Friday, January 30, 2009

Dissecting the Form Rejection Letter

Agents are criticized regularly for the form rejection letters we write. We are told that if any material is requested, a partial or a full, we are obligated to give the writer feedback on why it didn’t work. I have even heard that I shouldn’t waste time on the blog if I’m not willing to give a writer feedback on requested material, and while I can certainly understand a writer’s frustration, what I don’t think many understand is that all too often there really isn’t much feedback to give.

So how can you dissect a form letter and what can you learn from it? Well, let’s look first at the events that got you to the form letter. Presumably before sending along any of your chapters to an agent you started with a query letter. Which means, if the agent requested a partial, the query letter is working for you. It’s well written and the idea is interesting enough to attract an agent’s attention. Good news! That means that step one of your entire submission process is in good shape.

Okay, the second step, you’ve submitted your requested partial and now you’ve gotten a form rejection letter. Since I just read through a stack of requested proposals, the reason I rejected them is fresh in my mind; I didn’t feel enough passion for any of them and that’s ultimately what I’m going to say. With some the writing was good and solid, but the story seemed to be all wrong. With one in particular I tried to think of what to say to the author, but honestly couldn’t come up with anything. The story just didn’t feel right to me. It was slow, but speeding it up wouldn’t be enough of a fix. I’m not sure honestly if it’s the right story. It seems to me that while the idea is interesting, the author went about it in all the wrong way. The characters don’t seem right and neither does the plot. Now of course another agent might love this and be able to sell it, but to me, ultimately, it was just completely off, and unless I have time to run a workshop with this author and shred the manuscript to create something different, I can’t say enough in a letter to give solid advice. All I would end up doing is giving bits and pieces that probably wouldn’t be all that useful.

With another of the proposals I just felt the writing was terrible. The idea had promise, but the writing felt childish and not even close to something that could be published. Is it really fair of me to say that in a letter? And how would I say that? I can say the writing didn’t feel strong enough, but you’ll tell me that’s a form letter. Sure, it sounds form, but it’s true and the letter will probably say that, but it’s not necessarily enough to tell the author how to fix the book because, frankly, I don’t think it’s fixable.

And with another it just fell flat. There was nothing inherently wrong with the book, there was just nothing really right either. In other words, it was boring and not special to me. Again, another agent might very well love it. There was nothing here to tell the author, nothing. The characters were good, the plotting was solid, and the writing was publishable. I just didn’t like it. I didn’t have passion for it.

For me personally, if I have requested a full manuscript I do always or almost always try to give some sort of concrete feedback. It’s easier. I’ve read the partial and know that I like what’s happening thus far, so if I’m rejecting it there are often more specific reasons for doing so. I’m sure that there have been requested fulls that have fallen through the cracks and not received the feedback they deserved, but for the most part you should learn something about why it didn’t work for me.

Giving an author real feedback on a submission is not only time-consuming for us but also can be a risky venture. I know when giving feedback to an author I am opening a dialogue with her, and many times that’s what I’m looking for. I see talent there and want the author to continue to keep me in mind. It also means that many authors will listen to us and only us, and that’s not always right because all agents do honestly have different tastes and opinions and there are many times when the very best thing I can do is just send you back out there to try and find another agent.

Jessica

Reactions:

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Praise from Others

A book doctor and editor for a publishing company read a one-page synopsis from my work. When she got to mine she said she found it funny and that if it came across her editor's desk she'd ask for more pages. Is this something a writer can use in a query letter to an agent or would it come across as unprofessional or amateur?

First of all congratulations. It’s always thrilling when a publishing professional gives you positive feedback and you should definitely celebrate that. But should you use it in your query? I get a lot of queries in which writers tell me that other published authors or editors loved their work. It doesn’t sway me. In some cases the agents might not know who the editor or book doctor is and could question whether or not that’s really someone who can judge a book, and in other cases it just seems unnecessary. When taking a look at your material or your query I only want to know about the book. Is it marketable? What is your experience as a writer and can you write? To truly get the stamp of approval from another publishing professional, usually that book comes to me through a referral and then I know that truly this editor is behind the book and I know and respect the editor.

The best person to judge a book is the person reading it at that time. And unless you have actual printed reviews from other books you’ve had published I wouldn’t bother putting in quotes from friends, relatives, or even editors. It doesn’t give much of a push either way to us and can sometimes, depending on the editor, work against you.

Jessica

Reactions:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Publishing Jobs

I have a growing readership among students considering a career in publishing, which is really cool for me. It’s obvious that writers would want to read the blog, but when I started it up I never imagined that students, future editors and agents, would read as well.

Recently one of those students got in touch asking how the economic crisis and those still too recent cutbacks would affect entry-level positions with publishing houses and agencies. I think that no matter what career path you’re taking right now, it’s a difficult time for recent graduates or soon-to-be graduates. Many companies and industries are cutting back and that means fewer, if any, new hires. While you certainly have the advantage of being at the bottom of the pay scale, there is the possibility that companies will lose a person working in an entry-level position for some reason and simply decide not to rehire. So while I don’t know for a fact what companies are doing right now, my suggestion is to make sure that you are the best qualified candidate they have. Get yourself internships at a publishing company or a literary agency, at magazines or newspapers. Any sort of publishing internship helps, it shows that you are driven and distinguishes you from a candidate who has nothing more than a college degree. By the same token, make your resume stand out. Put related job experience at the top of the resume. While most resume books will tell you to put education first, you want to distinguish yourself, so put your internships and other related experiences at the top. Everyone is going to assume you have a degree and that’s less likely to excite them.

And like everything else, don’t get discouraged. If you can’t get a job right away in the field you were dreaming of, find other jobs that can help build the skills you need. Can’t find a job in book publishing? Look into magazines, newspapers, or internships while you’re waiting tables. Building the resume is the most important thing for you right now. And don’t forget, BookEnds does hire interns, so don’t be afraid to send your resume our way. We’ve definitely had more than one success story.

Jessica

Reactions:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

It Just Sucks . . .

I received the following question with the subject heading that I’m using as the post's title. Since I think it probably reflects the views of so many writers no matter your age, I thought I should post the letter verbatim. . . .

It sucks trying to get an agent. I think my work is good. I know it's good. I've shown it to a wide variety of ages and all of them enjoyed it. At least 1/3 of those people I don't talk to often and I asked for brutal honesty. They all liked it.

I just don't know where to find an agent who'd even think about taking on a 17 year old writer.

I sent it in to one agent whom I thought would enjoy my work. They didn't. Which honestly left me a little sad and frustrated but I'm going to keep going on anyway because I love to write and others will eventually come to like it too . . . or at least I'd like to believe that.

Is there any way I can find an agent?


Yep. Sometimes for all of us it just sucks. Trust me, I know. I have authors and books that I have absolutely fallen in love with and refuse to give up on, but for one reason or another I can’t find a publisher to get behind it. Publishing is not an easy business, and unfortunately for all of us selling a book is a lot more than just finding 100 or so readers who enjoy it. Selling a book means finding thousands of readers who can find your book and pay money for it. Two completely different things. I know there are people out there who think the publishing industry is a mess and I’m not going to argue with you there, but where I will argue with you is that no one in publishing knows how to buy a good book. A good book is more than a good story and more than good writing, it is a variety of things, and making a successful book is sometimes none of those things. Publishing is a business and making it in any business means a lot more than just creating a good product. You can make a really beautiful necklace, but selling that necklace to thousands of people is a totally different process. I believe that to have success in publishing, you need persistence, you need to not give up, and you need a willingness to learn and change throughout, to edit your book, alter your process if necessary, and even explore new areas.

