Wednesday, April 2, 2014

How Not to Write a Query Letter

      A few days ago, I was web-surfing and came across a site maintained by a fellow scribe. I saw a post he'd put up over two years ago in which he'd queried literary agents about what their pet peeves were in book proposals.
     Anyone who's been following me for even a few months knows my thoughts on literary agents. Depending on your willingness to maintain the current corrupt status quo, literary agents are either a necessary or unnecessary evil inflicted on us by a lazy, bottom-line-driven publishing industry.
     But that's not to say that literary agents don't have legitimate beefs about no-nos that don't make their jobs any easier. As much as I hate and mistrust literary agents in general, that's not to say I don't have a smidgen of empathy for their lot. So this writer had sent out letters to 100 literary agents (typically, barely over half responded) asking them what their biggest gripes were concerning book proposals and query letters.
     Among the most common complaints were "Dear Agent" letters. Among all their pissings and moanings, I have the least empathy for this since they reserve the right to send us out "Dear Author" form rejections. After all, in our spare time, the more conscientious of us send out personalized letters and still get fed a steady diet of boilerplate increasingly sent out through their flunkies.
     But this is still a big no-no because it betrays a basic flaw in your strategy. Sending out boilerplate "Dear Agent" cover letters more than suggests you're not doing your research and are scatter-shooting proposals without any heed as to what that agent represents. It shows you're too lazy to do your research in the interests of appropriate submitting. And, if you're a historical novelist like me, someone who needs to do a ton of research to maintain plausibility and authenticity, how ironic would it be if you sent out letters to badly vetted agents?
     Another huge mistake novelists make when presenting their work to agencies is droning on and on about themselves and in the opening paragraph. No one cares where you were born, how much you love writing, what your great aunt thinks of your family saga. The agent wants to be pitched in the opening paragraph, ideally in the opening line (To borrow a phrase from the film business, it can't hurt to kick off your cover letter with a "log line", or a one-sentence summary of your book. For Tatterdemalion, for instance, I sometimes start off with, "The Seven Per Cent Solution meets The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.").
     Most agents will expect you to summarize the book in the opening paragraph or two, then for you to go on with a mini CV or your literary biographical blurb. What qualifies you to write this story, what workshops have you attended, any prior publishing credits, awards, etc? Always keep your CV pertinent to the book you're pitching.
     Since the onus for success is being placed more and more on the shoulders of the writer, this necessitates you have a marketing platform in place (especially if your book is nonfiction). This all but requires an internet presence, meaning Facebook, Twitter, etc. Throwing in some numbers, if you have them in abundance, can't hurt, especially if it suggests you have a built-in fan base waiting for your book. Saying your Mom and college dorm room mate loved your book will not cut any ice, no matter how objective and honest they were.
     I cannot stress enough the importance of appropriately submitting. There are roughly over 1000 literary agencies currently operating in the United States alone and many of them are specialists. Rick Broadhead and Jeff Herman are just two examples of agents who represent only nonfiction. There are many other agents who rep primarily or exclusively romance while others will only consider Middle Grade, Young Adult and childrens' book. Others are Christian agencies. If your book is a thriller intended for adults, then you need to do your research and find the right agent.
     While researching the right agent for Tatterdemalion, I tended to zero in on those who represented not only suspense and thrillers, I went right after the ones who are seeking historical fiction. A simple Google search using the words "literary agents, historical fiction" is enormously helpful in weeding out those who do from those who don't. And there's nothing more frustrating to an agent than some boob trying to sell their erotica on them when they take on only inspiration and Christian literature.
     It goes without saying you need to proofread your cover letter, synopsis and anything else you would send them. If you can't adequately proof your proposal for spelling, grammatical and punctuational errors, then it conveys to them what a slipshod writer you are. You could be the next William Faulkner but if your query reads like something written during an acid flashback, how are they to know how brilliant you are? Reading an Elements of Style by Strunk and White and making your letter as concise as possible will give them a more favorable idea of what your real work will feature.
     Another beef agents have is when you start pitching them on the sequel or other books. One proposal. One book. You can pitch the sequel later after the first has made it into print. No agent wants to read who you think ought to play the characters in your novel, which is putting a whole team of mules before the wagon. You need to get an agent first, then a publisher, then sell the film rights. And, even then, you would have no control over the casting. So keep your casting ideas to yourself.
     Here's where it starts to get a little dicey and the channel narrows. Agents want to know you did your research and to short-stroke their easily-bruised egos by letting them know what properties they've sold, who's in their client list, etc. While doing this is recommended in the interests of appropriate submitting, don't resort to outright flattery and ass-kissing. Agents want to be acknowledged for their prior victories but they can smell an obsequious supplicant like a fart in a spacesuit. One agent smelled a boilerplate when the author complimented her on her track record. The problem was she was just starting out and had hardly sold anything.
     Another tightrope we need to walk is one involving confidence. Some agents bitch about a surfeit of it while others bitch about a dearth of confidence. Finding that perfect balance is difficult but not impossible. Agents tend to turn to stone when you proclaim your book will make them, you and your publisher a gazillion dollars. Trust me, they've heard it all before.
     Then again, they also hate it when you seem to have no artistic hubris and have no confidence in your own work. "I know you're probably going to turn this down because this is my first book..." is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy. A great way to strike that balance is to say, after describing your book, something like, "this would fit in well with {this publisher's or imprint's] catalog and your client list." It shows you envision your book would be a good fit for everyone concerned while showing you've done your homework.
     And speaking of homework, this is the part of the cover letter I hate the most but everyone expects you to do this. Agents and movie producers have one thing in common: They all want to be the first to do something second. Oh, they make a pretense of looking for something original but in reality they're all looking for the next Stephanie Meyer or JK Rowling. And agents are hard-wired to look in your letter for any examples of books similar to yours or at least written in the same (sub)genre that had been successfully published. Once again, it shows you've researched your market and appraised how well your property would fit in.
     Believe it or not, some writers are so hesitant about their work they think they need an edge, a way for it to stand out so it doesn't hit the dreaded slush pile. They resort to gimmicks such as colored, scented stationary, glitter and even outright bribes like chocolate. Being a literary agent must be like living in a Groundhog Day where it's always the first four weeks of every season of American Idol. Once more, with feeling:
     Let your work speak for itself. Show you've done your legwork and have 1) Arrived at your targeted reader demographic, 2) researched the market and determined there's still a demand for your work and the genre(s) in which you write and 3) that you've scrupulously researched just the agencies that would be the best fit to place your intellectual property, including obeying submission guidelines.
     You would have a legitimate beef if you said, "But, I'm a novelist! I don't write query letters for a living!" True enough. But until literary agents are finally phased out and we're allowed to approach publishers again, this is the game we have to play. Writing effective query letters is a discipline that nonetheless must be learned, as is writing synopses. It was devilishly difficult for me but eventually I learned what agents are looking for. And as the old saying goes, you only have one chance to make a first impression.


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