I had to laugh this morning, campers. You know how I’ve been complaining periodically throughout this querying series about how often reasonable advice (or, even more often, an agent’s offhand comment about a personal preference) becomes transformed through sheer repetition into a purported Cosmic Law of Querying that bears only a faint familial resemblance to the original advice? Nowhere is the potent equation specific statement + word of mouth + time = distortion more operational than in the word-of-mouth paradise that is the aspiring writers’ community. Especially now, when Internet searches are so gifted at ripping individual statements out of context and communications are so rapid.
Now, to paraphrase Mark Twain, a misconception can make it halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boots on.
Case in point: do you recall how careful I was in yesterday’s post on constructing a platform paragraph to assure all of you that the examples I was using were fictional, and thus should not be cited anywhere, anytime as truth? Well, the moment I logged onto the blog this drizzly Seattle a.m., I found an incoming link from the University of Bonn.
Why? Because yesterday’s post contained this totally made-up statement: Audrey Hepburn holds an earned doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on atomic bombs.
This is not true; I said in the post it was not true. But did the web bot searching for the phrase University of Bonn trouble itself with fact-checking? Or with context?
The moral: Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Even if you read it here. Or heard someone say that they might have heard it here.
Speaking of the nature of truth and one’s obligation to tell it, inveterate commenter Elizabeth chimed in on Querypalooza XII, bringing up a very common misconception about what is and is not a credential of sufficient literary significance to include in one’s platform paragraph:
My sister is in marketing, and was a recruiter and hires writers all the time and told me the story credit in my resume from my school literary mag is worthless. “I would see that and assume you are still in school and trash your resume,” she said cruelly.
I left it out of the last query. In fact, I left out my two college degrees, one of which is in criminology (crime novel) also. Ironically, it contains the BEST descriptive stuff I’ve ever written for this book.
Have you ever noticed how frequently the word worthless comes up when talking about credentials, campers? In querying advice, it’s as closely associated with the platform paragraph and pitching as the term spry is to the elderly. (When’s the last time you heard a young person described as spry?)
As we saw last time, the use of worthless vis-à-vis writing credentials is not limited to the mouths and keyboards of those who give professional advice to writers trying to get published. It is ubiquitous on the web, in blogs, in writers’ fora — and, as a direct result, in writers’ psyches.
In my experience, practically every aspiring writer who has not yet published a book with a major house — thus the descriptor aspiring — harbors a deep, gnawing fear that none of his credentials are good enough to include in his platform paragraph. Or his platform, if he writes nonfiction. When in doubt, the ubiquitous worthlessness-mongers tell him, leave it out.
“But this is my first novel!” he will protest. “Nothing I can possibly say will hide that fact from Millicent the agency screener. She’ll see right through my six master’s degrees, seventeen magazine articles, and Olympic bronze medal in ski jumping. She’ll know it’s only filler. I’d best not mention any of it.”
No, she’ll know that you’re a previously published author — what are those articles, chopped liver? And even if you didn’t have those publications in your background, sir, she would know from the rest of your credentials that you’re interesting.
Heck, if she knows her business, she’ll know that you might have a potentially gripping memoir in you. (When did you write all of those theses? In mid-air?)
In the face of the barrage of advice about querying (and marketing, for that matter), it’s so easy for aspiring writers to lose sight of the fact that the platform paragraph is about you. It’s a conceptual container for information that might make Millicent say either, “Wow, this writer knows whereat she speaks,” or, “Wow, this writer knows her way around the writing process.”
Or even, “Wow, this writer sounds like someone my boss, the agent, would absolutely love to work with on a long-term, mutually-beneficial basis.” You would argue with that?
So in excising her two best credentials, Elizabeth merely fell into the unfortunately all-too-common trap of confusing her platform paragraph with a résumé. But that’s not terrifically surprising, is it, in the face of all of that yammering about worthless credentials?
The usual conception of a platform is of a relatively limited checklist of pre-approved credentials. If you can check Box X, then you can list that credential. If you can’t check any of the boxes, you simply have no credentials at all, and thus are better of not mentioning anything about your background.
Basically, this conception turns the platform into a Who’s Who entry: if you happen to have one of the small handful of achievements for which there are boxes on the form, you have a listing. If you don’t, you don’t. Which means, in practice, that if all the available boxes are publications — or, in most first-time queriers’ minds, book publications with major houses — virtually no aspiring writer would have any credentials worth mentioning in a query letter.
Anybody see a logical problem with this? Like, for instance, the fact that if Millicent actually did take umbrage at non-literary (or even non-book-literary) credentials, she would have to reject 99.99% of what crosses her desk?
That’s ridiculous, of course. It’s her job to reject 98% of what crosses her desk. And it’s your job to convince her in your query letter that you and your book project are in the top 2%.
