I have been following with interest the debate between two commenters, stuntsmile and Sarahlynn, which you can read here: https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=632086038992984402&postID=5980644457431321270.
Makes me think I should read the comments more ...
Basically, stuntsmile, if you think I'm reading query letters in order to decide 'what to print and what not to print' then you don't know what an agent does. We are not publishers - publishers decide what to print. We just try to persuade them to print the stuff we like.
Moreover, YOU may look at the quality of the writing, but a lot of people look at the covers - that's why publishers and authors get so worked up about them (the biggest battles usually take place over the cover, NOT the text).
And another thing: Jane Austen wouldn't have ever needed to have written a query letter because she was writing in a time when there weren't a bazillion (conservative estimate) people trying to get their novels published. More wannabe novelists = less time to consider each submission, ergo, the query letter was born. Get over it. And don't for a second think that Austen is still being read because she was the best novelist of her day - she was the best marketed novelist of her day, and that's why she endures. I am sure there are many good novelists of her era who have disappeared into the mists of time. Jane worked it. She knew her audience and she worked it. Good on her. I don't have a second's doubt that, if pressed to write a query letter for Pride and Prej, she'd have come up with something like this:
Elizabeth Bennet has a problem: several of them, actually, and they're all related to her. Then she spies new neighbourhood recruit Mr Darcy, and things take a turn for the interesting ... Not only is Mr Darcy handsome, but he's loaded. And he seems to think she's a bit of all right. Still, those pesky relatives are likely to deter an eligible bachelor who seems a bit commitment phobic. What's a girl to do?
See, JA was writing what we now call genre fiction.
And as for JK Rowling: I have heard anywhere from 5 to 35 rejections for Harry Potter - the story is apocryphal, and only Rowling knows the truth. But the 'rejections' make a great tale, don't they? I'm not saying she wasn't rejected, but it makes a better story to put those rejections in the multiples of ten - not that I think it's even her propagating that line. She doesn't need to, you see - she's JK Rowling.
Now I'm going back to my glass of red and my Richard Price novel. LOVE Richard Price. Everyone should read Lush Life.