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.