The voting is in, and wouldn’t you know: as of this writing the project that received the most votes as a query also received the most votes as a partial.
The query system works perfectly, right?!!
As always: it’s not quite that simple.
Without prejudging what conclusions people have reached, there are three main things that I personally hope people take away from the experiment:
1) The query system isn’t perfect.
When I read the queries, I thought all of them were strong in their own way, especially for a random sample. In the end though, I thought the two most promising queries were SHORELINE and UNREALITY CHICK. SHORELINE had an intriguing plot but I worried that the description of the narrative felt a little scattered, and UNREALITY CHICK had a compelling voice though I worried that the query relied too much on the voice and lacked plot detail. Since a strong voice is rarer and more difficult to convey in a query, I ultimately voted for UNREALITY CHICK as the best query.
However, I ended up changing my vote when it came to the sample pages. While again I thought all five samples were good in their own way, I thought SHORELINE had the most engaging and polished writing and it had my vote.
So. Even an agent changes his vote from query to sample pages. Does this mean the query system is broken?
Again, not that simple. Even though some queries were stronger than others, I think the strengths and weaknesses in each query did actually reflect strengths and weaknesses in the corresponding manuscripts, just as tends to happen in real life. Is it an exact one-to-one match between query and manuscript? Definitely not, which is why some queries fall through the cracks and why everyone should strive to write the best query possible. SHORELINE probably showed the largest disparity between query and manuscript, which is reflected in the voting. But across the board, my likes/concerns in the queries really did correspond to the likes/concerns I had about the manuscripts.
I think you can also see why I now ask that people send the first five pages with their queries.
Ultimately, while the queries were definitely good, I don’t think I would have requested partials in real life, and I believe the partials need some more work and polish before they’d be ready. But very solid efforts all around and keep in mind that…
2) Taste is subjective.
I don’t think I’m going to win a Nobel Prize for showing that the query process is subjective, but a subpoint I want to make is: subjective is not the same as arbitrary. Even people looking hard for the best arrive at different decisions and have different criteria for what that means. Everyone who participated in this experiment was approaching with roughly the same goals, and yet even the winning choice in both polls had less than a majority of the vote.
Same thing in real life. When agents talk about the importance of fit and loving a work, this is what they’re talking about. Even a group of very informed agents will have different opinions on the same queries and manuscripts, and they’re bringing years of expertise and experience to bear. It’s not a sign the system is broken, it’s built into the system: there are lots of agents (and opinions) in the sea.
3) Time is of the essence.
And the last thing I want to suggest is to consider how long it took to read and think about each of these queries and samples, and multiply it by ten a day and consider that behind each query is a writer whose hopes and dreams are hinging on your undivided attention. It’s just not possible to give every single manuscript an in-depth look at 30 or more pages. Some sort of shorthand is necessary.
And all things considered, given the time constraints I still don’t know if there’s a better replacement out there for a query + short sample, even with its imperfections. Queries really do give an agent insight into the overall work, with the sample pages providing another glimpse.
Queries aren’t perfect, but they’re the best system we have.
But enough about my thoughts, what do YOU think?
Did this experiment increase or decrease your faith in the query process? How much of each sample did you need to make a decision? Do you have confidence in your choice? Has it changed the way you look at queries?
And of course, one last thanks to the talented participants for offering their query and samples! I’ll leave it to each of them to decide if they want to de-anonymize themselves and talk about their experience.
Wanda B. Ontheshelves says
I think I should be an agent too!
I voted same as NB, first UNREALITY CHICK and then switched to SHORELINE.
A writer isn't just the words in the manuscript. I wonder if good queries might also reflect writers more willing to jump through the tedious but necessary hoops that a successful writer has to jump through. (Says someone who is awful at queries but needs to change that)
Making video queries would be scary for us not so pretty people. I would hate to be disregarded for look instead of my writing. Look what television did to politics.
Nathan Bransford says
Yeah, I don't think I'd go for video pitches or trailers for the same reason I don't take pitches over the phone: I really just need to see the writing.
