Book marketing 101: scanning your query letter for problems, or, the magnifying glass of love

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I was prepping a box chock-full of copies of my novel to head out the post office — some agencies ask for one and bill the writer for photocopying after the book sells, others have the author do the copying herself, which is usually less expensive; my agency falls in the latter category — when it hit me that this was a book that I never had to query. I just told my agent about it, and we went from there.

Which made me wonder: had I mentioned here that while selling the first book project to an agent is notoriously difficult, as anyone who has submitted a book knows, but that subsequent projects are comparatively a piece of cake?

Translation: once you get really, really good at querying and reap the rewards by landing an agent, chances are that you’ll never have to do it again.

The Peter Principle in action, my friends: the system is set up to promote the most gifted queriers out of the querying realm. Oh, you will need to write synopses for future works, and you might be asked to pen some marketing material, but cold-querying, no.

While you are in the querying stage of your career, it’s is a good idea to have several out at a time, rather than only one. Since response times can be slow, sending out one and waiting for a response before mailing the next can cumulatively add months or even years to the querying process — from which it is your goal to graduate, right?

Seriously, ignore the astonishingly long-lived rumors circulating out there that claim that agents get miffed if you query more than one of them at once. Manhattan-based agents, bless their harried little hearts, tend to people who get impatient if the guy in front of them at the deli counter is taking an extra thirty seconds to decide whether he wants turkey on rye or roast beef on a bagel — waiting a month or two between marketing attempts would not really be their style, were they limping along in your moccasins.

Unless their agency literature specifically says that they will accept only exclusive queries and submissions, they EXPECT writers to be querying rafts of agents simultaneously. So don’t let the rumors to the contrary discourage you from querying widely.

This does not mean that I would advise sending out 50 queries simultaneously — it’s just too hard to keep track of that many. Also — and I hesitate to mention this, but it happens — this strategy substantially increases the likelihood of opening your mailbox to discover more than one rejection in a single day’s post, an eventuality that would knock even the most confident aspiring writer for a loop.

Call me zany, but I would like to see you get through this process with as few bootless cries of “Why me?” flung in the general direction of the heavens.

As I mentioned yesterday, it’s a great idea to have your list of agents ready, so you can send out a new one the very day a rejection comes in — or two, if the aforementioned mailbox contretemps should befall you, heaven forefend. That way, you can do something constructive in response to that silly form letter, rather than letting the negative feelings sink into your psyche long enough that you start to believe them yourself.

And remember: no matter how much an agent may insist that “there’s no market for this right now” or “there’s not enough money to be made with this book,” and no matter how prominent that agent may be, ultimately, a rejection is one person’s personal opinion. Accept it as such, and move on.

But before you do, make sure that your query does not contain any red flags that might be preventing your work from getting a fair reading.

This is not just a good idea strategically — it’s a good idea psychologically as well, if you’re in the biz for the long haul. Unfortunately, many writers automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a bland querying letter or a confusing synopsis. Or, still more hurtful, that somehow the rejecting agents are magically seeing past the query to the book itself, decreeing from without having read it that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing.

This particular fear leaps like a lion onto many aspiring writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many of us, leading to despair, the notion that if one is REALLY talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It almost never works like that: writing is work, and part of that work is being persistent in submitting your writing.

Instead of listening to the growls of the self-doubt lion, consider the far more likely possibility that it is your marketing materials that are being used as an excuse to reject your queries. If you can ever manage to corner someone who has worked as an agency screener for more than a day, believe me, the FIRST thing she will tell you about the process is that she was given a list of red flags to use as rejection criteria for queries. And, oddly enough, many of these criteria are not about the book project at all, but the presentation of the submission packet.

The single most common culprit, believe it or not, is typos. (And no, that was not a typo.)

Read over your query letter, synopsis, and first chapter; better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. The best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine already. Writing groups are also tremendous resources for this kind of feedback, as are those nice people you met at a conference recently.

Remember, we’re all in this together, my friends; let’s help one another out.

But long-time readers, chant it with me now: avoid using your nearest and dearest as proofreaders, much less content readers. As much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing, unless they have won a Nobel Prize in Literature recently.

And often not even then. Look to them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust — what about one of those great writers you met at the last conference you attended? — and blandish her into giving your query letter and synopsis a solid reading.

Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother has spent the last fifty years editing the work of some pretty heavy-hitting writers; she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary, feedback source.

Naturally, that doesn’t stop her from compulsively line editing while she reads my work, of course; seriously, when I visited her last week, I had not been in her apartment two minutes before she said, “Oh, I read that chapter you sent me. Let me just dig up my list of what you should change.”

In a family of writers and editors, this is an expression of love, believe it or not, and something that I do automatically as well. Years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity of a charging rhinoceros.

All that being said, I respect my work enough to want my first reader feedback to be from someone who has not been a fan of my writing since I wrote my first puppet play, ALEXANDRA MEETS DRACULA, in kindergarten.

(Alexandra wins, by the way.)

As always, make sure that you read everything in hard copy, not just on a computer screen; the average person reads material on a screen 70% faster than the same words on a page, so which method do you think provides better proofreading leverage?

Uh-huh. There’s a reason that my mother doesn’t want me to send her e-mailed attachments upon which to vent her love and editing pen.

Speaking of which, I’m going to sign off for today, to give my box o’ manuscripts the once-over before I seal the box. Even those of us trained from the cradle to spot typos occasionally miss them, and even though I did not query this novel, I want it to do well with editors.

If only to prompt them to say, “My, but that’s a clean, well-proofread manuscript. This author’s mother must love her very much.”

Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: why bad rejections happen to good books

I’ve been talking for a few days about the goals of the query letter and how to achieve them without sounding as though you’re trying to sell the agent vacation home land in Florida. In that spirit, I thought some of you might find it useful to see what a really good query letter looks like. To make the example more useful, I’ve picked a book in the public domain whose story you might know: MADAME BOVARY.

Before I launch into it, however, I want to emphasize that I am NOT posting it so you can copy it verbatim, but so you may see what the theory looks like in practice. Rote reproductions of purportedly never-fail wording abound in rejection piles; a version does not need to touted as THE perfect template for very long before the Millicents of the agency world start rolling their collective eyes at it.

Why should that be the case? Well, contrary to what many aspiring writers seem to think, there is no such thing as a perfect query letter. Just as there is no infallible pick-up line that will work with every English-speaking female on the planet (sorry, boys, but it’s true), there is no one type of query that will appeal to every agent.

There are, however, ones that appear more professional than others. Here’s an example that rates higher on that scale — and to get the full effect, please imagine it with the indented paragraphs that my blogging program prevents:

Ms. Savvy Marketer
Picky & Pickier Literary Management
0000 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 00000

Dear Ms. Marketer:

I very much enjoyed your recent article in THE WRITER magazine. Since you so ably represented First-Time Author’s debut novel, FRENCH LADIES IN LOVE, I hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction book, MADAME BOVARY.

Emma Bovary is a beautiful woman who knows what she wants out of life: great, overwhelming love, the kind of romance she has read about in novels. Yet her husband, Charles, is so insensitive to nuance that she arrives in her new home on her wedding day to find his dead first wife’s bridal bouquet still languishing in the closet. Finding herself married to the most ordinary of men and operating on an even more ordinary income, she must create romance on her own. In pursuing her dream of a love-filled, glamorous life, she puts her marriage, child, respectability, and even life in jeopardy.

Emma Bovary’s dilemma will be familiar to many novel readers, an echo of an often unspoken but nevertheless strong longing to live a fantasy life. Rather than ridiculing the heroine for her ambitions, as in Stendhal’s bestselling THE RED AND THE BLACK, or making light of the social problems of such a pursuit would entail, like Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR, MADAME BOVARY concentrates on the quotidian tradeoffs already familiar to readers’ lives: living with having married the wrong man, feeling unappreciated, the difficulty in obtaining arsenic for home use.

I am seeking an agent sensitive to the complexities and charm of the mundane, who can help me not only market this book, but who is also interested in working with me to develop my continuing career as a novelist. I may be reached at the address and phone number below (or would be, had the telephone been invented yet), as well as via e-mail at MmeB@yahoo.com.

Thank you for your time in considering this. I am including a SASE for your reply.

Sincerely,

Gustave Flaubert
1234 Hovel Lane, apartment just below the moldy rafters
Paris
(789) 665-2298

(That’s not Flaubert’s real address or phone number, by the way, just in case any of you were thinking of indulging in a spot of time travel.)

Didn’t that make you want to read the book? There’s a reason for that: this query letter makes the book sound interesting without being too pushy or arrogant. Better still, the summary includes a telling detail that will stick in the agent’s mind — investing a sentence’s worth of space in his precious single page in a compelling, original image certainly paid off for Mssr. Flaubert here, didn’t it?