Following the common wisdom — if you don’t have any of the narrowly-defined credentials, you should leave the platform paragraph out of your query altogether — may not be the best strategy. And it would be a suicidal strategy for writers of nonfiction, including memoir: just as part of what a nonfiction book proposer is marketing is her expertise in the subject matter of her book, part of what a memoirist is marketing is her personality.
So why on earth would a savvy querier want to pretend that she doesn’t have one? Or a background?
To a lesser extent, the same holds true for fiction: remember, any sensible agent seeking new clients is going to be looking for a career writer, not the proverbial author with only a single book in him. If you have traveled extensively, she might want to know that: you may have a travel memoir in you, or she may have a memoirist with a great story who could use a co-writer. And let’s not forget the fact that interesting people tend to do better at book readings, giving interviews, and other necessary promotional events in a successful author’s life.
There are also the practical concerns to consider. She’s going to want to know what you do for a living, not only because it will tell her more about you, but because your ability to take time off work will have a direct effect upon your ability to drop everything and make revisions. (Sorry to break that to you, ER-doctors-who-write.) On the flip side, if you travel for work, you’ll already be in a position to do book signings in multiple cities without your future publishing house’s having to cough up any dosh for traveling expenses.
Again, the down side to alerting Millicent to any of these selling points is?
Please don’t let yourself get talked out of — or, even more common, talk yourself out of — including relevant information in your query. If you find yourself tempted, think of Elizabeth’s example: what did she gain by cutting her two best credentials, ones that are absolutely germane to her current project? My police procedural is informed by my degree in criminology is, after all, precisely the kind of Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC) Millicent deliberately scans those platform paragraphs to find.
Let’s get brainstorming, shall we? Yesterday, I concentrated on the standard writing résumé bullet points. To recap:
(1) Any experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.
(2) Any educational credentials you might happen to have, whether they are writing-related or not.
(3) Any honors that might have been bestowed upon you in the course of your long, checkered existence.
(4) Any former publications (paid or unpaid) or public speaking experience.
Today, we move on to less obvious stuff. You know, the things in your background that render you such a fascinating person.
(5) Relevant life experience.
This is well worth including, if it helps fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coalmining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Mention it.
There’s a reason that agents and editors habitually ask aspiring NF writers, “So what’s your platform?” after all.
And don’t discount how much more credible your life experience might make you if you write fiction about it, either. Which author do you think would be easier for a publisher’s marketing department to convince a magazine writer to interview, one who has written a book whose protagonist is a day trader, or this great new author who’s just distilled her 8 years as a day trader into a behind-the-scenes novel?
Quite different, isn’t it? The amazing thing is that both of these statements could quite easily refer to the same book.
Make sure, by the way, that if your life experience is your most important credential, it appears first in your platform paragraph. If you are writing about firefighting, and you happen to be a firefighter, Millicent needs to know that right away. Don’t be coy — the connection with your book may seem self-evident to YOU, but remember, Millicent will not be able to guess whether you have a perfect platform for writing your book unless you tell her about it.
What you should NOT do under any circumstances, however, is say that your novel is “sort of autobiographical.” To an agent or editor, this can translate as, “This book is a memoir with the names changed. Since it is based upon true events, I will be totally unwilling to revise it to your specifications. Oh, and someone I know may later come along and try to sue you over it, future publisher. Please read my manuscript anyway.”
No wonder, then, that the words autobiographical and fiction in the same sentence so often prompt Millicent to shout, “Next!”
The distinction I am drawing here is a subtle one, admittedly: basically, I’m urging you to say FALLING CINDERS draws upon my twenty years as a working firefighter instead of FALLING CINDERS is semi-autobiographical or — sacre bleu! — This novel is partially based on my life.
Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation, a very tangible plus for a first-time author. However, industry professionals simply assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material.
But to them, a book that recounts true events in its author’s life is a memoir, not a novel. Contrary to the pervasive movie-of-the-week philosophy, the mere fact that a story is true does not make it more appealing; it merely means potential legal problems.
Translation: until folks in the industry have forgotten about the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fiasco, it’s not going to be a good idea to highlight the fact that a novel is semi-autobiographical in your pitch. (Industry rumor has it that AMLP was originally sold as fiction, not memoir, but what did I just tell you about believing rumors?) Especially since — again, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, but how else are you going to find out? — a good third of queries (and most first-novel pitches) include some form of the phrase, “Well, it’s sort of autobiographical…”
Just don’t do it. Trust me on this one.
(6) Associations and affiliations.
