Before you pop that first query or submission of the year into the mail, may I have a word?

And would you mind very much, New Year’s resolvers, if that word were wait?

I know, I know: you want to get that query or submission out the door. You’re resolved, in fact, that this will be the January that you crack the publication code. And the sooner you launch your plans, the better, right, because otherwise, you might lose momentum?

Admirable intentions, all, especially the last: as the media so eager to urge you to make that resolution — or, indeed, any New Year’s resolution — will be telling you in a few weeks, the average New Year’s resolution lasts only a few weeks. Which means, in practice, that far from being the best time of the year to act upon those laudable plans, the first few weeks of the year are strategically the worst.

Or, at the very least, the time when a query or submission is most likely to be rejected. Why? Every year, literally millions of aspiring writers across this fine land of ours make precisely the same New Year’s resolution — with the entirely predictable result that every year, rejection rates go up in the first few weeks of January.

Was that resounding thunk that just reverberated throughout the cosmos the sound of thousands of first-time queriers and submitters’ jaws hitting the floor? I’m not entirely surprised. For most writers new to the game, the notion that any factors other than the quality of the writing and excellence of the book’s concept could possibly play a role in whether a query or submission gets rejected is, well, new. If a manuscript is genuinely good, these eager souls reason, it shouldn’t matter when it arrives at an agency or small publishing house, right? By the same logic, if a query for a truly well-written book — which is, contrary to popular opinion, not the same thing as a truly well-written query — lands on a pro’s desk, it will be received in precisely the same manner if it’s the only query arriving that day, or if it must howl for attention next to hundreds or thousands of incoming queries.

Meanwhile, tomorrow morning, agents, editors at small publishing houses, and the screeners who read their day’s allotment of queries will open their e-mail inboxes and moan, “Why does every aspiring writer in North America hit SEND on January 1? Do they all get together and form a pact?”

Effectively, you do. You all formed such similar New Year’s resolutions, you see.

So did the tens of thousands of successful queriers from last year who decided that after December 31, they were going to stop fiddling with their manuscripts and send those pages the agent of their respective dreams requested, unfortunately. It doesn’t occur to them, understandably, that each of them is not the only one to regard the advent of a new year as the best possible time to take steps to achieve their dreams.

Instead of, say, February 12th. Or the fifth of May. Or October 3. Or, really, any time of the year that the sheer weight of numbers would guarantee that competition would be stiffer for the very few new writer slots available at any well-established agency or small publishing house.

That made half of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “Wait — what do you mean, very few new writer slots ?” queriers and submitters new to the game gasp. “Don’t agents take on every beautifully-written new manuscript and intriguing book proposal that comes their way?”

That’s a lovely notion, of course, but in practical terms, it would be impossible. Think about it: reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books to publishers and when those books earn royalties, right? There’s more to that than simply slapping covers on a book and shipping it to a local bookstore. In any given year, only about 4% of traditionally-published books are by first-time authors, and those books tend as a group to be less profitable: unless a first-timer already enjoys wide name recognition, it’s simply more difficult for even the best marketing campaign to reach potential readers.

So at most agencies, most of the income comes from already-established clients — which means, on a day-to-day basis, a heck of a lot of agency time devoted to reading and promoting work by those authors. In recent years, selling their work has gotten appreciably harder, as well as more time-consuming, yet like so many businesses, publishing houses and agencies alike have been downsizing. At the same time, since writing a book is so many people’s Plan B, hard economic times virtually always translate into increased query and submission volume. That means agencies have to devote more hours than ever before to processing queries and submissions — an activity that, by definition, does not pay them anything in the short run.

Why should any of that matter to a new writer chomping at the bit? First, high querying and submission volume plus tight agency budgets translate, inevitably, to less time spent on each query and submission. Equally inevitable — and you might want to sit down for this one: the more successful an agent is, the more queries s/he will receive, and thus the greater the pressure on that agent’s screener to narrow down the field of contenders as rapidly as possible.

Why, you gasp, clutching your palpitating heart? Because time does not, alas, expand if one happens to have good intentions, most good agents simply don’t have time to take on more than a handful of new clients per year.

Starting to think differently about the tens of thousands of queries that might be jostling yours in an agency’s inbox tomorrow if you hit SEND today? Or the manuscripts that will be stacked next to yours if you stuff those requested pages into a mailbox later in the week?

To be fair, the overwhelming majority of those queries will be easy for the screener — known here at Author! Author! under the collective name of Millicent, to help us remember that she’s a human being with individual literary tastes working for an agent with personal preferences, as well as literary market savvy — to reject at first glance, and often for reasons that have little to do with the writing. At this time of year especially, new writers often pick agents to query essentially at random. Out comes that logic we saw earlier: if agents represent good books, and a book is well written, any agent could represent it successfully, right?

Actually, no: agents specialize, and it’s very much to both a good book and a good writer’s advantage that they should. The publishing industry is wide-ranging and complex, after all; no one who sells books for a living seriously believes that every well-written book will appeal to every reader. Readers tend to specialize, too.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, the publishing world thinks of books in categories: fantasy, YA, Western, memoir, etc.; it’s a matter of reaching a specific target audience. While an individual reader may well buy books across a variety of categories — indeed, most do — readers who gravitate toward a certain type of book tend to share expectations, and publishers market categories accordingly. A devotee of paranormals, for instance, would be disappointed if he picked up a book presented as a vampire fantasy, but the storyline didn’t contain a single bloodsucker. By the same token, a lover of literary fiction would be dismayed to discover the novel she’d been led to believe was an intensive character study of an American family turned out to be an explosion-packed thriller.

Acquiring editors also harbor those expectations — and since no editor or publishing house brings out every different kind of book, agents would be less effective at their jobs if their only criterion for selecting which books to represent was whether they liked the writing. They, too, tend to specialize, handling only certain book categories.

Again, why should this trouble a writer longing to land an agent, any agent, as quickly as possible? There is no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for a book in a category her boss does not represent. No matter how beautifully that query presents the book’s premise, it’s a poor fit for her agency. Approaching an agent simply because he’s an agent, then, tends to be the first step on a path to rejection.

Especially, if you can stand my harping on this point, in January. New Year’s resolvers, after all, are frequently in a hurry to see results. Too much of a hurry, often, to do much research on any given agent before sending off a query. You would not believe, for instance, how many aspiring writers will simply type literary agent into Google and e-mail the first few that pop up. Or how many more will enter a generic term like fiction into an agency search, intending to query the first 80 on the list.

Usually without checking out any of those agents’ websites or listings in one of the standard agents’ guides to find out what those fine folks actually represent. And that’s a pity, because not only is an agent who already has a solid track record selling a particular category more likely to be interested in similar books — that agent will also have the connections to sell that type of book. Which means, ultimately, that approaching an agent specializing in books like yours could mean getting published faster.

Yes, really. You don’t just want to land any agent, do you? You want to entrust your book to the best possible representative for it.

I sense some grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled mutter, and who could blame you? “All I want to do is get my book published; I know that I need an agent to do that. But I don’t have a lot of time to devote to landing one. Thus my wanting to act upon my New Year’s resolution toute suite: I had a few spare moments over the holidays, so I was finally able to crank out a query draft. I understand that it might be a better use of my querying time to rule out agents who don’t represent my type of book at all, but why wouldn’t sending my query to a hundred agents that do be the fastest way to reach the right one? That way, I could get all of my queries out the door before I lose my nerve — or my burst of new year-fueled energy.”

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about why generic queries tend not to be received as kindly in agencies as those that are more tightly targeted; there’s a reason, after all, that the stock advice on how to figure out which agents to query has for years been find a recently-released book you like and find out who represented it. Admittedly, that excellent advice was substantially easier to follow back in the days when publishers routinely allowed authors to include acknowledgements — it used to be quite common to thank one’s agent. Any agency’s website will list its primary clients, however, and I think you’ll be charmed to discover how many authors’ websites include representation information.

In case I’m being too subtle here: no recipient of a generic query will believe that its sender had no way to find out what kinds of books she represents, or which established authors. Neither will her Millicent. Small wonder, then, that any screener that’s been at it a while can spot a query equally applicable to every agency in the biz at twenty paces — especially if, as so often is the case with mass-produced mailed queries, it’s addressed to Dear Agent, rather than a specific person. Or, as is even more common, if it is rife with typos, too informal in tone, or simply doesn’t contain the information an agent would want to know before requesting pages.

Given the intensity of competition for Millicent’s attention on an ordinary day of screening, any one of these problems could trigger rejection. During the post-New Year’s query avalanche, it’s even more likely.

Let’s take a moment to picture why. Agents and editors, like pretty much everybody else, often enjoy the holidays; they’ve even been known to take time off then, contrary to popular opinion amongst New Year’s resolution queriers. Since it’s hard to pull together an editorial committee — and thus for an acquiring editor to gain permission to pick up a new book — with so many people on vacation, it’s fairly common for agents and editors alike to use work time during the holidays to catch up on their backlog of reading. (See earlier point about existing clients’ work.) It’s not, however, particularly common to employ that time reading queries.

Why? The annual New Year’s resolution barrage about to descend, of course; they know they’ll be spending January digging out from under it. All through the holiday season, writers across the English-speaking world have been working up both drafts and nerve.

Picture, then, what will greet your garden-variety Millicent when she walks into the office on the first working day of January. Not only will the usual post-vacation backlog await her, but so will the fruits of every New Year’s resolver’s enthusiasm. Every inbox will be stuffed to overflowing; thousands of e-mails will be crowding the agency’s computers; the mailman will be staggering under armfuls of envelopes and manuscript boxes.

Tell me, if you were Millicent, how quickly would you be inclined to read through that tall, tall stack of queries? How much time would you tend to spend on each one, compared to, say, what you might devote to it on March 8th? Would you be reading with a more or less charitable eye for, to pluck an example out of thin air, the odd typo or a storyline that did not seem to correspond entirely with your boss’ current interests?

Before you answer any of those burning questions, consider: working her way through that day’s correspondence clear her schedule, or even enable her to see her desk again. As January progresses, each day will bring still more for her to read. Not every New Year’s resolution gets implemented at the same pace, after all, nor does they have the same content. This month, however, Millicent may be sure that each fresh morning will provide additional evidence that writers everywhere have their noses to the wheel — and each Monday morning will demonstrate abundantly that New Year’s resolvers are using their weekends well.

At least for the first three weeks or so. After that, the New Year’s resolution energy tends to peter out.

Not entirely coincidentally, that’s also when New Year’s resolution queriers tend to receive their first sets of mailed rejections — and when e-mailing queriers begin to suspect that they might not hear back at all. (An increasingly common agency policy, by the way: rejection via silence has been the norm for the past few years.) The timing on those rejections is key to Millicent’s workload, as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time queriers give up after only one or two attempts.

That’s completely understandable, of course: rejection hurts. But as any agent worth her salt could tell you, pushing a book past multiple rejections is a normal part of the publication process. Just as — again, contrary to popular opinion — even the best books generally get rejected by quite a few agents before the right one makes an offer to represent it, manuscripts and book proposals seldom sell to the first editor that reads them.

Translation: it may feel like a rejection from a single agent represents the publishing industry’s collective opinion about your writing, but it’s just not true. Individual agents have individual tastes; so do their Millicents. Keep trying until you find the right fit.

But you might want to wait a few weeks — and if it’s not clear yet why, I ask you again to step out of a writer’s shoes and into Millicent’s: if you knew from past experience how many fewer queries would be landing on your desk a few weeks hence, would you read through this week’s bumper crop more or less quickly than usual? Would you be more or less likely to reject any particular one? Or, frankly, wouldn’t you be a bit more tired when you read Query #872 of the day than Query #96?

Still surprised that rejection rates tend to be higher this time of year? Okay, let me add another factor to the mix: in the United States, agencies must produce the tax information for all of their clients’ advances and royalties for the previous year by the end of January.

That immense sucking sound you just heard was all of the English majors in the country gasping in unison. Representing good writing isn’t just about aesthetic judgments, people; it’s a business. A business based upon aesthetic judgments, of course, but still, it’s not all hobnobbing with the literati and sipping bad Chardonnay at book launches.

It’s also a business run by people — living, breathing, caring individuals who, yes, love good writing, but also can get discouraged at a heavier-than-usual workload. They can become tired. Or even slightly irritated after reading the 11th generic query of the day, or spotting five typos in the 111th.

Imagine, then, what it might feel like to read the 1,100th. Of the day, if one happens to be perusing it within the first few weeks of January.

To repeat my word du jour: wait. You’re an original writer; why would you need to pick the same day — or month — to launch your dreams as everybody else?

I raise my glass to toast those dreams. As always, my New Year’s resolution is to help good writers realize theirs, not just through general encouragement, but also practical advice. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXX: is it a mirage, or do I spy the finish line at long last?


No, you’re not seeing things, campers: this is indeed the last Queryfest post. It’s been a long time coming, as the song would have it, and we’ve wandered down a few side paths along the way, but this is, as they say, it.

Yes, I’m relieved, too. Of all the unpleasant tasks that fall to the lot of the aspiring writer, composing query letters is perhaps the most universally-resented necessity. (Synopsis-writing would be first by a mile, but not all aspiring writers are aware that the more successful they are in getting published, the more often they will to have to churn out synopses.) Not only do most writers of book-length works feel, justifiably, that if their talents leaned in the direction of one-page documents, they would have gone in for writing brief epistolary novels, if not short-form poetry — they believe, and not entirely unreasonably, that the ability to write an engaging letter is not the best proof that one can write a novel. Or a memoir. Or a book proposal.

While that may well be true, there’s a pretty good reason that agencies expect anyone who intends to work with them to learn how to write a professional-sounding query: it’s quite an efficient means of assuring that the writers they pick up will have gained at least a minimal working knowledge of publishing. Think about it: as we have seen throughout this series, in order to whip up a solid query letter, a writer must figure out her book’s category, do a bit of research on what agents represent that type of book, come up with a 30-second pitch of the book’s premise or argument (try timing a dramatic reading of the descriptive paragraph sometime), ponder the book’s selling points and/or one’s own platform, and include a SASE.

Honestly, would you have known to do any of that just because you had the inspiration and persistence to write a book? Indirectly, the agent of your dreams has prompted you to take a crash course in many of the skills you will need to become a happily-published author.

Oh, you thought I had lingered on the constituent parts of the query for months on end because letter-writing fascinated me?

To demonstrate just how far we have all come over the course of Queryfest, here is one final example, written by yet another brave, generous, and naturally creative member of the Author! Author! community, A. Verage Reader. I was delighted to see A’s query pop into my inbox: not only does her book sound like a real page-turner, but she has also, like so many well-meaning, talented aspiring writers across the globe, submitted a query that presents our hypothetical agent, Hawkeye McAgentson of Picky & Pickier Literary Management, with a quandary: should she base her decision to request pages upon the story A is telling in her query, or upon how she presents it and herself?

And already, the intrepid few who have been following this series from the very beginning fling your hands into the air. Yes, thoughtful, sharp-eyed, and faithful readers? “But Anne,” you point out, “realistically, would Hawkeye be the one making this decision? Yes, her staff might pass the most successful queries on to her, but Hawkeye is usually busy selling her clients’ books to read every query personally, isn’t she? So wouldn’t the first-round weeding out be performed by our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener?”

Quite right, Queryfest stalwarts, and since this often comes as a gigantic surprise to first-time queriers, how glad I am that you reiterated it. Contrary to popular opinion, most well-established agents simply do not have time to read the thousands of queries they receive, much less to narrow down those thousands to the three or four manuscripts they can reasonably take on per year. That’s why agencies employ Millicents, to reject the overwhelming majority of queries and submissions. That way, the agent can concentrate upon reading the tiny percentage of manuscripts and book proposals that Millie deems well-written, written well for the target audience (not always the same thing), market-ready, something the market is ready for (see last parenthesis), and a storyline or argument likely to interest Hawkeye.

I know, I know: having to make it past Millicent’s notoriously nit-picky scrutiny can seem like an insurmountable barrier. Most queriers would prefer that Hawkeye read every single query and submission herself — or, better still, just allowed potential clients to send the first 50 pages instead of a query. Honestly, though, when yours is one of the dozen or so on Hawkeye’s desk, you’ll be deeply grateful to Millicent for freeing up her boss’ schedule enough to read your work closely.

In that spirit, let’s slip into Millicent’s reading glasses and take a gander at A’s query. If you could request manuscripts from only a couple of the several hundred queriers who contacted Hawkeye this week, would you say yes to this one? (As always, if you are having trouble seeing the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.)

Actually, that was sort of a trick question, wasn’t it? Naturally, Millicent could not have said yes to this query: I don’t employ a Millicent, for the exceedingly simple reason that I am not an agent. I am a freelance editor. And even if I were an agent, I would expect my Millicent to be aware that the proper formal salutation for a lady with a Ph.D. is Dear Dr. Mini.

Actually, the only people I make call me Dr. Mini are medical doctors. It bugs them to such an astonishing degree that as both a trained social scientist and a writer of comedy on serious issues, I feel an intellectual duty to try to find out why.

So had A. sent me this query, I would not have been in a position to give her the answer she wanted. By the terms of this contest, though, she did not send it to me — she sent it to Hawkeye. While the address (or, in this case, non-address) at the top clearly indicates that she intended to mail it to me.

This, I’m afraid, is usually an instant-rejection offense — and far more common than any of us would like to think. Oh, it’s a completely understandable faux pas: A. was probably printing out several queries at once, and the one for this Mini person accidentally ended up in the envelope addressed to Picky & Pickier. Happens all the time. Yet you can hardly blame Hawkeye’s Millicent from taking umbrage at being expected to read a paragraph about how much A. admires somebody else’s blog.

Not that somebody else isn’t flattered, of course. Heaven help A., though, if Hawkeye happens also to blog.

I’m harping on this not only because it is one of the most common (and least-often acknowledged) reasons queries get rejected, but also because about a third of the brave, generous souls who volunteered their query letters for scrutiny here stumbled into precisely the same trap. So, reliably, do between a quarter and a third of the entrants of any writing contest: the rules call for one thing, and the entrant does something else. Care to guess what that means for the contest entries in question?

Uh-huh: “Next!”

Actually, the response should be closer to, “Hey, thank you for saving me some time!” In practice, queries, submissions, and entries that do not conform to expectations, especially when the recipient has taken the time to list those rules for all to see, are a positive boon to overworked professional readers. Millicent, her Aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, and Maury, their cousin who works as an editorial assistant in a small publishing house, can simply reject all of those documents at first glance. That takes much, much less time than reading them in their entirety — and leaves extra time in their respective days to devote to the queries, submissions, and entries that did follow the rules.

In case I’m being too subtle here: read any submission guidelines carefully before you seal that envelope or hit SEND. Assuming that you know what they call for — or, as many aspiring writers presume, wrongly, that every agency or contest out there must necessarily want to see precisely the same things — can be exceedingly costly. Invest the time in double-checking.

Do I hear some tender-hearted souls out there sighing? Yes, I feel sad for all of the good writers with fine books who get rejected on the basis of simple mix-ups, too. Tell you what: let’s pretend that I gave A. the pep talk in that last paragraph before she sent in her query. Let’s further assume that Hawkeye actually does write a blog aimed at helping potential clients, because, honestly, it’s less work for me that way.

Here’s what the query might have looked like in that alternate reality. Again, if you were Millicent, how would you respond?

Do I sense some hesitation out there? “Gee, Anne, I want to read this query with the attention it deserves, but having read so many similar letters throughout the course of Queryfest, I’m afraid I find the presentation here a trifle distracting. Why, for instance, is the date located in the bottom margin, rather than the top, where it belongs? Why, too, is it in a different font? Speaking of fonts, this doesn’t look like 12-point in either Times New Roman or Courier, the standard fonts for the U.S. publishing world. If I had to take a wild guess, I would say it was Calibri 11 point. While I am nit-picking about format, why are the closing and contact information tabbed to 2.5″, rather than halfway across the page? And shouldn’t A. have left room for a signature?”

Congratulations, hesitators: you have begun looking at pages like a screener. Yes, the formatting is off here; the type is indeed too small for any writing intended for submission to an agency. While neither will necessarily present a reading problem — the content of the letter is perfectly clear here, right? — both would raise some reasonable concerns about whether the manuscript being queried would be in standard format. Millicent would have some legitimate reason to expect that it wouldn’t.

And why is that a problem, long-time readers? Chant it with me now: even the most talented writer unfamiliar with the norms of publishing will be more time-consuming for an agent to represent than a similarly-talented writer who has done his homework. The single quickest way for Millicent to judge this is to check how closely the submission adheres to standard format for book manuscripts.

So, again, Millicent may have a reason to say, “Thank you for saving me some time!” That’s sad, because an easily-fixed set of presentation problems have prevented a reading of A’s query on its content.

On the bright side, the choice of typeface was probably not what put Millicent off this version. While not adhering to the industry-standard fonts is seldom a deal-breaker in a query (as it can be in a submission), it’s undeniably true that to the pros, a query in those fonts just seems more professional than one that isn’t.

Don’t not sure why? Okay, here’s A’s query again, with nothing changed but what the hesitating many pointed out. If you were Millicent, would you feel more confident that the writer of this version would be able to send you a manuscript in standard format, or the writer of the original?

Ah, that looks more familiar, doesn’t it? But now that the non-standard formatting no longer distracts your eye, Millicent-of-the-moment, do you notice anything else? Here’s a hint: the overwhelming majority of queries exhibit this problem to a greater or lesser extent.

If, after you perused A’s query carefully, you flung your hand into the air and cried, “There are quite a few typos here — missing commas, misspelled words, and a misused semicolon. Oh, hey, there’s also a dropped word or two. And is it me, but is there an extra space in the non-standard sign-off?” give yourself a gold star for the day. Millicent is constantly astonished at how many queries are apparent neither spell-checked nor proofread.

And no, in response to what half of you just thought very loudly indeed, performing the former does not obviate the necessity of performing the latter. Spell-checkers are not infallible; neither are grammar-checkers. (For some reason that surpasses human understanding, mine is constantly urging me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re and telling me that reflexive pronoun use is always wrong.) There is, I’m afraid, just no substitute for good, old-fashioned proofreading.

Why? Well, now that we know that conclusion-jumping is part of Millie’s job, what do you think she might reasonably assume about a manuscript if the query for it contains misspellings and typos?

Yep. And since an unproofed submission is likely to get rejected, anyway…

Given the grave importance of getting the small details right, how does one maximize the probability of catching small problems before sending off that query, campers? That’s right: since every syllable an aspiring writer submits to an agency is a writing sample, it’s worth your while to re-read your query IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD. It’s simply the easiest way to catch typos, spacing problems, and missing words.

Yes, your neighbors may think you’re a little strange, but hey, no one said the path to publication was easy.

Before I show you A’s query again with that array of minuscule problems corrected, there’s another element in that last draft that might raise Millicent’s delicate eyebrows, as well as her doubts about the manuscript’s being in standard format. Any guesses? There’s another gold star at stake.

If you leapt to your feet and cried, “Why, I had not thought about it on earlier read-throughs, but the numbers under 100 are presented in this query as numbers. In standard format for book manuscripts, those numbers would be written out in full: eighteen, not 18,” help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. As counterintuitive as it may seem, queries are frequently judged as though they were manuscripts; not doubling a dash would be a red flag, too.

Yes, really. Millie’s boss is not going to have time to proofread her clients’ work before submitting it to a publishing house.

So let’s take this query seriously as a writing sample and buff away those little problems, shall we? While we’re at it, let’s change that closing to something more traditional for a formal letter. Do you want to ask for a partial now, Millicent?

Stronger, but I have to say, this version still feels a bit minimal to me. Not merely because there’s quite a bit of room left on the page — a temptation to add plot elements that most queriers would not be able to resist — but because the wording in the opening paragraph and the target audience paragraph are a little, well, ungraceful. Almost as if providing this information were not a compositional pleasure, but an irksome requirement.

Imagine that. Why, an innocent bystander might almost think that writing a query is just an annoying hoop through which aspiring writers have to leap in order to gain a fair reading of their manuscripts.

Surprisingly often, queries make that pervasive attitude quite apparent — and that’s never helpful to a book’s chances. Even if the querier in question happens to phrase distaste for the entire process beautifully, it’s not Millie’s fault that the system is set up this way, is it?

