Queryfest, part XVII: please don’t skip this one if you’re not querying memoir, or, the Buddha-like qualities of Barney Fife


As those of you intrepid souls who followed Pitchingpalooza may recall, last summer, I stumbled upon perhaps the worst salesman it has ever been my pleasure to encounter, a carpet and linoleum purveyor subsequently known chez Mini as Duh, Obviously the Owner’s Ne’er-do-well Nephew. DOONN for short. I believe he thought we were calling him Don.

Don wasn’t bad at his job in any of the usual senses: he was not ignorant of the theory or practice of floor covering, nor did he appear to be unconversant with the means by which a consumer might conceivably purchase same in an ideal world. His particular gift lay in the direction of implying that it would be a monumental, epoch-shattering mistake for me — or anyone else, for that matter — to buy Marmoleum from his shop. Or from another emporium.

Or, indeed, at all. It wasn’t his place to tell me what to do, his every facial expression and gesture proclaimed, but surely, my mother could not be aware that I hung out in places like this.

Be it carpeting, laminate, vinyl, or tile, he was equally determined to let slip nothing positive. The Spanish Inquisition had more upbeat overall messaging. Should blackening his click-together cork tiles’ good name prove insufficiently repellent to customers, he would move swiftly on to actively smothering the decision-making process with a cunning combination of dissuasive patter about how difficult flooring was to replace and a smiling resistance to providing specifics about the products he sold.

Like, say, the colors in which it might be available, should anyone be foolish enough to tempt the fates by purchasing it.

If there was one thing he hated, it was customers walking through the door. He managed to convey, not once but perpetually, that while he might have been an affable guy had we met him at, say, a picnic, he was rapidly reaching the end of his rope with all of us pests traipsing into his store and expecting him to evince some interest in getting our floors covered. If only he were left alone, he might just get some work done.

Yet I had it on pretty good authority that the shop did in fact sell floor coverings; indeed, judging from the storeroom, it sold nothing else. Not wishing to draw any untoward conclusions from this, I sought out a second opinion. Sure enough, at the store’s other branch, Don’s presumptive uncle’s hard-sell techniques strongly implied that the company wasn’t just a front for some illicit, non-flooring-related activity, nor did shooing customers out the door appear to be company-wide policy. Indeed, Unc proved only too eager to brew up a pot of coffee, pull up a few chairs, and commiserate for an hour on how a shrinking economy has caused the range of non-carpet flooring options out there to dwindle to a mostly unremarkable few — but would we like to see a few samples?

Seriously, what happened to the funky linoleums of yesteryear? Is some unholy conspiracy determined to limit our citizenry to walking upon floor surfaces in hues ranging only from sand to dirt to mud? And why in heaven’s name is such a high percentage of commercially-available carpeting some shade of taupe?

When Unc sent me back to Don, over my rather vehement objections, to peruse a sample book concealed for some reason best known to themselves in a locked drawer in the latter’s desk, these questions seemed only to strain our already tenuous détente. “Maybe it’s not the right time to replace your floors,” he suggested.

There was a touch of genius to his sales avoidance. He didn’t just try to talk me out of considering Tarkett tiles, for instance; he generously invested five full minutes in explaining precisely how arduous they would be to order, how unsure he was that the samples he had were representative of what the company had to offer these days, and how only a color-blind idiot would find what he had in stock neither ugly nor uninteresting. (He had a point there.) On the off chance I might still be harboring some residual desire to purchase, he told a highly unsavory anecdote about how his former Tarkett representative had been summarily fired so, he claimed, her employers would not have to pay her back commissions.

A lesser man might not have shared the actual disputed dollar amount or the gripping details of the subsequent court case, but Don was made of sterner stuff — unlike, apparently, any floor covering he could recommend. (“You’ll only have to replace it eventually,” he warned.) By the end of his tirade, he not only had impressed upon me that he didn’t particularly wish to sell any Tarkett on moral grounds; he made me feel that I was a sorry excuse for a human being for ever having considered buying it.

I’m ashamed to say that I would have, too. If only they still made the pattern I liked.

He was well into a searing indictment of bamboo hardwoods and the madmen who hawk them before he noticed it was almost closing time. His passion for explaining that he didn’t like to start an invoice within half an hour of the end of the day so absorbed him that he barely put any energy at all into brushing off the poor soul who rushed into the store on a fool’s errand seeking some carpeting for his daughter’s bedroom.

