Thursday, March 12, 2009

Selling Yourself

What would you do if you found out this is the query your agent was sending out to editors?

Dear Editor:

I know how incredibly busy you are so thank you so much for taking the time to read this query. I’ll try to make it as short as possible because I know you get hundreds of submissions each day from agents who are more important than I am. I have an author that you might want to read. She doesn’t have much experience and she’s pretty young, only about 22, but she’s written a book that I think will probably appeal to your tastes, well it might anyway. Now the market is tough, I realize that, and publishing houses are cutting back on buying books but I still hope you’ll want to at least look at this and tell me what you think.


Well, if you aren’t appalled, you should be. Besides the fact that it’s just bad writing, you would never expect or ask your agent to do anything less than send out a stellar query announcing to the world that she’s just taken on an author that everyone must read, everyone wants to read, and everyone will seriously miss the boat on if they don’t read. So why is it that authors, when touting their own work, so frequently send out queries that sound more like the example above?

Day in and day out I receive queries that are self-deprecating and, frankly, disadvantageous.

DO NOT start your query by reminding me how busy I am or groveling for my attention (thank you so much for taking the time out of your very busy day. I’ll keep this short since I know how much work you have to do.) Remember, I am privileged to read your query. Honored that you are submitting to me and excited to find another great author to add to my list.

DO NOT share your age as if it’s a negative. I don’t care how old you are. I don’t care if you’re 15, 22, 44, or 88. Age is relative. If I’m 90 and get a submission from a 50-year-old I might think, “Wow, she’s only 50.” If I’m 40 and get a query from a 22-year-old, I might think, “Wow, she’s only 22.” Who cares? Did you write a good book that I can sell and people will be excited about? That’s all I care about.

DO NOT remind me that the economy stinks and it’s hard to sell books. It’s always hard to sell books. Let me be wowed and excited by yours and blinded by its brilliance.

If you really do need to tell me something that you don’t have, for example, you want to say you don’t have any writing credits, bury it at the bottom of your letter (never, ever start with the negative) and round it out with the positive. Say something like, “While I don’t yet have any writing credits to my name I am a member of RWA, etc.” Doesn’t that sound a lot better than starting your letter with, “I’m an unpublished author who can’t get anyone to read my query. I know you’re busy, so thank you for taking the time to acknowledge me”?

Selling is all about wowing the customer with what you have that no one else has. That doesn’t mean I need a huge list of how fantastic you and your book are; what it means is that I want to be wowed by the book itself and the blurb you’ve written.

And since I’ve decided that 2009 is the year of no excuses, there are no excuses. DO NOT start commenting about how hard it is to sell yourself. What I say about that is waaa, waaa. It’s hard to sell anything, but if you truly believe that you are ready to be published and your book is something agents and editors want to read, then show it. If you don’t think it’s ready or that you’re old enough to be a published author or that I’m too busy to take on new clients or even read queries, then you shouldn’t be submitting in the first place.


Jessica

58 comments:

magolla said...

Just recently, I've started my queries with my pitch and barely say anything about myself.
-It's all about the story.
I might tick off somebody with this bare bones approach, but there isn't any excessive clutter the agent has to wade through.
And if the agent wants to know more about me, (s)He can request that info along with the full manuscript.

Anita said...

You just gave everyone an absolutely awesome perspective! If this post doesn't knock the whine out of our queries, I don't know what will.

acpaul said...

I'm still half-laughing half-groaning over that fake query, there. I've also reworked my query to be all about story, story and more story. And then a little tiny bit about me. And contact info. that's it.

Kimber An said...

Yes, and please write the word 'query' in the search feature at the top left hand side of this blog's front page. You will glean all sorts of wisdom which will enable you to go, at least, from auto-reject to the occasional request for a partial. It's all a part of the learning process. Don't give up. No one starts out perfect and all-powerful.
;)

Windy said...

After much writing and re-writing of my query, I've also taken the "plot" route. While there are a couple lines about me, I think the query is less about me and more about the story I'm trying to get out there.

Thanks for the perspective.

Anonymous said...

That is an effing brilliant post.
I'm guessing many writers frequently second-guess their own abilities, which shades their queries and possibly their fiction.
I have to believe I am good at this. I have to believe that my story is great. It's not enough to simply press on in the face of rejection. You must believe that you've got game -- otherwise, you can approach a thousand agents with a limp-noodle query, and nothing will happen.
Quite frankly, reading this fake query reminded me of the way I approached girls in high school -- weakly and apologetically. Only after I became confident in myself did anyone find me interesting.

haleigh said...

I'm curious, from your post, if an author would know what kind of queries agents are sending to editors. Is it in poor taste to ask to see their query letter? Do agents automatically show authors the letter?

Anonymous said...

I have also figured out being too cocky will earn you a trashing (as seen on query fail and a few other sites). I'm with Magolla, and wondering if bare bones is the right approach. Please if you have the time let us know what you and other agents think about a letter that is strictly about the book. Do we need to put something about ourselves? I mean I could tell you how wonderful I am, but until you meet me, you won't believe me.
Thanks :)

BookEnds, LLC said...

