Query: Editors Respond Far Better to Positive

December 11, 2013
beagle-smile

Yes, Gertrude, beagles smile

Nabbed from a query letter:

“I self published a book last year on Amazon to great acclaim, but I realized it’s best to leave publishing to the professionals.”

This isn’t a positive statement, and doesn’t make me excited about asking for pages. Rather, this infers that for whatever reason, the author self-pubbed and didn’t do well promoting it – checking Amazon bore this out. So I have to ask myself whether the author would be equally unsuccessful in promoting a book with us. I understand the uphill battle of the self-pubbed author and that promotion is much more difficult, but I’ve seen plenty self-pubbed authors kick ass and take names. They’re an asset.

Whether it’s a fair assessment or not, I see the author as a liability. It sucks to have to make snap judgements, but publishers have no choice but to weigh the pluses and minuses of an author’s platform because it’s a vital element to publishing nonfiction.

The take away here is that if you don’t have anything positive to say, then don’t mention it. Instead, focus on your book, what it’s about, why it rocks, and why readers will clamor to buy it. It’s a better idea to play up your platform than divulge how poorly your self-pubbed book did. Keep it positive because that’s far more infectious.

And when you’re talking about your book, don’t forget to include the most important elements of your story:

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • How did he/she come to this story?
  • What does s/he want?
  • What does s/he discover?
  • What choices/decisions/changes does s/he encounter?
  • What terrible thing will happen/ would have happened if s/he chooses (chose) A; what terrible thing will happen/would have happened if s/he doesn’t/didn’t?

Now go forth and be brilliant!


Query Letter: There’s Disagreeing and There’s Being Unwise

July 22, 2013

A recent email responding to my rejection:

Thank you for your comment regarding my story, but I have to disagree.  I don’t think my book lacks a plot or specific message.  Please let me know if I can rewrite my query and send it to you. You’ll find that if you read my work, that your conclusions are all wrong.

Um. Here’s the thing; I base my decision to ask for pages on the strength of your query letter. If your query letter lacks pertinent information, then I’ll normally say something so you may consider revising your query letter. I don’t offer critique in order to open a dialog or entertain a difference of opinion, so it does you little good to disagree with me.

It could be that your story rocks the Earth and Moon, and I’d be a simpleton not to immediately sign you. But unless you communicate that fabulosity in your query letter, I’ll be none the wiser. I understand author frustration and the desire to lash out, but rather than blaming me for the fact that you didn’t do your job in your query letter, try standing outside yourself and viewing your query letter objectively. Remember that I didn’t have the advantage of sitting next to you while you wrote your story, so I’m literally blind.

The Art of Objectivity

When authors fall into this trap of “What the heck, Pricey, why don’t you love my query?” it’s usually because they’re too close to their stories. Objectivity allows you to look at your query letter with fresh eyes and answer those pesky questions:

  • Is there a clear intro to my main characters?
  • What situation have they gotten themselves into?
  • What choices are they facing?
  • What do they stand to lose if they don’t take action?

Being too close can get you into trouble. You react defensively rather than taking a step back and allowing your cooler self to take control. This is when you publicly lash out at a bad review, or invite editors to make merry with barnyard animals if they reject you.

Of course there are times when authors have been unfairly rejected, and the editor was simply a cranky pants. But so what? You can’t argue your way back into their inbox, so why bother? Best line of defense is to avoid being like the author above.

Have there been times when you really wanted to bite back? What would you have said, and would it have been right?


No Tree Will Bloom Before Its Time

May 3, 2013

flowering tree

There are these really cool trees on the grounds where I live, trees my SoCal self isn’t used to seeing. When I first arrived to Pittsburgh, the trees were in the process of doing their seasonal striptease, so I didn’t appreciate them until now. Ah, Spring.

