On the heels of Queryfail and Agentfail and all the anti-agent feeling generated thereby, agent Nathan Bransford hosted a Be An Agent For a Day contest. The goal of the contest: to see whether people could pick the three published authors from a group of fifty query letters (all posted on Nathan's blog).
Nathan posted the results a couple of weeks ago. None of the published books were among the most-picked queries (the one that became a NYT bestseller had a pick rate of just 15%) and only two of the more than 300 people who participated in the contest picked all three.
What to take from this contest? First off, it demonstrates how subjective these choices are. Agents' decisions are informed by their experience and their knowledge of the market, but the bottom line is that one person's "Gotta have it" is another's "not for me." Most queries get multiply rejected, even for manuscripts that go on to become extremely successful books.
Nathan's other conclusion, though, is one I find most interesting:
I think this contest goes to show how people may have overemphasized the query itself when they were playing agents. The queries that generated the highest response rate were the most technically precise. They were tidy, they were well-organized, they followed the rules. They were good queries (and some of them may go on to have success stories of their own). But this wasn't a contest to spot the best queries.
When an agent is reading a query we're trying to look past the query to get a sense of the underlying book. We're evaluating the concept and the writing, not ticking off a box of requirements. I don't reject people solely because they start with rhetorical questions or their word count isn't quite right or they break one of the query "rules". I can't afford to do that. Nor do I request pages for a book that has a perfect query but whose underlying concept is flawed.
A good concept and strong writing are more important than good query form.
Interesting, yes? And, I imagine, frustrating. Writers are exhorted to follow the "rules" of querying, yet the truth is that marketability trumps the rules (at least to some extent). So why follow the rules at all? Because you can never know. The strength of your concept might shine through your non-conforming query letter--but then again, it might not. Statistically speaking, it's safer to let the rules be your guide.
Nathan concludes, "I hope everyone will remember this contest the next time a poor agent or editor is mocked for passing on [insert bestseller here]. Because getting it right is incredibly hard."