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!

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