Yes, there is a way you can find an agent, you just need to keep plugging away and keep writing.

Jessica

Reactions:

Monday, January 26, 2009

Personal Tastes

While doing the pitch critiques over the holidays I was asked if I thought agents had their own preferences for pitches or if the differences really came down to genre, and I’ll tell you right now that agents definitely have their own preferences. What might come across to me as a very exciting pitch might be a complete snooze to another agent. For example, I know there’ve been plenty of times when I’ve received a query I was so excited about that I shared it with my colleagues and neither of them got what I saw. In fact, just recently I received a query that I thought sounded so cute and great that I shared it with Kim and Jacky. Kim immediately responded to say she didn’t get it, in fact had no interest in the idea at all.

Reactions to pitches, like anything else, are subjective. By doing the pitch critiques I can’t guarantee that you’ll get a request from every agent you query. I can however give my opinion on what might make a stronger pitch and show you how agents look at pitches. We don’t just look to see what the story is about, but we do look at pitches to get a sense as to whether or not the story might work.

Also keep in mind that agents, like readers, can grab on to a pitch simply because of a personal preference. There are agents, for example, who just have a passion for vampires and might gravitate toward almost anything with vampires in it, while others have absolutely no interest in vampires and see that as an automatic rejection. If you haven’t already read through the pitches posted in my call for pitches on December 19 I would encourage you to do so. Reading through them will give you insight into what an agent sees in her in-box on a daily basis and might also make you see why we implore you to work so hard to write a strong pitch.

Jessica

Reactions:

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Query Letter by Angie Fox

By now you should all know that because of a number of requests you are reading the short series I’m doing on query letters that helped my clients get my attention and eventually representation. Next in line is Angie Fox. One of my newer clients and a great success story. Angie submitted this via e-mail in August 2007, and simply because of the great title in the subject line, The Accidental Demon Slayer, I immediately opened the e-mail and requested more material. Coincidentally, at about the same time an editor from Dorchester was making Angie an offer (a request from a contest Angie had entered). Needless to say things moved very quickly, and after some tough decisions Angie and I formed an official partnership.

Angie e-mailed me the full manuscript and I read it quickly and offered representation. Well, we were more than delighted when Angie’s debut novel, The Accidental Demon Slayer, was published this year and spent two weeks on The New York Times extended list. And we are equally excited for the upcoming The Dangerous Book for Demon Slayers. So here’s the letter that launched Angie’s career.

Dear Ms. Faust,

Straight-laced preschool teacher, Lizzie Brown, never lies, never cusses, and doesn’t really care much for surprises. When her long lost Grandma Gertie shows up on her doorstep riding a neon pink Harley Davidson wearing a “kiss my asphalt” t-shirt and hauling a carpet bag full of Smuckers jars filled with road kill magic, Lizzie doesn’t think her life could get any stranger. That is, until her hyper-active terrier starts talking and an ancient demon decides to kill her from his perch on the back of her toilet.

Lizzie learns she’s a demon slayer, fated to square off with the devil’s top minion in, oh about two weeks. Sadly, she’s untrained, unfit and under attack. Grandma’s gang of fifty-something biker witches promises to whip Lizzie into shape, as long as she joins them out on the road. But Lizzie wants nothing to do with all this craziness. She simply wants her normal life back. When she accidentally botches the spell meant to protect her, she only has one choice – trust the utterly delicious but secretive man who claims to be her protector.

Dimitri Kallinikos has had enough. Cursed by a demon centuries ago, his formerly prominent clan has dwindled down to himself and his younger twin sisters, both of whom are now in the coma that precedes certain death. To break the curse, he must kill the demon behind it. Dimitri needs a slayer. At long last, he’s found Lizzie. But how do you talk a girl you’ve never met into going straight to Hell? Lie (and hope she forgives you). Dimitri decides to pass himself off as Lizzie’s fated protector in order to gain her trust and guide her towards this crucial mission. But will his choice to deceive her cost them their lives, or simply their hearts?

The Accidental Demon Slayer is an 85,000 word humorous paranormal. I’m a member of RWA and the partial manuscript placed first in the Windy City RWA’s Four Seasons contest. The judge for that contest, Leah Hultenschmidt of Dorchester Publishing, has just requested the full. As an advertising writer, I’ve won multiple awards for my work in radio dialogue.

I would be happy to send you the complete manuscript. Thank you for your consideration and time.


Sincerely,

Angie Fox Gwinner
(email address)


I think this is probably one of the more perfect query letters I’ve seen. Yes, the pitch paragraphs could probably be shortened to two at the most, but it works as is, possibly because Angie’s voice shines through in each paragraph. You might also notice that Angie used a different technique than most writers. She launched right into her pitch and kept the title, genre, and word count to the end. This worked for her. Instantly readers knew that this was humorous and got a great sense of her voice.

You might notice that Angie only included her email address. This is fine, but I would suggest also including your phone number. You just never know when an agent would prefer to call and you always want to make it as easy on those agents as possible.

I think by reading this letter and knowing what the subject line said you can see why I immediately jumped in and read this with enthusiasm, and why readers have fallen in love with Angie’s books as well.

Jessica

Reactions:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Query Letter by Gail Oust

By now you should all know that because of a number of requests, you are reading the short series I’m doing on query letters that helped my clients get my attention and eventually representation. Next in line is Gail Oust. Gail is one of my newer clients. As you can see from the letter she only queried me in early 2008, so her first book (part of a three-book deal) isn’t published yet. However, Whack 'N’ Roll is scheduled for August 2009, and we’re very excited. So here’s the letter that launched our relationship, and it had some strange twists and turns.

Address
February 15, 2008

Jessica Faust
BookEnds, LLC
136 Long Hill Road
Gillette, NJ 07933

Dear Ms. Faust,

Enclosed is my proposal for Somewhere in Serenity which you requested in response to my email query of February 11. Somewhere in Serenity, an amateur sleuth mystery of approx 85,000 words, is the first of a proposed series set in a community of baby boomers who have retired early to enjoy a milder climate and explore new interests.

Serenity Cove Estates, a retirement community for ‘active’ adults, is anything but serene after Kate McCall and three of her Red Hat buddies find a severed arm in a Wal-Mart bag while playing golf. Kate, a died-in-the-wool crime and punishment junkie, jumps at the chance to perform her civic duty. Armed with Forensics for Dummies, she sets out to help solve the crime – much to the chagrin of Sheriff Sumter Wiggins.

I’ve previously had nine historical romances published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Turner. I’m a longstanding member of Romance Writers of America, Greater Detroit Romance Writers of America, and Novelists, Inc. Somewhere in Serenity is currently a work-in-progress and not a complete manuscript. I am seeking representation and hope my novel will meet your high standards.

Sincerely,

Gail Oust
Address
Phone Number
Email


I think this letter is a good example of how really simple query letters can be and still work. This isn’t a long letter, in fact it doesn’t even fill a page, but it very clearly gives me all of the details that I need to know to be interested in this book.

The first paragraph gives me the basics, title, genre, word count, a one-line blurb, and of course she reminds me that this is requested material. What many of you might find interesting about this letter is that it’s far from perfect, however it still works. Let’s start with the title. Somewhere in Serenity sounds very much like women’s fiction to me, and never in a million years would I have thought it a mystery. It’s fine since I usually don’t try to get caught up in titles at this stage of the game, but there is no way I would send this book to editors with this title. When looking at titles I would advise you to take a look at books in your genre to see if you see a thread. Most cozies fall along the lines of, A Serene Murder, Death in Serenity, or A Murderous Hat. The second piece of the first paragraph that I feel needs to be looked at more carefully is the hook line. Gail pitched this as a retirement community mystery when really the hook that grabs is the Red Hat mention in the second paragraph. This is an example of really looking closely at your book to see what makes it distinct.

