so that's really no excuse for them. We're getting vampire mafia warlords and Dan Brown, so it's not like they're doing the art any real favor. And business or not, it's not doing much for the publishers, who have become so bankrupt that they're resorting to opening self-publishing imprints to turn profit. So, there's those two reasons out the window. The current query system is NOT weeding the chaff and it's NOT keeping the publishers in profit.

    And I do have to say, that from first glance, the idea of being judged rather dismissively on the basis of one letter by someone who wants 15% of my income certainly wouldn't make sense in any other part of my life.

    It's really bizarre if you think about it.



  98. Adam Heine on February 26, 2010 at 8:09 AM

    >"85% of the books that are in bookstores DO NOT SELL OUT. …objectively, the query system doesn't work. A 15% success rate is not something that would be tolerated in any other business."

    Thanks for the response, Mira, but I'm not sure whether selling out is a good measure of the success of a book. If I sold 1 million copies of a book to bookstores and they sell 950,000 copies to consumers, the book doesn't sell out, but I still make a nice profit. I'd call that a success.



  99. Jason on February 26, 2010 at 8:05 AM

    >Mira, you make an excellent point, which I had not considered. That really isn't a good success rate. And I think often people in the industry chalk it up to, "Americans don't read." I'm not so sure about that. Rowling, Meyer and others sorta blew that argument out of the water.

    But, I'm still not convinced that the issue is directly related to the query system. Maybe publishers need a better understanding of what Americans want to read rather than what they like.

    I often hear people in the industry saying they take on a manuscript because it holds THEIR interest or for some other personal subjective reason. There's a problem inherent in that. If the people in the industry don't reflect the population at large, then you're going to have books that don't either.

    Still (I say again)…that is not be the fault of the query system.



  100. M Clement Hall on February 26, 2010 at 7:57 AM

    >I think many young (in the sense of unpublished) writers don't grasp that publication is a business, and that those who run the business do it the way that suits them best. Sure, like the banks they may put on a fine face of telling you they'd like customer satisafaction, but what they have to have is bottom line success, which is based on maximum return for time and effort expended. Writing might be a pleasurable pastime to the writer, but it's a cold and unforgiving business to the literary agent and editor.
    So the literary agent sets her guidelines to what suits her purpose best, and an agent who takes the trouble to write an instructive blog is fully aware of "customer satisfaction."



  101. Mary Anne Graham on February 26, 2010 at 7:54 AM

    >No, the query system doesn't work and Rachelle's examples make the point. How does one get chosen for the Olympic team, become a Top 40 recording artist or a Hollywood superstar?

    One gets out there and plays the sport, sings at local clubs, or acts in small productions. You get the gig by doing the gig and even if the big break doesn't arrive, you're doing what you love. Sports fans, music lovers and movie or theater buffs get to decide how they like your work.

    The query system doesn't work and I think indie publishing will eventually replace it entirely. Some indie authors will get "discovered" and many won't but all of the work will be out there. Ultimately, the public will decide and that's a good thing!



  102. Jason on February 26, 2010 at 7:54 AM

    >It's sorta like the question, is government broke…the answer of which is, only for those who aren't getting their way.

    Of course, anything can be improved upon, but if there are faults in the publishing industry it doesn't lie with the query system.

    Like anything else, the system hardly matters, it's really the people executing the system that counts. So I'd say the query system works as well as writers, agents, editors make it work.

    This is not a personal complaint of mine as I've only submitted one query and did get a response, but from reading comments over time it seems that the main frustration people have with the query system is that they're not sure they're getting serious consideration. I know agents are busy, but agents that respond with a simple, "got your query…" could probably go a long way toward making people feel better about the query system in general…at least from a writer's POV.

    Having said that, I wonder if there is a better way from the editor/agent POV. I know popular agents can get hundreds of queries a week. I'd be interested in hearing about agents who tried a different tactic…say maybe only picking up clients through face-to-face meetings at conferences…the advantage of which would be you only deal with potential clients at set times, allowing you to dedicate most of the rest of your time to other matters, and you narrow your pool to those who are serious enough about their writing that they're willing to pay to attend a writer's conference…just random thoughts…



  103. Kat Heckenbach on February 26, 2010 at 7:45 AM

    >No, I don't believe the query system works. I think query letter writing is a completely different skill than story writing. A query is basically an advertisement–here's the bones about my product and the reasons you need to buy it!

    Of course, it lets the agent know whether or not your book fits their mental list of subject matter, which is a good way of weeding out books on topics or of genres you just don't take.

    But it's not a true assessment of the writer's skills as a story teller.



  104. Krista Phillips on February 26, 2010 at 7:30 AM

    >I think it works. It hasn't worked 100% for ME yet, but I have had 2 requests for fulls, but even before then, I was fine with it.

