Sunday, August 2, 2009

Query submission services

I didn’t take much interest in query submission services until today.

A blog post on How Publishing Really Works made me a bit curious about what writers can expect from such services. Most of the reasons not to use these were covered by Victoria Strauss and Ann C. Crispin on Writer Beware, but I wanted to see if such sites had any good advice or support for writers.

We’ll call it giving them the benefit of the doubt.

So I looked through the query tips sections on Bookblaster’s and eQuery Online’s websites. Bookblaster’s advice is fairly basic – “Try to be original” – though on the plus side, there is a recommendation that writers not include personal background information that is not relevant to publication. However, this part really gives me pause.

A brief synopsis of several paragraphs should follow that identifies the theme, the plot hook, and describes your characters and the conflict they face. The goal is to create a compelling reason why this story needs to be told!

The query letter is not the place for a synopsis, and how will the theme make a difference to agents? It’s not as though they browse Publisher’s Lunch and say, “My goodness, there’s a shortage of novels with the theme of ‘uncontrolled ambition leads to a downfall’!”

This kind of description is fascinating and fun – to writers. I can go on and on about plots and characters and themes in my own work. But agents and editors are looking for what’s marketable – in other words, a story, rather than an analysis of the mechanics. I’d also be concerned that telling writers to describe their characters will lead to even more paragraphs of detail (at worst, this will include mentions of hair and eye color).

As for including “several paragraphs” about the story, this seems like a great way to get a rejection.

On to eQuery online. I’d checked out the testimonials on BookBlaster and they weren’t very convincing – for instance, they didn’t mention the names of publishers or agents. Some of the ones on eQuery Online did. For instance, Marilyn Kyd claims that “Penguin Group, Random House, Avalon Books, and Bantam Dell” requested copies of her manuscript. Which is even more impressive when you consider that Random House does not currently accept queries via email.

I also did an Amazon search with the names of some of the authors who provided those glowing testimonials. Few if any results came up for “Arthur Montague”, “John Hampton”, “Brad Meyer” (any relation to Stephenie?), “Mike Denison” or “Don Marnock”, and those few didn’t seem to indicate any significant success publishing-wise. Gerald Schoenewolf has a single book published in 2006, with no reader reviews. “Marilyn Kyd”, by the way, doesn’t come up at all.

Then I checked what eQuery Online had to say about query letters.

So your description should do the following:

1. Explain the central conflict, internal AND external if possible.

2. Give some idea of the plot.

I’d hesitate before advising anyone to “explain” conflict in a query letter, because I think that could be taken literally. The query letter isn’t the place to analyze or deconstruct any aspect of the manuscript. I’d say the conflict should be shown, and if there’s not enough place to show both the internal and external conflict, ditch one.

As for giving some idea of the plot, um… yes. I also suggest that you sign your query letters. With your name.

This section goes on to advise writers on infusing the query letter with that elusive quality of voice. Here’s where we get more subjective, because query letter writing isn’t an exact science. But the sample query letter provided didn’t work for me. It mentions only one character by name (the hero), and he’s mostly passive in the query. There’s no indication of an antagonist.

I also feel as though I’ve seen the “quirky assortment of allies” (assortment always makes me think of a box of candy) and the genetically-enhanced lovable sidekick dog before, probably in every Dean Koontz novel I’ve ever read. Plus, the entire second paragraph is a single juggernaut of a sentence.

In other words, even what’s to be had for free isn’t worth it, IMO. There's much better advice to be found elsewhere - on agents' blogs, for instance.

Another reason not to use these services, as Writer Beware and agents have pointed out, is that they don’t – and cannot- send out personalized queries. But they also cannot send out supplemental material tailored to the requirements of agencies. Are they going to include the first five pages of your manuscript? If one agency asks for these to be sent as an attachment and another wants them to be pasted into the body of the email, how will the query submission service take this into account?

Basically, avoid these places.


Linda Adams said...

It sounds like these sites haven't figured out how to make queries! Everything feels like information from an outsider looking in.

BTW--the link to the How Publising Works is broken.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, Linda! The link's been added now.

And those sites are definitely tailored for writers who are either very inexperienced or who don't want to do the necessary research or both.

colbymarshall said...

I've always said why hire someone to do something you can do for yourself. Well, actually I don't always say that...but in this case it's true :-)

Angela Ackerman said...

I think the smartest thing a writer can do to make a great query is to simply research and read as many as they can for their genre. Relying on the 'doctoring' of another for a book they've never read is rarely going to be the best option, unless possibly there's opportunity for workshopping it back and forth to discuss it, like with a critique group.

I think one thing that frustrates writers into giving in to a service is that it seems like on the surface that writing a simple letter should be easy. But a query is no simple letter, ad it's important to get that notion out of the way. It's a tightly written representation of who the author is and the awesomeness of their book. That's a hard thing to condense, but it can be done successfully with elbow grease.

Learn what a query is and what it isn't, and then write one. Then rewrite it about 900 times. :-)

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