Sunday, March 8, 2009

Why Queryfail Wins

On Thursday, agent Colleen Lindsay hosted an event called Queryfail in which agents and editors live-blogged via Twitter why they rejected the query letters they’d just read in an attempt to educate queriers. The snippets posted were stripped of any identifying material (names, titles, etc) and many times was just impersonal descriptors: “Four paragraphs of why the writer’s cat is blue but no mention of a plot.” It was huge and well publicized on other blogs, as well as the participants’, and Ms Lindsay claims many aspiring writers even wrote to her expressing their gratitude.

BUT. Then the criticism began emerging. “Queryfail is unprofessional because there was a lot of snark which doesn’t ‘educate’ anyone at all.” “Queryfail is unprofessional because who gave these agents/editors the right to publicly post part of a confidential correspondence?” “Queryfail is unprofessional because __.”

Most surprising of all was the amount of backlash on non-participating agent Nathan Bransford’s blog on Friday, a good portion of which directed at Ms Lindsay (and the participating agents by default). I especially loved the anonymous commenters bagging on Ms Colleen, yet ironically enacting a reverse version of Queryfail: anonymous writers “reject” the agent(s). You would think people have enough sense to at least sign their name to their bitching. If we’re talking about common courtesy and all.

Anyway, let me get some examples of Queryfails:

"I'M I'M TYPING MY QUERY IN ALL CAPS SO YOU WILL BE SURE TO NOTICE IT." Okay, now that my pupils have stopped burning...

I'm sure this one's been mentioned a thousand times." I've been working on this novel for twenty five years." No 2 book contract

"It's a unique combination of memoir and novel." oh good; we'll sell it on the barnes & noble memoir slash novel shelf.

"My book is about a friendship based upon mutual vomiting practices in high school." AAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!

(The quotes are from queries; the unquoted stuff are the agent’s/editor’s comments.)

Most of the participants (maybe all) have blogs in which they repeatedly talk about half of this on a weekly basis. (1) Your query shouldn’t result in a visit to the ophthalmologist. (2) You never mention how many trunk novels you have or how you spent a quarter century working on a book or whatever because it only draws attention to the fact that you’re not published and/or that your productivity is way too slow to be profitable. (3) Memoir is nonfiction marketed like fiction but it is not a novel. Writing a fictional memoir is a good way to get slaughtered. (4) You need to have an idea of the goddamn market and what is bad-creepy before you set out to waste an agent’s time.

So, are the comments snarky? Maybe, yeah, but so what? Anyone who’s a good prospective client would be aware of such blogs that talking and remixing and using and reusing the same punchlines about all of these issues week after week. They would know not to make these mistakes. An ignorance to these blogs’ existence is indicative of a writer with no industry savvy and frankly, considering how high profile some blogs are in any writing website (and you should have visited at least one writing website before you query—search, research, and re-search, people), I don’t see how that’s even possible if the writer stands any chance whatsoever at publication. It is a total disregard to submissions guidelines which you should already know.

This information is right there. I have no sympathy for those who got snarked for lack of attention to it. In fact, I’d even go on to say that they probably won’t even see it because I doubt they even know these agents have a blog. Or if they do, this is doing them a favor: They need to be disillusioned, stat, if they wanna see their book in print with a pretty, well-known colophon on the bottom of the spine. Publishing is evidently a tough business and aspiring authors as well as published ones should grow a backbone.

I don’t see the logic behind the ‘this is confidential correspondence’ argument: if the agent isn’t naming anyone or posting titles, it’s moot. I don’t even see where it’s unprofessional at all. To me, Queryfail isn’t such a departure from other similar features you find on these blogs.

Janet Reid (another agent) brought up a good point, though, in criticism of Queryfail: “My problem with Queryfail is that these truly egregious examples of people who don't know what they're doing, are a MINISCULE percentage of the overall queries received.

Saying Queryfail educates people is like telling someone they will improve their piano playing by watching a toddler bang on the keys.”

Maybe that’s true. I really do think it’s an excellent point. But I gotta say that while it might not help the truly dense at all, it might help those who follow guidelines and do their homework see what they’re up against. The way I see it, Queryfail is good for both sides: The people getting rejected at least are getting a personal response, which is rare enough without the sudden influx of queries; the educated onlookers get a glimpse of some of the utter shit on the slushpile. Ms Lindsay’s initiative is awesome and I hope she keeps up with it, no matter the criticism.

And? Give me a fucking break. People should stop getting their knickers in a twist about 140 characters of unidentifiable bad query text used as an example of the shit agents get, and focus more on that fact that said shit is taking up time these agents could be using to consider their work instead.


Taren said...

