Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Purpose of the Query Letter

I’ve been sending out query letters. The jargon is different, but sending out query letters is equivalent to the government or a business making an announcement that they are looking for a contractor to do a job for them. Government agencies and businesses put announcements on websites and in newspapers. Authors attend conferences and send out query letters.

With both processes, there is the possibility that no one will submit a bid, or in literary agent jargon, offer representation. This is probably more common with literary agents, but there are often government sponsored projects where a bureaucrat dreams up a project that no one knows how to implement. Likewise, publishers are especially reluctant to take a risk on authors without a proven track record and a recognizable name, so agents are reluctant to represent them.

Some agents know they aren’t going to offer representation to unknown author and have published notices saying so on their websites. I am trying to respect that, so the fact that I am not sending a query letter to Chip MacGregor, for example, has nothing to do with my opinion of his skill as a literary agent, but is because of a statement on his website saying:

MacGregor Literary works primarily with established authors. While our clients write in a variety of genres, each writes from a Christian perspective. We occasionally accept new clients at the start of their careers, generally from referrals of current clients. Regretfully, we cannot invest in the staffing needed to handle unsolicited queries or proposals. (http://macgregorliterary.com/submission/index.php)

I wish I could say that when I send a query letter it is because I respect the agent for his or her ability. In truth, I have sent letters to literary agents I know nothing about. Some literary agents have websites that say very little. With some, I don’t even know if they have a website. I sent one query letter and within minutes of sending the e-mail I received a reply saying, “I don’t represent fiction.” That’s why we send query letters. This guy’s website didn’t say what he represents, so sending a query letter provided me with additional information, though I will say that I don’t think any agent is under an obligation to respond to a query letter.

Literary agents will sometimes place a statement on their websites indicating what they want in terms of a query letter. Fortunately, most want pretty much the same thing, so they aren’t very hard to accommodate. I’ve heard things that indicate that some agents are picky about various things. If I happen to find a literary agent who is difficult to accommodate, I’m not going to be overly concerned about it. The last thing I would want is an agent with a bad attitude.