The second paragraph is what really grabs my attention, and this is because this is where the hook comes in. Unfortunately, BookEnds had once tried to sell a Red Hat mystery with no success. So why would I ask to see more of this anyway? A couple of reasons. The first was a line from this paragraph, “Kate, a died-in-the-wool crime and punishment junkie, jumps at the chance to perform her civic duty. Armed with Forensics for Dummies, she sets out to help solve the crime – much to the chagrin of Sheriff Sumter Wiggins.” I thought the vision of this retiree with Forensics for Dummies was hysterical. The writing grabbed me, and of course the third paragraph grabbed me too. This is an author with great experience and a publishing background.

And of course, Gail included all her pertinent contact information, which really helped out later.

This is an instance where I was so charmed by the voice that I thought maybe there were more hooks in the book that the author had overlooked and maybe, if the book was great, I could dig them out and see what we found.

Book Note: After reading the proposal I sadly rejected it. I had a lot of fun reading it and really liked the voice, but just felt that I wouldn’t be able to sell it based on the Red Hat hook. I sent a really nice letter telling her how much I loved it, but would need to see something with a stronger hook. Well, about two or three days later I was reminded that I had once come up with the idea for a Bunco series that I still hadn’t found an author to write, so I quickly picked up the phone, pulled out Gail’s letter, and called to explain my thought. Could we make these Red Hat ladies Bunco players? Ironically, Gail was a Bunco player herself, and it wasn’t more than a few weeks after submitting the revised proposal that we made a three-book deal with NAL for the Bunco Babes mysteries.

Jessica

Reactions:

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Query Letter by J. B. Stanley

By now you should all know that because of a number of requests, you are reading the short series I’m doing on query letters that helped my clients get my attention and eventually representation. Next in line is J. B. Stanley. Another letter from 2004. Clearly that was a good year for me. J.B. is another author who has been nothing but busy since signing with BookEnds. She has had two mystery series published and has two more in the works, with three different publishers in all. Her latest mysteries include Stiffs and Swines and the upcoming The Battered Body. So here’s the letter that launched J.B.’s career.

J. B. Stanley
Address
Email

February 6, 2004

Ms. Jessica Faust
BookEnds LLC
136 Long Hill Road
Gillette, NJ 07933

Dear Ms. Faust,

I found your agency’s name under the heading “Recommended Agents” on several web sites created for writers. Therefore, I am sending this query to see whether you would be interested in a cozy mystery entitled Death of a Collector.

Death of a Collector is a 48,000 word novel meant to be the first in a series of antiques-themed mysteries. Appealing to both mystery fans and to the millions of collectors fighting over items on Ebay, Death of a Collector examines the fanatical desire for ownership that dominates the world of collectibles. Desire often leads to murder.

Amateur sleuth Molly Appleby is a writer for Collector’s Weekly. Covering the auction beat, Molly also interviews key figures in the collecting world. On a muggy North Carolina morning, Molly attends her first kiln opening where she witnesses the death of a rude, diabetic collector named George-Bradley. The secondary mystery is that George-Bradley’s southern pottery collection is missing pieces created by a reclusive potter.

Death of a Collector contains an eccentric cast of supporting characters including a bossy mother, an overly affectionate auctioneer, a truculent boss, the catty, gay “Queen of Classifieds,” as well as the shy, handsome Marketing Director (who becomes Molly’s love interest). There is also an unusual voice interrupting the narrative. The “voice of clay” comes directly from a piece of art pottery and provides short, lyrical clues.

I have a B.A. in English from Franklin & Marshall College, a M.A. in English from University of West Chester, and a M.L.I.S. from North Carolina Central University. I taught English to middle school students for 8 years, but am now peddling folk art paintings on the Internet. I have worked in both auction houses and an antique shop. I occasionally contribute articles on auctions to AntiqueWeek and to Raleigh’s News and Observer. Other than that, my writing has been limited to unpublished children’s stories and some poetry published in small journals during grad school.

I would be willing to work with your agency in all aspects required in transforming a completed manuscript into a saleable book. Please recycle these pages if they are not for you. Thank you so much for your valuable time.

Sincerely,

J. B. Stanley (Jennifer)


What I like about all of these samples is how very different they are. In this one, J.B.’s opening line is very short and sweet, but it is enough to tell me what her book is, that she has a catchy title, and that she’s done her research when it comes to finding an agent.

This letter is over four years old and I’m not sure how I would react nowadays if I saw a word count of 48,000 words. Even for a cozy this is on the short side. However, I think what caused me to ask for more despite the word count is hook. You see, even if there are things that seem off in a query, there are other things like hook or voice that could push us over the edge. I think most agents feel that word count can be altered if the rest is strong enough, and in this case adding 10,000 to 15,000 words should be doable.

What’s interesting about J.B.’s letter is that it’s very detached. I don’t get much of a feel for her voice and I really think, well now I know, that she could do a lot better when writing the description. She’s writing as an outsider telling a story rather than a writer showing the story, which is much more effective. However, cozy mysteries sell so strongly on the hook that often if I see a great hook that I love I’ll request the material no matter what other problems the query might have. It never hurts to read a few sample pages.

J.B.’s bio paragraph is also perfect. Why? She includes information that connects her to the story. We know that she is coming at this not just as a writer, but as someone experienced in the subject, and while that doesn’t necessarily sell a book it does lend it authenticity.

Book Note: J.B. submitted this query at a time when we were accepting unsolicited proposals. After reading her material I requested the full manuscript, but did have some concerns. I ultimately rejected the work with a long explanation as to why. Within a week J.B. resubmitted, and in just a few short weeks after that we sold the three-book series to Berkley. This particular series has since gone out of print, but J.B. has a new series coming soon from St. Martin’s, her Midnight Ink series, and a new series upcoming from Berkley.

Jessica

Reactions:

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Query Letter by Bella Andre

In the continuing series on the query letters that got my clients an offer of representation, next in line is Bella Andre. Bella has had quite a career since signing with BookEnds in 2004. She published her first book, the one this query was written for, in 2005 and hasn’t looked back. Since then she’s published five erotic romances with Pocket and we’re excited for the release of her first contemporary romance with Bantam/Dell in 2009. Her latest erotic romances feature the bad boys of football, a sexy, erotic bunch that started with Game for Anything and continued with Game for Seduction. In April she’ll be releasing her first mass-market contemporary Wild Heat, about elite firefighters, the Navy SEALs of the firefighting world. I’m thrilled to be working with Bella and so excited that the letter below is what launched it all.

Ms. Jessica Faust
BookEnds, LLC
136 Long Hill Road
Gillette, NJ 07933


February 12, 2004

Dear Ms. Faust:

Thank you for responding to my email query so quickly! Here are the first five chapters and synopsis for Mine, All Mine, a single title erotic romance that is a perfect fit for Kensington Brava. I believe your agency would be ideal for representing the project.

Mine, All Mine is the erotic story of desire, passion and unrequited love in San Francisco and the rolling hills of Tuscany. Lily Ellis has been deeply in lust with Travis Carson for well over a decade. But since Travis likes his women bold and sassy, not meek and size 14, she knows her feelings will never be anything more than bathtub fantasies with Travis’s name on her lips as she comes. But all it takes is one special night at a fashion show in San Francisco, one very special dress, and the wonders of Tuscany to change Travis’s feelings for Lily forever.

