Thoughts and Tips on Querying: The Pitch

I don’t know if that’s what this part of the query letter is officially called, but let’s call it that for now. It’s the part between the “Dear [Agent]” and the word count, genre, etc. info. The section where you actually attempt to sell your masterpiece to the agent.

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that I recently “attended” WriteOnCon 2011. As part of that event, I posted my query letter for critique by peers and professionals. What a learning experience that was–not only having my own letter analyzed, but seeing others undergo the same treatment! I repeat what I have said before, the things I say here are based on my reading, not based on me being an expert at writing query letters, or having landed an agent as a result of a successful query. What I offer here are tips that I have picked up, and that I try to apply when writing my own query.

First, a list of agent pet peeves. Not all agents hate when writers do these things in their query letters–at least not to the same extent.  But try to avoid the following:

  • Don’t start with quotations from your novel. Many agents ask for a sample (first five pages) pasted into your e-mail query, so this really isn’t necessary. Also, without the context of the novel, the agent hasn’t a clue what’s going on. He/she needs to know plot and story.
  • Don’t ask rhetorical questions (e.g. , “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to fly?” or “What would you say if your best friend told you she was a werewolf?”). Depending on how snarky the agent is feeling that day, the answer to your questions may be “no” or “I don’t care” and a form rejection would be on its way to you.
  • Don’t switch points of view. Try to keep to one POV (Point of View). Even if your novel is written in the third person seeing the story from various perspectives (e.g., your Main Character (MC), the antagonist, your MC’s friends), it keeps the query simple if you tell the plot from your MC’s POV. There’s a good example of how to do this on agent Janet Reid’s QueryShark blog here.
  • Don’t waste word count on backstory, descriptions, and anything that does not communicate the story.

Your pitch should briefly outline the story, but not the whole plot–this is not a synopsis. The query letter pitch is often likened to what you might find on the cover flap or back cover of the novel. It tells you who the main character is, the situation, and the crisis or problem that needs to be overcome. Just as the purpose of the cover blurb is to stop you putting the book back on the shelf, so the purpose of the query letter pitch is to stop the agent from hitting “form rejection” and moving on to the next query.

That, in fact, is the main rule of querying: tell the agent what the book’s about in the most compelling way possible. Yes there are things you should and shouldn’t do–“rules” for querying, if you want. However, the successful query is not necessarily the one that adheres to all the accepted wisdom. The successful query is the one that generates a request for a partial or a full from the agent. That said, you should certainly try to craft the best query letter you can, paying attention to all the “rules.” But at the end of the day, you need to remember that a strange (or “gimmicky”) query that is compelling (or that sells a compelling story idea) can work just as well (see this query, for example, again from QueryShark).

Another reason to take time, effort, and care over writing your query is the fact that your query is often the agent’s first exposure to your writing skills. If the query is full of typos and grammar flubs, and/or is disjointed and inarticulate, he/she will not hold out much hope for the novel being much better. Sure, the agent might have your attached pages to read, but I wouldn’t be surprised if given such a badly-written query, he/she didn’t bother reading on.

I hope this is helpful. My own query letter didn’t fair too badly under critical scrutiny, largely because I tried to pay attention to these rules. I got nailed over the multiple POV point above, so I fixed that and made sure to include that point here. My query still needs work, though. One further way to sharpen your query-writing skills is to spend time reading agent-reviewed queries on sites such as QueryShark and BookEnds. You may even be brave enough to submit your attempt to one of these!

m4s0n501

Thoughts and Tips on Querying: Addressing the Query

So, you’re ready to write your query.  Where to begin?  Do you put your address information?  Do you put the agent’s address information?  How do you write the salutation?  Here’s what I have learned, and what I intend to put into practice.

It might help to imagine the worst-case scenario.  If the best-case scenario is the agent sitting back in a comfortable chair with his or her favorite drink perusing queries on a large monitor, then just think the opposite.  Perhaps the agent is rushing to a meeting with a big publisher with whom he/she is hoping to start doing business.  The agent has only the time it takes in the back of a cab before he/she arrives at the publisher’s to review queries on his/her cell phone.  In this case, your query has to battle against the agent’s stress factor, limited time, limited attention, and the relatively small screen of the cell phone.

