• Andrew Johnston

Query Letter Conventional Wisdom: 3 Reasons Everyone is Full of Crap

For those of you who were a little bit lost in my rambling podcast, here's the essence of my plan:



I have two query letters, each of which has three variants for a total of six letters in all. I split the initial pool of 42 agents into two groups, each of which received one of the two letters. I then broke down those two groups into three subgroups each, with each one receiving one of the variants. After dropping two agents who turned out to be unsuitable, that left me with six groups, each of which had either six or seven agents.


Complicated? No question - but if anything, it could have been a lot more sophisticated if I had the time and energy. Six groups of seven isn't enough for what I want to do here, but it's hopefully good enough to find patterns. As the results come in, I can use this information to figure out which variants are most effective and what changes need to be made.


All of this goes against the conventional wisdom surrounding query letters. There are many articles suggesting that one should never send more than ten query letters at a time, probably because those articles are easy to write with a high chance of getting published - but there's that cynicism of mine again. My doubts aside, I've never seen any serious analysis of query letters - it's all folk wisdom, survivor bias and ex cathedra proclamations from agents.


Here's why I have my doubts about this conventional wisdom.


But First, Some General Advice


Before we get into the mix, there's something you should know right now:


Agents are not your friends.


I don't care how nice they are on Twitter, or how warmly they come across in their podcasts. This is a business relationship, not a personal one. Agents are not there to help you realize your dreams, to make your characters come to life, or to let the world see you shine your light. They're not even there to help you become a bestseller (which, as we all know, everyone will have because we all work so hard). No, agents are there to take a product that you've made and sell it to someone else. That's it.


I don't blame any of you for making this assumption. I blame the people who are uplifting this wretched "We're all besties, we're all in this together" nonsense that completely ignores all business aspects of the writing process in favor of memes and followback culture. And I blame the agents themselves, who are increasingly putting themselves out there as these really chummy, neighborly figures. In my opinion, this is cruel - to get a rejection in business is disappointing, but to get rejected by a "friend" is painful.


If you do land an agent, this is still not a friendship. You are a client, and unless you're some kind of celebrity, you're not a very valuable client. You are low priority and will be treated as such until you've proven yourself - and mostly likely you'll wash out before you have a chance to do that. That's business; ultimately, that's life.


So if you take away nothing else, remember to keep it on a business level. You'll have less heartburn.


Why Query Letter Advice is Garbage


By this point, you've finished writing and editing your manuscript and are ready to seek out an agent. That is the order in which to do it, by the way - if you sent out a hundred copies of your first draft on December 1st, then you deserve everything you get. But you're smarter than that, which means you've read up and know you should send out ten and only ten queries, and then stand back.


I question this advice, and here's why:


1. It ignores non-responders


Look at that query scoreboard of mine again. You'll notice that one of the numbers is marked "Closed/Dead," indicating letters that received no response. Obviously not every query is going to get an answer, but how many of those unanswered letters are you going to suspect? If you want some idea, zip by QueryTracker, set up a free account (if you don't have one already), find some agent profiles and go into the comments section. There's a lot of shorthand here, but you're looking for "CNR," for Closed, No Response.


Occasionally, you'll see an agent with a lot of queries marked CNR and few or no rejections. What you've found is a non-responder, which is exactly what it sounds like - an agent who doesn't send rejection letters. Sometimes this is temporary, a result of an agent getting backed up - this will probably happen a lot this year. But there are also agents and even whole agencies who have a "no response means no" policy, which means you can never expect to receive a rejection. And just to make it a little better, most agents and agencies who have this policy don't mention it in public - you have to glean it from sources like QueryTracker. Personal experience suggests that at least 50% of agents are regular non-responders.


Articles rarely mention non-responders, which is one hell of an oversight given the query strategy they all advise. Per these articles, you're meant to send out a small batch, wait somewhere from two weeks to a month, and then send out another batch based on what you learned. But between the large proportion of non-responder agents and the wide variation in response times (with mean times ranging from hours to months), you might not have any information to go on after a month. If your ten queries only turned over three rejections and nothing else, you can't know if the query was a flop or if some of those submissions are still stuck in the queue.