Besides, a flat telling does not show off anyone’s writing to its best advantage. That is, alas, the case here: the writing in those informational paragraphs would not match the tone or writing style of the book description. Based on them alone, Millicent would have a hard time figuring out what A’s writing style was.

Another problem: the importation of generic elements. As we have discussed many times throughout Queryfest (although, in fairness, after A. sent in her query for critique), Millicent sees that line about the word count in about half of the queries that cross her desk: apparently, it’s in quite a few boilerplates floating around out there. That doesn’t mean it is well-written, or that including will, as so many new queriers evidently believe, make your letter sound professional. At this point in querying history, it just sounds like someone else’s writing — and not very interestingly-phrased writing at that.

Why is that problematic? Pull out your hymnals and sing along, Queryfesters: contrary to popular opinion amongst queriers, a query is a writing sample. Since stock phrases are, by definition, not original writing, it’s a better use of page space to write your letter from scratch.

At the risk of repeating myself, I always advise against including word count in a query unless an agency’s submission guidelines specifically ask for it. Fortunately, A’s word count is well within the expected range for her chosen book category, but being much under 60,000 words (estimated at 250 words/page in Times New Roman x the number of pages in the manuscript) or over 100,000 provides Millicent with, you guessed it, a legitimate reason to reject the query.

“Why, thank you!” she exclaims. Or she should.

Since a query is in fact a writing sample, I hesitate to rework the phraseology in order to encourage Millicent to spend more time with this letter: after all, she wants to know what A. sounds like on the page, not me. Far be it from me, too, to compound the already widespread problem of generic query phrasing by adding a new prototype to the mix.

Were I A., however, I might express these sentiments rather differently. A great start: being more specific about why this book is right for Hawkeye. This is something you might like to represent does, you must admit, does beg the question, “Okay, why?” (And what, Millicent wonders, prevented A. from querying her boss before?)

And a forest of hands sprouts in the ether. Yes? “You’ve lost me, Anne,” weary queriers the world over protest. “I get that it’s worth my while to personalize each query slightly, but A. has already done that: she brought up Hawkeye’s blog. Since she’s a long-time reader, does she honestly need to paraphrase the agent’s expressed protagonist preferences, too?”

It’s not strictly necessary, perhaps, but why pass up the opportunity to help Millicent gain a sense of what’s special about this storyline — or a dandy opportunity to say, essentially, “Hey, Hawkeye, I’ve not only read your blog — I have absorbed what you have been saying. Here I am, demonstrating that. Wouldn’t I be good at incorporating your feedback as my client?”

Sound like a tall order for a non-obsequious first paragraph? Not at all: the key lies in specificity, combined with a professional tone. And speaking of creating a professional impression, since the YA market is aimed at readers from 13 to 17, is it really necessary for A. to point out that her book is geared toward that age range?

Seems less forced now, doesn’t it? In this version, the reader’s focus is right where it should be: on the story.

So let’s talk about how A. might render that more appealing to everyone’s favorite screener. To get us started, let’s take a few steps back. Remember a few minutes ago, when I mentioned the desirability of reading one’s query IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before sending it off? Give that a try now, please.

It’s not always clear to whom they refers, is it? That’s quite common in book description paragraphs, I’m sorry to report: because queriers are so eager to cram as much of the storyline as possible into the letter, they frequently include so many plot twists and introduce so many characters that Millicent can’t follow what’s going on.

That’s a real shame here: A. has worked in some delightfully unexpected specifics into this description, but they are getting lost. While that line about the father’s body and the mother’s mind is quite nice, the book description leaves us guessing why going to Poland will remedy the situation; indeed, the phrasing of that third sentence could be interpreted to mean that the mother is left with only one choice, not Meghan. Why Poland, and not, say, Belgium? While we are speculating, what is a Holy Apprentice, and why is it capitalized?

I have no idea; I’m merely asking what Millicent would. Not having read the manuscript in question — which sounds awfully darned exciting, I would only be guessing on these points. So please forgive me, A., if I get the plot wrong as I polish out the question-raisers.

I’m going to begin by highlighting those thus eye-catching bits about the parents and the possessed teddy bear. And while I’m at it, I shall to remove the impression, created by the repeated use of to be, that this is a story that’s told, not shown. More sentences in the active voice will also convey the subtle impression — and, I suspect an accurate one — that this is a fast-paced book.

Ha! If you were looking for additional evidence that it’s significantly more difficult to catch typos on a backlit computer screen than in hard copy, seek no more: as I was tinkering with the text, I noticed that I had missed that problematic punctuation and structure in the last sentence of the fourth paragraph. I shall go ahead and correct it now; let this be a lesson to us both. While I’m nit-picking, I’ll move A’s e-mail address to beneath her phone number. Millicent is more likely to look for it there.

Again, I don’t know if this is how the plot progresses; I have not read the book. Neither has Millicent, though, and she can judge its potential only by what is actually in front of her: the query. Best of luck with it, A!

Now that we have applied Queryfest principles to a wonderfully broad array of readers’ letters to agents, let’s turn our attention to the bigger picture. What have we learned on a larger level about querying?

Six things, I hope — no, make that seven. And just to keep things interesting, the first few may on the surface appear to be mutually contradictory.

First, a successful query letter must contain certain elements, elements that are surprisingly often absent in the prototypes one finds floating around the web. The most frequent omission: a polite opening that gives the agent at least some vague sense of why you picked her, out of all of the agents currently treading the earth’s crust, to approach.

Or, indeed, giving her some clue of what you think she represents. Millicent’s constantly asking herself, “What makes this querier think my boss would be remotely interested in this type of book? As far as I know, she has never sold anything like it.”

I think we all know why that query showed up on her desk: someone did not do his homework well enough to learn that agents specialize. Or to understand why it’s in any querier’s best interest not to make an agent guess why his manuscript would be a good fit for the agency.

Oh, there are some good reasons explanations on these points tend to turn up in prototypes: it’s not a one-size-fits-all feature. A writer would have to do some actual research, not only investing time in learning about each agent he approaches, giving some serious thought to what kind of book he has written, and figuring out the best matches. That’s a far cry from the extremely limited plug-your-book-category-into-a-search-engine research from which most first-time queriers derive their query lists.

Which leads me to Overarching Lesson #2: Because the single easiest kind of query to reject is one for a type of book an agent does not represent, personalized queries tend to work much better than generic ones.

“Oh, great,” I hear the masses mutter. “I’ve been working for months, even years, to get my basic query letter down to a single page without cheating on the margins or font. Are you gearing up to tell me that I will need to write an entirely fresh missive for every single agent I approach?”

Not entirely, no: as we saw in today’s extraordinarily fruitful example — thanks again for volunteering, A! — only the first paragraph would have to alter, in most instance. Unless you plan to gain a new credential or two between the time you send Query A and when you pop Query B into the mailbox, you should be able to use the bulk of a well-written query repeatedly. However, it’s never, ever, EVER a good idea to use an entire query letter again wholesale.

Why not, you ask? Do I hear sweet music in the distance? Like any other reader, individual agents have individual likes and dislikes. As a logical result, there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every agent currently in practice.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, I have devoted so many months to Queryfest: my aim has been not to help you construct a generic letter that will work for every agent to whom you might conceivably decide to send it, but to assist you in ferreting out problems with the personalized missives you’re constructing for each one. Yes, you may well reuse sentences and even entire paragraphs from letter to letter, but as anyone who has had much contact with agents can tell you, these people are not generalists.

What? Still too subtle? Okay, I shall hoist a brick through the nearest window: while Millicents share common pet peeves, each agent, and thus each Millicent, is looking for slightly different things in a query letter.

Stop groaning; it wouldn’t have made good strategic sense to send an identical letter out to everyone, anyway, for reasons we have been discussing for months now. Besides, there is no such a thing as a universally perfect query letter, one that will wow every agent currently hawking books on the planet. It is logically impossible: agents represent different kinds of books, so the moment you mention that your book is a Gothic romance, it is going to be rejected by any agent who does not represent Gothic romances.

It honestly is as simple as that sometimes. Coming to grips with that — and doing the research necessary to avoid knee-jerk rejection — will make you a much, much happier querier than if you cling to the unfortunately ubiquitous belief that the only reason queries ever get rejected is due to some fundamental flaw in the book.

That can happen, of course, but the vast majority of the time, other problems send Millicent’s hand flying toward the form-letter rejection pile. Even if your query side-steps all of the usual pitfalls, however — and I hate to tell you this, because the arbitrary forces of chance are hard to combat — even if your letter is precisely what your targeted agency’s screener has been told to seek amongst the haystack of queries flooding the mailroom, it might still end up in the reject pile if the screener or agent is having a bad day.

What factors might produce that outcome, you ask with fear and trembling? A million and one that are utterly outside the querier’s control.

If the agent has just broken up with her husband of 15 years that morning, for instance, it’s probably not the best time to query her with a heartwarming romance. If she slipped on the stairs yesterday and broke both her wrists, she’s probably not going to be all that receptive this week to even the best knitting book in recorded history. And if he has just sprained his ankle in tripping over that stack of manuscripts he meant to read two months ago, it’s highly unlikely that any query is going to wow him within the next ten minutes, even if it were penned by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare in an unprecedented show of time-traveling collaboration.

No writer, however gifted, can win in such a situation; even the query that wins most will lose some. Don’t squander your precious energies worrying about it.

That being said, a strategic-minded querier can avoid sending e-mailed queries or submissions over the weekend, the most popular time to hit the SEND button: Millicent’s inbox is pretty much guaranteed to be stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. Ditto with the first few days after her boss has returned from a writers’ conference, Labor Day, or, heaven help us, the single heaviest querying time of all, immediately after January 1. Best to avoid slipping anything you want her to approve under her nostrils then.

Unless, of course, she’s just fallen in love, or her college roommate just won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, or she’s found a hundred-dollar bill on the street. Since you probably will not be the first to know if any of those things happens, though, you can’t possibly plan your querying schedule around them. I feel another aphorism coming on: as there will inevitably be aspects of querying success that you cannot control, you will be a significantly happier writer in the long run if you accept that there is inevitably an element of luck involved — as well as writing talent, marketing savvy, and query-construction skill.

To be brutally honest, the luck part took me quite a long time to accept myself. I once received a rejection from an agent who had taken the time to hand-write at the bottom, This is literally the best query letter I have ever read — but I’ll still have to pass. As if that was going to make me feel any better about being rejected.

Can you wonder that this compliment annoyed me far more than it pleased me? Like so many queriers, my mind flooded with resentful questions. Had the agent just completed a conference call with every editor in the business, wherein they held a referendum about the marketability of my type of novel, voting it down by an overwhelming margin? Had she suddenly decided not to represent the kind of book I was presenting, due to a mystical revelation from the god of her choice? Or had the agent just gotten her foot run over by a backhoe, or had gotten engaged five minutes, or decided to lay off half her staff due to budget problems?

Beats me; I’ll never know. Which is kind of funny, because I’ve had some very nice chats with this agent at conferences since.

Whatever was going on at that agency, it was beyond my control. Until I am promoted to minor deity, complete with smiting powers, recipes for infallible love potions, and telepathic control of the mails, I just have to accept that — ready for Overarching Lesson #3? == a writer has no way of affecting when any query (or manuscript, or published book) is going to hit an agent, editor, contest judge, reviewer, or reader’s desk.

Admittedly, as an agented writer, I do have some control over when my agent sees my manuscripts — but even then, it’s up to him when to read them. You can lead a horse to water, etc.

My advice: concentrate on the aspects of the interaction you can control. Like, say, the matters we have discussed today. Or the writing in your query.

Why? We have only to consult Overarching Lesson #4: since every syllable of a query packet is a writing sample, it makes sense to regard the descriptive paragraph not just as a super-fast plot summary, but as an invitation to show off your storytelling skills.

As we saw in today’s example, in an otherwise laudable attempt to try to place as much of the plot or argument in front of Millicent, many queriers simply try to do too much on the querying page. Honestly, all that’s required at this stage is a lively, book-category-appropriate description of the premise, presenting your protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation (for fiction), you as an interesting narrator of your experiences as an interesting person in an interesting situation (for memoir), or your credentials as the world’s best person to argue about an important issue or event (for nonfiction).

Piece o’ cake, right?

Not really, but truly, it’s not as hard as most queriers make it for themselves. Just tell your story in your own voice, rather than in generic-sounding summary statements: it’s the best way to convince Millie that you are one heck of a storyteller.

Above all, be original — and yes, I’m aware that’s not very common querying advice. Consider, however, overarching Lesson #5: as tempting as it may be to make your book sound like a recent bestseller (or to claim it’s the next one), hard-sell techniques do not work in queries or pitches. Since you have so little time to impress an agent, it’s better strategy to use it not to sound like everybody else.

Or, to put it bit more bluntly: if your query does not make it plain how your book is unique, it’s probably not going to impress Millicent. Trust me on this one.

But don’t beat yourself up if your best efforts doesn’t hit a home run every time. Recall, please, Overarching Lesson #6: because of OLs Nos. 1-5, queries get rejected all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with the writing quality or marketability of the book in question. It does not follow logically, then, that if a query gets rejected, the book is necessarily not ready for publication — or, as many disappointed queriers assume, that a rejection from one agency equals a rejection from the industry at large.

Yes, I know: it doesn’t feel like that when you’re trying to work up energy to send out Query #19 right after Rejection #18 arrives. It can seem almost impossible to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and proceed to the next name on your agent list right away, but believe me, the longer that rejection sits on your desk, the harder it will be to work up energy to do it at all.

Please, for your own sake, don’t give yourself time to talk yourself out of sending the next one. Keep pressing forward, and bear in mind Overarching Lesson #7: the only manuscript that stands no chance whatsoever of interesting an agent and getting published is the one that sits in a drawer, perpetually unqueried.

I wouldn’t kid you about that. So try. And keep trying. Your writing is worth it.

Oh, and pat yourself on the back for being serious enough about your writing career to have plowed all the way through Queryfest; it has been a long, hard road. But you don’t come to Author! Author! just to pass the time, right? Keep up the good work!

A word of caution to the tens of thousands of aspiring writers who resolved last weekend to pop those queries and/or requested materials into the mail at last


Here’s the promised word, New Year’s resolvers: don’t.

Oh, I don’t mean to give up on your estimable resolve to put in the work to land an agent this year, or even to send out queries on a regular basis to any agent at all likely to be interested in representing a book like yours. That’s all quite sensible: if your goal is to land an agent, working up the nerve to query is in fact a necessary step. (Either that, or you are going to have to work up the even greater nerve and financial resources required to pitch at a writers’ conference.) Go forth and query, with my blessings.

Nor would I even dream of dissuading those of you who, having queried or pitched successfully in the past six months or so, have decided that it’s about time that you stopped revising feverishly, screwed your courage to the sticking place, as Shakespeare would have it, and try your luck with the agent(s) that requested manuscript pages. Again, this is a sensible, requisite step to getting published: since no agent in her right mind would sign a writer without having read any of her work — contrary to popular opinion amongst pitchers and queriers — obviously, if you want an agent to offer to represent you, you are going to have to let her read the manuscript in question.

I’ll even stretch the point further: since the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of getting published or landing an agent is the one that just sits in a drawer or on a hard drive, without the writer’s ever exposing it to professional scrutiny — something that requires quite a bit of guts, by the way; queriers and submitters don’t give themselves enough credit for that — I would actively applaud your efforts to get your work under professional eyeballs.

I just would advise against doing it anytime within the first three weeks of the year. The first three weeks of any year.

Why? Look to your left in those starter’s blocks, New Year’s resolvers, and to your right: you’ll find aspiring writers who made precisely the same New Year’s resolution you did. And since the whole point of a New Year’s resolution is that the resolver puts it in motion practically as soon as that shiny ball drops into Times Square, what do you think happens around this time every year?

That’s right, campers: pretty much every agency in the country gets swamped with queries — and with the submissions that the agency requested months ago.

How swamped, you ask, turning pale with horror? Well, let me put it this way: I usually run a caution about this on December 31 — or, at the latest, January 1. Since some of my readers chafed at the bit last year, insisting that my advice was delaying their querying efforts unnecessarily, my New Year’s resolution was that in 2012, I would not issue my yearly warning about the dangers of joining the annual early January lemming run until I had observed another annual phenomenon: the barrage of wondering complaints from people who work in agencies about why their mail bags are suddenly thrice as heavy. At agencies that accept e-mailed queries, inbox input roughly quadruples.

I heard the first of those complaints today. It’s January third — and in the U.S., post offices were closed yesterday.

Not sure why? Okay, here’s a pop quiz for those of you who spent some or all of the recent holiday season hobnobbing with kith and/or kin who happened to be aspiring writers: hands up if you bumped into at least one who confided that that her New Year’s resolution was to get those long-delayed queries out the door, preferably within the first two weeks of January. Raise a hand, too, if a friendly soul astonished you by swearing that come January 1, that postponed-for-months submission was finally going to be making its way to the agent who requested it. Or that this was the year that novel was going to make its way out of that drawer and onto bookshelves everywhere.

And don’t even dream of dropping those hands if you know — or are — a writer who is spending today, or this coming weekend, cranking out query letters so they can go out in Monday morning’s mail. Or sending e-mails to arrive even faster.

Okay, legions with your hands in the air: keep ‘em up if you had ever heard these same writers make similar assertions before. Like, say, December of 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, or any year before that.

I’m guessing that very few of you dropped your hands. Starting to get the picture, are we?

Unless some of you wanted to ask a question? Yes, eager beavers? “But Anne,” those of you who have already sent out a query, two, or seventeen this year protest, “what’s wrong with that? Because there are so many people who want to get published, well-established agents at reputable agencies are constantly overwhelmed with queries, aren’t they?”

Before I answer that, beavers, was that giant sucking sound I just heard an indication that some of you who are new to Author! Author! — perhaps reading it for the first time as the result of a highly laudable New Year’s resolution to learn more about marketing your writing — were unaware that typically, agents are not the ones screening queries, or even submissions? As nice as it might be for agents to cast their eyes over every query and submission personally, a successful agent simply doesn’t have the time. In order to get through the monumental volume of queries and make sure the agent has the time to read requested materials that have made it past the first cut, agencies employ professional readers like Millicent, the fortunate soul charged with opening all of those query letters and giving a first read to requested materials, to weed out the ones that her boss the agent will not be interested in seeing, based upon pre-set criteria.

At some agencies, a submission may even need to make it past two or three Millicents before it lands on the actual agent’s desk. That way, the agent can concentrate upon what actually supports the agency, selling already-signed clients’ work.

If any or all of that seems like an oddly disrespectful way to treat the Great American Novel, let’s get practical for a moment: a reasonably well-respected agent might receive in the neighborhood of 1200 queries in any given week — and you can triple or quadruple that this time of year. If Millicent’s boss wants to see even 1% of the manuscripts or book proposals being queried, that’s 10 partial or full manuscripts requested per week. Of those, perhaps one or two will make it to the agent.

Why so few? Well, even very high-volume agencies don’t add all that many clients in any given year — particularly in times like these, when book sales are, to put it generously, slow. Since that reasonably well-respected agent will by definition already be representing clients — that’s how one garners respect in her biz, right? — she may be looking to pick up only 3 or 4 clients this year.

Take nice, deep breaths, campers. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

Given the length of those odds, how likely is any given submission to make it? You do the math: 10 submissions per week x 52 weeks per year = 520 manuscripts. If the agent asks to see even the first 50 pages of each, that’s 26,000 pages of text. That’s a lot of reading — and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands of pages of queries the agency needs to process as well, all long before the agent makes a penny off any of them, manuscripts from current clients, and everything an agent needs to read to keep up with what’s selling these days.

See where a Millicent might come in handy to screen some of those pages for you? Or all of your queries?

Yes, I know that this is a lot for those of you brand-new to the process to absorb. Keep taking those nice, deep breaths.

“While we’re waiting for those new to the game to recover,” my previous questioners ask impatiently, “can we get back to my question? No matter how many queries might stack up in the early weeks of the year, Millicent will just answer them in the order received, right? Ditto with any backlog of queries that might have come in while she was home for the holidays. So it might take a little longer for me to hear back; big deal.”

Actually, timing in sending a query or submission is a big deal, beavers of eagerness. It’s not as though agencies typically hire additional staff to handle the January onslaught, any more than they call in temps to deal with the increased querying and submission volume immediately after Labor Day, Memorial Day, or any federally-mandated three-day weekend. So our old pal Millicent is faced with a radically increased workload, but the same amount of time with which to deal with it.

I appeal to your sense of probability, campers: if you were Millicent, would you be more likely than usual to reject any given query in that morass, knowing that you had another 10,000 to read, or less? Would you be more inclined to turn from page 1 to page 2 in that submission in front of you or less?

I have an even better question: why on earth do aspiring writers do this to themselves every year?

The scourge of the New Year’s resolution, that’s why. Despite the fact that we’ve all spent our entire lives watching people make and break these resolutions, social conditioning (and, let’s face it, a hefty proportion of media outlets) encourages us to believe that it’s inherently easier to begin a new project on January 1 — or at any rate, in January — than at any other point of the year.

We buy this, interestingly, even though our bodies tell us the opposite, Not only are people exhausted from the holidays, but in January, not even the sun appears to interested in doing its job with any particular vim.

Yet millions of aspiring writers all across North America are going to spent yesterday, today, tomorrow, and the next few weeks rushing those queries into envelopes, hitting those SEND buttons, and forcing themselves to sit in front of a keyboard at a particular time each day. Successful queriers and pitchers of months past will also be springing into action, feverishly printing out or e-mailing requested materials. And every single one of these fine, well-intentioned people will feel downright virtuous while engaging in this flurry of feverish early January activity.

Again: nothing wrong with that. The problem is, a good third of the aspiring writers in North America will be embracing precisely the same temporally-limited version of virtue.

The predictable, inevitable, and strategically unfortunate result: for the first three weeks of January every year, agencies across the land are positively buried in paper. Which means, equally predictably, inevitably, and unfortunately, that a query or manuscript submitted right now stands a statistically higher chance of getting rejected than those submitted at other times of the year.

Oh, I completely understand the impulse to rush those queries out the door, especially for aspiring writers whose last spate of marketing was quite some time ago. Last January, for instance, immediately after their last set of New Year’s resolutions.

I don’t say that to be judgmental: it can be genuinely difficult to work up the momentum to try, try again. Plenty of queriers and submitters take some time to lick their wounds after their last set of rejections — or, as is getting more and more common, their last round of sending out a query or even requested materials, waiting patiently, and just never hearing back. If a writer has pinned all of his hopes on a particular agent’s falling in love with his writing (or, in the case of a query, with his book concept; contrary to popular opinion, it’s logically impossible for a manuscript’s writing style to get rejected by an agent who has seen nothing but a query letter), selecting an arbitrary date to pick himself up, dust himself off, and move on to the next agent on his list is not the worst of ideas.

But why must that much-anticipated day be just after the New Year — instead of, say, the far more practical February 1? Or on the Wednesday following any long weekend, rather than on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday, when everyone else will be diligently stuffing Millicent’s e-mail inbox to overflowing?

Yes, yes, I know: weekends are when a lot of writers have the time to query, and the holidays are actually quite a sensible time for even queriers who send out those letters like clockwork to take a breather. That last is particularly true: although the NYC-based publishing industry does not shut down as completely between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day as in years past, things still do slow down. So many of the fine people who work within it on vacation and/or celebrating various holidays, it just doesn’t make sense to query or submit then. Your missive might reach a Bob Cratchit working late on a holiday eve, but frankly, even ol’ Bob tends not to screen his e-mail very closely over the holidays.

So I have nothing but sympathy for those of you who are trying to get back into the swing of querying and submitting. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break. Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again.

Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it. For an arrow flying through the air, the slowing force is gravity; for writers at holiday time, it’s often friends, relatives, and sundry other well-wishers. And throughout the rest of the year, it’s, well, life.

But you’re having trouble paying attention to my ruminations on physics, aren’t you? Your mind keeps wandering back to that earlier boldfaced pronouncement like some poor, bruised ghost compulsively revisiting the site of its last living moment. “Um, Anne?” those of you about to sneak off to the post office, stacks of queries in hand, ask with quavering voices. “You were just kidding about that whole statistically more likely to be rejected thing, right? I thought that good writing was always welcomed, whenever it arrived at an agency. Or, to vent my feelings a trifle more adequately, mind if I scream in terror, ‘How could a caring universe do this to me?’