Their naked little trunks sat through winter, creating narrow shelves of snow on their branches. Then the snow disappeared, and those naked little trees just sat there, still trying to wake up. Then a few weeks ago, I noticed they were adorned with little red berries. How cute, methinks, those berries are gonna be a headache to clean up. And then they exploded.

Now the trees are covered in gorgeous white flowers. They’re so full, it looks like a furry skin.

Watching the process of going from dormancy to explosion of expression reminds me of publishing. You have the trunk that’s in the process of querying. Those little leaves sprout like crazy with each query letter that’s sent out. And then the wait begins. It’s depressing, and those leaves wither and drop off because waiting is a cold, lonely feeling. Your thoughts run amok. Is your writing any good? Is the genre impacted? Does your query letter suck the big one?

But then the weather grows warmer, and you begin to feel those little seeds of confidence grow. Hell yes, your query is bang on, and so is your writing. You’ve done your work, you’ve researched the genre, and you know your stuff. And while you may not have an agent or publisher yet, you bloom with the satisfaction that you wrote something special, and you’re not going to give up on it.

It takes a year for new blossoms to sprout. Most things of great beauty do take time, so don’t despair, or try to short-circuit the process. Lean into the warm sun and show off your stuff. And while you’re at it, plant a new tree. Who knows what that will bloom from those branches!


Cryptic Queries – Head, Meet Desk

March 4, 2013

It happened again. A query that’s basically a sentence or two…one about the story and one about the author’s “developing” platform. The last sentence asked me if I wanted to see the proposal. Um. Here’s the thing, a query letter isn’t like a bite of a Twinkie, and you’re not allowed to eat the rest unless you read the entire proposal. A query is a mouthwatering description of your story. It’s the thing that makes an editor jump up and scream, “I want more!”

It’s too easy to say no, so why would anyone set themselves up for failure by sending less than the bare essentials? That this came from an agent is unforgivable, and my heart goes out to the author because she’ll never know why no one wants to read her proposal.

Please, dear authors, don’t let this happen to you. Query letters are basic things. We need to see:

  • Your main characters
  • The circumstances in which your character finds himself in this story
  • What is he trying to accomplish?
  • What thing(s) is standing in his way? (this is where you show the tension of your story, the conflict)
  • How can he resolve the problem?

It’s pretty straightforward. And this is the same whether you write fiction or nonfiction. Your proposal (nonfiction) seals the deal, but your query opens the door. If you only give one sentence about your book, then I guarantee that you aren’t even close to finding the doorknob.

Are you worried about your query and whether it has enough enticing information that will have agents or editors asking for more?


Is Your Agent an Asset?

February 12, 2013

book deal

In a perfect world, your agent is your bestest buddy and knight in shining armor. She is the one who gets the lovely book deal(s) that propel you to a hungry marketplace. And most of the time, it works. Unless it doesn’t.

Your introduction to editors is The Query Letter, and your agent should know how to write mouthwatery query letters that have editors leapfrogging over one another just to get their ink-stained little paws on your manuscript. If your agent can’t write a mouthwatery query letter, then I hope they have other assets that will work to your advantage.

Spelling

It should go without saying that your agent should write a query letter that’s free of spelling errors, but I just read one that contained some glaring spelling errors, and had me wincing a la fingernails on a chalkboard. If your agent writes “letter’s” when she means “letters,” or “hand writing” when she means “handwriting,” then I’m gonna notice ‘cos that’s sorta what I do.

OK, maybe it’s not fair to judge a query on a couple misspellings, but come on, this is a job interview that someone is doing on your behalf. If she can’t spell, then what does that say about her judgement of quality books? Do spelling errors beget inability to judge a good book? Beats me, but I do have dozens of other queries whose spelling is perfect.

A query letter’s job is to provide information, so editors can decide whether they’d like to see more. If there is very little info, then this forces the editor to either hunt down the information, or simply reject it.

