A week or two ago, agent Nathan Bransford did a “Be an Agent for a Day” contest where he challenged his blog readers to read 50 queries (more or less what an agent might see in his/her inbox on any given day), and pick 5 they felt had potential and would, if they were agents, request manuscripts or proposals for. Of the 50 queries he posted, 3 were for books that actually ended up being published, and the challenge for readers who played along was to figure out which three. See here for the results.
I found this to be highly instructive. I’ve always known agents wade through a lot of queries on any given day, but I was surprised at how many of them are good — as opposed to bad and freakishly wrong. I would have thought a much larger portion of a typical inbox would be easily dismissed, but what’s scary is how much of it could actually be worth publishing. Scary because the fact is to get noticed I (we) have to be better than the good, not better than the freakishly wrong. Not surprisingly, after a while the queries all start to sound alike, even the good ones. Interestingly, one of the queries was for a book with a premise that turned my stomach but I could tell would attract an agent because it was different enough to be marketable. I was right; it was one of the books that ended up being published.
One of the queries was for Allison Brennan’s 2006 book, The Prey (at the time titled The Copycat Killer). If you haven’t read Allison Brennan, you should, and don’t tell me you don’t read romantic suspense, because that’s a poor excuse. Ms. Brennan reports that the query letter originally had a 58% request rate (that is, of the agents she sent the query to, 58% wanted to see a partial or full manuscript). She eventually snagged her agent with it. In the contest, only 15% of the readers would have requested to see the book based on the query. Ms. Brennan blogs about her query and the contest and offers various theories as to why so few blog readers would have requested it, versus agents who did request it.
My theory is that writers (that’s mostly who reads Mr. Bransford’s blog) are lucky they don’t have to be agents. Not only do we have a hard time figuring out what’s marketable, we have a hard time figuring out how to show that what we’ve written is marketable. So our query letters suck, while our books may be brilliant. What happens is we end up looking for rules for writing query letters, and we follow them. When someone like Ms. Brennan doesn’t follow those rules — she puts her bio first, she compares herself to other authors, she mentions that she’s written other unpublished books — we automatically give it a thumbs-down because of all the no-nos. In other words, we’re idiots. We think “following the rules” trumps “compelling book with intriguing hook.”
So: two lessons I learned. You have to be better than good, and substance is more important than style any day of the week.