Katrina L. Lantz says
I absolutely agree with Andrea. If book trailers are done with author images, that'll be the end of judgment based on merit. On the other hand, I've seen some great book trailers that look more like movie trailers. Those could be a nice perk for a query. But I'm not an agent. What do agents think?
Katrina L. Lantz says
Sorry, Nathan. I just saw your response after I posted my comment. Advice taken. No book trailers in queries.
This was a great experience for me, and for a lot of your readers. Like most, I have really been working on polishing my query and my book. Rewrites are important, editing is a must, and rejections will be many, so we must all be willing to swallow the medicine, roll back the sleeves and get to work. We have what it takes, we need to endure.
Thanks Nathan for the great lesson. Your job is difficult, but we certainly appreciate your method of teaching us through your blog. Good job everyone that submitted. I enjoyed reading your work.
It was as expected, mostly. Not good, not bad, just is.
The thing I don't like is the drive/desire for queries to have the same 'voice' as the writing. Imo it's not always a good thing that publishing is reduced to nothing but a business. In a perfect world (or one where people try a bit harder and care a bit more), agents would look for writers/people to work with, not works/product.
Right now, I feel overall the process is too much about what will sell an is marketable (and that wanting queries that reflect the voice and style of writing is indicative of that). Of course, it IS a business, but plenty of people make decent livings doing things they love, and giving people chances, and working with people, and sacrificing the bottom line at times for all sorts of other things that imo should matter just as much.
And I'm not saying Nathan, or all agents are just hard-ass capitalists. What I'm saying is the one thing this process taught me is that I saw very, very few people (if any?) say they weren't sure which MS they'd want to 'buy' because they weren't sure who the PERSON writing it really was.
See a manuscript that will sell, want to sell it. Sure, it's the American way, and the 'job' of the agent. But in my world, where I am NOT king, mind you, I'd rather work with a writer who I believe in, and who enriches my life, than simply choosing to work with the manuscript that will make me the most money.
And this is coming from someone who has been accused of being a robot on many occasions. I'm not just some bleeding heart. I just think that the person behind the manuscript is as important as the work itself, especially if deciding to forge a business relationship that is often in fact quite personal too.
So, were I an agent I'd want the queries to tell me as much about the person as the manuscript, and I'm not buying a damn thing until I got a really good sense of WHOSE efforts and struggles went into the manuscripts. And that's something I find sorely lacking in this experiment, and in the industry as a whole at times.
Otherwise I skimmed all the entries and came to all the 'right' conclusions, yawn.
Augustina Peach says
Two things came out of this exercise for me:
1) In a strange kind of way, it gives me more confidence to approach the query process. Finding an agent is apparently not some unapproachable mystery. A lot of the process is about story and writing skill, although I'll admit there's also that subjective piece that can't be avoided. But seeing how the process worked and how other people liked queries and partials I was lukewarm toward helps take some of the sting out of even the subjectivity. (I agree with Jan, though – it's hard to separate work from ego.)
2) There are ways your job is like my job, Nathan (I'm a teacher). You give rejections or ask for partials based on your judgment of the work; I give specific letter grades based on my judgment of the work. The main difference is that I ALWAYS give feedback (it was hard not to go into that mode when reading the samples, ha ha!). That's part of the definition of my job, but not of yours. Writers, like students, always want feedback. But the sheer volume of work, I guess, precludes that. I can gear up to give detailed critiques for 20 reasearch papers once a month, but not every day, for sure!
If I could work in publishing, I think I'd rather be an editor than an agent.
Thanks to Nathan for putting this together and to the writers for letting us use their work. Best of luck to all of you!
What an awesome experiment, Nathan. Your devotion is much appreciated.
Wow, what a trip this has been. Not sure it's taught me anything or changed my opinion about it all, but it has been interesting. Very interesting.
What an insightful experience. It certainly made me even more aware and appreciative of the work, and the responsibilities, an agent faces every day. I don't know how you do it.
Thanks for sharing this great experiment.
Malia Sutton says
Great project. I loved Shoreline. The minute the kid was thrown into the ocean, I was hooked.
