Book marketing 101: a professional-looking title page, part III

Well, so much for predicting how tired I would be: the very day after I said I didn’t want to abandon you all in mid-title page, I found myself too wiped out to do my promised next post on title pages. Mea culpa — but I think I shall be taking the next few days off from posting, until I figure out how to integrate it with the masses of sleep I seem to need at the moment.

Let me move on to the second style of title page quickly, though, while I am fresh from a nap.

Last time, I mentioned that there were two formats commonly used in professional title pages. The one I showed you last time, what I like to call the Me First, is actually rather more common in submissions to agents than submissions from agents to editors, but it is certainly acceptable.

While the Me First format is perfectly fine, the other standard format, which I like to call the Ultra-professional, more closely replicates what most agents want their authors’ ultimate manuscript title pages to look like. Take a gander:


Elegant, isn’t it? And yet very market-oriented, because all of the requisite information is so very easy to find. Here is a downloadable version of the same, for those of you who would prefer to have it on hand.

I probably don’t need to walk through how to construct this little gem, but as my long-term readers know, I’m a great believer in making directions as straightforward as possible. I like them to be easy to follow in the ten minutes after an agent has said, “My God, I love your premise! Provide me with the manuscript instantly!” Call me zany, but on that happy day, I suspect that you’re going to have a lot on your mind.

So here’s how to put this little gem together. Set up a page with the usual standard format for manuscripts defaults — 1-inch margins all around, 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier — then type in the upper right-hand corner:

Book category (If you’re unclear on what this is, are tempted to vacillate between several, or resent having to categorize your complex book at all, believe me, I sympathize — but please see the BOOK CATEGORIES category at right with all possible speed.)

Estimated word count (If you’re unclear on the hows and whys of estimation, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

Skip down 12 lines, then add, centered on the page:
Your title
(Skip a line)
(Skip a line)
Your name (or your nom de plume)

Skip down 12 more lines, then add in the lower right corner:

Your real name
Line 1 of your address
Line 2 of your address
Your telephone number
Your e-mail address

As you may see from the example, it looks nifty if the information in the top section and the information in the bottom one share the same left margin. Since some addresses are longer than others, using this format results in that left margin’s being set at different points on the page for different manuscripts. While Flaubert’s address is short, Edith Wharton’s is not, producing a cosmetically altered title page:


Again, there should be NO other information on the title page, just lots and lots of pretty, pretty white space. After you sign with an agency, your agent’s contact information will appear where your contact information does.

That’s it, my friends – the two primary options you have, if you want your title page to look like the bigwigs’ do. And believe me, you do. Try formatting yours accordingly, and see if your work is not treated with greater respect!

After my last post, forward-thinking reader Christa anticipated my next point, so I have already covered the issue of whether you should include a title page in an e-mailed submission. Since the comments are less easily searched than the text of my posts, I’m going to go over the logic a bit here as well.

The answer, in case you were wondering, is yes — it is an excellent idea to include a title page with an e-submission. It’s an even better idea to include it as PART of the manuscript attachment, rather than as a separate attachment.

A bit perplexed? You’re not alone. Let me deal with the whys first, then the hows.

As Christa rightly points out, an agent who sends you an e-mail to ask for a full or partial manuscript, like one who calls after reading your first 50 pages to ask for the rest of the book, obviously has your contact information already. So why repeat it by sending a title page?

The first reason — and not the least significant, in an industry that values uniformity of format — is that every professional title page includes this information. It’s what agents and editors expect to see, and believe me, any agent who accepts e-queries receives enough e-mail in a day to render the prospect of scrolling through those received a few weeks ago a Herculean task. Make it easy for her to contact you, and she’s more likely to do it.

Second, even if the agent or screener scrupulously noted all of your contact information from your query AND filed away your e-mail address for future reference, agencies are very busy places. Haven’t you ever accidentally deleted an e-mail you intended to save?

I tremble to mention this, but most of the agents of my acquaintance who’ve been in the game for a while have at least one horror story about reading a terrific piece of writing, jumping up to show it to someone else in the office — and when they’ve returned, not being able to find the mystery author’s contact information.

Don’t let them tell a story like this about you: Millicent is unlikely to scroll through 700 e-mails to track down even the most captivating author’s contact information. And even if an agent asks for an e-mailed submission, he will not necessarily read all of it on screen — once it’s printed out, it’s as far from the e-mail that sent it as if it had come by regular mail.

Besides, do you really want to begin your relationship with the agent of your dreams (or editor of your passions) by deviating from standard format, even virtually? As every successful civil disobedient knows, you are generally better off politely meeting expectations in matters of little moment, so you may save your deviations for the things that really matter.

As Flaubert famously advised writers, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Okay, so he wasn’t talking about title pages. But the same principle applies here: a title page — or lack thereof — does make a strong statement about the professionalism of the manuscript, regardless of context.

I wouldn’t advise sending the title page as a separate attachment, though: because viruses can be spread through attachments, folks in the industry tend not to open attachments they did not specifically ask to see. Instead, insert the title page at the beginning of your manuscript file.

Do I see a raised hand or twelve out there? “But Anne,” I hear some quick-on-the-draw readers cry, “won’t including it in the document make the title page look wrong? Won’t it automatically have a slug line, and won’t including it mess up my pagination?”

Good questions, all, but these outcomes are relatively easy to avoid in Word. To prevent a slug line’s appearing on the title page, insert the title page into the document, then go to the Format menu and select Document, then Layout. There should be an option there called “Different First Page.” If you select that, you can enter a different header and footer for the first page of the document, without disturbing the slug line you will want to appear on every other page.

Don’t include a slug line (AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/#) on the title page, or a page number. Just leave the header and footer blank.

To ensure that the first page of text (which will be page 2 of the document, right?) is numbered as page 1, you will need to designate the title page as 0. In Word, you do this by going to the View menu, selecting Header and Footer, then Page Number Format.

While I’m on the subject of formatting, and now that I know how to insert snapshots of pages into this blog, I think that next time, I shall take reader Dave’s excellent suggestion and show you what a page of text in standard format looks like. I have long been yearning to show how to format the first page of a chapter correctly.

And that’s the kind of longing I have when I’m NOT feverish; there’s no accounting for taste, eh? Speaking of which, my couch is calling me again, so I am signing off for today. Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: scanning your query letter for problems, part III, or, far from the madding zombie crowd

For the past few days, I have been urging you to take a long, hard look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered — as opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds swarm to post offices around the world in legions like creatures in zombie films, droning, “Represent my book! Represent my book!”

(That would be the undead they’re thinking of storming post offices, mind you, not the 1960s band.)

Yes, I know that it seems impossibly nit-picky to concentrate this hard upon a page of text that isn’t even in your manuscript. I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection. So print up your latest query letter, please, and let’s ask ourselves a few more probing questions before we pop that puppy in the mail.

Everybody comfortable? Good. Let’s promote the heck out of your book.

First, please read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course. I don’t care if you did it yesterday: do it again, because now you’re doing it in hard copy, where — long-time readers, chant it with me now — you’re significantly more likely to catch itty-bitty errors like missed periods.

Why aloud? Because it’s the best way to catch a left-out word or logic problem. Don’t feel bad if you find a few: believe me, every successful author has a story about the time that she realized only after a query or a manuscript was in the mailbox that it was missing a necessary pronoun or possessive. Or misspelled something really basic, like the book category.

And if you don’t read it aloud IN HARD COPY one final time between when you are happy with it on your computer screen and when you apply your soon-to-be-famous signature to it…well, all I can do is rend my garments and wonder where I went wrong in bringing you up.

All right, I’ll hop off the guilt wagon now and back onto the checklist road. (My mother’s favorite joke — Q: how many Mediterranean mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: None. “Don’t mind me; I’ll just sit here in the dark, while you do what you want…”)

(6) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

I am dwelling upon the first paragraph of the query letter because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents and their screeners every day based upon the first paragraph alone. This is the primary reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically state they prefer them over the paper version: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line or two of it.

This may seem draconian, but think about it from Millicent the screener’s perspective: if you had to get through 200 queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading the one in front of you if the first paragraph rambled? Or, heaven forefend, contained a typo or two?

Oh, yes, you SAY you would. But honestly, would you?

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Does it present the relevant information — why you are querying this particular agent, book category, title, etc. — in a professional, compelling manner?

Cut to the chase. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front — say, by neglecting to mention the book category — the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph.

All right, on to paragraph two:

(7) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I actually said what the book is ABOUT?

Frequently, authors get so carried away with conveying the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet, just like your hallway pitch.

Here’s a quick way to tell if your letter is hitting the mark: unearth that book keynote you came up with earlier in this series for a pitch, and compare it with your summary paragraph in the query. Do they read as though they are describing the same book?

If you’re worried about leaving out salient points, here’s an idea: include the synopsis in your query packet. While you have an agency screener’s attention, why not have a fuller explanation of the book ready to hand? That’s 3-5 entire, glorious pages to impress an agent with your sparkling wit, jaw-dropping plot, and/or utterly convincing argument.

Did I hear a few gasps out there? “But Anne,” I hear timorous non-zombie voices cry, “the agency’s listing in the standard agency guide and/or website does not mention sending a synopsis with my query. I thought I was supposed to send only EXACTLY what the agent requested?”

Well caught, oh anonymous voices: sending only what is requested is indeed the rule for SUBMISSIONS. And obviously, you should check what the particular agency wants to see. If an agency asks for something special in its querying guidelines, such as the first 5 pages of your manuscript (the agency that represents yours truly encourages writers to send a first chapter, but that’s rare), you should send precisely that.

