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The Broken Query System

21 August 2017

From Books & Such Literary Management:

Broken things drive me crazy. Just call me the Fix-it Fairy. If something is broken–be it an object, a person, or a system–I have trouble accepting the state of brokenness. I want it fixed.

Last week I talked about the correct way to submit queries. Today I want to vent about the query system agents currently use to screen potential clients. Here’s a news flash: the system is broken.

Let me tell you why.

Queries are not necessarily representative. Some of the finest writers are some of the worst query writers and vice versa. We’re making seat-of-the-pants decisions on a bit of promotional-type writing.

Scarcity of Slots. Truth be told, most established agents carry a very full client list. That’s not to say that we don’t take on a new client if we fall in love with the book or the writer, but I struggle to find new clients through the query system. I often wonder if it is counter-productive. So how do we find clients? Each agent is different and I know, even in our agency, some agents have found a good number of their clients through the query system. But I tend to find clients two different ways: through referrals from editors, clients or published authors; and through meeting writers in person at a conference. As I write this I’m in Minneapolis for a the Northwest Christian Writer’s Conference. I always look forward to meeting writers in the flesh. Some writers I’ll be meeting for the second or third time.

So. . . can the broken query system be fixed?

I’m not sure it can be fixed. In a dream world I would say that the tsunami of queries needs to be stemmed but no matter how many times we stress research and matching the project to the agent we can’t make a dent because query spammers never assume it applies to them. The only writers who take heed are the very writers we most like to represent– writers who invest their time in research and follow all the guidelines.

Link to the rest at Books & Such Literary Management


27 Comments to “The Broken Query System”

  1. And many of us did abide by the ‘rules’ and still didn’t receive any interest–but went on to successfully self-publish. 😀

    When I think of all the hours I spent trying to format my 1st three chapters to paste into an email because they don’t accept attachments…gah. Just makes me sick! Gmail does (or did back in 2009) weird things to formatting, stripping away indents and suck. I always wondered how many auto-rejects I got simply because once I pressed send, all of my careful adjustments were stripped away so that it looked like I hadn’t spent any effort at all.

    I’d much rather format my paperbacks than those emails.

    • Well it can’t be ‘their’ fault you didn’t get in. 😉

      “But I tend to find clients two different ways: through referrals from editors, clients or published authors; and through meeting writers in person at a conference.”

      So someone else has to hit them with a clue-by-four to get them to look at something they might like – though I’d think little of that last bit, meeting the writer tells you nothing about how well they write.

      “I’d much rather format my paperbacks than those emails.”

      And it’ll most likely pay you better!

      • The “referrals from editors” part sounds strange to me. It sounds like she means that an editor at a publisher has seen a book they like enough to want to publish and then refer the author to her. But… if the connection between author and publisher has already been made, and the publisher is interested, then what good is an agent? Certainly not for “negotiating” the contract; that’s what contract lawyers are for (i.e. people who know what they’re actually doing).

        • We have to remember that this is an ‘agent’ – a middleman that is trying to pretend they haven’t seen a drop in those seeking their services. So they pretend they are still so in demand that you have to mind your Ps and Qs to even have a chance while they pray they’ll recognize the next ‘man left on Mars’ when they see it.

          As others have said, skip the middlemen, self pub and let them come to you.

          (Before someone tries to say that trad-pub pays better, remember that over 99% that try to go trad-pub are rejected and make $0, so if you make a whopping $20 self publishing you just beat the odds.)

  2. Didn’t self publishing fix the broken query system? 😉

    • That’s exactly what I was thinking 🙂

      The real article should have been about what they can offer an indie who is already selling.

    • To paraphrase a certain commercial: “For everything else… there’s IndiePub.”

  3. The query system was broken back when I first queried in 1989. I lucked out and got a brand new agent (a former editor at one of the Big 5) who was desperate for clients. She also happened to be a ghastly agent.