My first novel, Authors in Ecstasy (published by Ellora’s Cave under the pseudonym Bella Andre), received a 4.5 star review in the March 2004 edition of Romantic Times magazine.

  • “Andre writes a wonderful story filled with lovable characters and steamy sex. Anyone looking for a funny and intelligently written read should definitely give this book a try!” (Romantic Times 41/2 stars Authors in Ecstasy).
  • “Fall-off-the-chair funny in places, very sexy, and well written...a novel readers will not want to end.” (Romance Reviews Today, Authors in Ecstasy).
  • “Wonderful and so very hot that it will melt your screen.” (The Romance Studio, 41/2 hearts, Authors In Ecstasy)
  • “This is my first story by Bella Andre and all I have to say is damn! This is a wonderful and funny story. Not to mention hot! I very much anticipate Bella Andre’s next story. 2 thumbs up!” (Just Erotic Reviews, 5 stars, Candy Store novella, Passionate Hearts anthology)

My publishing experience also includes several novellas with Ellora’s Cave and two non-fiction books on the music business. I am a member of RWA and graduate of Stanford University.

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
Bella Andre

Bella Andre, street, city, state, phone, email


Are you starting to see a pattern yet? Bella’s opening paragraph is a fabulous reminder of why the material is landing on my desk. In this case she email queried first and is including this letter with the requested proposal package. Smart, she’s going to grab my attention all over again. Even though it was requested, it’s unlikely I’m going to remember a name or title.

I also like that she knows the market for her book. While it’s certainly never necessary to name the house you are targeting, it can’t hurt if you know they would be interested or have been writing with them in mind. While the agent might certainly feel differently, it does give her a sense that you’ve been at this a while, or at least long enough to understand the business.

The first sentence in Bella’s descriptive paragraph, “Mine, All Mine is the erotic story of desire, passion and unrequited love in San Francisco and the rolling hills of Tuscany,” is one I would probably recommend against. While it’s a great sentence it really doesn’t tell me much: most erotic romance is about desire, passion and unrequited love. However, now that I know Bella much better I do find this very fitting to her voice. Funny, isn’t it, how the voice always comes through in a strong letter? Since Bella immediately followed that sentence with a terrific blurb, it worked for me, and I’ll tell you what really grabbed me and what I’ve always loved about this book: I love that the heroine is a size 14. Of course, “But all it takes is one special night at a fashion show in San Francisco, one very special dress, and the wonders of Tuscany to change Travis’s feelings for Lily forever,” grabbed my attention too.

I think in the end though what would have really grabbed me were the blurbs. Bella sent this in 2004, which was about the time the big publishers really started to take notice of the epublishers, and you can’t beat reviews like that; 4.5 stars from Romantic Times is huge. I also liked the way she formatted them. They stood out and grabbed my eye. That’s important.

When reading Bella’s bio material I think you see the perfect instance of an author who doesn’t have much to include, and that’s absolutely fine. She got the key ingredient, and that’s that she has been published and is a member of RWA (or another similar writing group). Again, membership in a major writing organization shows an agent how serious you really are about your career.

And yes, Bella included all important contact information. One thing I did want to add is I made one change to this letter, and that is to her name. Bella Andre is actually a pseudonym and the letter was written under her real name. I chose to change it in the letter to keep her brand alive.

Book Note: We did in fact sell Mine, All Mine not long after Bella signed with BookEnds. It was her first erotic romance with Pocket, published as Take Me in 2005, and I’ll admit, I still have a special spot in my heart for that book (as Bella well knows).

Jessica

Reactions:

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Query Letter by Karen MacInerney

I’ve been asked by readers if I would consider posting the original query letters some of my clients sent and critique them—in other words, explain what in the letter attracted me to the work and how that would work for me today, if it would at all. So I’m hoping to do a series based on the queries of my clients. The first in line is Karen MacInerney. Karen has had quite a career since signing with BookEnds in 2004. She’s been the author of two very different series, The Gray Whale Inn bed-and-breakfast cozy mysteries published with Midnight Ink and her fabulous paranormal romance series, Tales of an Urban Werewolf, with Ballantine. Karen’s most recent titles in each series include Murder Most Maine and On the Prowl. I’m thrilled to be working with Karen and so excited that the letter below is what launched it all.

Karen Swartz MacInerney
Address, phone, email


Jessica Faust
BookEnds, LLC
136 Long Hill Rd.
Gillette, NJ 07933


June 14, 2004

Dear Ms. Faust,

I enjoyed meeting you at the conference in Austin this past weekend. As I mentioned, I have had my eye on BookEnds for quite some time; when I discovered you would be at the conference, I knew I had to attend. We met during the final pitch session and discussed how the series I am working on might fit in with your current line of mystery series. Per your request, I have enclosed a synopsis and first three chapters of Murder on the Rocks, and 80,000-word cozy mystery that was a finalist in this year’s Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest and includes several bed-and-breakfast recipes.

Thirty-eight-year-old Natalie Barnes has quit her job, sold her house and gambled everything she has on the Gray Whale Inn on Cranberry Island, Maine. But she’s barely fired up the stove when portly developer Bernard Katz rolls into town and starts mowing through her morning glory muffins. Natalie needs the booking, but Katz is hard to stomach—especially when he unveils his plan to build an oversized golf resort on top of the endangered tern colony next door. When the town board approves the new development not only do the terns face extinction, but Natalie’s Inn might just follow along. Just when Natalie thinks she can’t face more trouble, she discovers Katz’s body at the base of the cliff and becomes the number one suspect in the police’s search for a murderer. If Natalie doesn’t find the killer fast she stands to lose everything—maybe even her life.

I am a former pubic relations writer, a graduate of Rice University, a member of the Writers’ League of Texas, and founder of the Austin Mystery Writers critique group. I have spent many summers in fishing communities in Maine and Newfoundland, and escape to Maine as often as possible. The second Gray Whale Inn mystery, Dead and Berried, is currently in the computer.

If you would like to see the manuscript, I can be reached at (phone number). Thank you for your time and attention; I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Sincerely,
Karen Swartz MacInerney



This is a great letter and one that definitely holds up today. Karen was a public relations writer (as we learn in her final paragraph), and I think that comes through in the strength of this letter. Note that at the top of the letter Karen includes her name, address, email address, and phone number. While this seems like basic information, I’ve learned that I need to remind authors how important it is to include.

Let’s start by looking at the first paragraph. Flattery can get you everywhere and Karen used it well here. She wasn’t over the top, but stated what I can only hope are facts. We had met at the conference and she had been watching BookEnds grow (at the time of this letter we were less than five years old). She was smart to remind me immediately how we had met and that we had a personal connection; she also never assumed I would remember and gave me as much information as possible to remind me. Very good.

I like that Karen put the title in italics. Bold, italics, whatever, but something to make your title jump out a little helps. I’m not sure why, but it does. The word count is right there with the standards for cozy mysteries, and since that’s what she’s targeting she’s headed in the right direction. I also want to point out that her description actually fits her genre. All too often I’ve received submissions in which the author named a genre for the book, but the description didn’t seem to match the genre; a romantic comedy, for example, that didn’t sound funny, or a thriller that seemed less than thrilling. One suggestion—and this is probably most specific to cozies—is that it might have helped Karen to give a one- or two-word description of the hook in the opening paragraph. While it’s great that she mentions the inclusion of recipes (almost always required in cozy mysteries), I think it would have been even better if she'd written, “an 80,000-word cozy mystery set at a bed-and-breakfast in Maine.” Something extra to lead me into the description. Oh, and you know what would have been really fun? If she had sent a recipe along. I’m actually acquiring a very interesting collection of recipes that have come along with submissions. Hey, it’s one additional page and it would have helped her stand out.