Don sent the guy scurrying into a dimly-lit corner of the warehouse without a flashlight. “Don’t panic if you see anything crawling around over there,” Don shouted after him. He settled onto his stool again. “Not that he’ll find anything the kid will like; girls have weird tastes. Now, what were we talking about?”

Midway through his blistering exposé of vinyl laminate and all of its disreputable relatives, I waved a few samples of Marmoleum in front of his face. “Would you think too badly of me,” I inquired meekly, “if I took these home to see how they might look next to the kitchen cabinets?”

He snorted. “If you don’t mind giving business to foreigners.” Then, evidently suspecting that he might have gone a trifle too far, he added, “I do have one of the best installers in the Pacific Northwest for that, though. I think he’s still on work release…”

Why bring up good ol’ Don at this juncture in Queryfest, you ask? Because even after I had written up my own sales slip, forced a deposit upon him, and made my way past the stacks and rolls of flooring that for reasons best known to the Almighty had not yet been snapped up by an eager consumer, I had not left behind his peculiar style of promoting what he had to sell. I see this type of salesmanship all the time in query letters.

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? Yet it’s true — and I’d like to devote today’s post to examining why.

The answer’s not as simple as many queriers not understanding how to present their books well, or even, as we discussed last time, their not having a firm grasp upon what the essential elements of a query are or why each is necessary to include. As often as not, it’s a matter of attitude.

How so? Well, take a gander at virtually any online forum where aspiring writers discuss the vagaries of querying: a lot of queriers are darned annoyed that they have to do it at all. Or at the very least, that the primary purpose of agencies is not to ferret out exciting new stories and voices.

You’ll wrench your neck if you keep doing double-takes like that. Is it really all that surprising that agencies are not non-profits devoted to the advancement of American literature, but businesses engaged mostly in the profit-seeking endeavor of trying to sell their already-established client lists’ manuscripts? It’s not as though going through those thousands of queries per year actually makes any money for the agency, after all: reputable agencies’ income comes only from commissions on their clients’ books.

But you’d never know that from listening to most aspiring writers talk about the querying process. As an inveterate teacher of the fine but widely-misunderstood arts of querying, pitching, and book proposal-writing, I often find myself confronted by those who, to put it mildly, are not pleased to learn that in the current literary market, catching an agent’s eye is not particularly simple or fun.

“What do you mean, I have to figure out before I approach an agent who will want to read my book and why?” they fume, generally in tones that invite me to say that I was just kidding about all of the hoops through which they were going to have to jump. “I’m a writer, not a marketer; my publisher will have a department to handle all of that. Besides, if the industry were really set up to find the best new writing, none of this marketing stuff would matter. I would be judged by my writing, and that would be that.”

Intuitively, I can see how this kind of logic would make sense to a writer new to the game: once you write the book, the hard part should be over, right? But in practice, writing a good manuscript is only the first step on the long, twisty road to publication.

Oh, stop groaning: it could hardly be otherwise, as the publishing world now operates. Major U.S. publishing houses don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts or book proposals for adult books from unagented writers — you were already aware of that, right, if you have been reading up on querying strategies? — and as a direct result, reputable agencies are approached by far too many aspiring writers for reading unsolicited manuscripts to be feasible. In order to sift through the hundreds of thousands of book ideas tossed at them yearly, agencies have had to establish ground rules like before we will read so much as a syllable of your manuscript or proposal, you must ask permission to send it, queries must not exceed one page, and yes, we mean that last one that even if your plot is so complex that Noah Webster himself would despair of describing it in less than 17 pages.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers resent the necessity of following such directives — as well as any specific instructions listed on the agency’s website, of course — is not precisely news to the fine folks who read queries for a living. Queriers may not think they are being obvious about it, but you would be astonished how often contempt of the querying process fairly drips from the page. Take, for instance, a missive like this:

Don’t see what’s wrong with this as a persuasive document? If so, you’re certainly not alone: to many queriers, this artless missive might well appear to be a cry for help. Indeed, it was probably intended that way: poor Dee is probably not so much hostile as worn out from appealing time after time to agents that don’t seem to want to hear about her book.

To Millicent the agency screener, however, who sees queries like this literally every day — every weekday, at least, and especially on Monday mornings, if her agency accepts e-mail queries — Dee’s possibly well-justified lament would appear to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How so? Well, I could dwell on all of the technical reasons this query would be depressingly easy for Millicent to reject on sight. It’s not at all clear why Dee has chosen to approach this agent, for instance, as opposed to every other currently milling about the greater New York metropolitan area. It’s not at all clear who the target audience is for this book, or why they would be drawn to this story. And while we’re at it, what is this book about?