Word count

It’s useful to know the word count. It may not seem like a big deal, but I had a query from an agent that sounded really great. I neglected to ask about a word count. She sent me the first few chapters, which I loved, then I asked for the whole manuscript…and asked for the word count. Come to find out, it was only 36,000 words. Yikes.

Same thing happened, only the book was 200k words. Double yikes. And really, a good agent should know better.

Audience

Does your agent include your intended audience? It may seem elementary, but editors can be confused by a query. I remember reading a fabulous query and the author’s first chapter. Loved, loved, loved it. But I rejected it because we don’t do YA. Oh no, the author wrote back, this isn’t a YA work; it’s meant for adults.

Ah, the lights turn on, the angels sing. And she was absolutely correct. The War of the Rosens is definitely an adult novel, and fabo, fabo, fabo. Anyone who loved Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season would adore Janice Eidus’ book, and want to take little Emma into their hearts. Makes me wish I still accepted fiction.

But the takeaway is that since I didn’t know the intended audience, I nearly lost a fabulous book. Wouldn’t it be awful if you were rejected because you or your agent didn’t discuss the intended audience in the query letter? Most editors will send a form rejection letter, so you’ll never know why it was rejected.

Why is the book important? 

Obviously, this isn’t a necessary tool for fiction, but it’s very important for nonfiction. Remember, I don’t know your book inside out the way you and your agent do, so it’s near impossible for me to connect the dots. I gotta be told. If your book reveals who really killed JFK, then it would be nice to know why this particular book is important, considering that many of these books already exist. What’s different about yours? If your agent doesn’t tell me, then I tend to question the book’s viability.

Platform

And keeping on that theme of who really killed JFK, your agent needs to include your platform. Again, this is for you nonfiction writers. Are you an investigative reporter who has uncovered more information through your many-year’s-long sleuthing? Are you someone who was close to those involved with the JFK administration, and have access to someone’s dying confession? Or are you just someone who’s always been fascinated with the JFK assassination and believe you found proof through your own independent investigation?

In short, who you are gives legitimacy to the book you’ve written. On one hand, you have the credentials to entice an audience to perk up their ears and read what you have to say. On the other hand, you could be just another crackpot with yet another theory as to who killed JFK…and the world is filled with those.

Before your agent ever agrees to represent your nonfiction, she will look at your platform – who you are, and how many people know you. Or at least she should because she has to turn around and sell you to an editor. And trust me, no editor will go before a submission committee without the author having a huge platform in order to take on a tall order like the JFK assassination. She’ll get laughed out her zip code.

Ideas are great, but you must have the goods to back up whatever you’ve written about. It’s the cop who writes about the crimes he solves, the doc who writes about his life in the OR, the psychologist who writes about keeping your mental well-being while being unemployed. Their platforms compliment their books. They are a legitimate and unimpeachable source for what they’re writing about.

If you don’t have that, are you necessarily the best person to have written your book? What is it about you that will make reviewers and the media listen to what you have to say? If your agent doesn’t include that in the query letter, then I’m forced to either look it up, or simply reject it.

Putting Your Best Foot Forward

Like I said, a query letter is a job interview, and if your representative can’t write a good one, then what else can’t she do? I remember many years ago, our finance guy had to walk an agent through her author’s royalty statement. It was embarrassing because not only are our royalty statements achingly easy to read, the experience revealed the agent’s complete lack of basic math skills.

You always want to be proud of your agent. So how do you put your best foot forward? Ask to read the query letter they plan on sending out. I think many authors miss this step because they believe they’re in good hands, and don’t want to be bothered. The stuff I talked about here is why you should be bothered. These examples I have here really happened, and my heart ached for the authors.

Never forget that this is your book…the book you spent a long time writing, so you don’t want to blow it at the most critical time.

Check the query letter over:

  • Does it list the word count?
  • Does it talk about the intended audience?
  • Does it state why your book is necessary to the marketplace?
  • Are there any freaking misspellings?
  • Do they begin with the dreaded rhetorical questions (which many editors hate, hate, hate because it doesn’t say anything)?

