Just because an agent hasn’t responded to your query letter doesn’t mean she’s not interested. Arielle (a literary agent) and David (author) explain why agents are silent and what authors can do about it.
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This Query Letter Webinar was held on December 1, 2016
The query letter is an author’s first arrow in their assault on the castle surrounding the Kingdom of Bestsellers. The Book Doctors are constantly shocked by how many great writers write terrible query letters. Agents and publishers are overwhelmed and inundated; if they don’t fall in love with your query letter, you’re going to get one of those horrible generic responses which, no matter how much sugar they put on it, basically tells the author to drop dead.
This webinar will break down everything you need to know about the query letter, and we will deconstruct and critique (in our kind and gentle way) participants’ randomly selected query letters.
This webinar is FREE to view. To submit your query letter for possible critique, please send it to email@example.com. Include “query webinar submission” in the subject line.
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Our book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published takes you through the entire process of conceiving, writing, selling, marketing and promoting your book.
We’re so excited about the new edition of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published!
As a thank-you for your support, we’ve planned all kinds of giveaways and contests designed to help YOU get published! We’re giving away a one-hour consultation on your query letter to help you reach the right literary agent or publisher for your book. This is a $250 value.
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David has now been a writer for 15 years. Before that, he was a professional actor for 15 years. In that time, he located, lured and landed over 50 agents. In fact, he got so good at it that he eventually got an agent to marry him and be the mother of his child. Sadly, on their wedding day, she fired him as a client. For those of you who don’t know, that agent is Arielle.
We’ve seen lots of agents try to tell writers how to find an agent. The sad truth is agents have no idea how to find an agent. All they have to do is look in the mirror, and there is an agent staring back at them. They look around the office; they’re surrounded by agents. Agents can tell you what things not to do and what things annoy them. But they also often give bad advice because, quite frankly, they don’t want the competition.
We see lots of agents tell writers not to do multiple submissions. But, in fact, it can take an agent nine months to get to your manuscript. That’s how long it took Arielle to read David’s manuscript after he submitted it to her. And we went on to get married! Imagine if it took nine months for every agent to get back to you, it would take you seven years to query 10 agents. Of course, agents don’t want you to do multiple submissions. They want you all to themselves.
David also heard an agent say a writer should never submit a book that’s already been self-published. She said it in such a dismissive and entitled way. You find this a lot with agents; they tend to develop a dismissive, entitled, bitter, jaded, snarky outer shell. You can’t blame them because they are constantly inundated, and everyone wants the agent to make their dreams come true. In fact, a great agent can make your dreams come true. David is living proof of that. However, he also did exactly what the dismissive, entitled agent said couldn’t be done. One of his books went out-of-print, and people kept asking where they could buy it. So, as an experiment, he decided to self-publish the book. It was a great experience, and he learned an amazing amount from doing it. It cost him nothing because the book had already been published; and he bartered with people to make him a new cover, a new layout for the printed version and an e-book. He immediately started making money on the book. At the same time, he went out to a number of agents and editors, and lo and behold, got a book contract. When that happened, he immediately took the book down from where it was available, and no one was the wiser. Mind you, he didn’t tell the people he was submitting a book that had already been self-published. But if they had asked, he certainly would not have lied. They didn’t ask. He didn’t tell.
So how do you find an agent?
There is a fine line between research and stalking. The Book Doctors firmly believe it’s important to stay on the research side of that line. The first thing David does is make a list of 10 to 15 books that are similar, in the biggest broadest sense of that word, to his book. Let us emphasize in no uncertain terms that we mean big broad strokes. And please, for goodness sake, don’t say that your book is like no book ever written. Because that book will never be published. Lots of our clients have no idea what books are similar to their books. That’s a problem.