Typically I would say that Karen’s blurb is a little long and I suspect she could probably have tightened it to one paragraph, but it does work. What really works about it for me is that it gives a sense of Karen’s voice and the feeling for the book. I like the sentence, “But she’s barely fired up the stone when portly developer Bernard Katz rolls into town and starts mowing through her morning glory muffins.” There is so much that’s said in that one line and so much we learn. I get the sense that Karen’s voice is light with a touch of humor and I get a real feel for the hominess of the bed-and-breakfast as well as the arrogance of Bernard Katz.

The second pitch paragraph seems gratuitous to me. Obviously we need to mention the murder and how Natalie gets involved, but it seems that we could probably tighten paragraph number one and end it with the extinction of Katz and Natalie’s need to solve the murder.

Karen’s credentials are impressive. She’s obviously been writing for a while and I really like the addition of her summers in Maine. I think it’s a personal touch, but one that’s perfectly related to the book.

Book Note: We did in fact sell Murder on the Rocks not long after Karen signed with BookEnds. It was the first title to launch her Gray Whale Inn series. Karen and I felt it was better to drop the "Swartz" when publishing, simply because two last names can become confusing to bookstores and to readers. Often they aren’t sure where to shelve the books (under which name) and therefore where to find them; that or they only remember one of the names. So this query letter truly did launch an exciting career for Karen.

Jessica

Reactions:

Friday, January 16, 2009

I Before E Except After C

It amazes me that after years of spelling and writing I still use many of the mnemonic devices taught to me years ago. I still remember that the principal is my “pal” and “i before e except after c” and I still use them regularly. Of course those devices don’t help me at all with lay and lie or then and than, but they are a start.

What about you, what sort of mnemonic devices do you find yourself using nearly every time you sit down at the computer?

Jessica

Reactions:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Be Careful of Assumptions

Regularly on the blog, in message boards, and even at conferences I hear similar complaints from authors, “that agents say they’re looking for something different, but really aren’t,” authors who feel the only reason their works are being rejected is because of the shortsightedness of agents. I hear other complaints as well, that a work is rejected because no one likes a tough female character or no one likes a soft-hearted hero. What I have always wanted to ask these authors is whether or not multiple agents have told them this specifically. In other words, do you know for a fact that your work is being rejected because of one character or because your idea is too different?

Be careful when looking at rejections that you aren’t putting words into an agent’s mouth. We reject things for many, many reasons and, as you well know, we don’t always share those reasons. Sometimes we don’t tell you because there are too many to share, sometimes because the answer is nothing more than that it felt ho-hum. Sometimes an idea that might seem very different to you is one we’ve seen hundreds of times, and know isn’t marketable (like cloning Jesus, Greek god romance heroes, or insurance adjustor sleuths). By making assumptions about the reasons your work might be getting rejections is only narrowing your own possibilities. Instead of taking a look at your query letter or work as a whole and seeing what might need to be fixed you’ve decided that it’s the fault of agents everywhere and clearly your work is perfect.

Sure there are times when we all might be shortsighted, but keep in mind we see and hear things every day that give us the opinions we have. Try not to assume that a form rejection is anything other than a form rejection. Getting published is a learning experience and a lot of trial and error, as well as luck and timing. There are enough people out in the publishing world who will gladly make it difficult for you, so don’t be one of those who makes it difficult for yourself. Keeping your mind open to change and all possibilities is what will also help you maintain a career.

Jessica

Reactions:

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Can You Do Better?

With the economic downturn and mass changes in publishing as well as many other industries, I’ve been hearing a lot of grumbling about how publishing models are outdated and need change. What I haven’t heard though are a lot of ideas for how those changes should be made.

Let’s face it, publishing is in trouble. Fewer people read books and publishing companies are running on outdated models. That being said, I also think there are a lot of things that publishers are still doing right, and some of what I am seeing others complain about are not things I necessarily think need to be changed. But I’m interested in hearing from you.

Some think the answer is buying fewer books. For some that means only buying premier literature (which sounds to me like the end of commercial fiction). But what does that mean and what about the millions of People magazine readers out there who are willing to plunk down $30 to buy Jenny McCarthy’s book on autism or the autobiography of Kenny Loggins? And what about all of the amazing books that have wowed American and international reading audiences because someone was willing and able to take a chance? Sure, there are a lot of books that fail every year, but how do we know ahead of time that they won’t succeed. Some will argue that the writing is crap, but those same people will say the writing is crap about a multitude of bestsellers. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is one thing that will never truly change about publishing and that is that its audience is fickle and unpredictable. Reading is a personal thing, and while we can look at similar books to try and judge how a book will do, in the end we’ll never know until the readers have their say, and I for one like the opportunity to give the readers many chances to judge.

Some think we should stop paying huge advances to authors, and, frankly, I don’t have any complaints about that. As I say to my authors all the time, if you were meant to make the money you think you should be making on a book, you will. If you feel a publisher is underpaying you, prove them wrong by earning huge royalties. The problem is you won’t make it now, you’ll make it a year, two years, or three years from now. Can authors make that switch and are they comfortable continuing to write with little to no up-front reward?

Some think we should eliminate the return system in publishing, and here’s where you’ll hear a resounding “yes” from me. I just don’t get it. I just do not understand why any business thinks the producer needs to be responsible for the ordering of the bookstores, especially in this day and age. Publishing is the only business that takes the hit for over-orders made by bookstores that seem to intentionally over-order, instead of printing just what consumers demand. What is interesting about this one proposed change is that by making it you will automatically make the changes asked for above. Fewer books will be printed because bookstores will be less willing to take risks on some titles, and advances are going to be lower because unless we know 60,000 copies of a book is going to get ordered, publishers are going to become more cautious. Economically it makes a lot of sense, but environmentally it makes sense too. Why are we printing thousands of books only so that they can be ripped up later? It makes me cringe.

But what about you? What do you think the publishing industry needs to do to enter this new century and save themselves?

Jessica

Reactions:

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Attitude Matters

During lunch with an editor, not surprisingly the economic slump came up. Editors are losing their jobs, while others are making decisions on which authors they are able to offer new contracts to and which they are not. What we discussed was no surprise to us, but might be to many authors: an author’s attitude can matter in some cases. In other words, being a pain in the ass can bite you in the ass.

The first thing publishers look at when cutting their lists (and therefore making decisions about which authors will be returning and which will not receive contracts again), are numbers. Of course the authors with the best sales track records are going to stay, but what about those authors who are neck and neck? How do you make the decision when you suddenly come up with, say, the last ten authors, five of whom you can offer contracts to, but five of whom you no longer have room for? Their numbers are all relatively the same, they sell well, not fantastically, but steadily. The decision is going to come down to attitude. The authors you like, the ones that don’t cause trouble, or give you daily headaches, the ones who turn in relatively clean manuscripts and don’t call screaming simply because they hate the color pink and you used pink on the cover, those are the authors most likely to get the next contract.

Does that mean you need to sit on your hands and keep your mouth shut? Absolutely not. I have a fabulous relationship with a number of editors and a number of contracts people within publishing houses, and you know what? I can be a real pain in the butt. The trick is to be painlessly painful. In other words, to understand that you aren’t always going to get what you want and to face problems professionally and kindly. If you’re unhappy with your cover, you should let your editor know, but you should also let her know why and reasonably discuss solutions if there are any. Better yet, you should let your agent do the dirty work so you always look like a gem.