I’ve often passed around the quote of how it’s better to remain unpublished than be published badly. Well, the same goes for poor representation. You’d rather be unrepresented than represented poorly. Reason being, they are doing a piss-poor job at trying to sell your manuscript. Should you change agents, your new agent won’t be able to re-query the editors your previous agent queried, so your selection pool is that much smaller.

The idea is to work smart, so you can increase your chances for a good book deal. Working smart is making sure your agent is an asset, not bug repellant.


Oh, woe is the author who…

February 7, 2013

…asks rhetorical questions in their query. You know what I’m talking about. The queries that start with,

What would you do if you had a million dollars? Would you give it away, or spend it on buying up Scottish castles? Or would you use it to kill your fifth grade teacher?

Gah. Enough already. Would you open a conversation this way? No? Then don’t do it in a business letter, which is what query letter is. If you insist on playing the rhetorical question game as a query opener, I have two rescue beagles who would love to tear it to shreds.

beagle kittehs speech bubble


Life is Worth Living After All…

January 25, 2013

beagle kittehs

The Setting: Rescue beagles snoozing on the top of the couch. Like cats. They are not allowed to do this. They know this. They do it anyway. Beleaguered and Moany Editor is coming off a 24 hour drinking binge, commenced over the news she’d lost all her email.

<ring ring> Rescue beagle #1: Phone’s ringing. You gonna answer that?

Beleaguered and Moany Editor: Why bother? It’s probably an agent asking me if I’ve had a chance to read her client’s submission, and I DON’T HAVE MY EMAIL!

Rescue beagle #2: Boy, she gets really tetchy, doesn’t she?

<ring ring> Rescue beagle #1: You really oughta answer that. It could be important.

<Beleaguered and Moany Editor shoots dirty look at both rescue beagles before answering the phone> Hello? Behler Publications, home of the broken-hearted and email-challenged.

Voice from the heavens who is masquerading as Amazing Techie Dude: Hey, Lynn? This is Amazing Techie Dude. Guess what? After three days of running five different programs to try to bust into your crapped out hard drive, I had success and am staring at your backed up email. Lemme have your Dropbox info, and I’ll dump it in there.

Beleaguered and Moany Editor <crossing herself, even though she isn’t Catholic>: Omigodomigodomigod! Life IS worth living after all! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!

Amazing Techie Dude: Now, about my fee…

——————-

So I’m up and running again and can get back to everyone who queried me. I’m so happy, I may let the rescue beagles stay on the couch top…as long as Rescue beagle #1 makes me a margarita. She’s part Chihuahua and insists hers are far better than The Beagle’s. We shall see.


Title Comps – What’s the Big Deal?

January 14, 2013

apples for apples

At some point in your query process, someone may ask you for a list of comparative titles (preferably three). You eyes will roll back in your head, and you’ll scream to the heavens. “Argh, I just wanna write. I don’t wanna be hassled with the business end.” There are few who have that luxury, so sticking your heels into quicksand isn’t going to help your writing career. It would be better to be ready, right?

The big question is this: Why do I need title comps?

A Frame of Reference

Sales teams and genre buyers need a frame of reference so they know how and where a book fits on store shelves, and how to appeal to readers. Sales teams can tell genre buyers, “Readers of that 2011 literary phenom, Invert Your Colon, will be attracted to this title, Eating Lawn Clippings: Live Healthy and Moo Like a Cow because it delves further into the health benefits of eating a freshly mowed lawn.”

Instantly, the genre buyers understand the book’s classification of where to shelve the book, and whether they want to issue an invoice for purchase. Now, of course, your publisher’s sales guys will do all the heavy lifting in terms of knowing how to pitch your book, but it’s really helpful if you, the author, are in touch with books that are comparable to yours. It’s a building block for us.

