Many of the query letters I receive have this exclamation in it – meaning that friends and family who’ve heard the author’s personal journey punctuate their excitement and support by prodding the author to write about their experiences. On the surface it seems a great idea.
And yes, there’s always a “however.” It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of having people around you insist that your story is amazing enough take up residence on store shelves. But it may not be the reality, and it’s important that you know the difference.
The Friends and Family Bias
Your friends and family will love you even if you have spinach stuck in your front teeth, so they’re far from being unbiased. And that’s a good thing. You want to have good people surrounding you. However…agh, there’s that dreaded word again…they’re too close to you and not educated in the ways of all things publishy.
This is precisely why I receive an overabundance of addiction/cancer/midlife crisis/I-was-a-child-of-war queries. The author is pumped by their friends and family and they dig right in without realizing there is A LOT of ground to cover from, “Hey, you oughta write a book!” to actually being convinced you have a marketable story…and thy name is Research.
Competition: How many stories like yours are already on store shelves? If there are a gajillion cancer stories out there (and there are), then you need to know that. You need to be prepared if you’re writing in a crowded category, such as cancer, divorce, grieving, etc.
Why do you need to know? ‘Cos I’m gonna ask, for one. I want to know the three titles that compare most closely to your book – how they compare and contrast. Why? ‘Cos my sales and marketing teams are going to ask. Why? ‘Cos the genre buyers are going to ask. Whee! Dominoes.
READ: It’s not enough to look at store shelves to see how many other books like yours are in the marketplace; you gotta READ them. Why? ‘Cos you need to be able to speak to the unique elements of YOUR book. And this is where many queries/submissions fall down. I can tell whether an author has read her competition or not in the way she writes her query letter. She may use short examples to offer a frame of reference:
“My Inverted Belly Button is reminiscent of the popular 2014 adventure Inverted Belly Button Blues, however my story is specifically geared to college students, who are much more sensitive to having an inverted belly button than the general public.”
This is helpful to me because I can quickly recognize an expansive and identifiable readership. This is a savvy author who understands the unique elements of their story compared to a popular book in the same category. This helps our sales and marketing teams a great deal.
Platform: Memoir/nonfiction is a tough nut, and authors need to have a platform in which to swim to the top. Ask yourself not how many people you know…but how many people know you? Are you the airline pilot who wrote about her cockpit experiences? Are you the mother of a desperately sick child who has done countless talks and seminars about this subject matter? Are you an expert in the topic you’ve written about to the point where media would call you for your input?
Platform wears many different faces, but I can tell you that authors who have a large footprint sell a lot of books. Those who sit on their hands either don’t get a good publishing contract, or they make their publishers very grouchy.
Writing Quality/Beta Readers: It sounds elementary, but it’s so often overlooked that it bears discussing. Your writing has to be solid, meaning an excellent command of the English language, artfully constructed, and engaging. Of course, writing style is subjective, so it’s tough to gauge. But this is where beta readers come in handy. These aren’t your friends and family (because they’ll never be honest), but instead, your writing group, or writing class. People who will be able to honestly tell you what did and didn’t work for them, and why.
Ask Yourself These Questions
- What is the message/what am I trying to say/impart? There are plenty memoirs that are simply a “I did this, then I did that,” and they sell very well. However, they’re usually written by famous people, and readers may not give a rat’s patootie whether there’s a message in there or not. I look for stories that not only have an amazing journey, but that the author comes through that journey transformed in some way. That creates depth.
- What are the unique elements of my story as compared to what’s already out there? If you can’t name them, then it’s possible you’re not saying anything new. If you’re not saying anything new, then it’s going to be difficult to market and promote the book.
- Who cares? We already know your friends and family care, but what about the reading public? They don’t know you, so what is it about your story that instantly makes readers care about it enough to plunk down their hard-earned cash? What are the Who Cares? factors of your story? Are you an airline pilot whose life became so immersed with being in the cockpit that your life hit the ground at 600 miles an hour? Are you a desperate mother looking for answers to her dying son, whose only comfort is in his unusual chicken? These are things that make me sit up and say, “Tell me more!”
- Is there enough red meat? I’ve run across many queries that would have made excellent magazine articles, but didn’t have enough gas to sustain a book. These might be stories of bizarre diseases or experiences – like rescuing a dog in the desert or being hit by a car, and there wasn’t enough going on in the author’s life to create a compelling book-length story. A story with red meat has many layers where the author is appreciably transformed. Is your story one-dimensional, or is there a lot of food for thought?
