Kill the Query Letter

Kill the Query Letter


“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” -Shunryu Suzuki Zen Buddhism


When I first started writing about startups, I tracked the market very methodically. And by market, I mean the “flooded,” “saturated,” “ecosystem,” that we now call the “Series A Crunch.” A few months later, in June of 2012, I created a spreadsheet with over 2,000 data points. It was a completely useless spreadsheet detailing product launches, funding notices, acquisitions, stage demos, app updates, patent lawsuits, hirings, firings, – anything startup related and published in the press.


The next thing I did was show my spreadsheet to Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed Ventures to get his thoughts on it. He was pretty clear on his response: “a laundry list like this isn’t very useful to me.”


Exactly. But that’s what we read every day:  a laundry list of press releases.


And there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this laundry list – publishing today is based on an archaic system originally designed for print newspapers. The press release, as we know it today, was invented by a public relations man named Ivy Lee on October 28th, 1906 when a train owned by Pennsylvania Railroad wrecked and left more than 50 people dead.  Lee’s agency had been retained by the railroad, so he quickly issued a statement on what had transpired to the New York Times before any rumors could spread.


This is the same practice companies’ use today to communicate important matters. Problem is, everything else has changed. Anyone could cite quite a few inventions brought to market since 1906:  automobiles, planes (1903), televisions, hair dryers, computers, the internet, smartphones – but actually, the most important thing that has changed since 1906 is the reader … humans.


We now communicate in 140 characters and watch 4 billion hours of video on YouTube every month. We’ll suffer through terrible prose for erotic novels like Fifty Shades of Grey. And, there is no comparing Charles Dickens to R.R. Martin; English has evolved into two separate languages.


Book publishing is actually the perfect example of an industry which has undergone a huge transformation thanks to Jeff Bezos. Interesting enough, it used to be based off something very similar to the press release called a query letter.


To the reader, Amazon made books cheaper and more accessible – so this was a no-brainer. But to a writer, what Jeff Bezos did, which was absolutely brilliant, is he killed the query letter. This is an extremely important fact because it solves the chicken and the egg problem. We know readers want cheaper books delivered on demand, but what motivated writers to e-publish over the traditional method of publishing?


I remember a time when e-publishing was quite daunting. Every writer wanted the prestige of the publishing house label. But as the proud author of an unpublished 400 page novel, I can assure you – it was the ineffective query letter which drove writers to take matters into their own hands. The “slush pile,” as it was so affectionately called by the literary agents and publishers, offered writers a 1-2% chance of being published. This process was more strenuous than writing the actual novel. And that’s why authors were willing to try Amazon. They could circumvent the gatekeeper, connect with readers and go back to doing what they did best: writing books.


Now Amazon is a built-out marketplace. And there are a few other companies connecting the writer directly to the reader such as Wattpad. In fact, the engagement level on Wattpad is higher than Pinterest. Ponder that for a moment.


I believe these companies have done so well because the reader doesn’t care about the publisher. Similarly, the trend has changed in journalism and we now get our breaking news from Twitter – we don’t care about the reporter. We want this direct access because we can. That’s the beauty of technology. It should cut out the middle man; the gatekeeper. And if the journalist is the so-called gatekeeper, then the press release is an admission ticket crafted back in 1906 … which is why I really think it’s time to open up the internet.

Beth Kindig


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