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The Book Doctor Is In: Platform and Your Query Letter

Q. I’m sending queries to agents regarding my memoir. I’ve noticed a lot of writers talking about the importance of platform, basically saying you can’t get a book deal without one. I don’t have a huge platform, but should I mention what I do have in my query?

A. Platform is certainly an important piece of the publishing puzzle, but it’s not a simple A = B calculation. Plenty of people with huge platforms see little success with their books while others with smaller platforms or no platforms at all go on to sell tons of books. No one knows why some books sell and others don’t. Why is one well-written book passed over by readers in favor of one that’s not nearly as well done? No one knows. If anyone knew, publishing would be a very different world. (Everyone who writes erotica was astonished by the whole 50 Shades thing. Not that there were readers for BDSM, but that so many people would read such bad BDSM when there is a ton of much much better erotica available.)

Platform is more important in regular nonfiction publishing (by which I mean things like self-help and how-to) than in creative nonfiction (memoir) and fiction because there is a clearer A = B connection there. That is to say, people with a platform writing in the subject for which they have the platform (Oprah and living your best life stuff) tend to do better than people without.

Remember also that publishing is a business. An acquisitions editor (AE) can point to X number of Twitter followers and Y number of people who watch your television show as evidence that there will be an audience for your book; it makes her decision to publish your book defensible. If you have no platform and the book fails, the publisher fires the AE for placing a bet on someone without a platform (and that’s assuming the AE could get such a project past the editorial committee in the first place, which is a great big if). If you have a big platform and the book fails, the publisher and the AE drown their sorrows at the bar together. “What could we have done differently?” they’ll cry. “She has a great platform!”

I call this my CYA theory of acquisitions.

The platform is important to some degree but it isn’t the most important thing in memoir, nor is it the thing that will make or break your chances for publication. Does having a huge platform improve your chances of publication? Yes. Does lack of one mean you’re doomed? No.

As far as the query is concerned, you’re just trying to get the agent/editor to request the proposal or sample chapters. You’re not (yet) trying to make an argument for publication. So, the bulk of the query is necessarily designed to pique the agent/editor’s interest so she requests that additional material.

All of that said, a brief sentence at the close of the query (when you’re saying a few words about yourself) that shows your new online project has a pretty large readership is not a bad idea. Can’t hurt, might help. But I would not spend a lot of time on that aspect of the query.

Avoiding Creative Burnout

I recently got a note from a writer saying she felt creatively drained.  She said, “My book is good.  How can I convince others?”

Reading between the lines, I figured she’d written a book she felt was excellent but agents/editors were rejecting it, and that was making her feel a lot like not writing any more books, and also that she wished she could figure out how to get an agent’s (or publisher’s) attention.

I will be the first to admit that beating your head against a wall is way more fun than querying agents and editors, and that the more rejections you get, the harder it can be to feel like doing it all over again.  I also know that making creativity your work — the thing that pays the bills — is a
good way to want to shovel ditches for a living.

Basically, we have two connected questions: “How can I succeed in the commercial arena of publishing?” and “How can I, at the same time, renew and feed my creative energies?”

You really do have to separate the act of creation from the act of publishing.  The act of creation is something to be nurtured and protected, even on the days when you don’t feel like it.  The act of publishing is a business transaction, period.  They are two very different creatures, although of course we’re bound to conflate them, being human and wanting to see our hard work rewarded.

Protecting your creativity — renewing it, feeding it, keeping it from shutting down when you get five more rejection letters this week — requires a couple of important habits:

  1. Protect the time.  Even if you’re just drawing doodles on a sketchpad, keep your creative time free from other encumbrances.  My first two hours of every day are for The Work, even though sometimes they actually consist of talking to friends at the coffee shop.
  2. Remember that sheer financial terror impedes creativity.  Putting the entire burden of your financial health on the capricious whims of the publishing industry requires nerves of steel. Have different work to serve different purposes.  It’s not selling out: you’re buying the time to do The Work.
  3. The Work is sufficient in and of itself.  Yes, it’s nice to be recognized for your talent, but it’s not required.  There are ways to share your work beyond traditional publishing, if it comes to that.
  4. Keep more than one project going.  Have new work you’re conceptualizing while you edit the old work and send out the older.  Keep your focus on your work and not on the publishing business.

