A Report Back From SlushPile Hell
For all of the aspiring authors out there who see so many books published and think “why not me?” it can help to know that others are also stumbling on the road to publication. That’s where the blog SlushPile Hell comes in. The anonymous literary agent who writes the blog responds to the query letter craziness that they encounter on the job. Each blog post includes an excerpt of an original query letter’s ridiculous dialogue and the agent's response to it. You know, the type of response we all wish we had, but think of ten minutes too late or simply can’t say in the situation.
And yes, there may be a certain amount of Schadenfreude (that’s the German word for laughing at other’s mistakes, which just sounds so much nicer in German, don’t you think?) involved in SlushPile Hell. But whether you stop by to laugh, learn, or both, the blog is sure to meet your needs.
Morgan Doremus: Why the anonymity?
SlushPile Hell: I suppose I started it anonymously to test the waters and make sure I wasn't the only one who found these query snippets to be pretty funny. I imagine that the writers for the TV show Mr. Belvedere look back and curse themselves for not writing anonymously. I think there's the mistaken notion that I'm doing it anonymously because of possible flack from writers about the content. But the fact is that 99.99% of the comments I get, especially from aspiring authors who are in the middle of their quest to get published, are positive, finding the blog to actually be educational in a quirky sort of way. And I'm careful to never poke fun at a book idea or the writing in the sample pages -- which would cross the line I think. The only reason it's still anonymous is to add a little intrigue, plus I'm too lazy to bother with coming out of the closet.
MD: It seems like a lot of aspiring authors tend to make the mistake of having too much ego (my book is the most important..., etc). How does an author properly go about grabbing an agent's attention without sinking into total narcissism?
SPH: A good rule of thumb is to let the writing speak for itself. Don't tell me you've written the most important novel of all time; let me be the judge of that. By heaping your own praises on your writing, you're just turning off agents (and driving some of us to drink).
MD: Another mistake that a lot of the queries seem to make is that they don't seem to know a whole lot about the publishing business. (Mister Madam). How much knowledge is 'just right' for an aspiring author to have and where can they go to learn more about the business?
SPH: When I'm teaching at writer's conferences, I tell writers to take their search for publication no less seriously and professionally than they would a job search. Which means that there's no such thing as being too prepared. Read a good book or two on query writing, diligently research the agents who might be a good fit for your book (through the annual guides that come out, agent web sites, and even sites like PublishersMarketplace.com), and edit and polish your query letter until it shines. Many of the queries I get seem as if the authors have done almost none of those things and are just hoping lightning will strike.
MD: So far, what has been your favorite query from hell?
SPH: Every time I think I have a favorite, another one shows up in my in-box that outdoes it. The circles of hell seem to be endless.
MD: Exactly how many of these queries from hell would you say you get in the average week?
SPH: I'm thankful that there are only about 10 a week or so that are bad enough to end up on the site. But unfortunately, there are another 100-150 a week that ignore my agency's query guidelines and are altogether too slapdash. Those authors are really doing themselves a terrible disservice. They may have slaved for years over a manuscript, but then dashed off a query letter in 10 minutes and effectively killed their chances of finding an agent.
MD: How many really good queries do you see on average?
SPH: I get about one terrific query a month that really knocks my socks off. And I guarantee you that it's probably knocked the socks off of other agents, as well. Do your homework, write a kick-ass book and an equally kick-ass query, and you will get noticed.
Craving more? Be sure to check out SlushPile Hell for your daily dose of query letter advice!