But let’s assume that Mssr. Flaubert had not done his homework. What might his query letter have looked like then?

Picky & Pickier Literary Management
0000 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 00000

Dear Agent:

You’ve never read anything like my fiction novel, MADAME BOVARY. This is one opportunity you’d be a fool to miss!

MADAME BOVARY is a story of lust, greed, and unscrupulousness, set against the backdrop of provincial France. The poet Baudelaire once told me over absinthe that it’s the greatest novel of the 19th century, and I’m sure you’ll agree.

I know agents are notoriously risk-averse and cowardly, but why not take a chance on an unknown writer, for a change? You’ll be glad you did.

Sincerely,

Gustave Flaubert

Now, I respect my readers’ intelligence far too much to go through point by point, explaining what’s wrong with this second letter. Obviously, the contractions are far too casual for a professional missive, and fiction novel is logically redundant. (All novels are fiction, right?) I’d bet my last sou that our pal Gustave didn’t even include a SASE, since he didn’t bother to give the unnamed agent an address where he could be reached.

The primary thing to note here: even a great book will be rejected at the query letter stage if it is pitched poorly.

This comes as a big surprise to most aspiring writers. Yes, many fiction agents would snap up Mssr. Flaubert in a heartbeat after reading his wonderful prose – provided, of course, that the agents in question represented women’s fiction, did not just have their hearts broken by a similar book that didn’t sell three months ago, and are in their right minds, literarily speaking.

But even the agent who is the best match with MADAME BOVARY will not pick it up unless the query letter (or the pitch) convinced her it was worth her time to read. With a query letter like the second, the probability of any agent’s asking to read it is close to zero — and thus another great novel languishes in the rejection pile.

Depressing, isn’t it? But let’s not forget an important corollary to this realization, one that you may find empowering: even a book as genuinely gorgeous as MADAME BOVARY would not see the inside of a Borders today unless Flaubert kept sending out query letters, rather than curling up in a ball after the first rejection.

Yes, I know: deep down, pretty much every writer believes that if she were REALLY talented, her work would get picked up without her having to market it hard, or practically at all.

C’mon, admit it, you’ve had the fantasy: you’re home writing, there’s a knock on your door, and when you open it, there’s the perfect agent standing there, contract in hand. “I heard that your work is wonderful,” the agent says. “May I come in and talk about it?’

Or perhaps in your preferred version, you go to a conference and pitch your work for the first time. The agent of your dreams, naturally, falls over backwards in his chair; after sal volitale has been administered to revive him from his faint, he cries, “That’s it! The book I’ve been looking for my whole professional life!”

Or, still more common, you send your first query letter to an agent, and you receive a phone call two days later, asking to see the entire manuscript. Three days after you overnight it to New York, the agent calls to say that she stayed up all night reading it, and is dying to represent you. Could you fly to New York immediately, so she could introduce you to the people who are going to pay a million dollars for your rights?

Fantasy is all very well in its place, but while you are trying to find an agent, please do not be swayed by it. Writing is a business, as well as an art. If you are looking for work, you apply for a lot of jobs, right?

Don’t send out only one query at a time; it’s truly a waste of your efforts. Try to keep 7 or 8 out at any given moment.

Did I hear some gasps of incredulity out there? “What do you mean, 7 or 8 at any given time?” the shocked cry. “I’ve been rejected ten times. Doesn’t that mean I should lock myself away and revise the book completely before I sent it out again!”

In a word, no.

Oh, feel free to lock yourself up and revise to your heart’s content, but if you have a completed manuscript in your desk drawer, you should try to keep a constant flow of query letters heading out your door, even while you are revising it.

As they say in the biz, the only manuscript that can never be sold is the one that is never submitted. (For a great, inspiring cheerleading essay on how writers talk themselves out of believing this salient truth, check out Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life.)

Keeping a constant flow is a good idea, professionally speaking. It’s psychologically damaging to allow a query letter to molder on your desktop: after awhile, that form letter can start to seem very personally damning, and a single rejection from a single agent can start to feel like an entire industry’s indictment of your work.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: one of the most self-destructive of conference-circuit rumors is the notion that if a book is good, it will automatically be picked up by the first agent that sees it. Or the fifth, for that matter. Or the fiftieth.

This is simply untrue; nothing in this process is automatic. (Except, apparently, for Millicent’s reaching for that too-hot latte every time she goes near her desk, like Pavlov’s dog.)

It is not uncommon for wonderful books to go through dozens of queries, and even many rounds of query-revision-query-revision before being picked up. As long-time readers of this blog are already aware, there are hundreds of reasons that agents and their screeners reject manuscripts, the most common being that they do not represent the particular kind of book being queried.

At the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, how precisely is such a rejection a reflection on the quality of the writing in the book??

Keep on sending out those queries a hundred times, if necessary. The single healthiest thing you can do when a rejection lands in your mailbox is to open it, check the rejecter off your master list of who you have sent what, toss the letter in the recycling bin — and send out the next query letter immediately.

And I do mean right away, before your complex writerly mind starts to embroider upon that (usually form) rejection letter, making it seem more important than it is. Until you can blandish the right agent into reading your book, you’re just not going to know for sure whether it is marketable or not. Keep on trying until you know for sure.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: try, try again; repeat

After I brought up the very, very short amount of time a writer has to grab an agent’s attention in a query letter, I had a few qualms about being so up front about it: it’s accurate, but I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying, after all. I just think that it helps the querying writer to have a realistic sense of just how tough the competition actually is, so he can hone his marketing materials accordingly.

This is not an endeavor where close-enough makes the grade, generally speaking. Nor the first try. And yet the opposite presumptions seem to prevail.

That’s a real problem, when good writers who spend months perfecting their prose often just throw together query letters and synopses — and then query only a few agents. I’ve seen it happen too often. Every time I attend a major conference, in fact.

Why do I associate this behavior with post-conference periods? Because so many attendees walk out of a good literary conference either jazzed-up to submit (because of how they heard agents and editors speak about books in general)or completely depressed (because of how they heard agents and editors speak about the submission process and the current market in particular). Or, even more common, vacillating between the two mental states.

And then, bless their hopeful hearts, they tend to do one of two things:

a) Send out a query (or submission, if requested) to only their favorite agent or editor, waiting for a response from that one before moving on to the next, petering out before they get all the way through the list of category-appropriate agents who attended the conference, or,

b) Send out queries to several (or to everyone who requested submissions), wait to hear back from them all, and then stop querying for a while if none of the responses is positive.

“I gave it my best shot,” these well-meaning writers say afterward, discouraged. “The publishing industry didn’t want my book.”

To be blunt, I don’t think this is either the most effective or the most sanity-preserving way to go about querying. Finding the right fit is a PROCESS, not a one-time Hail Mary free-throw shot.

By all means, query all of those agents who spoke so eloquently about your book category at that conference, but try not to think of them as the only options out there. Think of them instead as the first set of targets in your ongoing marketing push for your book.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t assume the book is unmarketable if those first few agents say no. As I’ve mentioned before, an agent who reads only your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing; to pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your work.

So there.

No, unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly rare ones that asks querants to include a brief writing sample, what is being rejected in a query letter is either the letter itself — for unprofessionalism, lack of clarity, or simply not being a kind of book that particular agent represents — the premise of the book, or the book category. So, logically speaking, there is NO WAY that even a stack of rejection letters reaching to the moon could be a rejection of your talents as a writer, provided those rejections came entirely from cold querying.

Makes you feel just the tiniest bit better to think of rejections that way, doesn’t it?

I would suggest a couple of courses of action as a reasonable response to this realization. First, accept the fact that pretty much all good writers these days go through a quite a few queries before being picked up, and keep sending out those queries. Second, if you’ve been sending out handfuls of queries to category-appropriate agents and have not been asked to submit pages, take a good, hard look at your query letter.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to take a good, hard look at it in any case, to weed out the most common problems. A successful query letter has ALL of the following traits:

(1) it is clearly written, with no typos;

(2) it is polite;

(3) it is less than 1 page — single-spaced, with 1-inch margins and in 12-point type;

(4) it describes the book’s premise (not the entire book; that’s the job of the synopsis) in an engaging manner;

(5) it is clear about what kind of book is being pitched;

(6) it includes a SASE (and mentions that fact, in case the envelope gets lost),

(7) it is addressed to an agent with a successful track record in representing the type of book it is pitching, and

(8) it conveys clear why the writer picked that particular agent to query.

You would not BELIEVE how few query letters that agencies receive exhibit all eight of these traits. And confidentially, agents rather like that, because it makes it oh-so-easy to reject 85% of what they receive within seconds.

