Thursday, March 19, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- The Ultimate Queryfail

If you haven't encountered Queryfail (the brainchild of literary agent Colleen Lindsay, it's an initiative in which agents and editors post to Twitter about How Not To Query), it's definitely worth checking out. Jane Smith gives a good summary on her blog, including some of the negative reactions to the project.

Such discussion can be bruising, especially if it's your query being Queryfailed. But in my opinion, the information provided--direct from the source--is extraordinary helpful, and writers should make an effort to take heed. Also, given the incredibly unrealistic expectations many writers have about how agents should respond to queries, and the horrible things that so many writers routinely say about agents, in public and in private, distress over the supposed negativity of agents' Queryfail comments is a bit ironic.

So, joining in the spirit of the thing, here's the ultimate Queryfail: querying someone who is not an agent or an editor. Whose email address, moreover, has "beware" in it. And attaching your entire manuscript to your query.

Yes, I just got that very query. This may seem strange or absurd, but I get queried on a semi-regular basis, despite the lack of anything at all, anywhere on the Internet, to suggest that I am an agent or a publisher. Believe it or not, I have regulars: the guy who sends me another query every now and then in hopes I've changed my mind and become an agent, the guy who snail mails me his horrifying screenplays every six months or so. There was also the guy who, angry at my refusal to critique his manuscript, put me on his spam/chain letter list. I had to report him to his ISP for abuse.

I used to respond individually, but I no longer do, since I feel very strongly that writers need to take responsibility for doing proper research. Instead, I've added a disclaimer to Writer Beware's contact info, and also to my autoresponder. By then it's too late, of course, but at least the queryer will know why their query failed.

34 comments:

Kimber Chin said...

Oh, wow, that is... well... interesting, especially considering how many actual publishers and agents there are.

You'd think they'd work through those lists first.

ck said...

Wow. I've found the #queryfail entries entertaining and informative. It's hard to believe there is anyone out there who would acutally waste time sending stuff out without a little research.

Jane Smith said...

Just when I think I've seen everything there is to see that's odd in publishing you bring me something new, Ms Strauss. Good grief. Do some writers not actually know how to READ?

(And a link to my blog, too: thank you!)

clindsay said...

Thanks for the shout-out! =)

Colleen

Anonymous said...

Any clue why Absolute Write is down today?

Katrina S. Forest said...

Yeah, querying agents who don't represent your genre is one mistake, but querying someone who doesn't represent anything? That's kind of sad.

G said...

As we say in state government, ignorance is bliss.

Seems that this has been picked up as well by a small (okay, large) segment of new writers.

It doesn't take much to read and research. If you can take the time to decide what kind of food to order at a take out place, you can take the time to learn what agents/publishers actually want and need.

As always, exceptionally informative.

sexywriter said...

I get the random request for manuscript critiques quite a bit. I generally ignore them. I've also been solicited by former high school classmates on Facebook to write books about their life stories so they can "make a million dollars" from their pathetic boring lives. I've even had random people ask me to hook them up with my literary agent.

But I've never actually been _mistaken_ for an agent. That's a new one! My sympathies.

Anonymous said...

How interesting. Colleen's Twitter page now doesn't exist, and she isn't accepting new submissions at this time.

Could it have dawned on her that what she was doing, however useful it might be for potential authors, was utterly unprofessional?

NICOLA MORGAN said...

You say: "the information provided--direct from the source--is extraordinary helpful, and writers should make an effort to take heed"

I say - "hear hear and well done and spot on and anything else that indicates my agreement". Anyone who hasn't sent a rubbish query has nothing to fear; anyone who has has everything to gain.

clindsay said...

Dear Anon:

My Twitter page is there: http://twitter.com/ColleenLindsay.

And I am not accepting submissions for about a month because since queryfail, my query rate has gone from about 500 per week to about 700. And the vast majority of the queries I'm seeing are greatly improved.

Obviously, people got something out of queryfail, which is why we'll be holding another in late April.