    I’ve always had a mental picture of the query process being not unlike human fertilization with the uphill swim of the industrious spermatozoa and the haughty egg sitting there going, “A little more effort, please.” Maybe in an upper school English accent.

  4. I’m going through the query process now with a middle-grade book. The last query I had sent was back in 2009 maybe. Anyway, since it was this lady again, I had to read the whole article. She comments that if only writers would do their research to target the right agent at an agency, it would cut down on all the query letters they get. Well, here’s a hint: if you want to receive targeted queries then keep your wishlist up-to-date. Tell us what you don’t want as much as what you want. Since I write fantasy and all you say is that you’re interested in middle-grade, expect to receive a query for me. Of course the rejection is always the same: I’m not the right agent for this project. You’re probably right but I didn’t know that BECAUSE YOUR AGENT PROFILE DOESN’T SAY ANYTHING!!

    I could go on and on, but it was such a lovely eclipse and I’d rather not destroy my mood.

    The system has been broken for a while, yet no one wants to fix it.

  5. Agents can always stop accepting queries and start trolling Amazon to see who is selling and make them offers of representation. Of course, that would mean having to sell yourself to the author, rather than the other way around.

  6. I like how the comments show that there are plenty of folks still willing to battle the query-go-round and an agent happy to tell them to keep trying in some sort of sado-masochistic ritual that never ends.

    I can testify, though, that making contacts at a conference is a good idea–that’s how I met the editor for a small press I signed a deal with so I guess that means I’m a hybrid. But I didn’t approach him trying to make a deal. We met at the conference and got to be drinking buddies for the weekend and at the end of the event he asked what I was working on, etc. I don’t think it’s realistic to become drinking buddies with a half-dozen agents at a conference in the hopes of pitching something.

  7. The wonderful query system. Like it or hate it there is no other alternative. Query by other names are:
    – a job interview
    – a first date
    – a mortgage or loan application
    – a book blurb to attract the readers’ attention
    – a twit
    – a blog

  8. Would you eat in a restaurant that constantly has a Help Wanted sign on the door?

    Maybe if the industry were a little more accommodating of the authors they’ve already gotten in the trad-pub system, they wouldn’t have to constantly trawl for new suckers who are desperate for anything.

  9. Ms. Lawton seems not to notice the discrepancy between what she implies she wants at the beginning of her post versus what she says she wants once she moves into the middle and end of her post.

    At the beginning: “Some of the finest writers are some of the worst query writers and vice versa. We’re making seat-of-the-pants decisions on a bit of promotional-type writing.”

    Indeed. That makes a great deal of sense, and implies that she’s looking for great writing and great storytelling.

    A paragraph later: “…but no matter how many times we stress research and matching the project to the agent we can’t make a dent because query spammers never assume it applies to them. The only writers who take heed are the very writers we most like to represent– writers who invest their time in research and follow all the guidelines.”

    Now she wants good little writers who do as they’re told, make everything easy for the agent, and only color between the lines. That’s hardly an accurate marker for great writing and great storytelling.

    Not that this really matters to me, since I agree with the comments upthread: go indie! 😉

    • Not so much of a dissonance, assuming she “represents” to trad-pub. Good little writers that only color between the lines (and won’t ask questions about the contract) are exactly what they are looking for.

      Yes, I have seen some execrable blurbs from extremely good writers. It’s a very different mind-set.

  10. If they get a lot of queries from people who haven’t read the instructions, that sounds like a problem that could be easily solved by the “brown M&Ms” method. Somewhere in the middle of the instructions, add a statement along the lines of, “Your query must contain the word ‘kumquat’ somewhere in the subject line. If it does not, our email system will automatically delete it before we have a chance to read it.” (This assumes they have an address that’s just for queries, and use other addresses for everything else.) The magic word would probably have to be changed periodically, like all passwords.