No fuss, no muss, no reading beyond, say, line 2. A query addressed to “Dear Agent” or “To Whom It May Concern,” rather than to a specific individual, can be rejected without reading any of the text at all. As can one without a SASE. Millicent can get through a lot more queries in an hour, when such problems are rife.

A particularly common omission: the book category.

I’ve heard many agents complain over the years that they just can’t understand why a talented writer would leave out something as basic as what kind of book being pitched — or even, I kid you not, whether the book is fictionor nonfiction — but I think I have a pretty good notion why. Because, you see, many writers simply don’t know that the industry runs on book categories.

But think of it from the other side of the desk. It would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label — in an agent’s pitch, it’s usually mentioned before either the title or the premise. And since literally no agency represents every kind of book, or even every kind of novel, category is the typically the first thing an agency screener is trained to spot in a query.

Knowing that, think about Millicent’s mood immediately after she’s burnt her lip on that latte. How likely is she to feel charitable toward a query that makes her search for the category or — sacre bleu! — guess it?

Other writers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, think that they are being clever by omitting the book type, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of strategizer thinks, “so I just won’t tell them until they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napolèon: the industry simply doesn’t work that way. If Millicent does not know where the book mentioned will eventually rest on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, she’s not going to want to read it.

Do I see some raised hands out there? You, in the front row: “But Anne, not all books, particularly novels, fall into obvious categories! What if I’m genuinely not sure?”

Good question, You. Yes, for most books, particularly novels, there can be legitimate debate about which shelf would most happily house it, and agents recategorize their clients’ work all the time (it’s happened to me more than once). However, people in the industry speak and even think of books by category, so you’re not going to win any Brownie points with them by making them guess what kind of book you’re trying to get them to read.

There was a good reason that I insisted upon walking you through all of the constituent parts of the pitch earlier in the Book Marketing 101 series: part of learning to market your writing well involves developing the skills to describe it in terms the industry will understand. When in doubt, pick the category that coincides with what the agency (or, better still, particular agent to whom you are addressing your query letter) represents.

If you found the last paragraph mystifying, please see the posts under the BOOK CATEGORIES heading at right. Scroll down until you find the entries on how to decide which is for you, and study it as if it were the Rosetta Stone.

In a sense, it is: book categories provide terms of translation between the often mutually incomprehensible conceptions of manuscripts held by their authors and the people they are asking to represent them.

Think of your query letter as a personal ad. (Oh, come on, admit it: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing yourself to someone with whom you are hoping to have a long-term relationship – which, ideally, it will be; I have close relatives with whom I have less frequent and less cordial contact than with my agent – and as such, you are trying to make a good impression.

So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself?

This is a serious question. Look at your query letter and ponder: have you, as so many personal ads and queries do, been describing yourself in only the vaguest terms, hoping that Mr. or Ms. Right will read your mind correctly and pick yours out of the crowd of ads? Or have you figured out precisely what it is you want from a potential partner, as well as what you have to give in return, and spelled it out?

To the eye of an agent or screener who sees hundreds of these appeals per week, writers who do not specify book categories are like personal ad placers who forget to list minor points like their genders or sexual orientation.

Yes, it really is that basic, in their world.

And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in “it’s a cross between a political thriller and a historical romance, with helpful gardening tips thrown in,” are to professional eyes the equivalent of personal ad placers so insecure about their own appeal that they say they are into, “long walks on the beach, javelin throwing, or whatever.”

Trust me, to the eyes of the industry, this kind of complexity doesn’t make you look interesting, or your book like an innovative genre-crosser. To them, this at best looks like an attempt to curry favor by indicating that the writer in question is willing to manhandle his book in order to make it anything the agent wants.

At worst, it comes across as the writer’s being so solipsistic that he assumes that it’s the query-reader’s job to guess what “whatever” means in this context.

Again: just how cordially do you think Millicent is going to respond to an invitation to play a guessing game with a total stranger?

Be specific, and describe your work in the language she will understand. Because otherwise, you run the risk that she’s just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind should read it.

Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: the query that jumps out of the pile, in a bad way

After my last post, was it my imagination, or did I hear those of you new to the querying process rolling on the floor and moaning? “My God,” the little voice in the back of my head that I choose to attribute to you cried, “this structure is the SIMPLIFIED form of the query letter? It’s as though I need to cram an entire 2-minute pitch onto a single page!”

No, no, it’s not like that: you need to cram an entire hallway pitch into a single page.

Does that make you feel any better?

I’m not going to lie to you: even using the limited structure I mentioned a few days ago, rather than essentially using the query letter as a 1-page synopsis (a popular choice that tends not to work well), it IS difficult to write a really good query letter.

Especially if you play fair: 1-inch margins, indented paragraphs, full address and salutation at the top of the letter, 12-point type.

They WILL notice if you shrink the type, by the way; when I was teaching in a university, I couldn’t believe how often students used to reduce the font to 95% or even 90% to make term papers come out within required limits. I used to wonder what they were thinking: grading a hundred pages at a time, how could I possibly not notice if Student A and C’s 12-point was one size, and Student B’s another?

Believe me, our old pall Millicent the agency screener shouts a similar question at the unheeding publishing gods on an hourly basis. Given how many queries she reads per week (and often at a single sitting), roughly how many words should be on a maximally-utilized single page is pretty much emblazoned upon Millicent’s brainpan.

As with a submission, bright white paper — 20-lb or better, please — tends to make the best impression, as does using the preferred typefaces of the industry in query letter and submission alike: Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New. It’s stylish to use the same typeface for the query letter, the synopsis, and the manuscript, to maximize how good they look together on an agent’s desk. Even if standardization is not your style, avoid flashy paper and typeface choices that might make your query stand out from the crowd.

In a bad way, that is. Yes, Virginia, printing your query letter on Day-Glo orange paper and stuffing it into a Copen blue envelope probably will make your letter acutely visible in the midst of a great big stack, but not in a way that it going to help you.

Why not? Well, this is an industry where standardization is regarded as a sign of professionalism. (Remember all of my yammering about the rigors of standard format for manuscripts? I was serious about that.) A query letter that does not conform to their expectations of what one should look like lands on Millicent’s desk with at least two strikes against it: one, it makes the querier look as if s/he had not done any research about how the industry works, and two, why would a good book have to resort to neon signs to catch an agent’s attention?

Don’t answer that last question; it’s rhetorical.

Yes, I know it’s silly to be judged so purely on presentation, but trust me on this one: 99% of the time, a query letter in Times New Roman printed on nice white paper will be taken more seriously than EXACTLY the same set of words typed in Helvetica on floppy copy paper. Or on even on classy off-white stationary.

Go figure. And wouldn’t you have given your pinkie toes to have known about this prejudice before the first time you queried?

I’m hearing those moans again. “But Anne,” they wail, “if I follow all of the rules, my query will look like everyone else’s. Doesn’t that put more pressure on me to pick precisely the right words in my single-page missive? How can I cram all I need to say to grab their attention in that little space?”

Um, are you sitting down? If you are new to this process, please take a few deep breaths before reading on. And if you’ve been querying for a while, you might want to engage in a few minutes of meditation upon subjects tranquil and soothing first, or at any rate have your blood pressure medication handy. Because:

You actually don’t have the entire page to catch their attention; on average, you have about five lines.

Yes, you read that correctly: most query letters are not even read to their ends by Millicent and her ilk. Even e-mail queries, which tend to be shorter.

Why? I hate to be the one to tell you this, but most queries disqualify themselves from serious consideration before the end of the opening paragraph.

Hey, I told you to sit down first. May I fetch you a glass of water? You’re looking kind of pale.

Let me walk you through some of the most common rejection triggers, so you may avoid them. The most common, as I mentioned a few days ago, is boasting.

Unfortunately, Americans are so heavily exposed to hard-sell techniques that many aspiring writers make the mistake of using their query letters to batter the agent with predictions of future greatness so over-inflated (and, from the agent’s point of view, so apparently groundless, coming from a previously unpublished writer) that they may be dismissed out of hand. Some popular favorites include:

This is a terrific book!

This is the next (fill in name of bestseller here)!

You’ll be sorry if you let this one pass by!

Everyone in the country will want to read this book!

It’s a natural for Oprah!

To professional eyes, these are all absurd statements to find in a query letter — yes, even if the book in question IS the next DA VINCI CODE. Usually, Millicent will simply stop reading if a query letter opens this way, because to her, including such statements is like a writer’s scrawling on the query in great big red letters, “I have absolutely no idea how the industry works.”

Which, while an interesting tactic, is unlikely to get Millicent to invest an additional ten seconds in reading on to your next paragraph.