In publishing, like in any business, the way you approach things can make a difference in the long run. How many of you have walked out of a store or away from a professional simply because you didn’t like the person’s attitude? I know I’ve refused to work with all sorts of people just for that reason. Why should publishing be any different? Again, if you are a royal pain, but bringing the big money, they know they're stuck with you, but if you are at the same level as a whole heck of a lot of nicer people, you better watch your back.

Jessica

Reactions:

Monday, January 12, 2009

Well Played

I’ve often complained to you about the authors who, only after I request more material or call to offer representation, let me know that they have already accepted representation. Well, today I have a story of an author who is clearly smart, professional, and, as far as I’m concerned, going places.

In October I received a snail-mailed requested proposal for a novel. The proposal arrived at the end of October, so I was still running well within my time schedule when I received an e-mail from the author on the day before Thanksgiving letting me know he had received an offer of representation. Wise author this, he assumed that of course I would want to read the full manuscript and simply attached it for me. Smart, very smart. This author knows he has written a great book (knew that before the offer, in fact) and marketed it to me as a must-see rather than asking if maybe I wanted to read the rest. Get the difference? Strong and assertive makes us want something. The author also gave two weeks' time. I assume this had something to do with the holiday, but also allowed all interested agents plenty of time to get to reading. He probably could have given through the weekend, but why rush everyone if you don’t need to? Again, this was his opportunity to find the perfect agent and he was making sure he had every chance to do so.

It did take me longer than normal to read the material since I was traveling and because I had to think about it long and hard. It was a very, very difficult decision for me. I really, really liked the book and I know that it has huge potential, but I just didn’t think I was the strongest agent for it. I spent a day just processing the book and my role as the agent. Was I selling myself short by not thinking I could do as well with the book as other agents? I don't think so, in fact I don't think I was selling myself short at all. I was being realistic about my abilities. I knew I could get as good a deal as anyone else, but I also knew the book needed some editing before going to publishers and frankly, I wasn't sure I would be able to give the best feedback.

In the end, I needed to keep the author's best interests in mind and I decided to pass. There were five other agents who had offered representation, why throw my hat into the ring just to see what would happen? 


I wish the author the very best of luck and can’t wait to see the inevitable deal in Publishers Marketplace.

Jessica

Reactions:

Friday, January 09, 2009

My Favorite Editors

I was recently asked about my favorite editors, not who they are (because you’ll never get that out of me), but what they are. What qualities does an editor have that will put her on my favorite list. Surprisingly it has little to do with negotiating technique (although I do favor an editor who can participate in a respectful negotiation) and everything to do with the way an editor works with her authors (my clients).

So here’s a short list of some of the qualities my favorite editors have:

  1. Good communications skills. Yes, it helps when editors return my emails and phone calls, but it’s even more important to me that they return those of my clients, their authors.
  2. Organized. I don’t care if an editor's office is a disaster area or if she has messy closets. What I do care about is her knowledge of my client. In other words, I hope that when I call to ask a question she either has the answer or knows how to find the answer. I also hope that she knows who I’m talking about.
  3. Strong editing skills. I don’t believe the myth that editors don’t edit anymore, but I do believe that there are (and have always been) editors who really have an eye for good editing. They can jump in and work with an author to create or recreate a book that won’t just shine, but will glow from miles away. I would prefer that my client be forced to rewrite the entire book than deal with bad reviews or poor sales later.
  4. Respect. This should be a given, but I’ve dealt with a lot of editors who don’t have any respect for the writing process and don’t think twice about expecting an author to write an amazing book in just a few month. An editor who can work with an author and respect her process gets put to the top of my list.
  5. Easy. The best editors are the ones that are easy. In other words they are easy to talk to, easy to like and easy for the author to feel comfortable around.

Unfortunately what makes a favorite editor is different for everyone. The editors I love, you might hate. In fact, some of my favorite editors are the least favorite editors of some of my colleagues. What it ultimately boils down to is how it’s working for my client and each client is very different. And in the end my favorite editors are the ones who my clients adore.

Jessica

Reactions:

Thursday, January 08, 2009

An Agent's Taste

Before going into today's post, I want to quickly alert you to a blog I was asked to do an interview on, Talking with Tim. I do a lot of interviews and rarely do I link to them, but in this case the questions were really different from what I usually get and I think Tim is creating an interesting site.

Okay, on to today's topic.

When replying to submissions, agents rely on their own personal tastes to decide whether to represent something. This is only fair, and if I were an agent I would probably do the same thing. However, I have to wonder, to what extent are agents' personal tastes relevant to the tastes of readers? Fourteen agents passed on "Twilight" before one made the deal of his or her life. That means that almost 95% of agents queried made what is probably the biggest business mistake of their careers based on their own personal tastes.

The vast majority of agents (at least those that are AAR members) seem to be women over forty, which represents a small and not the most influential segment of fiction readers. Even among romance readers, women 35 – 54 represent only 27% of readers (statistics as of 2003, maybe a bit dated).

Then of course there is the amount of material that agents read in the course of their careers…I don’t have statistics, but I’d wager that it’s significantly more than even the most avid readers. The more one reads, the more tastes change.

For every super-successful new author, there is a stack of agent rejections. JK Rowling, the world’s first billion-dollar author, was rejected by nine publishers (I don’t have statistics on agents, but one can only assume). "The Princess Diaries" by Meg Cabot, another super-successful multi-volume series, was rejected by every agent in Manhattan. I could go on, but I trust my point has been made.

One has to wonder…is there a better way? Should agents perhaps outsource manuscript evaluations to a rotating staff of consultants whose tastes reflect that of actual readers?


This is a really great question and the reader used so many good examples that I had to quote the entire question. Now keep in mind, I do not know for sure if this reader’s statistics are correct. In other words, I don’t know the submission/rejection statistics of any of the authors he’s cited, but I do think we can all agree that there are many incredibly successful authors out there and most of them have been rejected by one agent or another. Heck, I have rejected a few authors who became bestsellers. On the other hand, I have a few bestsellers of my own and I know that other agents rejected their work.

Does that mean that we all need second readers or base our decisions entirely on personal taste? Not at all. Entire publishing houses, with five to ten editors reading the manuscript, have rejected bestsellers. In fact, I have one New York Times bestselling author whose bestselling book was rejected by a number of agents and who had at least five other publishers reject the book. Frequently agencies and publishers have others read the work in-house. The truth is that there is so much more to making a decision than personal interest. Number one I need to know the marketing potential of the book and how that relates to me. I might see wonderful potential in a book, I might even love it, but if it’s not an area I’m comfortable with I might not be able to do for that book what another agent with more experience in that genre could do. The same holds true with editors. I have no idea how much some of the bestsellers you cited were edited, but I have seen enough work by editors to know that many times a book that was published is not the same work that was delivered. Another editor might not have helped create that bestseller.

What I think all readers need to know is that what one agent and one editor could do for a book another might not. In other words, just because a book was a bestseller doesn’t mean it would be a bestseller had it landed in the hands of another agent or another publishing house. Part of what makes that happen is the publisher’s enthusiasm and vision for the book. Another publisher might have had another vision (a different cover, a different marketing strategy, a different position on the list, etc).

As for your comment about most agents being women over 40, you made that very well without offending me, but it reminds me of a conference I attended years ago, a time when I was offended. In the middle of my workshop a very angry older gentleman raised his hand to ask how he could ever expect to get his book published when all the editors in publishing where nothing but young girls. Well, I’m not a young girl and I’m not a woman over 40 and I’m not offended to be called either. I am offended that the implication is that because we are of a certain demographic we only have the vision for a certain type of book. Publishing is made up of men and women of all ages, all interests and all backgrounds, professionals who know their own limitations and what they can do to make a book sell. Here’s my question to you: Do you want a chiropractor operating on your child’s tonsils? Do you want a dentist removing your gallbladder? These doctors got into the fields they are practicing because of a personal interest in that field in the exact same way I got into romance, mystery, thrillers, fantasy, women’s fiction, and nonfiction. I have a personal interest in these areas. I don’t have a personal interest in children’s books or memoirs. I read them, I enjoy them, but I don’t have a desire to study and learn more about them. In other words, I don’t want to specialize in them.

