Book marketing 101: scanning your query letter for problems, part IV, or, half-dressed people on rafts

Ah, a gorgeous Pacific Northwest summer day: the sun is out, the sky is blue — and the writers of the Puget Sound are inside, away from it all, tapping away at their computers. All is right with the world.

Back to my checklist of problems endemic to query letters. I timed today’s questions for a weekend, so everyone would be nice and relaxed, because I suspect some of this information may come as a surprise, even to people who have been querying for a while.

We’re getting down to the subtleties and niceties, my friends. Beginning with:

(8) Is my summary paragraph in the present tense?
This is one of those industry weirdnesses: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches and synopses, are ALWAYS written in the present tense. Even when the author is describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure.

And apparently, writers are supposed to know this because the synopsis fairy descends from the heavens when one reaches a certain level of craft and bops one on the head with her magic wand. Or because they have attended an expensive class or conference that told them so.

I’m not a big fan of keeping things like this secret, so let’s shout it to the rooftops: THE SUMMARY SHOULD BE IN THE PRESENT TENSE.

The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir, probably because it simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say: “Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I choose to bury it in the back yard.”

It’s confusing to a sane person’s sense of time. But then, so are the querying and submission processes, frequently.

(9) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (and I do hope that revelation doesn’t startle anybody, at this juncture; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers. In other words, if you printed out your list of selling points and read it side-by-side with your query, would the summary paragraph demonstrate that at least a few of those elements you identified as most market-worthy?

Once again, you see, we’re dipping into that writer’s toolkit that we’ve been spending the summer assembling. (If you have not assembled a list of selling points for your book, there are a series of posts that will walk you through it relatively painlessly, cleverly hidden under the category YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS at right.)

One of the most common mistakes made in summary paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who MIGHT conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:

CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men. It belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America.


Caroline Bingley (26) and Elizabeth Bennet (20) are floating down a lazy river, the sun baking an uneasy outline around their barely-moving paddles. Suddenly, the rapids are upon them — as is a flotilla of gorgeous, shirtless, rapids-navigating men on generous inner tubes. When a violent hailstorm traps them all in a dank, mysterious cave that smells of recently-departed grizzly bear, shivering in their thin, wet clothes, tempers flare — and so does romance.

Okay, cover up those last two paragraphs, and take this pop quiz: what do you remember most from the first? The title? The Snake River? The bad cliché? Your speculation that my reference to “every paddle-wielding woman in America” might cause this blog to spring up in some unlikely Internet searches from now until Doomsday?

Now what do you remember about the second? As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.

Tell me, if you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women? I rest my case.

Except to say: in the first, a reader is unlikely to remember the BOOK, rather than the query. And in the second, the query-reader is encouraged to identify with the protagonists — who are, like the reader, contemplating all of those inner tube-straddling guys.

Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously.

The other reason that the second summary is better is that it presumably echoes the tone of the book. If you have written a steamy romance, you’d better make sure that your summary is sexy. If it’s a comedy, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a chuckle. If it’s a horror novel, make sure it’s creepy. And so forth.

Again, this is basic pitching strategy, right?

(10) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?
Most query letters include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched. Call me mercenary, but I think that is rather market-unwise, don’t you?

Or, to put it another way, if an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for the agent to think, “Hmm, who on earth is going to want to buy this book?”

No extra credit for guessing the answer to that one: no.

As those of you who went through the identifying your target market exercises earlier in Book Marketing 101 (easily found under the obfuscating category title IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE at right, for those of you joining us late in the series) already know, figuring out the ideal readership for a book is not always a simple or straightforward task, even for someone who knows the text as intimately as its author. Don’t expect the appeal to be self-evident, even for a book like the one described above, where the appeal is fairly self-evident.

To go back to an earlier mantra: structure your marketing materials to make it as easy as possible for folks in the industry to help you. You want Millicent the screener to cast her eyes over your query and go running to her boss, the agent, saying, “Oh, my God, we have to see this manuscript.”

In short, it is a far, far better thing to induce the screener to exclaim, “This book belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America!” than to have the query tell her that it does. Even if it’s true.

Have a nice weekend, everybody, especially those of you who are going to be floating down the some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym. As for me, I shall be right here, as I so often am, editing away.

Keep up the good work!

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