I’m much, much later in posting this than I had planned, as apparently my ISP chooses one of the busiest usage times of the week, Saturday afternoon and evening, to perform routine maintenance without informing any of its subscribers. (Bad ISP! No cookie!) So please excuse me if I post a couple of blogs at once.
I hope my last post, about the very, very short amount of time a writer has to grab an agent’s attention in a query letter, did not discourage anyone from trying. Yes, querying is a tough row to hoe, both technically and psychologically: even though we all know that an agent who reads only your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing; to pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your work.
No, unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly rare ones that asks querants to include a brief writing sample, what is rejected in a query letter is either the letter itself (for unprofessionalism, lack of clarity, or simply not being a kind of book that particular agent represents), the premise of the book, or the book category. So, logically speaking, there is NO WAY that even a stack of rejection letters reaching to the moon could be a rejection of your talents as a writer, provided those rejections came entirely from cold querying.
Makes you feel just the tiniest bit better to think of rejections that way, doesn’t it?
So before you write off a particular book as unmarketable, you should take a good, hard look at your query letter. Actually, that’s not quite true: you should send your query letter to a few dozen agencies, and THEN, if none have asked to see the first 50 pages of the book, take a good, hard look at the letter. Either way, you should be sending, and you should be looking.
A successful query letter has ALL of the following traits: it is clear; it is less than 1 page (single-spaced); it describes the book’s premise (not the entire book; that’s the job of the synopsis) in an engaging manner; it is polite; it is clear about what kind of book is being pitched; it includes a SASE, and it is addressed to an agent with a successful track record in representing the type of book it is pitching.
You would not BELIEVE how few query letters that agencies receive actually have all of these traits. And agents rather like that, because, as I mentioned in my last, it makes it oh-so-easy to reject 85% of what they receive within seconds. No fuss, no muss, no reading beyond, say, line 2.
A particularly common omission: the book category. Because, you see, many writers just don’t know that the industry runs on book categories; it would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label. And other writers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, think that they are being clever by omitting it, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of strategizer thinks, “so I just won’t tell them until they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”
I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napolèon: the industry simply doesn’t work that way; if they do not know where it will eventually rest on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, they’re 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). However, people in the industry speak and even think of books by category – trust me, 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.
Think of your query letter as a personal ad. (Oh, come on: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing yourself to someone with whom you are hoping to have a long-term relationship – which, ideally, it will be; I have relatives with whom I have less frequent and less cordial contact than with my agent – and as such, you are trying to make a good impression.
So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself? 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 sexual orientation. (Yes, it really is that basic, in their world.) And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in “it’s a cross between a political thriller and a 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 eyes of the industry, this kind of complexity doesn’t make you look interesting, or your book a genre-crosser. To them, this at best looks like a rather pitiful 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 make ‘em guess; be specific, and describe your work in the language they understand. Because otherwise, they’re just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind should read it.
Keep up the good work!
January 19th, 2007
After my last post, was it my imagination, or did I hear those of you new to the process groaning? “My God,” the little voice in the back of my head which I choose to attribute to you is saying, “how is all of that possible within the context of a single-page missive? How can I cram all I need to say to grab their attention in that little space?”
Um, are you sitting down? You actually don’t have the entire page to catch their attention; on average, you have about five lines.
That’s right: most query letters are not even read to their ends by screeners. Why? Because most of them disqualify themselves from serious consideration before the end of the opening paragraph.
Hey, I told you to sit down first.
Unfortunately, Americans are so heavily exposed to hard-sell techniques that many aspiring writers make the mistake of using their query letters to batter the agent with predictions of future greatness so over-inflated (and, from the agent’s point of view, so apparently groundless, coming from a previously unpublished writer) that they may be dismissed out of hand. Some popular favorites:
“This is the next (fill in name of bestseller here)!”
“You’ll be sorry if you let this one pass by!”
“Everyone in the country will want to read this book!”
To professional eyes, these are all absurd statements to find in a query letter – yes, even if the book in question IS the next DA VINCI CODE. Usually, they will simply stop reading if a query letter opens this way, because to them, including such statements is like a writer’s scrawling on the query in great big red letters, “I have absolutely no idea how the industry works.”
Which, while an interesting tactic, is unlikely to get an agent to invest an additional ten seconds in reading on to your next paragraph.
That’s right, I said ten seconds: as much as writers like to picture agents and their screeners agonizing over their missives, trying to decide if such a book is marketable or not, the average query remains under a decision-maker’s eyes for less than 30 seconds.
Okay, I’m hearing those ambient groans again – and even from those of you who stuck with me through the Idol list of first-page-of-manuscript rejection reasons in November. Query screening is actually – wait for it – MORE knee-jerk than submission screening, for one very simple reason.
Long-time readers, chant with me now: time. The average agency receives 800+ queries per week (that’s not counting the New Year’s Resolution Rush, folks), so agents and screeners have a very strong incentive to weed out as many of them as possible as quickly as possible.
That’s why, in case you were wondering, that agents will happily tell you that any query that begins “Dear Agent” (rather than addressing a specific agent by name) automatically goes into the rejection pile. So does any query that addresses the agent by the wrong gender in the salutation. (If you’re unsure about a Chris or an Alex, call the agency and ask; no need to identify yourself as anything but a potential querier.)
So does any query that is pitching a book in a category the agent is not looking to represent. Yes, even if the very latest agents’ guide AND the agency’s website says otherwise.
And you know what? These automatic rejections will, in all probability, generate exactly the same form rejection letter as queries that were carefully considered, but ultimately passed upon.
Again: how precisely is an aspiring writer to learn what does and doesn’t work in a query?
Over the next few days, I’m going to address precisely that issue. (Hey, I took a few days off this week; I can write through the weekend for a good cause.) Then we can get back to the contest tips, and everyone will be happy.
As happy, in any case, as a writer can be whilst querying or prepping a contest entry. Keep up the good work!