    But yeah, from the writer’s point of view, there’s a much easier solution…

    • THANK you for using that analogy correctly. David Lee Roth has been so wronged by people thinking Van Halen were being divas instead of making sure their band was properly prepared for each concert.


      • Much like the “hot coffee burn lawsuit”, it’s extremely easy for people to make wild accusations/assumptions/judgments about things they know nothing about, based on a headline’s worth of description. Sadly, a lot of those people will argue vehemently about it with someone who does know something about the actual facts of the matter and flat refuse to learn any of them. (Yes, I speak from personal experience, though I’d imagine most of us have such experience.)

        The “brown M&Ms” tactic is actually very smart and reasonable.

  11. I used to be so afraid of messing up with agents. I thought that I needed them until I realized how many authors live around me and who are doing extremely well for themselves. Who if I should note are self published.

    I’m 26 years old and I have a dozen or more friends who are aspiring to be bestsellers .

    We are the new generation of writers and we do not go for agents who use these input and output systems.

    A lot of us have made a lot of money already. And regardless of what agents tell us we see a world without them. We see a world where the publishing house queries us.

    Our grammar might be shit and we might have a tone of typos, but our stories have made it film.

    You wouldn’t believe how many agents turned us down.

    And now that Amazon is getting into the game I think literary agents are out!

    I completely believe it! My generation does not play these waiting games either!

  12. I posted something like this on the OP’s site, though it won’t get any traction there. Nothing does. I’ve pitched to this agency before, and they’re mostly like, “La-la-la, can’t hear you!”

    This broken part of the equation might be fixed if agencies updated their web sites more frequently. If it’s full of wonderful romance writers, tweak the web site to say “no romance submissions.” If the agency is neck deep generally, close to subs for a little while. If they paid more frequent attention to the website, they’d plucking the projects they want out of the tsunami. Then maybe the few authors who aren’t jettisoning the query-go-round wouldn’t get dissed for “spamming” them.

  13. A little automation would work wonders here. Somebody just needs to build a nice fat website form. “Your name goes here. Your word count and genre goes here. Your query goes here. A sample of your work goes here.” The form automatically chews up and spits out the text in a format the agent deems pretty. Easy to skim, easy to fill out. The agent then has a couple of buttons with “yes, no, and maybe” ready to click. So much faster!

    Of course, indie punning is an equal amount of work with a much higher return.

  14. I’m an engineer-type, and I sympathize with the “gotta fix broken business systems” POV.

    With that in mind, what we have is a conventional problem: large volume, inadequate data filters, low volume selection requirements. From a publisher’s POV:

    1) Publish clear guidelines. Reduces input volume somewhat. [Tech/process failure today]

    2) If you make the submission process include a few checkoffs (Genre? Age group?) you can knock out the clear not-applicables. Anyone who violates the checkoffs (spam) goes into a never-again filter. [Tech/process failure today]

    3) Prioritize what passes into 2 streams according to your strategic business definition:
    A) Our sweet spot (skim for brief descriptions, assign to people for more in-depth look-see for the current catalogue needs) [Business as usual]
    B) Serendipity (wierd/unusual/funky/if only we could… Assign to specialist to check it out) [Upside & publicity opportunity]

    It’s only a problem for publishers if they feel constrained to get through the entire slush pile. If you have more volume than you can handle, you have to prioritize and cherry-pick from what you have time (and need) for. (Sorry, authors — no one says they have to look at all the submissions. They only need so many.)

    The fact that there may be more worthwhile projects than trad publishing catalogue slots is just a fact of life. Thank goodness for indie publishing which gives us an alternative. From one point-of-view, the reading audience that buys indie books is the group of employees reviewing submissions that the publishers can’t afford to employ.

  15. When I first went to a writing conference and learned about the soul-destroying job of sending out queries for years and years, I thought: No way. I’m not doing that.

    I learned how to self-publish. I’m doing okay for a newbie…I just knew I wouldn’t have the patience to wait years (decades?!) for an offer.

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