Just yesterday, I contacted one of our authors for title comps. Sure, I can get them myself – and I have – but his subject matter breaks new ground, so I’m naturally interested to get his feedback on the books he feels somewhat resemble his book, as a way of helping our sales and marketing folks.

Additionally, having a comparative title on the tip of your tongue helps when talking to readers. Imagine you’re sitting in a bar (easy if you’re the beagle). Someone asks about your book, so you give the general quickie synopsis because you’re a caring person and don’t want to put anyone to sleep. You can see the person looking a bit puzzled, as if he still doesn’t quite get what your book is about. But if you say, “My book has a similar theme to Gone Girl,” then a light bulb will turn on, and he’ll ask for more details and probably buy you a drink because you’re so fabulous. And that’s what you want; an invitation to talk more about your book.

Attracting an Audience

Title comps are a good way of attracting an audience, just like the bar example I gave above. Most writers read the genre they write, so they should have a strong idea of the titles that closely compare to their own.

It’s helpful when an author writes in their query letter, “Readers of Dancing With Sexy Toes will be attracted to my book, My Three Left Feet, because it deals with the same issues of foot fetishes, which was all the talk in America in 2012. Where My Three Left Feet changes course is when Merry, the main character, challenges today’s zeitgeist that dictates foot fetishes are abnormal and strange, by pursuing a high-fashion life of modeling foot apparel, thus bringing foot fetishes into the mainstream. “

This sort of thing is helpful to me because the author identifies a popular storyline, then tells me how she added her own twist. This tells me a couple things:

  1. She knows her competition
  2. She understands that she has something unique, and not cookie-cutter. This helps me decide whether I think this particular storyline will sell. And if I want to buy it, she’s helped me out by highlighting the selling points…which will attract an audience.

But I don’t wanna be pigeonholed!”

Yes, it’s true; by committing to comparative titles, you’re staking a claim as to what your book is, which can be tough if you’ve written something that’s a bit of a crossover. My suggestion would be to pick a couple title comps in both genres and give the same short comparison as I did in the above example.

Another reason writers don’t want to be pigeonholed is because they want to believe their books are for everyone. In truth, there are very few books that appeal to everyone. Furthermore, I don’t have “everyone” in my Rolodex, and our sales guys don’t, either. If you fit this description, then you need to tell yourself the truth; your book has a particular audience…who are they; and what books inspired you to write yours? How do they compare and contrast?

Don’t Get Caught With Your Vickie Secrets Down Around Your Ankles

I listened to a radio host interview a new author about her book. The radio host brought up a well-known title that ran along the same line as hers, and he wanted to talk about those elements. To my horror, the author coughed and hemmed, and finally said, “I didn’t read that book.” BoOm. End of interview. The radio host was caught flat-footed, and the whole thing went downhill from there. I nearly drove off the road because this was such a noob mistake.

You gotta, gotta, gotta know your competition and be able to speak intelligently to the contrasts and comparisons. Being caught with your Victoria Secrets down during an interview is a sure-fire way to never be invited back.

What Comps Do I Use?

They need to be current – preferably nothing older than three years. I’ve seen title comps that were written back in the 60s and were classics. Do you really believe your book can hold a candle to a classic? It may be that it can, but I advise letting others (like book reviewers) make that comparison…it’ll have far more weight.

Since you are well-read (or you better be!), it should be easy to figure out which books relate to yours. I groan loudly when authors tell me nothing compares to their book. Oh puhleeze…yes it does. Even if you’ve combined two genres, like Twilight, you still have comparisons. It’s a cop-out to use this lame excuse, and it makes me think that you’re not well-read. And if you’re not well-read in your genre, then chances are that you won’t be very affective at promoting your book…at least that’s been my experience with nonfiction.

So if you’re not up to date on books in your genre, get thee to a library post haste, and get cracking.

“Yabut, why???”