Best,

Colleen

Anonymous said...

Some guy queried me angling for me to refer him to my agent. I don't have an agent. I've never had an agent. I'm a writer with a couple of handfuls of short story sales.

Boggles the mind.

-S.T.

Melanie Avila said...

I found you through Nathan's blog, and had to comment. I've received three different queries from the same person over the space of six months. I'm not an agent, I'm not an editor, I'm not even a published author. I ignored the first one, replied nicely to the second, then smacked him with a clue stick on the third. That seemed to work.

nanday said...

Having people mistake you for an agent or publisher isn't that rare.

My steady income comes from freelance computer journalist, and I average a query or two a week from people who want me to help them sell their work or break into the field.

It's just one of those strange things about the business.

Rick Daley said...

I started a Public Query Slushpile blog that is aimed at helping writers with their queries through peer review.

Writers submit queries to the blog, and I add them as individual posts, and visitors comment on what they think works or not.

So far I've received great feedback from the people participating, and several people have posted revisions that show marked improvement.

I'm up front about the fact that I am not an agent or publisher, though. So far so good...

http://openquery.blogspot.com

Andra M. said...

I think it's a terrific idea! Consider me twittered.

Thanks, Victoria.

Tara Maya said...

Wow, that's a whole new level of incompetence.

Victoria Strauss said...

Cool idea, Rick. Thanks for letting us know about it.

Nicola said it well, I think. If your query is good, you've nothing to fear from Queryfail. If your query sucks, wouldn't you want to know? I mean, seriously.

BuffySquirrel said...

Whereas anonymously harassing a literary agent is professional?

When I was reading GUD slush last week, I found a novel someone had submitted. We're a magazine. We don't publish novels! lol

sexywriter said...

Colleen Lindsay is doing a great public service via #queryfail. A serious writer would want to know if her query is good enough (or not). Having a working agent take the time to provide this kind of service is a priceless gift, especially when you consider how busy agents are.

If you can't handle honest public criticism of your query, chances are you don't have what it takes to make it as a writer in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I highly doubt the writers ravaged on queryfail know enough to read their critiques on Twitter. It's just another way of agents trying to act superior and smug to "stupid, clueless writers." If you really wanted to help, you'd write them directly--privately.

Frankly, I wouldn't query one of these agents if you paid me. And Colleen has the nerve to brag about how she's getting even more queries a week?
Talk about cruel and insensitive!

stephanie said...

re: Anon @ 10:34pm

If you really wanted to help, you'd write them directly--privately.

At an average of 500 queries/week, or 100/day, Ms. Lindsay would have to spend eight hours per day on nothing but queries. She could then devote a maximum of five minutes per query for this direct, private feedback you advocate, leaving her zero time for existing clients, responding to queries with potential, reading partials and fulls, etc. Queryfail isn't cruel and insensitive; it's expedient.

re: sexywriter @ 7:10pm... Amen.

BuffySquirrel said...

The point wasn't for those individual writers to read comments on their queries on Twitter; it was for those particular queries to act as examples to those who were reading of What Not To Do. By twittering, the agents were able to reach far more writers than they ever could by critiquing individual queries one-on-one.

As for not querying those agents--that's a perfectly valid choice for you to make. But don't imagine the agents will care. Really.

sexywriter said...

"If you really wanted to help, you'd write them directly--privately."

--Anon, all this shows me is that you have absolutely no clue about how agents or publishing work. Working agents are some of the busiest people you'll ever meet. They work twelve to fourteen hour days, often six or seven days a week, servicing their existing clients (i.e., working to sell books). Any time an agent spends even _considering_ unsolicited queries or submissions is a gift. Offering critiques to total strangers is not generally something a busy agent has time for (and they don't get compensated for it, either). That's what makes what Ms. Lindsay is doing so remarkable.

You sound an awful lot like a bitter writer who can't sell his or her work. Maybe you should spend your time improving your queries instead of bashing a successful literary agent (who also probably posted your query as a bad example.)

