The Query Game – Are You Bantha Fodder?

September 27, 2015

Of late I’ve collected a lot of query letters where it’s obvious the authors lost sight of its actual intent – to the point where all I can do is shake my head and utter, “Wow.”

And not in a good way.

“Everybody Wants Me”

One query named every editor and agent who had asked to see pages. I understand the desire to make oneself look like they’re in demand because sometimes it actually works. That’s the stuff auctions are made of. However, they have a topic that’s worth fighting over because they know what the story is about. The one sentence she expended on her book had me looking around my office wondering if The Rescues had played another trick on me.

If she’d sent the same query to all those people clamoring for her work, how were they able they draw enough of a conclusion to warrant asking for pages?

The icing on the cake is that she never actually mentioned she was querying me. It was merely an email telling me about everyone who wants her. Her reply was that she “forgot” in all the excitement. Forgot. To. Tell. Me. She. Was. Querying. Me.

Alrighty then. I think I’ll let all those other agents and editors duke it out.


“I Did This and That”

One author offered up accolades from a play performance and being featured in the local newspaper twice, and only included one teensy sentence about the topic of the manuscript…which is in a very crowded category.

One short sentence. I’m pretty good, but the reception on my tinfoil hat doesn’t extend to reading author’s minds.



Humor is a tough thing because it’s so subjective. What the author may find utterly hysterical may put my teeth on edge. If you’re tempted to use humor in your query letter, ask yourself whether it fits with the flavor of the manuscript, and whether you’re trying too hard to be witty rather than simply telling me what your book is about.

One author’s query letter made me belly laugh – and I’m a very hard sell. So, of course, I asked for the full. Her manuscript is a humor piece, so the humor in her query was appropriate. She had me at hello, as the line goes…

Another author wasn’t as lucky, and had me dropping Pepsid OTC. Her first line begged me not to eat her. Eh? I’ll admit that I can have a bit of bite to me on occasion, but to actually consume another human being is beyond my capacity or desire. I’ll leave it to the bears ‘n gators. There was also an odd reference about hair-pulling which still has me scratching my head. But the ultimate killer was that her subject matter was of a serious nature, so the use of humor  fell as flat as my efforts at baking.


“I Thought the Manuscript Was Attached”

Another query was long on the braggy stuff – “I’m the coolest thing since sliced bread.” – and short on detail; also one short sentence. The kicker is that the author thought he’d attached the manuscript, which he hadn’t. But that wasn’t the bad part. The bad part was the author’s assumption that the manuscript would speak for itself, thus making up for a vague query letter.

The truth is that an incomplete query won’t compel me to open up an attachment…even if it is attached. Well, okay, yah, in truth I’ll open it and read a page or two. But if it isn’t even attached, thar be no way I’ll carry the conversation any further, other than to reject it.


“To Whom It May Concern”

This is always a favorite of mine because it instantly makes my intestines do a backflip. I know, I know, maybe it’s petty, but I view query letters like a job interview, and my mama always taught me that when job hunting, you always know the name of the person to whom you’re talking, and you’re familiar with the company. It shows due diligence and professionalism.


“How Much Do You Charge?”

This is another favorite of mine for the sheer humor of it. That simple question tells me buckets about the author’s knowledge of the publishing industry. And hey, what better compliment can one have than to be assumed as being a vanity publisher? Cracks me up every time because there are so many responses I’m tempted to write:

“A quart of your blood and any beagles you have stashed around.”
“If you gotta ask, then you can’t afford me.”
“I don’t charge, I lollygag. Slowly.”

Oh dear, the list of possible replies goes on and on…


“I Have an Agent”

Now this confounds me every time I read this – and yes, over the past 13 years, it’s happened more than I care to count. For the love of all that’s holy, why, why, why would you write a terrible query letter that’s on equal footing with bug repellant when you Have. An. Agent? Isn’t that why you have an agent?

I know of some authors whose agents will only query the Big Guns and permit their clients to query us “less worthy” sub-humans. This offers up its own roadblocks because I find it arrogant and offensive. So if those Big Guns don’t bite, and the author does all the dirty work of querying us peons, then how has that agent earned their 15%? Uh uh. Not in my book.

Double wow.

Do It Right or Go Home

The long and short of The Query Game is this: If I have no idea what your story is about, then it doesn’t matter how funny, popular, forgetful you are, who your unnamed and absent agent is, or how much money you have. Send a query that’s short on giving me the goods, and you’re bantha fodder.

