Thursday, October 19, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- More Reasons Not to Use Automated Query Services

Bored with writing query letters? Sick of all the pesky research required to find appropriate agents? Tired of sticking stamps on envelopes or looking up email addresses? Wouldn't it be great if there were an easier way?

Never fear--a growing number of online services feel your pain. For a not-terribly-exorbitant fee, they'll do it all for you: identify agents and editors, format your query, send it out electronically. All you have to do is sit back and wait for the requests for your manuscript to roll in.

At least, that's the theory behind such automated query services as BookBlaster, eQuery Online, and Book Writer's Market. A variation on the theme is instantqueryletters.com, a software package that generates query letters for you (you have to figure out where to send them, though).

I eviscerated one of these services, Bookblaster, in a previous post. The reasons why you wouldn't want to use BookBlaster apply equally to any automated query service. To recap:

- Queries are sent electronically. Many agents and editors want paper submissions. This is rapidly changing, but right now, in 2006, sending an equery to an agent who wants paper is a waste of phosphors.

- The services provide no concrete info on how their lists of agents and editors are compiled--so you have no way of knowing whether the people on the lists are reputable. In fact, the larger the list, the more likely it is that they are not reputable. Book Writer's Market claims to have a database of "over 900" US-based agents--pretty much a guarantee that lots of them are agents you wouldn't want to query. (The AAR, the professional agents' trade group to which most selling agents in the USA belong, has around 400 members.)

- Many of the services don't bother to target the queries they send out, which means that most queries will go to agents who aren't appropriate. Even if the service claims to match queries with appropriate agents/editors, it's unlikely that they'll do as careful a job as you could.

If these considerations aren't enough to convince you, here's another. Automated query services piss agents and editors off.

Agent Matt Wagner of Fresh Books detests Bookblaster. If you Bookblast him, he won't even bother to send you a form rejection. VP and Executive Publisher Joe Wikert of John Wiley & Sons calls BookBlaster "a goofy idea," and editor Brian Seidman of New South Books agrees. In a comment on Matt Wagner's blog, Mr. Seidman says: "I have a special 'rule' set up in my mail program, that when emails arrive from Bookblaster, they go straight in the trash. I always tell querying authors, there's nothing more valuable than doing research on a publisher before you send a query."

Miss Snark has weighed in on BookBlaster ("I wondered where those e-queries came from when I'm pretty clear I don't take e-queries"), as has agent Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency. "The whole point of the query," she writes, "is the illusion of personalization. As agents, we all know that you write the main crux (as in the pitch blurb) once and then you simply tailor the opening paragraph to the agent you are targeting. Mix and match and email away. The point is to be professional enough (and savvy) to take the time to tailor the query letter so the agent knows he or she is not just some random target."

BookBlaster identifies itself in a little tag at the end of its queries (making it even easier for agents and editors to delete them). Another of the automated services, eQuery Online, does not identify itself; its queries appear to be coming directly from the writer. However, it uses the same formatting for all its queries, plugging information provided by the writer into a basic template. If an agent or editor receives enough of these, s/he will start to recognize them--and s/he won't be pleased. Like, for instance, Dan Lazar of Writer's House, whose rant about automated queries is posted at Agent Kristin's blog. "These presumptive and overly-familiar letters are driving me nutty; and I’ve been talking to more and more fellow agents who feel the same way." Agent Nadia Cormier of Firebrand Literary is one of them--and she is seriously annoyed.

Neither Mr. Lazar nor Ms. Cormier identify the source of the obnoxious queries. The reason I know they're coming from eQuery Online is that agent Ashley Grayson of the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency, who has been receiving the exact same emails, eventually became irritated enough to trace them to their source, and was kind enough to pass that information on to me. He has given me permission to quote him: "The act of authorship is one of relentless creativity. Why any writer would want to hand off the presentation of his or her work to a marketing flack is beyond me. When I see the same (cereal box) language reappear in queries, I simply reject without further reading."

So there you have it, writers: yet more proof that in the strange, inconsistent, frustrating world of publishing, there are no shortcuts.

