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.
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.
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.
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.
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.