Yesterday morning an author called to pitch his novel, and to his great dismay, I asked him to send us a standard one page query letter. “ONE page?” He countered. “How can a single page ever come close to encapsulating a novel so structurally and thematically complex?” Since it might be the 400th time I’ve heard this complaint about the query submission system, I wanted to take a moment to argue the case.
When an agent receives your query letter, they are deciding whether or not to invest serious time in pursuing a professional relationship with you. Yes, reading an author’s manuscript does qualify as “serious time” because we don’t read in the office. We *read* when you *write*…having just finished putting the kids to sleep. We know and appreciate that we’re damned lucky to be part of this industry, but reading manuscripts is and always has been off the clock.
Just like a first date, a query letter is that important initial impression which can either excite or discourage. And just like that one, brief date with a stranger, rejection only means you weren’t what the person was looking for—not that you won’t be perfect for someone else! I saw a query last month that mentioned Nazi Vampires in the first sentence and it really WAS enough for me to stop reading right there. I couldn’t help remembering the time that a man said to me on a first date that he hadn’t read a book since middle school…when it’s not a match, it’s not a match. It hurts because it IS personal, but then again– it couldn’t be more subjective.
Are you thinking, “But what about books that can’t be described? I really feel that my book is special, but only in a way that can be appreciated through the reading experience”? I’d counter with the question—How can you expect any editor to make time for a project that is (to invent a word) unpitchable? How can you then expect that editor to get support from all of their colleagues to buy a book that no one can put into words? But most importantly, would YOU go to a bookstore and spend $23.99 on a book that had no catalogue copy with which to grab your interest?
A brief description may never do your writing justice. But it CAN and should be able to entice the right audience and weed out the critics.