However, most agencies do not spell out so clearly what they want to see stuffed in that query envelope: even the most cursory flip through the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents will produce many repetitions of the minimal phrase query with SASE that it becomes slightly hypnotic. In my experience, the Millicents at such agencies may not always read an included synopsis, but they don’t go around automatically rejecting queries that include them, either.

With one exception: if a synopsis is sent as an attachment with an e-mail query. Most agencies have policies against opening unrequested attachments, so if you include a synopsis with your e-query, add it in the body of the message, after the letter itself.

In a paper query, I think a good synopsis is usually worth including, provided that it is brief, well-written, and professional. (Don’t worry; I shall be going over how to write a killer synopsis next week.) Including it will free you to concentrate on the point of the query letter, which is to capture the reader’s attention, not to summarize the entire book.

Within the query letter itself, you honestly do have only have 3-5 sentences here to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are and how unusual your premise is, rather than trying to outline the plot.

Still tempted to spend the entire page recounting plot twists? Okay, let’s step into an agency screener’s shoes for a minute. Read these two summaries: seriously which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book?

Basil Q. Zink, a color-blind clarinetist who fills his hours away from his music stand with pinball and romance novels, has never fallen in love — until he meets Gisèle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel and a temper of fire. But what chance does a man who cannot reliably make his socks match have with a Paris-trained beauty? Ever since Gisèle was dumped by the world’s greatest bassoonist, she has never had a kind word for anyone in the woodwind section. Can Basil win the heart of his secret love without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?

Clear in your mind? Now here is entry #2:

BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows protagonist Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee can bring on a flashback. This circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights starting at little dots printed on paper.

Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, an antagonist who is exactly the type of Frisbee-tossing lunkhead Basil has spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses a problem for Basil: he has never been conducted by a woman before. This brings up his issues with his long-dead mother, Yvonne, who had an affair with little Basil’s first music teacher in a raucous backstage incident that sent music stands crashing to the ground. Basil’s father never got over the incident, and Basil…”

Okay, ersatz agency screener: how much longer would you keep reading? We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

Tomorrow, I shall delve a bit more into the mysteries of that summary paragraph. I’m going to get back to editing now. Don’t mind me; I’ll just sit here in the dark. Go have your fun. And keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: Dear John, please don’t send a Dear Agent letter

Miss me over the holiday weekend? Actually, I didn’t refrain from posting because I was doing any of the standard Labor Day activities — all of the ambient barbequing in my neighborhood seemed to have triggered a headache of truly epic proportions. I know people want their briquettes to light, but honestly, is THAT much lighter fluid necessary?

Before I succumbed to the billows of smoke from up the hill, I had been talking about the most common problems found in query letters. Today, I’m going to get back to that rather grim task, in preparation for launching into a series of questions designed to help you see your query letter as Millicent and the other screeners of the agency world might see it.

Because, you see, they read hundreds of the darned things per week: even if only 20 of them share the same basic mistake — and trust me, more of them will — the 21st query that carries even a shade of similarity is likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction so strong that even Dr. Pavlov would shake is head and say, “No kidding? Just because the letter was addressed to DEAR AGENT, instead of an individual?”

Oh, yes, Dr. Pavlov, there are few epistolary errors that engender a stronger — or quicker — negative response than a DEAR AGENT letter. As in one that begins:

Dear Agent,
I haven’t the vaguest idea who you are or what you represent, but since the big publishing houses don’t accept submissions from unagented authors, I come to you, hat in hand, to beg you to represent my fiction novel…

Why, when there is so much to resent in this (probably quite honest) little missive, would the salutation alone be enough to get this query rejected without reading farther? Well, to folks who work in agencies, such an opening means only one thing: the writer who sent it is sending an identical letter to every agent listed on the Internet or in one of the standard agency guides.

Willy-nilly, with no regard to who represents what and consequently who is likely to be interested in the book at hand.

Which means, they reason, that it is unlikely to the point of laughability that the book being proposed is going to fit the specific requirements and tastes of any of the agents currently domiciled at the agency. And, most will additionally conclude, the writer hasn’t bothered to learn much about how the publishing industry works.

Now, neither of these conclusions may actually be fair or accurate in the case of a particular book. And honestly, since most agency screeners are simply told to reject a DEAR AGENT letter automatically, the Millicents of the world probably seldom give much thought to it at all — this is such a notorious agents’ pet peeve that I was rather surprised to realize that I’d never done a post exclusively on it before.

This knee-jerk response does have some rather sound logic underlying it, however, so rather than just stating that it’s always a bad idea to open a query with the generic DEAR AGENT salutation (which it is, oh, it IS!), I’m going to spend a little time talking about why.

First, agencies receive a LOT of this kind of letter, so many, in fact, that there’s it has an industry nickname. It’s called — wait for it — a DEAR AGENT letter. (Hey, I didn’t say that it was a startlingly original nickname, only that it existed.)

There’s a very good reason that they see so many of ‘em: scores of aspiring writers, impatient to get a response, will query every agency in creation their first time out. If you’re going to be popping 300 queries into envelopes, just photocopying the same letter 300 times can start to seem much more efficient than adding an individual salutation for each. Much less time-consuming, they think, patting themselves on the back for being clever.

And then they’re surprised when they receive 300 rejections. Or, if they did not include SASEs (usually because they haven’t done their homework well enough to know about them — and if you are unsure how to handle them, why they’re necessary, or what SASE stands for, please see the SASE GUIDELINES category at right.)

This kind of generic letter has, alas, become even more widespread with the rise of the Internet and the increasing acceptability of e-mailed queries. (Which I do not recommend, incidentally; they’re easier to reject. For a discussion of why, please see the E-MAILING QUERIES category at right.) Often, such blanket queries do not include any saluation at all.

Trust me on this one: few things annoy your average agent more than receiving an e-mail that indicates that it was sent not only to her, but to the three or four agencies that fall closest to hers in the alphabet.

Either way, they tend to find it a bit insulting to be treated as interchangeable with every other agent on the planet. Also, it’s rare that an agent works alone; there are usually several agents working at any given agency, each with her own idea of a dream book.

Why is does this render a DEAR AGENT letter a worse idea than it might otherwise be? By not specifying which individual a query is targeting, the querier is implicitly asking the SCREENER to make the decision about which is the most appropriate in-house agent for the book being proposed.

If that last sentence didn’t make you giggle at least a little bit, consider Millicent the screener’s job for a moment: hours and hours of query letters, hundreds of them, as if she were Santa Claus, until she begins to curse the legendary efficiency of the US Postal Service for not losing, say, a couple of dozen letters a day.

Preferably, the couple of dozen that begin DEAR AGENT.

It’s not just that the marketing error repetitions (like a letter that begins… well, you get the picture) would get on her nerves after a while; it’s the fact that — long-time readers, chant it with me now — her job is to reject as many of them as possible.

Why? Well, let’s assume that she’s working at a big agency, one with many agents representing a couple of hundred clients. In a good year, they might sell 75 or 100 titles, but let’s assume that they are looking to expand their client list — not a foregone conclusion, incidentally. (The standard agency guides will indicate which are not open to new clients.) Millicent’s agency is, due to client attrition, changing personal interests among the agents, new trends in the book market, etc.

So here’s a question to ponder (and a great one to stand up and ask a panel of agents at a conference, by the way): with a successfully productive client list, how many new writers do you think the agency will be picking up this year?

The answer really depends upon the individual agent, as much as upon the agency; it could be as few as just a few, or as many as a couple of dozen. A lot of factors affect such decisions. Has a particular agent just been promoted from assistant, and is looking to build her own client list? Is another’s child just about to enter an expensive private school, and he’s eager to increase his commissions? Have clients been leaving or — this is often a lifetime relationship we’re talking about here — passing away recently?

Or, to mention some reasons that an agency might be less client-hungry, is one of the member agents just about to have a baby, and is looking at taking a few months off — and thus are the other in-house agents going to be handling her clients while she’s on leave? Has one of their clients just hit the bestseller lists, and is both bringing in scads of money and requiring additional attention? Did half of a particular agent’s client list just suddenly present him with new novels within the last two weeks?

All of these influential matters, you will note, are utterly beyond a querying writer’s control, and 99% of the time, beyond her knowledge as well. Given that level of uncertainty, it might seem like a good idea to let Millicent, who at least knows what’s going on behind the scenes at the agency, decide which of the agents on staff might be the most open to your book, right?

Wrong; it’s not how Millie sees it. What she sees are 800-1000 query letters per week, for perhaps 10 or 20 new client slots per year. And while she was probably an English major, her math skills are certainly up to figuring out that she is going to need to reject the overwhelming majority of those queries without seeing any of the associated books at all.

Which means — and it pains me to say it, but it’s true — that easily-spotted mistakes in the salutation or first paragraph are a positive godsend to her. She doesn’t even need to read the letter to reject it. Next!

Do I hear some outraged sputtering out there? “But Anne,” I some voices in the wilderness cry, “doesn’t such an attitude virtually guarantee that many wonderful books will be rejected, just because their writers don’t know the ropes of the industry? Isn’t Millicent worried that she’ll accidentally reject the next DA VINCI CODE?”

In a word, no, because the sheer volume of submissions is so great. When she is wearing her submission-screening hat, she sees so many technically perfect submissions that she doesn’t need to fret that she might be rejecting a brilliant novel because it is incorrectly formatted, or because line 3 on page 1 contains a cliché, or any of the other hundreds of reasons that manuscripts routinely get rejected on page 1, right?