Ok, I hear you simpering out there. You’re busy writing and don’t have time to read. That’s like a surgeon saying he’s too busy operating to bone up on current techniques. You read because this is your art, and it behooves you to be an expert in your art. You read because it’s how you figure out if you have a story.

Case in point, an author queried me years ago about a book on cancer. Her query didn’t offer any earth-shattering stuff that hadn’t been written about many times before. I asked her what kind of reading she had done to know whether she had something new to say. Come to find out, she had done exactly zero reading on the subject. I sent her the Amazon link to the cancer books page and suggested she start doing her research.

Two months later, she wrote back to say that after all her reading, she realized she didn’t have anything unique to say. It broke my heart because I know she was sad to come to this conclusion. But it would have been far crueler to let her wander around thinking she had a marketable story. Better to know she has nothing new to say and give her the option of growing as a writer and delving into topics that aren’t covered in other cancer books.

If you write, you must read. If you write, you must know your competition. If you query, you must be able to speak intelligently about your competition and know how your book compares and contrasts. It’s simply good business. And you know what? This applies even if you plan to self-publish.


Series of Events or Plot?

January 7, 2013

chain_f

In playing catch up with queries, I’ve noticed a heavy concentration of queries written by authors who have mistaken a series of events for the plot. Thar be a difference. I don’t care about the series of events; I need the plot because it’s the guts to your story. It’s the reason your book exists. It’s the kapow.

A series of events is a collection of scenes that happen in the course of a book – it ain’t da plot. Note the difference:

“Sally goes to college, where she meets John, the hunky prime slab o’ beef who sits behind her in Math 207. They begin dating, only John is confused because he’s still hung up on his hometown girlfriend, Jane, and can’t figure out who he likes more. Sally, in the meantime, meets Derek in Science 101 and has her own share of confusion. It’s impossible for her to resist his curly hair and the fact that he can speak Pig Latin with a German accent.

Sally sticks it out with John, but lusts for Derek, until John goes home for semester break. Over a pizza party with a group from their science class, Sally ends up making whoopie with Derek. When John returns from semester break, Sally decides to tell him it’s over, that she’s in love with Derek and his German accented Pig Latin. John, meanwhile, discovers that Jane, his hometown girlfriend, has taken up with the undertaker’s son. His mind is made up and Sally is the only girl for him, only now she’s with Derek

John is so undone, he decides to transfer to Podunk University, so he can forget all about Sally. Sally, in the meantime, grows weary with Derek’s Pig Latin, and almost faints when he decides to shave his head. Goodbye sexy, curly locks, hello buzzhead. She begins to think about John. Was he really the one for her? She considers contacting him on Facebook, but he won’t accept her Friend Request. Her emails have gone unanswered, and he won’t answer her phone calls.

She gathers up the nerve to take a road trip to Podunk U and confront him, only to find out he’s disappeared. She goes over to the house of one of his friends to see if he knows where John is…”

…blah, blah, blah…get to the point already. And the problem is, there never is a point, and the query letter continues on for far too long, describing general scenes, but never revealing any reason this story exists. There is no purpose. What’s worse is we don’t even know who is the protagonist (I made this, btw).

Now there are times when a story is all that…a big conglomeration of nothing…and if your story looks like this, you may be in Lack-of-Plot Hell. On the other hand, your story really may have a point after all, but you’ve hidden it too well under long underwear and heavy jackets (forgive the frigid metaphors…it’s really cold in Pitts – yay!). If you don’t reveal the plot within the first couple paragraphs of your query letter, I’ll quit reading…pinky swear.

On the other hand, Plot (as defined by Dictionary.com) is the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story. And here’s the thing; it may be completely different from your boring series of events. I had this very thing happen last week. I read a query that consisted of nothing but a series of events. I rejected it and explained why. A few days later, the author wrote back, thanking me, and included the actual plot. It was much more interesting, and vastly different from the original.
So let me show you what I mean. Here’s the plot to the mess I wrote above:
Sally feels terrible about the way she treated John while they attended university, so she travels down to the campus he transferred in order to forget her…only he turns up missing. Sally begins to consider the possibility that his disappearance is related to his math thesis, which challenges Einstein’s theory of relativity. Since Sally had worked with him the project, she wonders if she’s a target as well, and she’s torn between digging deep to find him and being concerned for her own well-being.