At the risk of making those of you new to the game hyperventilate, I’m going to ask those readers who followed last autumn’s Queryfest to chant the answer along with me: with any query or submission, an agent must weigh more factors than the quality of the writing. Because agencies are profit-seeking entities, not charitable institutions devoted to the promotion of literature (as much as writers might like them to be the latter), she can only afford to take on manuscripts and book proposals she is relatively certain she can sell in the current literary market.

That means, in practice, that plenty of good writing and good book concepts get rejected. And that in considering which queries and submissions her boss is likely to wish to represent, Millicent has to look not only for good writing, but book category-appropriate voice and storyline, appeal to readers already buying similar books, freshness of book concept, and many, many other factors.

Including — and here is where the statistical probability thing rears its ugly head — the sheer volume of queries and submissions.

Millicent, then, has a rather different job than one might expect: she is charged with weeding out as many of those queries and submissions as possible, rather than (as the vast majority of aspiring writers assume) glancing over each and saying from time to time, “Oh, the writing here’s pretty good. Let’s represent this.” If she did that, her boss might end up with several hundred submissions to read in any given week. Clearly, that’s just not logistically possible. Fortunately for Millicent, most submissions, and definitely most queries, contain problems that render them fairly easy to reject — or have simply ended up in an agency that does not represent the kind of book in question.

A good writer should be happy about that, actually. Since Millie’s desk is perpetually covered with queries and submissions, the more quickly she can decide which may be excluded immediately, the more time she may devote to those that deserve a close reading.

Given the imperative to plow through all of those queries and submissions with dispatch, is it a wonder that over time, she might develop some knee-jerk responses to certain very common problems that plague many a page 1? Or that she would gain a sense (or even be handed a list) of her boss’ pet peeves, so she may reject manuscripts that contain them right off the bat? As in on page 1 — which is where, incidentally, the vast majority of submissions get rejected — or within the first paragraph of a query letter?

Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog (or even close readers of this particular post) are already no doubt already aware, certain times of the year see heavier volumes of both queries and submissions of long-requested materials than others.

Far and away the most popular of all: just after New Year’s Day.

Why, I was just talking about that, wasn’t I? That’s not entirely coincidental: this year, like every year, Millicent’s desk will be piled to the top of her cubicle walls with new mail for weeks, and her e-mail inbox will refill itself constantly like some mythical horn of plenty because — feel free to sing along at home — a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 4!”

Again, I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although a goal of ten queries per week would be hard to maintain for many weeks on end, if an aspiring writer were targeting only agents who represented his type of book. (And everybody is aware that querying agents who don’t have a proven, recent track record of selling similar books is a waste of an aspiring writer’s valuable time, energy, and emotion, right?) My only concern is that you implement those goals in a manner that is likely to get the results you want, rather than merely leaving you discouraged before Martin Luther King, Jr., Day rolls around.

Which is, incidentally, the fate of most New Year’s resolutions. Had I mentioned that the average one lasts less than three weeks?

Let’s try to imagine what it would be like to be Millicent during those three weeks, before all of those poor revisers run out of steam. If you were a screener who walked into work, possibly a bit late and clutching a latte because it’s a cold morning, and found 700 queries instead of the usual 200, or 50 submissions rather than the usual 5, would you be more likely to implement those knee-jerk rejection criteria, or less?

Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be just a touch crankier than usual this time of year. Let her dig her way out from under that mountain of papers before she reads yours; she’ll be in a better mood.

Ditto with Monday mornings — and not just for the reason that most people who work a Monday-Friday week are grumpy then. All weekend long, busy queriers and submitters have been toiling away like unusually dedicated ants, filling her e-mail inbox to bursting with messages; regular mail also arrived on Saturday. So the next few Mondays — particularly the coming one, if she has been on vacation — will see her frantically trying to clear out that inbox and read through what’s on her desk as quickly as humanly possible.

Again, do you think that will make her more likely to reject any individual query or submission in that pile, or less?

For this reason, if you feel you absolutely must query or submit via e-mail during the next month, avoid doing it on either a Monday, Friday, or a weekend. Actually, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for e-querying and e-submitting in general: January is not the only time when most aspiring writers have more time on the weekends than mid-week.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for the last three paragraphs, have you not? “But Anne,” those of you chomping at the bit ask, “if you’re advising me against taking action now, when can I reasonably begin querying or sending off that requested manuscript? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? I have a long weekend then.”

Well, that wouldn’t be a bad choice to start stamping those SASEs — although, like after holiday weekend, Millicent’s inbox will be stuffed to the proverbial gills on the morning of Tuesday, January 17. It would be fair to expect queries and submissions tend to drop off thereafter, though. Yes, that would make quite a bit of sense.

So, you may well be wondering, why am I urging every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice to hold off until February 1?

Two reasons. First, over the past few years, the statistics about how many electronic readers and e-books sold over the holidays, vs. the number of traditionally-published books, have tended to come out around mid-January. (Oh, a few estimates will be available before then — there are probably some figures out now — but it usually takes a few weeks to verify the actual totals.) This year, the news is likely to depress folks who work in traditional publishing.

Yes, even more than last year. As you may have heard, 2009 was the first year that e-books outsold hard copies at Amazon on Christmas. Those sales figures were just for Christmas Day itself, an occasion when, correct me if I’m wrong, folks who had just received a Kindle as a present might be slightly more likely to download books than, say, the day before.

But that’s not what the headlines screamed immediately afterward, was it? I assure you, every agency and publishing house employee in North America spent the intervening days fending off kith and kin helpfully showing him articles mournfully declaring that the physical book is on the endangered species list. Or ought to be.

It’s probably safe to assume that this year’s mid-January statistics will not leave the denizens of agencies and publishing houses very happy. Or receiving any fewer calls from kith and kin, once again predicting the demise of the publishing industry, despite the fact that book sales for both e-books and traditional books have been on the rise lately.

Now, naysayers have regularly predicted the imminent death of the publishing industry every year since the mid-19th century, but that doesn’t make it any easier to hear, does it? Tell me, if you were Millicent and kept hearing all of those harbingers of doom, how cheerful would you be when screening?

She’s been hearing dismal prognostications as often as the rest of us — and she’ll probably be hearing even more once those statistics come out. When she steps across the agency threshold the next day, too-hot latte clutched in her bemittened hand, the Millicent in the cubicle next to hers will be complaining about how his (hey, Millicents come in both sexes) kith and kin has been cheerfully informing him that he will be out of a job soon. So will half the people who work in the agency — including, as likely as not, Millicent’s boss.

It’s only reasonable to expect, of course, that through the magic of group hypnosis, the more everyone repeats it, the more of a threat the news will seem; the scarier the threat, the more dire the predictions of the future of publishing will become. By lunchtime, half the office will be surreptitiously working on its resumes — yet another annual phenomenon.

Given the ambient mood in the office, do you really want yours to be the first query she reads that day? Or the fiftieth? Or would you rather that your precious book concept or manuscript didn’t fall beneath her critical eye until after everyone’s had a chance to calm down?

There’s another yet reason that agency denizens tend to be a mite stressed in January: by law, US-based agencies must issue tax documentation on royalties by the end of the month. That won’t be Millicent’s department, but it might well be her boss’ — it’s not at all unusual for one of the member agents at a good-sized agency to be entrusted with handling most or even all of the royalty paperwork.

So can I guarantee that everyone at the agency of your dreams will be working away happily like the dwarves in Snow White by early February? Obviously, not: every agency is different, and I regret to say that I don’t have a crystal ball: there’s really no way of foretelling. Perhaps a freak bestseller will catch everyone by surprise — hey, it happens — or there might be an abrupt flurry of economic bad news.

Publishing is very trend-dependent, you know. Or maybe you don’t know: aspiring writers who hang all of their hopes — and predicate their New Year’s resolutions — on the belief that the only factor determining whether an agent will pick up a book, or a publishing house will acquire it, is whether it is well-written are setting themselves up for disappointment. Plenty of other factors may well go into a rejection — up to and including Millicent’s simply having to plow through more queries than usual that week.

In other words: try not to take it personally. But don’t query only one agency at a time, do your homework about who represents what — and maximize the probability of your query’s hitting Millicent’s desk at the right time by holding off until the beginning of February.

By then, you will have had a nice, long chunk of time to see if you could, say, up your writing time by an extra hour per week. Or per day. Or prepared a contest entry for that literary contest you’d always meant to enter. Far be it from me to discourage keeping that kind of resolution, whether you choose to put it into action on New Year’s Day, the fourth of July, or St. Swithin’s day. Only please, for your own sake, don’t set the bar so high that you end up abandoning it within just a couple of weeks.

Doesn’t your writing deserve a more consistent effort? Or at least some recognition that pumping up the nerve to bundle up your baby and hand it to someone who has a professional obligation to judge it is one of the hardest, scariest endeavors a person can embrace?

Be proud of yourself for being ready and able to do it — believe me, only a very small percentage of aspiring writers ever work up that nerve. You’d be astonished by how many successful queriers and pitchers never submit the manuscripts and book proposals they worked so hard to convince Millicent or her boss to request. This is hard stuff; the writing part is only the beginning.

But you can do it — if you go about it in a reasonable manner. Don’t be one of the millions of New Year’s resolvers who starts out in a glow of good intentions, only to be feeling weak-willed three weeks hence because the resolution was simply too big. Or too much of a commitment to maintain for longer than just a few weeks. Every year, good writers with good intentions fling themselves into huge expenditures of energy, only to find themselves burnt out with distressing rapidity.

If you must make a writing-related New Year’s resolution, resolve to set an achievable goal, one you can reach in sensible increments. In the long term, asking yourself to write two extra hours per week is more likely to become a habit than eight or ten; committing to sending out one query per week is much easier to do consistently than twenty.

Remember, if Millicent resolved to get through those masses of queries and submissions currently completely concealing her desk from the human eye, she’d fling her latte in disgust within the first hour. Steady, consistent application is the way to plow through an overwhelming-seeming task.

Okay, if I’m sounding like Aesop, it’s definitely time to sign off for the evening. Next time, I shall be examining another reader-generated query and talking about how to increase its probability of impressing Millicent.

Hey, we’re all about beating the odds here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, Part VIII: Millicent! Let us in! Millicent!

angry mob2

A quick announcement before I launch into today’s installment of Queryfest, aimed specifically at writers between the ages of 18 and 30 seeking some Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC). The deadline for Narrative Magazine’s annual 30 Below Story Contest is October 29th. Entry is limited to young adult writers — that’s writers who are themselves young adults, folks, not YA writers — and delightfully, there are some actual cash prizes not only for the top few entries, but for the finalists as well.

They will also consider all entries for publication, and my, is the range of what they are opening to publishing broad. Quoth the contest’s organizers:

Narrative is calling on writers, visual artists, photographers, performers, and filmmakers between eighteen and thirty years old, to tell us a story. We are interested in narrative in the many forms it takes: the word and the image, the traditional and the innovative, the true and the imaginary. We’re looking for short stories, short shorts, essays, memoirs, photo essays, audio and video stories, graphic stories, all forms of literary nonfiction, and excerpts from longer works of both fiction and nonfiction. The editors of Narrative have published the works of many new and emerging writers, who have gone on to become household names, and we continue to look for and to encourage the best new talent we can find.

So you might want to consider checking it out, ECQLC-seekers. Fair warning, though: there is an entrance fee.

Back to the topic at hand. Every time I devote a few weeks to a serious examination of all things query-related, I hear from many, many would-be queriers whose first (or at least second) reaction is to glance at the sheer number and length of the posts and back away quickly, clicking hastily away to another, less challenging writerly forum.

So if you have stuck with it so far, congratulations. Queryfest is not for the faint of heart, but then, neither is querying. Currently, it’s as hard as it has ever been for a first-time writer to catch an agent’s eye. The combination of a rise in home computer ownership, coupled with a slow economy, have caused the tide of queries pouring onto Millicent the agency screener’s desk on any given day to swell from its usual flood to something akin to a tsunami.

Hey, it’s tough out there. The why I have been urging you to take a hard, critical look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered.

As opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds swarm in legions like the mobs in Frankenstein movies, wielding pitchforks, pitch-soaked flaming torches, unbound manuscripts, and, of course, query letters, chanting endlessly, “Represent my book! Represent my book!” (Alternated with, of course, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) It’s like a bad horror film: no matter how many of those manuscripts Millicent rejects, they just keep coming, relentlessly, pouring into the agency seemingly through every crack and crevice, appearing magically from some ever-renewing source.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of your query as part of an implacable daily onslaught on Millicent’s defenses? It’s no accident that she keeps burning her lip on lattés — her task can be so repetitious, so seemingly endless that even Sisyphus occasionally glances up from that immense boulder the unkind gods sentenced him to roll up a hill for all eternity, only to see it roll down again as soon as he reaches the top, mops his weary brow, and murmurs, “Wow, am I glad that I don’t have Millicent’s job.”

Contemplating how many queries she might have read prior to yours — not to mention the mountainous piles she may have to peruse between the thirty seconds she can devote to your letter and when she can go home for the day — can either be deeply depressing for a querier. Yes, it’s a bit intimidating to consider that the chances of a randomly-selected query’s leading to the book in question’s being picked up by a great agent and sold to a good publishing house fall somewhere between getting accepted to a top medical school and being hit by lightning while holding an umbrella. I remember thinking when I sold my memoir, gee, I’m about to get published, I’m a woman with a doctorate, and I’m ambidextrous. Statistically speaking, I’m about as likely to exist as a purple gorilla.

Just because something is unlikely, however, doesn’t mean that it can’t happen; there’s a vast difference between difficult and impossible. As I like to tell discouraged aspiring writers early and often, the only manuscripts that have no chance of getting published are those that just sit in a drawer or on a hard disk, unqueried, unsubmitted, and unseen by the literary establishment.

In case I’m being too subtle here: don’t let the intense competition keep you from trying. You might just end up being the gorilla with the all-over mauve highlights.

Don’t underestimate how much doing your homework about what a good querying entails improve your changes, either. Just think of what a high percentage of queries either do not contain all of the necessary information, or are improperly formatted, or are downright rude, mistakes you intrepid souls working your way through Queryfest are unlikely to make. Nor are your queries likely to be among the unfortunate many that substitute hard-sell tactics for description, picking an agent’s name out of a hat for serious research into what the query recipient represents, or a vague, rambling paragraph about what the book is about for the one- or two-word book category already in use by the U.S. publishing industry.

Feeling luckier already, aren’t you, Jungle Jim?

You’re also, if you follow my advice, going to separate yourself from the crowd by not forcing your book concept into a boilerplate that a third of the aspiring writers out there happen to be using at the moment. You wouldn’t believe how many query letters read virtually identically. And that’s bad for aspiring writers, because generic queries are among the easiest to reject: not only are they comparatively unmemorable — a boilerplate account of even a thrilling plotline tends to fall a bit flat — but your garden-variety Millicent finds them somewhat insulting.

And not merely because so many cut-and-paste operations intended to update old queries for reuse end up in disaster. Even when the address and salutation match AND end up in the right envelope, recycling the same query for every conceivable agent renders it effectively impossible to make sure your query ends up on the right desk.

Oh, it could happen, but so could Millicent’s coffee cup being hit by a meteor. Want to wait around to see if it happens, or would you prefer to make the effort to improve the odds?

No, but seriously, folks, the way that most first-time queriers approach figuring out whom to query is close enough to random that it’s surprising that they ever hit the right target. It just doesn’t make sense as a strategy for making a decision vital to the success of your writing career: if you don’t do individual research on each agent’s likes, dislikes, and placement record, how can you possibly know that any given one will be the best fit for your book? You don’t want just any agent to handle it, after all — your manuscript deserves the professional assistance of an agent with a proven track record of (and concomitant connections for) selling books like yours.

Agents are not generalists, any more than writers are: they specialize. That means, in practice, that a writer is unlikely to find such an agent by the simple (and unfortunately common) means of doing a web search on agents + {insert book category here}. Or by the formerly most popular alternative, snatching one of the standard agency guides off the shelf at the nearest bookstore, flipping to the index, and making a list of every agency that lists itself as representing that category.

While neither is a bad first step toward tracking down the ideal agent for a particular book, you must admit that neither is exactly a fine-tuned agent-seeking instrument. Yes, limiting your efforts to only those agents who represent manuscripts in your category is a necessary first step toward finding the best agent for your work — chant it with me now, campers: one of the most common reasons queries get rejected is being aimed at an agent who doesn’t represent that kind of book — but as many a query-fatigued aspiring writer can attest, it can result in a long, undifferentiated list. How does one decide whom to approach first?

Based on the comparative popularity of agencies whose names begin with A, B, or C, as well as those beginning with W, Y, or Z, my guess would be that most queriers simply proceed alphabetically — or in reverse alphabetical order. The fact that the D-V agencies tend to see fewer queries would indicate that embracers of this approach often give up in frustration before they get very far into their lists.

In the face of this undeniable reality, you can’t really fault Millicent for regarding the lack of a clear statement of why a writer selected her boss off a list of agents representing that book category as evidence that he might not have done his homework, can you? Most of the mob beating on the gate at any given moment is made up of homework-avoiders, after all.

Which brings me to the other primary reason for striving for an individual voice in your query letter: to Millicent, a well-written, personalized letter that describes a manuscript in clear, enticing, market-oriented terms is — wait for it — professional. As in exhibiting the minimum level of performance for getting her stamp of approval.

That means, in practice, being specific. And yes, I know that’s hard, in a document must contain a an extremely brief summary of your book.

Therein lies the problem, often. The first thing most aspiring writers learn about a query is that it should contain a description of the book it is hoping the agent will represent. (Okay, the second thing: the requirement that a query be a page or less is quite widely known.) To the first-time querier, that can sound an awful lot like you have only a page to summarize a 400-page manuscript!

That’s ridiculous, of course — a querier has only a paragraph (or two, at most) to describe her book. Less, if the description isn’t particularly interesting or doesn’t make the book seem like a good fit for either the agent to whom the query is addressed or the current literary market.

A 1-page synopsis is where that writer has to summarize her 400-page book. Note the distinction, please: it’s vital to your sanity while composing a query — or trying to keep it under a single page, for that matter. In fact, I feel an aphorism coming on:

broken-recordA query’s descriptive paragraph describes the manuscript; a synopsis summarizes it. The query presents the premise and central conflict (or, for nonfiction, the subject matter and central question), while the summary gives a complete, if brief, overview of the plot, including some indication of its resolution.

Why is being aware of this distinction vital for a savvy querier’s sanity? Because if you try to summarize the entire plot of your book in a query letter, you will drive yourself mad.

And, frankly, you will annoy Millicent. We may see why all too clearly manifested in the generality-fest that is average descriptive paragraph:

THE SIMPLEST PLOT OF ALL tells the story of boy meets girl set against the turbulent backdrop of the type of war aptly described as hell. Although Dwayne and Mimette initially don’t click, circumstances throw them together and they fall madly in love. Through confronting numerous obstacles, they come to know themselves better and learn important life lessons before finding their very own happy ending.

Quite the a cliché-fest, isn’t it? That isn’t always the case with a too-general descriptive paragraph, of course, but the two often go hand-in-hand. As far as Millicent is concerned, they can keep on walking hand-in-hand right into the sunset, just like Dwayne and Mimette: her job is to look for original stories.

Which THE SIMPLEST PLOT OF ALL might be, for all we know. But how on earth could Millicent tell, given the vagueness of this description?

Aspiring writers with a bit more knowledge about how agencies work may veer off into another type of generality, the lit class description. It tends to run a little something like this:

THE NUCLEAR FALLOUT WITHIN is a classic political thriller written in a literary fiction voice. Told in the first person from four different and conflicting points of view: a handsome protagonist (Senator Lance Manlison, 38), a brainy yet uninhibited love interest (Dr. Bambi-Pearl Dignityfree, 23), an odious antagonist (Snarly Weaponwielder, 52), and a deaf-mute unrelated bystander (Cheapdevice Smith, 13). Deftly alternating between these distinct voices, the narrative draws the reader into a beautifully-described world of intrigue, power, and intense introspection.

Both of these examples are probably factually correct statements about what occurs in the book, but that’s really beside the point at the querying stage. “What specifically are these books about?” Millicent is left muttering. “And why aren’t either of these writers using the scant space afforded in a query to demonstrate that they know how to tell a story? Are they under the impression that how they write doesn’t matter?”

I can answer that one, Millie: at the querying stage, that’s precisely what most aspiring writers do think; many regard the query as little more than an annoying-but-necessary piece of busywork, rather than an opportunity to show that they can write. But they’re wrong: the goal here is to stand out from that teeming population of queriers by coming across as a good writer with a good, marketable story.

The idea of your writing being judged solely by how you construct a single-page letter is making some of you squirm, isn’t it? “But Anne,” wiggle worms everywhere protest, and with good reason, “I’m a novelist. My gift lies in expressing myself at length. Why would any agent who represents book-length works allow, much less instruct, his trusty Millicent to make snap judgments about books without reading them?”

I sympathize with your feelings, but that agent cannot afford to: remember that tsunami of queries washing over Millicent’s desk? If she had to read even the first few pages of every single one of those manuscripts before ruling out those that are out of the question, she would constantly be swimming through an ocean of required reading.

Can you honestly blame her for draining the pool a little by rejecting the vague and the publishing world-inappropriate book descriptions on sight?

Most descriptive paragraphs don’t go to either of these extremes, of course; many are combinations of both, with perhaps a sprinkling here and there of detail. That’s not all that astonishing, given the comparatively scant attention most query-writing classes/seminars/online discussions seem to devote to the part of the letter where Millicent is most solidly within her rights to expect your writing to shine.

Hey, every writer can talk compellingly about his own manuscript, right? It’s the rest of the query that really matters, doesn’t it? And if the query reads just like what the writer has seen online, it has to be fine, doesn’t it?

Apparently and unfortunately, no, on all counts. I feel an aphorism coming on: the overwhelming majority of descriptive paragraphs are not sufficiently descriptive — a real shame, because the descriptive paragraph is the querier’s single best opportunity to make the case that her manuscript is unique. Preferably in the a voice similar to the narrative voice of the book.

Does that gargantuan gulping sound I heard out there in the ether mean that two-thirds of you with queries already circulating just realized that they did not do justice to the storytelling magic of your manuscript? Or did you think the point of the description was to make your book sound identical the most recent bestseller? Or — and I suspect that this is going to be the more common gulp-generator — were you previously unaware that the descriptive paragraph (and the query in general) is a writing sample?

On the off chance that it was any of the above, I’m going to drag out the broken record player again:

broken-recordEverything an aspiring writer submits to an agency is in fact a writing sample. Since the agent of your dreams is new to your writing, it’s only reasonable to expect that he will use your query letter, your synopsis, any requested pages, and even your e-mails and cover letters for submissions as bases for evaluating your writing ability. These are literate people; they expect good writers to express themselves well 100% of the time.

At minimum: spell-check everything before you hit the SEND key. Proofread everything — preferable in hard copy, as it’s easier to catch typos and logic problems that way. If you don’t know the difference between its (belonging to it) and it’s (a contraction for it is), or how to make a word plural (hint: almost never by adding an apostrophe + s), learn it. And if you have any doubts about your own grammar or proofreading abilities, run, don’t walk, to someone whose skills are impeccable.

But most of all, use your query as an opportunity to demonstrate to Millicent that, in addition to being charming, literate, and creative enough to come up with a great premise, you can tell a story well. Specifically, the story of your book.

Generally speaking, summary statements are not the best way to pull this off. Too many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that a generic query filled either with overly-broad generalities (my protagonist is Everyman struggling with quotidian life’s most common challenges.), promotional copy (this is the most exciting book featuring childbirth since GONE WITH THE WIND!”), or just plain one-size-fits-all rhetoric (This is a fiction novel with great writing based on a true story.) will be sufficient to pique an agent’s interest. All of these tactics are problematic, because a vague query will sound just like a good two-thirds of the query letters Millicent’s seen that week, and thus hardly likely to stand out amongst the forest of torches storming the castle.

Or, as she likes to put it: “Next!” But the news is not all bad here, campers: our Millie has a pretty good eye for spotting the rare purple gorilla.

