Does the query system work? An analysis

Submission protocol, query etiquette, and strategies that work
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Hillsy
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Does the query system work? An analysis

Post by Hillsy » April 23rd, 2010, 12:10 pm

As an analyst during the day (And crime fighting superhero at night) taking stuff like Nathan's post and breaking it down is what I do, kinda, just with more numbers and spreadsheet. SO in an attempt to actually begin the solving of the war over the query process - lets start getting our heads together and working on this.

What does an agent need to make a decision on an MS?

As I'm overlord on this post I will put forward these: plot, voice and skill. Skill = can you write well? Voice = do you have talent/uniqueness? Plot = Is the book something the public wants to read?
If you have more, or disagree with these, put them down - this is an honest attempt to working out something that *really is* better.

How does a writer show these things to an agent?
Again as a Tyrannical ruler of this post I will preach thusly: The BEST way to do this is to read the MS, back to front, no question about it. Putting aside the feasibility of this for a moment there can be no better way. Now, retrieving my feasibility from the shelf, this isn't possible. We have, say, 50 people A DAY following these rules. We have to accept that a huge number of people will want their books published. Unless you want to find a way of limiting the number of people submitting (which is a whole separate post) we have to find a way to manage 50 submissions a day [If you do, just say so and say why]. I'm setting a limit here of 1-3 hours a day because otherwise we're asking Agents to only search for new authors and ignore their existing ones (again this is another post in itself). So for each item above we have 2-5 minutes to show this. I will start to get the ball rolling - do this for each of your critical factors.

Plot: I would say a page synopsis, half page report. Synopsis says in simple language "Dave does this, then that, fights him, loves her, punches Father and Mother and rides away on horse rich and happy". I will say this now - for the purposes of how best to get across the plot in 2 mins I'm divorcing writing ability from the synopsis. Whatever words you use you must get your idea into the head of the agent. Do a storyboard if you think it will help. Screw everything but what happens. The agent now knows what the book is about and that your developed a story arc.
Then for the report you put down your themes, world building, love interests, unique ideas; whatever it is that makes your nuts and bolts synopsis more than a series of events. Again I'm divorcing everything bar getting the point across.
Result: Agent knows plot and themes, quirks and cool bits, world and characters - he knows if the book will sell. All read in 1.5 pages in about 3 minutes and the author only has to write down what they already know about their novel. This should also allow the more cerebral books to have their moment to shine with high concepts and razor sharp themes as its not all Zap, Kapow, Wham and Splat.


OK so you see how it's done, so fire away. Let's make this work people!!!!! Viva la revolution!!!! Once we've got a goodly number of ideas I'll pool them together and see what kind of proposals to build. Then I'll ask Nathan (as a guinea pig lab monkey) what he thinks of them and perhaps trial some samples again much like he did for "Agent for a Day"

I'll finish my last two now.

Skill: A huge number of people have said they think it acceptable for an agent to come to a conclusion on someones writing ability after a few sample pages. Can they write well. As loads of people have said they prefer the first 3 page request for precisely this reason, so I'll say keep it. This is a quick, simple and accepted way to showcase your skill.
Result: Agent knows the author can deliver writing of a standard, Author has polished MS to hand, so no stress there. And as a kicker the agent gets to be a browser in a book shop who cracks open the cover to see if they want to read on. Everyone wins!

Voice: I'll call this an optional third - namely we tack it on but it's almost like a prepackaged partial. The author picks 5 pages and adds them at the bottom. This is purely to showcase the writers talents. Yes I can write well while building a good start, but here's what I can really do when I get going! Now bask in my wonder.
Result: Agent sees plot and skill, but he sees that a lot, so in order to decide he views the author in their element, mid book, flowing freely. Author does not feel hampered about being denied showing their brilliance, and so feels more positive about the whole thing.

All 3 decisions made - the agent requests a full, or sends a rejection.


So there is my solution. Scrap the query and push forward a synopsis/report and 2 sample method the Agent can review in 2-5 mins. This is one suggestion and you all have yours to follow. So I ask you refrain from debunking others and be creative. Remember, we as authors are trying to cram 300 pages of information into a manageable chunk, HOW do we do it?
Last edited by Hillsy on April 24th, 2010, 7:19 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Does the query system work? An analysis

Post by knight_tour » April 23rd, 2010, 12:33 pm

I posted my idea in Nathan's original post comments. I don't see why it wouldn't work if done well. Build a website where writers with completed and edited manuscripts can post their first 50 pages. That is all that writers can do there (though I suppose it could have a forum where they could talk about things). Legit agents could go to the site to check out books that fall within their specific genres. The only comments/voting/feedback on submissions would come from agents, and MSs that become acknowledged by general consensus as not good enough would drop off. This would give agents within specific genre subsets the ability to filter out chaff while digging for gold that hasn't been to other agents' tastes. Best of all, no query letters. Rather than thousands of query letters being spread out to each agent, all the agents would come TO the submissions. It's filtering junk eithe way, but this is FAR easier on all of the writers, and I don't think it would be any harder on the agents.