Oh, and 248,000 words is about two and a half times the norm for first memoir. 75,000 -100,000 would be much more in the expected ballpark, but since the overwhelming majority of memoirs are sold via book proposals, rather than as full manuscripts, why is our pal Dee mentioning the length of the current draft at all?

Honestly, though, most of this is a moot point, as our Millie is unlikely to make it past that first paragraph — and can you blame her? Within three short lines of text, Dee manages to hit # standard screeners’ pet peeves: she reviews her own writing, implies that the reason she has not yet been successful is that there is something wrong with the publishing industry, and questions the agent’s intelligence. Perhaps most jaw-dropping to someone whose job it is to thin the competition to the scant few her boss has time to read, Dee tells Millicent that many other agents have already rejected similar queries.

“Gee,” Millicent mutters, reaching for that stack of form-letter rejections that’s never far from her elbow, “I can’t imagine why. Most of us just love being berated for not wanting to read more than a page of this kind of passive-aggression. Clearly, if we allowed ten-page queries, this writer would complain about that, too.”

Fair? Perhaps not, from Dee’s point of view: she was, after all, merely expressing some frustration. But she did it at the wrong person, and in the wrong venue, to do herself or her book any practical good.

She was, in short, talking Millicent out of taking a serious look at that Marmoleum. A pity, really, because for all we know, that particular type of flooring was precisely what Millie’s boss, the agent of Dee’s dreams, was looking to snap up.

By contrast, let’s take a gander at a solid query for an interesting-sounding memoir — and while the photos above have already gotten those of you old experienced TV-savvy enough to be familiar with the old Andy Griffith show to contemplate the many Buddha-like qualities of Barney Fife, let’s go ahead and reincarnate him as an agent who represents spiritual growth memoirs. (Hey, it’s been a long, long series — colorful fantasies are very helpful to keeping myself alert.)

good query memoir

Everyone clear on why this is a good query? It contains all of the required elements — book’s title, book category, why the writer picked this agent, book description, mention of target audience, platform paragraph, polite sign-off. It even includes a prudent reference to the enclosed synopsis, so Millicent will know it’s there before she makes up her mind whether to reject the query. (If the agency’s submission guidelines asked for a query and she doesn’t see it, she’s likely to reject the whole packet on general principle. Remember, one of the purposes of posting those guidelines on the agency website is to see if prospective clients can follow directions.)

Ataraxia’s query also — and it’s astonishing how few queriers think to try something along these lines — told the agent what she was hoping he could do for her: I am seeking an agent both spiritually-aware and market-savvy. While establishing standards on the writer’s side may seem at first blush a trifle pushy, Ataraxia is merely alerting Barney to the fact that she has actually given some thought to what she does and doesn’t want in an agent.

Why is this a sign of professionalism in a query? Long-time readers, chant it along with me now: a savvy writer does not want to land just any agent; she knows her work will be best off in the hands of the right agent, someone who loves her writing, is genuinely interested in her subject matter, and already has the connections to get her books under the right editorial noses to get it published.

That’s a far cry from the usual I just want to land an agent, any agent, so you’ll do — I’m desperate! tone of Dee’s query, isn’t it Ataraxia is approaching Barney as a serious writer with an interesting book project — why shouldn’t she be as selective as he is?

She also did something rather clever here, to compensate for including extra information. Anybody notice what it was?

If you immediately shouted, “She eliminated the lines previous examples had skipped between paragraphs, as well as some lines at the top that were not strictly necessary to correspondence format!” take a gold star out of petty cash. While that extra space is aesthetically pleasing, it’s not strictly required.

Snag two more stars for yourself if you also sang out, “She omitted mention of the SASE!” While it’s a good idea to mention the SASE tucked inside the envelope — hey, Millicent’s in a hurry; she has a lot of queries to scan in any given morning — it’s not indispensable. Wisely, Ataraxia decided that it was more important to include an extra line or two about her story than to make it plain to our Millie that she had followed the rules.

She did, however, make room to mention the synopsis — an excellent idea, even if the agency’s submission guidelines specifically insisted that queriers include one. It underscores that the writer has taken the time to learn the individual agent’s preferences and is trying her level best to meet expectations.

Actually, it’s prudent to make explicit mention of any unsolicited materials you include in a query packet, if only to clear yourself of the implication that you might be trying to sneak additional pages under Millicent’s radar. Again, part of the point of this exercise is to show that you can follow directions. Another means of showing off your virtues in that direction: use the old-fashioned enclosures notation.

good memoir query 2

As you may have noticed, this variant takes up more room on the page than mentioning the same information in a single-line sentence; Ataraxia has had to trim down the body of the letter accordingly. But it gets the point across, doesn’t it?

