Hello to everyone visiting the blog for the first time! If you haven’t already entered, please post your first paragraph in the official contest thread.
While I was away last month, Stephen Barbara, promising young Donald Maass Agency agent and contracts director extraordinaire, published a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article in PW about the writing world’s obsession with the “perfect query letter” and the accompanying rise in query quality, and how in the good old days two or three years ago things were easier because “bad writers wrote bad query letters,” whereas now the obsession with queries results in higher quality queries from mediocre writers.
Several people have asked me about the article, but even before then I have heard loud whispers about whether I’m concerned about the fact that (hypothetically), if everyone writes a good query, doesn’t that make my job more difficult? Am I bringing on my own ruin? (Well, besides this contest)
Nope. Good queries make my life far easier. And in fact, I am pleased to report that query quality, personalization, and professionalism have been dramatically on the rise lately, and I’m extremely excited about it. Why?
Let’s go back to the archaic days of five years ago, pre-Miss Snark, other agent blogs, and before the birth of so many writing websites devoted to quality queries and the publishing process. In other words, Mr. Barbara’s query utopia. In this time, did the best writers really write the best queries? Did they divine the format and spill their talent onto the page?
Or did the writers who had enough (at that time very hard-to-come-by) information to grasp the purpose, intent and proper technique of query letters still write the best ones while some perfectly good and talented writers stubbed their toes because they simply didn’t know what they were doing? I think it’s the latter.
Here’s why today’s brave new query world is good for me. A couple of years ago, as I was reading queries I always had to wonder if the author was a good writer with bad query technique or a bad writer with, uh, bad query technique. I requested a lot of manuscripts that turned out to be subpar because I didn’t want to miss out on someone whose idea I liked but who, I had to assume, just may not have known better.
And in fact, in years past it was very, very difficult for the proud residents of Nowheresville, Indiana to have access to the publishing industry because they lacked the connections, information, and network to penetrate what was then an extremely opaque and insulated publishing world. Well, that opacity had a big ole stiletto punched through it, and the rest is history.
Now even writers who do even a cursory amount of research on the Internet are besieged with techniques for writing queries and guidelines for conducting themselves professionally. This hasn’t tilted the playing field in favor of the mediocre, it’s leveled the playing field for everyone, the talented-but-far-flung particularly. Now that I’m getting almost uniformly good queries it’s much easier for me to spot the best ones without worrying I’m missing out by passing up on the bad ones.
Trust me. It’s still relatively easy to spot the ones with a special zing that, for whatever reason, connect with my interests and taste.
And as for the people who think the query system isn’t worth following, just talk to the scores of published writers who started off writing bad letters, got nowhere, found some information on how to do it the right way, and are now very successful. All that was standing in their way was equal access to the information that is now readily available.
I have no regrets! I am not worried about bad authors writing good queries. There’s no formula for the best ones, and truly good writing can’t be imitated or faked.