Compelling Queries Should Get 75% Positive Response (If Not, Revise Query!)

I’m posting from Muncie, Ind., where I’m speaking and networking with writers at the Midwest Writers Workshop. Through Saturday, I’ll be posting wisdom collected from MWW faculty. You can also follow along on Twitter by searching for hashtag #mww10.

Today’s post features a few bullet points of wisdom from Marcus Sakey and John Gilstrap, who gave an entertaining, humorous, and immensely informative general session on getting published.

How Do You Know If Your Query Is Any Good? Follow the 75% Rule
Probably the stand-out advice of the morning was from Marcus Sakey, who talked at length on query letters. Key points:

  • The query letter and novel are two separate things. In fact, they are so separate that it’s not even necessary for you to have written a novel to write a fantastic and compelling query letter.
  • A query letter seduces the agent. Your are showing an agent you know how to tell a story.
  • The query should be brief and simplistic in terms of representing your novel. (The story hook should be kept to about a paragraph.) Refer to your protagonist’s name specifically, but try to frame everyone else in general unnamed roles.

Sakey said (and I agree) that queries are very difficult to write well, and because of that, you should send the query out to agents in small batches, maybe 5 at a time, and see what your response rate is. If it’s less than 75% “send me something,” your query letter needs work.

I tweeted this fact during his talk, and I received an immediate and impassioned response from several writers who felt this was completely off-base—that many writers, even with brilliant queries, couldn’t possibly get that good of a response rate. Why? There are too many variables: the story might not be a good fit for the agent, the assistant might be reading it, the query might not scream $1 million advance, your genre might be getting too hard to sell, the agent might be having a bad day … you get the point.

But I have to say, I’m more inclined to agree with Sakey. Here’s why:

I’ve received, read, reviewed, and critiqued thousands of queries over my career. 95% are average at best.

The last time I ran a critique workshop for queries, out of 140 queries, I only read 2 that met Sakey’s criteria for a good query (which are my criteria, too).

Other Tips on Getting Published

  • You have to finish the book and put it aside for a while. A month is a good starting place. Then you read the whole thing in 1 sitting. Really mark it up. Then give it out to people. If you keep it to yourself, you’re keeping a journal. When you get feedback, don’t look at specific suggestions; you will find that they vary. Look for patterns: if four people say the same thing, it’s broken.
  • Any book that goes much beyond the 6-figure word count is not marketable. Don’t get beyond 120,000 for sure. (Joke made: There aren’t enough electrons for the e-books if you get to 130,000 words. Ha!)
  • Every scene/conversation/line needs to progress the plot or the character. Look closely at your really fabulous paragraphs (“the really freakin’ gorgeous ones”). Copy that gorgeous stuff into another file, and you can always go back and remind yourself of your genius. But never use it.
  • When e-querying, add the first page of manuscript at the bottom of the e-mail. (Don’t attach it.) Of course, it better be a compelling first page. (And it should be a compelling first page no matter what.) Even though this is not a standard approach, if your letter was brief and professional, the agent will think, “Hey, what the hell.”
  • Treat querying and submitting (and publishing) like a business, and give it the respect and professionalism it requires if you want to get an agent or editor. Prove your case. You do not have a birth right to have your book published, even if it’s brilliant. Writing is all about art. But once you start selling that, your writing is all about business. Anyone beyond you in the food chain looks at it like a business. So you’re a salesperson. Do your job. (Nothing kills a good product like bad marketing.)
  • Keep the submission process going and—very important—then start your next project. You don’t make your writing life about the submission process.

So, I’m curious to hear from you—especially any agents and editors out there. What do you think about the 75% rule? Has publishing changed so much that this isn’t realistic? Or should a strong and compelling query (targeted to the appropriate agent), conveying a great story in the space of a paragraph, achieve a 75% success rate?

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19 thoughts on “Compelling Queries Should Get 75% Positive Response (If Not, Revise Query!)

  1. Jane Friedman

    An excellent discussion thread on this topic can be found over at Nathan Bransford’s forums:
    http://forums.nathanbransford.com/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=1882&p=20143#p20143

    My comment there follows.

    —–

    Appreciate the discussion here — thank you. I thought I’d add a couple clarifications & comments:

    * The 75% rule came from novelist Marcus Sarkey, who has a background in advertising. I think this detail is important, because from his point of view, the query letter is a marketing piece — all about selling the sizzle. Or, as he said, "the query seduces the agent."

    * Most queries I read & critique are so focused on the intricacies of the work (and have so little distance from the work — or perspective on what makes it salable) that the query is dead on arrival.

