Agents panel question a reminder that the ghost-written query letter is the tissue in the bra

One of the highlights of Crimebake is always the agents panel. Aside from being entertaining, writers hungry to find that secret code that will get them representation hang on every word.
The panel is great and the best-attended event of the weekend. One thing that always becomes clear during the sessions, though, is how important it is for writers to self-diagnose and have some perspective on the craft and how they’re going about it. The agents have the road map, but the writer has to know how to follow it. That’s as essential to finding an agent as it is to writing the book itself, or getting the book published. And it’s something some writers just don’t understand.
That came to mind when a writer asked about a lack of response after he sends a requested manuscript to agents. It has apparently happened several times to this young man. The agents who have asked to see his entire manuscript — always a heartening moment for a writer — don’t ever respond to his emails and calls after he sends it. Nothing. Silence.
My first reaction? Now you know how it feels to be a woman. Joking! But seriously, guy, I think they’re just not that into you.
Now I don’t know this writer, his circumstances, or his book. But if I were getting a huge response to my query, but then silence after I sent the manuscript, I’d begin to think that maybe my premise was good, but the book itself? Not so much.
The agents on today’s panel, in their polite way, tried to steer him to that conclusion, too.
Afterwards, I started to wonder if something else was in play, however. As a former freelance book editor, writing query letters for first-time novelists was one of the highest paying jobs I did for the online editing service I contracted for. Writing them always made me a little queasy. As a writer myself, I had — and have — little respect for a writer who can put together an entire book but then can’t write a 300-word letter pitching it. It showed a lack of passion for the book and respect for the craft that bothered me. Second of all, hell, you can’t write a friggin’ letter about your book? Don’t quit your day job.
Some writers would angrily criticize the query letter after I wrote it for them. Now that’s chutzpah. The rules of my contract prohibited it, but my gut response was to say, hell, Shakespeare, then write it yourself. I always felt these guys showed a startling lack of, well, getting it.
With every single one of these letters, I would wonder what happens if the query passes muster. The agent is going to read a manuscript that doesn’t match the ability, style, voice, whatever of the letter. If I were an agent, that would stop me cold.
I blogged once that it’s the equivalent of the tissue in the bra — once everyone gets down to business, it’s going to be revealed as the fraud it is.
I don’t know if the writer at today’s agent panel wrote his own queries or not. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he did and that’s not the issue. But the question reminded me of all those query letters I wrote for other people (no, I did not respect myself in the morning, thanks for asking). I wondered if agents could spot the fraud when they saw the manuscript and what kind of ultimate luck those writers had with their books.
I’m looking forward to asking the panel that next year.

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About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Notes from a Cranky Editor all by herself, as well Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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One Response to Agents panel question a reminder that the ghost-written query letter is the tissue in the bra

  1. I totally agree. Been there, still doing that (the editing/query-writing for clients part). But even bigger question for me lately: let’s say you’ve ghostwritten an entire book for a client. Nice work when you can get it! Now … what does the client do when they’re asked for interviews?

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