25 comments:

Linda Adams said...

It sounds a lot like resume services that shotgun a generic resume out to every employer. Sort of like tossing hay up in the air and hoping to find the needle.

Melissa A. said...

If I were an agent, I would just treat those queries like spam. It should be fairly easy to create rules to filter them out and permanently delete them without ever even seeing them! I bet an awful lot of agents are doing just that, which makes it even MORE unlikely that a writer would get a manuscript request from a query from a query service.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I have to agree with the agents who say that what's lost here is the personal touch. No one can write a query for MY manuscript the way I can, and part of what's attention-grabbing about my query is the voice.

It's hard, it's time-consuming (especially since I'd rather be writing), it's frustrating... but it's gotta be done.

Besides, I wouldn't feel like I'd done it the honest way if I off-loaded it onto some unknown SpamBot.

random sheepish guy said...

So how bad would it be, hypothetically, if you had your mom research agents and handle most of your correspondance while you continue to write and raise your kids and go to your full time job and hundreds of other mundane activities related to having a life? Would that be bad?

I'm asking on behalf of a friend.

Samuel Tinianow said...

Unless your friend's mom is a literary agent, your friend had better do it him/herself.

As to the full-time job and mundane activities related to having a life, every writer has that (believe it or not). Nobody has years of their life just sitting around to write novels with; it's something that you have to make time for within your busy schedule.

Just like Victoria said, there are no shortcuts.

David said...

I didn't even know such places existed. I guess it's not surprising, in retrospect.

Gads, I'm glad they didn't exist back when I was starting out. Naive kid that I was, I'd probably have tried using them.

roach said...

Isn't researching agents the fun part of querying? Or have I just displayed my "unhipness" again?

some other guy not related to random sheepish guy said...

Hold on, now, maybe 'random sheepish guy' has a stumbled onto a good thing. Wouldn't it be nice to just write your stories and have somebody you trust handle all the unpleasant businessy details? Isn't that what professional mega-writers do?

We're assuming of course that his mother is equal parts intelligent/discerning/supportive/angelic.

(somebody please say it's okay)

Anonymous said...

Agents use the query letter to get an idea of the author's writing and to see if said author can summarize their plot. If you have someone else do it for you, they're invariable less enthusiastic about your story than you are. You've lived with it for a few months, they haven't. Writing your queries yourself is best. Mom can do a good job if she's good in business practices and doesn't scold agents for rejecting you, but she's still not as good as the real thing (aka you).

Jimmy Montague said...

Research in journalism has shown that magazine editors actually don't know what they want -- until they see it. I imagine book editors are the same.

That being the case, writers must see that automated queries are sure losers because all queries -- whatever else they may be -- are a sample of the writer's wares. A clever "hook" couched in clever language will sell ice cubes to eskimos. A form letter that says, "I wrote a story about cats. Do you want to buy it?" will land the writer in the litterbox.

Each and every query you send should be the absolute best writing of which you are capable. If you absolutely cannot stand to write original queries, you're probably not a writer and you're certainly in the wrong business.

I like your blog. Take a look at mine:

http://cyanidehole.blogspot.com

Jimmy

~Nancy said...

I checked out the software (or rather, the woman who's put out that and Instant Synopses, etc.). Turns out she has exactly 1 novel out - through Lulu.

Pass.

~JerseyGirl

William Jones said...

I'm a writer and editor, so my first exposure to these electronic services was interesting -- as a writer I wanted to know more, as an editor I realized I probably didn't want to know more. In fact, what lead me here was a flood of submissions in the last day. So I thought I'd hunt down some comments and informationn about the services.

I see several hundred novel submissions a month, and a number of these are from companies similar to Bookblaster. I don't ignore submissions from these services, but I find the emails to be very similar, and often off topic for the bookline.

Oddly enough, what stands out the most are the number of links allowing me to unsubscribe (I would imagine these links work). This means I often see more URLS on a page than usable text -- and sometimes the overviews are a bit hyperbolic. I suppose at the very least, the services are trying to be "editor" friendly, yet I'm not sure if they are writer friendly or serving the best interests of the writer.

