Some time in September I took a Writer’s Digest webinar on query letter writing, which promised, aside from a 90 min webinar session, a critique of your query letter from the agent they hired for this thing.
I submitted my query letter even before the seminar. They allowed you to submit one letter until mid October and then you had to wait for yet another 60 days or so to get a reply from the agent = waiting for a heck of a time.
The webinar itself was okay, but more geared towards beginners and I, as a submission veteran, got only some tiny hints and bits out of it. I knew already more than 90% of what they talked about. I had already expected that and subscribed to the thing mainly because I wanted to have my query letter critiqued by a professional agent.
By the way, the price for this whole show was 89,- USD.
Now, on the 4th of December, this is what I got back as a “critique” from the agent:
“Thanks very much for attending my webinar. You’ve written a good letter, but I would watch your sentences: you start too many with “I.” I wish you the best of luck with your writing endeavours.”
My first reaction to this was: you gotta be bloody kidding me!
For this I have interrupted my query letter drive, for this I waited for over two months, and for this I paid 89,- USD?
Below is what I promptly wrote back to the agent:
“Thank you for your email.
However, I am a bit surprised. Is below all advice you have for me?
Is the letter too long or not?
Is the synopsis paragraph well structured? Does it raise interest? Does it focus on the right details? Any tips to make it snappier?
Is the “this books was inspired by” line necessary, irritating, or helpful?
Are the credentials well structured and the way they should be?
Do I need to mention my day job?
Is it good or bad to mention the other parts of the series/trilogy even down to hints what they are about?
I would highly appreciate if your critique was giving more advice beyond starting not too many sentences with “I”.
With best regards”
I must give the agent the credit that she responded to my mail. I have also emailed the Writer’s Digest customer service asking what their policy is in case a customer thinks he/she didn’t get his/her money’s worth. So far I received no reply from them.
Here is what the agent wrote back:
“I don’t have your original query anymore, but if that’s all the critique I offered, it was because that was all the critique your letter needed. I’m making my way through 109 query critiques; some of them are five paragraphs long, some of them two or three. A couple of them so far have been just about perfect, and I’ve requested those manuscripts. There’ve been about three where I’ve just had to write one or two sentences, and your critique was one of them. In my webinar I addressed all of the questions you emailed me below. So, to sum up, your letter was a good letter, and if I didn’t mention any issues besides the “I” issue, that’s because I didn’t feel that there were any other issues.”
There are some very interesting and important messages hidden here if I interpret them correctly.
But first of all, even if my query letter is “perfect” apart from the starting too many sentences with “I” issue, there is always stuff to improve and my questions about the contents of the synopsis paragraph, the “inspired by” issue etc. etc. etc. remain unanswered. I still did not receive a decent critique. Maybe my understanding about what a decent critique is and the agents understanding are different, but in my book a decent critique is at least 200 words or so long and you give the receiver of the critique some insight about what he/she is good at, what the strong and weak points are, how to enhance the strong points and how to improve the weaker ones. There are always ways to make something snappier, there are always suggestions you can give. To say your letter was perfect except for the “I” is simply not a critique, full stop, I did not get my money’s worth.
Let’s talk about numbers for a second. The agent has given out a number – 109 query letters. To me the comment about the number of letters = the amount of work, sounds very much like fishing for sympathy…
Since we have numbers, let’s do some maths. 109 times 89,- USD is 9.701,- and most likely there were a few participants who did not submit a query letter. So let’s say there were 120 people who paid 89,- USD each = 10.680,- dollars. Maybe there was even a couple more people who have not submitted a query letter, for example 150 in total – that’s 13.350,- USD and so forth.
I will not start a speculation here about an hourly rate, since I have no idea/proof as to how much time the agent spent on this webinar and the query letters, however, the hourly rate for the agent and the money that Writer’s Digest makes out of this are presumably not the worst.
So all that sweet talk that they do this to support us aspiring writers may be true in some cases, yes, but they are also getting well paid for what they do… Nothing against that, this is a business, but there is a fine line between delivering value for money and ripping people off, not to speak of the work ethic implications of making money by exploiting the wishes and hopes of aspiring writers.
For my taste, this seminar was a rip off and I will not subscribe to any other of this company again.
But now let’s take a deeper look at the contents of the second reply of the agent.
So, my query is “perfect” apart from too many sentences starting with an “I”.
The agent has not requested my manuscript. (Fine by me, this agent is not specialized in speculative fiction anyway and wouldn’t be the right match).
But this reads like my query letter and the whole novel behind it were tossed in the bin because of the one tiny tiny tiny issue that this agent thinks there are too many sentences starting with “I”.
By the way, I counted the sentences starting with “I”: there are six of them. They all refer to my credentials, my day job and the last sentence: I am looking forward to hearing from you soon. Sorry for getting cynical, but what am I supposed to write? My mother’s daughter is looking forward to hearing from you soon?
It is absolutely ridiculous to reject a query letter on such flimsy grounds. How desperate they must be to reject work. Yes, they are overloaded, yes, they look for the tiniest reason to toss your query in the bin. Hell, they are tiny indeed.
If your work is being rejected for such ludicrous reasons it means you are truly playing a lottery. Maybe another agent rejects my “perfect” letter on the grounds of one singly misplaced comma, one forgotten hyphen, or whatever…
In short this whole query letter business is nothing but a gamble with serious and committed writers’ hopes and dreams and bone-hard work.
I do not see a solution to this issue. You keep submitting and wait for luck to strike? If you don’t have that luck, well, tough luck! It is extremely hard to not get frustrated by crap like the above…
The only thing I see that might promise anything is personal relationships. I dearly hope it will help in my case of a World Fantasy Con follow-up-chance. That agent has at least now looked beyond the query letter stage and requested the full manuscript…. Let’s see what happens.
As for query letter, or other “getting an agent” related seminars? Be assured, I am done with those, for good.