I've been hanging out online for years at a (non-writing-related) forum. Yesterday, I created a poll asking whether I should include profanity in my query letter. (I was concerned about how the first sentence in my latest version would come across to agents: If Seth McCoy had asked his Magic 8-Ball whether he'd ever get his shit together, the answer would have been: Very doubtful.) It isn't that I think the people who frequent that message board are experts or anything. Mostly, I was just bored and hoping to get some fresh perspectives on the issue.
One of the guys responded with this:
Some quick advice. I've worked in a talent/literary agency and 9 times out of 10, the query letter will get you nowhere. Especially when it just starts out with the description. It's unfortunate, but the sad truth is that it's pretty much a waste of time and money.
The one time we actually requested the writer send us his script was when he wrote possibly the most clever letter I had seen. He basically started by explaining that this screenplay was autobiographical and explained how the plot elements lined up with his life. Only, there were asterisks and footnotes that explained that he was totally making all that up.
Yeah, I know that doesn't sound too interesting, but that's just because I can't remember the actual note. His execution was great.
Common sense would have you believe that sending a letter to a boutique/smaller agency would have better results, but frankly, they're harder to get to, as they really only sign the money-makers that can keep their company afloat.
What you should do is find a way to get a referral from another manager or agent -- be it a friend, an acquaintance through someone you know, or just an agent who wasn't able to take you on, but knows someone who could/should. That's how you'll stand out over the other dozens of query letters they'll get daily. And also, it gets past the 'red tape' that a lot of agencies don't accept unsolicited material.
I worked quite extensively with the literary agents, so if you have any questions, please ask. But my suggestion is to hold off on sending them out for now. Save your money and time and put it towards networking and finding a contact to get you in the door.
Another poster (a writer) sent me a private message saying he absolutely disagrees with the other guy's advice, but he didn't want to start an argument in the thread. So, I responded on the board with my polite disagreement that querying is a waste of time. Yeah, referrals could very well be the best way to get your work seen, but seriously, I've seen SO MANY YA writers get representation through querying and being discovered in the slush pile. Haven't I?