I think keeping the focus on the book is what you should all be doing. After all, unless you're writing nonfiction (anything other then a memoir) that requires a strong platform I only care about the book.

It can't hurt to ask your agent to see her query, I suspect most agents don't show it to the author, but if you have a good agent I think you can trust the query is going to sell in the way that works for her.

--jhf

Anonymous said...

To anon at 9:29:
I didn't mean to imply that I'm not conscious of crossing the border into Delusion-town, and certainly I keep discussion of myself to a minimum in a query letter, but I am certain that agents can tell from the tone of a query which writers believe in themselves (and whether they have a reason to be confident) - even if the writer barely mentions him/herself at all.

DebraLSchubert said...

Thanks for the morning laugh, Jessica, although I'm sure it's not funny to you when you come across "limp noodle queries" as anon 9:20 so eloquently described. Confidence is a great trait as well as a great marketing tool. If you're not serious and sold on your own work, how can you possibly expect anyone else to be? Thanks for making this (painfully!) clear.;-)

Anonymous said...

Oh Anon 9:46,
Sorry I wasn't replying to your comment :) I hadn't really even read it. I did the skimming thing. I got stuck on Magolla's, because I was considering the same thing. I would like to leave everything about me off, and just write my query about my book, but I didn't know if I should do that. I am really cocky when it comes to my MSS. I know have a killer, but I am not so much about my query letter and myself personally. It is a matter of getting someone to read it, where I have issues. I think I have read to many different opinions, and now have become timid.

Anonymous said...

PS Anon 9:20
You are right on about girls, they have to notice you. I definitely see where the comparison comes into play. I do have to say I was turned off by too much confidence. I liked shy guys once they grabbed my attention.

Anonymous said...

anon 10:14,
See, I crossed over into Delusion-town, thinking you were replying to me...
It's nice here.
Everyone has a sure-fire bestseller in their drawer.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:20
You have my attention now! :)
And dellusional can be good!!!

Buried said...

There is a fine line between being self-assured and selling your book and being cocky. Query writers need to make sure they are in the former category. When I was an assistant agent, I trashed many a query letter with notes like "Oprah is sure to love this..." and "I am the next Jonathan Lethem, you will be sorry if you don't read this."

SHOW me, don't TELL me.

Eva Ulian said...

I like this approach to writing a query, takes away some uncertainty about what one should say.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent discussion of one face of what a query letter should and should not be. Thank you for the insight in how to improve mine.

I know that after the queryfail fracas of last week, many editors and agents are writing query advice postings. My impression, however, is that the "targets" of last week's queryfail most likely aren't the ones that will end up reading this great advice. Anyone who has done any research on the query/sub process would already be well aware of most of what not to do.

How to get that information to the people who really need it is the real issue. You give some great advice which is more like fine-tuning when compared to the monumental blunders that editors and agents shared last week.

AC said...

I am soooooo motivated now!

Linda J. Hutchinson said...

Love your tell-it-like-it-is approach. I'll be sharing your blog addy often as I read the feeds.

Adelle Laudan said...

Thanks for this article. It makes sending a Query not such a scary thing.

The Unbreakable Child said...

Great insightful post and nicely said!

Litgirl01 said...

Inevitably I will have a student who walks into my classroom at the beginning of the term announcing that they hate English and suck at writing. UGH! I always think…well that’s great and I so can’t wait to read your sucky writing. :-/ Not exactly the way to put your best foot forward in any situation, especially in the business world.

H. L. Dyer said...

I love this post, but this is my favorite part:

What I say about that is waaa, waaa.

*snort*

Leona Bushman said...

I wish I had seen this post a year ago! I love the stories I write but when writing a query letter, all I can think about is how I'm not qualifies. With no real credentials I didn't know how to sell my self. The story line explanation became stilted and I might as well have written "blah, blah" and the agent would have had the same feelings as what I struggled to write. Thank you for your insights.

Lady Glamis said...

I certainly look forward to selling myself. Kill the whine!!!! Go forth and conquer!

bunnygirl said...

I think what irks me most about the example you gave is that it doesn't get to the point. Yes, it's annoyingly self-deprecating, but it's also a huge time-waster.

It bugs the heck out of me when someone comes to my office, interrupting me at my work, and starts off with, "Hi. How are you today? I know you're very busy and I hate to interrupt, but I can I ask a question? See, I wasn't sure who to ask, but Jane said you would know and I figured if I came to you, maybe you could help because...etc, etc."

Aaaaauuuggghhh!

If you really think I'm busy (which I am) then please quit blathering and get to the POINT!

I don't query much, but when I do I try to write the query letter I'd want to see, and it sure doesn't start out with a lot of meaningless fluff.

Julie Weathers said...

Jessica, my old sales manager in real estate often said, "If you don't believe in yourself, who will? Believe in yourself, sell yourself and focus on the positives."

I'm glad you reminded people of this. Focus on the positives.

Solvang Sherrie said...

That letter made me laugh, and cringe...people don't actually send out stuff like that, do they?

imabooklova said...

