What’s At Stake?

February 16, 2015

What’s at stake? So many queries go wrong because authors don’t focus on what’s at stake for their characters. Instead, they focus on details and minutiae, like how Robby’s second cousin’s best friend is really good at math, which helps him with his fantasy football team. Meanwhile, Robby hits puberty and discovers he turns into a Minotaur during a full moon, which wreaks havoc on his attempts to woo Linda Lou, the head cheerleader and cutest little pie face of Salamander High. Mr. Second Cousin’s Best Friend has nothing to do with the main thrust of the story – so it’s insane to mention him.

But authors do. Well, they don’t mention Mr. Second Cousin’s Best Friend, per se, but they mention some disconnected facet of their stories because they’re too close to their own story to be able to parse it down.

So a quick, down and dirty guide to help you keep your query on track is to simply start with asking yourself, “Who’s my main character, and what’s at stake for him/her?”

And the stakes have to be high – not whether Bessie will manage to glue back her favorite teapot in order to serve her award-winning tea (which is only award-winning because she spikes it with Jim Beam) to the new town mayor, who she has the hots for. That’s just filler.

The stakes would be that Bessie is up against a stipulation in her father’s will that she must be married by May 15 or lose all the bucks to the Save the Ardvaark Society. Problem is, she’s spent her life being a disagreeable moonbat, and no one will have her…Jim Beam notwithstanding. So about now, the new town mayor could be an answer to her problem. If only he didn’t have that incurable sweating problem…

If we understand exactly what’s at stake, it’s easy to determine whether it’s a story we feel will be marketable. If you don’t tell us and give nothing but filler stuff, then we’ll scratch our melons. And hit the Reject Button. Avoid the Reject Button. Isolate what’s at stake for your character and barf it out.

 


“To Whom It May Concern…”

February 13, 2015

You no spamma me...got it?Use this salutation at your own peril. I usually delete without reading further. Snotty? Maybe. But would you open your job application in this manner? I think not. Not a good idea to use it in a query, either.


Your Bio and Query

February 12, 2015

“Do I include my bio in my query?”

The classic question. Many tell you not to include it because your query is all about your story…and no one cares about your bio as yet. This is probably true about fiction, but I’m of a mind that a bio – a good bio – can’t hurt. Evah.

In fact, it can help a great deal.

Case in point is a query I received a couple months ago. The query was interesting, and I was definitely going to ask for the proposal and full, however my Wowza factor shot up when I read her bio. Instead of waiting to reply in a few days, I replied that very second. Yah. The author’s bio can zoomed her to the head of the class.

But that’s only if you have a braggable bio. Are you the woman commercial airline pilot with tales of struggling and steamrolling your way into the cockpit? Are you the first woman to ever be invited to try out for a professional basketball team? Are you the woman who latently discovers she’s the daughter of a sitting governor?

These are all bios that can launch a book into the stratosphere…and you may not even be aware of it. The author of the query almost mentioned her bio by accident. Meanwhile, I’m jumping on my desk screeching, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? MUST HAVE.” It may be that the story needs to be refined, but I’m seeing huge potential, where the author is only probably mildly aware of it.

So if you have something mouth-watery in your bio that relates to your book, I suggest including it. It can be the difference between “no thanks,” or a tepid, “please send pages,” to “OH HELL YES!”


Humor in a Query

January 28, 2015

laughing beagle

I’m the first person who loves a good laugh, and I’ve been known to snort for air when my funny bone has been properly massaged. But humor is a tricky thing, so writer beware.

Firstly, a query is a job application. Would you use humor when filling out an application to a job you really want/need? Is it appropriate? There are times when humor helps make a query stand out, but it’s also because the subject matter leans toward the lighter side of life, and the author uses it to enhance their pitch.

“I’ve often wondered how much force it would take to invert my belly button, or the impact of 100 escapee gazelles would have on a small midwestern town. I realize this isn’t something that will promote world peace or solve the current financial crisis, but random thoughts such as these do make my bride suspect my sanity. They are also what keeps my protagonist, Barry Wahler, from losing his mind as a day trader on Wall Street in my novel THE GORILLAS ARE LOOSE ON WALL STREET…”

As you can see, it’s wholly unnecessary, but it’s a nice transition to the actual pitch. I love these kinds of queries because it shows me the strength of the author’s wit and writing. This is a huge difference between simply sticking something “funny” into your query that is unrelated to your subject matter.