Most importantly, both versions of this query make the memoir sound like a heck of a good story, as well as an unexpected one. Although the book description is a trifle on the lengthy side, it’s worth the page space — this memoir sounds both very marketable and like a hoot to read, doesn’t it?

Yes, it took up more room to describe the book, establish that there is a market for it, and talk about her credentials, but for a memoir, that’s a smart move: remember, no one buys a non-celebrity memoir simply because it’s a true story; that’s the case, at least in theory, for every memoir ever written. It’s the memoirist’s job in the query to convince Millicent that the book has other selling points.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the fact that the story in the memoir happened to you, the writer, is not in and of itself likely to render anyone who doesn’t already know you personally (or is a friend of a friend of your kith and kin) to buy the book. After all, unless you’re a celebrity, Millicent probably has positively no idea how popular you actually are. So if you come up with a platform that will make you and your memoir visible to a larger circle of potential book buyers, by all means, talk about it in your query.

Ataraxia has been very explicit about her platform here — and has done so without the benefit of either movie stardom or a single publication to her name. How did she manage to pull that off? By making the dual case that (a) she already has professional (indeed, authoritative) contact with members of her book’s target audience and (b) she already has a marketing network in place to reach them when the book comes out. Probably an extensive mailing and/or e-mailing list as well.

Why wouldn’t that platform grab Millicent? Past publications would be nice, of course, but what is here is quite sufficient for the intended audience of this book.

Remember, there is no such thing as a generic platform — platforms are specific to the target audience for a particular book. That’s why, in case any of you dedicated writers’ conference-goers had been wondering, agents and editors often look so puzzled when a roomful of aspiring writers groans at statements like, “Well, obviously, the first thing we want to know about a nonfiction book is: what’s your platform?” To them, it’s just another way of saying who is the target audience for your book, and what in your background will enable you to reach them?

Can you really blame them for wanting to know what the Marmoleum looks like before ordering some?

But that’s not how most writers hear references to platform, is it? The aspiring tend to react to it as a value judgment: why in the world would anyone be interested in YOUR book, nonentity? Not entirely coincidentally, their next thought tends to be well, the deck is stacked against me. Obviously, the only people who can get memoirs published these days are celebrities. I might as well give up.

That is most emphatically the wrong conclusion to draw about any as-yet-unpublished memoir — and frankly, even the briefest walk through the memoir section of a well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that plenty of non-celebrity memoirs are published every year.

How does that happen? By memoirists making the case that their books offer their target audiences something that no other book currently on the market does — and by making that case clearly in their query letters.

So please, don’t let yourself be discouraged by the common wisdom. Naturally, a celebrity’s platform is going to be more obvious at first glance than other people’s; equally naturally, a first-time book proposer with three master’s degrees in various aspects of the book’s subject matter will have an easier time convincing Millicent that she’s an expert than someone with fewer academic wall decorations.

But does that mean that these are the only types of memoirists with a platform? No, of course not. In order to produce a successful query, a memoirist needs to figure out who his target audience is, what his book offers them that similar books do not, and how he is going to inform them of that fact.

Note to those of you who just groaned, “But Anne, that’s precisely what I would have to do to write a book proposal!”: darned tootin’. For a nonfiction book, the query letter, synopsis, and proposal all share the same goal: to convince people in the publishing industry that you are uniquely qualified to tell an interesting story or make an important argument that readers already buying similar books are demonstrably eager to hear.

You just have more page space to prove those points in a synopsis or proposal. But to write any of them well, you need to ask yourself first: what is original about my book? Who needs to read it, and why?

Are those questions starting to become less threatening with repetition?

I hope so, because the vast majority of memoir queries — and nonfiction queries in general — read as though the writer has never thought about these issues vis-à-vis his own book project. Or, if he has, he’s decided that if he even attempts to address them truthfully, no Millicent in her right mind would even consider reading his book proposal.

Often, the result is downright apologetic, even if the story is very compelling indeed. Let’s take a gander at how Ataraxia might have expressed herself had she been born Panicky, but grew up with precisely the same story and essentially the same credentials. Heck, let’s even retain the same descriptive paragraph:

memoir query panicky

Amazing what a difference just a slight shift in tone and confidence can make, isn’t it? Panicky enjoys exactly the same platform as Ataraxia — but because she has presented it so timorously, without the specific marketing details that made our earlier examples such grabbers, she comes across as substantially less qualified to write this book.