One of the most important things you can do as a writer is to read, and you have to become an expert in the section of the bookstore where your book is going to live. Recently, someone pitched us a piece of noir. We asked him if it was more like Raymond Chandler, Dennis Lehane, or James Elroy. He looked at us like a confused puppy and said, “Who are they?” They’re only three of the most successful and brilliant noir writers in history. If you are lucky enough to get an agent or editor interested, and they ask you if your book is similar to another book on the shelf, you have to be able to say, “Oh yes, I love that book, and readers of that book will love my book, but it’s different in these ways …”
2. Find Books Similar to Yours
Take a field trip to your local independent bookstore. When the phones aren’t ringing off the hook and the cash registers aren’t going crazy, find a person who is the expert, or as close to an expert there is, in the kind of book you’re writing. Then ask them what books they have that are similar to your book. Start making a list of books that are similar to yours, again in the broadest, largest sense. List books that looked interesting to you, that looked like they were done by people you’d like to do business with. In the acknowledgments section of those books, look for the agent and/or editor.
3. Make a List and Create an Environment of Competition for Your Book
Your agent list should be a little bit like a high school senior putting together their college list. You should have some well-known agents at the top of your list, some agents you admire but aren’t bigwigs yet, and some agents that have just started out or whose lists are small.
As soon as anyone expresses interest, you immediately email everyone else on your list. There’s nothing that’s going to get you a response faster than having someone else interested. That’s human nature. It’s like the sorta cute kid in high school who shows up with a beautiful cheerleader on his arm. Immediately, he becomes much more attractive. He’s exactly the same guy he was yesterday; only now someone else wants him. You see, every agent who’s been in the business for any length of time has a recurring nightmare in which they’re walking down the street, people are pointing at them, laughing and giggling, whispering to each other, “There goes the agent who passed on Harry Potter!” That’s because every agent has passed on a book that has become wildly successful.
4. Know Thy Agent-to-Be
Make a file on each of the agents. Where are they from? Where did they go to college? What are their hobbies? Where have they been interviewed? What books have they agented? Are they a dog person? You’re going to use all this information when you write your query letter.
One of the biggest mistakes that most amateur writers make is that they just send anonymous letters without doing any research. In lots and lots of places, it says that Arielle does not like fantasy and science fiction; and yet every week she gets another email from a writer that says, “Dear Agent, I know you’re going to love my book; it’s the first in a 37 book series. It’s called the Unicorns of Narnia.” Arielle used to actually answer those emails. She doesn’t answer them anymore. They go directly into the trash.
5. Make it Easy for an Agent to Say Yes
Agents are trained to say no. They’re just looking for a reason to reject you. It sounds cold and cruel from a writer’s perspective; but having lived with an agent for so long now, David totally understands it. They are inundated and overwhelmed, mostly overworked and underpaid. They’ve got 50 submissions that arrived in their inbox today, they had 50 yesterday, and will have 50 tomorrow. It’s relentless. That’s why they’re looking for a reason to say no. These reasons include:
- Spelling or punctuation mistakes—we can’t tell you how many people have spelled Arielle’s name wrong
- Over-promising and under-delivering
- Too much horn-tooting and butt-kissing
- Using obvious and overblown comp titles (i.e. Harry Potter, Eat Pray Love, Hunger Games)
- Not following agent submission guidelines—you can’t believe the percentage of submissions that do one or more of the above.
That’s why if you just do the basics, it already ups your odds by loads.
6. Don’t Submit Your Book Until It’s Fully Polished
Writers are under the mistaken impression that an agent will help them fix their books. The agent is almost certainly not going to help you fix your book. If your book is not ready, the agent will reject you and your book. Almost certainly, that bridge will be burned.
7. Develop a Coping Mechanism for Rejection
JK Rowling was rejected 25 times. What makes you think you’re any better than JK Rowling? Thicken your skin. Everyone has her own method of doing this. David subscribes to the Godfather model: It’s never personal; it’s always business. He also enjoys accumulating lists of people who’ve rejected him; so that when he finally gets a deal he’s been looking for, he can send them all a very sweet email, and rub their noses right in it. But again, everyone has to come up with their own personal method.
