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!

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