Life is Worth Living After All…

January 25, 2013

beagle kittehs

The Setting: Rescue beagles snoozing on the top of the couch. Like cats. They are not allowed to do this. They know this. They do it anyway. Beleaguered and Moany Editor is coming off a 24 hour drinking binge, commenced over the news she’d lost all her email.

<ring ring> Rescue beagle #1: Phone’s ringing. You gonna answer that?

Beleaguered and Moany Editor: Why bother? It’s probably an agent asking me if I’ve had a chance to read her client’s submission, and I DON’T HAVE MY EMAIL!

Rescue beagle #2: Boy, she gets really tetchy, doesn’t she?

<ring ring> Rescue beagle #1: You really oughta answer that. It could be important.

<Beleaguered and Moany Editor shoots dirty look at both rescue beagles before answering the phone> Hello? Behler Publications, home of the broken-hearted and email-challenged.

Voice from the heavens who is masquerading as Amazing Techie Dude: Hey, Lynn? This is Amazing Techie Dude. Guess what? After three days of running five different programs to try to bust into your crapped out hard drive, I had success and am staring at your backed up email. Lemme have your Dropbox info, and I’ll dump it in there.

Beleaguered and Moany Editor <crossing herself, even though she isn’t Catholic>: Omigodomigodomigod! Life IS worth living after all! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!

Amazing Techie Dude: Now, about my fee…

——————-

So I’m up and running again and can get back to everyone who queried me. I’m so happy, I may let the rescue beagles stay on the couch top…as long as Rescue beagle #1 makes me a margarita. She’s part Chihuahua and insists hers are far better than The Beagle’s. We shall see.


Title Comps – What’s the Big Deal?

January 14, 2013

apples for apples

At some point in your query process, someone may ask you for a list of comparative titles (preferably three). You eyes will roll back in your head, and you’ll scream to the heavens. “Argh, I just wanna write. I don’t wanna be hassled with the business end.” There are few who have that luxury, so sticking your heels into quicksand isn’t going to help your writing career. It would be better to be ready, right?

The big question is this: Why do I need title comps?

A Frame of Reference

Sales teams and genre buyers need a frame of reference so they know how and where a book fits on store shelves, and how to appeal to readers. Sales teams can tell genre buyers, “Readers of that 2011 literary phenom, Invert Your Colon, will be attracted to this title, Eating Lawn Clippings: Live Healthy and Moo Like a Cow because it delves further into the health benefits of eating a freshly mowed lawn.”

Instantly, the genre buyers understand the book’s classification of where to shelve the book, and whether they want to issue an invoice for purchase. Now, of course, your publisher’s sales guys will do all the heavy lifting in terms of knowing how to pitch your book, but it’s really helpful if you, the author, are in touch with books that are comparable to yours. It’s a building block for us.

Just yesterday, I contacted one of our authors for title comps. Sure, I can get them myself – and I have – but his subject matter breaks new ground, so I’m naturally interested to get his feedback on the books he feels somewhat resemble his book, as a way of helping our sales and marketing folks.

Additionally, having a comparative title on the tip of your tongue helps when talking to readers. Imagine you’re sitting in a bar (easy if you’re the beagle). Someone asks about your book, so you give the general quickie synopsis because you’re a caring person and don’t want to put anyone to sleep. You can see the person looking a bit puzzled, as if he still doesn’t quite get what your book is about. But if you say, “My book has a similar theme to Gone Girl,” then a light bulb will turn on, and he’ll ask for more details and probably buy you a drink because you’re so fabulous. And that’s what you want; an invitation to talk more about your book.

Attracting an Audience

Title comps are a good way of attracting an audience, just like the bar example I gave above. Most writers read the genre they write, so they should have a strong idea of the titles that closely compare to their own.

It’s helpful when an author writes in their query letter, “Readers of Dancing With Sexy Toes will be attracted to my book, My Three Left Feet, because it deals with the same issues of foot fetishes, which was all the talk in America in 2012. Where My Three Left Feet changes course is when Merry, the main character, challenges today’s zeitgeist that dictates foot fetishes are abnormal and strange, by pursuing a high-fashion life of modeling foot apparel, thus bringing foot fetishes into the mainstream. “

This sort of thing is helpful to me because the author identifies a popular storyline, then tells me how she added her own twist. This tells me a couple things:

  1. She knows her competition
  2. She understands that she has something unique, and not cookie-cutter. This helps me decide whether I think this particular storyline will sell. And if I want to buy it, she’s helped me out by highlighting the selling points…which will attract an audience.

But I don’t wanna be pigeonholed!”

