The Archaic Query

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Oct 27 2011

When authors spend time together complaining about query letters, one of the things I frequently hear is how archaic the process is, how queries should be done away with in place of sample chapters. The irony of this statement is that the importance of the query has grown significantly over the past few years, which makes it, in fact, not archaic at all.

As publishing gets “easier” through the use of technology, it’s important for agents to come up with more ways to streamline their own processes. When we started BookEnds 12 years ago we accepted unsolicited proposal packages via snail mail. That allowed us to skip the query altogether and read the material. And then we got busier, more successful, and the proposals would come in at a stack that was somewhere between two and three feet tall daily. I’m not kidding. I had a wall of bookshelves dedicated to holding proposals and manuscripts. As time went on technology took over and things changed. I found that even if a proposal came in, half the time I wasn’t reading it. I was basing my decision on the query anyway. So why was I asking people to submit the entire package?

I know many of you hate the query and feel that it’s unfair because it’s a different skill set. That might be true. I have to use many different skill sets for my job. Writing queries (ha! I write them too) is different than writing this blog, or the blurbs for the website, or the blurbs for my foreign agents, etc. It’s what we do to become successful. We take time to learn what we need to do.


26 responses to “The Archaic Query”

  1. That's awesome, Jessica. I love it! Of course authors are obligated to learn new and different things to succeed in their career; that's true of every other job out there! Personally, I'm pretty endeared to the idea of queries, and frequently play through ideas for stories in my head (it helps to see if the story is exciting enough, too: what would I put in the query to summarise the plot in a compelling way?). Thanks for the great post.


  2. Avatar Colin Smith says:

    While I don't find queries fun to write, I recognize their value far far more than I do the value of, say, tag lines or synopses. Especially synopses. I don't understand why an agent would prefer to see a synopsis over reading the novel? Not only does the synopsis give away the whole story, the word restriction means the author has to edit so severely, any sense of the voice and the writing style is lost.

    So that's a vote for the query over the synopsis. 🙂

  3. Avatar Julie Daines says:

    I love the query. It's my chance to show the agent what a great concept my story has and to give them an idea of where the plot is going. And it shows the agent I'm capable of writing, organizing, and summarizing a cohesive piece of fiction.

    Hopefully, they'll scroll down to the sample chapter and judge on my writing as well. But if the query information doesn't interest the agent, even a beautifully written first chapter won't make it a good match.

  4. Avatar Ms. Snip says:

    While queries can be frustrating, I find I like the challenge. I try to write the query when the idea for a story first comes – that way I can focus on central conflict instead of getting bogged down in sub-plots and backstory. Then I go ahead and write my synopsis, which helps me create my outline for writing. Of course the synopsis and query need tweaking once the story is finished, but it helps so much to start with a clear idea of *what the book is about* which is after all – the heart of a query, right?

  5. Avatar ryan field says:

    I always like to think it's the entire "package," query and first few pages.

    And nailing the query down helps, as a skill, in more ways than one…even after a book's been pubbed. A lot of writers have trouble replying to the question, "What is your book about?" in public. If you have a query…good description…you're not on the spot when someone asks this question.

    It's just a good skill to have from an artistic and technical POV.

  6. Queries are definitely difficult to write. I know my book is good, but my query was weak. 2 weeks ago, by some miracle, my query was chosen for Query Shark. I'm aware of some mistakes I made, and am working on the query. I'm almost there, have gotten amazing feedback in the comments, and from Janet, and also an amazing compliment from the shark herself. I suggest to anyone to submit their query to Query Shark.

    Also, keep in mind you can't just whip off a query letter – it should have as much care as the novel (though obviously in proportion to it's length).

  7. I hate the pressure of writing queries too, but they're just as necessary as are resumes in the job hunt. Yes, I do use resumes to narrow down the field of candidates, unfair though that practice may be to those who are great teachers but terrible resume writers. It's all I have to work with, unfortunately. I don't begrudge you your queries, Jessica.

  8. Avatar Scott Eagan says:

    I personally have to laugh at the author that made the comment of why editors or agents would want to read a synopsis and not want to read the entire novel. I would love to know if this person ignores the back covers of books or the blurbs about the books put out by publishers. Along the same lines, does he read an entire book if the first part of it is awful?

    As an agent, I use the synopsis to see if maybe, the first part of the book had some struggles but the later part turned out better. Had I just relied on the novel without the synopsis, I would have stopped reading and immediately fired off that rejection letter.

  9. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    This is something that really needs to be said. You can take shortcuts, which now can mean self-publishing work that's not fit for human consumption, or learn the ropes and end up with a book you can be proud of.

    I remember hearing something from an author one time that really resonated with me–you have to know the rules in order to break them and make it work.

  10. Very good point. I hate queries, but then I hate driving too. Doesn't mean I starve rather thand rive to the shop.

  11. I'm sure bypassing the query process would be wonderful, from anyone's perspective. I still need to improve my hand at it, but I bet some level of mastery at the query letter makes you a better writer in the long run.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  12. Avatar Colin Smith says:

    @Scott Eagan:
    The back cover of most books don't give you the whole plot in 500 words. Usually, they give you what you get in a query: the main character, basic premise, and the conflict, presented in a tantalizing way so you are enticed to read/purchase the book. The synopsis is essentially a re-telling of the entire plot–including the ending–in 500 words, which I don't think does justice to the novel. I feel that if the query has enticed you, and the sample pages demonstrate the author can write, surely this should be enough to let you know whether or not you want to take the time to read the manuscript?