I agree -when you're putting yourself out there you shouldn't be surprised if you get back something other than praise. If they had identified the writers that would be one thing, but they made sure not to. I read some of what they posted and you'd think it would be common sense by now ("this isn't for you -give it to some colleagues") but I guess not.

courtney said...

Yay! You posted! U rant gud, lady. I was surprised about the QueryFail backlash because it didn't seem to me like this huge leap from what is on other industry blogs and has been on other industry blogs for a while now. Ze Amazing Daphne Unfeasible live-blogs her queries on her agency blog, for example, and people really seem to dig that. I assumed the same was going to happen here. QF wasn't perfect, as I said on NB's blog, but I really think it has the potential to be incredibly helpful, and as others have said, they've already found it helpful, so awesome. First time out, the feedback and perspectives from all sides have been fascinating and those involved are listening. I loved the discussions it has inspired. Ultimately, I would really like to see QF evolve and what Colleen does with it/where she takes it. And I like the idea that it has--or is going to?--inspired #querywin.

Anonymous said...

i wouldn't consider the comments in NB's blog backlashing, hon. just merely an outlet for their frustration... i guess. i mean i'm sure he personally was threatened or anything. correct me if i'm wrong, and i mean it. but yeah this whole post was so unnecessary. but good job at getting noticed by lit agents. =)

Just Listen said...

I don't have anything against QueryFail. I think that to be a writer, published or not you need to able to handle criticism maturely and learn from your mistakes. I mean after comments from agents there's editors, reviewers, the public. Even though those comments are snarky, the agents points are going to get through to not only the people who have sent in their work, but to people who are going to in the future.

I think that it has the potential to be REALLY, REALLY helpful, but it's still helping writers now...

Meghan said...

I like how anonymous called you hon. I also like how anonymous is my 87 year old grandmother Eunice.

Steph Su said...

Really, so many people these days cannot handle criticism. These people need to have boulders tied to their feet and be dropped into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Criticism, when constructive, is GREAT. It's one of the best things out there. And what better way to present constructive criticism than via snark? At least that injects some humor into the situation.

Whether these examples are representative or not, it does help. Most people tend to thing more highly of themselves and their "productions" than they really merit. Those mistakes are mistakes that more of us make than we realize.

Mari said...

This is why I love your Blog! Great discussions. :)

You have been given an award over on my blog:

Come and check it out! :)

Donna said...

From my experience wading through query examples like that (Miss Snark is an awesome example), the people that take offense to the snark are those that think their writing is the shit, infallible, should be published immediately without any kind of editing and they should be making a bazillion dollars and how dare you snark on me. The people with heads in their shoulders see that information being displayed as valuable and will use it to their advantage.

Sure, the idiots that can't follow guidelines take up space in the slush pile but you can guarantee that they won't be viable competition there is there isn't much to worry about.

When people put so much work into their novels, they want immediate satisfaction when it comes to querying. When they don't get it, most become disillusioned and stomp off to wallow on their blogs about how unfair the publishing world is and how the only way to get published is to know someone and then they resort to self-publishing because their work *deserves* to be published (that's not to dog self-publishing per say, but a lot of it is, um, not good and POD-dy Mouth can attest to that and it *appears* to be a pretty big dumping ground for disgruntled slush pile rejects).

Let's get this straight people, ok? Getting your book published is like wearing spandex. It's a privilege, not a right. You have the right to *pursue* happiness. It is not a Constitutional guarantee to achieve it. Now play by the rules, write to the best of your ability and slave away like the rest of us trying to make it instead of weeping into your own masturbatory material in the intarwebs about the injustice in publishing. Mkay?

Aislinn Kerry said...

As a writer struggling to get published, I completely agree with you. If people can't take criticism on their query letters, for heaven's sake, then how are they ever going to handle the criticism of their book that will inevitably come in, during the editing phase as well as after publication, when anyone out there with ten bucks in their pocket can buy their book and rip it to shreds, if they're so inclined?

Education is always a good thing, even if it's addressed to the lowest common denominator, like Janet Reid said. Besides, I think it might be difficult to address the more in-depth, detailed reasons that decent queries get rejected in just 140 characters.

Steph said...

Anon : Ha, if I get noticed by any, I'll let you know. I doubt my blog registers in their attention. Truly. ;)


Kimberly Derting said...

I love it when you jump on your soapbox, Steph. Rant away! And, seriously, I think Queryfail gives great insight into some of the crap people are really putting out there. Okay, so maybe it is (at least partially) just good old-fashioned poking fun at others, but come on now, ALL CAPS TO GET AN AGENT'S ATTENTION??? They're kind of asking for it....

