Twitter is a far more interesting and entertaining form of social media than I expected. I am constantly discovering great articles and interesting insights about issues centered around writing and publishing.
One such insight came after I read a tweet from a respected agent asserting that a not only does a strong query letter herald a strong manuscript, but that in almost every case a weak query letter indicates a weak manuscript.
What Is Query Letter?
A query letter it perhaps the most misnamed item I’ve ever come across. The author doesn’t ask questions of those they send the letter to. Instead the author sells themselves and their work. The purpose, from the author’s perspective, is to convince an agent to invest time and effort in promoting their manuscript.
The heart and soul of a query letter is a (very) short summary of the completed manuscript. This summary is like the blurb on the back covers of books; a snapshot of the novel’s contents designed to make prospective buyers flip to the first page and begin reading.
Why Do Agents Use Query Letters?
Busy agents can receive hundreds of submissions every day, more manuscripts than they can possibly read. A streamlined process is required to process those submissions in an efficient manner. When put into this context the need for query letters becomes clear.
The Faulty Inference
When an agent rejects a manuscript because of a weak query letter they never read the manuscript. Its entirely possible the author wrote something good or even great, but the agent will not know because they never even looked at the manuscript.
Ergo the assertion that a weak query letter indicates a weak manuscript is not based on objective study, but a rather a belief unsupported by evidence.
The Underlying Truth
What the query letter does demonstrate is the author’s ability to market themselves and their work. It reveals how good the author is at self-promotion.
Self-promotion is a crucial skill modern authors must master. A great manuscript is not enough. The author must market their work in order for their books to sell. A book which fails to sell well can cost a publishing house vast sums of money. The agent who chose to promote that book might lose their job, and the author might never sell another book.
A weak query letter indicates a weak self-promoter, someone who cannot market themselves or their work successfully. This is someone agents can’t, and shouldn’t, take a risk on. An agent who spends significant amounts of time helping an author overcome a marketing deficiency is doing a grave disservice to themselves and the other authors they represent.
I don’t like query letters and I don’t think you can say much about a manuscript based on a query letter, but they are an essential tool in the business of of publishing. In particular, they force writers, such as myself, to realize that literary success requires treating beloved creations as products to be branded and sold. A sad, true fact.