This is not a post about writing computer code or database queries, for the record. It’s about talking to literary agents.
I was reviewing a query letter this morning, as a favor to someone important to me, not because I’m some kind of expert in writing query letters to agents. The letter was fine in some ways. It was personally directed at the agent and demonstrated that the writer had researched the agent’s specific interests. Good. It connected the dots between the agent’s interests and the book in question. Good. It described the gist of the book coherently. Good. And finally, it explained the writer’s relevant credentials. All good.
The thing is: when I got to the end of the letter, I wasn’t sold. I had to spend some time pondering what wasn’t working for me to realize how on point that description of my reaction was: I WAS NOT SOLD.
The writer had taken the approach of trying to use the letter to demonstrate their narrative style…which happens to be lyrical and indirect in that Jane Austen sort of way that sneaks up on you from behind and smacks you in the back of the funny bone with a killer punchline you weren’t expecting. The style is brilliant for delivering gentle-yet-sharp observations on society, and it’s a gem of a choice for the book in question. A query letter, however, offers neither the space nor the communication objectives for this style to do its best work. The result? The letter was passive and confusing.
The fundamental problem in the way the author was thinking about the letter was that they weren’t focused on the question of selling. I want to reiterate here that I’m not any kind of expert on talking to agents…I’ve been intentionally exploring the indie thing and have literally never queried an agent in my life. I’m a writer, though, with a lot of writer friends and a few agents I pay attention to peripherally, and what has stood out to me from watching the ones who actually make money at it (unlike me) is that the point of a relationship between writers, agents, and publishers is TO SELL BOOKS.
Agents might take on the odd risky passion project when they’ve got time and money to burn, but by and large, when they take on a new client, it’s because they see in that person and their work an opportunity to make money. This is not because they are cynical or hardened or sellouts: making money at selling books is what allows them to continue being employed in their much-loved and extremely competitive field.
What this means to me is that the primary job of a query letter is to make it crystal clear to a prospective agent that your book will be easy to sell. They read huge numbers of these letters: if they have to do the work of extrapolating the quality of your writing style in its best context and then imagine for themselves how they can turn that work into a consumer-friendly pitch, they might just move on. A query letter has to do that work for them.
The other thing I’ve observed is that agents want to see that a new client is going to be a good partner for the time-intensive work of bringing a book to publication and selling it. If a query letter requires an agent to wander a garden maze of misdirection to hunt down the point, it suggests that professional communication with the given writer is going to be time-consuming, exhausting, and full of misunderstandings. In short: it would be a pain in the ass. Your query letter needs to you as a business partner as much as it sells your work.
We must be able to codeswitch with our writing, to use the right words for the right context. If you’re writing poetry, write the best poetry you can. If you’re writing a query letter, get out the scalpel and write a business letter.