    My initial reaction to Sarkey’s percentage was also along the lines of "It’s much tougher than that." But if it IS tougher, I think it’s because the writer doesn’t have a very compelling/salable premise to begin with, and the industry is far too competitive for an agent to be curious about average-sounding stories.

    Aside from that, I do believe it’s possible to seduce an agent with a sizzling query that makes your book sound un-freakin-believable — so they simply HAVE to know if the manuscript delivers on the promise. Think of it as a game to make your project sound as amazing as possible (by showing, not telling/editorializing).

    If your book really isn’t that amazing, time to revisit the project. Commercial publishing wants material that makes target readers pay attention within about 7 seconds of hearing the premise.

  2. Jane Friedman

    @Anon – Fully willing to admit you’re correct, though if you’re targeting your queries wisely, it seems that you’d be sending your literary novel to agents who really are looking to represent them?

    I mean, it is just the query after all — not the manuscript itself. Either agents are looking for new clients to represent in a genre/category, or they’re not. If there’s a lower than 75% success rate, I’d attribute it to (1) less than convincing queries (2) agents who aren’t that interested in reviewing the mss of potential clients – because they’re too busy with established clients (3) agents who are asking for queries in genres they’re not interested in.

  3. Anon

    To me, 75% sounds unrealistic. Possibly even ridiculous. There are certain genres that are hot and that will garner more requests simply for that reason. A YA novel with a multi-faceted male protagonist, for example, will garner more more favorable responses than a literary novel for adults – or for a picture book. It just will. I have read many stats from agented authors whose query rates were way less than 75%.

  4. Jane Friedman

    @JJ – The 75% rate is based more on a marketing truth than anything.

    Of course it’s true that these authors no longer have to query, but Marcus Sarkey, like myself, can easily see that most queries that writers use (and ask for advice on) aren’t doing an adequate job of selling.

    It probably can’t be emphasized enough that a query is a marketing piece above all – and a successful pitch isn’t as much about the product as the sizzle! Most writers don’t know how to get that sizzle in the query.

    @Theresa – Once we get into actual evaluation of pages (even if it’s just the first 5 pages), then I agree it’s nearly impossible to keep to that 75% rule.

  5. jjdebenedictis

    Where are they getting the number 75%? Just their own experiences?

    Because already-published authors get higher response rates, regardless of whether they write great query letters. This may not be an accurate statistic for new writers (and it’s quite a demoralizing one, which is why I’d like its touted accuracy explained properly.)

  6. Maggie Woychik

    Having had dozens of magazine articles published and now being on the other side of the desk as the owner of a small press, I think the real number could be just a bit lower, say 50%. But then again, if we’re talking GREAT query over GOOD query, yes, the 75% may apply.

    As stated by several commenters, other factors have to be considered such as genre "fit", number of acquisitions slated for the year, etc.

    If the truth be known, I’ve asked for a full proposal based on several /above average/ queries; unfortunately the proposal / marketing plan often doesn’t justify pursuing the matter further.

  7. Theresa Milstein

    I agree there are too many variables. If we include pages, we don’t know if we’re rejected on the queries or the pages. Often I get comments on the content of the first pages ONLY, so then it means:

    1) They thought my query wasn’t great but read pages anyway.
    2) They thought my query was great but the pages weren’t great.
    3) They thought my query was or wasn’t great but the premise wasn’t what they were looking for.

    I don’t really know how they feel about the query because they didn’t tell me.

    I’ve heard agents say they know the query is a different beast, so they read pages anyway. I’ve heard others say they won’t even bother looking if they’re not blown away by the query.

    Recently, I’ve gotten smarter about queries, having them critiqued like my manuscript. It has made a world of difference. I’m about to query, so I’ll see about this 75%. Wish me luck. I’ll check out your link before I do.

  8. Jane Friedman

    A general comment to all —

    I’m hoping that this post is a wake-up call that your queries probably aren’t very good at marketing your work (which is extremely common — marketing isn’t the same as creative writing).

    Just because you’re not currently achieving 75% "send me something" doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

    I promise to share query examples in a future post. In the meantime I recommend taking a look here:
    http://blog.writersdigest.com/norules/2009/07/21/5ElementsOfQueryLetters.aspx

  9. Jane Friedman

    @Michelle – Why wouldn’t an agent ask to see your manuscript? The most likely culprits I see in query letters:

    – poor writing in the query
    – no clearly defined or compelling story
    – a very long query letter that gets into superfluous detail about plot twists and turns (you’re not telling story at that point)
    – obvious or cliche story line or main character (especially those jumping on a bestseller trend)
    – a cross-genre work that’s hard to sell

  10. Jane Friedman

    @Sean – I can share an example of a "golden query" in a future post, but you can find many examples of queries (good and bad) over at QueryShark.