Yes, it’s true; by committing to comparative titles, you’re staking a claim as to what your book is, which can be tough if you’ve written something that’s a bit of a crossover. My suggestion would be to pick a couple title comps in both genres and give the same short comparison as I did in the above example.

Another reason writers don’t want to be pigeonholed is because they want to believe their books are for everyone. In truth, there are very few books that appeal to everyone. Furthermore, I don’t have “everyone” in my Rolodex, and our sales guys don’t, either. If you fit this description, then you need to tell yourself the truth; your book has a particular audience…who are they; and what books inspired you to write yours? How do they compare and contrast?

Don’t Get Caught With Your Vickie Secrets Down Around Your Ankles

I listened to a radio host interview a new author about her book. The radio host brought up a well-known title that ran along the same line as hers, and he wanted to talk about those elements. To my horror, the author coughed and hemmed, and finally said, “I didn’t read that book.” BoOm. End of interview. The radio host was caught flat-footed, and the whole thing went downhill from there. I nearly drove off the road because this was such a noob mistake.

You gotta, gotta, gotta know your competition and be able to speak intelligently to the contrasts and comparisons. Being caught with your Victoria Secrets down during an interview is a sure-fire way to never be invited back.

What Comps Do I Use?

They need to be current – preferably nothing older than three years. I’ve seen title comps that were written back in the 60s and were classics. Do you really believe your book can hold a candle to a classic? It may be that it can, but I advise letting others (like book reviewers) make that comparison…it’ll have far more weight.

Since you are well-read (or you better be!), it should be easy to figure out which books relate to yours. I groan loudly when authors tell me nothing compares to their book. Oh puhleeze…yes it does. Even if you’ve combined two genres, like Twilight, you still have comparisons. It’s a cop-out to use this lame excuse, and it makes me think that you’re not well-read. And if you’re not well-read in your genre, then chances are that you won’t be very affective at promoting your book…at least that’s been my experience with nonfiction.

So if you’re not up to date on books in your genre, get thee to a library post haste, and get cracking.

“Yabut, why???”

Ok, I hear you simpering out there. You’re busy writing and don’t have time to read. That’s like a surgeon saying he’s too busy operating to bone up on current techniques. You read because this is your art, and it behooves you to be an expert in your art. You read because it’s how you figure out if you have a story.

Case in point, an author queried me years ago about a book on cancer. Her query didn’t offer any earth-shattering stuff that hadn’t been written about many times before. I asked her what kind of reading she had done to know whether she had something new to say. Come to find out, she had done exactly zero reading on the subject. I sent her the Amazon link to the cancer books page and suggested she start doing her research.

Two months later, she wrote back to say that after all her reading, she realized she didn’t have anything unique to say. It broke my heart because I know she was sad to come to this conclusion. But it would have been far crueler to let her wander around thinking she had a marketable story. Better to know she has nothing new to say and give her the option of growing as a writer and delving into topics that aren’t covered in other cancer books.

If you write, you must read. If you write, you must know your competition. If you query, you must be able to speak intelligently about your competition and know how your book compares and contrasts. It’s simply good business. And you know what? This applies even if you plan to self-publish.


Series of Events or Plot?

January 7, 2013

chain_f

In playing catch up with queries, I’ve noticed a heavy concentration of queries written by authors who have mistaken a series of events for the plot. Thar be a difference. I don’t care about the series of events; I need the plot because it’s the guts to your story. It’s the reason your book exists. It’s the kapow.

A series of events is a collection of scenes that happen in the course of a book – it ain’t da plot. Note the difference:

“Sally goes to college, where she meets John, the hunky prime slab o’ beef who sits behind her in Math 207. They begin dating, only John is confused because he’s still hung up on his hometown girlfriend, Jane, and can’t figure out who he likes more. Sally, in the meantime, meets Derek in Science 101 and has her own share of confusion. It’s impossible for her to resist his curly hair and the fact that he can speak Pig Latin with a German accent.

Sally sticks it out with John, but lusts for Derek, until John goes home for semester break. Over a pizza party with a group from their science class, Sally ends up making whoopie with Derek. When John returns from semester break, Sally decides to tell him it’s over, that she’s in love with Derek and his German accented Pig Latin. John, meanwhile, discovers that Jane, his hometown girlfriend, has taken up with the undertaker’s son. His mind is made up and Sally is the only girl for him, only now she’s with Derek

John is so undone, he decides to transfer to Podunk University, so he can forget all about Sally. Sally, in the meantime, grows weary with Derek’s Pig Latin, and almost faints when he decides to shave his head. Goodbye sexy, curly locks, hello buzzhead. She begins to think about John. Was he really the one for her? She considers contacting him on Facebook, but he won’t accept her Friend Request. Her emails have gone unanswered, and he won’t answer her phone calls.