That’s right, I said ten seconds: as much as writers like to picture agents and their screeners agonizing over their missives, trying to decide if such a book is marketable or not, the average query remains under a decision-maker’s eyes for less than 30 seconds.

Okay, I’m hearing those ambient groans again; we’re going over a lot of depressing home truths today, aren’t we? Query screening is actually – wait for it – MORE knee-jerk than submission screening, for one very simple reason. Which is?

Give yourself a great big gold star if you said time.

The average agency receives 800+ queries per week (that’s not counting the New Year’s Resolution Rush, or the Post-Conference Flurries, when it’s higher), so agents and screeners have a very strong incentive to weed out as many of them as possible as quickly as possible.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, that agents will happily tell you that any query that begins “Dear Agent” (rather than addressing a specific agent by name) automatically goes into the rejection pile. So does any query that addresses the agent by the wrong gender in the salutation. (If you’re unsure about a Chris or an Alex, call the agency and ask; no need to identify yourself as anything but a potential querier.)

So does any query that is pitching a book in a category the agent is not looking to represent. Yes, even if the very latest agents’ guide AND the agency’s website says otherwise.

And you know what? These automatic rejections will, in all probability, generate exactly the same form rejection letter as queries that were carefully considered, but ultimately passed upon.

Which begs our recurring question: how precisely is an aspiring writer to learn what does and doesn’t work in a query?

Over the next few days, I’m going to address precisely that issue. But before I sign off for today, I’m going to ask you to engage in a little practical demonstration: find a clock with a second hand and watch it for that half-minute that Millicent devotes to the GOOD queries.

That may have seem cruel of me, and perhaps it is, but I assure you my intentions are pure: 30 seconds is longer than it might seem at first blush. It’s actually enough time to consider an idea; it’s not so short that it’s impossible to make a positive impression. It’s enough time, as those of you who have been pitching at conferences this summer already know, to give an elevator speech.

Coincidence? I think not. As I have been saying all summer — and in case you hadn’t noticed, this summer’s blogs have collectively been a crash course in marketing, to get you ready for the post-Labor Day querying season — whether your queries and pitches get taken seriously is not entirely a matter of luck, Millicent’s propensity to gulp her lattes before they cool aside. If you present yourself and your work professionally, you are quite a bit more likely to garner a positive response.

You can do this; I have faith in you. Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: but will the popular kids be mean to me?

In my last post, I set out a very basic structure for a query letter, using the skills and tools that we’ve been working on all summer during the Book Marketing 101 series. I had fully expected to post a follow-up the next day, assuaging the fears of the nervous, adding nuances to the prototype, and generally spreading joy and enlightenment abroad.

Then there was a HUGE racing event at a certain track located more or less exactly halfway between my mother’s current home and the town where I grew up. So basically, I spent Saturday zigzagging all over Northern California, trying to get from one to the other without sitting for hours in racing-enthusiast traffic, to get to a minor class reunion.

I say minor, because it was not commemorating one of those nice, round year markers that professional event-organizers keep insisting that we all should celebrate like clockwork. (Or like calendar-work, even.) We’re two years from one of those, and frankly, the guy voted Most Likely to Succeed had to give the crowd a passionate pep talk on Saturday night to generate any enthusiasm at all about the next. Which is funny, because I’m from the Napa Valley, and we tend to hold our reunions in wineries.

As we did our prom, our jazz choir fundraisers, our Girl Scout cookie sales…you get the picture.

It’s not that we’re averse to seeing one another — actually, it’s a pretty nice group of people, on the whole; the halfback who used to tease the small and the meek was going around apologizing to people, even. It’s that going from kindergarten all the way through high school with the same 111 people (and I went to nursery school with 40 of them) can get a MITE claustrophobic in a town where the primary activities for teens are watching grapes grow and trying not to be run over by tourists who have over-sampled at the wineries.

I’m fairly confident that I set some sort of land-speed record when I left at 17.

I dreaded going to the reunion, but how could I stay away? One of the organizers, my best buddy during those dark days of Browniedom when our troop leader had what I suspect was a well-earned nervous breakdown — compounded, no doubt, by both the minor coup that we girls staged one day when we simply refused to cut up yet another set of aluminum cans to make decorative Christmas ornaments for the indigent elderly at the county home while little Roseanne ravished us with selections from her new accordion primer, and the dramatic reenactment of the troop leader’s hysterics that we staged for our parents’ benefit shortly thereafter (not my best writing, certainly, but it got the point across, and isn’t this a long sentence? Henry James would be so pleased) — ruthlessly described her 8-year-old daughter’s school year in precisely the same classroom where we had spent the third grade.

She continued in this vein until I threw my hands over my eyes and cried, “Enough! I’ll go!”

Once I got there, I was genuinely glad she’d blandished me. Because, of course, while pretty much everyone hated high school — since those who didn’t tend not to become writers, I feel fairly confident about making such a sweeping generalization here — it’s kind of hard to hold a grudge against the kid who spilled hot chocolate on you in the second grade much past your mid-thirties, isn’t it? And while reunion-goers tend to dread running into old nemeses and look forward to greeting old friends, it’s the folks one hasn’t thought about in a decade or two who often present the most delightful surprises.

All of which is to say: despite some pretty dangerous-sounding pre-reunion rumblings, Most Likely to Succeed was neither tarred nor feathered, run out of town on a rail, nor burned in effigy. No one was mean to anyone else; no one cried, and everyone seemed to have a pretty good time.

What does all this have to do with querying, you ask? Plenty.

(You thought I was just rambling about my weekend?)

Querying, I think we can all agree, is a necessary evil: no one likes it; it generates a whole lot of inconvenience for writer and agency alike, and to engage in it is to put one’s ego on the line in a very fundamental way. Rejection hurts, and you can’t be rejected if you never send out your work, right? So you can either try to lie low, keeping your dreams to yourself, or you can attempt to approach those high-and-mighty gatekeepers of the industry, asking to be let inside the Emerald City.

Sounds a lot like high school, doesn’t it?

Just as many people stay away from reunions because they fear exposing themselves to the judgment of people whom past experience has led them to believe to be, well, kinda shallow and hurtful, many, many writers avoid querying, or give up after just a handful of queries, because they fear to be rejected by folks they have heard are kinda shallow and prone to be hurtful.

There are a variety of ways to deal with such fears. One could, for instance, not query at all, and resign oneself to that great novel or brilliant NF book’s never being published. One could query just a couple of times, then give up.

Or — and if you haven’t guessed by now, this would be my preferred option — you could recognize that while some of the people at the reunion may in fact turn out to be kind of unpleasant, you really only need to find the one delightful person who finds you truly fascinating to make the entire enterprise worthwhile.

You’ll be pleased to hear, though, that unlike gearing up to attend a reunion, there are certain things you can do before querying to increase the probability of a positive reception. Certain elements mark a query letter as coming from a writer who has taken the time to learn how the industry works.

Agents like writers like that. Ask ‘em.

The structure I proposed last time — which is not the only one possible, or even the only one that works; it’s just what has worked best in my experience — also frees the writer from the well-nigh impossible task of trying to cram everything good about a book into a single page.

Which is, I have noticed over the years, what most aspiring writers tend to try to do. No wonder they get intimidated and frustrated long before they query the 50 or 100 agents (yes, you read that correctly) it often takes these days for a good book to find the right fit.

To put this in perspective, a truly talented writer might well end up querying the equivalent of my entire high school class before being signed. It’s no reflection on the book; it’s just the way the industry works.

The only way that I know to speed up that process is to make the query letter itself businesslike, but personable. Do keep in mind that the SOLE purpose of the query is to engender enough excitement in the reader that she will ask to see a representative chunk of the book itself, not to reproduce what you would like to see on the book’s back jacket or to complain about having to work through an agent at all.

If either of the last two options made you chuckle in disbelief, good. Believe it or not, I’ve seen both turn up many, many times in unsuccessful query letters. Boasting and petulance both abound, and both tend to discourage positive response.

Now, I know that my readers are too savvy to do this deliberately, but isn’t it worth sitting down with your query letter and asking yourself: could an exhausted agency screener like Millicent — in a bad mood, with a cold, having just broken up with her boyfriend AND burned her lip on that over-hot latte again — possibly construe that letter as either?

Yes, querying is a chore, and an intimidating one at that; yes, ultimately it will be the agent’s job, not yours, to market your work to publishers, and an agent or editor probably would have a far better idea of how to spin your book than you would.

Agents and their screeners (it is rare for agents at the larger agencies to screen query letters themselves; thus Millicent) are in fact aware of all of these things. You don’t need to tell them.

