Monday, April 23, 2012

On Querying Agents

Speaking to a fellow author, he felt that he was a master of dealing with agents and getting things published. Although he had not had anything published in the mainstream, he had had a short dialogue with an agent. One agent mind you, but because an agent replied to his query, he has the impression that he is now a master queryist. I hope that I don’t sound bitter or arrogant, I’m not. I’m just trying to understand the magic and the mission of sending out query letters to publishers.

I’ve been sending out queries for some time now…well several years and I’ve had everything returned to me: postcards, hand written rejections, hand written rejections with comments, form letters on cheap paper, form letters on expensive paper, and even e-mail rejections. I’ve had them all and more. After a period of time I thought to even collect them, and the pile just gets larger and larger. So of course you have to question: what is the problem? Is it my work, who I’m sending my work to, or my query letter?

So to hear my fellow author claim how mechanically efficient he is upon sending out one query (or maybe more, but he was only commenting on receiving a letter back from one agent) will perk my attention. A veteran should never question his battles. Because he’s battle scarred does not mean that he is doing something wrong. It could mean the level of wars he has participated in. A soldier in peacetime will return home with fewer scars than a veteran of many bitter battles. I would suppose the veteran would be me. Maybe it’s just foolish curiosity on my part to ask what is this author doing, but I was interested.

His ‘learned’ response was that he studies the agents. He goes to the website, reads the agent bio, looks over the publication listings to make certain that they would be agreeable to take him on as an author. This to me is really nothing new. I do the same, but he goes the extra yard. He studies the agent, going to their blogs, their webpages and then writes a personal letter to them, pointing out that he’s done these things, pointing out that he’s been watching them in their careers and decisions. He follows them on their current deals, their moves to other agencies; damn, he claims he shadows their footsteps, literally stalking them.

I’m getting out of pocket here, but he goes in depth with an agent before, during and after a rejection. He calls it: “getting his foot in the door with the agent”. This may be so, but if you are only, or have only, sent a query letter out to two or three agents, you can invest time in following their careers or their opinions in a blog. If you have more than one work, and have sent queries out to more than one agent or publishing house, keeping track of your material that you’ve sent out is more involved than keeping track of the moves and dealings of each agent. This is my opinion.

In a world where agents and publishing houses are demanding query letters being one page, 12pt font, one inch margins and so forth, it makes it difficult to praise your book, and an agent at the same time. There just isn’t room on one piece of formatted paper to stroke someone’s ego. This too is my opinion. I want to put my best foot forward. I want to present my work with such polish that because of the query letter, the agent will ask me for further information on the manuscript. I’m putting the shine on my book, not on the agent. But again, this is just my opinion.

I’ve been sending out query letters for quite some time. I’ve read scores of books detailing how to create query letters and across none of them have I seen polishing the agent’s apple until spotless.  I do mention books on the agents or publishing house’s client or publication lists just to let them know two things: 1) that I’ve looked over their lists and, 2) that I believe that my book is a good fit. I do a little work there too.  I don’t send off a cookie cutter query, but then again, I don’t tailor it to an agent to such an extent that he can see his reflection in it. 

I’m going under the suspicion that this agent is a professional. If he needs a stroking on the job, I hope he’ll call his significant other to get it and not expect it in my query. This is a person who should be more interested in finding a publishable book because this means money in their pocket as well as a possible star to hitch their cart to. This is what these people do. They don’t search for friends through query letters, nor even acquaintances. They don’t reply to you to open dialogues, but to give you a brief flash of their experience, or a gentle push in the right direction so that you aren’t clearly wasting your time. They have enough friends and acquaintances in their lives than to search for one in some random author.

I’m no Master Queryist but I do know something. I know that there can be any number of reasons why your query doesn’t make mustard. The Agent may even be so overwhelmed that they take a stack of queries and hand them over to an assistant who opens them and stuffs their SASE’s with rejection form letters. Who knows? But for the most part, whatever way you choose to present yourself to an agent or publishing house is your way. But in my not so humble opinion, you’d better focus on your manuscript, and using that to get your foot in the door and not try to build a relationship with an agent in a paragraph or less because, like any professional, this bores them. They can see through false praise or attention. 

I say give them what they are looking for: a sharp query, a hard hitting story, a gripping tale, a suspenseful thriller that captivates them in a paragraph or less. You only have a few paragraphs to make your case. Make it. Blow smoke up the Judge’s ass and you’ll get no pity.

But…this is my opinion. I have been known to be wrong.

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