Every aspiring writer has a list of what not to do when querying agents. As time goes by and rejections pile upon our backs, that list keeps getting longer. The rules seem to be getting more abstract and absurd. Did you know that you are not supposed to attach sexy pictures of yourself to your query letter? Has it cross your mind to bribe an agent? And hear the last one. It really takes the cake! Agents want you humble so under no circumstances compare your work to current bestsellers. Say that again?
Whenever I hear a tale of querying woes, I immediately side with the rejected. However, reading Betsy Lerner’s “How to approach agents and editors.” (The Writer, February, 2011) have to side with the agent. I mean, just picture a misguided writer attempting to “buy” representation and with the meager sum of five dollars! What were you thinking when you mailed a query on scented pink paper? And I was floored by Ms. Lerner´s story of the gallery kept at a former job displaying photographs (all showing cleavage) sent by potential clients who, despite their well-endowed bosoms, ended up in the slush pile.
We all know the basics of querying. We´ve all heard about the dynamics of packing manuscripts, to avoid typos and spelling mistakes like the plague, and not to attach unnecessary paraphernalia. Yet according to Ms. Lerner she has received gifts that include candy, jewelry, perfume and wine.
I would like to play Devil´s advocate and think that perhaps the generous writers are not trying to get on the good side of the agent. Maybe the $5 bill was sent in lieu of SASE. The gifts might have something to do with the content of their book. Who knows? Maybe the perfume came with a story about scented oils, or the candy was part of the marketing of a cooking book. And the sexy snapshots might be a way to prove the aspiring client is a healthy good-looking person who won´t bring shame to the agent or die of old age while he/she struggles to sell her manuscript. After all, we are bombarded with agents’ opinions on how we, aspiring writers, should sell ourselves using all kind of gadgets.
Well, so much for the benefit of the doubt. The truth is that in our eagerness to please, our hurry to draft the best query letter, plus the sum of our fears and anxiety, we keep on plaguing agents with unrequested chapters, misspelled names, and other blunders. I must confess that the first agent I contacted was one that was looking for young adult stories dealing with Italian-American characters. I sent him a very adult novel set in Italy. Of course, I was the perfect candidate for the trash can.
I was having a good laugh while reading this entertaining article, when I hit a statement that blew my mind. “I am always struck by the writer who with no credentials per se, compares his wok to current or past bestsellers…” Ms. Lerner writes. Wait, isn´t that what you are supposed to? All the lists of “Do‘s” tell us that the one thing agents want to see, is comparison to other well-known, and hopefully, current bestsellers. It’s the only edge they have to peddle our novel to the publishing industry.
Then Ms. Lerner adds, “Just once I´d like to see a writer make a humble promise or estimation of his expectations. Just once I’d like to see a writer compare her work to a book that isn’t a commercial blockbuster. Better yet, let the publisher draw the conclusion, based on the quality of the work.”
I understand where she is going. It´s undignified, not to mention arrogant, to compare our fumbling first steps to well-established novels, but does she really think novice writers are afflicted by a pandemic case of vanity?
We are told by books, articles (and even YouTube videos) on how to write a query letter, that comparison is a must. Look at this sample, “the best approach is to compare and contrast your book to a publishing success, and the more successful the better.” (Dave King. “Query Letters: Getting Over the Transom”).This is a recurrent advice.
Although we are wise enough to know we can´t match ourselves against Shakespeare and that Dan Brown/Dean Koontz comparisons sound highly conceited, I still feel it´s fine to align our first novel with other books that are doing well in the market. What harm could come from revealing that our stories share traits in common with The Help or Water for Elephants? Would it be so ill-advised to draw a comparison between our manuscript and the work of authors the contacted agent represents?
Most agents say they like the contrast so they can get a feel of where the book might be shelved. What do you think? Are we shooting ourselves in the foot when we play the comparison game?