Your query letter needs to market your book impeccably anyway, in a tone that makes you sound like an author who LOVES his work and is eager to give agent and editor alike huge amounts of his time to promote it.

As I said: not a walk in the park, definitely, but certainly doable by a smart, talented writer who approaches it in the right spirit. Sound like anyone you know?

I shall overwhelm you with tips and tricks of the trade tomorrow, I promise. But for now, start thinking, please, about how to make your query the one that waltzes into the reunion with a positive attitude, not the one who storms in with a chip on its little shoulder, gunning for Mr. Most Likely to Succeed. Or, heaven forefend, the one that doesn’t stick its nose through the door at all.

Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: query nuts and bolts

I realized after I posted last night (it’s amazing how conducive to self-criticism a truly uncomfortable hotel room can be) that although I had just urged you to send out queries to agents to whom you did not pitch at a conference — sometimes, it’s just not practicable, and it would be a shame if the shy were not able to reap any marketing advantage from conference attendance, right — I haven’t actually written a blog on how to put together a query letter since…could it have been as long ago as February?

Yet here I was, blithely sending those of you who have never done it before out into the tiger-filled woods with no guidance.

So it seems like a dandy time to run through query basics again. Actually, I wish writers talked amongst themselves about the nuts and bolts of querying more

Why? Well, although I know that my readers are too savvy to fall into the pitfalls of the average writer, the vast majority of query letters agents receive are either uncommunicative, petulant in tone, or just poor marketing.

We can do better than that, I think.

For those of you absolutely new to the process, a query letter is a 1-page (single-spaced) polite, formal inquiry sent out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest.

It is not, contrary to popular practice, an occasion for either begging or boasting; you will want to come across as a friendly professional who has done her homework. (Or his, as the case may be.) A good query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

This should sound familiar to those of you who have stuck with me all the way through Book Marketing 101: this was the purpose of the Magic First Hundred Words, wasn’t it?

And, like the hallway pitch, your goal here is not to make the agent fall down on the floor, foaming at the mouth and crying, “I will die if I do not sign this author immediately!” but to prompt a request to submit pages.

That’s a much less formidable goal, isn’t it?

How does one pull that off? By being businesslike without using business format (long-time readers, chant it with me now: documents without indented paragraphs appear illiterate to folks in the publishing industry).

There are a zillion guides out there, each giving ostensibly foolproof guidelines for how to construct a positively stellar query letter, but in my experience, simple works better than gimmicky. (Possibly because the former is rarer.) Typically, a query letter consists of five basic elements:

1. The opening paragraph, which includes the following information:

* A brief statement about why the writer is approaching this particular agent (Hint: be specific. “I enjoyed hearing you speak at Conference X,” “Since you so ably represent Author Q,” and “Since you are interested in (book category), I hope you will be intrigued by my book” all work better than not mentioning how you picked the agent in the first place.)

*The book’s title

*The book’s category (i.e., where your book would sit in Barnes & Noble. Most queries leave this off, but it’s essential. If you don’t know what this is, or are not sure where your book will fall, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right).

*Word count. (Actually, I have never included this, because it makes many novels easier to reject right off the bat, but many agents to have it up front. Because, you see, it makes it easier to reject so many queries off the bat. If your work falls within the normal word count for your genre – for most works of fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words – go ahead and include it. And if you don’t know how to estimate word count — most of the industry does not operate on actual word count — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book.

3. A BRIEF paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book (that’s the target market, mind you, not a paraphrase of your dedication page) and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. If the demographic is not especially well-known (or even if it is; agents tend to underestimate the size of potential groups of readers), go ahead and include numbers.

Don’t make the very common mistake, though, of having your book sound like a carbon copy of a current bestseller: you want to show here that your work is unique. If you can compare your book to another within the same genre that has sold well within the last five years, this is the place to do it, but make sure to make clear how your book serves the target market differently and better.

4. An optional paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book — or, indeed, absolutely the only sentient being in the universe who could have. Actually, it’s not optional for NF, and it’s a good idea for everyone.

Include any past publications (paid or unpaid) in descending order of impressiveness, as well as any contest wins, places, shows, semi-finalist lists, etc., and academic degrees (yes, even if they are not relevant to your book).

If you have no credentials that may legitimately be listed here, omit this paragraph. However, give the matter some serious, creative thought first. If you have real-life experience that gives you a unique insight into your book’s topic, include it. (Again, it need not have been paid experience.) Or any public speaking experience – that’s actually a selling point for a writer, since so few have ever read in public before their first books have come out. Or ongoing membership in a writers’ group.

Anything can count, as long as it makes you look like a writer who is approaching the industry like a professional. Or like a person who would be interesting to know, read, and represent.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph, thanking the agent for her time, mentioning any enclosed materials (synopsis, first five pages, whatever the agent lists as desired elements), calling the agent’s attention to the fact that you’ve sent a SASE, and giving your contact information, if it is not already listed at the top of the letter. (If you can’t afford to have letterhead printed up, just include your contact information, centered, in the header.) Say you look forward to hearing from her soon, and sign off.

There, that’s not so impossible in a single page, is it?

Before you tense up at the prospect, here’s the good news: if you have been prepping your pitch, you’ve already constructed most of the constituent parts of a professional-looking query letter.

Don’t believe me? Look at how the building blocks just snap together to make a log cabin:

Dear Ms./Mr. agent’s last name (NEVER just “Dear Agent”),
I enjoyed hearing you speak at the Martian Writers’ Conference. Not many New York-based agents take the time to come to Mars to meet the local writers; we really appreciate the ones who do.

Since you so ably represented BLUE-EYED VENUSIAN, I hope you will be interested in my book, {TITLE}. It is a {BOOK CATEGORY} that will appeal to {TARGET MARKET} because {#1 SELLING POINT}.

{ELEVATOR SPEECH}

I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, because {the rest of your SELLING POINTS, including any writing credentials}.

Thank you for your time in reviewing this, and I hope that the enclosed synopsis will pique your interest. I may be reached at the address and telephone number above, as well as via e-mail at {e-dress}. I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Aspiring Q. Author

You can do that without breaking a sweat, right?

Don’t worry; this structure isn’t my last word on the query, by any stretch of the imagination, but for today, I’m going to leave you to ponder the possibilities while I go and ponder this great big ocean that is casting buckets of light onto my typing hands. A big part of staying in this business for the long haul is knowing to pace oneself, after all.

Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: the post-conference query

Let no one say that laptops have not changed the way writers work: right now, I am sitting in an internet café facing the Pacific Ocean, watching indigo fog roll across a 180 degree view of what Wallace Stevens would have called indolent ocean. That’s a far cry from staring at the wall above the typewriter back in the good old days, eh?

This time of year, a lot of intrepid conference pitchers are feverishly reworking their first 50 pp. or entire manuscripts (hooray!) to send out to the agents and editors who requested them. But today, I would like to talk about how to handle those slippery folk whom you conference-goers never managed to buttonhole, despite your best efforts.

Don’t blame yourself if you weren’t able to pitch to every agent who represents your kind of work at any given conference. Some agents are virtually impossible to track down. (Rumor has it, for instance, that the agents who attended a certain local conference-that-shall remain nameless were blessed with prodigious bladders, scant appetites, and plenty of behind-the-scenes parties, so they were seldom seen in the hallways for more than a second or two.)

Today, I want to talk about how to approach all of those folks you missed.

I believe it is ALWAYS legitimate to use an agent’s having appeared at a writers’ conference you attended as a personal invitation to query — in theory, they would not be there if they were not looking to sign new authors, right? (This is not always true in practice, but hey, for the sake of argument, let’s assume it is, just for today.)

So if you so much as saw the agent’s name on a conference program, and s/he represents your type of work, go ahead and write “CONFERENCE NAME” in gigantic letters on the outside of the envelope, and begin your query letter with, “I so enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent XX conference, and based upon what you said, I believe you will be interested in my book…”

These are both legitimate tricks of the trade to get your submission read more quickly.

Do be sure before you lick the envelope, of course, that the agent in question actually DID speak at the conference you mention. At the recent PNWA conference (oops), not all of the advertised agents and editors were able to show up, for various reasons. Does this mean these fine folks are not available for subsequent querying?

Heavens, no. It’s usually not worth your time to query an editor to whom you did not pitch (especially as all of the major houses have policies precluding their editors from signing unagented novelists), but if an agent in your area was advertised to attend, it’s fair to take this as a sign that s/he is open — nay, eager — to hear from new writers.