2. A small sample might give false results


Back to those batches for a second: Conventional wisdom states that one should submit no more than ten queries at a time. I've seen articles recommend sending as few as six, but ten seems to be standard because of another industry rule of thumb. Ten percent - that's the magic number you hear from insiders. Per tradition, a manuscript needs to get at least a 10% request rate to have a reasonable chance at being published. Forget that whole "you only need to succeed once" chestnut - many agented novels are never published, and even if you get an agent but the overall request rate was in the single digits, then you're facing an uphill battle in a market that doesn't favor you.


Obviously, with a minimum goal of ten percent, you'd need ten queries to figure out if you're on target...right? Maybe not. To prove why, I'll need you to get your ten-sided die.


Don't even lie, nerd, I know you have one.


First, make a prediction: What numbers will you see if you roll this die ten times? Most people will assume that ten rolls on a ten-sided die will give them each number exactly once. Now, actually roll that die ten times. My guess is that you won't see each number come up once.


Why the mismatch? Ironically, humans are inclined to impose a lot of order on chaos, assuming that random results will be predictable. And they are...over the infinite horizon. But with only ten results, your sample is highly affected by noise, those small disruptions in the predicted results.


Therein lies the problem with this common query approach: Ten queries is far too noisy a sample to learn anything. If you want to see how poor this approach is, go to random.org and set up an integer generator to give you 1,000 numbers between 1 and 10, grouped into ten columns. Pick any one of those integers to track - 10 is maybe the easiest to spot, but it's up to you. Each time that integer does not show up in a row, it indicates a false negative - a time when you discarded a perfectly good query letter due to noise alone.


The conventional ten queries is going to give you about a 1 in 3 chance of seeing a false negative with each batch. My twenty query sample improves this to about 1 in 8 - still unacceptably high, but better.


3. There's no way to know if you were rejected based on the query


But let's set all that aside. The single biggest problem with the query process is that you're trying to refine your approach based on seriously incomplete information. You are trying to guess what works and what doesn't, because form responses - generic copy-paste jobs - are standard rejections to queries, and are common even in response to manuscript requests.


"How to query" articles operate under the assumption that every rejection must be due to the query, but there are so many other things that might get you shot down. To wit:

  • Genre mismatch. Ideally this doesn't happen because you are checking what genres each agent represents rather than just blindly shotgunning queries, but even if you're careful you might run into problems. Some genres are notorious for gatekeeping, and different people will have different definitions for these terms. You might consider a certain work to be romance or science fiction (to name two genres notorious for this), but the agent might disagree.

  • Agents with full client lists. Ideally an agent with too many clients will close her submissions, but sometimes they don't.

  • Agents who only take proven writers. Some agents won't even consider a query from someone who hasn't published a book-length work before. They might state this outright...or they might just make the process of querying them so onerous that they figure it will frighten away new writers. Agents who only take queries by postal mail usually fall into this category.

  • Rejection based on sample pages. It's increasingly common for agents to request a partial manuscript up front - anywhere from five to twenty pages. A majority of my initial forty agents asked for initial sample pages. If you sent any sample pages, then there is a chance that you were rejected based on that, meaning that the problem was in the manuscript, not the query letter.

  • Rejection based on the concept. Finally, the worst outcome - the agent thought that the very idea of the book was unmarketable. If this was the reason, then your project is likely doomed, and was doomed before you wrote a single word. The only way a query letter would help you here is if you were willing to straight-up lie...which might not even help if you are required to send sample pages.

Unfortunately, there's no strategy that will fix this. No matter what you do, you will be running blind for at least part of the process while people unfamiliar with your project tell you what's wrong with it. This is maybe the worst part of the process, and believe me when I say I wish I had a way around it, but I don't. This is the world we're in, it's the system we have, and we have to work within its strictures.

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