She gathers up the nerve to take a road trip to Podunk U and confront him, only to find out he’s disappeared. She goes over to the house of one of his friends to see if he knows where John is…”

…blah, blah, blah…get to the point already. And the problem is, there never is a point, and the query letter continues on for far too long, describing general scenes, but never revealing any reason this story exists. There is no purpose. What’s worse is we don’t even know who is the protagonist (I made this, btw).

Now there are times when a story is all that…a big conglomeration of nothing…and if your story looks like this, you may be in Lack-of-Plot Hell. On the other hand, your story really may have a point after all, but you’ve hidden it too well under long underwear and heavy jackets (forgive the frigid metaphors…it’s really cold in Pitts – yay!). If you don’t reveal the plot within the first couple paragraphs of your query letter, I’ll quit reading…pinky swear.

On the other hand, Plot (as defined by Dictionary.com) is the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story. And here’s the thing; it may be completely different from your boring series of events. I had this very thing happen last week. I read a query that consisted of nothing but a series of events. I rejected it and explained why. A few days later, the author wrote back, thanking me, and included the actual plot. It was much more interesting, and vastly different from the original.
So let me show you what I mean. Here’s the plot to the mess I wrote above:
Sally feels terrible about the way she treated John while they attended university, so she travels down to the campus he transferred in order to forget her…only he turns up missing. Sally begins to consider the possibility that his disappearance is related to his math thesis, which challenges Einstein’s theory of relativity. Since Sally had worked with him the project, she wonders if she’s a target as well, and she’s torn between digging deep to find him and being concerned for her own well-being.

Boom. There it is in one paragraph. It’s a mystery, we know who the protag is, and the plot. All that other blather in the first example has squat all to do with the plot – and it’s this kind of writing that makes it impossible for me to care about reading more – which is sad because you can see the first example has zip all to do with the real plot as revealed in the second example.

So take a look at your query letter and see what you have; a series of events or the plot. Remember; the plot = your character’s journey.

  1. Something happened that created an experience for your main character(s). What is it? A murder? Cancer? Threat to world peace? Job loss? This experience is your trigger point for the story.
  2. Your character is uniquely qualified to have this experience. What is it? Was her loved one murdered? Does she or someone close to him have cancer? Is he a spy who can avert the threat to world peace? Did he lose his job?  What I’m looking for is how the experience relates to your main character.
  3. Your main character can make certain choices that will change the outcome. What are they? Call the police about her loved one’s murder, or investigate it herself and possibly become a target? How does she deal with cancer – does she fight or give up? Does he have enough strength and know how to avert world tragedy? Does he go on welfare, or does he take the only job available to him – which won’t cover the rent? I want to know what the personal stakes are for your main character. I’m looking to see how big the stakes are for them. If it’s a matter of a chipped nail, then there isn’t much to pull me in. However, if we’re talking about finding sanity and comfort in the wake of a major killer of a disease, then I can get wrapped up in that.

If you look at 1, 2, and 3, you’ll see that it’s far easier to avoid committing the Series of Events query letter, which I guarantee will result in a rejection.


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

December 31, 2012

lynn-beagle

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!


Your Benevolence Is Not a Selling Point

November 17, 2012

Since we pub socially relevant personal journeys, I get a lot of authors who feel the need to tell me of their intent to donate part of their royalties to the foundation of their flavor. It’s lovely you want to do this, but it’s not a selling point. Sadly, many authors confuse this benevolence for a reason that I should entertain their books.

It isn’t.

I admit that I’m a capitalist pig and my end game is to sell lots of books to readers who are excited to read about really cool things, so that is where I put my focus. It may be that your book coincides with a great foundation, and your royalties could help them greatly. This, I applaud….but it’s not a selling factor, so it’s best that you simply keep that plan to yourself. Instead, use your precious query letter to describe your extraordinary book.

And while we’re speaking of benevolence, would it be too rude to suggest that you not ask me to ascribe to your cause by forking over a percentage of our profits to your foundation? Given the types of books we publish, we could go broke giving to every single foundation that our many books fit into. I hate having to say no, and I can’t help but feel put on the spot when an author or their foundation request a donation from us. I’m always happy to donate a few books, but we are very much a profit-based entity. Our authors depend on that.

Resist the temptation to allow your zeal influence your query letter. This is business; you have a product – a brilliant manuscript – and we are in the market for such a product. That is your focus. What you do with any remuneration you may enjoy are between you and your accountant.


Query Letters: “Hello, Dr. Freud?”