- Do I have a solid platform? This isn’t a case of “I’ll work on establishing my platform once I get a contract.” By that time, it’s too late. Establishing a platform takes oodles of time. Same for establishing yourself on social media.
As you can see, thar be lots to consider after some darling relative or friends yelps, “You oughta write a book!” The idea is to set yourself up for success, and that means having the ability to determine whether you really have a great story in your heart, or that your friends and family need to be committed.
I know, irritating an editor sounds like good fun, right? After all, we’re such a tetchy lot, so a good round of watching editors pull their eyebrows out would be great sport. However, this frustration adversely affects authors, so it might not be worth the risk. Here’s how the scenario goes:
Me: I loved your first pages. I’d love to see the full manuscript. You may send it as a Word attachment at your convenience.
Author: Those pages are the extent of the edited chapters that I’ve written. Perhaps you’d be willing to sign me based on the strength of what you’ve read.
Me: <sighing loudly and demanding The Rescues go pour me some wine> I’m sorry, but we don’t sign authors based on partials.
And here’s why:
Reason 1: On the Fence
This is the most important reason of all. I won’t offer a contract with a partial because I may be on the fence about those first chapters. I need to see if the subsequent chapters turn into something wonderful. I’ve read terrific manuscripts where the first chapters weren’t as strong as they could be, but they finished up with such a bang that I ended up signing those authors. Slow beginning? Heck, I can always take care of that during the editing process.
But I won’t know how strong your manuscript is if it isn’t finished, and I’ll have no choice to walk away. And the author will have no choice but to keep on querying. Le bummer.
Reason 2: Gambling
I’ve been to Vegas many times, and I can’t stand gambling because I always lose. I look at the money the one-armed-bandit consumed with nary a “thank you,” and consider all the cool things I could have used it on instead.
We’ve gambled in the past and signed a few authors based on partials. To date, I canceled Every. Single. Project. The simple reason is that those manuscripts didn’t have the same quality as their first chapters.
And think about it; editors classically ask for the first three chapters, so those suckers get A LOT of massaging and tender loving care. Authors have the luxury of writing, putting it away, coming back later, re-writing, editing. It’s like getting ready for the prom. I remember spending horrific amounts of time primping for the prom. Just don’t ask me to repeat that same process the following day. Or any other day after that.
It’s the same for writing. Your first chaps are getting ready for the prom, and boyo, they look mahvelous. If I sign you based on how you look for the prom, then I’m basically contracting you to primp for the prom every single day until you’re crowned Prom Queen or King, and I’m giving you less time to look just as gorgeous.
Deadlines suck because most authors don’t realize how hard it is to bang out fabulosity while under the gun. Oh sure, you think you’ll be able to bang it out in time. Problem is, it reads like it. All the flavor and magic is missing because you don’t have the same amount of time you had when you wrote those first three chapters.
In my particular case, those canceled projects were victims of two separate problems: Insufficient time to do a proper job and/or the manuscript simply didn’t live up to its previous hype. I think of all the wasted time that could have been avoided if those authors had simply finished their manuscripts.
It sucks to cancel a project, which is why we no longer sign on partials. It’s heartbreaking to us and to the author.
But Aren’t Sales Made on Partials?
Yes, it’s somewhat common for nonfiction sales to take place based on partials, but these usually happen when the author has a solid readership based on terrific sales from previous books. There’s an identifiable track record. But if you’ve written in a different genre, say fiction, then you’re starting over again with no readership or track record in nonfiction.
Other cases where sales happen with partials is if the author has an amazing platform. A lot of your actor/actress/politician/public figure books are usually sold based on an idea: “Actress Debbie LaDouchbague promises to dish out the dirt on her years as the lead in the daytime soap, As The Stomach Rebels.”
But these cases aren’t the norm for the everyday author.
And may I just say that I’ve never quite understood the whole, “I’ll write the rest if I sell it.” I always wonder whether the author is truly committed to the project. “Oh well, if it doesn’t sell, at least I didn’t waste time writing it.” Hmm.
You want a sale? Finish the manuscript!
In the meantime, color me frustrated.
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.
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!
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!”