Yes, that’s completely unfair. But can you honestly blame Millicent for drawing such different conclusions about these two writers?

Incidentally, did you happen to notice the Freudian slip that just shouts how nervous Panicky is? In case you missed it:

If you would the attached synopsis, I would be grateful

Panicky wants Millicent to read it, presumably, but she apparently can’t bring herself to make that request. Sounds too much like an order to her hypersensitive ears, probably. Agents like Barney take offense so easily, she’s heard; she doesn’t want to tread on any toes.

Just as the border between confident and arrogant can be murky at times, the line between polite and self-deprecating can be a narrow one. I’m quite positive that if asked, Panicky would insist that she was merely being courteous: she is grateful that an agent as well-established as Barney would even consider her book project; she has done her homework well enough to be aware of how busy he is likely to be.

Laudable goals, all, but here, she honestly does go overboard. The relevant statistics speak for themselves:

Thank yous: two direct (I’m sorry to take up your valuable time; ), one indirect (I would be grateful)

Apologies: two direct (Thank you so very much for taking the time even to consider my book; Thanks again), one indirect (I would be grateful)

Equivocations: one confidence wobble perhaps you may be interested in my memoir), four unsubstantiated marketing claims (food tourism one of the fastest-growing travel trends in the United States; Millions of Americans engage in food-related travel; Many of them are undoubtedly women traveling alone; I believe that my students would be very interested in my memoir.)

Suggestions that this would be a difficult book to sell and/or promote: two expressed authorial fears about appearing in public (While I fully realize that my current size may prove problematic for promoting this book on television; many cultures (including ours) regard a big woman as inherently flawed)

Implications that the agent wouldn’t — or even shouldn’t — be interested in the book: one prompt to disregard (perhaps you may be interested in my memoir), one implication that he couldn’t understand it (This might not occur to someone of so-called normal size, but it is actually…), one implication that it doesn’t matter very much whether he likes it or not (Whichever you decide, please have a nice day — and eat some yummy food!)

Quite a lot of dissuasion for a one-page letter ostensibly intended to convince ol’ Barney that this worthwhile book project, isn’t it? Don would be so pleased. The sad part is that most of it is totally unnecessary: as we saw in Ataraxia’s version, there’s no necessary trade-off between politeness and confident presentation.

The result, unfortunately, is that well-qualified Panicky comes across not as courteous, but insecure. A real shame, because that descriptive paragraph is a genuine winner. Even a terrific selling point won’t help a query if Millicent stops reading before she gets to it.

So, you are probably wondering, would Barney’s Millicent ask to see Panicky’s book proposal or not? It all depends on whether the screener made it past that initial apology, doesn’t it?

The best thing you can do to bolster your ability to sound credibly psyched about your book’s marketing prospects is — wait for it — to be justifiably psyched about them. If writerly fears render that difficult, invest some time thinking about what benefits readers will derive from your work. A great way to kick off that brainstorming: familiarizing yourself with your target market. Not just who is in it, but what books have been aimed successfully at those readers within the past five years. Once you understand why readers are already buying books like yours, it should be easier to see which of those appealing characteristics your book shares.

Once you have come up with at least a couple of believable selling points, you can center your query on them. After all, even the best ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy) can’t impress Millicent if she doesn’t know about it.

Don’t tell me your book doesn’t have any selling points; I don’t believe it. Any book worth a good writer’s time to compose has strengths. So does everyone’s life history. It’s just a matter of matching the one or the other to your target audience’s needs in a manner that will make Millicent exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen this before! I really want to read this!”

Or, alternatively, “Wow, this is a book by {fill in celebrity here}; I wouldn’t have thought he could read, much less write. Well, I guess we should take a look at it, because he has a lot of fans.” That generally works pretty well, too.

Millie is not going to shout any of those things over your query, however, if your query leaves her in the dark about precisely how your book is unique. Not only will she probably not have the time or inclination to guess; she will wonder, and rightly, whether a writer apparently reluctant to market his own book to an agent will be equally resistant to helping promote the book once it is published.

Yes, that will be the publisher’s marketing department’s job, when the time comes. But if you do a bit of that book category research I suggested above, you may notice something about successful first books published within the last few years: their authors tend to have invested quite a bit of effort in promoting them.

Imagine how pleased their Barneys must be about that — and how, in turn, they might instruct their Millicents to keep their weary eyes peeled for new writers who might be equally energetic in selling their books.

This is no time to be hiding your Marmoleum samples under a bushel, people. Keep up the good work!

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