Grace Mendoza said...

Ms. Strauss, your post contains blatant inaccuracies and readers of it should be aware that firstly, the conclusion made by a writer of a net blog who claims his/her value is as a “Scam Hunter” as you do has a vested interest in making themselves look good by calling things scams, (deservedly or not) and so may very well be biased in what he/she chooses to include, and omit.

Next, we applaud your success as an author of fantasy novels. We’d again hope that readers here understand the difference in the approaches between writing fantasy as you do, and writing fact. In the former, supposition and elements not based in fact are a virtue. In the latter, journalism standards apply and assertions of things as “facts” that you have no way of actually knowing are a disservice to the reader, just as your post in question is.

For starters, the obvious problem is that your post is akin to writing a restaurant revue about a place at which you’ve never actually eaten…ever, nor know anyone who has. Or a travelogue for a city you’ve never even been to. And it has about as much value.

You state: “The reasons why you wouldn't want to use BookBlaster apply equally to any automated query service”. This is patently untrue. We are not BookBlaster and cannot speak to your statements about them specifically, but it is a falsehood that the problems of one individual query service must apply to every single one. Have you used every single query service so that you can make such a statement? One can infer from your post you have not, and that you have not used even one.

You then list those reasons as: “…agents and editors want paper submissions. Sending an equery to an agent who wants paper is a waste of phosphors.” First of all, a submission of the actual manuscript is different from the query which precedes it. That being said, since you are a published writer, perhaps it’s been some years since you’ve actually had to query the industry. Were you to have done so, you’d know that while some agents and editors may prefer paper, there are also many who prefer an electronic format, not just for queries but even throughout the entire submission process. And actually the majority, from first hand experience, do NOT insist on only paper queries.

You next state: “You have no way of knowing whether the people on the lists are reputable.” Again this is an untruth. While we can’t speak for other query services, our website clearly states that we send queries on writers’ behalf to only legitimate agents and publishers. We have gone to great lengths to omit vanity publishers, print-on-demand-publishers, and fee-charging agents. This is clearly published on our website, even for non-users at www.equeryonline.com/howto-book.html

Your next erroneous statement: “Many of the services don't bother to target the queries they send out, which means that most queries will go to agents who aren't appropriate.”
While you have qualified your statement by saying “many” as opposed to “all”, remember that you prefaced your list of reasons by saying the list applies equally to ALL query services. eQuery Online DOES custom edit the list of addresses for every user based on the interests of the receiving publishers and agents and the types of work they will accept. (Also clearly stated at www.equeryonline.com/howto-book.html)

You further write specifically about eQuery Online, “…it uses the same formatting for all its queries”. Unless you’ve actually been responsible for supervising the sending of all the queries for eQuery Online as a staff member, (which we’re pretty confident you have not) then again, you are in no position to make a statement about what is done with “all its queries”. But it doesn’t stop you from saying so, and it’s something that again, is patently false. eQuery has always varied the formatting on the queries so they will not all look exactly alike. However, even that applies only to the order in which the novel information is presented or the way the email is addressed as the writer his/herself writes all the information about the novel being queried, including the text description. Again, even a non-user can see this simply by looking at the website, specifically www.equeryonline.com/tips-book.html


You then make a statement that agents have complained about some queries they’ve received, but do not know the source. But that you DO know the source because “Ashley Grayson…pass(ed) that information on to you.” Neither you nor Mr. Grayson are in a position to truly say what other people have received. You quote Mr. Grayson as saying “When I see the same…language reappear in queries, I simply reject without further reading” which you clearly use to imply that query recipients dismiss out of hand queries sent by a query service. Even if it that were true of any particular agent, it does not apply to everyone. However, it is also interesting to note that Mr. Grayson’s agency has requested to read material TWENTY NINE times from queries sent by eQuery Online users, (including from some of its most recent users).