I’ll return to this scenario as we dissect the other elements of a query, but from this we can discern that the most important factors of a successful query will be 1) grabbing and holding the agent’s attention; and 2) doing so within reasonable brevity.  Agent advice I have read emphasizes getting to the point quickly.  So, when addressing the query, unless the agent’s own submission guidelines tell you otherwise:

  • Don’t start with the agent’s address. He/she should know where he/she lives or works. Especially for e-mail queries, this information is redundant and just wastes precious screen real estate.
  • Address the agent in the first line (e.g., “Dear Janet”)–more on this below.
  • Begin your pitch. Some agents say you should put your novel title, genre, and word count first. Others say it should go at the end. Again, if the agent you are querying has a specific preference, follow that preference. You don’t want to get a form rejection just because you thought you knew better. However, if the agent doesn’t state a preference, my thinking is that you should launch straight into your pitch. Why? The agent might not like your title, or he/she may not be an exact fit for your genre, or he/she may be a little antsy about your word count. If the agent see these things first, while he/she may read your pitch, he/she is starting out with negative feelings. However, if the agent is completely wowed and left salivating after your pitch, the chances are he/she will overlook the fact that it is called MY NOVEL and it is a 200,000 word Romance-Western-Vampire story. (Yes, that would have to be one amazing pitch! :) )

Let’s jump back to the second point for a moment.  The number one, and I mean big NUMBER ONE, huge and glaring faux-pas you can make when querying an agent is to use a generic form of address (e.g., “Dear Agent,” or “To Whom It May Concern”).  Even if you are sending out the same query to 20 different agents, and even if we can assume that each agent you are querying knows they are getting the same query as everyone else, you never do this.  Each query should be personalized to the agent you are addressing.  The pitch might be exactly the same, but taking the time to tailor your query to show that you at least remember the name of the agent to whom you are pitching can make the difference between your query being read, and a form rejection at the first line.

This leads to a second, almost as important follow-up point.  Never bulk-query.  Always send one query to each agent.  In other words, the “To” line on your e-mail query should contain the e-mail address of one agent and one agent only.  Yes, the agent knows he or she is not the only agent you’re querying, but that appearance of personal attention tells the agent that you have given serious thought to the prospect of that person representing your work.  Your query should not be like junk mail, or spam.  You should know and care about who gets your query.  If you don’t, perhaps your novel isn’t worth that much to you.  And if it isn’t worth that much to you, how are you going to help sell it–and why should an agent care about it more than you?

What if you want to query multiple agents within the same agency?  Most agencies have no problem with this (check the agency’s guidelines), however, the general policy is that you don’t simultaneously query agents at the same agency.  If Agent X at XYZ Literary Agency sends you a form rejection, you may then try Agent Y at XYZ Literary Agency.  This avoids the potential situation where both Agents X and Y want to represent you.  Also, it’s possible that Agent X might respond along the lines of: “I liked your query, but this is not really my genre.  I am forwarding your query to my colleague, Agent Y.  She just sold a Vampire Western and I think this would be a great addition to her list.”

We have covered the address; next comes the pitch.  This is probably the most difficult part of the query (some would say it’s harder than writing the novel), and it will be the subject of the next part in the series.

 

An Offer You Can’t Refuse (Especially If You’re a Writer)!

Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner is offering people who join her site and/or “like” her on Facebook one of two prizes: either a $20 Amazon Gift Card, or a free query critique and 20-minute follow-up call with the lady herself.  Even if you aren’t considering Rachelle for representation, a query critique from a professional agent is a query critique from a professional agent!  That, and 20 minutes of her time to discuss the query–that’s quite a prize!  Head on over to the blog post and find out how you can enter to win.  Note: the offer is only good until Sunday, July 17th.

I’ve entered, and if I win I will blog my experience for you. :)

Thoughts and Tips on Querying: Why Do I Need an Agent Anyway?

