A lot of discussion has been raised recently by agent Stephen Barbara’s article in Publishers Weekly about how increasingly polished query letters have changed the shape of agent-prospective client interactions. He laments, tongue-in-cheek, the passage of those halcyon days of query letters that hadn’t been workshopped to within an inch of their lives. Of course, in some ways he’s right. I belong to several writing groups and to a very large online writing community, where an entire enclave is devoted to brutalizing other writers’ query letters. The goal is to end up with a query letter that will make an agent snap to attention and say, “Tell me more.”
It works. It works too well sometimes. I have seen query letters that went from woop-de-doo to wow! I have also seen writers utterly crushed by the inevitable disappointment. A fabulous query letter that produces multiple requests for full and partial manuscripts, followed by curt rejections. No matter how much writers joke about it, it’s not easier to write a novel than it is to write a query letter. Or at any rate, it’s not easier to write a good novel than to write a good query letter. The letter is a paltry two or three paragraphs, and it’s no trick to get a dozen people to work those paragraphs over until they glisten in the sun like the tanned flesh of some nubile co-ed basking on the French Riviera. If the novel hasn’t been given the same treatment, the agent is likely in for a disappointment, and the writer is in for the same.
Some people take Barbara’s lament seriously, but of course, this phenomena doesn’t ultimately harm the publishing industry–and certainly it isn’t as harmful as bad business decisions. It just delays a rejection.
Still, writing query letters is a troubling thing. In essence, it is the act of writing a letter to a complete stranger, asking for a favor.
I’ve written this book which I think is quite good and I hope you’ll be kind enough to read it.
Writer You Never Heard Of.
Firebrand Literary has decided on an interesting and old-fashioned approach: a query holiday. Beginning today and running until January 15, they are not accepting query letters. They’re simply asking writers to e-mail the first 20 pages of their novels. The idea being that the agency will do what most readers do: open a book and start reading until it loses their interest.
I had a little frisson of delight when I sent off my sample chapters. Without regard for how it turns out for me, I do wonder what the impact will be on the agency. Will this be a one-shot that goes down as a failed idea? Or will it usher in a new age?