The first question for this post is: Why query at all?
I must say, this one stumped me. I even googled it and found no articles explaining why we query. The simple fact is publishers use agents to filter readers like coffee grounds. I’m not saying it is a bad thing, it is what it is. Of all the millions of queries agents receive, a selected group are chosen. Publishers want pitches from those authors. The ones who fought the query fight and won. Those who are chosen by agents who know what publishers are looking for and present it to them on a platter. i.e. They want the best pick and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Hence, agents need ways to quickly hear your concept, and choose to pass or proceed. The query for some agents, not all, is a filter in itself in terms of format and structure. There are basic requirements for queries and how to write them, and they are all over the internet. I even wrote one: https://jenniferhaskin.com/2018/03/04/agent-questions-volume-nine-how-to-write-a-query/
Agents want to see that you’ve done your research; you have basic tech savvy and you know how to follow protocol. They want to see if you are serious. So do yourself a favor and work on the format of your query. (Meaning, read one of those How to Write a Query articles.)
Secondly, all agents will make a decision based on the information within your query. Basically, the concept of your story. The most simple explanation is the best. If you can get your premise down to one sentence with a hook, that means a great deal to agents and publishers. i.e. My book is a retelling of The Outsiders, but each has a supernatural power. OR My book is a ‘witches meets dragons’ story in current day, but another dimension, and they spill into ours.
Okay, maybe they’re bad examples. But you get the point. Can you boil your story down to a sentence? Try it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Great, now you’re halfway there. You now have your blurb, so tell it in a way that expresses the tone of your book. Is your novel funny? If you can’t make them laugh in the query, do you think they have much expectation for your manuscript? If you have a horror story, make it spooky. i.e. Julie never knew her father, now she wishes she’d never found him, and his cellar of torture devices. Do you think that might get their attention? That’s exactly what you want. Your entire goal with a query is to include all the relevant information, give your concept, and pique the interest in the agent. Make them want to stop what they’re doing and read your sample writing.
You can work on your query for years, but if you don’t have a query that excites people to read your book, you’ve lost. Don’t ask your friends and family to “critique” your query. They won’t know what to do and will be nice either way and say, “It looks really good, Karen. I think it’s great.” Instead, make up several concept statements to include in your query and ask them, “Which one of these makes you think ‘Oh I want to read this book,’ the most?” When you’ve got something that would make a stranger want to read it, you’re there. I’m not saying go to the mall and ask strangers, or anything, but maybe make a Twitter post to the #WritingCommunity and ask people who don’t know you if what you wrote makes them want to read it. A lot of supporters will say, “Yes, of course!” If you get any critiques, listen to them. Think about it. Or maybe ask, “What would you change to make this sound exciting to read?”
I know I’m repeating myself here, but I want you to get it. Agents want a complete query with a simple concept, that makes them want to read it– right now. As for why authors have to query, I can’t answer that. It’s just the way publishing is set up for the Top 5 houses to gain the best clients, and other publishers like the idea, so it has become the norm. Some publishers accept author queries (usually small houses) and sometimes large publishers have special events where they temporarily accept author submissions. Look out for those opportunities.
The second question is, How often do you promote books for commercial value rather than intrinsic literary value?
I think I know what you are asking here. You are wondering how often agents choose the “on trend” book over the “really great indie,” right? In the publishing business intrinsic literary value is generally what we are looking for, because it is commercial. Let me explain. I could not find an answer to who decides the literary trends, but I also didn’t dig far. All I know is that publishers know what the trends are. Agents read up on what publishers are looking for and what they are paying for. Agents put those things on their wishlists and that’s how an author can know what’s “on trend.”
The books falling into those categories are commercially valuable. But that’s not all an agent is looking for. Some agents prefer romance, no matter the trends, or horror, or sci-fi. They are going to choose the best books in those categories–they are always searching for intrinsic value, but the goal is to make the book successfully commercial. I hope that makes sense.
I know I answered questions with advice and some things I have no answer for, but I hope you found something in here useful or enlightening. Keep writing, keep querying, and keep sending me questions!