8. Keep Up-to-Date
Sign up for Publishers Marketplace and Shelf Awareness. Keep abreast of who is selling books and making deals. Know what agents have awesome blogs. Speaking of which, here’s a shout out to Jennifer Laughran, who has an absolutely awesome blogfor those of you writing children’s books.
9. Go to Writers Conferences, Seminars and Workshops
There are very few places a writer can actually get face time with an agent. Conferences, seminars or workshops are one of them. You can listen to agents make presentations, and sometimes you can even have one-on-one sessions with them.
10. Join a Writers Group
When David lived in San Francisco, he found an amazing writing group. One of the writers was a very handsome, very charming, ridiculously talented writer. Plus he was a doctor. You wanted to hate him, but he was just too nice to hate. You knew if he caught a break, he was going to be huge. Well, he did catch a break. He wrote a little book called The Kite Runner and became an international sensation. His name is Khaled Husseini. Now David is connected with his agent by one degree of separation.
11. Attend Readings at Bookstores and Libraries
Any time an author whose work is similar to yours in any way, shape, or form comes to town to do a reading, GO! Buy a book. Be the last person in line at the signing. If someone comes behind you, get behind him/her. This is important because when you get up to the front of the line to have the author sign the book, it’s very rude to have a conversation if there’s someone waiting behind you. If you’re the last one, then there’s no pressure to move along. Sometimes the writer will want to talk to you; sometimes the writer will not want to talk to you. Pay very close attention to body language. Ask the writers if they’re happy with their agent. If they say yes, this gives you the opening to contact the agent and say, “I was talking to your client yesterday, and she said how much she enjoyed having you as her agent.”
12. Write a Killer Query
Three paragraphs. The first is always customized. Why should this agent be your agent? The second paragraph is your pitch. The third paragraph is a short bio. The whole query should reflect the voice of your book whether that be funny, authoritative, lyrical or whatever. This is your audition to show what a fabulous writer you are.
13. Persevere and Follow Up
Don’t ever assume if you don’t hear back from an agent that they are rejecting you. Assume they haven’t even looked at your query or manuscript. David’s maxim is: keep submitting until they say yes or the agent tells you to go to hell. He tries to have the Zen attitude that it doesn’t matter whether they say yesor no. Because when someone says no, it’s like you bought another lottery ticket. You have increased your chances of winning.
However, there are two kinds of perseverance: smart perseverance and stupid perseverance. The Book Doctors highly advocate smart perseverance. Always try to make your query/proposal/manuscript a little better. Polish, buff, shine until is evolves into the best versions of itself.
Whenever you are rejected, ask if there’s anything you can do to make your work better. Time and again, David has seen people be very generous with their advice. When David first approached Arielle, he didn’t know her. In fact, David didn’t know anyone in the publishing business. After making initial contact, he sent her his manuscript. A week later he followed up, just to make sure she received the manuscript. It turned out she had already lost it. He sent another. A month later, when he hadn’t heard anything, he called her on the phone. Generally speaking, agents don’t want you to call them on the phone. But this is David’s strength. We had a very nice conversation; he never even mentioned his manuscript. He found out afterwards that because he’d been so nice, Arielle felt very guilty. One month later, he did the same thing. This went on, as he mentioned earlier, for nine months. One human gestation period. Finally, he told her he was coming to New York for Christmas. He lived in Venice Beach at the time, and in fact he wasn’t going to New York at all; but he had a feeling that if he said that, she would read his manuscript. He was right. As soon as they hung up, he went and booked a ticket to New York. Six months later, after she had helped him craft his proposal, she sold it for six figures in less than two hours. Ten years after that, they had the most amazing daughter ever.
You wrote your 50,000 words (or got pretty close!). You’re a winner. You felt the high. Now what are you going to do with your precious manuscript? That’s where we, The BookDoctors, come in.
For those of you not familiar with Pitchapalooza, here’s the skinny: You get 250 words to pitch your book. Twenty-five pitches will be randomly selected from all submissions. We will then critique the pitches online so you get to see what makes a great pitch. We will then choose one winner from the group. The winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her manuscript. We will also crown a fan favorite who will receive a free one-hour consult with us (worth $250).
