Book marketing 101: scanning your query letter for problems, or, the magnifying glass of love


I was prepping a box chock-full of copies of my novel to head out the post office — some agencies ask for one and bill the writer for photocopying after the book sells, others have the author do the copying herself, which is usually less expensive; my agency falls in the latter category — when it hit me that this was a book that I never had to query. I just told my agent about it, and we went from there.

Which made me wonder: had I mentioned here that while selling the first book project to an agent is notoriously difficult, as anyone who has submitted a book knows, but that subsequent projects are comparatively a piece of cake?

Translation: once you get really, really good at querying and reap the rewards by landing an agent, chances are that you’ll never have to do it again.

The Peter Principle in action, my friends: the system is set up to promote the most gifted queriers out of the querying realm. Oh, you will need to write synopses for future works, and you might be asked to pen some marketing material, but cold-querying, no.

While you are in the querying stage of your career, it’s is a good idea to have several out at a time, rather than only one. Since response times can be slow, sending out one and waiting for a response before mailing the next can cumulatively add months or even years to the querying process — from which it is your goal to graduate, right?

Seriously, ignore the astonishingly long-lived rumors circulating out there that claim that agents get miffed if you query more than one of them at once. Manhattan-based agents, bless their harried little hearts, tend to people who get impatient if the guy in front of them at the deli counter is taking an extra thirty seconds to decide whether he wants turkey on rye or roast beef on a bagel — waiting a month or two between marketing attempts would not really be their style, were they limping along in your moccasins.

Unless their agency literature specifically says that they will accept only exclusive queries and submissions, they EXPECT writers to be querying rafts of agents simultaneously. So don’t let the rumors to the contrary discourage you from querying widely.

This does not mean that I would advise sending out 50 queries simultaneously — it’s just too hard to keep track of that many. Also — and I hesitate to mention this, but it happens — this strategy substantially increases the likelihood of opening your mailbox to discover more than one rejection in a single day’s post, an eventuality that would knock even the most confident aspiring writer for a loop.

Call me zany, but I would like to see you get through this process with as few bootless cries of “Why me?” flung in the general direction of the heavens.

As I mentioned yesterday, it’s a great idea to have your list of agents ready, so you can send out a new one the very day a rejection comes in — or two, if the aforementioned mailbox contretemps should befall you, heaven forefend. That way, you can do something constructive in response to that silly form letter, rather than letting the negative feelings sink into your psyche long enough that you start to believe them yourself.

And remember: no matter how much an agent may insist that “there’s no market for this right now” or “there’s not enough money to be made with this book,” and no matter how prominent that agent may be, ultimately, a rejection is one person’s personal opinion. Accept it as such, and move on.

But before you do, make sure that your query does not contain any red flags that might be preventing your work from getting a fair reading.

This is not just a good idea strategically — it’s a good idea psychologically as well, if you’re in the biz for the long haul. Unfortunately, many writers automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a bland querying letter or a confusing synopsis. Or, still more hurtful, that somehow the rejecting agents are magically seeing past the query to the book itself, decreeing from without having read it that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing.

This particular fear leaps like a lion onto many aspiring writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many of us, leading to despair, the notion that if one is REALLY talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It almost never works like that: writing is work, and part of that work is being persistent in submitting your writing.

Instead of listening to the growls of the self-doubt lion, consider the far more likely possibility that it is your marketing materials that are being used as an excuse to reject your queries. If you can ever manage to corner someone who has worked as an agency screener for more than a day, believe me, the FIRST thing she will tell you about the process is that she was given a list of red flags to use as rejection criteria for queries. And, oddly enough, many of these criteria are not about the book project at all, but the presentation of the submission packet.

The single most common culprit, believe it or not, is typos. (And no, that was not a typo.)

Read over your query letter, synopsis, and first chapter; better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. The best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine already. Writing groups are also tremendous resources for this kind of feedback, as are those nice people you met at a conference recently.

Remember, we’re all in this together, my friends; let’s help one another out.

But long-time readers, chant it with me now: avoid using your nearest and dearest as proofreaders, much less content readers. As much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing, unless they have won a Nobel Prize in Literature recently.

And often not even then. Look to them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust — what about one of those great writers you met at the last conference you attended? — and blandish her into giving your query letter and synopsis a solid reading.

Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother has spent the last fifty years editing the work of some pretty heavy-hitting writers; she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary, feedback source.

Naturally, that doesn’t stop her from compulsively line editing while she reads my work, of course; seriously, when I visited her last week, I had not been in her apartment two minutes before she said, “Oh, I read that chapter you sent me. Let me just dig up my list of what you should change.”

In a family of writers and editors, this is an expression of love, believe it or not, and something that I do automatically as well. Years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity of a charging rhinoceros.

All that being said, I respect my work enough to want my first reader feedback to be from someone who has not been a fan of my writing since I wrote my first puppet play, ALEXANDRA MEETS DRACULA, in kindergarten.

(Alexandra wins, by the way.)

As always, make sure that you read everything in hard copy, not just on a computer screen; the average person reads material on a screen 70% faster than the same words on a page, so which method do you think provides better proofreading leverage?

Uh-huh. There’s a reason that my mother doesn’t want me to send her e-mailed attachments upon which to vent her love and editing pen.