Boom. There it is in one paragraph. It’s a mystery, we know who the protag is, and the plot. All that other blather in the first example has squat all to do with the plot – and it’s this kind of writing that makes it impossible for me to care about reading more – which is sad because you can see the first example has zip all to do with the real plot as revealed in the second example.

So take a look at your query letter and see what you have; a series of events or the plot. Remember; the plot = your character’s journey.

  1. Something happened that created an experience for your main character(s). What is it? A murder? Cancer? Threat to world peace? Job loss? This experience is your trigger point for the story.
  2. Your character is uniquely qualified to have this experience. What is it? Was her loved one murdered? Does she or someone close to him have cancer? Is he a spy who can avert the threat to world peace? Did he lose his job?  What I’m looking for is how the experience relates to your main character.
  3. Your main character can make certain choices that will change the outcome. What are they? Call the police about her loved one’s murder, or investigate it herself and possibly become a target? How does she deal with cancer – does she fight or give up? Does he have enough strength and know how to avert world tragedy? Does he go on welfare, or does he take the only job available to him – which won’t cover the rent? I want to know what the personal stakes are for your main character. I’m looking to see how big the stakes are for them. If it’s a matter of a chipped nail, then there isn’t much to pull me in. However, if we’re talking about finding sanity and comfort in the wake of a major killer of a disease, then I can get wrapped up in that.

If you look at 1, 2, and 3, you’ll see that it’s far easier to avoid committing the Series of Events query letter, which I guarantee will result in a rejection.


Closing Out 2012: A Bit o’ This, and a Drab o’ That

December 31, 2012

lynn-beagle

So it’s snowing great big donkey balls here in the Pitts, and I’m loving every second of it. The kids are all here for a New Year’s visit, and they’re having fun jumping and playing in the snow. In between the Prices conquering every bar in downtown Pitts, I’m taking some time to catch up on long-ignored queries, which brings me to a generalized list of things that make me go, “Hmmm…”

A.  “Yep, I’m all that and a bag of potato chips!”

This is where the author tells me he/she does extensive public appearances on their previously pubbed books. Here’s a sekrit…I can see that. It’s called Google. If I google you and don’t see hide nor hair of anyplace where you’ve spoken, or can’t even find your website, then I’m going to think you’re overselling yourself.

It’s true that many private affairs don’t have a Google footprint, but authors’ websites usually have a calendar where they will be appearing. So here’s a tip; if you do a lot of public appearances, it’s really helpful if I can find them somewhere. That way, I’ll really know if you’re are all that and a bag o’ chips.

B. “My previous books sold like hotcakes!”

I can look that stuff up, too. Admittedly, the numbers are representative at best, so I have to take them with a grain of salt. I mean, it’s possible you sold 2500 books, an Bookscan only reports 2 sales (because there are a lot of sales outlets that don’t report to Bookscan), but it’s unlikely. For instance, if your book sold through Costco, it means that your book is also selling well on the national market, and that’s what I’m looking for; your national readership. My problem is that I have no way of verifying those unreported sales, so it’s a good idea to keep that in mind.

Instead, it might be helpful to tell me how your books sold. For instance, “I do a lot of seminars and that’s where the bulk of my sales took place.” Ah. This tells me that you have a platform….which I will also check out. Word to the wise; just don’t fudge yourself because it’s embarrassing when you’re busted.