I Love My Literary AgentAll this talk about querying and agents (okay, two posts so far) may have left you wondering, why bother with an agent anyway?  Can’t I just take my precious manuscript directly to a publisher, or self-pub the thing?  Absolutely!  There is no law that says you can’t.  And undoubtedly, such approaches have worked for some people.

There are, it seems to me, two main reasons why people might avoid getting an agent: 1) Time.  2) Money.  First, getting an agent takes time (or, I should say can take time–you may have a killer query that resonates with the first agent you send it to–but 99.9% of the time, this doesn’t happen).  Not only do you have to write a query letter, you have to research agents, you have to e-mail your query to them, then wait for a response… and if they hate the query, you have to re-send to more, and then maybe months later you get a bite, but then they want pages, and then maybe a complete, and then they have edits… or not, and they decide they hate it, so you have to go back and query again, until finally, perhaps months, perhaps years later, an agent actually sells your novel to a publisher.  As I understand it, this is real life in the publishing world, and not everyone wants to go through that.

Second, there’s the money thing.  Now, no agent worth his or her salt will charge you anything up-front either for reading your work, or for the honor of having them represent you.  That’s what I’ve read and been told, and I tend to believe it.  As a rule, agents make money through their clients’ publishing contracts.  For each book sold, you get a cut (hopefully the biggest), the publisher gets a cut, and the agent gets acut.  The temptation for the author, then, is to cut out the agent and reap the extra money.

Why not go straight to the publisher?  Again, there’s no reason not to.  Except, perhaps that, from what I’ve read, most publishers will only work with authors through an agent.  Publishers are busy, and so they tend to rely upon agents to come to them with work that a) is finished, polished, and ready to go (although they will go through their own editorial process with the author once they’ve bought the book); b) is the kind of book they tend to publish; and c) is something that the agent has convinced the publisher he/she needs to take.  The longer an agent has been working with a publisher, the greater trust the publisher will have in that agent’s judgment.  The simple fact is, unless you are an established writer, the publisher doesn’t know you, and unless he/she has the time to read your manuscript (which is usually not the case–that’s what agents are for!), you are going to be ignored.

Some other points to consider about going straight to the publisher.  It won’t necessarily save you time, because the publisher will want to work with agented clients before even considering you.  And even if the publisher looks at your manuscript, they are still going to tear it to shreds until they are happy and willing to publish.  As for money, well… unless you are familiar with contracts, and especially publishing contracts, or you can afford to hire a lawyer to help you, you are at the mercy of the publisher and the contract he/she draws up.  Publisher contracts will, naturally, favor the publisher.  You may not end up with as much money as you hoped.

As for self-publishing, this is becoming an increasingly popular option, even for established writers.  I am not really well-versed on the ins and outs of self-pubbing, but it is my understanding that, for the most part, going this route involves a) expense on your part, b) little professional editorial feedback, and c) reliance upon your own marketing efforts to get your book into the hands of readers.  There are some self-publishing companies that will work with you, and some agents will even work with such companies.  But on the whole, it seems that while this path may give you a quicker road to getting a physical book in your hands, it may still take a long time before it makes any money, and you may find yourself expending energy doing sales and marketing that you could be using to write your next masterpiece.

From the above, you may already get a sense of what it is that agents do for you.  They help you get your book spit-and-polished, and ready to go before a publisher.  They advocate for you and your work to all the publishing houses they know, and others they want to get to know.  They negotiate contracts on your behalf and try to get you the best deals possible.  And if you work together well, they could end up helping you manage your career–merchandising and film rights, and so forth.  And all for a mere 15% (see above caveat).

Should you bother getting an agent?  I think you know how I feel about the subject.  Hopefully this has given you some food for thought.  Next time, back to the process of actually writing a query letter! :)

 

 

Thoughts and Tips on Querying: What is a Query?