Beginning February 6, 2015, you can email your pitch to email@example.com. PLEASE DO NOT ATTACH YOUR PITCH, JUST EMBED IT IN THE EMAIL. All pitches must be received by 11:59PM PST on March 6, 2015. The 25 random pitches will be posted on March 15, 2015. Winners will be announced on March 31, 2015. Anyone can vote for fan favorite, so get your social media engine running as soon as the pitches go up!
Like last year, we’re offering free 20-minute consultations (worth $100) to anyone who buys a copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. Just attach a copy of your sales receipt to your email and we’ll set up your consultation.
It’s been a great year for Pitchapalooza winners. Cathy Camper and Raul Gonzalez III were our Pitchapalooza winners from world-famous Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. Their middle grade graphic novel, Lowriders in Space, is the first in a two-book deal with Chronicle Books. Cari Noga was the NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza winner in 2011. Her novel, Sparrow Migrations, was a semifinalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, the spring 2013 winner of the ForeWord Firsts contest sponsored by ForeWord Reviews, and was named a literary fiction category semi-finalist in the Kindle Book Review’s 2014 Kindle Book Awards. She recently received an offer from Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. Then there’s Pitchapalooza winner and NaNoWriMo veteran, Gennifer Albin. After she won Pitchapalooza, one of New York’s top agents sold her dystopian novel in a three-book, six-figure deal. Her third book, Unraveled, just came out this past fall. And these are just a very few of our many success stories!
Are you feeling a little unsure about exactly how to craft your pitch? We’ve got 10 Tips for Pitching:
1. A great pitch is like a poem. Every word counts.
2. Make us fall in love with your hero. Whether you’re writing a novel or memoir, you have to make us root for your flawed but lovable hero.
3. Make us hate your villain. Show us someone unique and dastardly whom we can’t wait to hiss at.
4. Just because your kids love to hear your story at bedtime doesn’t mean you’re automatically qualified to get a publishing deal. So make sure not to include this information in your pitch.
5. If you have any particular expertise that relates to your novel, tell us. Establishing your credentials will help us trust you.
6. Your pitch is your audition to show us what a brilliant writer you are, it has to be the very best of your writing.
7.Don’t make your pitch a book report. Make it sing and soar and amaze.
8. A pitch is like a movie trailer. You start with an incredibly exciting/funny/sexy/romantic/
9. Leave us with a cliffhanger. The ideal reaction to a pitch is, “Oh my God, what happens next?”
10. Show us what’s unique, exciting, valuable, awesome, unexpected, about your project, and why it’s comfortable, familiar and proven.
Consider 25 Sophie’s Choices.
Consider 25 juicy, delicious pitches.
Consider that you only get to choose one.
We did. And after much consideration, we have chosen a winner. It was not an easy choice! There were just so many great pitches. But we kept coming back to one. And that one, as you may have guessed, is Sparrow Migrations by Cari Noga. Cari’s storytelling ability , strong voice, and her idea to revolve her book around an event that captured America, won us over. We really wanna read this book. Congratulations Cari!
As for the fan favorite, the fans have spoken and the winner is…drum roll… Out of the Woods by father-son team, David and Ben Ash. Congratulations guys!
Thank you all so much for participating in what, for us, has been a fabulously fun Pitchapalooza. We hope EVERYONE gets happily published!
After a month of sleep deprivation, self-medication, and caffeine saturation, you wrote your 50,000-word novel. Now what? Do yourself a favor, before you rush to send that novel out, take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and come up with a strategic plan for getting your book successfully published. Because one of us is a writer, and the other is a literary agent, we thought we’d shed some light on this planning stage from both perspectives. Then we’ll give you 10 simple things you can do to increase your chances of success before you send your manuscript out into the cold cruel world.