I really enjoyed participating in this exercise and learned a lot. Reading all the submissions was surprisingly time consuming, but I enjoyed the stories. In the end it was hard to just pick one because I really like 2 of the selections (Black Emerald and Shoreline). Nathan, thanks for offering this opportunity. It was an eye-opener.
Marilyn, like your comments, as always.
Okay, I'm still not sure what to say, so I'm still not saying it.
However, one thing I did want to say is I love, love, love the picture on this post. That is the best picture I've ever seen in my entire life.
I want that picture on the cover of my book once I write it. No, I want that picture on the cover of all of my books once I write all of them. And not just the ones I write, but any that I read – or even see. I'm going to take that picture, go through bookstores and put it on every book in the whole place. Just try to stop me. I'm have a mission.
I just wanted to make a worthy contribution to this post. I trust that goal has been achieved.
Thank you, Nathan, for these posts this week. I've had alot of fun, and I appreciate it.
Amy M says
I never had a problem with the query system, but I've learned so much from this experiment. I really feel like this experience will help me to improve my queries. I read many blogs and always thought I knew how to write a query. But this has helped me to see far better what I need to accomplish.
Thanks again everyone for sharing your work – it has helped so many of us! And thank you, Nathan, for putting in your time on this. It did take me a LONG time to read those sample pages – I can't imagine having your job!
Claire Farrell says
This has been so much fun. I went with Shoreline on both query and partial but I can easily see how much more critical I would be of queries if I had to go through a mountain of them every day.
I have the same opinion of the query process – it's easy for the good stuff to slip through the cracks and that is a shame. But there is no perfect process, that's a given. I hope that experiments like this encourages those writers who are aiming for traditional publishing to work on their queries if they aren't getting any bites.
Still want to read the rest of Shoreline btw. 🙂
Claire Dawn says
I'm really glad you did this. I hope the next time some author is ranting about agents, someone will refer them to this!
You guys are superheroes.
I now feel that agents should not rely on queries alone to tell if they want to see more of a project. They should at least try and read the first page, first paragraph, first sentence…something. Because the query I thought was the best well written and had the best voice didn't do much for me when I read the pages.
For me, I was able to read one paragraph for each and know whether or not I was going to pass on it. I knew SHORELINE was my choice right off. There was no waiting like the first day.
This whole process was a lot of fun and really made me think a lot about how hard an agents job is. They are constantly getting new queries, it is easy to see they might not be able to give every project the attention it deserves.
Oh, and I have MUCH confidence in my ultimate choice SHORELINE. After I saw the pages I knew it was the one. And that just shows me that all agents should at least ask for the first paragraph along with a query. Because you never know.
I still think I prefer the British system, where prospective clients use the synopsis as opposed to queries.
Meghan Ward says
This exercise taught me just HOW subjective the query process is. I found myself skipping on to the next query as soon as I knew it wasn't the type of book I'd read. Doesn't mean it's not a great book, just not my thing. I also found myself most interested in the best-written queries, regardless of the content. And I do think the query process is the best way to go. As much as I hate form letters. I wish there were a way for agents to write a form letter that didn't hurt writers' feelings. I think that would be ideal.
Thanks for letting us have another peek into 'your world' Nathan. I've gained a greater respect for an agent's critical eye: yes, the Query Process works (even if not perfectly).
I also learned that every written piece we authors send out ought to be polished til it hurts. That even when we think we have a 'final draft' it should be set aside for a while; then it ought to go through one or two more *serious* edits before we start querying.
Meghan Ward says
I mentioned earlier that I thought agents needed a form rejection letter that didn't hurt writers' feelings, and that inspired me to write one: https://bit.ly/c1G78m
I didn't learn anything new, but it was a good opportunity to confirm that (imo) the quality of the query bears no relationship to the quality of the writing. So it did remove my last shred of faith in the query system.
I think one thing I learned was that the query that has that "peppy" voice will always win out over one which has a calmer, or more realistic voice. And I think that's too bad. Because if you are reading a hundred queries a day like an agent, you'll naturally be drawn to something with a big peppy voice and pass by the book that has a maybe more mature tone or characters that are layered and nuanced.