If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, bring it up here. If it’s a large organization, go ahead and mention its size. (Left to her own devices, Millicent’s guesstimate would probably be low.) Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, you might want to bring it up — although you might want to clear make sure first that your group is in the habit of such promotion. Some possible examples:
The Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120,000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter, guaranteeing substantial speaking engagement interest.
My main character’s struggle with multiple sclerosis will speak to the 400,000 people the National MS Society estimates currently have the disease.
I am a graduate of Yale University, guaranteeing a mention of my book on tulip cultivation in the alumni magazine. Currently, The Yale News reaches over 100,000 readers bimonthly.
(To reiterate: I pulled all of the examples I am using in this list out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em, therefore. I’m looking at you, University of Bonn.)
(7) Trends and recent bestsellers.
If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, add it to your list. (Don’t mentally shake off that last sentence. Not everything on your brainstorming list is going to end up in your query letter; give yourself some creative leeway.)
If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it. (Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years.) Do be careful, though, not to imply that everyone who watches a popular TV show will buy a book that’s similar to it: Millicent is well aware that in the couple of years between when an agent picks up a new writer and when the book might reasonably be expected to appear on the shelves, the show might easily become less popular. Or even go off the air entirely.
(In response to that loud unspoken “Whaaa?” I just heard out there: after you land an agent, figure one year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a positively blistering pace.)
Even if trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see last weekend’s earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better. Some possible examples:
Ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association.
Last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.
At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the U.S. are affected by it. We Americans are unparalleled at numerically documenting our experiences. As we discussed earlier in this series, including the real statistics in your pitch minimizes the probability of the agent or editor’s guess being far too low.
Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them. Some possible examples:
750,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, creating a large audience potentially eager for this book.
According to a recent study in the Toronto Star, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines, pointing to an immense potential Canadian market potential for MASSAGE YOUR WAY BACK TO BUSHINESS.
(I’ll keep you posted on whether that last one gets picked up by a Canadian web bot.)
(9) Recent press coverage.
I say this lovingly, of course, but as I mentioned yesterday, people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the mystical. Minor Greek deities were less revered.
Thus, if you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it. Possible examples:
So far in 2010, the Chicago Tribune has run 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.
In the last six months, the New York Times has written twelve times about Warren G. Harding; clearly the public is clamoring to hear more about this important president’s love life.
(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends.
I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening THEN.
Like popular TV shows, current events are inherently tricky as selling points, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your pitch to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.
However, if you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, go ahead and include it on your list. You can also project a current trend forward. Some examples:
At its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2011, guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET.
If tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2015, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.
(11) Particular strengths of the book.
You’d be surprised at how well a statement like, BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in the last two decades to take on the heartbreak of kneecap dysplasia can work in a pitch or a query letter. If it’s true, that is.
(If it isn’t, of course, or if the writer simply didn’t do his homework well enough to know that it isn’t, the query’s toast. But as someone suffering from kneecap dysplasia at this very moment, I find that I long to read this novel even though I know it doesn’t exist. I am, in fact, the target audience for this book. Which is kind of funny, because when I made this example up several years ago, my knees were pointing in the right direction.)
So what is your book’s distinguishing characteristic? How is it different and better from other offerings currently available within its book category? How is it different and better than the most recent bestseller on the subject?
One caveat: if you engage in a direct comparison with an already-published book, avoid cutting it down. Try to stick to pointing out how your book is GOOD, not how another book is bad.
Why? Well, publishing is a small world: you can never be absolutely sure that the Millicent or her boss DIDN’T go to college with the editor of the book on the negative end of the comparison. Or date the author. Or, and the agent’s case, represented the book himself.
Stick to what is genuinely one-of-a-kind about your book — and don’t be afraid to draw direct factual comparisons with other books in the category that have sold well recently. For example:
While Jennifer Anniston’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my book, EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care.
I would STRONGLY urge those of you who write literary fiction to spend a few hours brainstorming on this point. How does your book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way?
Or, to put it in the most ego-satisfying manner possible, why might a professor choose to teach your novel in an English literature class?
Again, remember that you need to express these difference in terms of facts, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary, but don’t actually say that the writing is gorgeous.
Even if it undeniably is.
Why not? Well, that’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.
Seriously, this is a notorious industry pet peeve: almost universally, agents and editors tend to respond badly when a writer actually says that his book is well-written; they want to make up their minds on that point themselves. It tends to provoke a “Show, don’t tell!” response.
In fact, it’s not at all unusual for agents to tell their screeners to assume that anyone who announces in a query letter This is the best book in the Western literary canon! must necessarily be a bad writer — and one whose literary intake is probably fairly meager at that.
“What on earth must this writer think is currently on the market,” Millicent says under her breath, reaching swiftly for the form-letter rejection stack, “if he thinks he can make a claim like this. I’d bet a wooden nickel that he hasn’t read any literary fiction that’s come out within the last seven years. Next!”