Amee said...

I had no idea this was going on. But I think it's inevitable that pretty much anything anyone ever does is going to face criticism. Good and bad. The people submitting these queries should expect it, the agents/editors doing Queryfail should expect it. It's hard to find anything that everyone loves and/or supports. There's always a dissenting opinion. C'est la vie.

Katiebabs a.k.a KB said...

Query letters are just comparable to covers letters when you apply for a job. Can you imagine what the HR department must say among themselves? I can see why may be offended with query fail, but it really opened my eyes on what not to do. It was a learning experience.
And honestly, if those who were offended, just imagine if you publish a book and that gets some negative reviews. How would you react then?

Alea said...

Thanks for bringing this to my attention, I guess I was off in Alea-land but this is mighty interesting! Will need to look into this more! :)

wrigleyfield said...

I dunno, I guess I do think the ones that give the book's specific premise are kind of unprofessional. It's one thing to comment on a non-identifying stylistic thing like the all caps; the vomit story, though, is presumably unique (...let's hope).

writer and reader said...

As someone else on Nathan's blog pointed out, it was more the fact that the queriers didn't actually know their query was going to be fodder for queryfail. If you go on Janet Reid's Query Shark, those writers, by sending it to QS have agreed to be publically flogged.

I think it was more an issue of client/agent trust than anything. If Steph started to heckle stupid blog comments left in the comment section, her own followers might feel blindsided, too.

I also don't give a huge amount of pull to Courtney's post above (though I love her book) because she is repped by Colleen Lindsay. So, you know, bias might understandably prevail there...

Steph said...

Courtney is repped by Amy Tipton, Colleen's colleague. If you consider that Janet Reid is also Colleen's FinePrint colleague - and disagreed with QueryFail - whom Courtney is repped by has little to no relevance. :)

courtney said...

(Steph, I hope you don't mind...)

Writer & reader - as Steph mentioned, I'm not represented by Colleen.

For what it's worth, over at Nathan's blog, a commenter named Bane of Anubis pointed out the issue of the queriers' queries (aaah, that's a mouthful! And now I have looked at those words so long they don't even look like words anymore...) being used without their knowledge, and suggested that in future, there be some kind of disclaimer so that all queriers know there is a possibility they'll be featured on QueryFail. Colleen replied and said she would consider that. So those concerns have definitely been heard.

As far as my own comments about QueryFail, I maintain them. It's my non-partisan opinion. :)

PS: I'm glad you loved the book! Thank you for saying so!

Donna said...

reader and writer, there is no agent/client privilege when it comes to querying. There is no agent/client relationship. A querier has absolutely no relationship with the agent until the agent says, "I'd like to offer representation." Until that point, there's no obligation on the part of the agent to maintain any kind of business relationship with the unknowns in her slush pile. Because there is no relationship. In this day and age, people should know that their queries could eventually end up on the intarwebs for agent fodder, especially if they're stupid enough to not follow step-by-step guidelines dictating to them how to present their material.

If dejected writers can have websites displaying their rejection letters for all to see and then mooing about how unfair/evil/plotting against them the agent is, it's only fair for it to work the other way around. Talk about professionalism.

Anonymous said...

Your blog is so amazing. I was going to do my own queryfail post, but once I found yours I just linked to it instead... you summed it up better than I could. I thought queryfail was a great idea; fully in favor of it and I couldn't understand all the backlash over at Nathan's blog.

writer and reader said...

Thanks for your reply, Courtney.

Yep, Donna, I understand there is no "official" agent/client relationship for queriers. But in my opinion (and it looks like I'm in the moinority here, which is fine) picking random queries and leaving them open to sarcastic comments on the internet would've been fine, EXCEPT the queriers were blindsided by it.

I think my example of Steph's blog is a good one. You comment here because it's safe, you know what to expect, she's respectful even if she doesn't agree with your opinion (same with agents and queries). But IF you came here and all the sudden your comment was heckled by her, and then other people started joining in (the underlying attitide being, this commenter is stupid) that might throw you for a loop too. Because that's not what her site is about. That's not what agent queries are, either.

And no, there isn't a need per se, to "maintain a business relationship" with writers you don't represent, but it is unprofessional to use someone's query w/o permission. Every single other agent out there who does "query clinics" and the like, gets permission first. It's become the unspoken rule of query using.

I'm not asking anyone to agree with me. :)

Anonymous said...

okay okay now this whole stupid queryfail is good or bad thing is just manifesting to more blogs. let's just get over it. okay no need to add fire to the fuel.

but cool. hey meg does ur granny say cool, hon?

-The 87 Year Old Grandmother Eunice of Meghan

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