Thursday, May 06, 2010

Hairy Query Theory

I continue to receive queries from very new writers who, because the process is new to them, begin their letter telling me about themselves. I’ve covered this before but think, because it happens so often, that it might not hurt to go over it again as many do not understand the query process fully, so let me say it a different way to hopefully make it better understood.

First, the query letter only begins the process and the choice of whether to go to the next step is purely a business decision. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the process stops at the query level. Many times (probably as much as 50% of the time) a query is rejected because the person sending it didn’t research us well enough to learn what we are currently seeking. Today, in fact, most of what I’ve received had little to do with what I represent. A couple of writers even said they had read our blog and thought I would be the perfect match for their mystery, suspense/thriller, or children’s picture book. Maybe we are unique in that we list our Needs and Guidelines on our blog on a special page located just under the blog’s mast, but I don’t think so.

Sadly, when I receive these queries, I have no recourse but to reject them. This is wasted effort for both the writer who sent the query and for us, but let’s move forward to a more cheerful subject-- what happens if the query contains something of interest.

When we receive a query, we evaluate it on the query’s merit first. If a writer actually reads our agency’s guidelines, his/her package will contain, along with the standard query letter, the novel’s first ten pages. Query letters tell me much about the person’s writing, organizational and research ability, and his/her preparation to be a novelist. If it passes scrutiny, then we go to the novel’s opening pages. What I look for in the ten-page sample is the novel’s hook. That first page or so should pull an agent (your reader) into the novel and the rest of the pages should keep her there and make her want to request more. That’s actually a query’s only job— to make enough of an impression that an agent or editor not only wants to request and read more, but he/she can’t wait to begin reading it. This is also the desired reaction potential book buyers should have when they take your novel off the bookstore shelf. Besides rushing to the cashier with your novel clutched to her chest, your reader should also tell everyone on Twitter, Facebook, and all her friends and relatives everywhere that she read your novel and loved it.

Since we request pages with the query, if the sample catches our attention, we request the rest of the work. Some might wonder why not just request three chapters or fifty pages. We used to, but since we do everything via email and email attachment, it’s just as easy to request a full as it is to request a partial. There is another reason for this and that is to pull three chapters out of a novel requires extra work on the author’s part, so why do this when it’s much easier to send a complete? If everything goes well up to this point, we begin reading. But let me digress for a moment. In addition to the writing, there’s another factor that many writers don’t consider.

The final decision on whether to go forward with any project normally rests on the question of how long it is going to take us to place this particular project. In this business, as in most businesses in which labor is expended in hope of a return on investment, time equals money. Many times marketability takes precedence over writing. One example might be where celebrity is involved.

Personality only enters the mix after the work’s marketability is considered. The reason I mention this is that many who query us somehow think that if they are personable, it will go a long way toward helping us make our decision. Not so, I’m afraid. Personality is not celebrity. Winning a writing contest or an award at a local or even regional writing conference does not give one enough celebrity it that would automatically get a writer a book contract. If you have won at writing comp at this level, please do put that information on your query letter. Unfortunately, however, only winning a national writer’s organization writing competition such as the RITA or EDGAR would give you the type celebrity we are referring to here.

Personality becomes a marketability factor if the author is a nationally known celebrity. Celebrity sells because of name recognition and a ready made audience when the book is published. This is the reason many these days suffer humiliation on reality shows. Getting one’s name and personality in front of a television camera means even if you lose, you win. Some writers team up with celebrity writers to get their name on a novel’s jacket. Well known authors recognize the power of name recognition. Clive Cussler, for instance, paired up with Jack Du Bru to write The Silent Sea (The Oregon Files). Clive has the name, which helps promote Jack Du Bru, a lesser known author.

Having had a novel published recently helps, especially if that novel was published by a major publisher and the novel sold well. Please also include recent sales in your query letter along with who published or will publish the novel, the publishing date and, if the novel is out there, how well it’s doing. Sales numbers are tracked by editors at larger publishers in large a subscription database called Nielsen Bookscan. Bookscan tracks sales at most bookstores, but its accuracy is only about 75% correct. For instance, Bookscan does not track sales at Walmart or Sam’s club, nor does it do a good job of tracking library sales, unless those sales are through a major bookstore. So, it’s always a good idea for the author to keep a record of sales on his/her own. These numbers, along with returns, should appear on your royalty statements. If you don’t have an agent, be sure to put these records in a safe place for future sales reference.

We hope this helps writers understand the query process. In closing, we would like to add that many authors do a very good job of writing good query letters; however, as with a person’s resume, a query should be continually polished and perfected. In this blog, resides a sample of a good and bad query letter. You can find them here.


Tamara Hart Heiner said...

how do you keep track of back-of-the-room sales? such as after a public speaking event? Other than writing it down for my own records, it's not going to show up anywhere else.

mi said...

great information!

this different perspective is very interesting.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


It's up to the author to keep track of all sales for many reasons. One way to track hand sold books (back of the room sales) is to save your purchase receipts. However, I would also track every sale no matter how small, as you probably have to do this for tax purposes anyway. Sales numbers are a direct indication of how large your reading audience is and thus how well you are doing as an author. Titles sold sound good, but the number of books sold are the only factors that prove success. Sales equal money and if you make money for your publisher (and yourself), he/she will be will want your next book, and your next and your next.

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

thanks, that answers my question. I was just wondering how to prove you've sold 'this many' books if it's not on bookscan. But if the receipts are proof enough, that works for me!

Emailman said...

Great info, thanks! And good timing, I'm just working on my new query this week :)

Hi Tamara! Fancy seeing you

Todd Dolce' said...

As a new author, I had to laugh at myself the other day. I'm a big guy. I lift weights and I'm pretty darn confident in the gym. What does that have to do with anything?

Writing a Query letter scared me to death! I shook like a baby overcome with nerves at the daunting process of constructing this letter. There I was pacing around the house trying to decide if my Query was polished enough for submission.

Honestly,...after two recent rejections,...I'm now gun shy and perhaps the Query is not as good as I had perceived it to be.

I'm riddled with questions about my writing abilities. Is the Query letter ineffective? Is my writing poor? Is there something terribly wrong about the first 10 pages of my book? Should I just give up and concede to defeat since I'm 0-2 right out of the gate? Has any real successful author had their best seller rejected by others before finally finding a home?

This is really tough on the mind as well as the heart. If I fail in a lift,..I can shrug it off and hit the next time in the gym; no big deal. When I fail in capturing the attention of an agent or publisher, it hits at the core and sends me in a tailspin.

Any help in the process of submitting a manuscript is always appreciated. Thanks for the post!

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


Rejection is just some of the baggage that goes along with being a writer. Rejection is inevitable and as normal as the sun rising and setting. You just have to understand that there are many reasons why a work is rejected and most of them have little or nothing to do with one's ability to write.

One other thing to keep in mind is that we all face rejection and it hurts no matter on which side of the table you sit.