And you say nothing of all the recipients who DO request to read material, which is the most important thing. For example, the most recent user for which we sent a query just got read requests from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Curtis Brown, Alfred A. Knopf, HarperCollins, St Martin’s Press, and Random House among many others.

Your approach as a “scam hunter” seems to start with a conclusion, and then tailor what you write to support it, including disregarding information that contradicts your desired conclusion. An example of this is your response to a post by a user of eQuery Online’s service for screenwriters in November of 2005 who posted “I'm a happy user of eQuery Online. I signed up on 5th November, the query was launched on Thursday 10th. It's now the 15th and I've had nine script requests. Kind regards, Garry Bowie” to which you replied “Garry, why do I suspect you're not for real? (Apart from your suspiciously opportune appearance.) Spam is not an effective method of querying. And what eQuery does is spam. Sorry. No other word for it. - Even if spam were an effective method of querying, it's unlikely you'd hear back from so many prodcos and/or agents in just five days. The gears grind slowly, in Hollywood and elsewhere. One response in such a short time might be plausible. Nine is not. – Victoria”

Your response is yet another example of a clear lack of practical experience about which you deign to speak. Query recipients DO respond that soon. Unless giving you the benefit of the doubt you were simply confusing responding to a query with actually reading the script when you say “the gears grind slowly”. Common sense alone allows one to know that it does not take weeks for people to read and respond to their emails, regardless of their profession.

Your ability to successfully write published fantasy and science fiction is to be applauded. One might suggest that if your intent is to truly provide value to other writers, then sharing with them how to conceive of, write, and finish such novels might be the best use of your actual experience, rather than writing about subjects about which you have no first hand experience, and where the most fundamental rules for presenting such information are ignored. No doubt there are hundreds, even thousands of would-be novelists out there who would be grateful to you for tips and/or coaching on everything from conception through execution to completion, something for which you are in a unique position to dispense as a member of a distinct and admired minority.

Victoria Strauss said...

What, Ms. Mendoza, no lawsuit threat? You softie, you.

But perhaps I'm only fantasizing.

Victoria Strauss said...

I'm probably wasting my breath, but I can't resist.

Ms. Mendoza says:

We have gone to great lengths to omit vanity publishers, print-on-demand-publishers, and fee-charging agents.

But on your HowTo page, you say "...and only to agents that do NOT charge reading fees." Actually, very few agents charge reading fees these days. If reading fees are your only criteria for exclusion, you aren't providing much protection to your clientele.

Ms. Mendoza continues:

eQuery Online DOES custom edit the list of addresses for every user based on the interests of the receiving publishers and agents and the types of work they will accept. (Also clearly stated at www.equeryonline.com/howto-book.html)

If we go to that URL, we find this info: "An email will be sent to you letting you know that your query has just been launched, custom addressed specifically by name to over a thousand literary agents and publishers. Additionally, the list of recipients itself is custom tailored to the category and genre of your novel and to the wants and likes of the receiving agents and publishers." (emphasis mine.)

This is self-refuting. Even if it were possible for ANY book to be suitable for over a thousand reputable literary agents and publishers, it's not possible for many genre books, which have a much more limited audience and therefore fewer appropriate publishers and agents. In my own genre, fantasy, you'd top out somewhere between 100 and 200--and that's being generous. So if a fantasy writer used eQuery Online, her query might go to 200 appropriate agents/publishers...and 800 inappropriate ones.

Last but not least, Ms. Mendoza declares:

For example, the most recent user for which we sent a query just got read requests from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Curtis Brown, Alfred A. Knopf, HarperCollins, St Martin’s Press, and Random House among many others.

You know what? I think you're making that up. Here's why. Alfred A. Knopf's website specifically states that it accepts only agented manuscripts, or snail mail samples. St. Martin's Press doesn't accept unsolicited material of any kind. And here's what Random House has to say: "We do not accept unsolicited queries via e-mail or otherwise."

I guess you must think that I, and this blog's readers, are pretty dumb.

Grace Mendoza said...