    As you said, it may take a long time, but it doesn't limit access. I'm all about finding easier, simplier, less time consuming ways to do things, but we're talking about a whole lot of subjectivity. And those two things will never change.

    Oddly enough, I bet it wouldn't take so long if so many people didn't query before they are ready (including myself, I was totally in that boat, who knows, maybe still am!) but sometimes getting a "no, your craft stinks" reply is what we need to slap us in the head and make us really get serious… or for those who really aren't cut out for it, quit.

    So, I vote for the current system:-)



  105. Phoenix on February 26, 2010 at 7:13 AM

    >I have no doubt the system "works", but does it work BETTER than other routes to publishing? I've seen the agent and author blog headlines that scream "The Query System Works" because someone got found and pub'd through it. But it seems it wouldn't garner that kind of headline if it weren't the exception rather than the rule.

    Writers are warned self-publishing isn't the way to break into the biz as only a handful of authors have done that. But it seems the odds there *may* be just as good as getting picked out of the slush. We writers see the end-of-year stats from agents who share their success rates, and we see in some cases that 3 or 4 folk are picked out of the slush while another 3 or 4 are picked up through "connections".

    I think, however, that the questions of Top 40 recording artist or Hollywood superstar are more akin to how does one become a bestselling author, not how does one get agent attention. I can't speak to the recording industry, but I worked for a Hollywood talent agency and the process IS different than publishing.

    Sports and politics, of course, start out democratically in small venues where the best in a small group of people compete against the best of another group or team (school, city, county, state, region, national, world). But writers competing for top agents or NY publishers don't have that kind of filtering system. We start out competing at the national level, especially when we're told that small publishing credits usually don't matter much.

    The return on investment is there for agents in the query system. Not so much for the majority of aspiring authors. Other avenues seem to work as well for some. I certainly don't know what THE answer is, but if publishing is changing and publishers recognize they will need to adapt/adopt different ways of doing things, then perhaps agents will need to adapt/adopt different systems as well. I think a number of authors are already testing out other systems through self- or vanity-publishing. Those venues are the growing pains of a changing landscape. Though new it's not, since many authors of "classics" resorted to self-publishing and hand-distributing their work when they were rejected. Nothing much has changed over the past 200 years — and that could be a very sad commentary for the industry in general…



  106. Lance on February 26, 2010 at 7:09 AM

    >It's kind of like reading over a hundred resumes for an open position. It's easy for an experienced manager to cull through the stack and pick the three or four that have the goods.

    It's fair.



  107. Sofie Bird on February 26, 2010 at 6:50 AM

    >It works, with a fair few qualifiers. As Mira said, no other industry would tolerate the percentage of failures, and the complete lack of accurate risk/return assessment – but that's an examination of the industry as a whole rather than the query system.

    The singular issue I have with the query system is that it removes author's control over the process of querying with little benefit to the author.

    An agent will (hopefully) have several clients for whom they're working, and therefore little time to actually read the book they're trying to pitch to editors, or to read comparable books to keep up to date with the market. The agent also has little investment in an individual work – if a book doesn't sell with their typical list of editors, they're free to hand it back to the author and say "let's try the next one." All they've lost is the comparatively small amount of time from sending out a few queries.

    I've read and heard countless stories of agents handing back good novels because they didn't sell with their top ten editors, and the agent didn't think it worth their time to research other avenues for the book. Personally, I find that appalling behaviour for someone demanding 15% off the paycheque.

    By comparison, the author has far more investment in the work, is (or should be) more committed to making that sale (as they have only themselves as a 'client', and their investment should lend them the willingness to research once their list of known editors runs dry) knows their book thoroughly and should already be doing the market research as part of writing.

    By those counts, the author is better suited to be querying those editors. (Rights-negotiation is a whole separate matter). But instead, publishers have set up a set of secondary gate-keepers who essentially charge authors for double-handling the process.

    I wonder if a 'public-vote' system could work. Simply, a central site where would-be authors upload their manuscripts (or a portion thereof), and then readers can vote on which they'd want to buy. Rules and regs could be implemented to prevent ballot-stuffing and shill-votes, and publishers could (for once) have an accurate view of what appeals to the public before they publish something.

    The main issues would be the lack of readers to vote – convincing the public to trial books like this as a matter of habit (which would be handled with clever marketing – make the audience feel they're really involved. Hey, it's Reality Publishing!) – and getting publishers – especially editors – to actually accept the idea.



  108. Krista on February 26, 2010 at 4:55 AM

    >Anon 2:21 wrote: "We have no idea what the agents think of our queries since many choose not to repsond"

    Sure we do. No response means the same thing as a form rejection.



