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BookEnds Literary Agency How I Manage Queries

Constructive Criticism on the Query System

I was lucky enough to receive some terrific advice from a man in our YouTube comments, “I do have some comments to contribute that I feel will help both you and the literary industry.”

While I always appreciate it when a man with no publishing experience explains, or should we say mansplains, how I can better run the business I’ve been running for 20 years, I do want to clear up a few things that he (surprise!) got wrong.

In his comment (I won’t repeat all seven paragraphs) he was kind enough to point out the inherent flaws in the current query system. Including things like inconsistency in requests by agents (pages, synopsis samples, etc) and, of course, the fact that agents never give critiques.

I’m going to skip all of that to get to the point that I think authors complain about the most. The query letter. In his comment, our friend mansplained, “the real truth lies in the fact that the present submission of a Query alone, in general, lacks merit.”

And here’s where he really gets it wrong (not that he was right before that).

All agents should not be forced to read additional material just as all readers should not be forced to read pages or samples of every book that grabs their attention.

When readers buy books they base their decision on what is ultimately a query letter. When agents consider books for representation, and when editors consider books for publication, we are readers first. Looking at the query letter helps us determine whether this is even a book we’d like to consider.

As a reader, how many books have you read the cover copy for and put back on the rack without buying simply because, “it’s not right for you?” or, as he put it, “a canned response.”

This commenter also noted, “when agents begin to change the present system, meaningful submissions will begin to occur.”

Meaningful submissions exist every day. In fact, BookEnds took on nearly 100 new clients in 2018. All meaningful submissions from query letters. In 2019 we have signed 25 clients in the first quarter alone.

I understand the frustrations querying authors face and I am empathetic to them. It’s why we work so hard on these videos, our blog, and on Twitter–to give authors as much information as possible to empower them in the query process.

I’m not arguing that the query system wouldn’t benefit from a change. In fact, we have tweaked it ourselves quite a bit over the past 20 years–going from snail mail, to email, to Query Manager. All agents are always looking for new ways to streamline the query process, but to decide it’s ineffective simply because you don’t like it is wrong.

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9 comments

  1. I understand the frustration. I’ve belonged to a literary forum that’s been around since AOL dial up in various iterations. Many members have gone on to great success and we go through the writing and querying pangs together.

    I couldn’t resist responding to the man on the YouTube, response, so I won’t rehash it here. Much.

    Querying is still the most effective way to present our work. We may like writing queries, I don’t, but when they work, they work.

    Rejection is part of the journey. Dejection is a choice.

    I’m too busy writing something else while I’m querying to be frustrated. I don’t like it, but it just means that agent wasn’t right for this project.

    At Surrey one year a friend brought two ladies to me and said, “Julie, you won’t believe this woman’s story and she isn’t getting any bites.”

    She was in her early 50’s. She told about how she had stuck through thick and thin with her husband when he had cancer and then when he got better he dumped her and ran off with a younger woman. Devastated, she went to Thailand after a typhoon and was helping villagers. She came up with a way to make beautiful paper from elephant dung so women could help support their families, but her story kept going back to her husband did her wrong.

    I took off my Resistol and laid it aside, then said. “Because no one cares about your story. No one cares about he done you wrong. That happens to women every day. Your story starts with going to help with the typhoon and you’re burying it.”

    They all looked at me as if I were a monster. I’m not usually this direct. Beer may have been involved.

    Maybe if you’re getting rejected it’s time to look at your story instead of the way the query process works, hmm?

  2. I wonder if he was planning on querying Bookends? Because I think he may have shot himself in the foot.

    Comments like that become even more crazy when you extend them to think about any business. Should all administration officers looking for work have to apply in exactly the same way? Sit exactly the same typing test? No, because each business has their own way of recruiting that suits them. Same for agents – except writers are much more fortunate than other industries because we do know what has to go into a query letter (that doesn’t change).

    I like query letters because they are straightforward (even if writing them costs me a handful of hair and a box of chocolate). And I know every other writer out there is also presenting the same thing. Adding confetti or unicorns isn’t going to make them more attractive to an agent, there is no worry about having to “out do” everyone else. Write the best book you can, follow the rules for writing a query letter, research appropriate agents and you’ve done everything you can to find a home for your book.

  3. Ive found the YouTube videos to be entertaining.

    Taking criticism is hard. Part of putting yourself out there means someone will eventually show up to cast stones. Good thing you got that out of the way.

    Writing a query sucks. There is so much pressure. I’d love to know how many writers don’t query, because of the anxiety and time it takes to draft one.

    Thing is, your story has to have a pitch and blurb.

    It is a step along the journey of being an author. And it took Einstein 999 steps to create light within a glass bulb.

    So let them cast stones! For we have come to create!

  4. I pretty much think the query system is hugely nuanced and democratic and gives authors options in one way or the other. I can’t imagine what previous generations of authors would have experienced without the internet as we have now.

  5. Recently I was asked to submit a book proposal for a fiction novel. Gak! Now that was awful. Give me a good old fashioned query letter any day.

    I guess the man who is trying to revamp the literary world is looking for a mentor. There are people who will do that – for a fee. Agents aren’t mentors.

  6. I’m wondering if this person has any experience in the business at all. The suggestions (s)he made seemed to follow different tangents, for example, (s)he suggests a Table of Contents and a Platform. Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t that more for non-fiction? Either way, I don’t want to have to supply all of that additional information.

    I’ve been at this for a long time, and as you commented Jessica, the process has vastly improved since my day — yes, I’m dating myself—and I’m personally glad we can do things online now. Sure the journey can frustrate, sure I wish I could just send my whole manuscript to all the agents I’m interested in but can you imagine what would happen if we did? **insert shocked emoji here**

  7. I was at a book store today. One book I had in mind to buy before I went there, the other book was made into one of my favorite movies but the third book was a surprise. The front and back cover made me laugh and I was in the mood to laugh. That’s why it became book number three.

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