By exactly the same logic, the agency just receives too many queries for her to worry about the one that got away. (For a sobering — and, I think, enlightening — look at just how picayune some of those reasons can be, take a gander at the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE category at right.)

In fact, the general assumption is that if a writer is talented enough, she’ll go off and learn the rules of submission and come back again. Which means that, essentially, Millicent will throw a DEAR AGENT letter back, regardless of the quality of the book bring proposed, on the same principle as a fisherman’s releasing a too-small trout: it’s not that they never want to see the book pitched again; they merely want to catch the writer again when s/he is older and wiser.

So it honestly does pay to do your homework and target a particular agent, rather than leaving the choice up to Millicent’s tender mercies.

Not to worry: after I finish going over how to weed out the most common query problems, I intend to spend a few days talking about how to find out who represents your kind of work, to maximize the probability that your queries will land on the right desks.

In the interim, let’s concentrate upon not being the fish that gets thrown back. Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: the query that jumps out of the pile, in a bad way

After my last post, was it my imagination, or did I hear those of you new to the querying process rolling on the floor and moaning? “My God,” the little voice in the back of my head that I choose to attribute to you cried, “this structure is the SIMPLIFIED form of the query letter? It’s as though I need to cram an entire 2-minute pitch onto a single page!”

No, no, it’s not like that: you need to cram an entire hallway pitch into a single page.

Does that make you feel any better?

I’m not going to lie to you: even using the limited structure I mentioned a few days ago, rather than essentially using the query letter as a 1-page synopsis (a popular choice that tends not to work well), it IS difficult to write a really good query letter.

Especially if you play fair: 1-inch margins, indented paragraphs, full address and salutation at the top of the letter, 12-point type.

They WILL notice if you shrink the type, by the way; when I was teaching in a university, I couldn’t believe how often students used to reduce the font to 95% or even 90% to make term papers come out within required limits. I used to wonder what they were thinking: grading a hundred pages at a time, how could I possibly not notice if Student A and C’s 12-point was one size, and Student B’s another?

Believe me, our old pall Millicent the agency screener shouts a similar question at the unheeding publishing gods on an hourly basis. Given how many queries she reads per week (and often at a single sitting), roughly how many words should be on a maximally-utilized single page is pretty much emblazoned upon Millicent’s brainpan.

As with a submission, bright white paper — 20-lb or better, please — tends to make the best impression, as does using the preferred typefaces of the industry in query letter and submission alike: Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New. It’s stylish to use the same typeface for the query letter, the synopsis, and the manuscript, to maximize how good they look together on an agent’s desk. Even if standardization is not your style, avoid flashy paper and typeface choices that might make your query stand out from the crowd.

In a bad way, that is. Yes, Virginia, printing your query letter on Day-Glo orange paper and stuffing it into a Copen blue envelope probably will make your letter acutely visible in the midst of a great big stack, but not in a way that it going to help you.

Why not? Well, this is an industry where standardization is regarded as a sign of professionalism. (Remember all of my yammering about the rigors of standard format for manuscripts? I was serious about that.) A query letter that does not conform to their expectations of what one should look like lands on Millicent’s desk with at least two strikes against it: one, it makes the querier look as if s/he had not done any research about how the industry works, and two, why would a good book have to resort to neon signs to catch an agent’s attention?

Don’t answer that last question; it’s rhetorical.

Yes, I know it’s silly to be judged so purely on presentation, but trust me on this one: 99% of the time, a query letter in Times New Roman printed on nice white paper will be taken more seriously than EXACTLY the same set of words typed in Helvetica on floppy copy paper. Or on even on classy off-white stationary.

Go figure. And wouldn’t you have given your pinkie toes to have known about this prejudice before the first time you queried?

I’m hearing those moans again. “But Anne,” they wail, “if I follow all of the rules, my query will look like everyone else’s. Doesn’t that put more pressure on me to pick precisely the right words in my 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? If you are new to this process, please take a few deep breaths before reading on. And if you’ve been querying for a while, you might want to engage in a few minutes of meditation upon subjects tranquil and soothing first, or at any rate have your blood pressure medication handy. Because:

You actually don’t have the entire page to catch their attention; on average, you have about five lines.

Yes, you read that correctly: most query letters are not even read to their ends by Millicent and her ilk. Even e-mail queries, which tend to be shorter.

Why? I hate to be the one to tell you this, but most queries disqualify themselves from serious consideration before the end of the opening paragraph.

Hey, I told you to sit down first. May I fetch you a glass of water? You’re looking kind of pale.

Let me walk you through some of the most common rejection triggers, so you may avoid them. The most common, as I mentioned a few days ago, is boasting.

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 include:

This is a terrific book!

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!

It’s a natural for Oprah!

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, Millicent will simply stop reading if a query letter opens this way, because to her, 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 Millicent 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; we’re going over a lot of depressing home truths today, aren’t we? Query screening is actually — wait for it — MORE knee-jerk than submission screening, for one very simple reason. Which is?

Give yourself a great big gold star if you said time.

The average agency receives 800+ queries per week (that’s not counting the New Year’s Resolution Rush, or the Post-Conference Flurries, when it’s higher), 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.

Which begs our recurring question: 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. But before I sign off for today, I’m going to ask you to engage in a little practical demonstration: find a clock with a second hand and watch it for that half-minute that Millicent devotes to the GOOD queries.

That may have seem cruel of me, and perhaps it is, but I assure you my intentions are pure: 30 seconds is longer than it might seem at first blush. It’s actually enough time to consider an idea; it’s not so short that it’s impossible to make a positive impression. It’s enough time, as those of you who have been pitching at conferences this summer already know, to give an elevator speech.

Coincidence? I think not. As I have been saying all summer — and in case you hadn’t noticed, this summer’s blogs have collectively been a crash course in marketing, to get you ready for the post-Labor Day querying season — whether your queries and pitches get taken seriously is not entirely a matter of luck, Millicent’s propensity to gulp her lattes before they cool aside. If you present yourself and your work professionally, you are quite a bit more likely to garner a positive response.

You can do this; I have faith in you. Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: the SASE and the politics of recycling

Yesterday, I started to answer a very logical question: why, in these days of growing environmental awareness, is the writer expected to send a SASE (that’s stamped, self-addressed envelope to the rest of the population) in anticipation of a rejected manuscript’s return?

As a writer, freelance editor, and writing teacher, I hear permutations of this question all the time. “I understand why I need to include a SASE for a query,” aspiring authors tell me, “but do I really need it for the submission? It’s not as though I’m going to be able to reuse the manuscript after it’s passed through the mail twice, anyway. Can’t I just ask them to recycle it instead?”

In a word, no. In several words, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!

Yesterday, I explained the history behind the SASE: part of its original purpose was not just to save agencies the cost of postage, but also to render submissions cheaper for the writer. It was also intended to preserve copyright by allowing the author ostensible control about whose grimy paws were on the manuscript when.

Writers tend to forget this in the cyber age, when huge chunks of writing can be transferred from one end of the planet to the other with the simple push of a button (yes, of course I know that the world is not as flat as that image implies. Don’t stop me now; I’m on a roll), but technically, in order to retain copyright over your own writing, you need to control where and when it is read by others. Writing a post on this blog, for instance, is under my control, since I dictate where people can view it; I could disable RSS feeds, if I wanted. (Oh, the power! The power!) If I sent the same posts out via e-mail, they could end up anywhere, forwarded far beyond my knowledge.

When you send uncopyrighted material off to an agency or publishing house — to a credible one, anyway — you and your readers there are both operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission. You are not, in effect, authorizing them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so.

When you send a SASE, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys an expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

As I believe I have mentioned before, this is a tradition-bound industry; it has historically been slow to change. No matter how good the logic against some of its long-held norms, this one did not change at all until there were some very tangible benefits on the agents’ end to altering it.

For example, the anthrax scare convinced some agencies to accept e-mailed queries and submissions. And the post 9/11 requirement to tote heavy packages to the post office prompted some agencies to start recycling rejected manuscripts, rather than having the lowest intern on the totem pole — the one who aspires to Millicent’s job someday — wheel a paper-loaded dolly up out of the building.

But practice, most agencies still adhere to the old norms. Don’t believe me? Thumb through any of the standard agency guides, and count how many agencies mention that they recycle.

Like so many other aspects of the querying and submission process, at one time, the use of the SASE carried greater benefits to the writer than it does now, but time has hardened courtesies into demands, and habits into traditions. Today, if you do not include a SASE with your submission, you are perceived to be thumbing your nose at the traditions of people you are trying to impress.

As satisfying as that may be, it’s not the best way to convince an agent of your Socratic intellect and lamb-like willingness to take direction.

So while my long-standing affection for writers, trees, and the printed pages both work to produce would LOVE to be able to say dispense with the SASE for the manuscript’s return in favor of a simple #10 envelope, it would not be in your best interest to fling away the old norms.

The only alternative that I have seen work in practice is to include a line in the cover letter, POLITELY asking the agency to recycle the manuscript if they decide not to offer representation and mentioning the business-sized SASE enclosed for their reply. Do be aware, however, that this strategy sometimes backfires with screeners trained to check first for a manuscript-sized SASE: it’s not unheard-of for the Millicents of the world to toss aside such a manuscript to be tossed aside without reading the cover letter.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules; I only comment upon them. Let’s all pray that when Millicent does engage in summary rejection, she flings that precious ream of paper into a recycling bin.