To the in some ways more difficult question of succeeding in commercial publishing:

  1. Create a network.  The hardest thing in writing is feeling like you’re talking to yourself.  Have other writers, readers, colleagues, who can give feedback and offer resources.
  2. Learn to sell your book.  It’s easier to write a blurb about someone else’s book.  So either pretend you’re writing your query about someone else’s book or trade with a friend: write a query for someone else’s book and have them write one for yours.  See if that helps you nail your query.
  3. Don’t invest everything in one project.  Especially these days.  Times are tough in publishing. You can love your book but you also need to Let. It. Go.  Maybe it will be published, maybe it won’t.  Like a child, you do your best by it but beyond that, you don’t have a lot of say in how it turns out. Get to work on the next book.
  4. Invest in getting better.  Yes, this book is good.  Focus on how the next one is going to be better.  Read, attend conferences, join writers’ groups. Immerse yourself in understanding the craft and the publishing process.  Experiment.  Fail.  Fail a lot.  Learn something. Fail some more.  Write the book no one can turn down (then sell the secret for one million dollars).  That’ll keep you too busy to focus on the inadequacies of the agents and editors who are rejecting your book.
  5. Recognize what you can control and what you can’t.  Writing the best book you can?  Completely under your control.  Convincing other people it’s the cat’s meow?  Not so
    much.

How Long Does Querying Take?

I am frequently asked how long it takes to hear back from editors or agents.  Maybe a writer has an agent who has submitted a proposal or a manuscript, and she is biting her nails waiting to hear back, or she’s submitted the full manuscript of her novel at an agent’s request and is wondering how long it will take to hear a yes or no.  I understand how hard it is to be patient; I am as neurotic as the next writer.

What writers want me to tell them is “six days.”  Or 43, or 19, or even 176, as long as I promise they will hear back by then. It is the uncertainty they object to, not the elapsed time.   Which is why no one ever wants to hear my answer, which is: “It depends.”

Asking, “How long does it take to hear from an editor/agent?” is like asking, “How long is a piece of string?” I can tell you that no usually comes faster than yes, so be careful what you wish for.  I can tell you that editors with more seniority generally respond faster because they have to do less hoop-jumping to make an offer and are more likely to know if something is going to get past the acquisitions committee.

By the same token, some agents and agencies have more clout, and editors will respond more quickly to submissions from them.  Projects that have huge commercial appeal will go faster than projects of less commercial appeal or with non-celebrity writers.   Other than that, it depends on how strongly the editor feels about the project, how much buy-in she needs to get from others to make it fly, how full her list is (not to mention her workload), who’s on vacation, and even how well another book on a similar topic is doing.  I’m currently testing an hypothesis about the fullness of the moon.

You may get an offer in a few days or weeks (I’ve had that happen).  You may get an offer after many months (Ditto).  You may never get an offer.  You may never even hear back.  So instead of worrying about “when,” accept that it will be seven months from now, be pleasantly surprised when it isn’t, and get to work on your next project.

3 Query Letter Must-Haves

In the course of my work (once as an agent, now as an acquistions editor), I have found that writers often overlook a few important items in their queries:

  1. Say what your story is about in a couple of sentences, not in fifteen paragraphs.  For fiction, who are your main characters, why should we care about them, and what is the main conflict of the story? For nonfiction, what category are you writing in, who is your audience, what other books are like yours, and why are you the right person to write the book?  Tell this concisely.
  2. What is the title of your book?  People forget to give this! This is the hook that people will remember you by, so don’t forget to mention it!
  3. When you query via e-mail, include your actual name in your letter.  I get e-mails from addresses like qrst@gmail.com but the writer never signs his/her e-mail, so I have no idea who is writing to me. And I have no idea how to respond to people who don’t give their names.  Who you are should not be a secret.

 

Networking for Writers 101

In any profession, having contacts can help you succeed. Yet most of us don’t start off knowing anyone who can help us get published. I’ve often said, “It isn’t who you know, it’s who you get to know.”

We read books and blogs, join writers’ groups, attend conferences, and somehow eventually connect with the people who can make a difference in our careers.   What I mean when I say you can get to know the people you need to know is just that: with attention and effort, you can connect with that editor who likes your style or that agent who falls in love with your novel.

But what does “with attention and effort” mean, exactly? What I’m getting at is this: use the opportunities that arise in your life and your work to connect with members of the community of writers, editors, and agents.  That’s all.  One of the simplest ways to do this is by pitch (query) letter. I sold something like my first 17 books to publishers without having an agent.  All of the editors I sold to had never heard of me before.  (Once they’d acquired one of my books, though, we had a relationship, and they were more easily persuaded to publish another of my books.)