DAVID, THE WRITER:
Before I shacked up with a literary agent, I had absolutely no idea of the sheer insurmountable massiveness of the Matterhorn Mountain of manuscripts that every agent faces every day. No matter how fast they reject manuscripts, they just keep coming. I always thought that agents would be excited to get my manuscript, would cherish the prospect of being able to get rich from it. But now that I’ve been living with an agent for over a decade, I realize what a fool I truly was. The great agents can barely service the clients they have. Even the bad agents have too many clients. If an agent is already established, they’re not hungry. If the agent is young and ravenous, they may not have the contacts necessary to lure the elusive golden ticket of a publishing contract.
Before I lived with an agent, I used to finish a piece of writing and send it everywhere. The problem, I now realize, was that I kept sending out a faulty product. One that hadn’t been road tested. That wasn’t finished. It’s as if I invited a guest over to my house for some delicious cake, and I only baked it for 40 minutes instead of an hour. All the ingredients would be there, but my guest would be forced to eat something all sloppy, gloppy, drippy and nasty. I’d say for every hundred manuscripts that arrive at our door every week, a good 85% of them are half-baked.
Now that I myself counsel so many writers trying to get published, I realize that many of them think, as I did, that an agent or publisher will help fix their manuscript. With the ever-shrinking publishing business in such turmoil, agents and editors must be absolutely passionate about a book. Or believe in their heart that it will make lots and lots and lots of money. Hopefully both. But because they have so many books to choose from, it only makes sense that they would be most attracted to the cakes that are beautifully baked and frosted. The ones that need no fixing.
ARIELLE, THE AGENT:
While it’s never overtly stated, agents and editors are trained to say “No”. You’re trained to look for reasons to turn a project down. To think of every objection anyone might possibly have. Uncover every reason a book might fail. In fact, because I have so little time as an agent, if a manuscript is just good or if it’s at all sloppy or if the writer doesn’t appear professional, the manuscript will go right in the trash.
But when a writer has done her research and perfected her craft, agents get excited. They can sniff a professional often in the very first paragraph of a query letter. And when they do, the thrill of the potential sale ping pongs through their bodies.
I love helping writers. I love working with writers. But it takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, often for very little reward. One of my great frustrations as an agent is that some of the very best books I’ve ever worked on never got published. It breaks my heart! That’s why agents are so very picky. And that’s why you have to anticipate every reason why an agent might say “no” before they can.
Now that you’ve heard both perspectives, here’s our top 10 list of things to do before sending your manuscript out. These tips are writer and agent friendly!
1) READERS & CRITIQUERS. Like a fine bottle of newly opened wine, let your manuscript breathe. While it’s breathing, get people to read it. You absolutely cannot be objective about your own work. Almost everyone thinks that their baby is the cutest, smartest, and most talented. For this reason, don’t depend on your family and/or people who love you as your readers. Look to your NaNoWriMo cohorts. Writer’s groups and workshops. Readers and writers on any of the gazillion websites where they congregate, like Goodreads, RedRoom, and Open Salon. Offer to read other writers’ work in exchange for them reading yours. Yes, of course, take all comments with several grains of salt. But if everyone says your ending sucks, there’s a very good chance that it does.
2) MOUNTING A PLATFORM. Nowadays, publishers don’t just want you to have a following, they expect it. How many eyeballs can you bring to the table? Relentlessly connect with your audience. For example, Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice, a novel about Alzheimer’s she originally self-published, hooked up with a major Alzheimer’s website. After much dedicated hard work, Lisa became a keynote speaker at a big annual Alzheimer’s convention. This led to the New York Times bestseller list, which led to a seven-figure two-book deal.
3) IDENTIFYING COMPETITION. Know your marketplace. Frequent your local bookstore. Live in the section where your book will land. Read everything. Befriend booksellers and pick their brains for comparable titles. Assemble a deep and elaborate comp list (this is industry lingo for comparative titles). When you go to an editor or agent, and they ask you about a book similar to yours, you better know that book, and know how yours is different. You also want to compare your book to others that have been successful in the marketplace.
