This weekend was spent getting caught up on queries, going back and reading the ones I had placed on my review list. For those who are curious, that means I reviewed close to 150 manuscripts. The reply I received from one author about his rejection letter was interesting. His comments were that 1) queries, in general, lack merit, 2) a better method would be for authors to discuss their platform rather than discuss their book because that would identify serious authors up front and reduce the number of queries a publisher needs to read, and 3) publishers and agents are wrong for not sending critiques with rejections.
Why we require queries
I feel the author was not correct that queries lack merit for two reasons:
- A query letter tell me if you can express an idea in a way that will make me interested. An uninteresting query letter usually means an uninteresting manuscript. It also tells me if you can write – a query letter with a lot of grammatical errors will usually mean a manuscript with the same lack of attention to detail. As a small press with limited resources, I will pass on a manuscript that need a lot of work even if it is a great idea for a book.
- A query tells me what you will be like to work with. Authors often send full manuscripts with no other information, saying the manuscript will “speak for itself” if I just read it . What they fail to understand is the book won’t speak for itself because I will never start reading. Asking me to read a full manuscript only to find out it’s in a subject area I don’t publish is showing no respect for my time, and a person with this attitude is showing me they will be difficult to work with.
Each element of a query has a purpose. The query letter introduces me to both the author and their manuscript. I can tell from a query letter if a manuscript is something I would consider publishing. I can also tell something about the author’s professionalism and attention to detail. The synopsis tells me about the book in more detail. No one will buy a book if they don’t know what it’s about, unless they are family or friends, which is why all published books have a blurb on the back cover. Your synopsis is your blurb, showing me why I should be interested in your manuscript. Finally, the sample chapters give me a first look at the manuscript itself and an author’s writing style. Here I’m a bit more flexible; I do not automatically reject a query if it includes the full manuscript.
Platforms do not matter
The author has made two incorrect assumptions regarding why sending an author’s platform in lieu of a query letter would be more useful:
- An author’s platform does not matter if their manuscript is something I would not publish because of the subject. I’ve received memoirs from former stars, and I’ve rejected them even though the person has a built-in platform because we do not publish memoirs. I would much rather read a manuscript, decide if I like it enough to publish it, and then help an author create a platform. In fact, I never discuss an author’s platform with them until after they are under contract.
- Having authors send their platform first would not reduce the number of queries I need to read. Authors would just create “platforms” before they query me, which still tells me nothing about the book. This means I would need to request the same material I’m requesting now to see if the book is something of interest, so I’ve just added a step to the query process. In short, I’ve just created more work for myself.
When I started Divertir Publishing, I would reply to every query with a critique of the manuscript, feeling this would help authors. These good intentions were rewarded by authors sending me emails telling me how I “lack the vision to realize their genius” and calling me a “tool of the publishing elite”. For those who would argue I let a few bad apples spoil the bunch, I assure you it was not a few emails – at the end of the day people don’t want to hear that their children, or their books, are not perfect. Given the large number of less-than-charitable emails we received in reply to these good intentions, we no longer give critiques.
In short, the query system does work. It gives authors a means to tell me about their books while allowing me to quickly evaluate the large number of queries I receive every year and quickly find the ones I’m interested in. Having to read the full manuscript for every query I receive would guarantee one thing – I would never have time to actually publish a book…