Thursday, September 6, 2012

True Query Problems

A lot of people have said to me recently, "Russ, you talk so much about your decision to go the indie publishing route, but what about those of us who want to see Simon & Schuster on our jacket?"  In hopes of quieting the uproar of the crowd - both of you - I will address here what I see as the biggest problem with trying to break into the traditional world - the query letter.

Literary agents and publishers are busy people who work long hours without a lot of actual literary staff.  Yes, there are tons of lawyers and marketers and accountants who toil through the everyday grind of running the business side of publishing, but those who really appreciate a good book and can focus on that for a living are few.  As a result, they can't read every book that comes their way.  Further, even for what they do read, these people see a lot more bad stuff than good.  Hence, the query letter.

A query letter, usually to a literary agent, is supposed to hook that agent, or the intern who probably reads it first.  Due to the flood of these things on a daily basis, the query has to truly stand out from the crowd in a way where the agent exclaims, "I simply must read this book!"

Unfortunately, writing a good query letter is completely different than writing a good novel.  The query is essentially a business proposal, and let's face it, most writers don't know squat about the business side of things,  Sure, they'll study and get critiqued, and then they'll stumble through the first dozen or so agents while they try to revise their query, but it takes a different kind of writing style altogether than what most are used to.

A good query letter doesn't necessarily hold the key to a good book, as evidenced by the rejections agents continue to send after asking for a manuscript(little known fact - a fair number of newbie writers tend to think that once they've had a submission request, life is golden.  Sorry, but agents still reject most of the submissions they get).  All it means is that the writer knew how to basically write a blurb and catch a particular person's interest on a particular day.

Additionally, a poorly written query can give the wrong impression about a book that might be well written.  The agent who receives a bad query will automatically assume you couldn't write your name in the snow, let alone the next great American novel.  This is where frustration and cries of "elitist gatekeepers" comes in - most writers assume they could do well if their work was just allowed to speak for itself.

Rejections for hits are as common as grains of sand.  JK Rowling famously had over a dozen people reject Harry Potter.  Stephanie Meyer saw 14 of 15 agents she queried basically tell her to take a hike.  And the book that led to a pretty fair selling movie - The Help - got turned down over 60 times.  I think it's examples like these that not only give hope to budding writers looking to go the traditional path, but they also show people like me who are shunning that path that agents and publishers have about as much foresight about what will and what won't sell as you or I do.  It baffles those of us who read books for pleasure, thus making up the market for such books, that such works that were obviously great the first time we picked them up somehow made an agent or a publisher turn up his or her nose, and that's what leads us to think they're out of touch.

So, what's the answer?  Well, there are two - you can either work for years on your query, just as you did on your novel, or you can forego that and go indie.  However, in going indie, you have to understand that the "cool kids" in traditional publishing won't ever accept what you've done as legitimate.  It's harder than it looks to not care what the in crowd thinks, but sometimes it's the only way.  By bringing your book to market despite the naysayers who're judging your business writing skills rather than your creative writing skills, you can bypass the process and let the market determine if you have any talent, and trust me - the market will let you know.  Or you can take what is currently becoming a new way to break in, which is to have indie success that gets noticed and then have a publisher offer you incentive to join them.

Regardless, the query letter is an unforgiving mistress and takes your destiny out of your hands and puts it in the hands of Fate...and she's a really unforgiving bitch.

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