Speaking of which, I’m going to sign off for today, to give my box o’ manuscripts the once-over before I seal the box. Even those of us trained from the cradle to spot typos occasionally miss them, and even though I did not query this novel, I want it to do well with editors.

If only to prompt them to say, “My, but that’s a clean, well-proofread manuscript. This author’s mother must love her very much.”

Keep up the good work!

7 Replies to “Book marketing 101: scanning your query letter for problems, or, the magnifying glass of love”

  1. Your comment about reading 70% faster from a screen begs the question – if given the option, should one send paper rather than attaching on e-mail. Also when sending a query letter I assume a business envelope with a SASE personal envelope is acceptable – is that so? So much to learn, so little time.

    1. I had a few things I wanted to say anyway, but now that I’ve read Gordon’s comment, I’ll try to answer it, based on what I’ve learned. (Anne, you can fire off a scathing e-mail to me, if I am ursurping your “Author Author authority on this!) I’ve always understood that the SASE on sends along with a query letter should be a business sized (#10) envelope. I hate to fold them to fit into the envelope that goes to the agent with the query letter, so I send the entire query in a #12 envelope. I’m not sure if that is the correct way of doing it, but I have gotten a few favorable responses when doing that. I’m looking for a box of #11 envelopes. I think they would do the trick nicely.

      On to other comments: I try to send out at least one query a week. Sometimes that doesn’t always happen, as there are other things in my life that I need to deal with on occasion.
      Anne, I’m following your advice regarding the query letter being in traditional correspondence style format…indented paragraphs, date and signature to the right, etc. Yet browsing through my 2007 Guide to Literary Agents, I find that it specifies, business or block style format for query letters. No, I’m not trying to contradict or confuse anyone, except to say that there is conflicting information and advice out there.

      1. I would be reluctant to make it a hard-and-fast rule, Gordon, but yes, I think that the writer is usually better off submitting a paper query than an e-mailed one, unless an agent expresses a vast preference in the opposite direction. As I’ve mentioned before, most agents don’t accept e-queries at all, and for those who do, e-queries are much less time-consuming for to reject. I generally discourage them, but as I know that some of my readers do query electronically, I have tried to give pointers on how to increase their likelihood of success.

        As a matter of principle, though, I try to avoid making absolute pronouncements in summary form. My preference is to present my logic at length, so that readers may compare it to other arguments out there and decide for themselves. For those who are interested in seeing the whole argument, I’ve written about e-queries at some fair length; please see the E-MAILING QUERIES category at right.

  2. Generally, the most graceful way to handle the SASE is to send a #10 business envelope with a #9 envelope SASE inside, but since that would require buying to big ol’ boxes of envelopes, it’s considered perfectly acceptable to fold a second #10 envelope into thirds and tuck it inside the first.

    Dave’s right, though — you can always use a larger envelope for the outside, and tuck a smaller one within. I would avoid going much smaller than a #9, though. But honestly, as long as it’s possible to return a fom letter in the SASE, it’s probably not going to knock your query out of consideration.

    As to the block-formatted query letters, I have literally never heard anyone who works within the publishing industry give that advice. Or magazine publishing, for that matter. One doesn’t have to hear too many agents making fun of the business-type query to get the picture that it’s considered marginally literate, at best.

    That does not mean that no block-formatted query has ever worked, of course. But does it really make sense to fly in the face of an extremely widely-held prejudice, when not indenting serves no real purpose, aesthetic, professional, or otherwise?

    To add my standard disclaimer: as I have mentioned before, it is not my job to standardize all of the advice out there, or to force anyone to do anything. I only know what works and what does not, in my experience, and I do my best to pass it along.

    If people have the time and energy to seek out alternate opinions on the subject, I would certainly encourage them to do so and decide for themselves. But I don’t feel it’s my job here to point out that there isn’t 100% agreement on every aspect of submission, because — as I mention every month or so — there is no one perfect formula for And yofoolproof querying or submission, no matter how much people may want there to be.

    I have to say, though, this one genuinely surprises me, because offhand, I can’t think of a single person making a living on either side of the publishing industry who uses business format outside of e-mail. They may well exist, but if so, they’re evidently not running around trumpeting their preferences (except, evidently, in the guide you cite).

    So you must excuse me if I don’t include mention of it the next time I visit queries, because it does not jibe with my experience of what will work best for queriers. I would not dream of recommending something I would never do myself.

  3. Anne, I suppose I mention those things that seem to contradict your excellent advice, primarily to let others know that there are other schools of thought to just about every aspect of the industry. If one chooses to follow such alternate rules and is successful, more power to him/her. I for one, have attempted, and am attempting to play the game according to the rules and interpretations you have set forth. They certainly make sense. And if one is constantly changing between what he/she considers to be the ultimate “right way,” he/she is going to be wasting a lot of time that could be spent writing, editing, querying, etc.

    1. I think that’s a good plan, Dave — and one of the reasons I tend not to say here, “If you want to hear the other side of this argument, here’s a link to it.” I do think it can be crazy-making, to try to reconcile all of the advice out there.

      If I sounded a little miffed (and, reading back over what I wrote, I think I did), it was because I was imagining the domino effect of that particular piece of advice’s turning up in a prominent source. Even if they changed it for the next edition, we’re all going to be hearing that advice reported as authoritative for the next couple of years — which means that some nice, well-meaning writer out there is going to rub a tradition-minded Millicent the wrong way. The thought irked me.

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