For example, I often wrote about my first secretary, The Beagle, who has since retired and is now soaking up the life in San Clemente with her real daddy – my son. Since then, I’ve hired on The Rescue Beagles, who are equally deficient in their phone manners and filing duties, but do, however, embrace their love of shredding queries that miss the mark. So as an example of the “unrelated funny,” I see many queries imploring me not to feed their queries to these two undependable employees. No worries. All queries are electronic, and The Rescues know full well that eating my laptop would put a damper on our relationship.

Trust me (holding hand over where heart should be); the Rescues reference has been done to ad nauseam…heavy emphasis on nauseam. It’s gotten to the point of being my own personal cliché.

Another attempt of breaky-the-ice-y humor is the salutation “Dear Kindly and Benevolent Editor.” I’ve used this with example query letters over the years, so when it’s parroted back to me, I also kinda groan. You read some of my blog posts or went to a writer’s conference seminar where I spoke. I get it. But it’s not professional.

It isn’t necessary to break the ice, since we have no relationship to begin with. You have a project to pitch, I’m open for queries. It’s a supply-side marriage that needs to introduction or hand-holding.

Now, will stuff like this earn an instant sudden death rejection? Of course not. It’ll simply make me roll my eyes. And no one wants to start out a query with rolly eyes. Be careful with humor. It’s subjective and should only be used where appropriate.


Stuff That Makes Me Roll My Eyes

January 22, 2015

” We treat each author as a human and not a contract number. Our company is run by humans for humans.”

Authors, if you see this on a publisher’s website, roll your eyes because this is nothing more than a weak attempt to sell themselves. Publishers who actually sell books to the marketplace on a successful basis always see their authors as human beings. Authors are the lifeblood to good mainstream publishers. The editing process is an intimate, absorbing process. There is a boatload of communication taking place. The idea that any editor can treat their authors as a number is fantasy, made up by those who truly have nothing to offer authors.

Period.


More About Book Proposals

January 19, 2015

Sigh. One more time. If you’re gonna say you have a “book proposal,” it doesn’t mean a general overview of a page and three chapters.  That’s a query.

A book proposal hasta have all this stuff in it. And yesssss, we needs it because it’s our preciousssss…and our saleses teams hateses us when we don’t have them.

  • COVER SHEET (title and subtitle of book; genre, word count, author’s name, address, phone, fax, email)
  • CONCEPT STATEMENT (optional—briefly state the target audience, why they need this book, why your book is unique or timely, why you are an authority on the topic, and what your book offers that other books don’t).
  •  OVERVIEW (how you came to write the book—weave in attention-getting facts; this must be the most compelling part of your proposal!)
  •    PURPOSE OF THE BOOK (what will your book do? what need will it fill? how will it benefit readers?)
  •    THE MARKET/AUDIENCE (who will buy your book? why do they want or need it? give statistics)
  •    COMPETITIVE BOOKS (what else exists? where is it shelved? how is your book new and better? how does your book differ from all other books on this topic?)
  •    MARKETING OF THE BOOK (bookstores, book clubs, Internet, clubs, associations; if applicable—these are sales outside of a bookstore environment such as retail store chains, specialty stores, catalogs)
  •    PROMOTION & PUBLICITY (list newspapers, magazines, TV & radio stations that the publisher should contact)
  •    AUTHOR’S PROMOTIONAL CONTRIBUTION (list everything you’ll do to make the book successful; be sure to include all of your ideas for author appearances and events)
  •    COMPLETION OF THE BOOK (state that “x” months from date of contract you will deliver the manuscript—usually a 9-12 month period is allowed)
  •    SEQUELS (optional—list 1-3 other projects that interest you and that have a large audience)
  •    ABOUT THE AUTHOR (your background and experience; why you are the best person to write the book)
  •    THREE SAMPLE CHAPTERS ( I prefer your first three chapters because I want to see how you lead into your story)

Having a Case of Self Pub Remorse?

January 13, 2015

There’s no shame if you’re raising your hand. Publishing is fecking hard work, and I have twelve years experience and a team of hundreds backing me up. I can imagine how delicously hard it is to be a team of one trying to get a book into the marketplace. Whom do you turn to? How do you promote? Feh.