I would only think someone dumb if he or she falls for a person who pretends to be an authority on a subject they clearly know nothing about.

One can only speculate on the self-aggrandizing, ego-boosting reasons that might be behind why you'd think you're in a position to dispense advice to others on a matter you clearly have no experience with as evidenced by your ridiculous claim to a poster that it would take weeks to get responses to an email query (even novices who've sent just a few email queries on their own without the aid of a service can recognize how silly that is) as well as your totally false (and groundless) claim that the majority of agents insist on queries on paper by snail mail. That's just not true and you are out of step with current practices.

Have you ever sent any real quantity of queries by email and then counted up the respondents who say "only queries by mail"? Clearly not as you'd see they're by far the minority. (Though it's more common with UK agencies than those in the US).

As to your claim that just because a publisher or agency may have a stated policy of not accepting unsolicited materials, it again only shows your lack of actual experience and naiveté on the matter. Many companies who make such statements in an effort to stem the potential deluge from aspiring writers will and do ask for a submission if it genuinely piques their interest.

Many of our users have gotten read requests from just the companies you cite as can be seen at www.equeryonline.com/testimonials2.html which are only a fraction of the testimonials we've received.

Writers should be aware that not all scams involve money. Deception of writers also includes holding oneself out as knowledgeable on things you actually are not, making claims about others for which you don't actually have facts, and posing falsely as some altruistic crusader rather than one compensating for a need of a current sense of accomplishment by creating virtual-world fantasies of adoring message board audiences.

As to your mention of the lack of a threat of lawsuit, I trust it unnecessary and that you are able to keep in mind that just because you write in cyberspace, you do not do so with impunity. Nor are you writing in your milieu of fantasy, involving fictional characters, but rather there are real people on the end of those real services about which you choose to write. Such scurrilous writing is often done anonymously so while it's commendable that you do so using our own name, it's the very reason why you should exercise more responsibility in what you put down on record.

Everything written in my previous post is true and is documented such. All of the testimonials found on the eQuery Online site are genuine and can be proven to be so.

Your claims however are not. WHY you persist in expounding on things you don't actually know for a fact is better left for those trained in psychology. If you're genuinely interested in uncovering those who are misleading writers, then "Physician heal thyself".

Giving advice on matters about which you don't have experience especially when you purport it as "fact" when actually based only on how you think things to be is not doing any writer any favor.

"Writer Beware" indeed.

Victoria Strauss said...

One can only speculate on the self-aggrandizing, ego-boosting reasons that might be behind why you'd think you're in a position to dispense advice to others on a matter you clearly have no experience with as evidenced by your ridiculous claim to a poster that it would take weeks to get responses to an email query (even novices who've sent just a few email queries on their own without the aid of a service can recognize how silly that is)

What I actually said was that nine positive responses in five days was implausible--especially in the context in which the "testimonial" was offered.

as well as your totally false (and groundless) claim that the majority of agents insist on queries on paper by snail mail.

Again, what I actually said was that many agents want paper queries, and that e-querying an agent who wants paper is a waste of time--which is quite true.

All of the testimonials found on the eQuery Online site are genuine and can be proven to be so.

If that's the case, then you have a truly extraordinary record of getting publishers to ignore their own submissions policies (given the number of times the testimonials reference Knopf, St. Martin's Press, Random House, and other agent-only publishers), and writers should run right out and hire you.

Please do prove it. I challenge you to prove--with actual documentation, as opposed to just having someone show up and say it's so--that any of the testimonials currently on your site, claiming responses from publishers that have a stated policy of not accepting unagented manuscripts or electronic queries, are from real people who were actually asked to submit their work as a result of an electronic query sent by your service.

My address is PO Box 1216, Amherst MA 01004.

Anonymous said...

Let me be the final word: I have used these sevices MANY times. My last nonfiction book became published from this service: Please Don't eat The Animals: All the Reasons You Need to be a Vegetarian. I got my agent this way. Two of my friends, after years of trying to get published found publishers this way: Kelly Perkins: the Climb of my Life, and Tammy Lectner's picture book on the Cubs. Believe me, it is not the services that determine your success, it is the product you are selling.