Knowing the likelihood of that happening, I feel as though I should go off and plant a tree now. Keep sending in those great questions, and keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: do they think writers are MADE of money?

Yesterday, I spent a very practical few pages of post talking about ways to save money when shipping requested materials to an agent or editor. We writers don’t talk about this very much amongst ourselves, but the fact is, the process of finding an agent can be pretty expensive.

How expensive, those of you still working up to the marketing stage ask? At minimum, we’re talking about postage, shipping, boxes, paper, ink cartridges, wear and tear on your computer, and a ton of your time that could be used for, well, anything else. Not to mention the even greater optional costs of attending conferences, entering contests, and hiring freelance editors like me to help pull your submission into tip-top shape.

It adds up, so I like to pass along money-saving tips where I can.

If you’re a US citizen and marketing a book, it’s also worth looking into the possibility of filing a Schedule C for your writing as a business, so you can deduct these expenses. Talk to a tax professional about it (I am not a tax professional, so I cannot legally give you advice on the subject), but do try to find one who is familiar with artists’ returns: ones who are not will almost invariably say that a writer must sell work in a given year to claim associated expenses, but that’s not necessarily true.

Yesterday, as part of my ongoing quest to save you a few sous, I brought up the case of Lysette, the writer who rushed out and overnighted her manuscript. I went into her possible reasons for doing this — rather than sending the book regular mail or the more affordable 2-3 day Priority Mail rate. Today, I want to talk a bit about the other primary motivator for jumping the gun: eagerness.

Few souls walking the planet are in a greater hurry than a writer who has just received a request for materials, especially if that request comes at the end of a long period of querying. Whew! the writer thinks, the hard part is over now: my premise has been recognized as a good one by an agent who handles this sort of material.

Now, naturally, everything is going to happen in a minute: reading, acceptance, book sale, chatting on Oprah. You know, the average trajectory for any garden-variety blockbuster. Who wouldn’t want to cut a week, or even a few days, out of tackling that bright future?

I sincerely hope that yours is the one in eight million submissions that experiences this particular trajectory — and that’s the probability in a good year for publishing — but writerly hopes to the contrary, a request for submission is the beginning of the game, not the end. The fact is, as small a percentage of queries receive a positive response (and it’s unusually under 5%), even fewer submissions pass the initial read test.

There’s a reason that I grill you on the details, you know. I want yours to be in that top percentile. Which is why I would rather see your resources and energy going toward perfecting the submission itself, rather than getting it there with a rapidity that would make Superman do a double-take.

Also, the writer’s speed in getting the submission to the agent will not make one scintilla of difference in how quickly a manuscript is read — or even the probability of its moldering on an agent’s desk for months. Certainly, whether the agent’s receiving the manuscript the next day or in the 2-3 days offered by the more reasonably priced Priority Mail will make no appreciable difference to response time.

Especially this time of year; most of the industry is on vacation from early August through Labor Day. Or around Christmastime, when the biz more or less shuts down.

This is true, incidentally, even when the agent has ASKED a writer to overnight a project. Consider the plight of poor Gilberto:

Submission scenario 2: Gilberto has just won a major category in a writing contest. During the very full pitching day that followed his win, five agents ask him to send submissions. Seeing that he was garnering a lot of interest, Glenda, the most enthusiastic of the agents, requests that he overnight the manuscript to her, so she can respond to it right away.

Being a savvy submitter, Gilberto says yes, but submits simultaneously to all six, rather than waiting to hear back from Glenda before he sends off his other submission. He writes REQUESTED MATERIALS — FIRST PLACE, CONTEST NAME on the outside of every submission and mentions the request in the first line of his cover letter, to minimize the possibility of his work being lost in amongst the many submissions these agencies receive.

Within three weeks, he’s heard back from all but one of them; puzzlingly, Glenda is the last to respond. And when she finally does, six weeks after he overnighted her the manuscript, it’s with form letter.

What did Gilberto do wrong? He said yes to an unreasonable request.

Why was it unreasonable? In essence, the situation was no different than if Glenda had asked him to leave the conference, jump in his car, drive three hours home to print up a copy of his manuscript for her, drive three hours back, and hand it to her.

In both cases, the agent would have been asking the writer to go to unnecessary effort and expense for no reason other than her convenience. As Glenda’s subsequent behavior showed, she had no more intention of reading Gilberto’s manuscript within the next couple of days than she did of reading it on the airplane home.

Okay, here is a pop quiz to see how much those of you who have been following the Book Marketing 101 series have learned: why did she ask him to overnight it at all?

Give yourself full marks if you said it was to get a jump on other interested agents. As I mentioned earlier in the series, agents tend to be competitive people who value book projects in direct proportion to how many other agents are interested in them? This is one way it manifests — and the primary reason that it is ALWAYS in a writer’s best interest to make simultaneous submissions and queries.

Pause and consider the ramifications of this attitude toward other agents for a moment. Let them ripple across your mind, like the concentric circles moving gently outward after you throw a stone into a limpid pool, rolling outward until… OH, MY GOD, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE AVERAGE QUERY-GENERATED SUBMISSION?


Explains quite a bit about why the agent who requested your first 50 pages doesn’t get back to you for two months, doesn’t it? While the average agent expects that the writer querying her will be simultaneously querying elsewhere, the converse is also true: she will assume, unless you tell her otherwise, that the packet you send her is the only submission currently under any agent’s eyes.

This is why it is ALWAYS a good idea to mention in your submission cover letter that other agents are reading it, if they are. No need to name names: just say that other agents have requested it, and are reading it even as she holds your pages in her hot little hand.

I heard that thought go through some of your minds: I would have to scold you if you lied about this, just to speed up the agent’s sense of urgency. Ooh, that would be too strategic, clever, and unscrupulous. Sneaky writer; no cookie.

Okay, here’s the extra credit question: in the scenario above, Glenda already knows that other agents are interested in Gilberto’s work; she is hoping to snap him up first. So why didn’t she read it right away?

Give up? Well, Glenda’s goal was to get the manuscript before the other agents made offers to Gilberto, not necessarily to make an offer before they did.

Is that a vast cloud of confusion I feel wafting from my readers’ general direction? Was that loud, guttural sound a collective “Wha–?”

It honestly does make sense, when you consider the competition amongst agents. Glenda is aware that she has not sufficiently charmed Gilberto to induce him to submit to her exclusively; since he won the contest, she also has a pretty good reason to believe he can write up a storm. So she definitely wants to read his pages, but she will not know whether she wants to sign him until she reads his writing.

And she’s met enough writers to be aware that it is distinctly possible that Gilberto’s response to his big win will be to spend the next eight months going over his manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, perfecting it before showing it to anyone at all. She would like to see it before he does that, if at all possible. To beat the Christmas rush, as it were.

Even if she doesn’t get an advance peek, Glenda is setting up a situation where Gilberto will automatically tell her if any other agent makes an offer. By asking him to go to the extraordinary effort and expense of overnighting the manuscript to her, she has, she hoped, conveyed her enthusiasm about the book sufficiently that he will regard her as a top prospect. Even if he gets an offer from another agent, he’s probably going to call or e-mail her to see if she’s still interested before he signs with anyone else.

If she gets such a call, Glenda’s path will be clear: if she hasn’t yet read his pages, she will ask for a few days to do so before he commits to the other agent. If she doesn’t, she will assume that there hasn’t been another offer. She can take her time and read the pages when she gets around to it.

What’s the rush, from her perspective?

From the agent’s POV, asking a writer to overnight a manuscript is a compliment, not a directive: it’s the agent’s way of saying she’s really, really interested, not that she is going to clear her schedule tomorrow night in order to read it. And even if so, the tantalization will only be greater if she has to live through another couple of days before cloistering herself to read it.

So what should Gilberto have done instead? The polite way to handle such a request is to say, “Wow, I’m flattered, but I’m booked up for the next few days. I can get it to you by the end of the week, though.”

And then he should have sat down, read it IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch any glaring mistakes, and Priority Mailed it a few days later.

Sound daring? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: in the industry, the party who wants a manuscript overnighted is generally the one who pays for it. After a publisher acquires your book, the house will be paying for you to ship your pages overnight if they need them that quickly, not you. So by asking the writer to pay the costs, the agent is actually stepping outside the norms of the biz.

More submission tips, and faux pas avoidance strategies, follow tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

P.S.: For those of you who are in the process of sending out packets: if you have follow-up questions on the subject, PLEASE post them here as comments, rather than e-mailing them to me directly. That way, everyone can benefit from the responses, and I can use my time more efficiently. I thank you; my agent thanks you; my editor thanks you; my kith and kin thank you.

Blurbology 101: the chick with the chinchillas

As I mentioned a few days ago, part of my goal in walking my readers through the agents and editors scheduled to attend this summer’s Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association conference is not only to provide information necessary to make an informed decision about whom to pick for pitching appointments, but also to introduce those of you new to the publishing game how to read a blurb. That way, this series is not only useful specifically for those of you planning on attending PNWA, but also as a learning experience to add yet another vital tool to your writers’ tool bag.

The industry definitely has its own language, so to outsiders, blurbs may appear to say something quite different than what they say to an insider. If you a very literal person (as writers tend to be), it helps to be aware of this. At the very least, being cognizant of the possibility of particular phrases meaning something other than what they appear to you to mean on first reading will substantially lessen the probability of your making the classic first-time conference attendee’s mistake: glancing at the brochure blurbs for a minute and a half, looking for key words associated with your genre, and ranking your preferences based upon that scrutiny alone.