Let’s start by saying what a query is not.  It is not a proposal.  A proposal is typically for a non-fiction work.  Say, for example, you have a great idea for a book, “Speaking in Tongs: The Theology of Cooking,” that you want published.  You would make a list of suitable agents, as you would for a novel (I’ll blog about selecting agents another time), and then write a proposal.  Unlike a novel, the non-fiction work does not have to be complete before the proposal is written.  In fact, given the amount of time and effort that goes into researching non-fiction works, it is probably advisable that you secure an agent before you begin serious research.  However, you should at least be able to summarize the work, outline the chapters, and basically give the agent a really good idea of what the book is about.  This is essentially what goes into the proposal: a summary of the work, an outline of each chapter, and–perhaps most importantly–your platform.  Platform?  Yes.  This is not the thing you stand on while waiting for the 10:15 at King’s Cross (well, that is a platform, but not the kind of platform I’m talking about).  Your platform answers the question “why should I give a flying rat’s kidney what you have to say about this?”  If you have Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, and you are a Cordon Bleu chef working at Jean Georges Restaurant in New York, you would probably have an audience for your proposed book.  If you are a brain surgeon, while that’s an impressive career, it’s not really the kind of platform for a book on theology and cooking.

A query is also not a begging letter.  It isn’t a threatening letter.  It also isn’t fan mail (“Dear Agent: I love you sooo much, and I love every book you have represented… I am so overwhelmed that you are reading this I can hardly breathe… I would be so honored if you would consider representing my novel…”).  A query is a professional letter/e-mail from an author to a prospective agent that briefly describes the author’s novel and requests the agent consider it for representation.

In case you are a complete noob to the world of writing and publishing, let me veer off into a little side street here and explain that representation is essentially the main job of the agent.  Don’t get me wrong, agents do a lot of things, but their main job as far as you, the author, is concerned is to take your precious novel that you have labored sweat and tears over for years, and present it to potential publishers.  They will talk it up, say what a great person you are, what an amazing talent you have, and how the publisher-in-question would be a complete idiot–on par with the guy at Decca Records that turned down The Beatles in 1962–to pass on your masterpiece.  When they have secured a publishing deal for you, they will then negotiate the contract on your behalf.  Good agents know publishing contracts, how to write them, and how to interpret them.  While the publisher is trying to work the contract to make sure they make a ton of money off of your precious novel, your agent will be doing the same for you.  I think it is important, even for non-noobs to bear this in mind about the agent.  When writing queries and interacting with prospective agents, it is perhaps well to remember that the agent will be your representative in the brutal world of publishing.  Anything we can do to help (writing the best work we can, listening to their advice, providing them with info) surely can only be of benefit to us.

Back to the query.  Exactly what goes into the query will be a subject of another post (perhaps the next?).  But hopefully you get the idea.  Key points to remember: a) it is not a proposal, begging letter, fan letter, etc.  b) it is a professional letter, so keep it business-like.  That doesn’t mean you can’t use humor.  We’ll address the topic of the letter’s tone another time.  c) it’s main purpose is to summarize and sell your novel (which you should be written, polished, and ready to go in the event the agent requests pages) to a prospective agent.

That should be enough to get started.  More to come!

Thoughts and Tips on Querying: Why Me?

I have completed a couple of novels, but I have yet to submit a query (this won’t be true for long, Lord willing).  Why, then, do I think I have anything useful to say about this?  Surely I have to be a seasoned and published writer, or a high-profile literary agent to have any kind of platform from which to speak on this topic?  The simple fact is that, while I am not the seasoned writer, nor am I J. K. Rowling’s literary agent (that’s Christopher Little, for those who care [UPDATE: Not anymore!]), I have a novel that is in the final round(s) of proof-reading/beta-test-reading and so I have been doing a *lot* of research on this topic.  So this is not an exercise in hubris, but my desire to help those in the same boat as me benefit from the things I have thus-far learned.  I strongly recommend you do your own research, and certainly check out the things I say, but hopefully some of the things I suggest in this blog series will make sense and be of benefit.

Of course, I encourage anyone who has been through the querying process and has lessons to share to participate in the discussion.  Comments to all posts on the topic are open (I do moderate the comments, however), so feel free to share from your own reading and experience.  And I will be sure to keep everyone updated on my own journey through this frightening–and exciting–world…

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