Query Letters: The Difference Between Not Screwing Up and Being Awesome

I'm going to start with a little formal logic here, but don't be scared. Logic is AWESOME.

So we all know the following is true:
  • If you screw up a query letter, then you will get a rejection.
 However, we often tend to assume this means the following:
  • I got a rejection.
  • Therefore I screwed up my query letter.
THIS IS NOT NECESSARILY TRUE. Not only is it a logical fallacy, but believing this will cause you to obsess over your query letter when the problem may lie elsewhere.

Even if you don't screw up your query, you can still get rejected. Why? Try one of these:
  1. The writing isn't "there" yet.
  2. The story is a subgenre that the agent doesn't really care for.
  3. The idea doesn't click with that particular agent.
  4. The idea is good, but that agent doesn't know how/where to sell it.
  5. The idea is too close to that of one of the agent's existing clients.
There are more, but you get the idea. With the exception of the first, you have little or no control over these. This is why you query widely. You can't know what will click with which agent, or which agent has a client who writes stuff just like you.

And to item #1, yes. Agents can divine writing ability from your query letter (spend a week in a slush pile and you can, too). This is the difference between "not screwing up" and being awesome. If you avoid all the major mistakes, but you're not getting any requests, tweaking the query might not help.

You might just need more experience points. Write more, critique, and get critiqued. Then come back to your query -- and your novel -- at a higher level.

Lastly, even an awesome query gets rejected. A good request rate is usually around 10-30%, for many of the reasons listed above. This is a subjective business. Get used to it (he says to himself).

Bottom line is there is no easy answer. Avoiding mistakes will not get you an agent. Writing something awesome, and finding an agent who agrees with you, will.


Matthew MacNish said...

I think I just leveled up.

And I have a friend who sent one query, and landed his agent with it. I swear I don't hate him for it.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I am your new padawan. Mr. MacNish has abandoned his yoda picture so I needed to go in search of someone with solid query kung fu.

Angela Brown said...

I've got to admit. I've been in the position of going from Query>Rejection letter>My query sucks>Arrgghh query obsession.

Not the best place to be. But yes, that does happen. I'm going a little slower this time, being much more aware of the fact that even if my query rocks, it's not for every agent.

TL Conway said...

I like to consider myself a logical person, but I will be the first to admit I would assume it was my query letter and not any of the other (logical) reasons you listed above. It's almost like agents saying, "It's not you, it's me."

Thanks for the perspective!

Ellis Shuman said...

Adam = this was excellent advice. So many authors-to-be waste far too much time working and revising and rewriting their query letters. Landing an agent depends on quality queries, however as you correctly point out, there are many other factors.

Nancy Thompson said...

I think the content in my story scares the crap out of some agents. How do you respond to that in a rejection?

Sarah Ahiers said...

oh dude, this is so true. My request rate was super very high. We're talking fulls off the query alone. But even with my awesome query, the Rs still rolled in. Just got go forward

Elizabeth said...

Fantastic blog....love the ECHO shadow in your header...very clever.

NEW follower.

I am stopping by from the Top Writing Blog competition.

Just wanted to say hello. This is a great way to find new blogs and visit ones you haven't visited in a while. :)

Elizabeth - Silver's Reviews


erica and christy said...

Ah yes. I do believe I could win an award for most query drafts for one manuscript. Thanks for sharing the request rate. I was just wondering about that this morning. Your posts are always helpful and informative! I'm glad I recently found your blog. Christy

Amy Croall said...

That's ridiculous!!!

I'm part of a writing group, and people all around me are getting requests. Meanwhile, I've got a killer query, a great opening paragraph, a solid idea, and I still haven't received one single PARTIAL from the 20+ agents I've queried. Not fair.