To get the ball rolling, let’s look at the blurb posted on the PNWA site for the first agent on our alphabetical list, Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown, Ltd.:

“Ginger Clark has been a literary agent with Curtis Brown LTD since Fall 2005. She represents science fiction, fantasy, paranormal romance, paranormal chicklit, literary horror, and young adult and middle grade novels. Previously, she worked at Writers House for six years as an Assistant Literary Agent. Her first job in publishing was as an editorial assistant at Tor Books. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. She is the Secretary of the Contracts Committee of the AAR. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and four pet chinchillas.”

For those of you whose editorial fingertips immediately started twitching, longing to correct the typos, fair warning: agent and editor blurbs very frequently feature writing gaffes that would prevent a submission from getting picked up. They will routinely capitalize things that have no business being capitalized in English, as Ms. Clark has done here; they will omit necessary punctuation; they will misspell words.

And no one, but no one in the industry will think the worse of that agent for it. Even if she goes so far as, say, misspelling a genre name. Go figure.

I am bringing this up for a reason: aspiring writers often draw inferences about an agent or editor’s literacy from such errors, but that is a mistake. Since poor writing skill display is fairly universal in these blurbs — and no one in the industry expects anything different — it doesn’t make sense to draw any inference at all other than the one most likely to be true: they wrote the blurbs in 8 minutes at the end of a 12-hour work day and sent them in without spell-checking.

Fortunately for the future of English prose, we writers know better than to do something like THAT, right?

So, typos aside, what can we learn from this blurb? Well, the fact that she mentions how recently she switched from her last job would automatically lead someone versed in blurbology to wonder if she has much experience in selling in the areas she lists; the fact that she transferred from an agency known to favor very literary writing, even in its genre clients, to one more committed to genre on the whole would indicate at least some shifts in interests — which would necessarily mean having to develop new contacts.

You see, contrary to popular belief amongst writers, it’s not enough for a good agent to have a good book in hand that she wants to sell. She needs to be in a position to get that good book under the eyes of the right editor for it, and that can be difficult. The better-established an agent and agency is as sellers of your particular book category, the more likely it is that your book will be shown to an editor with a successful track record with such books — and the more likely the editor is to read it in a timely manner.

Thus, a writer new to the industry is usually better off seeking out either well-established individual agents with a long history of selling books like hers to editors (and thus has established her own contacts) or junior agents at well-known agencies where the AGENCY has a history in the genre. Or in literary fiction, as the case may be.

Ms. Clark, as her blurb tells us, is relatively new to her agency, which is quite well-established — so two thumbs up there. However, the fact of her recent transplantation would alert an experienced blurb-reader to budget a bit more time to do a background check on her than for someone more firmly ensconced at an agency.

Why? It’s no reflection upon her status as an agent; it’s pure logistics. It inherently takes longer to do research on an agent who has switched recently, because it requires looking up client lists, acquisition policies, sales, etc. for two agencies, rather than one. This is kind of a pain.

But it really is in your best interests to check for sales and clients in both venues. When an agent moves from one agency to another (which happens all the time), her clients won’t necessarily go with her, which can mean that in the first year or so after a move, she will appear in the industry databases to have twice as many clients as she actually has.

Why is this potentially important to you, you ask? Well, it means the list you find there might not actually be an accurate picture of what she is representing NOW.

As at any job, the new hire tends to have substantially less say over policy than incumbents who have been there awhile. As a result, a freshly-hired agent may well have less latitude in stretching the boundaries of what the agency represents.

I have no idea whether this is true of Ms. Clark, but it would be a terrific question for someone to ask at an agents’ forum, wouldn’t it?

However, there is an upside: such an agent is often more open to new writers as a result of the move: again, thumbs up. Because she may have lost clients in transit (a writer’s contract is generally with the agency, not the individual agent), a recently-transplanted agent is often hungrier for new clients than someone who has been settled in one place for a long time.

Okay, what else can the blurb tell us, other than that she might be partial to a protagonist who regularly fondles chinchillas? (And no, I have no idea why these blurbs so often include information about what part of New York agents and editors have chosen for residence. It’s not as though they expect us to appear on their Brooklyn doorsteps bearing streusel and cider, after all.)

Some very good things are listed here: she holds an official position within the AAR. That’s the Association of Authors’ Representatives, the fine folks who police the agenting biz internally. The fact that she cares enough about keeping the biz ethical speaks very well of Ms. Clark’s general attitude about agenting — and I, for one, applaud her for her community spirit.

One other thing she has told us: because she used to work at Tor, she should have KILLER connections there. If you have any aspirations whatsoever to write SF or fantasy, this should set your little heart all a-flutter, and send her right up to the top of your preference list.

It should also send you scurrying to see what she’s sold to Tor recently, so see if those connections have been doing her clients much good.

As I’ve said before, however, the best proof of an agent’s interests is what she’s sold within the last few years. Let’s run barefoot through her recent sales, to see what they can tell us about her preferences — and so you can rush to the nearest big bookstore, pull some of her clients’ work off the shelves, and try to get a sense of what kind of writing she likes, if she represents your kind of book.

Because she has moved so recently, I am going to separate her sales under the aegis of Curtis Brown from those at Writers House, to make it easier to see how (or if) her client list has changed. (These are all the sales the well-respected Publishers Marketplace database lists; there may be more, do ask her.) Also, please note: wherever possible, I group sales under the same book category headings used in the blurb, to try to clarify what is specifically meant by each category. (Since Ms. Clark bandied about some non-standard terminology in this blurb, this should be especially helpful.)

Here’s what I could find of her sales since she’s been with Curtis Brown:

Science fiction/fantasy: Jeri Smith Ready’s BAD COMPANY, “about a cadre of vampire DJs and the con artist trying to save their ‘lives'” (Pocket, in a 2-book deal, 2006); Tim Pratt’s BLOOD ENGINES, “the first book in an urban fantasy series featuring a sharp-tongued sorceress, chronicling her confrontation with a crazed fellow sorcerer intent on destroying San Francisco” (Bantam Spectra, in a 2-book deal, 2006); Jon Armstrong’s debut novel, GREY, “set in a future where every single move of the rich and famous is reported by the media and plastic surgery is as common and easy as getting a haircut” (isn’t that already true? It was sold to Night Shade Books, 2006).

YA: Patricia Wrede’s fantasy trilogy FRONTIER MAGIC, “set in an alternative version of the 1800s American Frontier where a 13th child comes to realize she doesn’t have to turn out unlucky” (Scholastic, in a $$$ 3-book deal, 2007).

Fascinating, no? It’s possible that she didn’t post all of her sales since on the standard industry databases, of course, but it is interesting that while the sales listed there coincide with what she reports as her current tastes, not all of what she lists as her current tastes are represented here.

This could mean one of two things: either this is an old blurb, one that reflects outdated professional preferences (unlikely, because the move was so recent, but certainly possible), or she is looking to broaden her areas of focus. If it’s the latter, writers in those other areas should rejoice: she is probably actively looking to recruit in those genres.

Let’s take a look at what she sold at Writers House, for contrast. Bear in mind that since she was an assistant there, not all of the projects she worked upon may list her as primary agent, so the databases may have missed a few:

SF/fantasy: Assistant editor at Locus magazine and nominee for the John W. Campbell Award Tim Pratt’s THE STRANGE ADVENTURES OF RANGERGIRL, “a dark fantasy about a young comic book artist whose characters start appearing in her real life — including the spirit of an old and powerful evil” (Bantam Spectra, 2004); Short story writer Eliot Fintushel’s debut novel BREAKFAST WITH THE ONES YOU LOVE, “incorporating elements of Jewish mysticism and gonzo science fiction, featuring the adventures of a young runaway and her new boyfriend as they — with the help of 10 elderly neighborhood men — attempt to bring about the re-opening of Eden” (Bantam Spectra, 2005);

YA: Elizabeth E. Wein’s THE MARK OF SOLOMON, “the fourth in her young adult King Arthur series set in medieval Ethiopia” (Viking Children’s, 2004); Alan Gratz’s debut novel SAMURAI SHORTSTOP, “about a boy in turn of the century Japan who incorporates bushido – the way of the warrior – into his baseball practices to prove to his father there is still room for samurai tradition in the new Japan” (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2004)

Middle grade: Candie Moonshower’s THE LEGEND OF ZOEY, “about a feisty, witty 13-year-old who travels back in time to encounter the biggest earthquake to ever hit Tennessee” (Delacorte Children’s, 2004)

Hmm. Not a lot of Tor, is there? But a whole lot of Bantam Spectra, which makes me wonder if some of her old Tor cronies moved over there. (Again, it might be a good question to ask.) In any case, Ms. Clark’s connections for SF/fantasy appear to be working for her beautifully; we should definitely be impressed by her penchant for brokering multi-book deals for her clientele.

On the down side, I haven’t been able to dig up any paranormal romance, paranormal chick lit, or horror sales at all. Again, she may have worked in these areas as an assistant, or sales may have slipped through the databases, but if I were planning to pitch one of these types of books, I would want to stand up and ask her at the agents’ forum what she has sold in these areas, or if these interests are new to her.

So I did a little more checking, and lo and behold, literary horror IS a new interest for her. (“Think Peter Straub/H.P. Lovecraft,” she says in one industry listing, “not splatterpunk.”).

Turns out, too, that she has only just started accepting e-mail queries (most agents still VASTLY prefer paper), but she will only respond to the ones she likes, she says. So if you query her electronically, don’t expect to see a rejection come flying back at you.

