Smoothly crafted letters aren't fooling this agent
by Stephen Barbara -- Publishers Weekly, 11/17/2008
Recently, funny things have been happening in my slush pile. I find myself receiving well-written, correctly formatted, professional-looking query letters from bad writers. Imagine my chagrin: one minute I'm intrigued by a smoothly crafted query letter, the next I'm staring down at a crackpot writing sample. For a literary agent who receives some 5,000 queries a year, this is a disastrous turn of affairs. I feel like those European naturalists who first set eyes on the platypus. Suddenly, nothing is easily classified.
Time was, bad writers wrote bad query letters. Like the Washington Generals of exhibition basketball, these writers hammed up—telegraphed, shall we say—their lack of talent and know-how. They typed their queries on law office stationery; they cold-called your office, asking for the “submissions director” (later referring to this phone call in the letter, as if it had been for both parties a singularly memorable event); they mailed their queries to outdated addresses culled from the 1997 edition of Writers Marketplace; they sent head shots; their return address was a prison; they wrote longhand in red crayon on college-ruled paper. Bad had a look; bad was obvious.
A couple of years ago, dismayed by all these off-base query letters, a colleague created a rather snarky list of rules called “The Query Drinking Game.” The idea was to sit around the office with some cheap beer and an overflowing pile of slush and follow the instructions of the game carefully. Thus: “For any query letter that begins 'Dear Sir or Madam,' one drink.” Or “For any query letter that includes the phrase, 'This would make a great movie,' two drinks; if the author already has casting ideas, three.” We never played the game for fear of alcohol poisoning.
Since that more innocent time, the world has changed. Everyone knows everything, or knows enough to google it. The publishing industry holds few secrets. And so, the outré query letter is no longer the norm. Today we see the heavily work-shopped query letter, labored over, proofread, professionally edited, smart-looking, enticing you to read on to the writing sample. Where, miserably, that throwback, Washington Generals–style badness hits you straight between the eyes again. (Alas, talent can't be found through Google.)
Of course, this situation is not to be blamed on writers. At conferences all over the country, editors and agents offer hyperbolically named “Query Hell!” and “Query Boot Camp!” workshops. Freelancers charge a premium for professional help crafting query letters. Smalltime agents and anonymous editors devote acres of blog space to hectoring writers on the intricacies of the query letter. (My favorite is the agent who writes: “I respond only to query letters addressed to me.” Ah, standards!) Is it any wonder that there's so much anxiety over the perfect query letter?
We are living in a brutally competitive publishing climate, and perhaps it's symbolic of the times that writers have made the query letter the true subject of their literary ambition. On Internet forums, writers sign their posts with frantic updates, such as: “Query letter revised 45 times, 12 partials requested by agents, 6 fulls!” This is new. Evidently the 20th century ambition of writing the great American novel is passé; what one now desires is to write the Great American Query Letter. It's easier to produce than one of those macho, old-fashioned doorstops; besides, you can tell your friends it led to over a dozen requests from agents. Jealous yet?
I realize it may sound flippant to complain about receiving good query letters, but I confess that the dry sameness of these work-shopped, hyper-edited letters is beginning to bore me. (Or maybe I just secretly regret never playing the “Query Drinking Game” when the time was ripe for it.)
Nowadays, I almost always skip ahead to the enclosed sample after a quick scan of the query letter. I figure that my goal is to discover great talent, not run a writer through some Draconian test of his or her ability to follow arcane query-writing guidelines.
So if you're reading this, M.T. Anderson, please know my submissions guidelines are really lax. I accept queries by e-mail, snail mail or napkin. Don't worry about getting my name right, either. We can figure out the details later.
Stephen Barbara is a literary agent and contracts director at the Donald Maass Agency.