If you were interested in one of the no-shows, the outside of your query envelope should be handled exactly in the same way as the one described above, but your query letter should begin with some permutation of, “I was so sorry to have missed seeing you at the recent XYZ conference, because I believe that my book will interest you…”

I hear some of you murmuring out there — and who could blame you? — “Why is Anne harping so much on the outside of the envelope, when it’s the quality of the submission within that will determine whether the agent will want to see more? And hasn’t Anne been impressing upon us for a couple of years now that the first person to read ANY submission to an agency, be it requested chapters or a query, is generally a screener, and not the agent herself? If the agent is not going to see the outside of the envelope, why does it matter what it looks like?”

Reasonable questions, all, and well worth my ignoring the spectacularly beautiful seascape in front of me to address. Because I was a trifle vague yesterday about how it typically works (and because I haven’t gone over it in a while), let me take you inside the average Manhattan-based agency, once that receives 800+ queries per week. I think it is safe to assume that the excellent employees of the US Postal Service must harbor some resentment toward agencies, because of all that heavy, heavy paper some luckless mail carrier must deliver every day.

Once there, it is all dumped on the desk of a screener, often an intern (translation: this person may not even be paid to be there; she just wants to be an agent some day, and is collecting some résumé candy. If he is paid, it’s a pittance.). Let’s call him George, and assume that his unhappy lot is to decide which 2% out of this morass of pleas should be passed on to his (paid) superiors at the agency.

Got that image firmly in your mind? Good. Now think about the moment when your query letter first touches George’s damp fingertips.

Since he is a bright boy (he’s a junior majoring in English Literature at Columbia, and he has NO idea how he is going to manage to pay off his student loans, if all of his early agency jobs pay as poorly as this one – and in all probability, they will.), obviously, the first thing George does when he receives a new mail delivery is to pull out everything marked REQUESTED MATERIALS: that goes into the top-priority pile. Then there is everything else, opened in the order that his hand happens to fall upon it.

Note that George is already scanning the outside of the envelopes, looking for clues as to what magic awaits within. Any envelope with a clear indication is going to make his life easier, right?

And that, dear friends, is going to get your query placed in a read-first pile, even if the agent who attended the conference did not (as some do) order George and his ilk to set all of the conference attendees’ queries aside into a special pile.

After all, 98% of the querying writers in North America NEVER attend a conference at all; as agents like to tell anyone who seems remotely interested in the matter, queries from conference attendees tend to be far more professionally presented.

Something I devoutly hope is true of queries from my readers as well, but no one is tracking statistics on that yet. I would like to report that writing “Reader of Anne Mini’s blog” on the outside of your envelopes provokes the same hope, but alas, that is not yet true.

But tomorrow, the world!

It pains me to say it, but I HAVE heard of some clever and unscrupulous writers who take advantage of the pervasive agency belief in the power of conferring to label their envelopes untruthfully. Since at a large conference, agents frequently will not remember everyone they asked to send material, I have known certain black-hearted souls who went ahead and wrote REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of — gasp! — unrequested materials. After all, they reason, how is George to know? They’re right, usually: he won’t know the difference.

I strongly advise against this strategy, however, on ethical grounds: for all you know, the karmic record-keeper assigned to track your triumphs and misdeeds was a literary agent in her last life.

Don’t tempt that lightning bolt. Zeus is notoriously testy about integrity amongst artists.

Another common, clever, and unscrupulous method adopted by those who would transfer their work into the read-first pile is to troll the net for literary conferences (large ones work best), jot down the names of the attending agents, and send “Gee, I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you at the recent YY conference, but…” queries with appropriately garnished envelopes. (This only works, of course, if the agent in question actually showed up there.) Oh, this is not good. How on earth am I going to convince you not to do it?

Hmm. It may take me weeks, or even months, to come up with a truly compelling argument that will keep my readers’ feet firmly planted on the paths of virtue. I guess you’re just going to have to consult your own consciences until then.

Whatever strategic choices you may make (hey, I believe in free will), white, gray, or buff Manila envelope, please, for any submission longer than 6 pages — more than 5 might make a normal business-size envelope tear in the post. Use high-quality (at least 20 lb.) white paper for EVERY sheet that you intend to have touched by an agent.

Why? Well, if you’re lucky, that query and submission are going to pass through quite a few hands at the agency. Do you have any idea how fast poor-quality paper wilts when it is handled by hands that have just clutched an iced latté or walked inside after brisk walk back from a power lunch on a sweltering New York day?

Tomorrow, I shall deal with some of the common mistakes made in query letters, but for today, one final piece of advice: even if you garnered permission to send your first 50 pp. to several great agents — and more power to you if you did — please consider querying the other agents who attended the conference as well, if their interests seem anywhere close to yours. And do it soon, before you hear back from the others.

I know, I know, this may seem unnecessary, or even disrespectful to those who have asked you for a peek at your baby. But listen: agencies take time to read material; since most of the publishing industry takes vacation between mid-August and Labor Day, in all probability, you will not hear back on all of your submissions before the fall. Even George may be on vacation right now. Poor lamb, his eyes need the rest.

That’s a month of your life, and if — heaven forefend! — none of the requesters is ultimately interested, won’t you be happier if you already have second-round requests lined up?

The post-conference advantage fades when the days start to cool, my friends. Get your work under as many already-primed eyes before the Georges of tomorrow will no longer recognize the initials PNWA. Yes, it is time-consuming to keep querying, but honestly, it takes less energy to keep seven or eight queries out at any given time than to start from scratch each time you (again, heaven forefend) receive a “Sorry, but this is not for us” missive.

Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: there’s a reason that it’s called line editing

Sorry about the skipped day of posting, everybody: yesterday just seemed to slip away from me somehow, probably because I was in the throes of Deep Thought. This summer has been an unusually intense one for me, teaching fewer classes, but editing more; doing less original writing, but selling one NF book and making the last tweaks on a novel to head out the door just after Labor Day. So it’s safe to say that I’ve spent the last few months buried up to my neck in the sand of publishing industry expectations.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the most graceful image.

But it does give an accurate sense of how the prevailing norms both surround and constrain a writer. Or an editor, for that matter: a freelancer like me is at the double disadvantage of enforcing the prevailing rules without being able to reward good book with a publishing contract.

I was thinking about this yesterday, and I realized with a jolt that even though we are approaching the end of the Summer of Marketing (to be followed, I devoutly hope, by the Autumn of Craft), I have not yet written about one of the single most important truths a submitter needs to know about the industry. It is this:

Agents and editors do not read like other people.

Do I hear some guffawing out there? “Come on, Anne,” I hear the odd skeptic calling from the gallery, “give us a little credit for paying attention. Of course, they don’t read like other people, or at any rate don’t read submissions that way: while the rest of us read for pleasure, they read for business. Whether they pick up a book or not is not merely a matter of whether they LIKE it, but whether they think they can SELL it.”

My, but the skeptics are articulate today, aren’t they?

And smart: all of this is indeed true. However, there is another immense difference between the way professional readers and other book-lovers scan a manuscript. When your garden-variety reader picks up a book, she will generally read a few pages, a chapter, or even the entire book before making up her mind about it, right? Even if she doesn’t like one of the characters, or finds an aspect of the premise improbable, she will usually give the book a chance to change her mind.

Professional readers, on the other hand — and that includes not just editors like me, but agents, their screeners, and pretty much everyone in a position to say yea or nay on acquiring a manuscript for publication — read a manuscript line by line, especially at first. Then page by page.

And if something in one of those lines, or on one of those pages strikes them as off, they will stop.

Now, when an editor stops reading a manuscript she’s already acquired, it’s generally to write suggestions on the manuscript page; when an agent is perusing an already-signed client’s work, that tends to be the case, too.

But in a submission, it’s not the agent or editor’s goal to improve the manuscript: it’s to decide whether they want to take it on.

Which is precisely why the VAST majority of submissions are not read beyond the first page.

If this is news to you — in my bones, I felt a number of you clutching your hearts immediately after I typed that — I implore you to set aside a couple of hours before the next time you submit to read through the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE category at right.

It may be a trifle depressing to see just how many ways a first page can garner rejection, but winnowing out the factors that tend to provoke a knee-jerk reaction in our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, will improve your submission’s chances of getting past her to the agent of your dreams markedly.

The fact is, agency screeners and editorial assistants are generally told to stop reading as soon as a red flag flutters its nasty little head.

Even if Millicent does not begin her career in submission-reading thinking this was a good plan, after she’s spent a few months, or even weeks, going through fifty submissions at a pop, she’s quickly going to realize that this policy is not about hating literature or making it as hard as possible to pass the Rubicon of landing an agent: it’s about time management.

Which means, as I have been saying for a couple of years now, that yes, presentation counts. It means that it is not only possible that some very small problem will knock a submission out of consideration, but that it is the norm.