When a query is simultaneously unique and yet professional, the result can be semi-miraculous. That means, in practice, that for a talented querier, the ubiquity of poorly-constructed queries is actually helpful.

How so? Call up that angry mob in your mind, the one that’s casually dropping by en masse to ask Dr. Frankenstein if that undead thing that’s been lurching about Geneva lately could possibly be his houseguest. Now picture yourself pushing through that crowd, impeccably dressed, to knock on that castle door. For Dr. F’s assigned gate-keeper, Igor, to open the door, he’s going to have to believe that you’re not merely a cleverly-disguised villager intent upon destroying the secret laboratory where his master dabbles in revivifying the dead, right?

So, too, with Millicent: a politely-worded, grammatically impeccable, well-written query is going to leap off the page at her, simply because such a low percentage of what crosses her desk meets those criteria. And frankly, that fact is very useful to her, because she can quickly reject the vast majority of the angry mob’s attempts to knock down that door.

Okay, so maybe that analogy was a trifle forced. Very few of the agents of my acquaintance actually make a habit of prying open those well-known doors that mankind is not meant to open, and not all rejections are that knee-jerk. But you can’t deny that picturing Millicent triple-bolting the castle door made a change from imagining her burning her lip on yet another too-hot latté, right?

broken-recordA good agent typically receives in the neighborhood of 800-1500 queries per week — more, if the agency makes it easy for aspiring writers to submit pages online with their queries or happens to fall at the beginning or end of an alphabetical listing. In the face of that constant barrage, even the most prose-loving Millicent is going to have to reject the vast majority that cross her desk, if only in self-defense. The generally-accepted figure is 98%.

Starting to make more sense that I’ve been pushing you to concentrate this hard upon a page of writing that isn’t even in your manuscript? I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.

So print up your latest query letter draft, please, and ask yourself a few more probing questions before you pop that puppy in the mail. To prepare yourself properly for this level of analysis, take a moment now to read your current draft in its entirety and aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course.

To stop the protest already halfway out of your mouth: I don’t care if you reread (or wrote) it yesterday, or already today, or fifteen minutes ago. Do it again, because now you’re doing it in hard copy, where you’re significantly more likely to catch itty-bitty errors like missed periods.

Why aloud? Because it’s the best way to catch a left-out word or logic problem. Haven’t you been paying attention?

Don’t feel bad if you find a few: believe me, every successful author has a story about the time that she realized only after a query or a manuscript was in the mailbox that it was missing a necessary pronoun or possessive. Or misspelled something really basic, like the book category.

Yes, it happens. All the time. Millicent has good reason to regard queries as miniature Frankenstein manuscripts.

And if you don’t read it ALOUD, IN HARD COPY, and IN ITS ENTIRETY one final time between when you are happy with it on your computer screen and when you apply your soon-to-be-famous signature to it…well, all I can do is rend my garments and wonder where I went wrong in bringing you up.

Now that you’re thinking of your query as a writing sample, let’s take a quick foray back up the page before we move on to that pesky descriptive paragraph.

(15) Does the first paragraph of my query show that I am a good writer, as well as convey the necessary information? Does it get to the point immediately? Or, to but it a bit more bluntly, if I were an agency screener with 200 other queries on my desk or in my inbox, would I keep reading into the descriptive paragraph?
This may seem like draconian questions, but think about it from Millicent’s perspective: if you had to get through all of those queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading the one in front of you if its first paragraph rambled? Or if, heaven forfend, it contained a typo or two?

Oh, you say you would. But honestly, would you?

It’s worth revisiting the first paragraph of the query letter because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents and their screeners every day based upon the first paragraph alone. That’s another reason I favor paper over e-mailed queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically state they prefer them over the paper version: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line or two of it.

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Does it present the relevant information — why you are querying this particular agent, book category, title, etc. — in a professional, compelling manner?

Cut to the chase. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front — say, by neglecting to mention the book category — the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph.

All right, on to paragraph two:

(16) Is my descriptive paragraph short, clear, and exciting to read? Have I actually conveyed what the book is ABOUT?
Frequently, aspiring writers get so carried away with conveying the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or, as we discussed above, they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the letter should never be longer than a page, that strategy tends to result in a missive that neither presents the book’s story or argument well nor leaves room for the necessary other elements of the query.

So what should you do instead? Limit the scope of what you are trying to achieve to making the book’s premise or argument sound fascinating.

How might one go about that? Well, for starters, buy yourself some space by axing the lit class terminology: this is not the place to talk about protagonists, antagonists, or plot twists, at least not using those words. Ditto with introductory statements like ALTERED REALITIES is the story of… or SIMILAR FANTASIES tells the tale of… If the opening paragraph has done its job properly, these kind of clauses are never actually necessary.

Second, concentrate upon presenting the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation. A time-honored one-paragraph descriptive structure demonstrates why the lead is special in the first sentence or two (utilizing parenthetical age references to save space), devotes the second sentence to the plot’s central conflict, and the third to what’s at stake for the protagonist. As in:

Photojournalist Nana Angelopoulos (27) is far from an inexperienced traveler: her passion for documenting vanishing wildlife has brought her face-to-face with more charging rhinos, furious rattlesnakes, and irate, weapon-brandishing game wardens than even her worried mother (Irene, 56) can remember. Yet now that her favorite preserve is going to be sealed off from human contact forever, she has abruptly begun having panic attacks the moment she steps on a plane. Has the shutter come down permanently on both Nana’s career and the endangered red pandas she loves?

For a character-driven plot, you can focus even more closely on the protagonist. Try opening with your main character’s hopes and dreams, moving on to the primary barriers to his achieving them, and then wrap up by telling Millicent what he stands to win if he overcomes those obstacles — or what he stands to lose if he doesn’t. For example:

All retired paleontologist Sven Olafson (87) wants is a little peace and quiet, but who could relax with intrepid junior explorer Tammi Butterfingers (11) constantly digging for dinosaur bones in his back yard? Or twin grandsons borrowing in his stone tool collection to reconfigure the neighbors’ treasured marble birdbath? Or, worst of all, a malignant postman (Marvin, 62) determined to drive Sven from the only settled home he has ever had outside of a dig site?

Either structure will work for memoir, of course: treat yourself as a character in the book, change the pronouns to I, and tell Millicent what happened to you. Easy as the proverbial pie.

For other nonfiction, just set out the central problem of the book and give some indication of how you plan to address it. If you want to get fancy, toss in a sentence or two making the case that the problem is important, and to whom:

Sasquatches once roamed North America freely, but thanks to human overpopulation, few living children have ever even seen one. Once-mighty herds are now reduced to just a few square acres next to a Bigfoot preserve in southwestern Oregon. Ironically, just as human needs have nearly wiped out these magnificent beasts, human needs may save them from total extinction: new research indicates that molted sloth hair may be the long-sought cure for male pattern baldness. Begging the question: is the recent establishment of megalonychid-shaving factories a triumph in the fight against extinction, or merely vanity-induced animal abuse?

Reads like a well thought-out argument, does it not? What you’re doing here is not generalizing — you’re winnowing down the story to its essential elements. That’s doable, even in just a few lines.

When in doubt, err on the side of brevity over completeness. Remember, you honestly do have only — chant it with me now, long-time readers — 3-5 sentences to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are and how unusual your premise is, rather than trying to outline more of the plot.

But do make sure it sounds like a great story or fascinating argument on an important subject. As in a pitch, the first commandment of querying is thou shalt not bore — and believe me, nothing is more boring to someone who reads for a living than seeing the same kind of descriptions over and over again.

One of those torches waving in the night might be pretty, but when everyone in the village is brandishing one, it gets old fast.

Hark! Do I hear an angry mob beating on my battlements, chanting, “How may we both brief and interesting simultaneously?” In a word: juicy details.

Okay, so that was two words; it’s still a great strategy. Why not spice things up with details that only you could devise, described in lovely language? If you’re feeling even bolder, why not try waking Millicent up a little?

(17) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?
What makes a book description memorable, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, is not merely its overall arc, but also its vividly-rendered details. Especially to a reader like Millicent who reads 50 such descriptions in a sitting, the difference between a ho-hum descriptive paragraph and one that makes her sit up and say, “Hey, I’d like to read this book!” tends to lie in the minutiae.

Not in a superabundance of minutiae, mind you: just a few careful-selected details she’s not likely to have seen before.

Unsure where the line between too many generalities and too much detail lies, flaming torch-bearers? When in doubt, stick to the central conflict; subplots, while perhaps integral to the book as a whole, tend to water down the storytelling impact of a descriptive paragraphs.

Why, you ask? Okay, let’s step into Millie’s shoes for a minute. Read these three summaries: which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book and why?

Basil Q. Zink, a color-blind clarinetist who fills his hours away from his music stand with pinball and romance novels, has never fallen in love — until he meets Gisèle Démodé, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel and a temper of fire. But what chance does a man who cannot reliably make his socks match have with a Paris-trained beauty? Ever since Gisèle was dumped by the world’s greatest bassoonist, a sociopath prone to torturing innocent kittens in his spare time, she has never had a kind word for anyone in the woodwind section. Can Basil win the heart of his secret love without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?

Quite a few unique and unexpected quirks packed in there, aren’t there? I’d ask to read that book. Contrast this description with the far more common style of entry #2:

Clarinetist Basil Zink has fallen hopelessly in love with his conductor, temperamental and beautiful Gisèle Démodé. She’s emotionally unavailable, however: on the rebound from a ten-year marriage with sociopathic bassoonist Serge, she scarcely casts a glance in Basil’s direction; she hardly seems to be aware that he’s alive. Menaced by an ultra-competitive co-worker, Basil must overcome his fears to capture the woman he loves and save his orchestra.

Interesting how different it is from the first, isn’t it, considering that both describe the same story? Yet since #2 relies so heavily on generalities and is so light on unusual details, it comes across as a tad generic, not to say cliché-ridden.

How does a writer know when to say when on the specifics? Let’s take a gander at version #3, where a love of detail has apparently run amok:

BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows protagonist Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee can bring on a blistering flashback. This circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights starting at little dots printed on paper.

Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, an antagonist who is exactly the type of Frisbee-tossing lunkhead Basil has spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses different a problem for Basil: he has never been directed by a woman before. This brings up his issues with his long-dead mother, Yvonne, who had an affair with little Basil’s first music teacher in a raucous backstage incident that sent music stands crashing to the ground and left two dozen musically-minded six-year-olds agape in horror. Basil’s father never got over the debacle, and Basil…”

Okay, ersatz agency screener: how much longer would you keep reading? We’re all the way through a second descriptive paragraph, and we still don’t know what the central conflict of the book is!

Contrary to popular belief amongst queriers frightened by the prospect of having to talk about their manuscripts in marketing terms in Paragraph 1, what makes a descriptive paragraph great is not its ability to show how similar the book is to what is already published, but rather how it is different.

Oh, I don’t mean that a querier is likely to get anywhere with Millicent by claiming that his manuscript is like nothing she has ever seen before — that, too, has been said so often in queries that it has become a cliché — or that it’s a good idea to ignore the current literary market. You won’t, and it isn’t.

In order to sell any first book, however, a writer needs to be able to demonstrate that (a) it fits into an existing book category but (b) offers readers who already buy books in that category something they can’t already get by just walking into a bookstore.

Or, to cast it in grander terms: what will your book add to the literary world that it hasn’t already got, purple gorilla? Why will the reading world be a better place if your book is published?

Deep questions, eh? I leave you to ponder them. But as you do, don’t lose sight of the fact that part of what a writer is marketing is her unique voice. How could a query letter that sounds just like everyone else’s possibly do justice to that?

Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part V: is this my best side?

My apologies about the unexpected hiatus, campers; I know that many of you are anxious to get your queries out the door. Let’s just say that it’s been a heck of a week, and leave it at that.

Among recent events: my birthday was last week — I’m at that perfect age when I’m young enough not to mind being truthful about when I was born, but old enough to be pleased when people’s estimates of my age are low by a decade or two — and my, how the Muses waxed poetic. One of the many benefits of having a large acquaintanceship among writers is that they tend to be oriented toward marking occasions with words, and boy, did they ever. Indeed, I know many writers constitutionally incapable of letting a significant pass without delivering, if not a lecture, at least a few breaths’ worth of trenchant commentary. If not a few dozen pages.

I was particularly enchanted by a piece of aging advice from a rather well-known novelist who says I can pass it along to you, as long as I keep his/her august name out of it: Honey, you should start lying about your age now, while your author photos still make you look dewy. It’s a {expletive deleted} of a lot easier to chop off a decade while it’s still plausible than to wait until you’re old enough to want people to think you’re a dozen years younger. Fringe benefit: you’ll be able to keep using your current bio pic until you’re on Social Security.

This made me giggle: my generation spent the 1980s complaining to one another about how unlikely Social Security was to be around by the time we reached retirement age. On one memorable occasion, a fellow delegate to a teen mock-Congress pushed me sideways over a rickety chair because I was the only person in the room who thought that Social Security was a good idea. Apparently, that offense merited a sprained ankle. When I met my congressman the next day, he not unnaturally mistook my pain-glazed eyes as the telltale sign of inveterate drug use. His office staff called my mother, to alert her to my evident repudiation of Just Say No.

Ah, the Reagan years. You had to be there.

My novelist friend had a point: in a business that’s notoriously unforgiving of writers who exaggerate their bios, it’s an accepted piece of author vanity to misrepresent one’s age — and not merely so a youthful-looking 33-year-old can pass himself off as this year’s literary enfant terrible, or so a hip-minded 55-year-old can continue to pen credible chick lit. There isn’t always even a marketing value to the fib. You’d be astonished how many established authors keep using flattering author photos five, ten, fifteen, or even twenty years after it has, to put it kindly, ceased to resemble them closely.

They just want to look good — who can blame them for that? Except, perhaps, for the writers’ conference volunteer who spends an extra hour wandering around the airport, fruitlessly seeking the flaxen-haired nymph depicted on the book jacket so he can drive her to the convention center, no one is really harmed by this sort of misrepresentation. It may result in the now snowy-haired authoress twiddling her thumbs while she awaits her ride, but that’s a small price to pay for tens of thousands of dust jacket-perusers’ exclamations of, “My, but that’s an attractive literary figure. Would that all of our national treasures were so comely,” isn’t it?

There’s a practical reason that author photos exhibit such extraordinary longevity: let’s face it, coming up with a good author photo can be a pain. Even the most photogenic among us often go through a couple of dozen, if not a couple of hundred, clicks of the shutter before we end up with anything remotely pleasing, much less an image that we would like to identify us for posterity. I frequently end up being the photographer in these situations, aiming at a protesting, howling author-to-be the day before her editor has said that the jacket photo absolutely, positively must be in the printer’s hands by noon, and it’s rare that a resentful author likes any of the first thirty or so. I’m often cajoling and swooping in for close-ups for an hour or two.

Trust me on this one: you’ll be happier if your trigger-happy friend is not trying to get you to smile when you’re right on top of a submission deadline. Also, choosing amongst fifty okay shots and eight good ones is not a decision you’re going to want to make under time pressure.

Start posing now. Your photographer, agent, and editor will thank you for it.

I sensed some of you going pale over the course of the last few paragraphs. “Um, Anne?” the nervous murmur, glancing at their slim pocketbooks. “What do you mean, trigger-happy friend? My future publisher is going to pay a professional photographer to shoot my jacket photos, right?”

Probably not, unless you happen already to be famous. First-time authors are almost invariably responsible for providing their publishers with jacket photos these days, rather than the other way around. As a direct result, not only are non-professional dust jacket photos the norm, but we have substantially less incentive not to re-use those snapshots, once we find ones we like.

Why bring this up in the middle of a series on querying? Increasingly, agencies’ submission guidelines have been requesting queriers to send additional materials along with their letters — and sometimes, those materials include an author bio.

Yes, even for fiction writers. As I said, you might want to get used to posing — and start buttering up your friends who happen to have some fancy shuttering skills.

Back to the business at hand. In our last thrilling installment of Queryfest, we began going through a list of questions intended to help you steer clear of the most common querying mistakes. So far, our troubleshooting list has concentrated upon length and tone. Tonight, however, I would like to shift our focus toward the more market-oriented aspects of the query.

And half of you just tensed up as if you were about to have your pictures taken, didn’t you? Not entirely surprising: for many, if not most, aspiring writers, marketing is a dirty word. Indeed, you can’t throw a piece of bread at a circle of writers without hitting someone who will insist that writing for the market is the moral opposite of writing for art’s sake.

To a professional writer, the market/art split is a false dichotomy. There’s plenty of marvelous writing that’s done very well commercially. And it would be surprising if most aspiring writers weren’t aware of that: as a group, we’re some of the most devoted readers of the already-published, right?

Besides, insisting that thinking seriously about who is going to buy your work is tantamount to selling out is self-defeating for a writer trying to land an agent. Knowing something about how books are sold is not optional for an author working with an agent or editor; it’s a prerequisite. (If you are brand-new to the process, you might want to set aside some time to peruse the HOW DO MANUSCRIPTS GET PUBLISHED? category on the archive list at right.)

If you don’t want to make a living at it, of course, you needn’t worry about marketing realities. Writing for your own pleasure, and that of your kith and kin, is a laudable pursuit. Have at it, Emily Dickinson. But if you want total strangers to buy your work, you are going to have to think about how to market it to them — and that means learning to speak the language of the industry.

At least enough to describe your work in terms that every agent, editor, and screener will understand. To pull that off, you’re going to need to give some thought to what your book is about, who you expect to read it, and where it might sit on a shelf in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Not to frighten you, but you’re also going to have to be able to convey all of this information within just a few sentences. Query letters are, after all, brief — and may not have even an entire page of Millicent’s attention to make their cases. To crank up the broken record player again,

broken-recordThe vast majority of queries are not read in their entirety before being rejected. Therefore, the first paragraph of your query is one of the very few situations in the writing world where you need to tell, as well as show.

That admonition made you sit bold upright, didn’t it? Glad I have your attention. Let’s turn our attention to the crucial information in that first paragraph.

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph that I am querying the appropriate agent for my work? In other words, would a screener who read nothing else in the letter be certain on this point?
I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but if the answer is no, your query is exceedingly likely to get rejected, regardless of how beautifully you have crafted the rest of the letter. Why? Well, if your first paragraph doesn’t tell our pal Millicent the agency screener either that the book in question is in fact the kind of book her boss is looking to represent or another very good reason to query him (having spoken to him at a conference, having heard her speak at same, because she so ably represented Book X, etc.), she is very, very likely to shove it into the rejection pile without reading any farther.

I hear you groaning over the amount of research this may entail, but let’s face it, indiscriminate querying probably won’t match you up with the best agent for your work. It’s a waste of your time to query agents who do not represent books like yours, so in the long run, doing a bit of background-checking may actually speed up your querying process. Besides, in order to personalize each query, you need to come up with only one or two reasons for picking this particular agent.

The one down side to being this specific in your paragraph one: if you are querying many agents at once, it renders it much, much easier to send the wrong query — and infinitely easier for Millicent to notice that you’ve done so.

What might that look like in action, you ask? Remember our two examples from last time, where Flaubert accidentally mixed up one agent’s name and background with another’s? It contained some good selection criteria, couched in some restrained praise. To refresh your memory, he sent this:

wrong names query

When he intended to send this:

Despite our Gustave’s momentary inattention to critical detail, he had embraced essentially the right approach in both letters: he devoted the opening sentences of his various queries to telling each agent why he was querying him or her, rather than simply sending the same letter to everybody. In fact, he brought up two perfectly adequate for each: for Ms. Marketer, he mentioned both an article she had written and a book she had successfully represented; for Mr. Bookpusher, he brought up having heard him speak at a conference — and a book Ms. Marketer had successfully represented.

Again: proofread your queries before you send them out. Every time, without exception — and yes, Virginia, even if you are querying via e-mail or by filling out a form on an agency’s website. Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the relative ease of mass-querying electronically often renders Millicents more nit-picky on the detail front, not less.

How can you figure out what kind of reason Millicent will find persuasive? Agents-who-blog make this kind of opening quite easy for queriers: all you have to do is mention that you’re a fan. Do be positive before embracing this tactic, however, that you have read enough of the blog in question to know what the agent has said she is looking for in a query or book project. Trust me, AWBs’ Millicents already see enough queries from people who make it quite plain that all they know about the blogging agent is her name and that she blogs.

Don’t hesitate to mention if you attended a conference where the agent spoke: traditionally, conference attendance is considered a sign that a writer is serious about learning how the publishing business works. Which is kind of funny, actually, as so many writers’ conferences focus far more on craft than practical issues like manuscript preparation and submission. (You’d be amazed at how often conference organizers have asked incredulously, “You want to teach a two-hour seminar on formatting? What on earth for? Isn’t everybody already familiar with professional standards?”) Even now, when so many writers are gleaning their knowledge from the Internet, many agents still tell attendees to include the conference’s name in the first line of the query, the subject line of the e-query, or both.

It’s worth using as an entrée even if you did not get a chance to interact with him at all. At a large or stand-offish conference, it’s not always possible — and even if you do manage some face-to-face time, the agent may well be meeting so many aspiring writers in so short a time that he may not remember every individual. So don’t be shy about reminding him that you were a face in the crowd.

(6) Is it clear from the first paragraph what kind of book I am asking the agent to represent?
This may seem like a silly question, but it’s jaw-dropping how many otherwise well-written query letters don’t even specify whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction. Or the book category. Or even, believe it or not, the title.

Quoth Millicent: “Next!”

The book category, the most straightforward way to talk about your writing in professional terms, is the most often omitted element. And that’s a shame, because in either a query or a pitch, the more terse and specific you can be about your book’s category, the more professional you will sound — as long as you are being terse in the language of the business.

In other words, don’t just manufacture your own category. Tell the nice Millicent what already-established book category your work would fit into most comfortably, so she can tell her boss which editors will be interested in seeing your manuscript. Shilly-shallying will not serve you here: an agent would use only a couple of words to categorize any book, any time, and so should you.

Why be so terse? Established book categories tend to be only one or two words long: historical romance, science fiction, urban fantasy, women’s fiction, Highland romance, YA paranormal, Western, literary fiction, memoir, and so forth. In fact, these terms are so concentrated that it’s very, very easy to annoy Millicent by adding unnecessary adjectives or explanation: literary fiction novel or science fiction novel are technically redundant, for instance, because all novels are fiction, by definition. By the same logic, true memoir, real-life memoir, and memoir about my life are all needlessly repetitive descriptions.

The sad thing is, the widespread tendency among both queries and pitchers is in the opposite direction of terseness — or even using the terminology that agents themselves use. “Just tell me where it would sit in a well-organized bookstore,” Millicent begs. “Why do so many aspiring writers find that so hard?”

Why, indeed? In my experience, it’s usually a matter of either not being aware that the publishing industry runs on book categories — or, if a writer is aware of it, a clawing, pathological terror that putting his work into the same conceptual box in which any agent would need to place it in order to be able to sell it to a publisher in North America would somehow limit Millicent’s understanding of just how complex the book in question is. That’s not how anyone who works in an agency would see it, however. As much as writers seem to adore describing their work as, “Well, it’s sort of a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cozy mystery, but the writing is literary,” agents and editors tend to hear ambiguous descriptions as either waffling, a book’s not being ready to market, or the writer’s just not being very familiar with how the industry actually works.

So you might want to avoid those ever-popular terms of waffle, my writing defies categorization, my book is too complex to categorize, my book isn’t like anything else out there, no one has ever written a book like this before, and that perennial favorite of first novelists, it’s sort of autobiographical.

Which, translated into industry-speak, come across respectively as I’m not familiar with how books are sold in North America, I don’t know one book category from another, I’m not familiar with the current market in my area of interest — which means, Mr. Agent, that I haven’t been buying your clients’ work lately, I’m not familiar with the history of the book market in my area, and I was afraid people would hate me/hurt me/sue me for two million dollars if I wrote this story as a memoir.

Don’t blame the translator, please: the writers and the agents are just not speaking the same language. And speaking as a memoirist who actually has had a book subject to a $2 million lawsuit threat, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Nor is committing to a book category. Contrary to popular opinion, picking a conceptual box for your work will not limit its market appeal; it will simply tell Millicent which shelf at a well-stocked bookstore or category on Amazon you expect to house your book. It honestly is that simple.