If all this has left you intrigued, I would suggest that you check out her guest blogger spot on Magical Musings. If you are interested in what her philosophies on agenting were when she was at Writers House, as a sort of compare-and-contrast exercise, I found a rather interesting interview with her, featuring a photo of her clutching something furry that I hope to God is one of her pet chinchillas.

Also, if you can’t make it to the PNWA conference, but want to fire some questions at her, she is scheduled for an Ask the Agent spot on Absolute Write on July 5th. (Thanks for the hot tip on that great site, Toddie.)

Whew — I wasn’t kidding when I said that doing the background research on these agents was time-consuming, was I? But isn’t it interesting how much information there is out there on an agent that isn’t covered in the blurb?

Again, I would encourage you not to take what I say here as Gospel: do your own research, and always, always take field trip to a bookstore to try to find work by clients of an agent you think you might like to represent you, to see if your writing style makes sense on her list. If nothing else, it will give you a great little icebreaker for when you bump into her in a hallway at PNWA and want to ask if she’ll hear your pitch: “You represent so-and-so, don’t you? I loved his/her/its last book.”

Trust me, there isn’t an agent in the world whose stony heart won’t soften just a little bit after an opening line like that. Agents work hard, but behind the scenes: they aren’t recognized enough for their work.

More agent profiles follow, of course — although, with this length of write-up, I may skip a day between postings, to rest my weary wrists. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Making it easy to help you, part VI: the other side of the etiquette equation, and a final exam

So, after all of this discussion about the ins and out of industry etiquette, what have we learned, other than to tread lightly and carry a stack of thank-you notes? That when one is entering a foreign culture with different customs — which, for most of us who aspire to publication, the publishing industry definitely is — it’s important not to assume that you know what is expected of you.

When in doubt, ask, and ask politely.

That being said, though, I think the reverse expectation — that writers will not only take the time to learn the norms of industry-acceptable behavior, but also that they will KNOW that they should learn them — is a tad unreasonable. Which naturally begs the question: why should it be left to articles at the front of agents’ guides, conference speakers, and writers on writing like me to explain what their expectations are? Wouldn’t it be easier on everybody in the long run if, say, the ten biggest agencies all agreed to post a list of expected behaviors for queriers?

Actually, some agencies do, but you sometimes need to look hard for it — which, again, presupposes that any given writer will know to look for it in the first place. The agency that represents me, for instance, has posted an excellent little essay on what a querying writer should do and should expect, but one has to pull up their submission guidelines to find it.

Just because some of the quirks of industry etiquette are a bit counter-intuitive, though, doesn’t mean that the standards themselves are arbitrary. Many of the expectations are deliberately distancing, a necessity born of having literally millions of aspiring writers simultaneously trying to flag down the pros’ attention.

Now, as my long-time readers already know, generally speaking, I don’t have tremendous sympathy for the vicissitudes to which agents and editors are subjected in the course of plying their craft. At this point in publishing history, for instance, surely everyone going into the agenting line is aware going in that he’s going to have to read thousands upon thousands of queries per year, and that many of them are going to sound very similar.

Ditto with encountering manuscripts that are not in standard format: since deviations bug them so much, I see no reason why EVERY agency should not have a page of its website devoted to the specifics of submission standards. (Ah, I can always dream, can’t I?)

But on the subject of the sometimes extremely fine line between being nice and being taken advantage of, I think that agents and editors often do have legitimate cause for resentment. As do established writers, writing teachers, and so forth. Because, really, it is a little hard when one can’t simply practice the politeness one’s mother drummed into one without giving the impression that one intends to make promoting the work of the total stranger in front of one one’s life’s mission.

(And that, by the way, is why no one but writers and professors at British universities like the continual formal use of one in sentences. Couldn’t resist tossing in that little editing tip, although I constantly violate it myself. Do as I say, not as I do, as the father of the 6-year-old said while juggling flaming bowling balls while riding upon a snarling tiger’s back.)

True, it wouldn’t kill most of these people to be nicer to aspiring writers, but pretty much everyone in the industry has at least a second-hand story about a small act of kindness that went terribly awry. Most of us — and yes, I include myself here, as I get masses of requests for unpaid help — have had negative first-hand experiences.

Doubt this? Get a couple of drinks into any group of presenters at a major conference, and out will pour stories about how people they barely knew blandly expected mountains to be moved on their behalf — and, when said mountains were moved, were not even grateful.

“Ungrateful?” I hear some of you gasp. “I would give three of my toes for a genuine publishing opportunity! How dare they assume that I would be ungrateful, just because others were?”

Well, perhaps it is unfair, but they do it for precisely the reasons we’ve seen cropping up in many of this series’ examples: because granting one favor so often raises the expectation of further favors; because favors that require effort on the helper’s part are received without gratitude; because sometimes, the person we choose to help acts badly, making us look bad. Remember, it only takes one ungrateful, pushy person, or even one a well-meaning person conveying an avalanche of expectation, to provide a substantial disincentive to future kindness.

To demonstrate why, and to round out this series, I’m going to subject you to two more examples — but this time, I will tell the stories from the point of view of the imposed-upon, rather than the imposer. Keep a weather eye on the aspiring writers’ intentions here: from the other side, were they clear and honest, or did the pro have good reason to back off?

Flipped perspective scenario 1: Ursula has been working the conference and intensive seminar circuit to the advantage of her career for quite some time now. She has learned a great deal, gotten agents’ and editors’ feedback on her writing and incorporated it judiciously, and has made friends with a number of good writers, aspiring and otherwise.

One of these conference friends, Vickie (I give up on trying to come up with another U name), enjoys an excellent relationship with her agent, William. Since Vickie and Ursula write for the same market, Vickie has historically been glad to give Ursula marketing advice every now and again.

A few years into their friendship, Ursula sends Vickie an e-mail: does Vickie think that William would be a good fit for the book Ursula had just completed?

Since Vickie has been around the block a few times, she can read the subtext here: Ursula is gearing up to ask for a referral. Although she had not read any of the book in question, she had read some of Ursula’s first book; she knows that Ursula can write. From what Ursula had said about the book, William might be interested.

So, after giving the matter a little thought, Vickie says, “Yes, I think you should query him — and, if you like, you may say I sent you.”

Feeling a warm glow from having done a good turn for a deserving writer, Vickie goes back to work, assuming that Ursula is more than capable of following through on her own. A few weeks later, Ursula e-mails another request, however: now that she has sent off the query, would Vickie mind putting in a good word with William directly, to confirm the recommendation?

Well, this is unusual, but Vickie’s a good soul, and she honestly does want to see Ursula succeed. Contacting William about a writer he’s never met is putting herself on the line more than she intended, a significantly stronger recommendation, but again, she thinks about it, and decides she’s willing to do it. After writing William a glowing e-mail about what a pro Ursula is, and how much she deserves a break, she once again goes back to work.

The next day, she receives another e-mail from Ursula: had she put in the good word yet? A little surprised, Vickie writes back that she has — and once again goes back to work on her novel.

Upon turning on her computer the following morning, Vickie notices with some trepidation that there’s yet another e-mail from Ursula.

This one is overjoyed: on the strength of Vickie’s recommendation, Ursula decided to e-mail William directly, as a follow-up to her query letter. And William had graciously e-mailed back right away, requesting the manuscript!

Although she is thrilled for Ursula, something about this exchange nags at Vickie. Why did Ursula e-mail William at all, when she had already mailed a query? Isn’t she afraid of bugging him? But she shrugs it off, congratulates Ursula, and goes back to work.

The next day, Vickie receives another e-mail from Ursula, this time angry. “All I did was call William to tell him I wouldn’t be able to send my manuscript for a few days — I want to revise it a bit more first — and boy, was he cold! Do you think he’s turned off the project?”

Vickie has been in the biz long enough to be able to picture William’s probable reaction to an unsolicited phone call from an aspiring writer. Now beginning to regret that she made the recommendation at all, she gently explains to Ursula that calling probably hadn’t been a good idea.

The next day, Ursula e-mails again; Vickie is beginning to dread turning on her computer. “It’s okay,” Ursula writes, “William’s not mad. After I got your e-mail, I called back and apologized.”

By now, Vickie wants to crawl into a hole. It had never occurred to her to make sure that Ursula was familiar with the rules of industry etiquette before recommending her; how is she ever going to be able to recommend anyone to William again? Now, instead of getting back to work on her next novel, she spends hours on end composing letters of apology to him, then tearing them up.

A week goes by: Ursula again. “Why haven’t I heard back from William?” she writes. “Can you give him a call and find out?”

Vickie does not reply.

The next day, the request is repeated, and the day after that. The e-mails begin to become angry: does Vickie want to help her or not?

And so it goes, day after day, week after week, until William rejects the manuscript: every second, it seems, Ursula is e-mailing her to ask a further favor — or letting her know that she has called or e-mailed William again herself, and what he said. Vickie feels positively haunted, and downright relieved when Ursula angrily sends a final e-mail: “I don’t know why you said he’d be interested. He obviously wasn’t.”

If you don’t know what Ursula did wrong here, I can only urge you to go back and re-read this series for tips on how NOT to interact with an agent or established writer. But wasn’t it interesting to see how stressful and humiliating this set of events was for Vickie? And, by extension, for William?

This, my friends, is why the industry clings to its rather old-fashioned etiquette — and why agents tend to be so quick to reject aspiring writers who bend its strictures just a little. Everyone in publishing knows someone like Vickie or William — or has BEEN someone like Vickie or William.