Very timely. My writing class was actually talking about querying today, so I read this aloud!

Wes said...

I'm in sales, and my probability of closing drops like a rock if I need to introduce myself thru a letter, email, phone call, etc. What proportion of book pitches are made by letter vs. a private conversation with an established contact?

Anonymous said...

To that I say 'Amen and rock on.'

Scarlet Knight said...

At a writer's conference, one of the agents mentioned she received a letter from a hopeful author stating that he mortgaged his home and quit his job in hopes of selling his manuscript.

Ouch.

Plus I have to agree with a previous comment that it shows the voice of the author.

It's so great that you are helping us know what not to do and what to do. Thanks!

Chiron said...

Hah! I love it.

2009 is the year of no excuses. That'a s keeper. Can I use that in one of me weekly essays?

This is just too good. You've written yet another brilliant post.

Smiles!
Chiron O'Keefe
www.chironokeefe.blogspot.com

Sooki Scott said...

Terrific post, Jessica. I not only laughed, but sighed. I read a fellow writer’s query letter just the other day that bore many similarities to your example. I gave her links to your blog and did what I could to help.

I love this quote by Edmund Hillary: It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.

Though I think the trick is to find the proper balance. We need confidence to write and subject ourselves to possible (inevitable) criticism. And yet, we need humility to understand the world does not revolve around us and our writing.

A fine line to walk, but worth the effort


Confucius says: he who thinks only of number one must remember this number is next to nothing.

Anonymous said...

"Confucius says: he who thinks only of number one must remember this number is next to nothing."

Wow Sooki,
That was perfect. Where do these sayings come from?

Jayden Vasara said...

I love your attitude! And you're right, there should be no excuses.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Amen! You don't want to give people a reason to reject you. You want to make your book sound like THE book that will sell well despite the rough economy.*

*Without going too far, of course, and describing or even bragging about your book or yourself in an over-the-top manner. ("This book will sell five million copies and be more popular than Harry Potter!")

Anonymous said...

Failsafe Query format:

I want you to rep my book b/c [insert short reason here](genre, completed at x words).

-logline-style pitch

-about you
(if published, or ir background is relevant to book, otherwise omit this section

-polite close


This has always gotten requests for me.

Anonymous said...

The most common mistakes are people with no relevant background including an "About Me" section, and people talking ABOUT their book as if it were already published (ie "xyz is a rollercoaster thrill ride..."), instead of describing the book.

Sooki Scott said...

("Confucius says: he who thinks only of number one must remember this number is next to nothing."

Wow Sooki,
That was perfect. Where do these sayings come from?)

You like that one! How cool is that, especially since it's my personal fav. Where are they from? Confucius, of course. But seriously, I have a worn-out, old book that's been in my family for years; however, the internet is full of them, genuine and fake.



Confucius say; before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

Word verification! unbless...uh oh

T. Anne said...

Jessica I agree, 2009 will be the year of no excuses. No passivity or apologies for things I can't help either. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Sooki,

I have never commented on it before, but I always notice whatever you have to say is full of wisdom. Yes I liked that one the best, although I havel iked them all. It is a rare gem that can find the perfect sayings to match every topic.

Anonymous said...

Oops,

I have never commented on it before today, and it should have been I have liked them all, not I havel iked.

Sooki Scott said...

What a nice thing to say. Thank you.


Confucius say; forget injuries, never forget kindnesses

Anonymous said...

Your fake query sounds like the invitation my mother sent out to all the relatives when it was time to meet our new baby,

"I know you're really busy and this is a crazy time of year (Christmas) and the weather, of course, is bad and the roads are all snowy and you have so little time together but we're having a little open house to welcome Lexi and her parents Phil and Carol while they are here for the holidays. If you can come for a little while, I'm sure they will appreciate it."

And she was serious. I have a steep genetic hill to climb but I'm more assertive every day and you'll get no excuse from me.

Btw, every single person invited to her "little open house" showed up and stayed for hours. We ran out of food.

Anonymous said...

Why do writers always act like agents and editors are doing them a FAVOR to read their query or mss.? After all, they depend on US for their livelihoods! No groveling or begging, people!

Kat Sheridan said...

Great advice here! I'm just starting our querying, and articles such as this are going to help me get started on the right foot, and not waste time doing everything wrong. And confidence without cockiness is pretty much the key to most things. My current query has virtually nothing in it about me. I want the focus on my writing. We'll see how successful that is!

Karen H. said...

Great post! I always think the "less is more" approach is the best way to go.

Devon Ellington said...

Cheers to you for that post, Jessica! Thanks!

Janet Reid said...

I couldn't agree more.

I really like the "no excuses" motif. I'm going to steal that idea! (Theft...err..I mean imitation being the sincerest form of flattery of course!)

judith Coughlin said...

We all know that the hardest part of writing can be when we are forced to describe ourselves. I mean, it would be so much easier to start waxing lyrical about our sister, best friend, or even the checker in aisle 5, than it is to discuss our own merits. Besides, we're writers for cripes sake. If we thought our lives were at all interesting, we wouldn't be spending hours upon hours composing another.

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