You really do not need to stress out about the choice nearly as much as most aspiring writers do. Just take a nice, deep breath and consider: what books currently on the market does my book resemble? How are these books categorized?

“But Anne,” I hear the more prolific among you protest, “I write in a number of different book categories, and I’m looking for an agent to represent all of my work, not just some of it. Won’t it be confusing if I list all of my areas of interest at the beginning of my query?”

In a word, yes — and generally speaking, it’s better strategy to query one book at a time, for precisely that reason. If you like (and you should like, if you have a publication history in another book category), you may mention the other titles later in your query letter, down in the paragraph where you will be talking about your writing credentials. It will only render you more memorable if you are the science fiction writer whose query included the immortal words, Having twenty-seven years’ experience as a deep-sea archeologist, I also am working on a book on underwater spelunking.

But in the first paragraph of your query, no. Keep it simple. Do you really want to run the risk of confusing Millicent right off the bat about which project you are trying to sell?

(7) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?
We all know that writing query letters is no one’s idea of a good time. Well, maybe a few masochists enjoy it — if they’re really lucky, maybe they can give themselves a paper cut while they’re licking the envelope — but the vast majority of writers hate it, hate it, hate it.

Loathe it. Despise it. Resent it with a vehemence that most non-writers reserve for poisonous snakes, black widows, and persons who disagree with them politically.

Which is fine, on a personal level — but can translate on the page into sounding apprehensive, unenthusiastic, or just plain tired. While query fatigue is certainly understandable, it tends not to produce a positive tone for presenting your work.

Insecurities, too, show up beautifully on the query page. While the writer’s opinion of her own work is unavoidably biased, in my experience, that bias tends to be on the negative side for most. We’ve all heard of queriers who make overblown claims about their work (This book will revolutionize fiction!, This is a sure-fire bestseller!, or that now-obsolete favorite, It’s a natural for Oprah!), but apologetic openings like I’m so sorry to bother you,, Pardon me for taking up your valuable time,, and This may not be the kind of book that interests you, but… turn up on Millicent’s desk more often than you’d think.

Often, this sad-sack tone is the result of query fatigue, not actual lack of confidence in the book, but Millicent has no way of knowing that. I know that repeated rejection is depressing and exhausting, but it really is in your best interest to make an effort to try to sound as upbeat in your seventeenth query letter as in your first.

No need to sound like a Mouseketeer on speed, of course, but try not to sound discouraged, either. And never, ever, EVER mention how long you’ve been querying, how many agents have already rejected this project, or how hard it has been emotionally. It’s unprofessional. A query is not the place to express frustration with the querying process; save that for lively conversation with your aforementioned significant other, family members, and friends.

While it is a nice touch to thank the agent at the end of the query for taking the time to consider your work, doing so in the first paragraph of the letter and/or repeatedly in the body can come across as a tad obsequious. Begging tends not to be helpful in this situation. Remember, reading your query is the agent’s (or, more likely, the agent’s assistant’s) JOB, not a personal favor to you.

No, no matter how long you’ve been shopping your book around. Speaking of overly-effusive politeness,

broken-recordIf you have already pitched to an agent at a conference and she asked you to send materials, you do not need to query that same agent to ask permission to send them, unless she specifically said, “Okay, query me.”

To the pros, being asked over and over again whether they REALLY meant that request is puzzling and, if it happens frequently, annoying. These people are busy; take yes for an answer.

Many conference-goers seem to be confused on this point. Remember, in-person pitching is a substitute for querying, not merely an expensive extension of it.

This remains true, incidentally, even if many months have passed since that pitch session: if it’s been less than a year since an agent requested pages, there is absolutely no need to query, call, or e-mail to confirm that she still wants to see them. (If it’s been longer, send an e-mail. Or just send the requested pages along with a cover letter, apologizing politely for the delay in following up.)

(8) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?
In my many, many years of hanging out with publishing types, I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked (and often if not), launch into a medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings he’s received. As I may have mentioned already,

broken-recordEvery agent and screener in the biz already seen a lifetime’s supply of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!” Such inflated claims make a manuscript seem less marketable, ultimately, not more.

Trust me, they don’t want to hear it again. Ever. Even if it’s true.

So how do you make your work sound marketable without, well, just asserting that it is? Glad you asked.

(9) Does my query make it clear what kind of readers will buy my book — and why?
Amazingly few queries address this point, but to folks who speak publishing’s lingua franca, it’s simply not possible to talk about a manuscript without considering the issue of audience. So you’ll reap the benefits of both professional presentation and comparative rarity if your query identifies your target market clearly, demonstrating (with statistics, if you can) both how large it is and why your book will appeal to that particular demographic.

Trust me, Millicent is going to respond quite a bit better to a statement like MADAME BOVARY will resonate with the 20% of Americans who suffer from depression at some point in their lives than Every depressed woman in America will want to read this book! She sees the latter type of claim on a daily — or even hourly — basis and discounts it accordingly. At best, such claims come across as exaggerations; at worst, they look like lies.

Why might she think that? Well, logically, a claim like Every depressed woman in America will want to read this book! could not possibly be true. No book appeals to every single reader within a large demographic, and nobody knows that better than someone who works within the publishing industry. Far, far better, then, to make a realistic claim that you can back up with concrete numbers.

I feel a golden oldie coming on:

broken-recordNo book ever written appeals to every conceivable reader — or can be represented effectively by any randomly-selected agent. While your future publisher’s marketing department will undoubtedly have ideas about who your ideal reader is and why, it’s far, far easier to talk about your book professionally if you first take the time to figure out what kind of readers are in your target audience — and how many of them there are.

I’m not talking about publishing statistics here; I’m talking about easy-to-track-down population statistics, a recommendation that comes as a big surprise to practically every aspiring writer who has ever taken my pitching class. “Why,” they almost invariably cry, “shouldn’t I go to the trouble to find out how many books sold in my chosen category last year? Wouldn’t that prove that my book is important enough to deserve to be published?”

Well, for starters, any agent or editor would already be aware of how well books in the categories they handle sell, right? Mentioning the Amazon numbers for the latest bestseller is hardly going to impress them. (And you’d be astonished by how many agents don’t really understand how those numbers work, anyway.) Believe me, if books like yours are selling well online these days, and if you have queried an agent who represents even one of those books, her Millicent will already be aware of it.

Nor should you waste everyone’s time by making a case that the book category in general has an eager target audience. To a pro, that’s the same thing as saying that your book belongs to that category; by accurately defining your book’s category in paragraph one, you are essentially claiming that established readership for your book. Belaboring that point will not make your manuscript sound more appealing.

So what should you say to impress Millicent? How about how many people there are who have already demonstrated interest in your book’s specific subject matter?

The term target audience made some of you tense up again, didn’t it? As scary as it may be to think about, if you are going to make a living as a writer, you will be writing for a public. In order to convince people in the publishing industry that yours is the voice that public wants and needs to hear, you will need to figure out who those people are, and why they will be drawn toward your book.

Let’s start off with a nice, non-threatening definition of terms. What is a target audience?

Simply put, the target audience for a book is the group of people most likely to buy it. Not just a segment of the population, mind you, but readers who are already in the habit of buying books like yours. That’s why it is also known as a target market: it is the demographic (or the demographics) toward which your publisher will be gearing advertising.

So I ask you: who out there needs to read your book and why?

If that question leaves you a bit flummoxed, you’re certainly not alone — most fiction writers and nearly all memoirists initially have a difficult time answering that question about their own work. First-time memoirists are notorious in their first panic to answer huffily, “Well, obviously, the book’s about me.”

Yes, that is obvious, now that you mention it. But what else is the memoir about? Even the most introspective memoir is about something other than its author.

Fiction writers, too, tend to stumble over this question. Indeed, it frequently offends them. “Well, people will read it for the writing, obviously,” novelists tend to huff. “Isn’t that enough? It’s sort of based on something that really happened, if that helps.”

Of course, lovely writing is going to be one of any good novel’s attractions, but every book category has well-written books in it. Well-crafted sentences are expected in professional writing; they’re not optional extras. But unless you are planning to market your book as literary fiction — i.e., a novel where the beauty or experimental nature of the writing and exquisitely-examined character development are the book’s primary selling points — nice writing, which of course a plus, is not much of a descriptor. (Besides, literary fiction is a relatively tiny portion of the fiction market, usually coming in around 3-4%. Why so small? It assumes a college-educated readership.)

What makes literary a poor descriptor for a book that isn’t literary fiction? It does not answer the central questions of a query letter: what is your book about, and who needs to read it?

Or, to put in the terms Millicent might: what are the potential readers for this book already reading? Why are they reading it? What about this book is likely to appeal to those same readers?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Your book is about something other than its protagonist, right? That something has probably been written about before — so why not find out how those books were marketed, to glean inspiration about how to market yours? (As Pablo Picasso was reportedly fond of saying, “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”)

Or you can approach it even more straightforwardly: pick an element of your story that might make your ideal reader pick up your book. It’s set on a farm; the protagonist’s sister has multiple sclerosis; the characters keep going to a drive-in movie theatre. Any running theme is legitimate subject matter for marketing purposes.

Then ask yourself: who might be interested in this subject? How many small family farms are there in the US? Just how many people have multiple sclerosis — and how many people are relatives, friends, or coworkers of those who do? Who is likely to remember drive-in theatres fondly?

Getting the picture? Might not people who are already interested in that topic — and, ideally, are already demonstrating that interest by buying books about it — be reasonably regarded as potential readers for your book? What books do these readers already buy? Who are their favorite living authors, and what traits do your books share with theirs?

While we’re at it, who represents these readers’ favorite authors, and would those agents be interested in your book?

Is tracking down all of this information bound to be a lot of work? Yes, possibly, but as the Internet has made performing such research quite a bit easier than it was at any previous point in human history, you’re probably not going to garner any sympathy from Millicent. A word to the wise, though: just because information is posted online doesn’t mean it is true; it’s worth your while to double-check with credible sources. (Stop groaning. Just last year, a Wikipedia spokesperson told an interviewer that the site is not intended to be anyone’s only source of information; it’s designed to give an overview of a subject.)

Just as performing background research on who agents are and what they represent will enable you to target your queries more effectively than indiscriminate mass mailings to everyone who has ever sold a book in your book category, doing a bit of digging on your target audience before you send out your queries will save you time in the long run. Yes, really.

At a loss about how to begin about gathering this data, or even what information you should be gathering? As it happens, I’ve written about these issues at some length — and have carefully hidden the relevant posts under the obscure monikers IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET and YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS in the category list at right. Those posts should give you quite a bit of material for brainstorming — and if you’re still lost, by all means, leave a question in the comments about it. I’m always happy to help my readers come up with marketing ideas.

Do I hear some disgruntled muttering out there? “I’m not a marketer; I’m a writer,” some of you object, and who could blame you? “How the heck should I know who is going to buy my book? Isn’t that the publishing house’s job to figure out? And anyway, shouldn’t a well-written book be its own justification to anyone but a money-grubbing philistine?”

Well, yes, in a perfect world — or one without a competitive market. But neither is, alas, the world in which we currently live.

As nice as it would be if readers flocked to buy our books simply because we had invested a whole lot of time in writing them, no potential book buyer is interested in every book on the market. There are enough beautifully-written books out there that most readers expect to be offered something else as well: an exciting plot, for instance, or information about an interesting phenomenon.

To pitch or query your book successfully, you’re going to need to be able to make it look to the philistines not just like a good read, but also a good investment.

And before anybody out there gets huffy about how the industry really ought to publish gorgeously-written books for art’s sake alone, rather than books that are likely to appeal to an already-established demographic, think about what the pure art route would mean from the editor’s perspective. If she can realistically bring only 4 books to press in the next year (not an unusually low per-editor number, by the way), how many of them can be serious marketing risks, without placing herself in danger of losing her job? Especially in this economy, when the major publishers have been trimming their editorial staffs?

Oh, well might you avert your eyes. The answer isn’t pretty.

As with choosing a book category, it pays to be specific in identifying your target audience. It will make your query stand out from the crowd. And PLEASE, for your own sake, avoid the oh-so-common trap of the dismissive too-broad answer, especially the ever-popular women everywhere will be interested in this book; every American will want to buy this; it’s a natural for the Colbert Report. Even in the extremely unlikely event that any of these statements is literally true in your book’s case, agents and editors hear such statements so often that by this point in human history, they simply tune them out.

Make sure your target market is defined believably — but don’t be afraid to use your imagination. Is your ideal reader a college-educated woman in her thirties or forties? Is it a girl aged 10-13 who doesn’t quite fit in with her classmates? Is it an office worker who likes easy-to-follow plots to peruse while he’s running on the treadmill during his lunch break? Is it a working grandmother who fears she will never be able to afford to retire? Is it a commuter who reads on the bus for a couple of hours a day, seeking an escape from a dull, dead-end job?

Is it the girl who was pushed over a chair in a long-ago debate about Social Security? If so, I’m flattered, but you might be defining your audience a little too narrowly.

But ‘fess up: before that last paragraph, you thought the groups I had already mentioned were pretty darned specific, perhaps to the point of ridiculousness. But this is a big country, stuffed to the brim with individuals who just love to read. Each group I listed actually represents an immense number of people, and a group that buys a heck of a lot of books.

Give some thought to who they are, and what they will get out of your book. Or, to put a smilier face upon it, how will those readers’ lives be improved by reading this particular book, as opposed to any other? Why will the book speak to them?

Again, be as specific as you can. As with book category, if you explain in nebulous terms who you expect to read your book, you will simply not be speaking the language of agents and editors. My target market is women under 50 is too vague to be helpful to Millicent; college-educated Gen X and Gen Y women who long to see their work struggles reflected in contemporary fiction will identify with my protagonist’s challenges might well cause her to exclaim, “Oh, my boss represents several writers who write for that demographic. This book might appeal to the editors that bought Talented McWriterly’s last novel, in fact.”

See the difference? The first is an empty boast of universal appeal; the second is an explanation of why a particular group of readers who already buy a hefty percentage of the fiction sold each year in this country will resonate with the story. If you were Millicent, which would you think was the better investment of the agency’s time and effort?

Try to think of learning to speak this language as less of an annoying hurdle than as another step toward assembling a serious writer’s bag of marketing tools, a collection that will, I hope, serve you well throughout the rest of your writing life. Learning to figure out a book’s ideal readership, how to identify a selling point, coming to describe a book in the manner the industry best understands — these are all skills that transcend the agent-finding stage of a writer’s career.

But like coming up with a flattering author photo, you might not capture the essence of what you are trying to convey the first time around. It usually takes practice — and quite a bit of fine-tuning. Most of all, though, it takes a willingness to approach the process as the necessary first step to becoming a professional writer, rather than as a gratuitous exercise in busywork intended to discourage newcomers — or as a system that’s set up to make it easy for exciting new writers to navigate the first time around.

In practice, it’s neither. Millicent actually does need this information in order to be able to recommend your book to her boss.

Don’t worry: in the days to come, we’re going to be working on how to couch that information in terms that will appeal to her. You can do this. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part IV: wait, you mean it matters how it looks on the page?

So far in the course of Queryfest posts, I have been talking about how to present your book project so that it sounds like a professional writer’s argument that a manuscript is worth a peek, rather than a carnival hawker’s introducing the Greatest (fill in the blank here) in the World. Take a peep behind the curtain for only 10 cents!

Both are intended to prompt the onlooker to want to look, of course, but as we discussed last time, hard sells (You’ll be sorry if you let this book slip through your fingers, Mr. Agent!), self-assessments (This book contains the most exciting chariot race since Ben Hur!), and the ever-popular claim of universal appeal (every woman who has ever had a best friend will want to read this novel!) tend to fall flat in queries. Agents like to make up their own minds about the quality of writing. A much savvier way of piquing their interest: a straightforward, professionally-worded description of what your book is about, who its specific intended readership is, and why you think the agent you’re addressing would be a good fit for it.

What’s that you say, campers? You would like to see some concrete examples of queries done well and others that miss the mark?

What an excellent idea; the rest of Querypalooza shall be stuffed to the gills with plenty of both. Rather than leap right into questions of content, however, let’s get ourselves accustomed to how a query should — and should not — look on the printed page.

Gird your loins, campers: today, we’re going to be tackling the purely cosmetic issues.

I hear some of you grumbling already, do I not? “But Anne!” a few voices protest out there in the ether. “I can understand why I need to make my manuscript appear professional by adhering to the rules of standard format, considerately gathered for my benefit under the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list conveniently located on the lower right-hand side of this page, but a query letter rises or falls purely on its content, doesn’t it? As long as I do not scrawl it in crayon on tissue paper, why should I worry about what it looks like?”

Good question: why is it in your interest to pay attention to the superficial side of querying? Because in a mailed query, formatting and presentation are the first things Millicent the agency screener notices. It’s the first indication she has of just how familiar a writer has made herself with how the publishing industry actually works.

Okay, I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch all of the implications of that gale-force collective gasp. Did it indicate (a) a certain level of surprise that Millicent will be judging anything but the content of the query, (b) a shocked realization that the denizens of agencies might perhaps harbor some expectations about how the information in a query should be presented, rather than simply regarding it as a free-form expression of creativity, and/or (c) a clawing, pathological fear that the seventeen queries you sent out last week for your memoir about living in the wilderness for five years might lose some credibility because they were written on bark with blackberry juice?

In the interest of rendering the comparisons to follow as useful to as broad a range of queriers as possible, I’m going to assume it was all of the above. And rather than tell you why our Millie’s view of a query might be colored by how it is presented, I’m going to show you.

Because first impressions can be indelible, before I demonstrate just how a poorly presented query looks wrong, let’s take a gander at what a really good query letter looks like. Not so you can copy it verbatim — lest we forget, rote reproductions abound in rejection piles — but so you may see what the theory looks like in practice.

And please, those of you who only e-query: don’t assume that none of what I’m about to say about traditional paper queries is inapplicable to you. Even agents who accept only e-mailed queries were weaned on mailed ones; the paper version is still the industry standard, dictating what does and does not look professional to folks in the biz. Even if there is no paper whatsoever involved in your querying process, you should still be aware of how query letters should appear on a page.

For ease of comprehension, I’ve decided to construct a query for a book whose story you might know: MADAME BOVARY. (At least, I hope that those of you who write novels about the human condition will be familiar with it. If not, and you are at all interested in learning anything about how a few vivid details can light up a page, I would highly recommend your picking up a copy.) If you’re having trouble reading this example at its current size, try holding down the COMMAND key and pushing the + key a couple of times to enlarge the image.

Makes the book sound pretty compelling, doesn’t it? If you were Millicent, wouldn’t you ask to see the first 50 pages?

After the last few posts, I hope it’s clear to you why this is an awfully good query letter: in addition to containing all of the required elements, it presents the book well, in businesslike terms, without coming across as too pushy or arrogant. Even more pleasing to Millicent’s eye, it makes the book sound genuinely interesting and describes it in terms that imply a certain familiarity with how the publishing industry works. (The date on the letter is when the first installment of MADAME BOVARY was published, incidentally; I couldn’t resist.)

Well done, Gustave! It’s perfectly obvious that, in addition to having written a whale of a good book, you were professional enough to learn how the agent of your dreams would expect to see that book’s many excellencies presented in a query.

For the sake of comparison, let’s take a gander at what the query might have looked like had Mssr. Flaubert not done his homework.

You see what’s wrong with this version, right? Obviously, the contractions are far too casual for a professional missive.

No, but seriously, I hope that you spotted the unsupported boasting, the bullying, disrespectful tone, and the fact that this query doesn’t really describe the book. Also, to Millicent’s eye, its being addressed to Dear Agent and undated would indicate that ol’ Gustave is simply plastering the entire agent community with queries, regardless of individual agents’ representation preferences.

That alone would almost certainly lead her to reject MADAME BOVARY out of hand, without reading the body of the letter at all. And those ten pages the agency’s website or listing in a standard agents’ guide said to send? Returned unread to our pal Gus.

The Dear Agent letter has a first cousin that also tends to engender automatic rejection. It’s a gaffe to which even very experienced queriers routinely fall prey. See if you can spot it in its natural habitat:

bad-flaubert-query-letter-2

If you reared back in horror, exclaiming, “Oh, no! Our Gustave has sent the query to agent Clarissa Richardson, but left the salutation from what was probably his last query to agent Tom Jones!” congratulations: you win a gold star with walnut clusters. Since the advent of the home computer, aspiring writers have been falling into this trap constantly; cutting and pasting only works if all of the personalized elements get changed each and every time.

The cure? Pull out your hymnals, long-time readers, and sing along: read EVERY SYLLABLE of each query letter IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you send it, every single time you send it.

Yes, even if you are e-querying or pasting a letter into a form on an agency’s website. Do not hit SEND until you have made absolutely sure that the salutation matches the recipient.

Did you catch the two other major problems with both versions of this letter? Go ahead; go back and look again.

First, how exactly is the agent to contact Gustave to request him to send the manuscript? She can’t, of course, because Mssr. Flaubert has made the mistake of leaving out that information, as an astonishingly high percentage of queriers do.

Why? I suspect it’s because they assume that if they include a SASE (that’s Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, for those of you new to the trade, and it should be included with every mailed query and submission unless the agency’s website specifically says otherwise), the agent already has their contact information. But if, heaven forfend, the SASE and the query get separated — hey, Millicent’s desk has been known to hold reams and reams of paper at any given moment — or, as is increasingly common, the agency prefers to respond to queries via e-mail, Gus is out of luck.

And no, in response to what half of you just thought: no matter how great the query makes the book appear to be, Millie is not going to take the time to track down Gustave’s address. “I don’t care if it is the next A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION,” she sniffs, moving on to the next query. “I have 500 queries to get through before I can go home tonight.”

Aspiring writers are even less likely to include their contact information in e-mailed queries. “Why bother?” the e-query thinks, blithely hitting SEND. “All the agent needs to do to get in touch with me is hit REPLY, right?”

Not necessarily: e-mailed queries get forwarded from agent to assistant and back again all the time. Millicent’s hitting REPLY might just send the joyous news that she wants to read your first 50 pages to someone in the next cubicle.

I hesitate to bring this up, but it’s also not unheard-of for e-mails to be sent to the wrong querier, or for SASEs to get mixed up. I once received a kind rejection for someone else’s book stuffed into my SASE. I returned the manuscript with a polite note informing the agency of the mistake, along with the suggestion that perhaps they had lost my submission.

True story. To add a happy ending: the agency assistant who wrote the extremely apologetic response to my having handled it professionally grew up to be my current agent, now a senior agent at the same agency.

The moral: don’t depend on the SASE or return button alone. Include your contact information either below your signature or in the header.

This is especially important if you happen to be querying a US-based agent from outside the US. English-speaking foreign writers often presume, wrongly, that US agents have a strong preference for working with the locals, that not being able to fly a few thousand miles for frequent face-to-face meetings would be a deal-breaker, or that an expatriate would be better off using her mom’s home address in Indiana so as to appear to be living in North America. As a result, they tend not to mention in their (almost invariably e-) queries that they and their manuscripts are not currently stateside.

However, the US is a mighty big country, and e-mailing is inexpensive; distance is not a deal-breaker, typically. NYC-based agents have been representing clients without meeting them in person since the early 20th century. Some agencies might deduct the cost of international phone calls from the advance, just as they might choose to charge the writer for photocopying, but in the era of e-mail and Skype, that’s increasingly rare.

Go ahead and include your contact information, wherever you are. Being far-flung might even be a selling point, if the agent happens to like to travel. (Oh, you don’t think the agent of your dreams would like to crash for a few days on your couch in London?)

But I digress. Back to the diagnosis already in progress.

Gustave’s second problem is a bit more subtle, not so much a major gaffe as a small signal to Millicent that the manuscript to which the letter refers might not be professionally polished. Any guesses?

If you said that it was in business format rather than correspondence format, congratulations: you’ve been paying attention. In a mailed submission, this format would strike most Millicents as less literate than precisely the same letter properly formatted. (It would be fine in an e-mailed submission, where indented paragraphs are harder to format.)

Any other diagnoses? No? Okay, let me infect the good query with the same virus, to help make the problem a bit more visible to the naked eye:

See it now? This otherwise estimable letter is written in Helvetica, not Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, the preferred typefaces for manuscripts.