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Re: Does the query system work? An analysis

Post by Hillsy » April 23rd, 2010, 12:47 pm

knight_tour wrote:I posted my idea in Nathan's original post comments. I don't see why it wouldn't work if done well. Build a website where writers with completed and edited manuscripts can post their first 50 pages. That is all that writers can do there (though I suppose it could have a forum where they could talk about things). Legit agents could go to the site to check out books that fall within their specific genres. The only comments/voting/feedback on submissions would come from agents, and MSs that become acknowledged by general consensus as not good enough would drop off. This would give agents within specific genre subsets the ability to filter out chaff while digging for gold that hasn't been to other agents' tastes. Best of all, no query letters. Rather than thousands of query letters being spread out to each agent, all the agents would come TO the submissions. It's filtering junk eithe way, but this is FAR easier on all of the writers, and I don't think it would be any harder on the agents.
Ok for my eyes benefit when I come to compile this I'll reformat. You're saying

What must the agent know?: That the writer can write (Is this it? Are you saying plot isn't important or that 50 pages is enough for the plot?)

Can you write: Build a website/online database of opening 50 pages. Limit it to Agent viewing only (Kind of like a peer review for books) that does the rounds until it's effectively squashed under the weight of poor reviews. Agents can login and search for what they want by genre, wordcount, target ages etc etc.
Result: Using a "wisdom of crowds" system the number of bad books in the ether is whittled down, leaving only acceptable talent to be considered and offered a full by an agent. No queries, no summation of books into 300 words or less, less garbage in agents inbox and a kind of peer review baseline of ability.


Sound about right??

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Re: Does the query system work? An analysis

Post by knight_tour » April 23rd, 2010, 1:22 pm

I suppose that's about right, though I think there would be a lot more to it. You wouldn't even have to build a new site if an appropriate site was already agreeable to agents, say Absolute Write or something. I think all submissions would have to go through a mod who would check to ensure the MS was truly a completed book and that it met some basic criteria, i.e. was not complete crap to ANYONE's point of view, not full of typos, etc. Only agents (publishers?) could read the 50 pages (preserving author rights) and judge them. It would be a one-stop shop for all participating agents; rather than get inboxes full of queries they would go TO the queries basically. 50 pages should be enough for agents to judge any book, better than what we normally get (300 words in a query, perhaps 5 pages if we're lucky). I can imagine many more ideas; I just think it could work as long as it was done well.

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Re: Does the query system work? An analysis

Post by djf881 » April 23rd, 2010, 7:30 pm

If you're a poor writer, it really doesn't take a lengthy writing sample for you to demonstrate that you're not ready for prime-time.

The query letter provides enough information for agents to reject most submissions. If your query has clunky prose, awkward sentence structure, passive voice or poor grammar, you have provided the agent with everything she needs to know about your writing. If these problems are present in the query, then they will certainly be present in the manuscript.

The query isn't about the agent deciding whether your story is good. The description of the book provides the agent with enough information to know 1) whether you can write three coherent paragraphs that make sense and 2) whether it's an appropriate book for her list.

If you write a clean, professional letter that describes a book that would be appropriate for the agents you're querying, and you send out 20 queries, you're probably going to get at least a couple of requests for pages.

If your query is getting universally rejected, it is likely that your query has problems or does not make sense, or that you are not querying agents who represent books like yours.
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Re: Does the query system work? An analysis

Post by eringayles » April 23rd, 2010, 10:51 pm

Yep, you've won me. Damned good approach. (Haven't got time now,to think it through with the care it deserves, but will get to it later)
BUT surely you know better than to call Mr.B a guinea pig !! Change to 'monkey'. Quick! before he reads it!!

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Re: Does the query system work? An analysis

Post by bronwyn1 » April 23rd, 2010, 11:24 pm

djf881 wrote:If you're a poor writer, it really doesn't take a lengthy writing sample for you to demonstrate that you're not ready for prime-time.

The query letter provides enough information for agents to reject most submissions. If your query has clunky prose, awkward sentence structure, passive voice or poor grammar, you have provided the agent with everything she needs to know about your writing. If these problems are present in the query, then they will certainly be present in the manuscript.

The query isn't about the agent deciding whether your story is good. The description of the book provides the agent with enough information to know 1) whether you can write three coherent paragraphs that make sense and 2) whether it's an appropriate book for her list.

If you write a clean, professional letter that describes a book that would be appropriate for the agents you're querying, and you send out 20 queries, you're probably going to get at least a couple of requests for pages.