Frankly, I think the system works. I think there is a lot about publishing that needs to change, but I’m not sure the agent-editor-author relationship is one of them. One agent cannot and should not represent every bestselling book. It takes a publishing village to create the reading choices we have and rejection is part of the game for all of us. Every single agent and editor out there worth her salt has rejected a book that she later kicked herself for, every single agent and editor has rejected a book she later patted herself on the back for. The trick is that those same agents or editors have also snapped up books that became bestsellers and that they’ve been very proud of.


Jessica

Reactions:

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Saving a Deal

As a newbie agent I thought of my job as making deals for authors. I would submit the book, the offer (hopefully) would come in, and my job was to leverage that offer to get the best deal possible for my author. Typically my authors at that time were new and unpublished and thrilled beyond belief with anything I could do for them. Now I’m not saying these people were suckers, because it does sound that way. I’m just saying that like most authors they knew the game. They weren’t going to get paid a lot and I was going to do my best to get them a fair contract and the most money possible.

Now I have more than a few years under my belt and so do many of my authors. They’ve been around for a while and have built successful careers. And because of that success and experience I find that many times I’m not making a deal, but saving a deal. Instead of simply leveraging an offer to get the best deal, I’m getting in there and saying to the publisher that this offer won’t work and either we find ways to make it work or this author is walking. From a personal standpoint it’s frustrating and wonderfully challenging at the same time. Yes, I realize that if I don’t save the deal I don’t get paid, but surprisingly that doesn’t enter into the equation when I’m negotiating. What does enter into the equation is my author’s happiness. If my client does not want the deal then I don’t want her to have it. I will lay it on the line, the pros and cons of walking away from the offer and what our options might be and I will negotiate the hell out of it. I’ve done a number of "save the deals" this year, but one of my longest such negotiations took a little over six months (although I have another threatening to break that record).

I think the most important thing I do when saving the deal (which, by the way, isn’t always saving the deal) is give my opinion, because let’s face it, whenever we are faced with a huge decision and are not entirely sure of what we should do, we like to hear the opinions of people we trust. Does it make up our mind for us? No, but it does help to guide us. It’s a risk for me of course because if the author follows my opinion and remains unhappy, I’m the one that’s going to pay, but that’s what you pay me for. You pay me for my professional guidance and I believe I would be doing you an injustice by not giving that. And you can’t always predict what my opinion will be. I have advised authors to take the deal, I have advised a smaller deal, and I’ve advised that we walk away.

So just when you think that authors are completely at the mercy of publishers and agents, think again. It might not be too long before you’re the one threatening to end the deal.

Jessica

Reactions:

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

What Is a Book Proposal for Fiction Writers

Once you’ve mastered the query letter it’s time to move on to the book proposal. For fiction writers a proposal if fairly easy compared to what nonfiction writers have to do. And keep in mind, if you are writing narrative nonfiction, like a memoir, you should think of your work as fiction. In other words, editors and agents will expect the work to be completed before you even start to query.

Because fiction writers have the book written, polished, and edited before they even start to query, putting the proposal together is really about collecting materials, but since you can never have too much information, I thought you too would like to know what goes into your proposal (sometimes called a partial).

  1. Query Letter. Yes, you’ve already submitted the query, but don’t forget to do it again. Every bit of material you submit to agents and editors should include a reminder of what they are getting. So in the letter you are sending with the proposal mention that you’ve received a request, that this is requested material, include the blurb that first grabbed the agent’s interest and include everything else in the query that grabbed the agent’s interest.
  2. Chapters. Unless you are told otherwise, include the first three chapters (and yes, a prologue is a chapter), but no more than 50 pages of your book. Yes, make sure the chapters are full chapters, make sure they are the first chapters, and yes, if the chapter ends at page 51 send 51 pages. If chapter three ends at page 80 then you only send two chapters. Just use good judgment. Agents really like authors with good judgment.
  3. A Synopsis. I’m not picky. Whatever you have on hand works for me, but do make sure your synopsis is complete and strong. In other words, the synopsis should tell the ending, it should include all key plot points, and it should read in the tone of your book. In other words, if you’re writing suspense, I should get a sense of suspense from your synopsis. If you’re writing erotic romance, I should get a sense of the sex.
Other tidbits to consider:
  • Page numbers. Everything should be numbered.
  • Order. Place the synopsis at the end of the package. Do you really want people to read this first or do you want to wow them with your chapters first.
  • Have others proofread your synopsis to make sure it makes sense.
I will try to post more about the synopsis later, but this is it. When requesting a proposal, this is all we ask for.

Jessica

Reactions:

Monday, January 05, 2009

What Is a Book Proposal for Nonfiction Writers

Welcome back everyone and Happy New Year! I can tell by my inbox that many of you have made a New Year's Resolution to get your book out on submission this year and for that reason I think today's post and tomorrow's are awfully timely. 


One of the nice things about being a nonfiction writer of self-help or how-to books is that you can almost always sell on proposal. Isn’t that a beautiful thing? In other words, you don’t need to write the entire book to find an agent or a publisher. However, writing that proposal can be just as difficult as writing the book. Writing the proposal is all about marketing and positioning and sometimes not so much about the book. But what is a good book proposal? What do editors and agents expect and what can help make your proposal rise above the rest?

We do have short guidelines to a book proposal on our Web site, but I thought I’d give you a peek into what I give my authors, the insider's look into the work I make my clients go through before I submit anything to publishers. In other words, what do I mean when I ask for an overview, author bio, sample material, and a table of contents (toc).

In no particular order and definitely in your own voice and style, a nonfiction book proposal should contain the following elements:

1. Overview
The overview tells the editor, in brief, what your book is about. If you are writing your overview in paragraph form I would suggest you write no more than one or two pages. While it’s true we want to give the editor as much information as possible, we also want her to know that we can be concise. Think of advertising. We don’t want to read pages and pages on the new Apple iPod. An advertisement grabs our attention because it highlights only those most intriguing points. Your overview is really an advertisement for your book.

If one of your biggest marketing or advertising points is you as the author (which it should be), your credentials and the work you do (in other words, your platform) should be part of the overview. In fact, it should probably be one of the biggest pieces of the overview.

Other good points to include are:
  • Timeliness of the topic—is it something that’s in the news a lot lately?
  • The market—are there 85 million potential buyers for your book?
  • The one thing that makes your book stand out from all others.
  • Details about the approach you intend to take.
  • Special features such as charts, checklists, photos, etc.

2. Author Bio
This could quite possibly be the most critical piece of your book proposal. If there’s one reason, more than any other, that editors are using to reject nonfiction, it’s because of the author’s platform, or lack thereof. When writing your author bio it’s critical that you have made yourself look like the Dr. Phil of your particular subject. We no longer live in a day when freelance writers can make it big writing books. It seems that everyone wants an already established author. Someone who can make this book a bestseller without any work from the publisher.

