May 15th, 2009


letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 202
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: fantasy

Earlier this week, Neil Gaiman responded on his blog to a question from someone concerning the long-delayed books in George R. R. Martin's fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. The question involved wondering whether the reader was unrealistic to feel that the author (GRRM) was letting him down by not getting to the next book in the series. Neil pretty much said that it was unrealistic and went on to explain:

"You're complaining about George doing other things than writing the books you want to read as if your buying the first book in the series was a contract with him: that you would pay over your ten dollars, and George for his part would spend every waking hour until the series was done, writing the rest of the books for you."

And he ended with:

"George R. R. Martin is not working for you."

You can read Neil's whole response here.

What does this have to do with queries? Well, also earlier this week, I was reading comments on another agent's blog. I don't currently remember which one and I'm paraphrasing the comment, but it essentially said that the author felt they had a right to feedback - at the query stage - simply because they had done research on agents, selected appropriate ones to query, and done the work of writing the book and the query, and sending it out. I've seen variations on this before and that sentiment seems to be not uncommon these days.

This is why Neil's comment about GRRM resonated and sent my thoughts in this direction:

Fact: The author desires feedback.
Fiction: The author is entitled to feedback.

And that's where I felt like the query dynamic ran a bit in parallel to what Neil was pointing out about the difference between what a person wants and what a person is owed.

Now, I can agree that without writers, agents would be looking for another calling, and that all the clients we currently represent had to come from somewhere (either queries, referrals, or meetings at conventions, pretty much). So, this can be a motivating factor for paying it forward, as it were. I can also agree that it's perfectly fine for a writer to want feedback on a query (just as the reader in Neil's post clearly wants to read the next book in the series sooner rather than later). Where the situation goes south is when a person projects the frustration of not getting what they want onto some external target and starts generating unreasonable expectations and demands.

Until an agent offers representation, the writer has no contract with them and therefore no claim on what they choose to offer. The agent works for their clients. Writers who are querying are, by definition, not yet clients. Which means those agents who personalize rejections, who are choosing to offer commentary to potential clients, who blog and discuss the industry, are going to extra effort beyond just selling books for the authors they have already agreed to represent. All that advice is free -- and it's not in their job description, and they don't get paid for it. It's R&D, and they have to decide how much they can afford to spend on it, both in time and resources.

Long story short (too late), at the query stage, an agent isn't working for the writer... yet...