September 21, 2012

This goes in the Insane Stuff That Sometimes Fills My Day file:

I received a puzzling query letter yesterday that left me scratching my head. I’m not sure if the author was A) Serious, B) Mocking, or C) Attempting to be clever

I’ll let you be the judge:

Dear Ms. Benevolent and Kindly Editor:

Are you finished boasting about yourself? Now, it is my turn.

Some answers:
(1)  About 75,000 words.
(2)  I don’t make pitches. Just throw the flickendoodle letter away if you are too great to peek at what I wrote. I’ll survive.

(3)  I wrote the book to become famous, to get accolades and to make money.
(4)  The audience I am after is the world.
(5)  The book’s unique quality is that it is about me. I am large and cannot be contained.

(6)  You want “a smattering about” me? This is bul- sh-t. [Fill in the blanks, if you can.] But, hell, if it is only a smattering that you want, I’ll oblige. I’m an old fashioned tough guy who rose up from the streets of [redacted] to become a pretty well known [redacted]. The fact that I spent my life as an [redacted] does NOT mean I can’t write. Nowadays, (since I retired), I write and edit two blogs that are viewed by a few thousand people. Take a peek, if you must: [redacted].
(7)  I expect to be dead before I have time for another book. So much for my future plans.

See what I mean? It’s obvious the author read our submission guidelines and even went so far as to read our sample query letter (as evidenced from the salutation), so why, after all that, would the author choose this particular style of communication? Makes me wonder if Sigmund shouldn’t be taking notes on this author, with his counterculture, anti-query query…

Sig (adjusting glasses and posing pen over notepad): “Ja, ja, vere you dropped on your head as a child? Or vere you raised by volves?”

I would have passed this off as someone who’s a sandwich shy of a picnic, but he included his websites…all quite legit It’s a bit unsettling that anyone would expose themselves in such a manner and expect to be regarded with any modicum of respect…but we do see them. Every editor and agent does. This is just one of the more oddball of the bunch. Sadly, this gent’s name will be forever etched in my cerebral hard drive as one to be given a wide berth.

But what I really don’t get is; why bother? Surely he can’t have expected to be taken seriously after insulting me. The logic eludes me. He had to actually sit down, research, write the un-query letter and hit the Send button. At some point, there must have been some thoughts that rambled around his brain, like, “Gee, you really want to be published, so is this the most appropriate way to appeal to an editor?” or was his intent to simply irritate and insult? Either way, I’m an editor, and I have kids, so he has stiff competition.

The idea that anyone would waste an opportunity is tantamount to shooting one’s own foot with an Uzi. For the record, I simply hit the Delete button, so Mr. GrouchyPants accomplished little, other than to put a name and face to brain-addled.


Printing up your book for submission purposes

July 27, 2012

Last weekend at a writer’s conference, I had an author press a book into my hand and urged me to read it. It turned out that she had printed up 100 copies of her book to use in place of the usual submission of the first three chapters. I felt like a heel for declining to take her book, but I did explain why.

For starters, I knew zilch about her book. Second, I’m at a conference, which means I have little spare room to stuff a book into my suitcase. Third, I can’t make effective notes in a book. Lastly, it’s just plain cumbersome. In fact, if you want a sure way to make sure editors and agents won’t read your work, print it into a book. If you want to blow your hard-earned money, print your work into a book.

Nearly all of us have gone paperless, which has so many advantages that I hate to waste time listing them. But the most important is that we can shoot files around to our team. I can’t do that with a book. Additionally, can you imagine what our office would look like if everyone started sending printed books as part of their submissions? The picture above merely hints at the agony.

You may think you’re making things easier by showing up with a shiny book, complete with cover and all, but it’s more like bug repellant. I’ve received numerous printed galley submissions over the years, and I don’t even bother reading the letter. All of it goes into the trash can outside of my post office. Such a waste.

There’s only one thing you need to do when querying; follow the agent’s or editor’s submission guidelines. Nothing fancy, nothing hoo ha. Just follow the guidelines, and your chances of being read increase. Gimmicks don’t work. Really.

Should I Publish First to Capture an Editor’s Attention?

No. A kitten pees in his owner’s shoes every time an author goes DIY for the sole purpose of gaining attention with an editor. You have blown your first print rights, which sucks for an editor. It’s also a royal pain to wipe out an ISBN on a book. Once it’s out on the internet, it’s out there forever, which ends up creating confusion for the editor once the book goes to market.

If your intent is to be published by a trade publisher, then don’t DIY your book. It’ll backfire in a most unpretty way that will make you cry and lots of kitteh owners scream over their ruined shoes.


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