Again, this is a sales piece, and because of that it’s important to organize your author bio with the most intriguing and exciting information first. We don’t really care if you went to Harvard or not. We care whether or not you can sell this book to thousands of people. Therefore, who are you and what makes you an expert on this subject, and, most important, what gives you a national platform? Do you give workshops? Presentations? Do you teach at Harvard (much different than having attended)? Have you been featured in national magazines, on TV or radio? Do you have a number of major media contacts interested in your subject? Teach at a local community center? Mention as much as you possibly can and highlight the big stuff—the stuff that gives you national recognition. We would rather have you mention too much and have you edit it down than find out after the proposal has already gone out that you are a regular columnist for Time magazine and simply failed to mention this to us.


3. Marketing
Next to the author platform and subject, this is probably the third most important piece of your proposal and actually goes hand in hand with your platform. Not only does the publisher want to know whether or not there is a market for the book, and how big it is, they want to know how you can bring this book to that market.

Some of this might be a repeat from the author bio; however, it should be written more extensively. While you might have mentioned in the author bio that you speak nationally, in the marketing section you are going to expand on that and tell us how many people you speak to and on what subjects. Do you have a speaking schedule for the upcoming year (or two)? Make sure to include it with your proposal. Have you already been featured in major national magazines and newspapers? Mention this and include clips.

Don’t waste a lot of time talking about what you could do or what the publisher can do. Mention instead what you are already doing. It’s easy to think that we can all write articles for major magazines, but unless you’re already doing that there’s no guarantee that you can get published in them. Just because you think your idea should get attention from media sources doesn’t mean they’ll agree. Everyone can make their book a bestseller if they get on Oprah, but don’t even bother mentioning this unless you’ve been on Oprah before. Everyone will take the time out to do whatever publicity or talk show circuit the publisher can get for them, so this doesn’t make you special. What does make you special are the things you’ve done or the columns you write that already get you noticed.

In addition to showing what you can do to market this book, you want to prove that there is a market for this book. Statistics can help. Do you have a Web site with 100,000 subscribers? Did Dateline do a piece on just the topic you’re discussing, or on you? Was there a Newsweek article on you or the subject? Are there organizations all over the country that your book pertains to?

Other things to consider mentioning regarding market:
  • Statistics on the size of the market and the extent to which it’s growing.
  • Demographic information.
  • Media sources you have a connection to—reporters, columnists, etc., in your Rolodex.
  • Do you have a foreword writer already—a big name?
  • Do you know of an organization that’s already agreed to buy copies of the book when it’s published? Include this information and how many copies.

4. Competition

Probably the second biggest reason an editor will reject a nonfiction book proposal is because of lack of competition or too much competition. Are there other books on the market similar to yours? Don’t be afraid to talk about that fact, but most important, prove how your book stands out from them. When doing this it’s important to see it from the editor’s point of view. I know that we all think your book is different, but the truth is that bookstores are going to shelve it next to other, similar books. So how is your book going to distinguish itself from others? In other words, if readers are only going to read the title and back of the book (probably something similar to your overview), what makes your book shine? Look back to your bookstore activity and the number of books next to yours on the shelf and use this as a guide.

While it’s not necessary to name every competitive title, it is probably a good idea to list the top three or so and show how your book is different. The key here is to present your differences. If an editor likes your book her next job is to present it to the rest of the editorial staff and sales department and convince them that your book is worthy of publication. By giving her ammunition, such as the point of difference between your book and others, you are helping her sell your book. In addition, doing a comparative analysis shows the editor that, in fact, you are an expert and know your competition. She will assume, as we will, that you know all of these books intimately and have read them.

*** Don’t ever think that by not mentioning competitive titles you will trick the editor into believing that there aren’t any. Editors who buy in a certain genre—yours—know the market and know just as much about the competition as you should. They read the books and reviews and regularly scour bookshelves. Therefore, it’s better to be up front in your proposal and prove why your book is different rather than leave it to an editor’s imagination.


5. TOC and Chapter Summaries
The TOC (table of contents) might seem obvious, but it’s amazing how many people will submit a proposal without one. This is a simple way to give an editor another overview of the book. It’s also the first thing most readers (and editors) will look at when they open a book. If you feel that your TOC warrants cute titles, that’s great. We always want something that makes your book stand out, but it’s important that the title headings clearly describe what the chapter will be about. We shouldn’t have to try to guess. When writing your TOC don’t forget to include any appendices or other supplementary material you intend to include (charts, sample forms, etc.).

Chapter summaries are chapter-by-chapter breakdowns. Including this allows the editor to see how you intend to approach the material and also gives her an idea of your writing style. Chapter summaries are what allow nonfiction writers to submit on proposal rather than with the entire book. When writing your summaries remember to include all of the information that makes your book different and intriguing. If you intend to include charts or photos in a particular chapter, mention that, and, if possible, mention what they will be of.

One important note about chapter summaries: They are the first real impression the editor has of your writing style—so make them shine. Chapter summaries should be fun to read an exciting (as long as you intend for your book to be fun to read and exciting). Please don’t start each one with, “Chapter one will include . . . ” Put your voice into it and make them read as if they were the chapters themselves. The most successful book proposals read like the book, not as a boring outline of what the book could be.

Chapter summaries should be anywhere from one paragraph to five pages long (each).


6. Sample Chapters
Sample chapters are the icing on the cake, and we all know that bad icing can ruin a cake. We should probably stop using the word “sample” when describing the chapters you intend to send out with your proposal. While these are meant to give the editor a sampling of how your chapters will be written (style, voice, and tone), they should be submitted as if they are going straight to publication. In other words, they should be perfect. Like the rest of your proposal the grammar, punctuation, and style should be impeccable. There shouldn’t be any typos and the tone you’ve written the samples in should be indicative of the tone your entire book will be written.

When choosing which sample chapters to write don’t just automatically go to the first. What chapters are your strongest and most intriguing? Write those. After all, your goal is to grab someone’s attention, so why would you submit the most stagnant chapter?

At a minimum, your proposal should include two to three sample chapters or two sample chapters and an introduction. Of course, what you submit can always change depending on your proposal. It might be helpful to discuss this with your agent before getting started. Whatever you decide, think of this: we have seen editors reject a proposal because there wasn’t enough material submitted. From an editor’s perspective it looked lazy, as if the author was unwilling to do the work required to sell the book—which doesn’t bode well for the future. It’s always better to have too much material than too little.


7. Publicity
This is obvious. Supply your agent with newspaper and magazine clips, tapes of radio and TV performances, copies of articles you’ve written or been interviewed for. Etc. Again, it’s better to send too much rather than too little. Your agent can always weed through it and decide what are the most important pieces.


Extra Things to Consider
When all is said and done there are a few extra little tidbits we’d like to add:
  • There’s no right or wrong to writing a proposal. Use this as a guide, but don’t forget to add your own personal flare. We’ve sold many, many books and no proposal has truly been like the one before it.
  • Page numbers—make sure your proposal has page numbers. I’ve actually had editors complain about this.
  • Spelling, typos, and grammar. We can’t stress this enough. If you don’t think you are a strong enough writer or self-editor, consider bringing in someone else to work with you. If you need suggestions ask your agent.
  • Extras—do you have an author photo? It can’t hurt to include it.
  • Do you plan to include photos or illustrations in your book? Mention that and roughly how many. And always, always include samples.
  • Sample news pieces—Did Newsweek do a cover story on just the topic you’re writing about? Include a copy.
  • Title—this is the very first thing an editor looks at when reviewing a proposal, so let’s give them something that grabs their attention and yet says clearly what the book is about. Believe it or not we’ve had editors very interested in a book, but before even bringing it to an editorial meeting they called to see if they could change the title. This might be something you and your agent can brainstorm on together.
Have fun with it and good luck!!!

Jessica

Reactions: