Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bizarre Query Response

I've just started sending queries out on one of my projects, so I've got the proverbial fingers crossed. As anyone who's done this knows, it's a tedious yet exciting, hurry-up-and-wait, dancing in the dark process.

As to be expected, the responses have been mostly no's, but there have been a few bites here and there. One positive response was a bit baffling, and I wanted to share it with everyone to get their feedback. The name of the agent has been redacted to protect the (perhaps not-so) innocent, and what follows is the agent's response to my query:

Dear Brian,

Thank you for your query (I ordinarily do NOT look at queries by email). But I actually read your query and thought it very intelligent. If you are not sending this simultaneously to other agents or publishers, then you may send this same query, a one page synopsis and the first three chapters or first 50 pages to me if you like. (Please tell me if you’ve sent this to other agents or publishers previously and if so which ones and what sort of comments or feedback did you get.) Mark the outside of the package “Special Request – per XXXXX.” Then in your cover letter be sure to mention I asked you to send this after reading your electronic query. Include a list of books (with dates and publishers) of books you think are competition. Include an author bio and list of other books you’ve written (with dates of publications and publishers). These are things I must know in order to give your project its best consideration. Finally, how you found my agency and this email address. It is usually unpublished, but I recently changed my email address, so it would help if I understood how you found this email. I always need to know ALL this information. Thank you for your cooperation.

If you have any questions, feel free to call me. I appreciate your thinking of my Agency.

Let me explain why this response is so strange. For starters, this particular agent's website lists the email address I sent the query to and specifically advises writers to send queries to that address. So I was left scratching my head when the agent asked me how I got the email address and stated that he/she does not generally look at e-queries, when the website says otherwise.

The request for a list of competing books is a bit off-putting. I know a few agents ask for this information up front from writers, but at the same time, aren't they supposed to be the experts on the market? The oft-repeated advice from agents is to write what you want to write, the idea being that writers shouldn't chase some market or trend for a dollar. Agents say they'd prefer writers create something personal and thus unique. Also, I get very little time to read anymore, so I know for a fact I'm not as up to speed on the market as an agent would (should) be. I'd be hard-pressed to compile a credible list of competing books, and it would be mostly guesswork on my part.

But, the most troubling aspect of this agent's response is the request for a list of other agents/publishers I've queried, including their feedback on the manuscript. Why should this agent need that information to do their job? I have no idea, but he/she should be able to form their own opinion on the manuscript without having to review what other people have said.

After a little more research, I discovered this agent used to charge a fee for reviewing a manuscript. I don't know if that's still the case, and the agent did not ask me for any money, but that's obviously a big no-no. (To any non-writers out there: money is always supposed to flow TOWARD the writer, never away.)

I'm not going to pursue a professional relationship with this agent based on this response. It seems to me this particular agent wanted me to do his/her job: figure out the market and then supply him/her with an accounting of what other agents and editors have said about the manuscript.

Has anyone else ever gotten this kind of response, one asking for detailed information about other agents/editors and their feedback?


By the way, Blogger has gone crazy apparently. It seems that all comments left on posts pre-dating the January 30, 2010 Gene Hackman post have mysteriously vanished. So I'm going to ask you all a favor: if you've ever posted here before, please leave a comment on this post. Reason I ask is, agents and editors might be checking out this blog now and in the near future, so it would be a big help to be able to show them people do read this blog. Thanks!


Brian O'Rourke said...

Weird. Now all the previous comments are alive and well again.

seana said...

Brian, I'm glad your comments showed up again. I haven't had the experience you mentioned. I agree with your decision not to go forward with this person.

I was about to suggest another promote anything you want post to bring folks out of the woodwork, but you might feel a little ambivalent about doing that to, uh, promote yourself. Although I don't actually see it as an ethical issue.

adrian.mckinty said...


This seems a bit unusual to me, but it could be the way things are going and possibly a simple time saving device...

Brian O'Rourke said...


Yeah, I'm glad the comments showed up again too. Not just for myself, but for everyone else (especially you) who's taken the time to comment in the past.

I was thinking about another promote anything you want post, too. I get a kick out of that, though most of the traffic ends up being more of a drive-by nature, which is to be expected.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Adrian -

In all fairness to this agent, I have seen more and more agents ask for a list of competing titles.

My problem is I just don't have time to read enough to figure that sort of thing out. I'll probably read, at best, two or three crime fiction books this year, and if they're not akin to what I'm pimping, then I won't be of much help in that regard.

Oddly enough, I think I'm more influenced by film than I am books. Maybe I should provide a list of films with similar themes/plots/etc.

Nathanael Green said...


The competing titles might not be a bad idea, though I'd probably look at it a little differently. I don't think books are like cars where you buy one at the exclusion of others. If you like one type of book, chances are good you'll buy more in that vein.

Asking for the list of other agents and their responses, though, is a bit beyond the pale. Not only does it seem lazy to me, but also a bit unprofessional and just discourteous.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Nate -

No, I hear you. I'd love to be able to give an agent a list of competing titles. For me, I just don't have the time to conjure up a meaningful list of competition...and still, I think the agent is or at least should be better suited to figuring that out. It just feels like another thing that's being dumped on the writer.

Of course, maybe this all goes back to my natural adversion to self-promotion and marketing.

Anonymous said...

If I were you I wouldn't close the door on this agent, especially because the agent said it was alright to call him/her. It could be that the agent is very famous with a good stable of authors and if so he/she would probably demand more from someone unknown to them. As far as the request for compettive books or authors , maybe he is just testing your commitment. I would strongly urge you to respond to this agent. If nothing else it will be a learning experience and perhaps an interesting story.