For me, it's always been the shy character in the back of the room that has an interesting story to tell, not the carnie worker up front, screaming, "Big prizes, here, win some big prizes!!!"
Angela Dove says
Thanks, Nathan, for this incredible exercise. I'm sending every aspiring writer I know to this set of blogs.
Nathan Bransford says
I don't know that I would be reaching any "always" conclusions after an experiment that involved five queries. In this case the query with the strongest voice happened to be peppy. That doesn't then mean that peppy always wins.
What an excellent idea. You rock.
Anica Lewis says
I'm sure lots of people know about this already, but if other people are looking for forums to have their queries critiqued, there's always The Public Query Slushpile, and, of course, Query Shark.
I, at least, find that some of the wonderful people who read my work for me aren't always as helpful on queries as on fiction. They give great feedback on novels – after all, they've been reading them for years – but don't really know what to do with a query. That's why these sites are so much help.
Nathan, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. What you said made a lot of sense and I had similar thoughts as I was reading them.
Please keep doing these types of activities! They are really helpful!
But the desparity of votes from query to pages is pretty stark in Shoreline's case, especially when you consider the number of comments of "peppy voice" being the stated driving factor of the other's initial query requests.
I'm not criticizing, even, just observing, and I don't think I'm too off the mark. Considering that commercial fiction drives the industry, it is only logical that more layered, lit-style fiction, would suffer (as far as requesting partials) compared to the pep of a huge voice query. I like commercial fiction, too, I swear! 🙂
I'm curious about something.
If the quality of the writing is good, and there's a good chance the novel could be pubbed, the query should be just as good.
However, in this case it wasn't. And I've seen, in public, some agents (not you, Nathan 🙂 state that they've never seen good writing with a weak query. And it always surprised me that anyone would actually make a statement like this in public.
I know the general idea is to write the best query possible to get the agent's attention so he/she will want to read the writing. Evidently, though, this isn't always the case.
Maybe there's too much stress on queries and not enough of actual writing quality.
When the query system started, everything was in hardcopy. Some agents back then asked for five pages, but most just wanted the one page query. This was to cut down the slush pile and keep agents from getting overwhelmed. But nowadays, with the ability to read writing samples by just scrolling down the electronic page, I not sure I get the thought process behind queries being more important than the actual work.
There are all kinds of stories about how agents found big books by accident, and usually not with queries. Laurie Liss did it with a phone call. I know luck plays a certain part in all this, and I know that some good books have been published thanks to good queries. But in general, it always seems so futile to read that the query is the only thing that matters. You don't seem to do this, but others do. Their entire lives seem to revolve around queries…frankly, to the point of being annoying.
This was an excellent concept, Nathan. I think writers learned the importance of queries and getting them right, and I hope a few agents who might have read this blog saw the importance of writing samples.
Robin Constantine says
I learned I don't think I'd cut it as an agent – I think I'd want to help polish diamonds in the rough too much, which can't be all that feasible when you must have other agent duties to attend to as well. A story has to stand apart from the crowd and have that *something* whatever it is (and for each agent that's different) to warrant that sort of commitment. There must be so many intriguing projects/ideas you have to pass on because the writing just isn't up to snuff. And how many can you realistically take on that are "almost there" but not quite. So I definitely take away once again how important it is to polish, polish, and polish some more.
Thanks to the participants! You are very, very brave to let 100+ strangers critique your work. Good luck on your projects!
And thanks Nathan – this felt like a virtual break-out session at a conference.
Nathan Bransford says
It's tough to talk about something so complex in the abstract, so let's assign number values. Let's say 1-3 are weak queries/pages, 4-6 are average queries/pages, 7-8 are good queries, and 9-10 are queries/pages where I'd request more.
I've said in the past that I've never seen a bad query that had great pages. In other words, I've never seen a query that's a 2 or 3 with sample pages that are a 9 or 10, and I think that's what the other agents mean too. Most queries really do reflect the underlying manuscript, good or bad. Not all, but most. The most movement you usually see is maybe a couple of points.
