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!

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