Brian O'Rourke said...


It's tempting, don't get me wrong. But the agent is not a member of the AAR, has been known to charge fees, and some of the other things I found online weren't too flattering.

And anyway, how do I know you're my real father? ;)

seana said...

Okay, here's an idea for a blog post, then. Give a kind of general idea of what kind of novel you are pitching and let's see what we can come up with as equivalents. I'm a bookseller, for godsake. I should be good for at least one.

I didn't have a problem with the title list, but it does seem like asking for what other agents were saying breaks some kind of trust with them. But you're the lawyer--you'll know better than I what the propriety of all this is.

Nathanael Green said...

ooh, Seana, I think that's a great idea!

Of course, I know a lot of writers are hesitant to share about works in progress or even others they're shopping around. At least I know I am.

But that's such a good idea to have other people (especially a bookseller) look at it and come up with titles that may be similar.

seana said...

Yes, I don't think it should be all that specific. Even if Brian can come up with one thing it reminds him of, we could work off that.

Rita Vetere said...

Hey Brian,

After reading your post, I think the real red flag for me is that you learned the editor used to charge a fee for reviewing manuscripts. I know he didn't mention anything about that to you, but what if you went to the trouble of gathering all this information for him, which in my view is something he should be doing, and then writes to you saying he'd be willing to take you on if you underwent revisions with him for a fee. I'm pretty sure I would be P.O.'ed if that happened.

I've querried many agents and never had them ask for a list of competing titles. And if the guy doesn't even know his email address is on his website, is he really on the ball enough that you'd want him to represent you?

Someone I have a great deal of respect for once told me that no agent is better than a bad agent. Not saying this guy's no good, but that response would have me wondering.


Brian O'Rourke said...

Seana -

This is very kind of you. Don't know if this will help, but here's one of the blurbs I've written for the manuscript:

Double-parking, scrapple, soft pretzels and cheese steaks, drive-bys, the South Philly mob, the most notorious sports fans in the world, and West Philly gang-bangers. Welcome to the City of Brotherly Love.

Daniel Gibson has a problem. He has to identify a murder suspect involved in a gang-shooting for the police, but he suffers from prosopagnosia. His severe condition, known as face blindness, makes recognizing people difficult and sometimes impossible.

Joey Testa has a problem. He’s trying to make it as a single-shingle attorney and support his family. But his client from West Philly, Baby Cash, just got the bright idea to blackmail him. There’s only one way to deal with Baby, and it’s not by reasoning with him. Joey needs to enlist the help of his cousin, Gino, which means calling in a favor from the South Philly mob, something he swore he’d never do.

Baby Cash has a problem. A few months ago, the man in charge of West Philly got capped, and ever since it’s been a gangland free-for-all. Baby needs cash money fast so he can take on his arch-rival, Isaiah, and beat him at a high stakes game of winner-take-all in West Philly.

And Philadelphia has a problem. It hasn’t seen a major professional sports championship since 1983. The Philadelphia Phillies have made it to the 2008 World Series, and are currently up two games to one. Can the Fighting Phils pull it off and turn Philly’s luck around?

Face Blind is an ensemble piece filled with an eclectic mix of characters, gritty dialogue, and violence. The 2008 World Series and the City of Philadelphia serve as colorful backdrops to this suspense thriller.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Rita -

Yeah, the email thing was bizarre, when it was listed right on the website's submissions page.

And I think you're right, no agent is better than a bad agent. Unfortunately, though, it seems like all traditional publishers (with the exception of a few of the major sci-fi publishers) won't look at unrepresented manuscripts anymore.

I'll bet you've had some interesting responses to queries in the past also.

seana said...

Brian, off the top of my head, there's of course Elmore Leonard, but that's probably too easy, as everyone gets compared to him. In that same vein, though, you've got John McFetridge and Declan Burke, although as one's Canadian and one Irish, they haven't hit the U.S. in a big way...yet.

Harlan Coben would be a good comparison for the sports angle. Although I haven't read him, he's big and I'm assured he's very good. My own personal favorite would be William Lashner with his terrific Victor Carl character. First of all, he's Philly based, second Carl's a lawyer, and third they're funny. They are very well written.

I thought I couldn't come up with one for his disability but of course there's the massively successful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I haven't read it but people love it.

Your blurb is great. Hope someone picks this up.

Nathanael Green said...


Based on your synopsis, I wonder if the Michael Connelly books might be a good parallel?

Brian O'Rourke said...

Seana -

Wow, those are good suggestions. And yeah, Leonard came to mind first, but as you say, that's the comparison everyone wants to make.

I hadn't heard of Lashner, so I'll have to check him out.

Curious Incident was a great book, I thought. Forgot all about it.

I think part of my problem is I don't have the hubris to compare myself to established writers. But I guess that's something I just have to get over.

The ensemble nature of the story does call to mind John McFetridge's work (I loved Everybody Knows This is Nowhere). I have yet to read any of Dec Burke's books, though they're in the queue. I do hope they both break through in the US!

seana said...

I would just get over the idea that it's hubristic to compare styles. It's up to someone else to judge the quality of your writing--all your after here is to give someone an idea of what kind of book to expect. I think your blurb gives a pretty idea of that anyway, but as an agent's job is all about how to market a novel, it just gives them a bit more info.

Good luck! And do read The Big O when you get a chance.

Anonymous said...

Brian - I would add another author to the mix and say that your blurb reminded me of Lisa Scottoline. She writes legal thrillers that are based in Philly.


Brian O'Rourke said...

Jess -

Thanks for that. I'll have to check out one of her books now too!