Was that huge huff of indignation that just billowed toward space an indication that favoring one font over another in queries strikes some of you as a trifle unfair? Especially since very few agencies openly express font preferences for queries (although a few do; check their websites and/or agency guide listings).

To set your minds at ease, I’ve never seen font choice alone be a rejection trigger. I can tell you from very, very long experience working with aspiring writers that queries in the standard typefaces do seem to be treated with a touch more respect.

I know; odd. But worth knowing, don’t you think?

Font size, however, often does prompt knee-jerk rejection; stick to 12 point.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here’s a modified version of the good query, accidentally mailed out in 14-point type:

Yes, yes, I know: you probably wouldn’t even dream of having sent it out this way on purpose — but are you absolutely positive that your default font is 12 point, not 14? Are you sure that when you copied your letter from Word and pasted it into an e-mail, your e-mail program didn’t alter the query into the 14-point type you prefer for composing e-mails?

The moral: even if you have sent out essentially the same query letter dozens of times (oh, don’t pretend that you’ve never just pasted in new contact information to an already-used letter), it’s very much in your interest to read it over each time. You’d be surprised how often simple slips of the mouse result in some rather odd outcomes on the query page. Or how frequently e-mails arrive looking substantially different than their authors intended.

While we’re on the subject of cosmetic problems, let’s take a look at another common yet purely structural way that well-written query letters can send off an unprofessional vibe:

Not all that subtle, this: a query letter needs to be limited to a SINGLE page. This restriction is taken so seriously that very, very few Millicents would even start to read this letter.

Why are agencies so rigid about length when dealing with people who are, after all, writers promoting book-length works? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: TIME. Can you imagine how lengthy the average query letter would be if agencies didn’t limit how long writers could ramble on about their books?

Stop smiling. It would be awful, at least for Millicent.

Fortunately, the one-page limit seems to be the most widely-known of querying rules, if one of the most often fudged in e-queries. “What’s Millicent going to do?” the fudger mutters. “Print it out in order to catch me at my little ruse? She doesn’t have that kind of time.”

Which is rather unfair to screeners, since e-queries can, since they omit the date and address salutation at the top of the message, be several lines longer and still fit within the one-page ideal. I just mention. If you’re fearful of running long, compose your query in Word, ascertain that it could be printed onto a single page, then copy and paste it into an e-mail.

The one-page limit is so widely known, in fact, that aspiring writers frequently tempt Millicent’s wrath through conjuring tricks that force all of the information the writer wishes to provide onto a single page. Popular choices include minimizing the margins:

or shrinking the font size:

or, most effective at all, using the scale function under Page Setup in Word to shrink the entire document:

Let me burst this bubble before any of you even try to blow it up to its full extent: this sort of document-altering magic will not help an over-long query sneak past Millicent’s scrutiny, for the exceedingly simple reason that she will not be fooled by it.

Not even for a nanosecond. The only message such a query letter sends is this writer cannot follow directions.

An experienced contest judge would not be fooled, either, incidentally, should you be thinking of using any of these tricks to crush a too-lengthy chapter down to the maximum acceptable page length. Ditto for pages requested for submissions to agencies or publishing houses: if you shrink it, they will know. And they won’t appreciate your attempt to trick them,

Why am I so certain that any professional reader will catch strategic shrinkage? For precisely the same reason that deviations from standard format in manuscripts are so obvious to professional readers: the fact that they read correctly-formatted pages ALL THE TIME.

Don’t believe the tricks above wouldn’t be instantaneously spottable? Okay, glance at them, then take another peek at our first example of the day:

Viewed side-by-side, the formatting differences are pretty obvious, aren’t they? Even in the extremely unlikely event that Millicent isn’t really sure that the query in front of her contains some trickery, all she has to do is move her fingertips a few inches to the right or the left of it, open the next query letter, and perform an enlightening little compare-and-contrast exercise.

Don’t tempt her to do it. It will not end well for you.

The benefits of eschewing formatting skullduggery is not the only thing I would like you to learn from today’s examples, however. I would also like you to take away this: with one egregious exception, these examples were more or less the same query letter in terms of content, all pitching the same book. Yet only one of these is at all likely to engender a request to read the manuscript.

What does that mean, in practical terms? Even a great book will be rejected at the querying stage if it is queried or pitched poorly.

Yes, many agents would snap up Mssr. Flaubert in a heartbeat after reading his wonderful prose on the manuscript page — but with a query letter like the second, or with some of the sneaky formatting tricks exhibited here, the probability of any agent’s asking to read it is close to zero. Millicent receives too many well-written queries from writers who follow the rules to waste even a moment regretting those who do not.

The moral, should you care to know it: how a writer presents his work — in the query or on the manuscript page — matters.

That means, by extension, that even a long list of rejections based upon an improperly-formatted query might well be unreflective of how Millicent would respond to the same manuscript as presented in an impeccable query. So keep refining that query, campers: even a book as genuinely gorgeous as MADAME BOVARY would not see the inside of a bookstore today unless Flaubert kept sending out query letters, rather than curling up in a ball after the first rejection.

Oh, don’t pretend that you haven’t considered giving up. Deep down, pretty much every aspiring writer believes that if she were really talented, her work would get picked up without her having to market it at all. It’s an incredibly common writerly fantasy: 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. “Here, sign this, so I may sell the manuscript I have not yet read to that editor who is waiting at the car parked at your curb.”

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! I can die contented now!”

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 the film rights, as well as the publisher that wants to release your book two weeks hence?

I have nothing against a good fantasy (especially of the SF/Fantasy genre), but while you are trying to find an agent, please do not be swayed by daydreams. 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.

This advice often comes as a shock to writers. “What do you mean, 7 or 8 at a time? I’ve been rejected ten times, and I thought that meant I should lock myself away and revise the book completely before I sent it out again!”

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. As they say in the biz, the only manuscript that can never be sold is the one that is never submitted.

There are two reasons keeping a constant flow is a good idea, professionally speaking. First, it’s never a good idea 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 fiftieth, for that matter.

This is simply untrue. 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. There are hundreds of reasons that agents and their screeners reject manuscripts, the most common being that they do not like to represent a particular kind of book.

So how precisely is such a rejection a reflection on the quality of the writing?

Keep on sending out those queries several hundred times, if necessary. 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 up the good work!

Queryfest, part III: eschewing the classic annoyance triggers, or, leaving that leaf unturned may cost you

Still hanging in there, campers? By this point in my annual examination of all things query-related, I’m accustomed to hearing howls of anguish out there in the ether. I’ve caught the occasional whimper, but still, I’m worried that I may already have stunned you into mute horror with my accounts of just how competitive the agent-finding market is these days.

Because that particular Medusa has turned many a talented would-be author’s dreams to stone, I’m going to start slowly today. Let’s ease into a hardcore discussion of query letters in a casual manner, with a nice, calming, verdure-based anecdote about interpersonal vitriol.

Until a couple of years ago, I lived next door to people who simply couldn’t abide trees, or indeed, greenery in any form. I’m not talking about a minor antipathy to the odd magnolia or a reasonable fear that a nearby swaying cedars might drop a branch on the house during a nasty windstorm, either — the mere sight of any leaf-bearing living thing irritated the adults in this family into a frenzy of resentment.

Their especial aversion: if the leaf in question happened to detach itself from its parent plant and respond to gravity. The very thought of a pile of autumn leaves rendered them apoplectic; to suggest, however gently, that the season might have been nicknamed fall for a reason was to invite an 18-minute tirade on the troublesomeness of plant matter. Not so much as a stray blade of grass ever seemed to evade their notice; their yard could not have had more impervious surfaces had it been an industrial kitchen.

At least twice a year, the Smiths (not their real name, but a clever pseudonym designed to hide their true identities) would demand that we chop down our magnificent 60-foot willow tree, on the grounds that occasionally, one of its leaves would be wafted onto their porch. They also had it in for another neighbor’s apple tree, our pear, and a few innocent pines across the street. After the city declined to remove an 80-foot fir, the Smiths very pointedly ripped out their (uncovered, with five children in residence) swimming pool because, they told us huffily, OTHER PEOPLE’S leaves kept blowing into it.

Just between us, we like trees on our side of the fence. So did the people who owned the house before us, as well as all of our neighbors except the dreaded Smiths. We live in Seattle, for heaven’s sake, where a proposal to rip out a single 100-year-old cedar on private property typically attracts fifty citizens to a public meeting to protest. I’ve seen picket lines surrounding city-condemned trees. In fact, prior to a recent city council election, I received more than one circular explaining where all the candidates stood on trees (sometimes literally, judging by the photographs) and their possible removal.

If I were a tree forced to live in an urban environment, in short, I’d definitely move here.

So in the Smith’s view, we were far from their only inconsiderate neighbors — we are merely the geographically closest in a municipality gone greenery-mad. We were, however, the only locals who kept bringing them holiday cookies, freshly-grown pears, and offers of babysitting in the hope of smoothing things over. We were also, perhaps unwisely, the only ones to tell them to go ahead and cut off branches at the property line, as is their right.

This neighborly behavior did not win us any Brownie points with the Smiths, alas, and with good reason: long after the cookies disappeared down their gullets, our willow tree still greeted them every morning when they applied their magnifying glasses to their driveway. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in close proximity to one of these gracefully-swaying giants, but they have two habits that drive people like the Smiths nuts: they love dropping leaves that are, alas, susceptible to both gravity and wind, and they just adore snaking their branches into places where there aren’t other trees.

Like, say, the parking lot that was the Smiths’ yard.

Thus, I cannot truthfully say I was surprised to walk into our yard to discover Mr. Smith ten feet up in the willow, hacksaw in hand and murder in his eye. (I talked him down before any branches fell.) Nor was I stunned when the Smiths tore down the fence between our yards, propping the old fence on our lilac and laurel for a few weeks, apparently in the hope that the trees wouldn’t like it much. (They didn’t, but they survived.) Or when the two trees closest to the new fence shriveled up and died (dropping masses of leaves in the process, mostly on the Smith’s concrete) because someone had apparently dumped a couple of gallons of weed killer on them.

The arborist said he sees that a lot.

In the interest of maintaining good relationships on the block, we let all it all go, apart from telling Mr. Smith that our insurance wouldn’t cover neighbors plummeting from our tree. We laughed as though his repeated requests that we remove the willow taller than our house were a tremendously funny joke that just keeps getting more humorous with each telling. We stopped planting anything close to the fence and heroically resisted the urge to shake our trees just before one of the Smiths’ immensely noisy yard parties.

From the Smiths’ point of view, of course, this response was unsatisfactory in the extreme: from their perspective, we held all the power, as we were the stewards of the tallest trees in the neighborhood. (Which shade a stream that runs off to a salmon breeding ground; we are the ones who explain to new neighbors not to use anything toxic on their yards, lest it run into the stream.) We were the harborers of raccoons, the protectors of possums, the defenders of that unsightly hawks’ next.

To them, we had a monopoly on the ability to change the situation. That, to put it mildly, irked them so much that each spring, I trembled for the baby hawks. Seen from our side of the fence, though, the Smiths possessed a far from insignificant power: all of the neighborhood-annoying ability that molesting wildlife, intimidating our cat, poisoning our trees, and encouraging each of their five children to take up a musical instrument could convey.

On sunny days, the tots practiced scales in their spotless yard. We were on board with it until the youngest brought home a tuba.

Yet we, the Smiths, the wildlife, and the rest of the neighborhood lived in a state of uneasy détente, at least until the day last year that we decided to remove a couple of poisoned trees from our yard, efforts speeded by audible cheering from the Smiths’ house. I could have sworn that we had cleared the ground. Yet a couple of days later, branches littered our side of the fence again. We carted those away, only to discover the following week piles of leaves that had apparently fallen from trees that were no longer there.

The Smiths had evidently decided to start dumping fallen leaves over the fence. That showed us, didn’t it?

Why am I sharing this lengthy tale of woe and uproar, other than to demonstrate my confidence that no one on the Smiths’ side of the fence reads blogs? Because our situation with the neighbors so closely paralleled the relationship between agents and many of the aspiring writers who query them.

Think about it: by everyone’s admission, the agents own the trees — but that doesn’t mean that aspiring writers don’t resent clearing up the leaves. Or that they don’t in their own small ways have the ability to annoy agents quite a bit.

I sense some of you settling in to enjoy my account of this. “Pop some popcorn, Martha,” long-time query-resenters cry. “We’re going to have us some entertainment!”

Don’t get your hopes up — most of these annoyance tactics are only visible from the agents’ side of the fence. Completely generic Dear Agent letters, for instance, or queries clearly mass-emailed to every agent in the country. Sneaking a few extra lines above the prescribed page into an e-mailed query letter because, after all, what agency screener is going to have time to check that whether it ran longer? Shrinking the margins and/or the typeface on a paper query so that while it is technically a single page, it contains a page and a half’s worth of words. Deciding that the agency website didn’t really mean it about sending only the first five pages with the query, since something really great happens on page 6. Continuing to e-mail repeatedly after a rejection, trying to plead the book’s case. Telephoning at all, ever.

Oh, and those nit-picky little manuscript problems we have been discussing all year. Including any or all of those can be a trifle irritating, too.

Consider that, I implore you, the next time you are tempted to bend an agency or contest’s submission rules. While dumping the leaves over the fence might well have made the Smiths feel better, it certainly didn’t render them any more likely to convince us to rip out all of our trees; if anything, it made us more protective of them.

Aspiring writers’ attempts to force agents to change the way they do business by ignoring stated guidelines and industry-wide expectations doesn’t achieve the desired effect, either. It merely prompts agencies to adopt more and more draconian means of weeding out submissions.

Nobody wins, in short.

While you’re thoughtfully crunching popcorn and turning that little parable over in your mind, I’m going to switch gears and talk about that great annoyer of the fine folks on the writer’s side of the querying-and-submission fence, querying fatigue. Those of you who have been seeking agents for a while are familiar with the phenomenon, right? It’s that dragging, soul-sucking feeling that every querier — and submitter, and contest entrant — feels if and when that SASE comes back stuffed with a rejection.

“Oh, God,” every writer thinks in that moment, “I have to do this again?”

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. If an aspiring writer wants to land an agent, get a book published by press large or small instead of self-publishing, or win a literary contest, s/he does indeed need to pick that ego off the ground and keep moving forward.

Stop glaring at me — that’s just a fact.

Querying is a tough row to hoe, both technically and psychologically. But here’s a comforting thought to bear in mind: someone who reads only your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing. Logically speaking, to pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your manuscript.

Too often, aspiring writers beat themselves up unduly over query rejections, and it just doesn’t make sense. Unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly common ones that asks querants to include a brief writing sample, what is 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.

Those are the only possibilities, if all you sent was a query. So, if you think about it, 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?

“But Anne,” some of you protest through a mouthful of popcorn, “I make a special point of querying only agencies whose websites ask me to imbed a few pages in my e-query or on its submission form. So when those folks reject me — or just don’t respond — I should take that as a rejection of my writing talent and/or book, right, and not just of my query?”

Not necessarily. You have no way of knowing whether the rejection happened before Millicent finished reading the query (the most frequent choice), after she finished reading it, on page 1 of the writing sample, or at the end of it. All you know for sure is that something in your query packet triggered rejection.

The query is the most sensible first choice for reexamination, since it’s the part of the query packet that any Millicent would read first — or at all. After all, if the query didn’t grab her attention (or if it dumped any of those pesky leaves over her fence), it’s unlikely to the point of laughability that she read the attached pages.

In response to all of those jaws I just heard hitting the floor, allow me to repeat that: typically, professional readers stop reading the instant they hit a red flag, regardless of how many pages of material they may have requested to see. True of Millicents, true of contest judges, even frequently true of editors. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

The vast majority of queriers and pitchers do not understand this. They think, and not without some justification, that if an agent’s website asks for ten pages of text, that someone at the agency is going to be standing over Millicent with a whip and a chair, forcing her to read that last syllable on p. 10 before making up her mind whether to reject the query.

Just doesn’t happen. Nor would it be fair to our Millie if it did. In practice, she simply does not have the time to scan every syllable of every query packet.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes. Even at a mere 30 seconds per query — far less than writers would like, but still, about average — screening 800-1500 queries per week would equal one full work day each week doing absolutely nothing else…like, say, reading all of those submissions from aspiring writers whose pages she actually requested.

Besides, from her point of view, why should she take the time to read the entirety of a query letter whose first paragraph or two is covered with those annoying leaves? Why wouldn’t she assume that if the query is filled with typos, the five pages the agency’s submission guidelines said you could send would be similarly unpolished, too?

“Someone ought to take a rake to this letter,” she grumbles, slurping down her latte. “Next!”

A pop quiz, to see if you’ve been paying attention: is the best strategic response to this kind of rejection to

(a) decide that the rejection constitutes the entire publishing world’s condemnation of the entire book and/or your talent as a writer, and never query again?

(b) conclude that the manuscript itself was at fault, and frantically revise it for a year before querying again?

(c) e-mail the agency repeatedly, pointing out all of your manuscript’s finer points in an effort to get them to change their minds about rejecting your query?

(d) decide that Millicent was a fool and send out exactly the same query packet to the next agency?

(e) scrutinize both the query and the pages for possible red flags, then send out fresh queries as soon as possible thereafter?

If you said (a), you’re like half the unpublished writers in North America: not bad company, but also engaging in behavior that renders getting picked up by an agent (or winning a contest, for that matter) utterly impossible. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: even a thoughtful rejection is only one reader’s opinion; no single rejection of a query or submission could possibly equal the condemnation of the entire publishing industry.

If you said (b), you’re like many, many conscientious aspiring writers: willing, even eager to believe that your writing must be faulty; if not, any agency in the world would have snapped it up, right? (See the previous paragraph on the probability of a single Millicent’s reaction being an infallible indicator of that.)

If you said (c), I hope you find throwing those leaves over the fence satisfying. Just be aware that it’s not going to convince Millicent or her boss to chop down the willow.

If you said (d), well, at least you have no illusions that need to be shattered. You are tenacious and believe in your work. Best of luck to you — but after the tenth or fifteenth rejection, you might want to consider the possibility that there are a few leaves marring the beauty of your query letter or opening pages.

If you said (e), congratulations: you have found a healthy balance between pride and practicality. Keep pushing forward.

While we’re considering the possibility of organic debris obscuring the efficacy of your query, let me bring up the most common fallen leaf of all: boasting about the writing quality, originality of the book concept, or future literary importance of the writer in the query. If your query contains even a hint of this, take it out immediately.

Yes, I know — I’ve talked about this one already in this series, but it’s such a common Millicents’ pet peeve that it can’t be repeated enough. Agents and editors tend to be wary of aspiring writers who praise their own work, and rightly so. To use a rather crude analogy, boasts in queries come across like a drunk’s insistence that he can beat up everybody else in the bar, or (to get even cruder) like a personal ad whose author claims that he’s a wizard in bed.

He’s MAKING the bed, naturally, children. Go practice your tuba in the yard.

My point, should you care to know it: if the guy were really all that great at either, wouldn’t other people be singing his praises? Isn’t the proof of the pudding, as they say, in the eating?

Even if you are feeling fairly confident that your query does not stray into the realm of self-review, you might want to ask someone whose reading eye you trust to take a gander at your query, to double-check that you’ve removed every last scintilla of subjective evaluation of your own work. Why? Well, aspiring writers are not always aware that they’ve crossed the line from confident presentation to boasting.

To be fair, the line can be a mite blurry. As thoughtful reader Jake asked some time back, in the midst of one of my rhapsodies on pitching:

I’ve been applying this series to query writing, and I think I’ve written a pretty good elevator speech to use as a second paragraph, but there’s something that bothers me.

We’ve been told countless times not to write teasers or book-jacket blurbs when trying to pick up an agent. (”Those damned writer tricks,” I think was the term that was used.)

I’m wondering exactly where the line between blurbs and elevator speeches are, and how can I know when I’ve crossed it. Any tips there?

Jake, this is a great question, one that I wish more queriers would ask themselves. The short answer:

A good elevator speech/descriptive paragraph in a query letter describes the content of a book in a clear, concise manner, relying upon intriguing specifics to entice a professional reader into wanting to see actual pages of the book in question.

whereas

A back jacket blurb is a micro-review of a book, commenting upon its strengths, usually in general terms. Usually, these are written by someone other than the author, as with the blurbs that appear on book jackets.

The former is a (brief, admittedly) sample of the author’s storytelling skill; the latter is promotional copy. The first’s appearance in a query letter is professional, while the second is a shovelful of fallen leaves.

Many, if not most, queriers make the mistake of regarding query letters — and surprisingly often synopses, especially those submitted for contest entry, as well — as occasions for the good old American hard sell, boasting when they should instead be demonstrating. Or, to put it in more writerly language, telling how great the book in question is rather than showing it.

From Millicent’s perspective — as well as her Aunt Mehitabel’s when she is judging a contest entry — the difference is glaring. So how, as Jake so asks insightfully, is a querier to know when he’s crossed the line between them?

As agents like to say, it all depends on the writing, and as my long-term readers are already aware, I’m no fan of hard-and-fast rules. However, here are a couple of simple follow-up questions to consider while examining a query that’s already been rejected a few times:

(1) Does my descriptive paragraph actually describe what the book is about, or does it pass a value judgment on it?
Remember, if Millicent can’t tell her boss what your book is about, she’s going to have a hard time recommending that the agency pick you up as a client. So go ahead and tell her the story; resist the temptation to shoehorn your dream back-jacket blurb into your query.

The typical back-jacket blurb isn’t intended to describe the book’s content — it’s to praise it, in the hope of attracting readers. And as counter-intuitive as most queriers seem to find it, the goal of a query letter is not to praise the book, but to pique interest in it.

See the difference? Millicent does. So do her Aunt Mehitabel and her cousin Maury, who screens manuscripts for an editor at a major publishing house.

(2) Does my query present the book as a reviewer might, in terms of the reader’s potential enjoyment, assessment of writing quality, speculation about sales potential, and assertions that it might make a good movie? Or does my query talk about the book in the terms an agent might actually use to try to sell it to an editor at a publishing house?
An effective query describes a book in the vocabulary of the publishing industry, not in terms of general praise. (If you’re not certain how to do that, don’t worry — we’ll be getting to the nuts and bolts in a few days.)

(3) Are the sentences that strike me as possibly blurb-like actually vital to the query letter, or are they extraneous?
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the average query letter is crammed to the gills with unnecessary verbiage. Just as your garden-variety unprepared pitcher tends to ramble on about how difficult it has been to find an agent for her book, what subplots it contains, and what inspired her to write the darned thing in the first place, queriers often veer off-track to discuss everything from their hopes and dreams about how well the book could sell (hence our old friend, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) to mentioning what their kith, kin, and writing teachers thought of it (“Uncle Thaddeus says it’s a natural for Oprah!”) to thoughtfully listing all of the reasons that the agent being queried SHOULDN’T pick it up (“You probably won’t be interested, because this isn’t the kind of book that ends up on Oprah.”)

To Millicent and her fellow screeners, none of these observations are relevant. You don’t have very much space in a query letter; use it to provide only the information that will help an agent see just how marketable your book actually is.

(4) Does my query make all of the points I need it to make?
Oh, you may laugh, but humor me for a moment while we go over the basics. A successful query letter has at minimum ALL of the following traits:

* it is clear,

* it is less than 1 page (single-spaced, with 1-inch margins),

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

* it is politely worded,

* it states unequivocally what kind of book is being pitched, using a book category that already exists in the publishing industry, rather than one the writer has simply made up,

* it makes it clear whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction,

* if it is nonfiction, it includes some description of the writer’s platform (credentials for writing the book, including expertise and/or celebrity status),

* it includes a SASE (if it is being sent via regular mail) or full contact information for the querier, and

* it is addressed to a specific agent with a successful track record in representing the type of book it describes.

You would not believe how few query letters that agencies receive actually exhibit all of these traits. Even the fiction/nonfiction bit is often omitted. And to be brutally blunt about it, agents rather like that, because gaffes like these make it oh-so-easy to reject 85% of what they receive within seconds.

No fuss, no muss, no reading beyond, say, line 5. Again, sound familiar?