A query letter exists for one purpose; to attract an editor or agent to the point of uttering “Wow” in a good way. My particular needs are the following:

  • What is your book about? – this means details about your personal journey and how it impacted/changed your life.
  • What makes it a “gotta have it”? Is there an identifiable audience? If so, what are the unique elements of your story that make it stand out from the herd? If you don’t have something unique and revolutionary to say, then I probably won’t bite.
  • Who are you and what kind of platform do you have? Furthering that idea of a unique message, you need to have a platform to back yourself up. This doesn’t mean how many people you know, but how many people know you. And how do they know you? If you’re known for being a painter, then I’m leery about whether your book on manic depression or cancer will carry much weight. Reason being, there are a jillion books on those topics, and the thing you’re known for doesn’t impact the subject of your book. Nonfiction is funny that way.

Conversely, Erika Armstrong, author of our upcoming release A CHICK IN THE COCKPIT, is known for being a pilot and writing amazing aviation articles in many mags. However, the fact that she’s a pilot is the compelling hook for her personal journey. Given the vast numbers of pilots, this is going to be a hot seller because her platform supports her book.

This is how you Wow an agent or editor. Don’t be bantha fodder. Go out and be fabulous!

You Rejected Me – Can We Talk?

September 23, 2015

The icky part of publishing is writing rejection letters. I reject projects for all kinds of reasons, and in a lot of cases I try to give the author a very brief reason as to why their work didn’t fit with us. I do this in order to offer some insight, because it’s frustrating to authors to receive the standby form rejection letter.

What authors should never do is instantly assume they’re being rejected because their work sucks stale Twinkie cream. Sometimes a work has great potential, but it’s either written in a crowded category, like Alzheimer’s or cancer, in which case, the author would need a large platform. Some manuscripts would simply be a challenge for me to market because I don’t specialize in that particular genre; like religion. These books have a whole different distribution outlet that we’re not a part of.

Whatever the reason, the one thing that makes me want to chew razor blades is the author who wants to engage me in further discussion.

Last past week I rejected an author and gave solid reasons as to why his project wasn’t right for us. But that didn’t deter him from emailing me twice more to convince me of the error of my ways. He offered statistics about his particular subject and told me how hard he’d work to promote his book. I politely reminded him to please look at the rejection letter, as I felt it spoke for itself. He wrote again with more stats. By this time I figured diplomacy wasn’t going to work. Feh.

A rejection letter isn’t an invitation to open up a dialog. A rejection is a shut-the-door-no-further-discussion-required. This author reminded me of the waitress who was determined to get me to order more food than I wanted.
Her: “How about fries with your sandwich?”
Me: “No thanks. Just the sandwich.”
Her: “Well let me recommend the coleslaw. It’s really good.”
Me <getting testy>: “No thanks. Just the sandwich.”
Her: “Our rolls are to die for. Want me to bring a basket?”
Me <contemplating hari kiri with my butter knife>: “Just. The. Sandwich.”
Her: “Pie for dessert?”


No means no. If an editor wants to further the conversation, they’ll say so, and happily, I’ve done this many times. In fact, I just did this a few weeks ago, which resulted in us signing the author.

But what will quickly tarnish an editor’s impression of you is if you can’t let go. There are many wonderful publishers out there, so don’t waste another second on someone who has said no thank you. Rather, go after someone who will say, Please send me more!”

Mainlining Drano

March 31, 2015

There are a number of things that make me want to drink/mainline Drano. I’ve talked about them over the years…and wouldn’t you know, but I have a new batch of goodies.

  • Font color: Write your query letter in light gray, so that my weary eyes strain to the point of crossing.
  • Begin your query by admitting your work probably doesn’t fit our guidelines: (actually, this is a benefit of sorts, because I can delete that much faster without having to read the entire query). For crying out loud. If your work doesn’t fit a publisher’s guidelines, then why in the name of all that’s holy are you querying them? Editors are busy folks, and they’ll simply delete without replying – so you’ve wasted not only your time, but the editor’s as well. Not a smart idea.
  • Word Count: Make sure your manuscript is miles under the minimum word count. For example, the sweet spot for most mainstream publishers is between 50k – 100k words. They will usually specify that they publish shorts. But if you’ve written something that clocks in at about 30,000 words, it becomes more of a pamphlet than a book. This is especially irritating with nonfiction because, really? A nonfiction pamphlet on how to survive getting laid off/leaving a cult/dealing with falling in love with your best friend’s boyfriend…How much depth can you attain with 30,000 words? Puhleeze.
  • Request Help: Ask me for help in directing you to a publisher who does publish your kind of work. Um. Yah. Nothing would excite me more than to do your work for you.
  • Query Length: Just today I had a query that went on for six pages. SIX. Deleted without reply.

After thirteen years in this business, I still remain gobsmacked at the ability of authors to shoot themselves in their own feet and guarantee instant, sudden death rejection…especially since it takes so little research to understand how this crazy business works and the most beneficial ways to approach an editor or agent in a professional manner.

Okay, pass me the Drano…


Query: Editors Respond Far Better to Positive

December 11, 2013

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?


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