Thus the difference in how they read and how we do: they are looking for a reason to stop reading; we are living in hope that the author will wow us.

I think it would save a great deal of chagrin if this simple dichotomy were more widely known. But the opposite seems to be true: the vast majority of aspiring writers believe, bless their optimistic hearts, that agents and editors will read with a kindly eye, one that can see errors in presentation and execution understandable in someone new to the biz to the talent that lies underneath.

You know, the way the members of a good critique group do, pointing out the problems, yes, but responding to the essential story and craft.

Most writers believe, in short, that when an agent asks to see the first chapter or the first 50 pages, someone at the agency will read the entire thing; if the agent asked to see the entire book, he will read it end to end in a single sitting. Then, and only then, will the agent decide whether to give the author a chance or not.

Believe me, my friends, if I ran the universe, the industry would work this way. Every submission would receive a full, thoughtful consideration before any decision was made. Armies of literature-loving cherubim would be employed around the clock to write encouraging, helpful analyses of each manuscript, to explain precisely why it did not, in the parlance of the industry, meet their needs at this time. Rejected submitters would be urged to work on specific craft issues, clearly explained in the feedback, and resubmit at a later date.

And flower gardens would spring up spontaneously amongst urban sprawl, every child in the world would have adequate health care and a good reading light installed over her wee bed, and dear little birds would come and perch on my finger while I drew water from the well to prepare the Seven Dwarves’ dinners.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I do not run the universe.

99% of the time, rejected writers never find out just why Millicent bounced their manuscripts. But I’ll bet you a nickel that no matter what aroused her ire, she did not read even a sentence beyond it.

I mention all this not to depress you into a stupor, my friends, but to empower you: most of the time, a rejection is not based upon an entire manuscript, but a fraction of it. Which means, contrary to popular belief, that Millicent is not passing judgment on the entire book when she tucks that form letter into a SASE.

Logically, she can only have rejected only the fraction of it that she read. So does it make sense to revise the entire manuscript in the wake of such a rejection — or to go back, sit down, and figure out where she probably stopped reading?

Yup. That’s a LOT less work for you. When you start getting rejection letters that give substantive feedback, where the agent or editor has taken the time to explain why he is passing, THEN you can be sure that someone in the industry is basing his opinion upon a close reading of your entire work.

When that happens, you should be very pleased: it means that your manuscript is so clean, so free of logical leaps and narrative problems, so interesting that even a time-pressed professional reader, someone whose entire career has trained him to respond on a line level to writing, couldn’t find a reason to stop reading.

And that, my friends, is why detailed, personalized sorry-it’s-not-for-us letters are known in the biz as rave rejections. If the rejecter didn’t like the book quite a bit, he wouldn’t have read that far.

Allow these home truths to settle in the backs of your minds, awaiting the next time you receive a request for pages. Then, when you sit down with — long-time readers, chant it with me now — a hard copy of your manuscript and read it out loud, in order to catch any potential problems, you can try to read like a professional reader: when you encounter a problem, you will stop reading and fix it before moving on.

I actually will launch into my promised discussion of query letters tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: dealing with the Grand Silence, part III, or, what actually happens to those reams of paper you submit

For the past couple of days, I’ve been celebrating the publishing world’s practice of virtually shutting down between mid-August and Labor Day by re-running some posts about adapting to the industry’s sense of time. It can be substantially different from what the rest of us mortals expect, and being aware of that can save a writer a whole lot of grief and stress at submission time.

Tomorrow, I shall be diving into the fine art of querying, the topic which will round the Summer of Marketing to a close. Hey, I didn’t dub this series Book Marketing 101 for nothing: in case it snuck up on you or you joined us late, this summer has been an intensive course in marketing here at Author! Author! Like the rest of the industry, my thoughts will turn back to craft after Labor Day.

Enjoy! Or, if not precisely enjoy, I hope it makes you gnaw on your fingernails less over the next few weeks.

Over the past week or so, I have been writing about the inadvertent etiquette gaffes writers new to the business often commit, costing them credibility points with agents. A couple of days ago, I brought up several examples of the kind of writer who has a hard time understanding that while his manuscripts us the most important single item in the universe to him, to an agent, it is one of hundreds, or even thousands – and this is true REGARDLESS OF THE QUALITY OF THE WRITING.

I know with is hard to accept. It is counterintuitive, and we’ve all heard stories about how this or that book was picked up in a flash. If you scratch those stories, however, you’ll usually discover that the books to which they refer either came out 20+ years ago, however, or their writers had actually been shopping their books around for quite a while first.

Like, say, the first in the Harry Potter series, AUNTIE MAME, and THE FIRST WIVES’ CLUB.

We hear fewer of these long-struggle stories than we used to, I notice. After a well-established writer had made a few turns around the conference circuit, accounts of struggle tend to shrink: the more famous a writer is, the shorter a time he claims it took him to find an agent.

But not understanding that agencies deal in hundreds of pounds of submitted paper per week – thus rendering the probability of any given one getting read out of order slim – can lead to some pretty dire consequences for the writer.

Why? Because we’re constitutionally incapable of NOT trying to second-guess what’s taking so damned long. Observe the plight of our next exemplar:

Writer-centered scenario 4: After sending out his second round of queries, Harold has received a request to submit from agent Hermione. Delighted, he prepares his packet with care, making sure to send only precisely what Hermione has asked him to send, and mails it off.

And he waits. While normally he would spend a couple of ours per week preparing fresh queries, he abandons this effort while he is waiting for Hermione’s reply. What would be the point? He’d only have to contact all of those agencies after Hermione has made an offer, anyway.

After the first week, Harold is disappointed not to have heard back. By the fourth, he’s genuinely begun to worry. By the end of the eighth, he’s distraught. Still, he’s always heard on the conference circuit that one should NEVER call an agent, so he sits tight.

By the time the third month has passed, Harold has come up with an explanation to justify the wait: Hermione, he has concluded, read his submission as soon as it came in, and now everyone else in the agency is reading it. Or she read it, and has been thinking ever since about whether to pick it up.

Ultimately, he never hears back. After six months, he begins sending winsome little e-mails to her, asking her whether she has made up her mind yet.

Hermione never responds. Rumor has it that she has started an anonymous agenting blog where she complains humorously about being stalked by writers. Harold is stunned to see some of his own missives posted there, as warnings to others.

Okay, where did Harold go wrong?

First, he fell prey to that same bugbear I was discussing earlier in the week, the notion that a requesting agent will – and should – drop everything the instant his manuscript arrives, in order to give it her full attention. It’s an unrealistic expectation, however, and leads to tremendous amounts of unnecessary chagrin.

Many, if not most, aspiring writers want to believe that talent is the universal solvent of business-as-usual, but that is simply not true – and furthermore, is based upon a commonly-held misconception about what happens to submissions after they arrive at an agency. The fantasy generally runs like this: the day’s mail comes in, containing Manuscript X. The agent pounces upon it, rips open the packaging, peruses it instantly, and makes a decision on the spot whether to represent the author.

The reality, on the other hand, runs more like this: the day’s mail comes in, and the agency’s screener is charged with opening it. If a package is marked REQUESTED MATERIALS, it will usually be opened first, but otherwise, the screener just sorts it. Manuscript X is then sent along to the first submission screener, who will open the package and check that the submission conforms to the agency’s submission requirements. If not, it can be dealt with immediately: rejection.

This, by the way, is the reason that bad news often travels faster than good, in this business.

If it passes that first-glance test, Manuscript X will then sit in a pile until the screener has time to read it. If the manuscript is wonderful, the screener will write a brief report for the agent; otherwise, the manuscript is sent back to the author. At many agencies, a manuscript that passes the first round successfully will be given to a second screener. If she likes it, she too will write a report, and Manuscript X will be passed along to the agent.

Then, and only then, will the agent read it. But, given how busy agents tend to be, Manuscript X might easily begin to decompose while it is sitting on her desk. Paper is, after all, biodegradable. So Harold, and writers like him, wait.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: be realistic in your time expectations. If you haven’t heard back from an agent or editor, 99% of the time it’s because your manuscript has yet to be read. Even if they were reading submissions the second they received them, agents and editors are too specialized, and too busy to drop everything to attend to even the most promising new client.

There’s a very good reason for this, too: they make their living by selling books, not by acquiring new clients. In order to stay in business, proportionally little of an agent’s time CAN be spent gobbling up new submissions. In fact, most of the agents I know don’t have time to read in their offices at all; they wrestle stacks of manuscripts home on the subway, to read in their spare time. They actually do love good writing, for the most part: they just don’t have much time to devote to indulging that love.

Trust me, after you have signed with the agent of your dreams, you’ll be happy that she spends the vast majority of her time selling your work, rather than hunting up new clients.

