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


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!

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

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    Just as a note – some magazines seem to really go *out of their way* to make sure you can’t find the editor’s name by any means. I think ‘Dear Editor’ is fine if they don’t provide the information.

  2. Yes, this is true, Ninjie – magazines are notorious for being obscure with their editorial staff, and no one is going to nail an author to the wall in those cases. But most of us have our names listed, so there’s little excuse for doing the To Whom bit.

  3. ericjbaker says:

    What does the writer hope to gain by challenging a rejection? Just suck it up and move on.

  4. John Allan says:

    If ever I write something in the non-fiction arena, and think it might suit Behler Publishing, I will definitely go with Goddess of the Written Word.

    As a novelist, I have never addressed a letter to WIMC, but when faced with the request to send the submission to such as an agency’s Submissions Department, have sometimes used the salutation Sir or Madam. Having read a recent article on query letters, however, I have concluded that, even in the case of a request to submit to a faceless department, it is much better to address it to a named individual; preferably an agent, and the right agent for the work, but otherwise, to the closest match.

  5. I love your blog! Seriously good info and you always make me laugh! I’ve nominated you for an award:

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