Cast your selling points as marketing realities, though, and she’ll be pleasantly surprised — as long as what you say is true. If you can legitimately say, for instance, that your book features a sensitive characterization of a dyslexic 2-year-old, and thus will speak to the parents of the 4-7% of children who are dyslexic, that will be heard as a statement of fact, not a value judgment.
(12) Any research or interviews you may have done for the book.
If you have done significant research or extensive interviews, list it here. This is especially important if you are writing a nonfiction book, as any background that makes you an expert on your topic is a legitimate part of your platform. Some possible examples:
Leonardo DiCaprio has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities.
Tiger Woods interviewed over 6000 women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE PERFECT.
(13) Promotion already in place.
Yes, the mind does immediately spring to the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — but more modest promotional efforts are worth listing as well. Being the organizer of your local libraries’ monthly meet-the-author forum certainly would count — because, really, who would be in a better position to blandish speaking time with your local library once your book comes out.
(Note to the 11% of you who just cried, “But my local library doesn’t have such a program!”: has it occurred you to start one yourself? Speaking as both someone who grew up surrounded by working authors and the daughter of a public school librarian who served for years on the city library’s board, half the librarians in the country, community and school alike, and fully two-thirds of the authors would line up to kiss you on the lips if you would volunteer to coordinate such a program in your town. And can you think of a better way to meet your favorite authors?)
Don’t engage in wishful thinking here, though; the point here is not to speculate about what you might do in future, as NF writers must in the marketing plan portion of their book proposals. For platform paragraph purposes (try saying that three times fast), only include promotion that does indeed already exist. Or that you are positive that you can make exist by the time you are having your first honest-to-goodness conversation with an agent who wants to represent your book.
Establishing a website for your writing is a good start — and it’s something practically any aspiring writer with Internet access can do, even with the most minimal resources. Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements carries a disproportionate weight in the publishing industry, because, frankly, the publishing industry as a whole has been a TRIFLE slow to come alive to the promotional possibilities of the Internet, beyond simply throwing up static websites.
So almost any web-based marketing plan you may have is going to come across as impressive. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person who is fond enough of you to work for pizza) put together a site for you, if you don’t already have one.
(14) What makes your take on the subject matter of your book fresh.
I like to see every brainstormed list of selling points include at least one bullet’s worth of material addressing this point, because it’s awfully important. If YOU don’t know what makes your book different and better than what is already on the shelves, how can you expect an agent or editor to guess?
So this is the time to bring up what makes your work new, exciting, original, and/or a genuinely significant contribution to the current market in your chosen book category. (For some tips on how to figure that out, as well as an in-depth explanation of the sometimes elusive distinction between what the publishing industry considers fresh and what it will dismiss as weird, check out the FRESHNESS IN MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)
Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (“This is the best book on sailboarding since MOBY DICK!”), but content-filled comparisons (“It’s would be the only book on the market that instructs the reader in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard.”)
Finished brainstorming? Terrific. Now you can write your platform paragraph or book proposal.
After you do, though, don’t throw out your list of selling points — that’s going to come in handy down the line. Even more so if you take the time now to put it in a format you can use again and again.
How? Start by going through your list and figuring out what are the best points, from a marketing point of view. Cull the less impressive stuff. Ideally, you will want to end up with somewhere between 3 and 10 selling points, enough to fit comfortably as bullet points on a double-spaced page.
Then reduce each point to a single sentence. Yes, this is a pain for those of us who spend our lives meticulously crafting beautiful paragraphs, but trust me, when you are consulting a list in a hurry, simpler is better.
When your list is finished, label it MARKETING POINTS, and keep it by your side until your first book signing. Or hand to your agent when she’s ready to start pitching to editors. Or pull it out when you are practicing answering the question, “So, what’s your platform?”
Heck, you might even want to use it as a study guide before you give interviews about your book, because once you’ve come up with a great list of reasons that your book should sell, you’re going to want to bring those reasons up every time you talk about the book, right?
Oh, and keep a copy handy to your writing space. It’s a great pick-me-up for when you start to ask yourself, “Remind me — why I am I putting in all of this work?”
Yes, generating selling points IS a lot of trouble, but believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams.
Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work. There’s more to being an agent’s dream client than just showing up with a beautifully-written book, you know: there’s arriving with a fully-stocked writer’s toolkit.
Next time — that’s 7 o’clock PST this evening, campers, on our slightly-less-breathless post-Labor Day schedule — we shall be moving on to query packet construction and mailing issues. Can’t you just feel the excitement in the air?
No, but seriously, paying attention to these details can save a querier a heck of a lot of trouble. Not to mention rejection. Keep up the good work!