C. “I don’t have a book proposal.”

Sigh. If you’re going to write nonfiction, then you really need a book proposal because it helps editors appreciate your fabulosity. In fact, I’m a huge proponent of everyone writing a proposal because it pulls you out of the author chair and into the business chair. It gets you thinking about your book as a product, not just the darling of your imagination. I’ve written posts on book proposals numerous times because they are such a wonderful aid to an author.

Look at it this way; do you want to give anyone a reason to reject you? Of course not. So if you’re writing nonfiction, then know up front that you’ll probably be asked to provide a book proposal at some point, and how dumb will you feel if you have to say, “Um, can you wait while I write one?” You always want to be prepared.

D. My address

It’s a silly thing, really, but I can’t help it – it strikes me as inane to include my mailing address at the top of the e-query. Maybe I am being a picky pants, but an email isn’t a formal business letter, where you put your address, the date, then my mailing address, blah, blah, blah. I can see the date stamp. I know where I live…though there have been times when I wasn’t too sure, but that’s a whole other story…

Just begin your query with Dear Lynn/Holy Mistress of Literacy/Goddess of the Written Word…all forms of fawning salutation are welcome.

E. Your Bio

I’ve been getting a rash of queries that don’t seem to know where to start, so they begin with the author’s fabulosity. I’m certain every one of you are marvelous people (as most writers are), but you really aren’t the whole enchilada. Your story is. You could be the most famous person on Earth, but if your story is about your toenail collection, then your bio means squat all.

Yes, it’s true that nonfiction looks for the writer with a platform, but everything still hinges on your story. Lead with that, and mention you at the end. I won’t fall to the floor and beg to sign you just because you have an amazing life. I’ll do that if you have an amazing story. Thar be a difference.

F. To Whom It May Concern

I don’t know why this bugs me so much, but whenever I see a query letter with this salutation, it takes all my willpower not to hit the Delete button. More often than not, I give in to the urge and dump it. In short, it’s incredibly rude. Would you address a cover letter to your potential boss as To Whom It May Concern? Hell no. You need that job, so you’re motivated to find out their name and as much as you can about them and their company so you look intelligent.

The same tenets apply here as well. Your query letter is a job interview, and gaining an agent’s or editor’s attention depends on how well you present yourself. Not bothering to look up an editor’s name screams “I don’t give a ripsnort about who you are.” And you should. After all, you want to be sure that the hands you place your story into are one that will take care of you and your book. I see this salutation and think, “What a toolbag” because my name is easily seen on our website.

G. “You’re Wrong.”

This just happened to me last week. I received a less than complete query letter, so I had little choice but to judge it based on what I had, which was very little – so I politely rejected it. I included some comment with the hopes the author could see where he might improve the quality for future queries. He immediately wrote back telling me I was wrong, and his story really was fabulous. The problem is that the gent didn’t show me his story was fabulous. He assumed that because he is the Great New Author, that I would jump tall buildings to sign him.

Let’s face it, query letters are life-sucking bags of buffalo chips that make us consider sniffing glue – but it’s a cover letter for a new job, and should be treated with respect. If I don’t know…

  1. Your main character
  2. What event is dumped in his lap (terrorist takeover by poisonous grasshoppers/opening up a publishing company/seeking comfort and sanity at the top of a snowy mountain/
  3. How he goes about fixing, solving, resolving the event

…then I don’t have the full picture of your story and have little choice but to offer a polite “no thanks.” It really bugs me to have an author write back and tell me I’m wrong, as if it’s my fault for not “getting it.” I mean, sure, there are plenty times when I am wrong, and I can be thick sometimes, but I won’t accept any responsibility for your incomplete query letter…and I might write you a snotgram informing you of that very thing. Maybe.

So as we head into the 2013, see if you can’t stick a few more resolutions into your already-bursting bag of tricks:

  1. Thout shalt not commit toolbaggery.
  2. Query letters be thy job interview, and thou shalt be clear and concise.
  3. Thou shalt be gracious with rejection and view them as learning lessons, not personal attacks.

Happy New You, everyone!


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