4) FINDING BUYERS. Pinpoint books similar but not exactly like yours. Scour the acknowledgments. See if the agent and/or editor is named. Research these people. Find out everything you can about them. What other books do they represent or edit? Where did they go to high school, college, grad school? Are they horse people, cat people, Jane Austen people? All this will help you find the right buyer for your book when you go to sell it.
5) A PITCH-PERFECT PITCH. 1 minute or less. 1 page. 150 words. That’s all you get for a pitch. Read tons of flap copy of other books in your section of the bookstore. Use your comp titles to develop a 5-second elevator pitch, which will usually either end or begin your pitch. For example, we call our book the What to Expect When You are Expecting…of publishing. In other words, our book, like What To Expect promises to be a one stop shopping guide for everything you’ll need to know about the subject. It may seem cheesy and/or ridiculous, but this shorthand “sales handle” gives agents and editors a quick and easy way to understand and describe exactly what your book is. A pitch is like a poem. Every syllable counts.
6) MASTERFUL QUERY. 1 page. 3 paragraphs. The first paragraph establishes your connection with whomever you’re trying to hook with your book. The second is your pitch, condensed to one paragraph. The third is your bio, again shrink-wrapped so that it’s one short paragraph. This letter needs to establish who you are. If you’re writing a humor book, this letter better be funny. If you’re writing romance, there better be some sizzle. If you’re writing suspense, there better be a great cliffhanger somewhere in sight. Read your query out loud before you send it. Again, get others to read it. Sadly, this one page has a lot to do with your chances of getting successfully published.
7) GET PROFESSIONAL HELP. A great editor can make your book so much better. Our editor improved our book approximately 15,000 times. She kept challenging us to be more precise, to surgically remove unnecessary words, to say things with more clarity and concision. She could, in the words of editor/agent/author Betsy Lerner, see the forest for the trees. If you have the dinero, investing in your book early on in the process may save you time and money in the long run. If you don’t have a lot of spare change, you can ask a local bookseller to just read—not edit—your manuscript for a fee.
Originally posted at The Office of Letters and Light
The Book Doctors, aka David Henry Sterry, and ex-agent/current wife Arielle Eckstut, authors of the Workman book The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, will making a house call in Long Island, and they want YOU to PITCH your BOOK at their Pitchapalooza. Book Revue, Huntington, December 2, 7 PM. It’s like American Idol for books, only without the Simon. Writers get one minute to pitch their book ideas to a once-in-a-lifetime All-Star cast of publishing experts. It’s like American Idol for books, without the Simon. We are lucky enough to have James Levine, the founder of the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, one of Manhattan’s most successful book agents. As well as Long Island’s own Mauro DePreta, Vice President of It Books (HarperCollins Publishers), publishers of the #1 New York Times bestseller Sh*t My Dad Says. An industry veteran of nearly two decades, he has had the good fortune of publishing bestsellers like Not Without Hope, the incredible survival story by Nick Schuyler and New York Times journalist Jere Longman, and Marly & Me by John Grogan. Arielle has been a literary agent for 18 years, and I am the best-selling author of 13 books, the last of which appeared on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. We’ve helped dozens and dozens of talented amateurs become professionally published authors. We’ve appeared on NPR many times, and taught at publishing Stanford University. Here’s a link to our awesome Editor Goddess Savanna’s blog about our Pitchapalooza at Barnes & Noble 86th St., with publishing titans Larry Kirschbaum and Bob Simon. Here’s a link to an article about the Art of the Pitch and our Pitchapalooza on Publishers Perspective.
Every writer who buys a book will get a free consultation from the Book Doctors, $100 value.
Get a free consultation with the Book Doctors, authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Whether it’s figuring out a great title, how to pitch your book, get an agent, market and promote, or self-publish, we can help you get successfully published. Just send proof of purchase of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Offer good til midnight Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010.
David Henry Sterry & Arielle Eckstut, aka The Book Doctors are the authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Between them they have published 20 books, been a literary agent for 18 years, been on NPR countless times, contributed chronically to the Huffington Post, and appeared on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
To purchase book: http://thebookdoctors.com/buy-the-book