Book marketing 101: just how close does a similarity have to be?

One fringe benefit — if you can call it that — of a lengthy convalescence is having a lot of time on one’s hands to watch news reports of terrifying events, so I have been groggily glued to my TV set, trying to get some sense of what is going on in Southern California. The maps the news producers see fit to provide are maddeningly vague, I notice — I can’t tell whether I should be worrying about that wonderful bookstore in Ventura or not, for instance.

Best wishes to all of the Author! Author! community affected by the fires. May you, your kith and kin, your houses, your pets, and your manuscripts come through the conflagration safely.

Reluctantly, then, back to work. At the risk of repeating myself from yesterday, I have decided that the best way to bring my mono-ravaged brain to bear on the subject at hand is to have my intrepid assistant read me over a post I wrote last year dealing with how to track down agents to query — and then ask him, sweetly, to transcribe my murmured asides and insert them into appropriate points in the post.

The result may be a trifle hard to read, but it does represent my up-to-the-minute thoughts on the subject. Enjoy!

I’ve been writing over the last couple of days about ways to figure out which agents to query — OTHER than simply opening the Herman Guide at random, hammering your finger down on a page, and sending a letter to the one grazed by your fingernail. Yesterday, I was discussing querying the agents who represent writers you like to read.

A word to the wise, however: skip querying the agents of your favorite authors who work in genres other than your own. A query to an agent who does not represent your kind of work is usually not worth the investment in postage, much less your energy.

The “Since you so ably represent Author X…” technique works best, naturally, when the querying writer’s work bears some striking resemblance to that of the cited author. I wouldn’t advise hitting up David Sedaris’ agent (who was, the last time I checked, Don Congdon) with ultra-serious literary fiction, any more than I would send a rollicking comedy to Annie Proulx’s (Liz Darhansoff) or hard-right political analysis to Michael Moore’s (Mort Janklow).

Unless, that is, I had it on rock-solid authority that right now, these fine agents were actively looking to represent any of these kinds of books.

However, if your well-read friends and trusted first readers say, “Hey, has anyone ever told you that you write like Francine Prose?” it’s worth checking to see if Francine Prose’s agent (Denise Shannon) is accepting new clients, right? And mentioning, if at all possible, specific ways in which your work resembles, say, Ms. Prose’s well-respected HUNTERS AND GATHERERS.

Need I repeat here that there are SIGNIFICANT perils attached to drawing parallels to books that you have not read? Never, ever, EVER succumb to the temptation of comparing your book to a book with which you are unfamiliar — especially to the unknown book’s agent, who may well have been the person who purged the book of misspellings and semicolons. The chances of such an analogy backfiring are simply too high.

How high, you ask? Well, ask a writer I know who, while querying a novel filled with scenes of people ripping into rare steaks, succulent veal, etc., happened to spot a copy of Ruth L. Ozeki’s MY YEAR OF MEATS in a bookstore. Without reading anything but the acknowledgments page, the querier shot off a letter full of meat-loving details to Ms. Ozeki’s agent, Molly Friedrich of the Aaron Priest Literary Agency. Need I even say that MY YEAR OF MEATS is an exposé of abuses in the meat-production industry so vivid that it is considered in some circles an excellent argument for vegetarianism?

Just don’t do it.

If you are familiar with the work in question, it’s not at all a bad idea to point out specific ways in which your book is similar to the one you cite. Do be aware, though, that from most agents’ points of view, the mere fact of sharing narrative choices alone (such as multiple first-person narrators or present-tense narration, to name two of the most popular) does not necessarily constitute enough of a similarity to inspire automatic interest.

But if a particular agent has represented a whole lot of books about horses, for instance, and your book is fairly bursting with ‘em, I see no reason to make his screener guess that’s why you picked him to query.

If you are going to be specific, stick to comparisons of important plot, character, or narrative worldview similarities between your book and another. Hedging your bets by vague statements like, “It’s been said that my book reads just like THE DA VINCI CODE” will not win you friends and influence agents.

Trust me: such statements are far more likely to annoy than impress. Just like the oft-used assertion that “This book is a natural for Oprah!” Once Millicent has seen a claim like this more than thrice in a week — and I assure you, if she’s a screener at a major agency, she’s been seeing it at least three times a DAY since she got the job — it loses its efficacy on her. If, indeed, it ever would have worked.

Why? Well, think about it: just how many times per day do you suppose the average chick lit agent was seeing “This is the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY!” in the first paragraphs of query letters when it was a bestseller? Do you really want your query letter to sound like a quarter of the ones already in the rejection pile?

