Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Agent for a Day

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."

Amen.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

So what actually makes a "good" query?

I'm just as confused as before.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous, check the links to Nathan's blog. Each of the 50 queries is posted there, and in his results post he links to the three for published novels, as well as the one that was most requested by contestants.

Also check the sidebar of this blog--there's a link to The Query Project, where a number of writers have posted their successful queries.

In a followup post, I'll link to a number of resources on writing query letters that I think are helpful.

Lucy said...

Nathan posts extensive advice on his blog, as well as FAQ links (and you can also check blogs by Jessica Faust and Kristin Nelson--yes, they are all my favorites) for the basic anatomy of a good query letter.

The point, I think, is that whatever strengthens your presentation of yourself and your work (and a good, businesslike query letter certainly does that) should be on your list of priorities. The other point is that the most perfect query letter in the world won't help you if you don't have a strong concept and an excellent book.

Anonymous said...

The advice generally given says stand out in your query which some people did in query fail although, some stood out a little too much! Ultimately like Lucy said, it's your work that needs the polishing not your query. From what I've learned so far is that you must keep your query interesting yet professional always!
In query fail there were some inexcusable techniques used by aspiring writers which back fired on them and the agents were trying to educate us on what not to do!
Nathan's experiment agent for a day was interesting not to mention educational because many of us learned that we are no better than the agents and editors we love to hate on.

jan said...

To me, what Nathan's experiment showed is the weaknesses in things like "queryfail" because they end up zinging stuff that might actually be in some "winning" queries. Ultimately, the REAL zing would be more like -- [a] the idea didn't grab me today AND [b]you did [whatever easily described thing] which is sorta irritating; but [b] wouldn't have mattered much if [a] had turned out differently.

So writers go nuts trying to get all the [b] items right when they're just the things that make an agent feel better about [a]. But that nuttiness is partially something we've been taught.

And it's not true. Virtually none of the [b] items matter at all if the pitch has something that changes [a] -- that triggers something in the agent that says, "hmmm...I really really wonder what happens next because this might go somewhere I can really get behind."

The folks who played the agent game played by the rules we've been taught. They looked for the spiffiest queries thinking that's really what matters when it's not...it's the "a" thing...it's grabbing that agent at that moment with that idea, clearly presented.

Alexander Field said...

Great update on Nathan's contest. It was fascinating to follow and I think instructive in the wake of Agentfail and Queryfail. : )

Janny said...

Re:

"The folks who played the agent game played by the rules we've been taught. They looked for the spiffiest queries thinking that's really what matters when it's not...it's the "a" thing...it's grabbing that agent at that moment with that idea, clearly presented."

Actually, I can't speak for anyone else...but it was STORY that grabbed me. There were some confusing queries in the bunch; there were some where I wasn't sure what the story WAS; but, while I appreciate a well-written query, I think to characterize our selections as based on "spiffy queries" is a little shallow...and I was irritated with Nathan when he said so, too. :-) I went on STORY. If the story grabbed me, I wanted to see more...and there were many books I would have requested more on, had we not been required to request no more than five. Ask almost any participant in the contest, and you'll hear tales of hand-wringing and tough decisions. Almost all of us had a "short list" that ran anywhere from 8 to 12 or more books that we'd actually have liked to see. So, were we not under the constraint of numbers...we might well have picked ones that were closer to "commercial" than those we ended up settling on.

I thought it was interesting that one of the most requested stories, based on the query, was supposedly for a WIP...a book that wasn't even finished yet. Which gave me the interesting thought that perhaps, we should be writing our query letters very early in the creative process, rather than waiting until the book is done, the themes are all out there, the character arcs are clear, etc., etc., etc., and...the "juice" may (temporarily) be squeezed clear out of the book for us. The query for the WIP was short, snappy, and just crackled with energy--unlike the great majority of the letters. So what if we wrote queries when that fire of creation was still hot? What if we then set them aside, took them out after the books are done, and by reading them got fired up about our own work all over again? No doubt we could "tweak" the query at that point to bring in any small details we thought might be necessary once we'd finished the book...but the essence would be the same. The story germ probably wouldn't change. And most of all, the creative fire, the enthusiasm, and the "I've just got to share this with you" approach would jump right off the page.

It's worth a thought. Might make all of our queries a lot more fun for all concerned. :-)

My take,
Janny

Anonymous said...

What makes a good query?

From a writers POV it is one that gets the agent to read more of the author's work.

From the agents POV it is one that gets them interested in a work that they will want to represent.

What is common in these two is getting the agent interested in the work. That takes a good description of the work.

Badger said...

This reminds me of an article that was featured prominently in the New York Times a few days ago. The article cited the findings of a recent study indicating that investors do not read business plans when approached by entrepreneurs. Since a query serves much the same function - introducing someone to an original project - the result seems comparable.

David Dittell said...

Victoria,

Always good to remember that the query "rules" exist to increase your chances -- if you don't have the goods, it doesn't matter anyway. You have to both appear to have a manuscript book and, subsequently, also have a good manuscript.