If your query is getting universally rejected, it is likely that your query has problems or does not make sense, or that you are not querying agents who represent books like yours.
I second pretty much this entire comment. As in most situations, first impressions matter. And publishing is no different. The query is the prospective agent's first impression of you and of your work. Make it a good one, I say :D

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Re: Does the query system work? An analysis

Post by knight_tour » April 24th, 2010, 12:57 am

djf881 wrote:The query letter provides enough information for agents to reject most submissions. If your query has clunky prose, awkward sentence structure, passive voice or poor grammar, you have provided the agent with everything she needs to know about your writing. If these problems are present in the query, then they will certainly be present in the manuscript.
Well, I disagree. This is probably true for those writers who subscribe to the 'pour on the action from the get-go' theory of writing which seems to be in fashion these days, but there are also writers who are quite good who like to take things slow and easy. It is not at all easy for this type of writer to cram everything down into 300 or fewer words and get their personal style of writing across, especially if their book is very complex with many MCs.

I try to imagine George R.R. Martin having to write a query letter for his Ice and Fire series in just 300 words. Perhaps he could superficially pull it off given that he isn't one of the slower types of writers, but for me I just can't imagine it. I can't imagine it for my book either, with all of the complexities and characters. I could focus on a single character, but it would ring completely hollow to me. You don't think there is a difference between writing my book with passion and love versus writing a query letter with dread? Sure, you could say that's just tough for me, but not all writers are the same. I really believe that some fantastic writers will not be able to craft brilliant query letters for their work.

The way I see it, the current query process means that I must completely misrepresent my work in order to conform to the standard lengths, and I should somehow think that this gives me a good shot at getting published. Why not a system where I can actually present my work as it truly is?

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Re: Does the query system work? An analysis

Post by Nathan Bransford » April 24th, 2010, 2:30 pm

I definitely think it's an interesting idea to have a central database of all the current projects in the pipeline, but while it may be easier for writers, I don't know that it would be more effective for agents, or at least for my style. While it would probably cut down on the frivolous stuff that takes up time, I can see it quickly become just a vast mountain of material, with no way to really sort through effectively. I'm a generalist - I'm not looking for any one particular genre at any one particular moment. I just want the best stories and the best writing no matter the genre. And I don't think I'd want to cede the ranking to other people, who may have different interests, priorities, and goals.

I'm also not positive that it would be better for authors. I'm looking for writers who don't think of themselves simply as a writer and are willing to go the extra mile on publicity, learning the business, embracing the Internet, etc. etc. A more automated system wouldn't reward the authors who go the extra mile during the query process and personalize their queries, learn some of the "rules" and seek out the agents that they think they would most connect with. There's a pretty strong correlation between the authors who take the time to learn what it takes to get through the query process and the ones who go the extra mile in other facets of their writing career.

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Re: Does the query system work? An analysis

Post by djf881 » April 24th, 2010, 3:14 pm

knight_tour wrote: Well, I disagree. This is probably true for those writers who subscribe to the 'pour on the action from the get-go' theory of writing which seems to be in fashion these days, but there are also writers who are quite good who like to take things slow and easy. It is not at all easy for this type of writer to cram everything down into 300 or fewer words and get their personal style of writing across, especially if their book is very complex with many MCs.
Nobody's entire story can be unpacked in three paragraphs. If you could get the point across in one page, there'd be no point in writing a book. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't be able to briefly tell somebody what your book is about. There should be a central theme or conflict. If you can't explain what the story is about, then there's a good chance the story isn't about anything.

Let me explain this again, because it may be counterintuitive; if the manuscript is good it sells itself. The query letter is a screening device to save agents the time of looking at manuscripts that have no chance of being good. You don't have to tell the whole story. You don't have to sell the book. You need to use clean, grammatical prose to describe an appropriate book for the agent, in a logical, coherent way.

If you do can this, many agents will take the time to look at your included first five pages or whatever. Some of them will request materials.

The test is: can you write one page without making yourself look bad? Because if you can't, what are the chances you can write a good book?

And, when you talk about starting "slow and easy," it sounds like your opening chapters might be larded with backstory or exposition. That's clumsy, sloppy writing. Agents and editors will not slog through it, and readers won't tolerate it either. A rich and worthwhile story does not require extensive expository setup. Some well-established authors can be very self-indulgent. But an author needs lot of reader goodwill and trust to get away with something like that. And you haven't got any.

So, you have to grab their attention and hold it. That doesn't mean car chases and explosions and sex scenes on every page; it's really an issue of voice and momentum. It's about distributing background information in ways that are seamless and organic, and avoiding lengthy exposition or inelegant info-dumps. And you must find a way to quickly invest readers in your conflict and characters.