  109. Anonymous on February 26, 2010 at 4:21 AM

    >Sure, the query system works for the AGENT, but no so much for the writer. We have no idea what the agents think of our queries since many choose not to repsond, despite all of our efforts and research. Why can't agents hire part-time pros to at least acknowlege queries and sample pages, and better yet, even provide a little feedback?

    What about providing a better system for the WRITER?



  110. Aimee LS on February 26, 2010 at 4:20 AM

    >The 'query system' works because a way has to be found to trawl through all the chaff to find the wheat. It's frustrating because demand is so high on so few suppliers.

    I think the system will change a little with time though. Right now there are several websites (I've specifically used WeBook) that are basically doing a very minor kind of sifting in the first place before ensuring all manuscripts are headed towards Agents who actually represent those genres.

    I think these kinds of systems will become more and more popular as they improve efficiency and, let's face it, technology is becoming so central to every area of our lives that it's got to be put to better use here.



  111. Ellen B on February 26, 2010 at 3:44 AM

    >The query system is a lot like the exam system.

    Exams test such things as your memory, your ability to perform under time-pressure and in the case of essay-based exams, your ability to present information logically and concisely. They do not test how much you actually know.

    However.

    I have a good memory, I perform well under time-pressure and I can present information logically and concisely (for anyone who has read my blog and wants to argue, I really can. I just choose not to sometimes *ahem*) 🙂

    And none of those things mean a thing if I don't have the knowledge to back it up. Trust me, I tested this theory once in spectacular fashion.

    Similarly, the query system tests how good a writer is at writing queries rather than books. But like exam technique, that skill can be learned. And also, like exam technique, without the substance behind the presentation (in this case the book) all the query writing skills in the world won't help you.

    Equally, think of job interviews. Some people are good at them and some people hate them. You can perfect your technique but ultimately all you're doing is learning to highlight the real product – your skills, your experience and your ability.

    It would be lovely if, in all of those situations, we had time to sit with each candidate (writer, student, jobseeker) and get to know them and their work fully and completely before we judged them. But time prohibits that so I think the query system, although it's a little flawed, does work. It tests your ability to learn a set of skills and apply them, but it's also not enough to just do that. You need substance too.



  112. Mira on February 26, 2010 at 3:37 AM

    >:)

    I'll have to think about this one. What to say, what to say.

    🙂

    But I do want to point out something. 85% of the books that are in bookstores DO NOT SELL OUT.

    So, Adam, you really can't use the argument that objectively the query system works. Actually, objectively, the query system doesn't work. A 15% success rate is not something that would be tolerated in any other business.

    That said, I still prefer it to the referal system – it is absolutely more democratic.

    Other ideas, let me think about them. And hear what other people have to say.

    For what it's worth, I really like you, Rachelle. Thank you. 🙂



  113. writer jim on February 26, 2010 at 2:53 AM

    >I admit I am a simple sinner, and neither me nor my writing is the cream of the crop. Yet I totally agree with all of Katherine's comments… especially concerning nonfiction.
    I think the query process is really great for all writers that don't have an inside track of some kind.
    I know a large family that is big time in Christian publishing, for decades. They actually like me, and I've been invited to their different homes, and was well fed. They know about some of my amazing experiences with God. I consider them a fantastic inside track for me. HOWEVER, I have never told them I'm writing a book. WHY? Because I want to wait and try the QUERY process first, rather than feel obligated to them. That way I'll be able to compare apples to apples, etc.



  114. Kathleen L. Maher on February 26, 2010 at 2:42 AM

    >Piggy-backing off of Adam's comment about the book itself being judged, what would happen if a three-to-four sentence quote from the book were a standard requirement in a query?

    Might be interesting to get a sample of the writing itself. It'd sure make one choose an excerpt wisely.
    😉



  115. Adam Heine on February 26, 2010 at 2:22 AM

    >Does it work? The existence of thousands of quality books in bookstores says: objectively yes.

    Is it perfect? No. What is? But it's pretty dang good. I haven't been able to think of a better system, at least.

    I used to hate it because I thought my novel should be judged, not my query-writing skills. But (1) that's impossible; no agent has that kind of time and (2) query- and novel-writing skills overlap more than we like to admit.



  116. Katherine Jenkins on February 26, 2010 at 2:14 AM

    >The cream of the crop will rise to the top. It worked for me on my first shot. I got an agent after sending only one query. I was ready, my book idea is good, I have a strong blog with a very large fan base, but no previous publications. It was about timing, it was about being prepared, it was about crafting an incredible proposal with an editor. Anybody has a shot at this, but you have to be ready, you have to be confident and you have to be impeccable, and you have to believe in what your are writing about.



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