I have, however, very very occasionally seen queries in the 4-6 range with very good sample pages. In other words, the queries may not have been good enough for me to request more, but they weren't bad either. Just average.
I do agree that sample pages can help, but I also don't know that I'd overstate the extent to which there are true outliers. For the most part we're talking about queries and pages that are in pretty narrow bands.
I would like to point out that having garnered many fewer votes, Shoreline had to convince that many more people to change their opinion with the partial. Conversely, Unreality Chick had the advantage of confirmation bias leading those who voted for its query to do the same for the partial.
Not to cast stones…just my highly unscientific observation.
Kudos to all for their fine work and and congrats to each for every vote they caught.
Christina B. says
This was a cool experiment, and I loved hearing Nathan's thought process on the individual queries/pages.
YA is generally not my thing but I was curious and so conducted my own super duper scientific experiment.
I explained the the whole agent for a day thing to two of my nieces, ages 15 and 14, and asked which pages they'd request based on the queries. Ultimately the 14 y/o declined to request any pages due to the lack of "spies or thieves or something like that." (If you guessed she's a big fan of authors like Ally Carter, you'd be right, though she does read some YA fantasy too.)
And the 15 y/o said no to I'M A NOBODY after she read the words "man," "myth," and "war" in the same sentence. She said yes to I WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU ANYWAYS because "oooooh serial killer–this could be creepy-good." She said no to SHORELINE because there was "all that stuff from English class and no mermaids." (Yeah, I don't even know.) She said no to BLACK EMERALDS when she hit the words "super powers." And she said yes to UNREALITY CHICK because she wanted to know "why anyone would be afraid of cute guys." I don't think she read any of the queries all the way through.
So what I learned from that experiment is that for anyone who thinks the query system is arbitrary, they haven't seen anything until they've had a 14 or 15 year old whittle down the choices for them. 🙂
Katrina L. Lantz says
Christina B., that was brilliant. Thank you for sharing! If only we could all be Ally Carter. 🙂
Nathan, I nearly missed the 'down the rabbit hole' inference…
Christina B. – Great experiment! I don't have any YA nieces/nephews but now I wish I did. How interesting that "siren" put her off and she wanted mermaids! I would have thought they are practically the same.
I'm anon @8:53
"For the most part we're talking about queries and pages that are in pretty narrow bands."
I get it now…thanks for explaning in depth. And you're right. The queries I read in this project were all good. I'd probably want to read the pages that went along with each one.
Vampires and Tofu says
This was a lot of fun and altho all five entries showed promise, Shoreline had me from hello =)
Sarah Laurenson says
I was caught by the beginning in Black Emeralds – enough that I missed the typo everyone talked about. And typos usually jump out at me. I was also confused by the second half, but figured the story was complicated enough that it was hard to reflect in a query.
I thought Shoreline had the most interesting plot, but the query came in second for me.
I read a couple pages for each one, but no more than that.
I'm A Nobody really started strong for me. It was an interesting and different beginning. I lost interest when it got to the "regular" part of the story.
Shoreline kept my interest the longest. Coupling that with the second place finish in the query, I gave it my vote on the pages.
Thanks to all the authors for braving this process!
MBW aka Olleymae says
The biggest revelation for me was how stress and headaches and work changed the way I read the sample pages. It's different from reading a polished, published book. I actually had to stop reading and come back bc I just didn't feel well.
I kept thinking that if someone's hopes and dreams were riding on my shoulders, it would really suck when I have an off day!!
I admire you, Nathan 🙂
Also, I thought the strongest voice, most interesting plot in the sample pages was I'M A NOBODY, but query-wise I voted for UNREALITY CHICK.
Thank you for doing this! It was so helpful!
It must be tough finding a way to say 'no' gracefully on a daily basis simply because of volume. All of the authors who de-anonymised indicated they had found the comments useful and expressed their gratitude for the criticism, just as any self-respecting author would. How much more poignant that these authors, and so many others like them, are given feedback amounting to "I don't feel your work is right for me." Any self-respecting agent must regret the number of times they can't accept work, and the constraints on their time which prevent in-depth explanation.