Over the years, I’ve talked to many authors who have self pub remorse, and their comments are almost universal: “I never expected it to be this hard.”

Yah. It is hard. That isn’t to say sales can’t happen, but it’s time consuming if you expect to sell any books. And while you’ve learned to boatload throughout the self pub process, there’s nothing wrong with deciding to see if publishers would be willing to take over your load. Heck, even Amanda Hocking threw in the towel and signed a four-book deal with St. Martins…so you’re in excellent company.

HOWEVER, chances are you aren’t Amanda Hocking,who knew how to promote ’til the cows came home, so  there are some important things you oughta know about how editors view these queries on self pubbed books.

The Eight Ton Elephant in the Room

The first thought that comes to my mind is WHY? What are the reasons the author decided to stop going it alone. Sure, I can speculate, and I do, because my first thoughts focus on what I can do for the author’s book that the author hasn’t done on their own. It’s important that authors know the specific reasons for chucking in the self pub towel because they’ll then be able to define their expectations of a mainstream publisher.

To say, “Oy, I’m tired!” doesn’t help your cause. Write down the specifics of what made selling your book difficult. The list could look something like this:

  •  Marketing/Promotion – I have no real idea how to do this, and I’ve poured countless hours into the effort with no discernible sales.
  • Distribution – Well, I did it through Amazon, so they’re taking care of “distribution,” but I can’t get my books into the stores.
  • Editing, cover design, page/book layout – I feel overwhelmed and broke.

In other words, you spent hundreds or thousands, and the damn thing didn’t sell. Okay, I grok that. But more importantly, I look at the outside reasons why it didn’t sell.

The Query Letter

An author sent me a query letter the other day about her self pubbed book. I looked at the content, which was meh. It’s something I’ve seen a thousand times already – which could be one of the reasons it isn’t currently selling. So, her first fatal mistake is that the story didn’t sound compelling. It could be the case of it being a truly dull story, or it could be the author didn’t know how to write a mouth-watery synopsis. Strike one.

The letter went on to tell me how well received her book was and the huge sales it enjoyed. Hmm. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to smell a rat. If the book is selling so well, then why is she querying me?

Sales History

First thing I did is check Bookscan. Admittedly, Bookscan is far from reliable, because not every store reports their sales to them. Nor does it include Amazon sales. But it does give me a general indication of the sales. In this case, the Bookscan numbers were a grand total of 2 units sold.

Then I checked Amazon, where I noticed the title was ranked at 8 million and only had a couple reviews. Now I’m trying to reconcile this against her claims of “well received” and “huge sales.” The book had barely been out a year. So there’s an obvious disconnect between what her query letter says and what I’m seeing. I mean, it’s possible there was much gushing, and maybe she sold lots of books at talks and such, but I’m just not seeing it, nor did she make any reference to that possibility. Strike Two.

Platform

But I took one last chance at finding her platform. This could tell me how she promoted her book. A quick google of her name showed diddly squat. Put that together with the low sales and few reviews, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t an active author, and she’s looking to me to take over where she’s been exquisitely challenged.

But here’s the rub; taking on a book that’s already been published is a big responsibility on my part because the book isn’t new. There has to be something that tells me this book will sell well. If the author doesn’t provide it, then what conclusions can I draw from what I see? Strike Three…she was out.

If you’re looking to try to get your book with a mainstream publisher, then help yourself out by thinking like an editor. With all the queries on unpublished works that editors receive, why would an editor choose yours? Being able to defend you and your published work will help bridge the gap and possibly elicit a sale.

However, all that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the chances of a publisher being interested in your already-self-pubbed book is extremely low. Most self-pubbed authors I know start fresh and go to publishers with a brand new book. It may be the publisher will pick up your self-pubbed book, but that book must have something to offer them in terms of marketability.

Your bestest friend is the practice of putting yourself in an editor’s Sorels (I woulda said Manolo Blahniks, but I’m squatting on 7″ of snow). If you can look at your query from an editor’s perspective, it may help you decide whether you’re better off making a clean break by writing a new book, or whether your self pubbed book is really something that would make a mainstream publisher jump on top of her barstool and offer free drinks for everyone.

 


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