So where does this leave poor Harold? Well, in a sense, he was right: his submission probably was being passed up the food chain. But his further supposition that Hermione would have read his work and was pondering it is unrealistic: everyone along the chain I’ve described above reads far too many manuscripts in any given month, or even any given week, to reserve brain space for reconsidering past reads.

Okay, I think I’ve beaten that late equine enough. But here’s the kicker: what should he have done differently?

Well, in the first place, Harold never should have stopped querying while he was waiting to hear back from Hermione. If another agent had asked him to submit, Harold would have had a legitimate reason to contact Hermione right away: I thought you would want to know that another agent is also looking at my book. That alone probably would have speeded up the process.

Without such an excuse at the ready, though, what should Harold have done? Well, he might have used his imagination to come up with the single most likely explanation for an ultra-long delay: his manuscript may have gotten lost. After 8 weeks or so, he should have sent an e-mail, letter, or even – gasp! – a phone call, politely asking if the agency had received his submission packet.

Or, if he were genuinely shy, he could have sent another copy of the submission, with a cover letter saying that he feared that his earlier package had been lost. My point is, by following up in a businesslike manner, Harold would have offended no one, and if his package had actually been lost, he could have remedied the situation.

Having waited too long to follow up, however, Harold was wrong to bug Hermione on an ongoing basis. After 6 months, she probably will not recognize his name or any reference to his project; she may just read it as an offbeat attempt at querying. Remember, it is not beyond belief that she never saw the submission at all – it might have gotten stalled at the screening level. So coy reminders of his existence are probably not going to do Harold any good whatsoever.

I know submission is a tough, nerve-wracking process, but do try to be reasonable: unless the agency or agent is brand-new, I can absolutely guarantee you that yours is not the only stack of paper it received on any given day. Nor, unless you are already a celebrity or a minor deity with the power to cause your submission packet to glow with an unearthly radiance, did all ongoing business stop the instant your manuscript crossed the threshold. Expect it to take some time.

And if you have not heard back within a reasonable amount of time, treat it as you would any other business lapse. Be polite and call it to the agency’s attention.

But most of all, keep moving. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: dealing with the Grand Silence, part II, or, assumptions, assumptions

In the spirit of the publishing world’s time-honored tradition of August vacations, I am spending a few days re-running former posts on how writers’ and agents’ senses of how long it should take to respond to a submission differ. To put it mildly, their expectations are generally not on the same calendar page.

And I’m talking month-at-a-glance calendar page here. Not a lot is going on in the industry until after Labor Day. (For my international readers, that’s the first Monday in September, when we in the US gather in back yards and beaches to barbeque things, or in malls to buy mattresses. How this communal frivolity celebrates the American worker remains a mystery.)

Of all of the many aspects of submission that are outside the writer’s control, timing is probably the least discussed, because we would all like to think (c’mon, admit it) that our work is so compelling that the instant anyone on the business side of the industry touches it, he will immediately feel compelled to clear his schedule for the rest of the day to give it a good, hard read. By logical extension of this fantasy, when we don’t hear back, something must be dreadfully wrong.

Knowing how turn-around time usually works can help relieve the stress of suspecting that one’s own submission is the only one not being attended to with the speed of an ER staff greeting the inhabitants of an ambulance. Trust me, it’s not just you.

Here is a post that I wrote some months back, showing where giving in to the fantasy can lead. Enjoy!

Yesterday, I broached the seldom-discussed subject of writers’ expectations about how agents will react to their work – specifically, how writers are often surprised and demoralized when they first encounter the legendary slowness of agency turn-around times. There are icebergs that move faster. The temptation, of course, is to correlate slowness of response with the industry’s openness to one’s work, but really, the two are seldom related.

Honestly. If you haven’t heard back, 99% of the time it’s because the agent hasn’t read the submission yet. It’s under those other 49 submissions propping up her file cabinet. How could that possibly be a reflection upon the quality of your work?

Yesterday, I discussed how unrealistic expectations might eat away at a writer’s confidence from the inside. Today, I want to take a look at how they might cause a writer to violate industry etiquette, thus harming the book’s chances for success.

Writer-centered scenario 2: Edgar decides his novel is akin to a bestseller from a couple of years ago, so he very sensibly finds out who represented it. After having looked up the agent, Emmanuel, in one of the standard agency guides, he picks up the phone and calls Emmanuel in New York.

(Hush, those of you who just gasped: I’m making a point here.)

Amazingly, Emmanuel answers his own phone, and Edgar pitches his work. Much to Edgar’s surprise, though, Emmanuel’s response lukewarm; instead of wanting to discuss the project, he gets off the phone as quickly as possible.

Okay, what did Edgar do wrong?

All right, gaspers, go ahead and tell the rest of the class: Edgar called an agent, something every agency guide ever published will tell a writer not to do unless the building in which the agency is housed is on fire.

And maybe not even then. Seriously, they hate it when writers with whom they have no previous relationship call. It’s not quite considered “Hey, you kicked my grandmother!” rude, but it’s definitely black tie party-crashing rude.

Why is cold-calling an agent considered such a HUGE faux pas? Because these are busy, busy people; they don’t have time to talk with every writer in the English-speaking world, and besides, until an agent knows that you can write, isn’t chitchat irrelevant?

There is another reason Edgar’s approach was poor strategy. A writer would never see it like this, of course, but from Emmanuel’s perspective, the expectation that he WOULD have time to take phone calls from writers he’s never met implies that Edgar thinks he’s not very successful.

And that wouldn’t just be paranoia on Emmanuel’s part. Because, practically, only a VERY unsuccessful agent would be sitting around waiting for requested materials to come in — and since agents are notorious for saying in every agency guide and at every conference that prospective clients should not bug them with calls, most of them would assume that a writer who did so is either casting aspersions upon their success rates or entirely new to the industry.

The result: insult. The moral: never call an agent who hasn’t ASKED you to call. And never, ever use a call as a substitute for a query letter.

Writer-centered scenario 3: Gertrude met agent Germaine at a conference. After hearing her pitch, Germaine responded very nicely, asking to see the first few chapters.

Instead of sending it out right away, though, Gertrude, like so writers in her situation, went into a revision frenzy, going over every line with a magnifying glass, tweezers, AND a fine-toothed comb. After a couple of days, it became apparent to Gertrude that this revision was going to for a few weeks, so she sent a page-long e-mail to Germaine, explaining that she was not going to be able to get the pages to her right away.

Germaine did not respond. Stunned not to have heard back, Gertrude concluded that the agent had lost interest altogether, and never sent the pages at all.

Oh, dear, Gertrude has stumbled into several of the most common drop-everything-for-me problems. Any guesses as to what they are? (Hint: the revision panic wasn’t directly involved.)

If you said that Gertrude’s problem was assuming that the request to send materials was only good for as long as the agent remembered her, give yourself a gold star. Agents hear FAR too many pitches – and receive far too many queries – to remember them all indefinitely, or even by the time their planes touch down at La Guardia after the conference.

Yes, even the ones they liked. So you’re going to have to remind the agent in the cover letter that she requested the enclosed pages, anyway. (If you’re not clear on why, please see my earlier posts on SUBMISSION PACKETS, right.)

Gertrude would have been okay, though, had she not put her assumption that she was the only writer in Germaine’s universe in writing. Anyone care to guess why Germaine did not respond?

That’s right – what may have seemed like courtesy from Gertrude’s perspective looked like something else entirely from the agent’s POV: a writerly assumption that the agent had dropped everything, from her 141 clients’ books to screening queries, waiting for Gertrude’s pages. Again, it implies that the agent had nothing else to do.

And we already know how they feel about THAT assumption, right?

Trust me, it’s not as though agents whip out a pencil immediately after they have requested a manuscript and pencil in time to read it. When it arrives, it arrives. If a couple of months has passed since an agent requested your manuscript, you should probably drop a BRIEF, polite note saying when it may be expected, but otherwise, don’t waste their time.

They don’t like it, you see. And the last thing you want to be labeled before an agent reads your work is a client who is going to be bugging them all the time, right?

Gertrude made one more mistake here, and for the sake of her marketing success, it’s a whopper. Anyone? Anyone?

Three gold stars if you caught that Gertrude expected the agent to write back and reassure her before she sent out her pages. From the agent’s POV, Gertrude was asking for the agent to request the pages again – and from a professional perspective, why would anyone need to be asked twice to have a shot at professional success?

I know, I know: it’s not very comfortable, following the trajectories of these industry faux pas, but far better that you read about them here than stumble into them unwarily yourselves, right? I shall sleep better at night, knowing that my readers, at least, will not be emulating Edgar and Gertrude.

Keep up the good work!