Realizing this fact is extremely valuable to writers new to the publishing world. Agents, editors, and established writers don’t keep aspiring writers at arm’s length just for the fun of it, and this attitude is most assuredly not personally aimed at any individual writer. They’re trying to protect themselves from imposition, because although 99,993 of the writers who approach any of them in any given year may be perfectly respectful, the other 7 were lulus, time-consuming and rude.

Your job, then, is to demonstrate from minute one that you’re not one of those 7.

Okay, I’m running quite long here, but I can’t resist finishing up the series and the alphabet with one more tale. This is your final exam: what did our exemplar do wrong, and at what point would you have pulled the plug had you been the pro?

Flipped perspective scenario 2: Xerxes is a writer ostensibly on the verge of making it big: his agent, Yarrow, parlayed those two novels that had been sitting in his bottom drawer through eight years of agent-searching into a three-book deal at a major house. Yet two years after that contract was signed, exhausted from an extensive round of readings and stressed from lower-than-expected sales on the first book, he struggles to complete the third, interrupting his work frequently to check his first’s current rank on Amazon.

At a family get-together, his godmother pulls him aside. She points out another guest, someone he’s never seen before, as Zebulon, an aspiring writer, someone she met at the gym. As a favor to her, would Xerxes mind giving him a few pointers on how to land an agent?

Admit it — you’re already cringing, aren’t you? Remember that feeling the next time you attend a book reading or conference — that’s precisely how established writers start to feel.

However much he may resent being approached through his nearest and dearest, Xerxes is aware that he needs to be careful about alienating potential book buyers. Besides, he is fond of his godmother. So he walks over and introduces himself to Zebulon.

Rather to his surprise, Zebulon turns out not to be a vampire intent upon sucking his advice wells dry, but a fairly charming person; even more surprising, it turns out he is quite a good writer, as he learns when he looks up Zebulon’s blog. In fact, Zebulon seems to have quite a following, writing exactly the type of story that brought Xerxes to national attention as a short story writer years before. So much so that Xerxes’ agent would be an almost miraculously perfect match for Zebulon’s work.

Again — note that twinge of compunction, for future reference.

Contrary to expectation, Zebulon does not ask Xerxes to introduce him to his agent, Yarrow; he does not even seem to understand why he needs an agent at all. Explaining makes Xerxes feel magnanimous, big — all the more so as Zebulon keeps saying how grateful he is for the information. Touchingly, Zebulon does not even seem to have any idea of what makes one agent a better fit than another.

Determined to save this babe in the woods from what he knows from long, hard personal experience can be an ego-destroying journey of years, Xerxes does something for Zebulon for which millions of aspiring writers would cheerfully kill: he picks up the phone and talks Yarrow into agreeing to have a 15-minute conversation with Zebulon, to allow his new friend to pitch his work over the phone. It’s not an easy sell.

Yet when Zebulon calls Xerxes after this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he seems disappointed. “Your agent wouldn’t even visit my blog,” he tells Xerxes, incensed. “She said she could not commit to anything until after she read my manuscript.”

“Yes?” Xerxes asks, waiting expectantly to learn why Zebulon is upset.

It was not until three months later, when Zebulon calls to say he was on his way over to Xerxes’ house with his now multiply-revised manuscript, begging aid for the fourth time this week, although Zebulon by his own admission had the flu and a fever of over 100 degrees, that it occurs to Xerxes that he might be being imposed upon.

Or, rather, to be more precise, the realization occurs while he is explaining to Zebulon that no matter how badly he wanted to get a book published, he should not give the flu to everyone he knew — especially now that Xerxes is right on top of his own book deadline.

“But I want to get this out the door by Monday,” Zebulon keeps protesting. “And you told your agent I was going to send it.”

Xerxes closes his bloodshot eyes, willing the entire situation to disappear. He had gone out on a limb with Yarrow on behalf of a writer he did not know particularly well at the time, so now Xerxes’ credibility is tied up with how professionally Zebulon meets his stated deadlines — as well as the quality of the manuscript, since he had insisted that Yarrow could not live another minute without reading this guy’s work. Essentially, by having promoted Zebulon so enthusiastically, he has condemned himself to be unpaid editor and writing coach, all with no conceivable future benefit to himself, other than the prospect of pleasing his godmother.

And that, my friends, why so many agented writers will automatically run the other way when approached by a perfectly polite writer with a request for a reference. Most of us have been burned at least once.

I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident, but honestly, I’ve heard versions of the same story from practically every established writer, writing teacher, and freelance editor that I know, and even a few agents as well. Once someone like Zebulon gets it into his head that someone like Xerxes can help him, all boundaries seem to vanish: the helper goes from feeling generous to feeling used.

How used? Well, enough for me to stray from my series-long commitment to presenting only composite cases to fill you in on what ultimately happened with my own personal Zebulon: my agent did sign him (or was it her?), and within a matter of a couple of weeks, Zebulon had virtually dropped out of my life. Turned out he (or was it she?) had known all along precisely who my agent was; now, after I got him what he wanted, I degenerated into just another unpaid social debt. A few short months later, when Zebulon’s first book sold, I found out from — you guessed it, my godmother.

Once something like that happens to you, you don’t forget it easily. So believe me when I say: if a sweet person like me is still mildly annoyed a year after an event like mine, the average agent is still livid over his.

So remember to be on your best behavior when walking into the publishing world: you have other writers’ faux pas to rise above. That’s a tough row to hoe, so keep up the good work, everybody.

Respect the cheese plate!

Super Reader Toddie wrote in the other day with an excellent question:

“Anne – Do you have any words of wisdom/nice template for the follow-up letter/email itself, when we get the temerity to send it? I waffle as to how much to include in order to stay on the good side of the agent vs. being seen as a nasty pest/provoking an automatic rejection.”

Toddie, thanks for asking this as a follow-up to my dictum on follow-ups: until an agency has had your submission — that’s requested manuscript pages, people, not a query letter — for EITHER 8 weeks (not including the 3-week industry summer vacation) OR half again as long as the agent told you to expect (if the agent told you 6 weeks, give it 9 before you follow up), you may legitimately inquire about it without being a pest. Indeed, you SHOULD inquire about it then, because if you wait much longer, the chances of being able to find it again if it is lost are slim.

Note that I said SUBMISSION, and not query letter. If you haven’t heard back on a query letter in 8 weeks AND you sent a SASE with it, just assume that it was lost. Send another, and don’t bother to mention that you’ve queried before. At worst, you’ll get a peevish little note from a screener, saying he already remembers it, but most of the time, it will simply be read as a fresh query. Screeners’ memories are not that good, and often the bodies screening queries in the summer are not the same ones screening them at the same agency in the winter.

But okay, let’s say that you have been waiting for 8 weeks to hear back on requested materials. Or an agency sent you back your manuscript with no letter attached, or you received your SASE with neither letter nor manuscript in it, or you received a rejection letter clearly intended for someone else’s manuscript (and yes, I’ve seen all of these happen. Agencies move a LOT of paper in any given week). Any of these warrants a follow-up note — and if you received someone else’s materials, you should send them back to the agency right away along with that note, because some poor writer is waiting for those.

Do send a note or an e-mail, rather than calling. Why? Well, if any of the outcomes I have mentioned above is true, you’re going to be letting the agent know that someone at the agency has fallen down on the job. At best, the agent will be annoyed at her screener and apologetic toward you; at worst, the agent will resent the implication that she should be working faster. And in every case, yours will be the ring of the phone that does not herald an offer from a publisher for one of her clients’ books.

So tell me: do you really want to be on the initiating end of that call?

Generally speaking, it’s not in your best interest to call anyone in the industry with whom you do not already have a relationship — and no, a nice conversation at a conference does NOT count, by publishing world standards. This is a fairly formal industry, still run by the written word. So it’s best to be as polite as possible — adhere to the Cheese Plate Rule.

What? Don’t tell me that no one ever explained the etiquette of cheese consumption to you. Really? No one but me was raised regretting the Bourbons? What is the world coming to?

Okay, then, I’ll explain: after the dessert course, the hostess presents the guests with an array of cheeses and small knives, right, so that each guest may serve herself? But each cheese is a different shape – an isosceles triangle of Brie, perhaps, next to a rectangle of triple crème, a square of sage Derby, and a wee round of Stilton — so how do you know how to cut off your individual slice?

By preserving the integrity of the cheese: you cut off your piece so as to allow the cheese from which you slice it to remain essentially the same shape as before you began. Thus, you would cut along one long leg of the triangle for the Brie, so the original remains a triangle, across the short way for the triple crème, a shave along the top of the Derby, a pie slice off the Stilton, etc. That way, when the other diners return for seconds, the cheeses will resemble their original shapes closely enough that each eager eater can hone in instantly upon her favorite from round one.

Curious how I’m going to tie this to agents, aren’t you?

Just as one should preserve the integrity of the cheese by conforming to its original shape, a polite writer should preserve the integrity of the budding relationship with an agent by responding via the medium through which the agent requested the materials. If you queried by regular mail, and you received a mailed request to send more materials, sending a follow-up via regular mail preserves the integrity of the relationship, labeling you as polite and considerate: you are letting the agent determine the extent of your intimacy.

In other words, just because you have an agent’s phone number or e-mail address doesn’t mean you should necessarily use it. Respect the cheese plate!

However, if you have already exchanged e-mail with an agent, it is entirely appropriate to follow up via e-mail. If the agent called you personally to ask to see the rest of the manuscript after you’d submitted the first 50 pages, you could legitimately phone – although personally, I would probably e-mail in this instance.