I try to imagine George R.R. Martin having to write a query letter for his Ice and Fire series in just 300 words. Perhaps he could superficially pull it off given that he isn't one of the slower types of writers, but for me I just can't imagine it. I can't imagine it for my book either, with all of the complexities and characters. I could focus on a single character, but it would ring completely hollow to me. You don't think there is a difference between writing my book with passion and love versus writing a query letter with dread? Sure, you could say that's just tough for me, but not all writers are the same. I really believe that some fantastic writers will not be able to craft brilliant query letters for their work.
George R.R. Martin didn't have to query. He was a top fantasy writer with an excellent sales record and a collection of major awards when he published "A Game of Thrones." As a first-time writer you probably won't have success pitching a 700 page doorstop with lots of characters and viewpoint shifts.

And "Thrones" has a clear hook: In a kingdom on the edge of a winter that will last for decades, Stark must struggle to protect the Throne from the devious political machinations of powerful factions, and from foreign invasion by barbarians and fearsome, inhuman creatures... etc, etc.

Every story has something at the center of it, a conflict. That's what you talk about in the query. There is something everybody wants, or something some characters want to destroy and others want to protect. That's what you talk about in your query.
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Re: Does the query system work? An analysis

Post by djf881 » April 24th, 2010, 10:23 pm

Hillsy wrote: How does a writer show these things to an agent?
Again as a Tyrannical ruler of this post I will preach thusly: The BEST way to do this is to read the MS, back to front, no question about it. Putting aside the feasibility of this for a moment there can be no better way. Now, retrieving my feasibility from the shelf, this isn't possible. We have, say, 50 people A DAY following these rules. We have to accept that a huge number of people will want their books published. Unless you want to find a way of limiting the number of people submitting (which is a whole separate post) we have to find a way to manage 50 submissions a day [If you do, just say so and say why]. I'm setting a limit here of 1-3 hours a day because otherwise we're asking Agents to only search for new authors and ignore their existing ones (again this is another post in itself). So for each item above we have 2-5 minutes to show this. I will start to get the ball rolling - do this for each of your critical factors.
Let's break this idea down: assume an agent gets 100 queries each week and spends an average of three minutes reviewing each one. That's five hours per week.

Now imagine the agent requests three partials out of the hundred queries and spends thirty minutes for each of those.

And if he requests a full manuscript, then that's another six hours.

This is about 40% of the agent's work time, dedicated to the slushpile. Reasonably, an agent can expect to pull two or three new clients out of unrequested slush each year.

Agents only get paid for the books they sell. Time spent on authors who ultimately will not become clients is uncompensated work. The agents do this unpaid labor because Nicholas Sparks and Stephanie Meyer found their agents through unsolicited queries, and those agents are now fabulously wealthy. But because agents are not compensated for slush reading, their incentive is to spend as little time as possible dealing with queries. Agents reject most authors in less than a minute, and I doubt they want to spend any more time than that on queries. I think many of them feel comfortable that they are plucking out the few authors they want to represent, and the rest of the pile just needs to get pushed off the desk as quickly as possible.

There are very few self-pubbed success stories. There are very few bestselling books that had trouble finding literary representation. There is very little evidence out in the world that supports an argument that queries don't work, or that agents are leaving money on the table.

After reviewing thousands of submissions, agents get pretty comfortable passing on an author after reading one or two sentences of a query. This is because most authors need only one or two sentences to make themselves look bad.
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Re: Does the query system work? An analysis

Post by knight_tour » April 25th, 2010, 12:30 am

Nobody's entire story can be unpacked in three paragraphs. If you could get the point across in one page, there'd be no point in writing a book. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't be able to briefly tell somebody what your book is about. There should be a central theme or conflict. If you can't explain what the story is about, then there's a good chance the story isn't about anything.
True, except that a book maybe be superficially just a battle between good and evil, which sounds cliche and thus may be rejected instantly. However, that book may be tremendous and far too complex to just call it a cliche good vs evil story. The average simple book can be summed up quickly; some stories cannot.

I'm of course aware of the idea you mention that a query is just a sample of your writing to demonstrate that you can do it well enough for an agent not to ignore you. I don't like this method at all. Why not let me give them any sample of writing then, since this one will have little to do with my actual book? To pack my story into 300 words means twisting it completely into something it is not.
And, when you talk about starting "slow and easy," it sounds like your opening chapters might be larded with backstory or exposition. That's clumsy, sloppy writing. Agents and editors will not slog through it, and readers won't tolerate it either. A rich and worthwhile story does not require extensive expository setup. Some well-established authors can be very self-indulgent. But an author needs lot of reader goodwill and trust to get away with something like that. And you haven't got any.
No, you are not understanding me. I am well aware of what you are talking about and I don't do that in my book. I mean the slower style that doesn't feel like it must force-feed action to people constantly. I know many people these days love that, but there is a whole different group of readers who get turned off by that and prefer a slower style. I am that kind of writer and reader. The use of queries is not terrible, but it works better for some writers than others.

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