The publishing world has changed since I started writing books, but the mundane pitch letter is still worth a lot more than most writers realize.  The pitch letter is the cornerstone of a lot of relationships.   If your pitch letter ends up yielding a request for pages and eventually an offer, yay you.  More often, though, you get a form rejection, which is just discouraging.  But sometimes you spark an editor’s (or agent’s) interest, it’s just that this book isn’t the one.

That is a tremendous opportunity for you.  An editor who says, “not this book but maybe the next one” is one you need to treasure — and to send the next book to.  The agent who says, “this doesn’t quite work for me, but if you revise, I will look again,” is a treasure, too.  Don’t underestimate these kinds of exchanges.  Editors and agents don’t say these things lightly. It’s way easier to say, “thanks, but no thanks” and then not have any further hassle.

So I’m always amazed at the number of people I make encouraging noises at who then fall off the face of the earth. Now, not everyone who queries me is going to want to sign with me even if I make an offer,  and not everyone is going to want to revise the way I think their work needs to be revised, and so on.  But here’s the thing:  Someone who is interested in your work is a colleague to be cultivated, not ignored.  So don’t ignore signs of interest.  Build on them.

Conferences are a good way of meeting editors and agents face-to-face, though it’s important to realize that most of the time you’re not going to get a publishing or representation offer from one of these events.  I also like good, professional writers’ groups (which may be more affordable than flying off to conferences), especially local chapters of well-established organizations.  You’re not necessarily going to meet an editor this way, but you’ll meet other writers, and maybe they’ll connect you with their editors, or let you know that a certain agent they know is looking for new clients, or what have you. Some of these groups are online, and that makes them even easier to join and “attend.”

Remember that the world of publishing is fluid: I’ve been a writer, an agent, and now I’m an acquisitions editor. This happens all the time: editors become agents, writers become editors, etc.  You never know what the next step of someone’s career will be.  Being friendly and helpful with colleagues pays off not only in a warm fuzzy feeling, but it may actually boost your career.

Just as important as any of that, though, is being out there in the world, hanging out with writers and other creative types.  If you’re on Twitter, follow editors and agents.  Comment on agent’s blogs. Start a blog of your own.  Have a website.  Make it easy for people to find out about you and make an effort to find out about them.

5 Common Query Letter Mistakes

What Doesn’t Work – Query Letters

  1. Focusing on telling about yourself and not about the book.
  2. Describing the theme of the book (“it’s about love and hate”) and not the conflict and story (for fiction) or the book’s content (for non-fiction).
  3. Telling all the nitty-gritty details of who did what (save that for the synopsis).
  4. Sounding defensive or attacking (“I know no one in the liberal media will want to hear my story, but . . . .”)
  5. 5.  Using vague generalizations instead of specific information (“Lots of people will be interested in reading about gardening, especially the way I talk about it.”)

The Query Letter Basics

Once you know what your book is, how it differs from others like it, and have captured this information in your book proposal (for nonfiction) or written the actual manuscript (for fiction), you’re ready to write your pitch letter (also called a query letter).

This is usually a one-page business letter (almost always sent by email these days) that you use to pique an agent’s or editor’s interest in your book so they’ll want to read your proposal.  Remember, your pitch showcases your writing; editors and agents expect it to be well-done.

Your nonfiction pitch needs to cover these three points:

  • What your book is about – what problem does it solve or how does it benefit the reader?
  • What hole in the market does it fill – who is the audience and why?
  • Why are you the one to write and promote it – and if you’re not the expert, will you have access to experts or an expert co-author?

For fiction:

  • What is the story about?  What is the conflict?  What are the stakes?
  • Where does it fit in the market? What is the genre and word count?  Does your pitch demonstrate that you know your genre?
  • Who are you?  Put in a little about yourself, including publishing history and important prizes and awards.

That’s a lot to do in 300 words or fewer.  So don’t start with “I’m writing a book on ways to save money.”  That’s not going to grab anyone’s attention.

“Is credit card debt keeping you up all night?” may sound like an infomercial, but it’s way more likely to catch an editor’s or agent’s attention.  Even better if you can be a bit more original: “If you got a good night’s sleep last night, you’re probably not among the 70% of Americans with serious credit card debt.”  I’m sure you can do even better than that.

This opening paragraph is your hook – why people would want to read the book.  When people ask me what I write about, I say something like, “I show people how to use the principles of martial arts to live happier, more successful lives.”  But that’s not a hook, it’s just a description.  If I wanted to pitch Dojo Wisdom, I might say something like, “Calm or crazy?  Fun-loving or frustrated?  Which would you rather be?”  Then I’d go into my basic pitch: following the principles of martial arts can help you have a calm, fun-loving life.