And no, Virginia, if you met the agent at a conference, you do not have to wait until next year’s conference to follow up (although I have known ultra-polite writers who have done so, actually, much to the surprise of the agents). Preserving the integrity of the cheese in this situation would require following up in the same manner as you submitted your materials: either by regular mail or by e-mail.

You’ll never look at cheese the same way again, I assure you.

So, back to Toddie’s question: what should you say? Well, I’m a big fan of allowing people who have messed up an easy means of saving face, so I would advise setting up a way that the agent can do what you want without having to accept any blame whatsoever for the delay. And heck, a little flattery never hurts, either. (Hey, these are touchy people.) So if an agent has had a submission for 8 weeks, I might send a letter that said:

“Dear Mr. X,
Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of my manuscript, THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. Since eight weeks have passed since I sent it, I am beginning to fear that perhaps it got lost in the mail. Here are the pages you requested again, with another SASE. If you would not mind dropping the enclosed stamped, self-addressed postcard in the mail so that I know that this copy did indeed arrive intact, I would appreciate it.”

And I would send exactly the same pages again. Ditto if I received an empty SASE or somebody else’s manuscript — because, you see, with that many submissions, it actually is possible that the submission did get lost. In the more likely case that it did not, this letter allows the agency to pretend that it did.

And the submission is read by a contrite screener, rather than a defensive one. Everyone wins!

You will notice, I hope, that I have been speaking exclusively of agency submissions here, rather than of editors. If you have submitted to a small press, the method above is fine — although for your own protection, you should always send manuscripts to a press that accepts direct submissions from authors via a form of mail with a return receipt.

However, if you met a kind editor from a major house at a conference who asked to see your pages and have not heard back, no amount of cheese-paring is going to enable you to make the follow-up request sound polite. Because, you see, all of the major houses have policies that preclude their reviewing unagented submissions — which means that in asking to see your work, the editor was doing you a personal favor, by definition. So, technically, he doesn’t have an obligation to get back to you, alas.

Just let it go.

I should mention, for the sake of completeness, that the organizers of this year’s PNWA conference swore up and down that every single editor who attended was in fact empowered to pick up new authors directly. If that is true, and an editor you met there solicited your material, feel free to follow up. However, as none of the major publishing houses have changed their stated policies on the subject in recent months, I tend to doubt that such a follow-up would receive much of a response.

What you should NOT do, under any circumstances, with either an editor or an agent who has already sent back your work, is ask for insight on why. Any reasonably busy person in the industry simply reads too many manuscripts to remember individual ones a week or two after the fact, unfortunately, so this is universally considered an unreasonable request.

You are right to tread with care, Toddie: this is a notoriously easily-offended industry. But if you both follow the Cheese Plate Rule and make it as easy as humanly possible for the recipient of your follow-up request to read your work immediately, you are far more likely to be happy with the ultimate outcome.

Keep up the good work!

What if they asked you to e-mail it?

Before I begin today’s post: yes, there is a problem with the website at the moment; for reasons that I am tempted to attribute to the sense of humor of a vengeful minor deity, the usual goodies at the right-hand side of the screen aren’t showing up at the moment. So while the links, categories of post, my bio, etc. are still there, technically, it’s not clear how a reader would access them.

Please be patient — we are scrambling around behind the scenes, trying to fix the problem. And to those of you who got a little panicky when my archives disappeared before: rest assured, they are not gone forever. Lots o’ backups.

On to today’s topic. I’ve received quite a few questions privately from writers who have had agents and editors respond to their queries or pitches with requests for e-mailed submissions, rather than paper copies. I have to say, in general, I do not think complying with this request is a good idea from the writer’s point of view, for a variety of reasons.

The first, and the most practical, is that it is MUCH easier to reject someone electronically: one push of a button, and the submission is deleted. This one reason that e-mailed queries are usually answered so quickly: the moment the agent’s eyes fall on something she dislikes, a few simple keystrokes guarantee that query is gone from her life forever.

The same principle, unfortunately, applies to e-mailed submissions.

The second reason — less of an issue with a well-established agency than a new one, but one still worth considering — is the copyright issue. Remember back on the 9th, when I was filling you in on the logic behind the SASE, how I explained that it is vital for a writer to keep control over where and how her work is available to be read? Well, with ANY e-mailed attachment (or any e-mail, for that matter), you have absolutely NO way of controlling, or even knowing, where your work will end up.

While it’s unlikely that the chapter you e-mail to an agent will end up on a printing press in Belize or Outer Mongolia, it’s not entirely unprecedented for entire e-mailed manuscripts to wander to some fairly surprising places. Yes, the same thing COULD conceivably happen with a hard copy, too, but it would require more effort on the sender’s part.

Again, part of the charm of electronic communication is its speed.

Also, it’s been my experience that people in the publishing industry like to pretend that it’s normal and sensible to place an entire book into a single Word document, as though that did not render the manuscript both infinitely harder to edit and significantly more likely to have technical problems. If a document is difficult to open, or there are computer incompatibility problems (especially likely if you are a Mac user or are running an operating system launched within this decade: I tremble to tell you how many agencies and publishing houses are still running Windows 98 on ten-year-old PCs), I can tell you with absolute assurance: YOU will be blamed.

Do you honestly want to begin your relationship with an agent as the writer whose attachment wouldn’t open? (Yes, I know; it’s unfair, but remember, it’s not as though the publishing world tends to employ in-house computer experts. A surprisingly high percentage of agents and editors have significant love-hate issues with their computers. Don’t stick your thumb in that sore spot.)

Then, too, whenever you send something as an attachment, it is too tempting not to proof it in hard copy before you send it, which can be disastrous. Admit it — you probably have in the past tried to edit e-mailed documents right on screen, when you were in a hurry. An odd illusion most of us have, that reading on screen is faster: actually, the typical reader who is concentrating on content reads 25% MORE SLOWLY on screen than on paper. You’re making your proofing job harder — and less efficient — by doing it this way.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: proof your work in HARD COPY before you send it to ANY agent or editor.

Because it is empirically harder to read on a screen, 79% of on-screen readers scan the page, instead of reading word-for-word — which can have serious implications for your submission over and above proofreading. Ideally, you would like your dream agent to spend MORE time than average reading your sentences, not less, right?

The implication, of course, when an agent or editor asks a writer to e-mail a submission, is that it will be read faster than the same submission sent via regular mail. In my experience, this is usually not true; the submission merely goes into an electronic backlog, rather than a stack of papers. Or it gets forwarded to an assistant, to languish in HER backlog.

And realistically, now many people do you know who would read a 300-page book on screen? If they like the first few pages, they are going to print it out, anyway.

So what would I advise you do if an agent or editor asks you to e-mail your work? Personally, I will not e-mail any writing I intend to sell to anyone with whom I do not have a contractual relationship: agent, editor, editing client. I prefer to have an iron-clad guarantee that my writing is not going to go winging out into the world unbeknownst to me. In cases where there isn’t a pre-existing contractual relationship, I just say that I’m not comfortable sending the material electronically, but assure them it will be in the mail that day.

I have never yet had a soul object to this.

I know that a lot of aspiring writers are too nervous about alienating their potential agents to put their wee feet down on anything major. They want to make sure that they follow the agent or editor’s directions to the letter. If they’re asked for an attachment, they’re going to send an attachment, by gum.

If you fall into that careful category, I have a couple of suggestions. First, are you POSITIVE that the agent or editor DID ask you to e-mail the submission? After all, attachments are how viruses are typically spread. Or did you just make that assumption because the agent or editor responded by e-mail to your query?

Don’t laugh — it is very, very common for writers to send an e-mailed query, then mistake a “fine, send me the first 50 pages” for a direct order to e-mail those pages. However, unless the publishing professional asked SPECIFICALLY that you send your submission as an attachment, feel free to send your pages via regular mail. No excuses necessary.

Second, publishing is a very courtesy-based industry. Generally speaking, most agents and editors will respond well to a prompt, polite return e-mail where the writer explains that she would prefer to send the submission via regular mail. In most cases, they will not care one way or the other, but they will appreciate your consideration.

If the very idea of being that assertive shocks you, close your eyes for a moment and picture the agent or editor who has asked you for your submission. In your mental image, what is that person doing? Scanning the other 700 queries he received this week? Reading over the 20 other requested manuscripts already on his desk? Haggling on the phone, trying to sell a book for an already-signed client? Or is he drumming his fingertips on his barren desktop, muttering, “I asked for Susie Q’s first chapter a week ago. WHERE IS IT?”

Hint: if you said the latter, you may be worrying too much about offending this person.

Agents and editors are really, really busy people. Realistically, yours is almost certainly not the only manuscript any given editor requested at any given conference; yours is definitely not the only query that prompted the agency to ask for pages on the day yours made that agent smile. They receive, at minimum, dozens of packets of requested materials per week.

So what if yours takes an extra few days to get to them? Well, let’s just say that they’re not going to be wandering listlessly around their offices, waiting for your manuscript to show up. They will be keeping occupied, I assure you.

If, even knowing all this, you still find that you are not comfortable saying that you prefer to send your submission via regular mail, consider this: there is an excuse for sending it in hard copy instead that literally no one will question. Particularly someone who is not too computer-savvy.

And what are these magic words? “I’m sorry — my server has been acting funny lately. It’s been mangling attachments. Since I do not want you to have to hassle with it, I am going to send you the chapters you requested by regular mail.”

Simple, clean, unanswerable. And it works every bit as well as a response to an initial request for the first five pages as it does as to send a hard copy of the entire manuscript to an agent who has already seen the first chapter as an attachment.

Piece o’ proverbial cake. Keep up the good work!