    I understand some agents prefer to see a synopsis, and I respect their right to ask for one. I just don't see the necessity. If the novel is good and query has done it's job, surely you should *want* to read the full. Just my 2c. 🙂

  13. Avatar S.P. Bowers says:

    We take time to learn what we need to do.

    Exactly. I don't know of any profession where people only have to learn one set of skills and if someone asks them to vary a little they say I'm sorry I can't do that. Being an author is more than just writing. If we're not willing to do the whole job then we might not get that position.

  14. Avatar girlseeksplace says:

    Query letters rank right up there with job applications for me. I don't enjoy them, but as with many other things in life, there are challenges to be faced. Practice makes success. Life would be pretty boring if everything were fun and games and we didn't have anything to challenge our minds.

  15. Avatar Ruth says:

    I didn't like queries – until mine worked.

    This week I've written a query for my new novel even though it will never be used as one. Yes – a VOLUNTARY query! If you can't write a decent query for a book, you may not have a decent book. Now my novel has a focus – unlike novel #1 which will forever languish in the virtual trunk.

  16. Avatar Huntress says:

    Writing a query expands a writer's imagination just like any exercise. It is *she hissed through clenched teeth* a good thing.

  17. Avatar G says:

    Writing a query is a fantastic way to drive yourself slug nutty.

    It took me about three plus weeks to write the basic query for my novel, simply because I had a problem trying to think of a good hook for it.

    Then it took me a couple of weeks to revise after I had posted it on my blog for my readers to critique.

  18. Avatar Lucy says:

    Ah, I see….that sort of archaic. I thought you might be going to talk about archaic forms of the query, where the author picked up a how-to book that's a good fifteen years old, and has no relation to modern query styles.

    Those always make me wince a bit, but at least somebody was trying. 🙂

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    When I read advice to writers that they should accept this or that status quo publishing industry shortcut as just something they simply have to swallow as part of their "job" I can't help but think: If you treat writing like just another work-a-day occupation, you deserve only work-a-day writers giving you work-a-day writing.

    Being a publisher is a job. Being an editor is a job. Being an agent is a job. Being a writer is an art.

    I can't imagine any decent, self-aware writer wanting anything to do with an agent who has so little respect for writing that she would lump together the "skillsets" (what an ugly example of crass, Dilbertese business-speak) needed to represent talent with the demands of talent itself.

  20. Avatar JaneRochester says:

    Oh, Anonymous. I wish you luck.

    In one regard, you are correct. Writing is an art. But the moment you attempt to make money doing it, it becomes a business as well. And these days, with publishers having less and less money to spend on publicity, it's more businesslike than it's ever been.

    The "skillset" required to write a query offers many chances to hone the talents needed in any type of "artistic" writing, clarity and conciseness chief among them.

    I've heard stories from agents who have dealt with authors who feel their art is miles above the mundane, workaday world of petty moneychanging. Most of those agents didn't deal with those authors for very long.

  21. Avatar Anonymous says:

    "You can take shortcuts, which now can mean self-publishing work that's not fit for human consumption, or learn the ropes and end up with a book you can be proud of."

    Or, looking at it in a different way, you can work three times harder, which now can mean self-publishing, and end up with a book you're not only proud of but have been able to design and control completely.

    While I agree the skill of writing a great query is important on many levels. I don't think self-publishing is a short cut. I think of it more as author empowerment.

  22. Avatar Anonymous says:

    "I personally have to laugh at the author that made the comment of why editors or agents would want to read a synopsis and not want to read the entire novel."

    I don't find this funny at all. I think the author of the comment stated a valid personal opinion, and one many people share.

    But more than that, in the twenty years I've been in publishing and getting published, I've only been asked to write a synopsis a handful of times by agents, editors, and publishers. It's either a detailed chapter by chapter outline/proposal, or a query/blurb describing the book. Or, in some cases, the first few chapters. And the few times when I've been asked to write a synopsis, I've passed on the project. It's not that I can't do it. I can do anything and usually I'm willing to do anything. It's just my own personal opinion.

  23. Avatar SBJones says:

    I'm going to guess at the reason authors do not like query writing is because they just spent X hours, X days, X months on a manuscript that now has to sell based upon a single sheet of advertisement.

  24. Avatar Lee says:

    I understand the need for 'queries' in the modern publishing and agenting climate. Even so, I do think the query process is likely to be biased against certain types of novels, especially stories with a grand canvas that are almost impossible to fit into 250 words with the appropriate voice to describe the essential heart of the work.

    I understand that's the challenge, but I would not want to be a new 'George RR Martin' at the moment – or even 'Rowling' for that matter.

  25. Avatar furrykef says:

    Normally I wouldn't bother to post such a pedantic comment, but since we're writers/agents/etc., it seems appropriate enough.

    But shouldn't "different than" (in "Writing queries … is different than writing this blog") be "different from"?

  26. I second what Julie said above. I usually like writing queries. Conversely, when I find I'm struggling with one, it's a sign that my book or article has serious kinks that need to be worked out.