Of course not. You need to make your work sound unique, not just marketable.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you cry, “the similarities I have in mind are in the writing, not the subject matter. Shouldn’t I point that out, in case Millicent fails to notice how much my query sounds like the voice of the agency’s most famous client?”

Well, yes and no; it depends upon how you go about it. Generally speaking, opening a query with something like, “Everyone says I write just like David Guterson,” will not play as well as, “Since you represented SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, you may be interested in my novel…”

This is true, incidentally, even if one of the people who told you that you wrote just like David Guterson was David Guterson’s mother. (A lovely woman, incidentally; the last time I bumped into her, she held me captive in the frozen food section of our local Trader Joe’s until I promised to rush out and buy a copy of OUR LADY OF THE FOREST that very day. That’s the kind of mother ever writer should have!)

It pains me to say it, but the vast majority of agents will simply cast aside a query that quotes someone they have never heard of praising the book being offered. And aspiring writers, unfortunately, quote unfamous opinions of their work all the time — which over time has precisely the same effect on Millicent as the Oprah assertion above.

So you really should avoid saying, “My writing teacher says this is the best book since BLEAK HOUSE,” or “A friend told me that I write just like Audrey Niffenegger.” (Represented by Joe Regal of Regal Literary, I’m told.)

Both of these are quotes from actual query letters, incidentally, presented to me for feedback on why they were not garnering enthusiastic responses. Both of the queriers subsequently revised their letter to omit these phrases, and are now happily represented, I am delighted to report.

Of course, if you can legitimately say, “Colin Powell says my memoir, LUST FOR WAR, is the best war story since ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT,” by all means, say it. But make sure that the person you are quoting is well-known (or at least well-known to the agent you are querying) AND that the quote is truthful.

Yes, you heard me correctly: unfortunately, one really does need to say it, apparently. You’d be amazed — at least I hope you would — at how many queriers gratuitously quote the famous without their permission, on the theory that the agent will never check. FIE!!!

But, hey, if you can justifiably say that the late great Kurt Vonnegut wept over your text, place that information in the first line of your query letter — whether you are querying his former agent (Knox Burger of Harold Ober Associates) or not. It’s too valuable a commendation not to use.

Do not give in to the temptation of quoting out of context, however. Years ago, when I was in grad school, I took a seminar with Saul Bellow. I still have the term paper on which he wrote, “You are a very engaging writer.” Oh, how easy it would have been to present that quote as though he had said it about my first novel, especially as by that time, Professor Bellow was no longer among the living! But obviously, I couldn’t legitimately that luscious little blurb out of context.

I know, I know. Sometimes honesty looks an awful lot like stupidity. But at least I am 100% certain that I will never be caught in a self-promoting exaggeration at an industry meeting, where it could cost me serious credibility points. Leave the puffing up of your work to your publisher’s marketing department; let the quality of your writing speak for itself.

Remember, the reference to the agent’s already-established client is intended not so much as a name-dropping power play, meant to stun with importance, than as a bow to the agent’s past professional successes and a preliminary answer to the obvious question in any query-reader’s mind: “Why is THIS author targeting THIS agency with THIS book?”

Just so you know, if any reasonably intelligent English-conversant reader could read more than half of your query letter WITHOUT knowing the answer to that question, the query is almost certainly going to be rejected. Kind of surprising that most querying classes and guidebooks don’t point this out more often, isn’t it?

Keep up the good work!

One Reply to “Book marketing 101: just how close does a similarity have to be?”

  1. Anne,

    I hope this means that you are on the mend. Thank you for your kind words about Southern California. I used to live in the greater L.A. area and so I am worried as well.

    I also have a family member who lives thankfully in a part of San Diego County that is not ablaze.

    I remember well living there when there were fires in the canyons. Even when it was miles away you could still see the ash in the air and smell the acrid smell of smoke.

    It has to be horrible and devastating for people’s lives, employers, etc.

    How can you expect people to come to work if they have been evacuated and are now possibly homeless? There is also the difficulty of actually getting around on the freeways as well which in the best of times can be difficult in So. Cal.

    I hope the winds die down soon and everything gets under control. I have two friends who live in Canyon Country that I am worried about as well.

    Anyway, thank you for your words of wisdom and for the numerous links that might in the future come in handy.

    I had not discovered your wonderful blog last year, so your post however recycled was new to me.

    Be well!


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