A particularly common feature to omit: the book category. Many writers just don’t know that the industry runs on book categories, not vague descriptions like well, it’s sort of based on something that really happened to me or it’s a combination Western/romance novel/science fiction epic, with elements of humor thrown in. What’s an agent to do with a description like that? Where would such a book reside in a bookstore? How would a reader looking for such a book describe it to a bookstore employee, or find it on Amazon?

More to the point at querying time, how would the agent know which imprints would consider publishing such a book? It would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label, for the exceedingly simple reason that book categories are how the industry keeps track of which readers are buying which books. If a query says a book is a Highland romance, the agent knows right away who the target reader is, what that reader expects to see on the page (roughly, anyway), and how well books in that category tend to sell. If, on the other hand, the query describes that same book as a well-written examination of two passionate lovers — one in a kilt, one in a dress — as they face terrifying conflicts and moving emotional wrenches, the agent would actually have to read the book before even beginning to think about which editors might be interested in it.

I see that glint in your eye, but no, that’s not a good thing, from the querier’s perspective. Millicents seldom request manuscript pages because they’re curious about what kind of a book is being queried. Most often, if they can’t categorize the book at a glance, they will just reject the query.

Most of the time, omitting the book category is simply the result of ignorance: the overwhelming majority of queriers simply don’t know that it’s necessary to include. They know what kinds of books they’ve written, after all; it doesn’t occur to them that the category wouldn’t be self-evident. Other queriers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, fail to mention their book’s category for strategic reasons, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of writer reasons, “so I just won’t tell them what kind of book I’ve written until after they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napolèon: publishing simply doesn’t work that way. If Millicent cannot tell from your query where your book will eventually rest on a shelf, she’s not going to read it at all.

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, and recently.) As long as people in the industry speak and even think of books by category, though, 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.

(5) Does my query make my book sound appealing — not just to any agent, but to the kind of agent who would be the best fit for my writing?
You wouldn’t believe how many blank stares I get when I ask this one in my classes, but as I’ve pointed out before, you don’t want just any agent to represent your work; you want one with the right connections to sell it to an editor, right?

That’s not a match-up that’s likely to occur through blind dating, if you catch my drift. You need to look for someone who shares your interests.

I find that it often helps aspiring writers to think of their query letters as personal ads for their books. (Don’t pretend you’re unfamiliar with the style: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing your book to someone with whom you are hoping it will have a long-term relationship — which, ideally, it will be; I have siblings with whom I have less frequent 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? Or, to put it another way, are you using the blurb or demonstration style?

Do you, as so many personal ads and queries do, describe 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 do you figure out precisely what it is you want from a potential partner, as well as what you have to give in return, and spell 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 the state in which they reside. 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 gentle 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 pros, this kind of complexity doesn’t make you look interesting, or your book like a genre-crosser. To them, it looks at best 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. And we all know by now how agents feel about writers who waste their time, don’t we?

Don’t give Millicent’s psychic skills a workout; be specific, and describe your work in the language she and her boss understand. Otherwise, they’re just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind — at least, anyone who has a substantial and successful track record in selling your category of book — should ask to read all or part of it with all possible dispatch.

I know you’re up to this challenge; I can feel it. Don’t worry, though — you don’t need to pull it off within the next thirty seconds, regardless of what that rush of adrenaline just told you.

But don’t, whatever you do, vent your completely understandable frustration in self-defeating leaf-dumping. It’s a waste of energy, and it will not result in the outcome you want. Keep up the good work!

How to find agents to query-palooza, part XII: pushing boldly forward…and let’s talk about this

buster_keaton_train

Before I wrap up this series on how to figure out which agents do and do not belong on your querying list, I have two quick questions to ask of you, campers: what clever means do you use to find agents who represent books like yours — and what’s the one thing you most wish someone had told you just before you sent out your first query?

If that second one sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve asked it of members of the Author! Author! community before — and received some very enlightening answers. I’m a big fan of mutual aid: let’s allow our individual experiences to help one another.

So please be generous with your reminiscences, folks. The Comments function below is hungry for ‘em.

Why end this series with questions, you ask? Because, really, the publishing world is changing so fast that rather than providing prescriptions for agent-finding, I feel as though I’ve been mostly writing about preliminary questions aspiring writers can ask themselves in order to prepare to examine an agent’s listing in one of the standard guides, page on an agent search site, conference brochure blurb, and/or agency’s website.

Why is know thyself (and thy book) an absolutely indispensable prerequisite to generating a recherché querying list? Because — feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, campers — the surest path to rejection is to query agents who do not (or do not still) represent books in your chosen category. No matter how beautifully-written your manuscript or proposal is, or how exquisitely crafted your query letter may be, it is a waste of your valuable time to approach agents who do not have both a current interest in and a solid track record selling books like yours.

Obviously — at least I hope it’s more obvious to you now than at the end of the summer — it’s going to be a whole lot easier to avoid wasting your time with non-starters if you know what it is you are trying to market: your book’s category, target audience, and why your book will appeal to those readers in a manner that no other book currently on the market will.

Yes, yes, it’s sounds like a tall order, but I sincerely hope you find it empowering, rather than depressing. Of all the many, many things about the path from finished manuscript to publication that are completely outside a writer’s control, you have absolute authority over this one aspect: you, and only you, can decide whom to query and how.

Besides, now you have the tools in your writer’s marketing kit to pull it off with aplomb. As may not have entirely escaped your notice in recent months, I’ve been devoting quite a lot of blog space to helping you do just that. In Querypalooza, we spoke at length about how to customize a query letter for each individual agent on that carefully-selected list you are now contemplating; late in that series, and in the Synopsispalooza and Authorbiopalooza series that followed, we discussed query and submission packets and the things you might be asked to tuck inside them.

So if you have made it all the way through this fall of ‘Paloozas, either reading them as I posted or in retrospect, please give yourself a big ol’ pat on the back. By committing to learning how querying and submission works, you can avoid the most common mistakes that lead to rejection — and approach the process of finding an agent for your work not as a massive, ugly mystery, but as a professional endeavor that’s going to take some time.

You know how I’d like you to celebrate? Devote some time this weekend to researching a few new agents to query. Five is a nice number. (Ten is better, but I know how busy you are this time of year.)

Did I hear a few exasperated gasps out there? “But Anne,” those of you who have been paying close attention point out, and not unreasonably, “wouldn’t now be a rather un-sensible time to be sending out a flotilla of queries? Doesn’t the publishing industry slow to a crawl between Thanksgiving and the end of the year — and then get overwhelmed with new queries just after New Year’s Day?? If I haven’t gotten a raft of queries out by now, shouldn’t I wait until after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? (That’s the third week of January, for those of you reading outside the US, and are we not clever to be able to convey parentheses in speech?)”

I have to admit, that’s quite the reasonable, well-argued objection. I’m not going to tell you it’s okay to put beefing up your query list on hold, mind you, but I give you full points for a good argument. Happy now?

Even this late in the season, the autumn is an excellent time to be combing book reviews for agent leads, much better than the dead of winter. There are always a lot of great new books hitting the shelves in the fall, including most of the year’s crop of literary fiction and culture books. Traditionally, the fall is when publishers release books they expect to be in the running for big awards, although that calendar, like the century-old practice of releasing first novels in the spring, when they will not have to compete as directly with all of those established potential award-winners, has been becoming more flexible recently.

But some parts of the calendar have not changed: you’re quite right that if you actually send out queries now, you’re likely not to hear back for a couple of months. Not just because of the many, many holiday functions between the beginning of Hanukah and New Year’s Eve, but due to the tens of thousands of aspiring authors who will suddenly decide at the end of December that their New Year’s resolution is going to be to query fifteen agents per month.

They’d better get cracking on those query lists, hadn’t they?

Actually, most of needn’t: since the average New Year’s resolution lasts less than three weeks, January is when all of those well-meaning resolvers’ missives hit agents’ desks — right after a long holiday break and in the middle of tax-preparation time for agencies. (Legally, agencies must provide clients with the previous year’s tax information on royalties by the end of January.) With the monumentally increased volume, agents and their assistants tend to get a mite testy around then.

Since the vast majority of those rejected during that period will not query again until, oh, about twelve months later — if they try again at all — Millicent the agency screener’s life calms down considerably after the long Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend. And wouldn’t you rather have your query under her nose while her joie de vivre is on the upswing?

The moral of the story: if you didn’t get your queries and submissions out before Thanksgiving, you’re better off sitting out the Christmas vacation and New Year’s rush. Wait until Millicent will be happier to see you headed her way.

All that being said, even with predictably slower turn-around times over the next month and a half, making a big push to generate a really solid query list now — or update your old one, if you haven’t done so within the last six months –rather than after the New Year, will make it easier to keep up the momentum an aspiring writer needs to keep a query cycle going as long as necessary to land an agent.

Stop groaning. If your manuscript deserves to get published — and I’m betting that it does — it deserves to make the rounds of the fifty or hundred agents that even the best books sometimes make these days. Yes, that’s a long haul, but nothing extends the querying process like running out of steam. Or not picking oneself up after a rejection, dusting off that query list, and moving on to the next name on it.

Believe me, that’s a whole lot easier to do if you have a lengthy, well-researched, and up-to-date query list. It’s especially helpful if you are going to be trying to keep 5-10 queries out at any given time, beginning the end of January.

Yes, I do mean sending that many out at once at once — hey, your time is too valuable to query them singly. The moment one rejection comes in, send out another query, so there are always a constant number in motion. Keep that momentum going.

Why send out a new query on the same day as the last comes back? Because it’s the best way to fight off rejection-generated depression, that’s why: it’s something you can do in response to that soul-sapping form letter. Recognize that rejection by an agent, any agent, is only one person’s opinion (or, more commonly, one person’s screener’s opinion), and move on.

At the risk of repeating myself: it can take a lot of asking before a writer hears yes, even a very good writer with a great book. Remember, you don’t want to sign with just any agent, any more than you would want to marry just anyone the law says you can. A relationship with an agent is, ideally, a very long-term commitment.

You want to find the best one for you. Finding that special someone may well take some serious dating around.

And that is not, contrary to popular opinion, necessarily any reflection at all upon your level of writing talent. Oh, you’ll want to write a good query letter, as well as avoiding the most common writing problems that lead submissions to be rejected. That, like other matters of format and craft, can be learned.

Talent, however, can’t — but you can’t know for certain how talented you are until you get the technical matters right, so you can get a fair reading from the pros.

But if you’ve been following the fall of ‘Paloozas, you already have the skills to write a professional-quality query letter, don’t you? At this point, you’re probably not going to hear back for a month or more, anyway. That’s plenty of time to work on polishing your manuscript.

Oh, and to generate a truly top-notch query list, specialized for your particular book. Perhaps it’s not the best time to query, but you certainly can keep moving forward toward your goals in the interim.

I feel in my bones that some of you out there are resisting my pep talk — I’ve been hearing it bouncing off your psyches like bullets off Superman’s chest. “But Anne,” those of you who are suffering from query fatigue wail, “I’m just so tired of querying. I hate being rejected, either via e-mail, that SASE I’m supposed to stuff in my mailed queries so I may pay the postage on my own rejection, or, most soul-sucking of all, by simply not hearing back at all on a query or submission. Can’t I just take a breather until, say, next March? Or June? Maybe by then, I will have gotten my second, third, or fifteenth wind.”

I feel for your plight, fatigued ones, but in my experience, it requires considerably more energy for an aspiring writer to re-start a stalled querying push than to keep putting energy in it consistently over a long period. So ’m going to pull out all the stops, and end this series with one last blast of kryptonite-laden truth, to try to dissolve that most common of query-process stallers: the tendency to take the vagaries of this often attenuated process personally.

It doesn’t make sense to do so, you know.

And you should know, if you’ve been a regular part of our ongoing ‘Palooza party this autumn. I have been trying, in my own small way, to educate aspiring writers to the hard facts of the current literary market: it is, in fact, as difficult as it has ever been to land an agent and/or sign a publication contract. In my experience, understanding the basics of how the acceptance (and rejection) process works can save good writers time, chagrin, and wasteful expenses of despair.

Falling prey to despair is a genuine danger here: we’ve all, I’m sure, been hearing gloom-and-doom predictions of the death of the printed word over the last few years. Oh, I certainly haven’t been exaggerating, say, how small, inadvertent mistakes can and do lead to instant rejection or the level of competition one must beat in order to sign with a good agency; by comparison with the conversation you’d be likely to hear behind the scenes at a top-flight writers’ conference, my rendition has been positively sunshiny.

Of course, the printed word has been declared dead by naysayers with clockwork regularity since the mid-19th century. And, frankly, if the most recent batch of predictions had been correct, the last book in existence would have been bound a couple of years ago. Yet the sale of books seems to be marching on — weakened, perhaps, but still moving forward.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a news item from 2007.

Hachette moves to firm sale on backlist
Hachette Livre UK is taking the radical step of moving its backlist publishing to a firm sale basis for environmental reasons. The UK’s largest publishing group, which includes Orion, Hodder, Headline, Octopus and Little, Brown, told staff and authors this morning…that it intends for all of its trade publishing to be put on a backlist firm sale footing by the end of 2008, following consultation with retailers. (For the rest of this article, follow this link.)

If this piece of news did not make you gasp spontaneously, I would guess that you are only dimly aware of just how many books are already pulped each year — that is, sent back to the publisher unsold for paper recycling — or how backlist sales typically work. Most bookstores buy new books from publishers on a provisional basis, with the understanding that they can send clean, unread copies back if they do not sell within a specified period of time. Often, the returns, especially paperbacks and trade paper, will be ground down into pulp to provide the raw material to print other books (thus the term pulping: they are reduced to paper pulp).

From a marketing point of view, this arrangement makes quite a bit of sense: with certain rare exceptions (think Harry Potter), it’s pretty hard for a bookseller to know in advance how well a book will sell. Stocking extra copies encourages browsing, potentially good for brick-and-mortar bookstores, publisher, and reader alike. In recent years, however, books have been remaining on shelves for shorter stints than in the past. The length of time a bookseller will choose to keep a particular book on a shelf varies considerably by book and retailer; the same book may be allowed shelf space for a year at a small bookstore, yet last only a few weeks at a megastore like Barnes & Noble.

Now that online and electronic book sales make up such a hefty proportion of the book market, fewer and fewer books are ever occupying retail shelves at all. That, too, encourages smaller print runs, in order to reduce the number of books ultimately pulped. This, in theory, is the primary benefit of print-on-demand (POD) publishing: only the actual number of books needed are produced, thus reducing pulping.

It also, of course, reduces browsing. All of which means, in practice, that these days, a new book typically does not have very long to establish a track record as a seller before being subject to return. This, in turn, renders it more expensive for publishers to promote books, as the window of opportunity can be pretty small.

See why publishers might be willing to pay a premium to have their books displayed face-up on tables for the first few weeks, rather than spine-out on a shelf? (Knowing that space is often rented can really change how one walks through a big chain bookstore, let me tell you.) Or why authors sometimes see fit to hire their own publicists for the first month after a book’s release?

Backlist titles, by contrast, have been out for a while; they’re the releases from past seasons that the publisher elects to keep in print. Although they do not receive the press attention of new releases, backlist books have historically been the financial heart of most publishers’ business. This, too, has tended to work to all of our benefits.

How often, for instance, have you discovered a genre author three books into a series? Or fell in love with a writer’s latest book and went back to read everything she ever published? (As I sincerely hope you do; after all, if we writers won’t purchase the more obscure works of living writers, who will?)

If you’ve been able to find these books at your local bookstore or online, you’ve been buying backlist titles, gladdening publishers’ hearts and keeping the heartbeat of the industry alive. Because of readers like you, stocking backlist titles has been good bet for retailers: you might not move many copies of Clarissa in a given month, but when a reader wants it, it’s great if you have it to hand.

But if a bookseller has to buy those backlist titles outright, with no opportunity to return them, it becomes substantially more expensive to keep, say, the complete opus of Sherman Alexie in stock in the years before he won the National Book Award. (His latest, an excellent and intriguing collection of shorts entitled War Dances, is now out in paperback, should your Secret Santa be casting about for gift ideas.)

Let’s get back to that old news clipping about Hachette. Speaking as a hardcore reader of English prose, I was darned worried when I first read this: having heard on the literary grapevine that other UK publishers were considering implementing similar policies, I fretted myself sick about all of those British writers whose work might have gone out of print before those of us on this side of the pond have had a chance to hear how wonderful they are.

Hasn’t happened yet, however. Why, I just sent away for some backlist volumes last week. Only now, I order directly online from a U.K. distributor.

See? Change does not always equal demise.

But, of course, the overall trend toward shorter shelf times is genuinely worrisome, especially if one ponders the financial prospects of authors already in print. Just as increasingly quick shelf turn-around for a current season’s books have rendered retailers less likely to take a chance on new authors (how much word-of-mouth can a small book garner in under a month, after all?), it’s probably safe to assume that a policy shift like this will make it harder for backlist authors to remain in print.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you saying, “you’re always telling us that publishing trends change all the time — and that even if I get an agent tomorrow, it might be a couple of years before my book hits the shelves. Do I really need to worry about return policies now, while I’m plugging away at building my query list, as you have successfully guilted me into moving up on my to-do list?”

Well, perhaps worry is too strong a word, but it is something to keep in mind when thinking about your writing career in the long term. Working authors often rely upon sales of their backlist works to pay the bills. If backlist sales decline — as they well might, if such a policy is embraced industry-wide — it may be significantly more difficult to make a consistent living as a writer of books in the years to come.

In other words, this change may affect your ability to quit your day job after you’re published. Indeed, many of the quite solid debut novelists of the last few years have not — which, naturally, affects their ability to promote their current books (now largely the author’s responsibility, especially online) and write their next ones.

In the short term, however, I think it’s always helpful for an aspiring writer to be aware that there is almost always more to an editor’s decision to acquire a book — and by extension, to an agent’s decision to offer it representation — than simply whether the writing is good. During periods when booksellers are taking fewer risks, publishers have historically relied more upon their tried-and-true authors than upon exciting new talent.

Thus tightening the already tight market for what used to be called writers of promise, excellent authors who don’t catch on with the public until the fourth or fifth book. (Mssr. Alexie’s first book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was originally published in 1993. Fortunately, it’s still available as a backlist title.)

Do I think this change is cause for rending your garments and casting your hard-collected query lists into the nearest fire? No, certainly not. But I do think that aspiring writers who approach the querying and submission processes as though the book market has not become significantly tighter in recent years are more likely to give up when faced with rejection than those with a more up-to-date view of how the business works.

Why are the former more likely to succumb to querying and submission fatigue? Unfortunately, no matter how much publishing does or doesn’t change, one constant is apparently immortal: that perniciously pervasive myth out there that the only reason a manuscript, or even a query, ever has trouble finding a professional home is because of a lack of writerly talent.

That is simply not true. Like the common fantasy of walking into a writers’ conference, pitching to the first agent in sight, getting signed on the spot, and selling the book within the month, that misapprehension makes too many good writers stop trying after only a handful of efforts.

What is true is that the competition is fierce, and the more a writer learns about how the business works, the more she can hone her queries and submissions to increase their likelihood of success. There is an immense gulf between the difficult and the impossible — and, as I have stressed time and again, the only impossible hurdle for a book to overcome is the one that confines it in a desk drawer, unqueried and unread.

No matter how tight the book market becomes, it’s not the industry that controls the lock on that drawer; it’s the writer. Never, ever allow the prospect of rejection to seal that drawer shut permanently.

This is your dream — give it a fighting chance. Keep that querying momentum going.

One more ‘Palooza is lurking in the wings between now and the solstice, the official end of autumn. Tune in tomorrow for its unveiling — and, now and always, keep up the good work!

Querylistpalooza, part IX: the face one presents to the world, or, whose proverbial mug of oolong is your book?

gold mask 2

A quick scheduling note before we launch into today’s festivities, campers: I shall be giving in-person feedback on aspiring writers’ query letters at the upcoming and always-scintillating Words & Music conference, November 17-21 in New Orleans. Do consider snatching up your latest query draft and meeting me there.

For those of you who don’t already have a draft already burning a hole in your desk drawer, I shall also be teaching a master class on how to write a query letter on Saturday, November 20th at 3:30 p.m. — and yes, you may drop in for the class, even if you can’t make (or afford) the entire conference. Or even several classes, at a very reasonable à la carte fee.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, the Words & Music conference is one of my favorites — and believe me, I go to a lot of writers’ conferences. Run by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, the conference is more ambitious than your usual craft-and-marketing fest. Yes, there is always abundant discussion of writing style and the ins and outs of publishing, along with opportunities to meet agents and editors, but there are also wonderfully arty discussions of literature, art, and music. To sweeten this writer-friendly experience even more, the conference is set the French Quarter, Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré, home to some of the best food and jazz in the world.

In other words: I’ll be your excuse to go if you will be mine. It’ll be a hoot.

Speaking of querying and its many challenges, as I mentioned back in the heady days of Querypalooza, queries tend to work best when they are sent to specific agents who habitually sell similar books. Not just because recent sales are the single best indication of what the agent in question likes to read — although that’s definitely useful to ascertain before you query, if the information is publicly available — but also because it’s a dandy indication that the agent has some pretty good connections with editors who happen to like to acquire that type of book.

For that excellent reason, I have so far been approaching our discussion of agency guide listings and websites on the assumption that you will want to narrow down your first-round query list to just a handful of near-perfect matches. To that end, I’ve been encouraging you to track down as much specific sales information as possible on the agents you’re considering.

That strategy, I suspect, will not be everyone’s proverbial mug of oolong. “Wait just a minute,” I have heard some of among you murmuring, and who could blame you? “What you’ve been suggesting is a heck of a lot of work. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the industry yet for a list of sales to make me cry, ‘Yes! This is the agent for me!’”

Oh, how I wish there were a quick and easy way to avoid the sometimes-lengthy research process! Honestly, if I knew of one, I would share it with you toute suite. (I would also bottle it and make a million dollars, but that’s another story.)

My sympathetic regret didn’t really satisfy you murmurers, did it? “I’m willing to do some legwork, but for heaven’s sake, querying eats into my writing time, and the agency guide before me lists a hundred agencies that accept books in my category! Since these agents have said point-blank that they want to see books like mine, why shouldn’t I simply take their word for it, querying them all without researching the last few years of sales for each and every agent at all hundred of those agencies, a Herculean endeavor that would take me until next March at the earliest?”

Whoa, take a deep breath there, Sparky. You’re going to need that extra oxygen for the long, difficult road ahead — and the often puzzling task of rank-ordering your query list so you know whom to query first.

You weren’t planning on approaching all hundred of those agents simultaneously, were you — or doing it alphabetically? The record-keeping alone would be prohibitively time-consuming. You’re going to want to figure out which among those many, many possibilities are most likely to be interested in a book like yours.

And I don’t just mean figuring out whether any given agent on your list represents authors in your chosen book category — although, as we have discussed before, knowing into which category your book falls is a necessary first step to searching for appropriate agents. (If that comes as a hideous surprise to you, or if you aren’t sure which of the preexisting professional categories is the best fit for your book, you might want to take a gander at the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY posts on the archive list at right.) I mean finding out enough about individual agents to make an accurate guess about whether they tend to enjoy books like yours within the book category.

Think about it: if you write cozy mysteries, and Agent #12 on your alphabetical list has a track record primarily in police procedurals, he might not be the agent you should approach first. If Agent #37 sells nothing but cozy mysteries, she would be a better choice for a top slot on your list.

That’s the good news. Here’s the less-good part: simply generating a who-represents-this-book-category list on a search site or taking a peek at the index of one of the standard agency guides probably is not going to provide sufficient information to make this decision. Their listings just don’t provide enough information, typically.

Hold onto your hats, because I’m about to say something all of you list-generators are going to like even less: that information may also not be up-to-date, or even accurate.

Yes, even down to which book categories any given agency habitually represents. It’s just a hard fact of agency-list generation that it does pay in the long run to double-check what one finds in the guides against another source — the agency’s website, for instance, or an agent’s Publishers’ Marketplace page.

Why? Well — are you still clutching those chapeaux? — not every agency that lists itself as representing (or even actively seeking) a particular book category will be equally receptive to queries for that kind of book. Or, as we saw last time, will would-be queriers perceive them to be open to first-time authors in that category.