Victoria Strauss said...

Believe me, it is not the services that determine your success, it is the product you are selling.

Exactly. And one of the reasons agents and editors hate the services is that they don't screen: they are as happy to try and sell a lousy book as a good one.

Congratulations on publishing your book.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding like a punk: If it took JK Rowling over 900 queries (unconfirmed rumour), and the market is still getting worse (as I have just read), the way I see it, the bottleneck are the agents and publishers. (Apparently there are a lot of readers out there.) If an aspiring author has to read each company's or agency's leading bestseller before submitting ONE query letter that has less of a chance on success than 1 in 900 - which of us would still get published in our own lifetime? We are up against incredible statistics. The complaint I receive most from agents on my quest is that they are not taking in any new work because they are overloaded. The only way to respond is by turning the stats in our favour. If 800 would be rejecting us anyway before 200 demand to read our work - why not have those rejections quickly instead of over 80 years, and save us all some time? I would imagine that such query services have categories of available agencies and publishers to which they send the books -just as every agent states which genres s/he represents. I can also imagine that certain agencies will eventually build a trust basis with certain of these services, refining the screening process. This is all from a layperson's perspective. I have seen marketing in action and it is usually a numbers game.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous, there's a reason why that rumor is unconfirmed. Have a look at J.K.'s bio on her official website, where she reveals that she was taken on by the second agent she queried.

Absurd rumors like this, along with ignorance of the business, are what drive writers to pay money for services that don't benefit them.

Anonymous, you seem to be assuming that all manuscripts are essentially equal. You aren't alone: it's a common idea that the world is awash in wonderful manuscripts that would become bestsellers if only overloaded agents and hidebound publishers could be bothered to give them a chance. But as anyone who has ever looked at an agent's or publisher's slush pile can tell you, this is simply a myth. Most of what's out there doesn't even come close to being publishable. If your manuscript is marketable, you aren't in competition with every other writer looking for publication--just with the very small percentage of them who have written publishable books.

You also shouldn't take agents' excuses for rejecting your work too literally. Agents are human; they don't like saying no any more than anyone else, and they look for ways to soften their rejections. Saying "I'm too busy to take on new clients" is much kinder than saying "your work is not of publishable standard" or "you didn't bother to research me well enough to know that I don't represent your genre."

Anonymous said...

This is amazing - she even knows more about an anonymous commentator than everyone else does! And she has the psychic power of knowing how my mind works - without ever having met me! She also seems to have a clear insider view on my approach and modus. I'm sure Victoria reads through slush piles as a hobby in her spare time. I'm out of this blog

Anonymous said...

Guys,it sounds to me as though this is an author who is scared of competition. She beats down other published authors with derogatory comments and seems very defensive of "her" genre.

Ironically she has achieved the opposite to what she intended as eQuery Online makes a much more convincing case on the blog than she does herself. She comes across as churlish...

Tally up how often Victoria confuses the query letter with a submission of a manuscript?

I hope her actual novels come across more convincingly than this blog.

Avid fantasy reader

Victoria Strauss said...

Guess how much respect I have for critical posts by "Anonymous"--especially where Anonymous is pretending to be two different Anonymouses?

Even if you're not as psychic as me, Anonymous, I'm sure you can figure out the answer.

Jason said...

Can't we all just get along?

Look, the bottom line comes down to opinion. I have to admit, if it wasn't for articles like this one, I'd most likely be in a 10 year trap with publishamerica by now. The thing is everyone has to make an educated decision when looking for a publisher. When traditional methods fail you try something new.

In this day and age their are hundreds of new ways to attempt to get a deal. Try these automated queries if you think they'll help. There is always the "law of averages" here. If it doesn't work, hey, you're out a couple hundred bucks and you try again.

No body can tell you what the best way to find a publisher is. You need to find your own way. Maybe e queries will work, maybe they won't. But articles like this simply give us something to think about when making that final decision. Everyone ready for a hug?