The Case for Flipping the Script: Why it’s Time to Alter the Query Process
Change is inevitable. Without it there is no evolution or creativity.
Based on my experience of a year of querying, reviews of thousands of Twitter feeds and writers’ and agents’ blogs, my attendance at writing-related webinars and conferences, and informal polling, I’ve concluded the query process is outdated, burdensome, ineffective, and a waste of time.
What if the outdated query process were replaced with a #MSWL for authors to use to pitch their stories to agents?
Hear me out.
The Agent’s Perspective
1. Agents don’t really know what they’re looking for until they find it.
See my recent blog asking agents to de-fluff their wish lists.
“I’m looking for a compelling story line with gripping dialogue and a strong protagonist.”
Really? Too bad, because my novel has none of that, said no author ever. Agents’ wish lists are broad and vague because agents understandably don’t want to foreclose any options. Much like the overuse of adjectives in bad writing, these types of requests are weak fillers that make most authors feel their work would be a perfect fit when it isn’t.
2. Agents complain about queries that don’t fit their wish lists.
Similar to #1 above, agents complain (and I haven’t called anyone out on this but agents, we read your Twitter feeds and know who you are) that too many authors don’t follow their submission guidelines with respect to requested genres. The result? Clogged inboxes and frustrated, overworked agents.
3. Agents have precious little time to focus on unsolicited queries.
By unsolicited, I mean those queries agents haven’t requested at a conference or from a #Pitmad party. Again, we read your blogs and know that you respond to the piles of queries on weekends, after hours, and at other inconvenient times. You blog about how you don’t have enough hours in the day to review what’s in your inbox and service your existing clients. With an authors seeking agents wish list, agents could peruse the list at their leisure and reduce the stress of tackling the dreaded inbox.
4. Agents could have an option of shopping for what they want or think they want.
I call this the Amazon versus grocery store approach. When I go to the grocery store, which is frequently, I am confronted with an entire store full of food and merchandise. If I haven’t made a list, which I usually don’t, I end up wandering the aisles trying to figure out what I want and what I need. In contrast, when I log into Amazon, I can search for a specific item and see multiple variations of that item. Take sneakers, for example. I can look at running shoes, Keds, Skechers, etc. I can then customize my search for what I think I may want. Why wouldn’t an agent want such a tool?
5. Agents could have the opportunity to review genres and story ideas that might not have been included on their wish lists but still interest them.
Agents will tell you they know the genres in which they are interested, but how many times have you seen an agent “update” her wish list to include new genres? If you’re paying attention, it happens all the time. The model I propose would allow agents to search for the genres they like and peruse others for fun.
To the naysayers (and honestly, I haven’t heard or met that many of them) who claim agents wouldn’t read such a list, I say, why not? If the process changed and there were no more snail and e-mail queries, then agents would read these lists as a way to find new clients. Agents would still meet potential new authors at conferences and through referrals, but would have another, easier avenue to find new talent.
To those who claim such a list would be easily overcrowded, I say, and #MSWL and #Pitmad parties and agent inboxes aren’t? I don’t see an easy way to avoid the required sifting process for agents, but a search tool could help.
The Author’s Perspective
1. Querying is worse than a blind date set up by your Grandma.
I know authors who plaster smiles on their faces and say they love the query process. They are in the minority. Or crazy. Or saying what they think agents want to hear.
The process is awful and almost makes that blind date with Grandma’s friend’s nephew sound like a good idea. Agents’ wish lists are vague, many agency websites warn authors not to expect a response (ever!) if there is no interest, and agents can take months (if at all) to respond. There is a better way.
2. Authors would be able to slot their work into one or more applicable, searchable genres.
Choose a genre. Select an option. That’s what we have now. What if my work straddles two genres and that’s what makes it more interesting? What if an author could cross-list his work under multiple genres? My first MS is a work of speculative fiction but could also be called a work of magical realism. Which one do I list? Why does it matter? It matters because authors are often forced to select one genre when pitching when one genre might not do.
3. Authors could get a sense of what particular agents are seeking in real time (or at least faster than 6+ months).
Think of a #Pitmad party. Authors tweet their MS pitches. Agents like the posts and ask to see more. Other authors can retweet. The rules are simple and straightforward. Everyone participating can see what piques a particular agent’s interest. We know it works because of the number of online pitch parties. Why not make that process the new standard?
4. Authors could reach a wider range of potential agents.
As noted above, an agent may decide to peek at other genres to see if there’s anything interesting. Under the current system, an author who pitches only to agents claiming they want “YA” could miss out on other agents who may be interested in YA but don’t have it identified as a current genre request.
To those who say their work would get lost in cyberspace, I say, and it doesn’t already get lost in the agent’s or agent’s assistant’s inbox? To those who are afraid their ideas will be stolen, I say, isn’t that the same risk you have sending your work to an agent or participating in a pitch party? Or blogging or tweeting about your work, which many authors do?
The current query process reminds me of the Abilene Paradox. For those of you who don’t know what that is, look it up because it’s a solid comparison. No one likes the query process and it’s fatally flawed, but everyone still uses it.
I suggest a change for the better. Will there be bugs and kinks? Sure, think of every Windows rollout ever. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a more effective way for agents and authors to find their matches.
I welcome your thoughts and comments as long as they are constructive. Share this article with your fellow writers, editors, publishers, and authors. Thankfully, my serious day job gives me thick skin.
Let’s revolutionize this process for the better.