    You can also find an excellent and brief example in YOUR FIRST NOVEL, presented by a major literary agent, Ann Rittenberg. Go to your bookstore or library and look in the query chapter.

    Also – an upcoming issue of Writer’s Digest (October) will include about 5 queries that won over agents, so you can see a range of approaches that work.

    Each edition of WRITER’S MARKET (released every year) offers a Query Letter Clinic, with good and bad examples we get from editors and agents.

    If you haven’t been able to find examples of good queries, I dare say you haven’t been looking very hard!

  11. Jane Friedman

    @Tawdra – Agreement with the rule aside, I’m sympathetic to writers who have to evaluate conflicting advice that is out there.

    * You should ALWAYS include title, genre/category, and word count in the query, but it doesn’t matter where it falls in the letter. Anyone who tells you different is just plain wrong.

    * When it comes to fiction/novels (and memoir), you don’t talk about marketing/promotion in the query. When it comes to nonfiction, you do have to talk about promotion and platform.

    In general, I think you can get solid guidance from the Guide to Literary Agents blog (http://www.guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog) and http://queryshark.blogspot.com/

  12. Jane Friedman

    @Carol – I believe this applies to ALL books. But I do not think it applies to magazine queries. A positive response to a magazine query means you get an assignment. A positive response to a book query simply means the agent is willing to look at your manuscript or proposal.

  13. Bronwyn

    I think just getting a response is pretty good! I seem to be able to write an awesome query which gets me requests from publishers and about 70% from agents but then they all pass. My question is when do you realize you can write a great query but your book sucks?

    I think if you can get 75% response at all, then this is favorable. There are so many that won’t even send a form rejection these days that if you get one, at least they may have had a look…

    Anyway, that’s my two cents =)

  14. Tricia Gilbey

    Hi – like one of the commenters above – I’d like to know more about these outstanding queries – what else should you include apart from the paragraph you mention about the book, and yes – could you give us an example or two?

  15. Michelle Devon

    I have to wonder… what exactly constitutes a ‘favorable response’? I mean, I have a query I’m scouting around right now, and I do what is said here: sending it out in small batches and revising based on feedback and such. The question is, some of the queries I get are simply: sorry, it’s not right for our agency/me/us.

    Others actually say something like the story is intriguing and my writing is quality, but the manuscript doesn’t have a clearly defined genre, making it hard to sell at this time. I’ve received several of these responses. I personally took them as ‘favorable responses’, in that they are stating they like my story and writing, mostly because, I just really need favorable responses sometimes! LOL

    But that does call into question what a favorable response is. Is it actually being asked for a partial or full manuscript, and anything else is likely just an excuse? Or is a favorable response someone who says they like the story or query but they are still going to pass?

    While I realize there is a lot of experience and literary wisdom behind most agents’ and editors’ decisions, I also know that so much of this field is subjective. As such, someone stating the writing is quality but it’s not a project they’d feel passionate about–I suppose that could be favorable.

    Or am I just stretching here ’cause I need a win? LOL

  16. Sean Kilroy

    I think it would be beneficial if we could actually see one or two of these rare excellent query letters that seem to get agents and publishers salivating to the point where they are astronomically more likely to request work regardless of the description of the work.

    I’m not calling B.S. on you BUT, even though you give some broad guidelines to follow it’s still unclear what really makes a query letter stand, undeniably, higher than the rest of the field.

    Maybe, the next time you, or one of your professional associates, trips across one of these golden examples of correspondence would you mind posting it so we can all see just how it should be done? Otherwise, as the statistics firmly suggest, we’ll all likely keep stabbing in the dark.

    Thanks!

    Sean

  17. Tawdra Kandle

    I don’t agree with the 75% rule, which sounds a little defensive coming from a querying writer who hasn’t gotten many requests for partials or fulls. I think it’s much too subjective a process to say that a good query letter should garner 75% positive response. Yes, I think agents can intuit what will sell land what won’t. However, as a writer, I know I’m getting conflicting advice. One book tells me that my first line MUST include the title, genre and word count of ms. Another informs that doing this is the kiss of death for a query letter. A web site assures me that including my qualifications for writing and ideas for promotion is essential, while another agent’s blog ridicules the idea. In the end, we all have to write the best query letter we can and hope for the best. It’s kind of like having a mom with multiple personality disorder; I’m desperate to please her, but I can never be sure which personality is going to show up.

    Anyway, maybe I’m off-base, but that number seems a little high to me.

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