How might an agent-seeking writer become confused by what at first glance may appear to be a perfectly straightforward list of desired book categories? One of the most common: being drawn to those agencies that appear to be open to virtually any kind of book — or at least to so many categories that it’s extremely difficult to tell without substantial further research what any given member agent’s actual specialties are.

Or so some might surmise from the oft-seen guide entry this agency prefers not to share information on specific sales. Or rather vague assertions like we’re open to any good writing, we accept all genres except YA, or literary value considered first. One even occasionally hears such statements emerging — usually quite sincerely and with the genuine intention of helping aspiring writers — from the mouths of agents and editors at conferences. A pretty good case could be made that to a writer seeking to figure out who might conceivably represent say, a Western romance, such statements are at best marginally useful and at worst bewildering.

What we have here is a vicious circle, right? The vast majority of queriers rely solely upon book category-only search results to generate their query lists, resulting in a high volume of queries that simply end up on the wrong desks. If an agency’s guide listing or website is not very specific about what it is seeking — or what it is seeking right now — that would tend to increase the percentage of queries it receives for books outside their areas of specialty in any given day’s mail drop. The inevitable result of both: queries rejected summarily and Millicents wringing their overworked hands, troubling the ceiling with their bootless cries about why oh why are these people sending queries for books that the agency doesn’t even represent. Because of the incredibly high volume of queries, though, they send out form rejection letters, so queriers who have misdirected their missives never find out that was the problem — which in turn results in our Millie gnashing her teeth over still more queries for book categories her agency doesn’t want.

Excuse me, driver, but I’d like to get off; this merry-go-round is making me dizzy. I’m guessing that it’s made those of you given to staring helplessly at vague guide listings dizzy, too.

I freely admit it: I have never understood why the difficulty of deciphering such statements is not a perpetual topic of impassioned discussion at writers’ conferences. (Unless I happen to be teaching at the one in question — had I mentioned that New Orleans is very nice at this time of year?) Oh, there are often classes on querying, but seldom on how to generate a query list. Indeed, if a conference attendee is bold enough to ask a panel of pros about it, she is far more likely to be told — with a certain impatience of tone — that the only reason that a query might end up in the wrong hands is if its writer did not do his or her homework, rather than given any practical guidance. The information, the implication runs, is all easily available to anyone who looks for it.

Has this been your invariable experience, campers? I’m guessing not, if you have been at it a while: as we saw earlier in this series, there is a wide range in the level of information that agencies make available to potential queriers. Compounding the problem: a great deal of it is in industry-speak, the meaning of which may not be immediately apparent to those new to the biz.

The look that tends to cross experienced queriers’ faces when talking about this phenomenon always reminds me of a line from ULYSSES: “Stephen, patently crosstempered, repeated and shoved aside his mug of coffee, or whatever you like to call it, none too politely, adding: we can’t change the country. Let us change the subject.”

Let’s not, for once: we writers can’t control how agencies choose to present their preferences; we can, however, learn to be better interpreters of those preferences by recognizing that there are some informational gaps out there. We can teach ourselves the norms of querying, what tends to work, what tends not to work, and thereby save ourselves a whole lot of chagrin.

So there. I never said it wasn’t going to be a lot of work. And if I’m wrong, and every listing out there conveys with pellucid clarity precisely what every agent currently representing books in the English language would and would not like to see arrive in their offices on Monday morning, well, as Jane Austen would say, at least the credit of a wild imagination will be all my own.

What is a savvy query list-generator to do, though, when faced with guide listings (and sometimes even agency websites) that seem to portray the agency in question represent books virtually every major book category? You’ve seen such listings, haven’t you? They tend to look a little something like this:

Represents: nonfiction books, novels, short story collections, novellas. No picture books or poetry.
Considers these fiction areas: action/adventure, contemporary issues, detective/police/crime, erotica, ethnic, experimental, family saga, fantasy, feminist, gay/lesbian, glitz, graphic novels, historical, horror, humor, literary, mainstream, military, multicultural, mystery, regional, religious/inspirational, romance, romantica, science fiction, spiritual, sports, supernatural, suspense, thriller, westerns, women’s fiction, YA.

Considers these nonfiction areas: agriculture, Americana, animals, anthropology/archeology, art/architecture/design, autobiography…

And that’s just the As. Such voluminous lists are potentially problematic. To pick a quandary out of that hat I told you to cling to, their breadth often tempts queriers into thinking that they do not need to specify a book category when they query. After all, the logic runs, if the agency says it represents all three of the closest marketing categories, why take the trouble to figure out into which the book fits?

A good question, certainly. Querypalooza veterans, chant the answer with me now: because book categories are how the industry thinks of writing, that’s why. Agents and their Millicents tend to reject queries that do not specify a book category out of hand.

Quoth Joyce: “The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” (Hey, I had to double-check the earlier quote, anyway; I did a little quote-shopping.)

Even though it is honestly is in their own best interest to be specific, there are a number of perfectly legitimate reasons an agency might say it is actively seeking a list of categories that looks less like an agent’s specialties than the entire stock of your local Borders. For example, they might have the editorial connections to place all of those different types of books successfully. This kind of reach is certainly not out of the question for a large, well-established agency, but a great big agency is not necessarily the best choice for every writer and/or every book. (Don’t worry; I’m going to talk how and why next time.)

Fortunately, the standard agency guides routinely print how many clients any listed agency represents, so you need not necessarily track down their entire client list. If it is good-sized — 300 clients, for instance, handled by six or seven agents with different specialties — your task is clear: do a bit of further research to figure out which of those probably well-connected agents has been selling books in your category lately.

Do I hear more murmuring out there? “But Anne, the agents’ guide sitting on my desk at this very moment frequently lists a single agent as the contact person for the entire agency. Isn’t that the person to whom I should address my query, regardless of which agent at the place actually represents my kind of book?”

In a word: no. In several words: not without checking the agency’s website (if it has one) to see if they actually want you to do it that way. These days, most agencies don’t — and they frequently will say so in their submission guidelines. It’s generally in the best interest of the writer to write directly to the member agent who represents a specific kind of book, rather than the listed contact.

There’s no substitute for double-checking, though: if the guide listing is the only source available, then by all means, do as it says.

Okay, so that was quite a few words, but this is important. While some agencies are still set up with a single contact directing incoming queries into the right inbox, the rise of agency websites — and thus the comparative ease of conveying agency-specific querying preferences — has rendered that rare. So why do so many guide listings still list only a single contact? Well, I’m not positive, of course, but my guess would be that it’s simply that the form agencies are asked to fill out includes a space for it.

Oh, you laugh, but the last time you filled out a form, did you spontaneously offer more information than it asked you to provide? Or did you just work your way through, writing in answers every time there was a line?

Be glad of some of those lines, because they allow the guide to collect some very useful information. If the agency in question is small, check to see how long it’s been around — this is routinely listed in agency guides, and with good reason. Selling books to publishers is hard work; agencies go in and out of business all the time. Before they have established a reputation and connections within particular book categories, new agencies — and new agents — sometimes spread a pretty wide net for new clients. In such cases, the list of categories they are seeking can turn into a wish list, rather than a true reflection of what they have sold in the past.

Let me repeat that, because it too is important: a list of categories is not necessarily proof positive that an agency has actually sold books in each of them within the last couple of years — or even within living memory. It can also be a list of what the agency wants to sell over the next couple of years. That’s a definitional haziness not limited to small agencies, certainly, but common to them.

Which means, in practice, if a particular book category is hot right now, or industry buzz says it will be the next big thing, it’s going to turn up on the lists of quite a few agencies that have not yet sold that type of book — and thus in the index of this year’s agency guide.

See the problem? Ideally, you would like to be represented by an agent with a solid track record selling your type of book — and as I have mentioned, oh, 70 or 80 times in this autumn of ‘Paloozas, agents specialize. So do editors. If you write women’s fiction, even a brilliant agent whose sole previous focus are in self-help will probably have a harder time selling your book than someone who sells women’s fiction day in, day out.

An agent who has managed to sell a particular category of book in the past is not only going to have a better idea of who is buying that type of book these days — she’s infinitely more likely to be able to call up the right editor and say, “Listen, you know that fantasy I sold you six months ago? I have one you’re going to like even better.” Or if she’s not more likely to say it, she’s more likely to be believed when she does.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? But when editors start saying things like, “You know what I’m really looking for right now? A book from Hot Category X,” it’s not unheard-of for an agent without a track record in Hot Category X to think, “Hmm, I wish I had one of those handy right now.” Completely understandable, right?

It’s also completely understandable that industry trends often move faster than yearly guide release schedules. Perhaps a category that was hip seven months ago, when the agency filled out the guide questionnaire, but has since fallen out of fashion. Just be aware that if an agency was seeking a particular kind of book only because of its marketing potential at a particular moment, and not because they love that kind of book, and it stops selling — or selling easily — they’re going to tell their Millicents to look askance at queries for it.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of a Hot Category X writer new to the business, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between an enthusiastic neophyte and a seasoned veteran of Hot Category X sales. Every professional writer I know seems to have a story about an author who got caught in this trap. Many are the horror stories about a great chick lit, historical romance, and/or memoir writer who was hotly pursued by an agent who later turned out to have few (or even no) editorial connections in that direction — and who, having unsuccessfully shopped the book around to 4 of the wrong editors, dropped it like a searing stone. Yet another reason that it’s an excellent idea to double-check actual sales before you commit to a representation contract.

Or indeed, before you query. Perhaps even before you place an agent on your querying list.

None of this is to say, of course, that agencies that represent a dizzying array of book categories don’t exist. Many large agencies do. Also, if the lead agent of a smaller concern (whose name, as often as not, will also be the name of the agency) peeled off recently from a great big agency, taking her clients with her, she may well have a track record of selling across many, many book categories. Connections definitely carry over — and since the agent will probably want to advertise that fact, check the listing, website, or conference blurb for a mention of where she worked last.

Then check out THAT agency, to see what they sell early and often.

In short, do your homework, but try not to get paranoid about it. Yes, it’s a whole lot of work, but as our old pal Joyce wrote about something entirely different, “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.”

He was talking mechanics, of course, but I doubt you’d find a querier who has been at it for a while who wouldn’t wholeheartedly agree to add trying to sell to the front of the statement. Keep up the good work!

Assessing who should be on your query list-palooza, part VIII: learning to recognize a gift when it’s offered

torn bird of paradise

Wow, this has been a sad, strange week, campers. Prime evidence: I gave two — count ‘em, two — friends editorial feedback on their respective fathers’ obituaries, to run in local newspapers in different states. I suppose I am the person even I would call for trustworthy proofreading at a time like that, but still, I can’t help but feel that this has been no ordinary week.

I don’t know if you have ever written an obituary or eulogy, but it’s a strange, sad, marvelous process. Like the bird of paradise above, the result should be beautiful, but it will always appear to fall short of perfection. It requires real art to pull off well: few lives have a single coherent narrative, and most are so complex that the eulogizer must be extremely selective about what to include. Like any other synopsis, it can be written entirely in generalities, naturally, but the best are full of the telling details that could have come from no one else’s life but the dear departed.

I’m not bringing this up purely to depress everyone, I assure you. The necessity to summarize complex realities into a few pithy statements is actually quite germane to a matter we have been discussing at some length of late: how to glean information from agency guide listings and websites, to make sure that your query list includes only those agents genuinely and demonstrably interested in representing your type of book.

And half my readership does a double-take. “But Anne,” logic-huggers everywhere cry, “I don’t see the connection — and by the way, the flaws in that bird of paradise appear to have been externally-inflicted, not intrinsic to the flower itself. How is having to summarize an entire lifetime in a few short paragraphs remotely similar to agents having to boil down the possibly quite wide array of books they have represented, are currently representing, and hope to represent in future to just a few short sentences? Or have I just answered my own question?”

Why, yes, you have, logic-lovers — and good point about the flower. The difference lies in the perspective of the beholder. While no one expects an obituary or eulogy to give a complete picture of every nuance of the living person, aspiring writers frantically scanning agency guides and websites are often disappointed, or even frustrated, to find agents’ preferences expressed in only the most general of terms.

That’s unfortunate, because as I mentioned last time, agencies that give clear indications about what they do and do not want to see in a query or a submission are a boon to the savvy query list-generator: by being up front about what kinds of book projects stand a chance of success in the hands of their screener (our old pal Millicent, to be sure), these agencies save writers of other kinds of manuscripts buckets of time.

How, you ask? Conscientious followers of this series, chant it with me now: querying agents who do not habitually represent books in one’s chosen book category is a waste of an agent-seeking writer’s time and energy.

It’s also, not entirely coincidentally, a waste of Millicent’s time and energy to screen a query for a manuscript her boss would not even consider. That’s why, in case any of you fine folks had been wondering, agencies that are not in the market for first-time authors are usually quite blunt in their guide listings about not being particularly open to submissions from new writers. This is actually kind of them: like the agent who stands up at a conference and says, “By the way, although my agency does represent romances, I don’t, so please don’t pitch them to me,” an outright statement of reluctance in an agency guide can save a writer the time, energy, and disappointment of a fruitless approach.

But that’s not how the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers read such statements in guides and on agency websites, is it? Instead, they hear: you’re not important enough for us to consider or ha! We’ve just slammed a door in your face, newbie. Or even: if you were truly talented, oh previously unpublished one, we would already know who you were. Therefore, since we do not, you must not be a very good writer.

Okay, so that last interpretation is a trifle on the paranoid side. But after several straight hours surfing websites or flipping through guide pages, searching for agents who might conceivably be open to representing one’s groundbreaking SF/Western/Highland romance/cookbook, every indicator of lack of interest in one’s own type of book can start to feel like a personal micro-rejection, right?

Don’t believe that search fatigue affects overall querying patterns? Think again. Just as the alphabetically first-listed businesses under a category in the Yellow Pages tend to get called marginally more often, aspiring writers tend to query the agencies at the beginning of the alphabetical listings more frequently than those whose names begin with, say, L: in the face of so many similar-sounding listings, many queriers simply lose steam midway through the Cs. Because some begin at the end and work backwards through guides, the agencies at the end of the alphabet tend to see slightly more query traffic than those between M and T.

Seriously, it’s true, especially just after the first of the year: a hefty percentage of all of those New Year’s resolution-keepers (“This year, I’m going to start sending out a query each day until I land an agent!”) will pick up a standard agency guide, turn to the As, and work forward, or turn to the Zs and work backward. ?So you might want to avoid the A and B agencies, as well as the W-Zs, until well after the first of the year, to avoid being caught in the January rush.

Don’t worry: the average New Year’s resolution lasts less than three weeks. After Martin Luther King, Jr., day, you can feel free to approach those As and Zs; their Millicents will have worked their way through the piles of mail sufficiently to catch a glimpse of their desks again.

But I am digressing, amn’t I? “But Anne,” admirers of linear thought point out, “we were talking about how to read those listings, weren’t we? As fascinating as those last couple of paragraphs on alphabetical order were, shouldn’t we be getting back to the point?”

So we should, consecutive reasoners. Sometimes, the statements in the guides a trifle ambiguous, as if the agency wants to leave itself a bit of definitional wiggle room. Check out this slightly murky piece of guidance, either culled from the agency guide at my elbow or a figment of my extremely vivid imagination:

In approaching with a query, the most important things to me are your credits and your biographical background to the extent it’s relevant to your work. I (and most agents) will ignore the adjectives you may choose to describe your own work.

Now, many aspiring writers would instantly interpret this as don’t bother to query if you don’t already have a book out, but is that in fact what’s being said here? Let’s approach this like one of those nasty reading comprehension problems from the SATs. Is the agent in question actually expressing a preference for

(a) receiving queries from only the previously published (because of that reference to credits),

(b) receiving queries for nonfiction books only (because that first sentence seems to be talking about platform),

(c) receiving queries that are very terse and business-like, containing only minimal mention of the actual content of the book (because the agent who wrote it harbors an inexplicable animosity toward adjectives), or

(d) not trying to limit the scope of queries at all, but only meaning to give some well-intentioned general advice about the desirability of mentioning one’s credentials in a query letter.

How can a savvy querier tell which is the correct interpretation? Actually, she can’t — at least based upon the original quote alone. The fact is, it just isn’t possible to tell what’s meant without reading the rest of the listing — and even then, I would still recommend rushing right over to the agency’s website to double-check its submission guidelines.

Why go to the extra trouble? Well, going over a list of recent sales, the agent in question emerges as someone with a track record of representing science fiction and mystery extremely well. Would you have gleaned that from the statement above?

I’m guessing not. Leaving the thoughtful guide-peruser to wonder: what biographical background would be especially relevant to, say, a SF story set on Pluto? Need one actually have committed a murder to interest this agent in a mystery, or would it just be a nifty selling point?

Even just a basic web search can often turn up clarifying extras. If I told you that the agent responsible for our example also wrote an article recently for a SF fanzine, would your sense of how open he is to new writers increase? Might you even conclude that while this agent is primarily interested in science fiction, his agency is just beginning to expand its nonfiction list? And if so, mightn’t the comment about platform be aimed at nonfiction book proposers, rather than novelists?

A quick search of the last couple of years of this agency’s sales showed this to be precisely the case. (Sorry to disappoint all of you axe murderers out there who had gotten your hopes up.)

See why I think it’s a good idea to do some double-checking — and not to take every statement made in a blurb or listing at face value? Sometimes, industry-speak requires translation.

While we’re on the subject of nonfiction (and industry-speak), let’s take a look at another fairly common type of guide listing statement:

Nonfiction author and/or collaborator must be an authority in subject area and have a platform. Send a SASE if you want a response.

I must admit, I love the if you want a response part: if there is a querier out there who sends out missives WITHOUT wanting a response, I’ve never met him.

But is don’t bother to query if you’re too lazy to include a SASE the only message this agency is trying to send? Definitely not. The first sentence gives some indication of probable rejection criteria (hooray); the second sentence is most likely just giving general advice. Actually, it was probably intended as a bit more than kindly advice: from the phraseology, it’s probably safe to conclude that they simply toss out queries that arrive without a SASE, as many agencies do.

Which does, I suppose, boil down to don’t bother to query if you’re too lazy to include a SASE, now that you mention it. But if you had simply gone with your first knee-jerk reaction to that part, you would have missed the implication that this agency would welcome queries from legitimate experts on nonfiction subjects, wouldn’t you?

That’s not all an experienced eye could glean from this only apparently off-putting statement, however. I find the first sentence interesting as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does: while it would not be wildly inappropriate to conclude that, like our first exemplar, this agency’s Millicents have been trained to reject any NF query that does not include a clear statement of relevant credentials, it is not saying that the agency is only interested in the previously published — not an uncommon restriction for NF agencies. It also, by specifically mentioning a collaborator, is indicating that it is open to queries from ghosts.

So if I were considering querying this agency, I would run, not walk, to my list of selling points. Why? To cull bullet points to cram into my query letter about why I (and/or my collaborator) is the best person in the known universe to write this particular book, and why my target audience will be fascinated to read it.

On the off chance that I’m being too subtle here: There is no substitute for reading agency guide listings and websites IN THEIR ENTIRETY. All too often, would-be queriers mistakenly cross great potential agents off their query lists based upon impressions derived at a first glance — or even based on a perceived tone.

What kind of tone might engender this reaction, you ask? Perhaps an ambiguous beauty like the following:

We prefer that writers be previously published. However, we would take on an unpublished writer of outstanding talent.

That one made you a trifle hot under the collar, didn’t it? Go back and read it again, slowly. I put it to you, dear readers: is this agency open to queries from the previously unpublished or not?

To my eye, the answer is both. They probably would not reject a query outright for not including the credentials paragraph so strongly urged by the agent in our previous example — but a query from a previously unpublished writer would really, really have to wow ‘em to be considered. Or, to put it more crudely, they probably don’t want to rule out the possibility of the author of the next DA VINCI CODE’s not querying them because they said in their listing that they only represented previously published writers.

Remember, a listing, website, or conference blurb is not necessarily the obituary for an agency, depicting with impeccable accuracy its sales achievements to date, but unable to give any hint about the future. Usually, it also reflects what they hope to represent as well. Sometimes, as here, the actual content of that hope is left ambiguous.

And you thought I’d abandoned my obituary analogy. I’m more tenacious than that.

So is it worth a previously unpublished writer’s time to query an agency that seems to be hedging its bets like this? Possibly — provided that the agency has a solidly impressive track record in selling book’s in the writer’s chosen category and that it has sold a first book within the last couple of years.

Why that last caveat? As I have mentioned before, sometimes agency listings are rerun unchanged year after year. Websites are not always up-to-date reflectors of recent sales, either, and many, many agencies will list only their best-known clients. The expressed openness to writers of extraordinary talent expressed in a guide listing, then, might not be a current enthusiasm. Or even a recent one.

How can a savvy writer tell? Fly straight to its sales record. This need not be time-consuming: instead of concentrating on its client list in its entirety, focus on debut novel sales. (Most of the industry databases will include this information.) Or if you write nonfiction, first books in general.

If you don’t see any, you might want to rely more heavily on their assertion that they prefer the previously published and save yourself a stamp. Again, they have done you a favor.

Starting to get the hang of this? Let’s take a look at one more listing statement — or, better yet, let’s compare these three:

We care about writers and books, not just money, but we care about the industry as well. We will not represent anyone who might hurt our clients or our reputation. We expect our writers to work hard and to be patient. Do not send a rude query; it will get you nowhere. If we ask to see your book, don’t wait around to send it or ask a bunch of irrelevant questions about movie writes and so forth…If you can’t write a synopsis, don’t bother to query us. The industry is based upon the synopsis; sometimes it is all the editor ever sees. Be professional and follow our guidelines when submitting. And don’t believe everything you hear on the Internet about editors and publishers — it isn’t always true.

Present your book or project effectively in your query. Don’t include links to a webpage rather than use a traditional query, but take the time to prepare a thorough but brief synopsis of the material. Make the effort to prepare a thoughtful analysis of comparison titles. Why is your work different, yet would appeal to the same readers?

We are not interested in receiving poorly written submissions from authors with grandiose attitudes; don’t compare yourself to Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. Blackmail never works — don’t tell us that you’ll only send your manuscript to us if we can guarantee you will be published. Please always send a SASE or else we won’t be able to contact you. Write stories that make sense; research everything down to the bone. Most importantly, be proud of your work; no self-deprecation.

Okay, what’s wrong with these three excerpts from guide listings?

From an aspiring writer’s point of view, absolutely nothing; they’re stuffed to the brim with thoughtful, practical advice about how to avoid these agents’ respective pet peeves. Well done, blurb writers, who may or may not exist outside my head!

To more cynical eyes, these responses might perhaps indicate questionnaire-answerers with a fair amount of time on their hands — the first lines of the first do carry a mission-statement aura about them. If I had to guess, though, I would say that pretty much all of these admonitions refer to individual queries they have received recently, rather than to general trends.

Faced with this sort of broad-reaching statement, a cynical querier might verify the size and longevity of the agency. Very small agencies — say, under 25 clients — will frequently have more specific blurbs, and for a very good reason: they can accept fewer clients per year than an agency that represents a couple of hundred clients. So probabilistically, they tend to be slightly worse bets than the larger concerns.

But it is awfully nice of them to tell writers up front what will trigger an automatic rejection, no? Make no mistake, that is what they are doing here — and indeed, what any agent who chooses to give specific querying advice almost certainly intends.

Trust me, no one likes to see her advice neglected. It’s in your interest to follow it to the letter, if not in all your queries, than at least in queries aimed toward the advice-giver’s agency.

In short, it is very much in a writer’s interest to read blurbs and listings very, very carefully — and in their entirety. Weigh all of the information you are being offered, even if it seems ambiguous or downright opaque: if an agent took the time to write more than the bare minimum, he’s probably trying to tell you something.

That’s also often true of obituaries and eulogies, come to think of it: a rushed, careless, or simply overwhelmed eulogizer might well fall back on generalizations and platitudes. It’s the telling details, though, that give the reader or hearer a sense of the actual person being described.

When individual preferences pop up in agency guide listings or in submission guidelines, cherish them. Appreciate them for the useful signposts that they are, and be glad that someone at that agency was kind enough to give aspiring writers some guidance. Because, really, is it in anybody’s interest for a query to end up on the wrong agent’s desk?

Oh, yes, I have more to say on the subject. Tune in next time, and keep up the good work!