The Reverse Query Theory

After I tell you all about how I went to Paris and saw the Mona Lisa, I’ve got an idea I want to run by some of you agents, writers and those interested in the “writer–publishing industry relationship”. Oh, hell, let’s just open it up to “everyone” and let y’all sort it out. Anyway, I think I have an idea that could facilitate the agency submission process, and at the same time keep the doors open for new voices to find an agent.

Right, so…I went to Paris and saw the Mona Lisa.

Okay, now my idea. First, for the uninitiated, lets go over some terms:

Agent – those publishing professionals that represent writers and use their relationships with publishers to sell their clients’ book, and if they’re lucky, negotiate big, fat advance checks, as well. If you’re a writer who is serious about a writing career, you need one of these. I need one of these.

Writer – someone like me who is arrogant enough to think that the stories he makes up are good enough for someone to pay to read them (I am, do).

Query – a letter that a new writer drafts that introduces him or her to an agent, summarizes a recently completed work they think the agent might be interested in reading/selling, and gives a brief amount of biographical information that hopefully qualifies them as a worthy, potential client.

Rejection – the customary response to a query, especially during difficult economic times. Some provide a bit of helpful feedback that the writer might be able to use later, but most are standard form letters that effectively nullify that particular work’s possibilities as a viable property of that agency for the foreseeable future (read: forever).

In the best of times for the best of writers, landing an agent is a difficult prospect. There are many tales of famous authors who have been rejected hundreds of times before catching their big break. In a deep recession, the odds of securing representation are even more stacked against you. Agents are narrowing their interests to only those books they’ll kill themselves to sell. Other agents are gunning for “sure things” like celebrity bios and proven authors such as Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight series also comes to mind, and the list goes on…but not “on and on”.

Now, some agents will include in their rejection letters the following phrase or something close to it:

“I’m sorry, but your idea just doesn’t seem right for us at this time.”

That can either mean that you’ve missed the window of opportunity where something like your idea might have interested them, or that they already have something in mind, and your idea’s not it. It can also just be a nice way of saying, “Are you joking?”, but it’s best not to think of it like that because writing a book and drafting a good query are hard enough as it is. Synopsizing your work with just the right three sentences that will both sell and tell what you’re book is about is a harrowing experience to say the least. It requires practice, and hardly ever have I sent a letter out and not thought, “Damn, I should have said this instead.” You’re told to be brief, but show your voice and your writing ability. You’re told to sell the work, but sometimes, selling yourself is a good move, too. It’s a resume sent to be judged by moving criteria, and even if you’ve done it right, you just might catch the agent on a bad day. They may have just had a dog eat their wallet, and your tale of a trapped puppy eating its way to freedom will only bring them pleasure by feeding your letter into the shredder.

In other words, it ain’t easy. That’s why only those who don’t give up have a shot. And for those of us who don’t give up, we have to get it perfectly right, every time. All we have to keep us going sometimes is our love of writing, and shrinking evidence of the fact that people are still buying books cause people are still writing them. We want to be in the “people writing them” category, so we put our heads down and do what we do.

Which brings me to my idea: what if an agent already had in mind the type of book they wanted to see cross their desk, and let that idea be known either through their website or via Twitter or Facebook or wherever? Maybe they have a few ideas that they’d love to see; that they’d kill for and would be willing to die for as they clawed their way into a stingy, publisher’s heart. What if, instead, they wrote the query they wanted to receive, and writers were to provide the story for it? Sure, they’d get all interpretations, and more than a few clunkers, but at least each submission to wit would be one worth spending the X number of minutes it took perusing it.

I realize some (most?) agents don’t know what they want until they see it, but I’ve only seen one agent’s website where they laid out some general criteria for the versatile scribe to follow outside of “a strong, original voice and a story I can’t put down”. The information could still be somewhat broad (murder, set in the desert, a love story gone wrong), or very specific (the first daughter joins a biker gang of former first daughters and invents time travel to save JFK) but at least it would give some narrative clues. There could be a list of novels that the work should fit comfortably against on the shelf, or perhaps the mention of a few authors that might enjoy reading it, as well. The thing is, I know agents and publishers are talking––some of them, at least, the passionate ones––and at some point one or more of them has to have divulged the kind of story they’ve been pining to read. It’s not much different than the old Hollywood studio system, where screenwriters went into a room and didn’t come out until they had the next depression era road trip saga or whatever.

So I put it to the WordPress agenting community and any others I’m able to drive here: tell me what you want. I’m good like that, see? I like parameters and limitations and the challenge of finding that button you so desperately need pushed. I could spend the rest of my life writing things I think are interesting and never get a nibble, or having a blast applying my voice and style to an idea that somebody already wants to read. Hell, I could do both, and probably would. But if more books reached agents who could sell them and quickly, that might open up desk space and gradually shutting windows for new voices to be heard.

So, tell me what you want. Go ahead. Try me.

And now, the youtube “perspective” video of the week.

About S. Norton

Writer, marketer, musician.
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4 Responses to The Reverse Query Theory

  1. Ryan Field says:

    I think you said it best when you talked about not giving up. I’ve seen a lot of people disappear over the years.

    The other thing I’d like to comment on is the idea that’s been going around lately that the economy is hurting new writers. Well, I don’t know about that. I’ve been in publishing for a long time, and I can tell you that it was just as hard to get an agent and get published fifteen years ago as it is today, if not harder then.

    The Mona Lisa only gets one line?

  2. Lisa says:

    Sadly, I think the Mona Lisa really only deserved one line. She’s far nicer in photos when you can’t see the thousands of students pointing their cameraphones at her. She really suffers by comparison to her more stunning gallery neighbours as well.

    She’d seem more at home in an Italian villa than in grand Parisian society.

    Perhaps it’s intentional. The French and their wacky sense of humour…

  3. scottyus says:

    Just getting around to replying here, Ryan. Sorry.

    To your first part, all the news about firings and agents not taking on projects that “normally” they might suggested to me that it’s even harder now. Sure, it’s always been hard and perhaps there are even more people submitting which pumps the rejection numbers up, but hard times falling definitely has closed the door a little further in my opinion.

    And the Mona Lisa was cool to see, no doubt. You can’t get very close, and it’s surrounded by students with cell phones taking the same picture. I was more impressed, to be honest, with the Palace park surrounding the pyramid or Le Palais-Royal-Musée du Louvre. Of course the museum itself was sprawling and amazing, but seeing the old girl was more a quest to fulfill than an examination.

    That said, despite the attendant nuisances, I did let go a quiet “wow”. If you meditate on the power of that painting while looking at it, she almost winks at you. 😉

  4. Ryan Field says:

    You could be right about the economy. Certain areas of publishing have been hit hard. I just don’t remember an easy time for writers. And, frankly, I think publishing in general would have changed drastically in spite of the weak economy. It’s been long overdue. I went to a real estate luncheon with my parnter last week and we started talking about the Kindle reader. Almost everyone at the table had one, and they were all buying e-books.

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