Sunday, April 3, 2011

On the Inexhaustible Subject of Query Letters: To Compare or not to Compare

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?


  1. I love query letter posts! Not because I'm an expert (so far from it I have to squint to see it), but because I'll take any advice I can get.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Marie at the Cheetah

  2. Hmm. Interesting. That's the first I've ever heard to never compare your book to others on the market. I mean, that's the whole point, right? It shows that the writer knows his/her genre and knows where his/her book will fit in the market. I've never seen it as a conceited move. I've seen it as a smart move, because it shows that we know what we've written. Sure, I don't agree with all that other junk some aspiring writers do to try and get an agent's attention (Boob shots? Really! Have a little more dignity!), but I don't agree with not comparing your work.

    Thanks for sharing, Violante!

  3. Note to self: remove cleavage picture from submission files ;)

    Sister Violante, I've also read conflicting advice about comparisons. Some agents want a clear idea of the novel and whether or not it has selling potential. But others find it in bad taste, I guess. I've opted to remove any comparisons from my query letter, just to be safe.

    This is just one more piece of conflicting advice us writers have to sift through in this complex business. [sigh]

  4. Bottom line- a polished, polite query that simultaneously avoids self-effacement and self-aggrandizement is good form. In the end, it may be best to avoid comparisons as a matter of course unless you're pitching high-concept. And it's certainly best to avoid giving gifts, cash or, perhaps worst of all, unsolicited advice.

    I once felt a strong compulsion to advise an agent to quit telling writers to consult the Jeff Herman guide after waiting months for a response on a full (she was reputed to have a 43% full request rate.)

    I resisted it. Barely.

  5. Thank you very much for your comments.
    When I began my querying saga, comparison was one of the sacred rules and it was agonizing because my first novel was atypical to the max. Not only we were supposed to compare, but the objects of comparison had to be current and well-known. I recall a dear friend whose writing belonged to the romantic suspense tradition of Daphne Du Maurier and Victoria Holt, but since those ladies were long deceased…
    I’m glad the rule no longer applies, but what other rules have become superfluous? In truth, nobody knows what he perfect query letter should contain. I would rather skip that obstacle. Just write a courteous, but brief intro letter, and let our work do the talking.

  6. Bribes and boobs! Goodness, the querying world is more exciting than I ever expected.

    “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.”

    I am not sure what this agent is on about. It seems counter-intuitive to the extreme for a writer to be humble about her work: "I'm not very good and probably never will be, but please publish me anyway, cheers." The bit about "estimation of expectations" doesn't make sense to me at all.

    Likewise, why would you compare your book to a non-blockbuster? "My writing is similar to Joe Obscuro's work, a writer you have never heard of because he only sold one book ever, and doesn't that just make you want to take me on?" Hmm, I wonder how well that strategy will work out. ;-)

    Are we to assume this agent is typical and the rules really have changed? Or is this just one agent whose quirky demands aren't the norm?

  7. I know, Sister Stephanie. How can a writer be both humble and assertive at the same time? What´s the use of comparing our work to something the agent has never heard off? How could our work convince the agent if we are not supposed to send samples until she/he requests it and that comes after the reading of the query letter? I think the whole query process has to be re-examined an re-evaluated.

  8. Hear! Hear! Sister Violante! Ever since I put my foot in the writing waters, it has astounded me how much crap goes on in the publishing world. I have one friend who's mantra is "It's all about who you know." And you know what? I really believe that after some of the books I've read. Some of it's absolute dreck!
    The only purpose for comparison is to exhibit you know what you're talking about when it comes to your genre. If you're dumb enough to push your novel as a sci-fi when it's clearly a romance, then that's your fault when you get rejected.

    Violante, you wanted some other rules that are contradictory and I've got one for you. I recently queried (and got rejected by) an agent who didn't care for my multiple POVs (she said it distanced the reader from the characters) and yet, she loves her fair share of romance novels, all of which are written with more than one POV. And, on top of that, I recently read an article about an author who's been laboring away on the fifth installment of his series. When asked why it took so long for the final novel he said it had to a lot to do with all the POVs he had to work with in the novel. Contradictory? Of course! But then it wouldn't be the writing world if it wasn't!

    An overhaul is sorely needed.

  9. I think the idea of comparisons can be tricky. There's a lot of agent fatigue with seeing memoirs billed as the next Eat Pray Love, or thrillers like the Da Vinci Code or Twilight meets Harry Potter -- Comparing your work to something so wildly successful is definitely setting yourself up for failure as most people's works won't live up to such expectations. It also shows their publishing ignorance.

    However comparisons can be useful for setting your work apart -- especially if you explore similar tropes as a well known book but have your own twist to them OR you are straddling two different genres that aren't usually put together. My two cents :)

  10. No, obviously that comparing ourselves to the current bstseller is unwise as well as undignified. I agree with you.

  11. Sister Mary, Mary, how I hate to say it, but knowing people is a must. If you know people in the industry, if you make friends with an established writer, even if you are part of academia, and the faculty supports you in your writing attempts, you have it made.

  12. I love reading about query letters seeing as I've never queried, not really. I love that stack falling off the desk. I can just imagine. All very mystifying.


  13. Well nowadays, querying is mostly via e-mail. Much easier to erase.

  14. The boobs thing makes me laugh. I write erotic fiction; I don't send a box of tissues and a bottle of baby oil with my submissions. Is that where I'm going wrong?

    I haven't ever compared myself to a big author in a query, but I have said "the funny side of this book will appeal to fans of xxx," etc. Is that the same thing? [head on desk]

  15. Please, don´t take this as the ultimate rule. Nobody really knows what does the perfect query letter looks like.

  16. I'm not at that stage yet but I think I would have a really hard time comparing my stories to someones work. I'll have to see what I think if I ever get there.

  17. Then, follow Ms. Lerner's advise and don´t. Do what comes naturally. I think agents can sniff our fears and doubts on our queries and that puts them off from the start. We should be more genuine and omfortable when writing to them.


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