Victoria Strauss said...

I highly doubt the writers ravaged on queryfail know enough to read their critiques on Twitter. It's just another way of agents trying to act superior and smug to "stupid, clueless writers."

This kind of angry discourse directed at agents (and I've seen much worse) is amazingly common. As I noted in my post, it's a bit ironic for writers to get upset when agents snark in return (and the majority of the Queryfail critiques I saw were not particularly snarky).

Anyway, the point isn't that specific writers see their Queryfail critiques; it's that the critiques target general mistakes that many writers make--and, as a result of Queryfail, may now be able to avoid.

I think the bitterness directed at agents isn't just the result of the hope writers invest in their manuscripts, but a reflection of the (inevitably) uneven power balance between agents and unpublished writers. Since, query by query, the agent has the power to strike the writer into outer darkness, the agent acquires superhuman qualities; since being represented is a state of ultimate desirability, the agent is elevated to the status of the Holy Grail. The agent becomes an archetype, rather than a fallible human being doing business the best s/he can. Many writers are very reluctant to allow agents to have any human qualities at all.

Of course, this cuts both ways. I imagine that beleaguered agents--bombarded by queries, seeing the same misconceptions and mistakes over and over and over again--face a similar temptation to objectify writers. I get a lot of writer email myself, and I'm asked certain misguided questions, and encounter certain writers' myths, so frequently that I have cut-and-paste answers to them. It can be intensely frustrating to see these things again and again--especially since some of them are so damaging, and so easily refuted by basic research--and it's a struggle, sometimes, to maintain an open, nonjudgmental attitude.

Of course, there are also writers who have unrealistic expectations due to an excessive sense of self-importance, or who nurse a sense of cosmic injustice because some agents take weeks or months to respond, or don't acknowledge queries, or don't do other things that the writers think agents as a general class of beings ought to do. There is usually nothing you can say to these writers, for many of whom bitterness and outrage have become a form of validation.

Kathleen MacIver said...

If anything, I think #queryfail successfully saved those agents involved a bunch of queries from writers who have no clue, and would therefore be taking up the agents valuable time with queries that have to be rejected. Except now they won't, 'cause they're ticked off. Yeah!

If I was an agent, I'd participate, just to make sure none of those kinds of writers bothered me!

Eirin said...

I highly doubt the writers ravaged on queryfail know enough to read their critiques on Twitter. It's just another way of agents trying to act superior and smug to "stupid, clueless writers."


(Bolding mine)

You're being very dismissive of the writers you purport to defend from the arrogance of agents. Do they appreciate the condescension, those ignorant people you are so concerned for?

Casey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Casey said...

Anon:

What a charming attitude you have. I'm sure Colleen is very sorry not to be receiving your query.

Oi...

I'd let an agent tear me to shreds on queryfail if it meant learning how to write a good query and get an agent.

You have to be willing to learn from your mistakes in this business. And you have to know when to care. If you can't handle a one-sentence snark on your query (that is meant to be helpful,) you'll never survive the inevitable negative reviews of a published book (which are generally not written to be helpful.)

BuffySquirrel said...

Reviews are written to be helpful--just not to the writer :D.

Editorial Anonymous said...

I love you, Victoria.

Victoria Strauss said...

Awwwww.

Masonian said...

"So I have this book... it's main character is a hot, highschool vampire... but they don't sparkle in the sunshine, so it's not at all like Twilight."
I am pretty amazed that you get queries. How? Why? or, more accurately, what planet?

I admit, queries are hard, but hardly harder than writing a good resume. i think what is most difficult in queries is our own writerly obsession--not so much the act of querying itself.

Maybe you should emend your contact information to state "if you send any queries or manuscripts to us we require a $200 readers fee. It is another $500 for us to reply."
:)
mason

Anonymous said...

I was also taken in by Eber & Wein Publishing co. I can't even find my Poet ID # regarding my poem. I double check and there is nothing listed. I'm still waiting on my plaque!!!!!