Friday, February 24, 2017

Getting to Yes...Yes...YES!

Last week, I answered a question about why the query process is so frustrating and specific. This week, I want to continue that post, because I think the heart of the frustration isn't really (all) in having to follow guidelines - it's following guidelines and not getting a yes.

I mentioned the five points I look for in a query; I think these are pretty universal (with the usual I-can't-speak-for-everyone disclaimer) and I want to break these down further to help you in your process.

1. Is this an area I represent?
2. Is this something I think I can sell?
3. Is this something I think is marketable?
4. Is this an author who has the platform to go with it all?

And, most important, #5: is this well executed?

Let's break these down.

1. Is this an area I represent?

This is all about your research. Look up the agents you submit to - and not just the bios. Read #mswl, take a look at what books they've sold. What's important is not just what they want - but what they have. Because an agent isn't going to want two of the exact same (or very similar) book.

2. Is this something I think I can sell? (back-market)

Or is this something that I've seen a million times before? Boil down your hook and take a look at what else is out there; how fresh is your idea, really? Are you introducing something new? If yes, is there a reason it hasn't been done before? Are you banking on something you think is a hot topic? Hot topics are a flash in a pan; by the time you think it, someone else has already done it. I spoke with a client today regarding an idea about the Women's March. Guess what? Already a bunch of books sold and lined up on it. You can always get a subscription to Publisher's Marketplace for one month to do research - both on agents (what they're selling to see if they're active in your area), and for editors (to see what they're buying, to see if there's a saturation in your genre).

Still not sure? Well, there are a few ways you can try and get an answer. Google, for one; I looked up "can I sell a vampire book" and found a pretty relevant post to share on the topic of trends and selling the unsellable. This quick search would have told me vampires are indeed a topic that is hard to sell right now. Ask around: there are plenty of online chats with agents, events with agents, and conferences. And guess what? Ask an author who has an agent! I've had authors ask me questions on behalf of critique partners, and authors with agents are also batting around ideas and may have insight into what's working. Not everyone will be open to it, but it doesn't hurt to... Ask! It might not be what you want to hear, but maybe it will help you figure out how to (I loved this post's title) sell the unsellable!

3. Is this something I think is marketable? (front-market)

There are two layers to the strategy of what I take on: will editors bite (the "back" market), and will readers bite (the "front" market) (I promise I'm totally not trying to pun up the vampire theme...). Basically, is there a demand for this genre in the readership? Will they be totally saturated by the time this hits shelves (traditional publication cycle is 18+ months)? Is this the kind of book with a large audience, or a limited audience, in which there are already a number of books for the readership to choose from? Would this stand out - would someone pick your book over another? Why?

4. Is this an author who has the platform to go with it all?

Since I personally represent primarily fiction and children's nonfiction, I'm not thinking about this from the traditional platform sense, more of authenticity. Is this author writing from an authentic perspective (#ownvoices)? For those in the adult nonfiction world, traditional platform is key.


5. Is this well executed?

Key point: I said executed not written. A work can be wonderfully written but fall apart in plotting and pacing. I do often judge this from the query itself - if there are ten million different things going on and I can't figure out what the primary conflict is and it feels all over the place, I will move on. This is where a poorly executed query can shoot you in the foot. Which is why your query should be critiqued for clarity just like your manuscript. Here's my template for a query - this is how simple it should be.

As for execution of the manuscript, I dedicated a post to this a while back, but truly, the very best way to help with your writing is to keep writing, and keep reading. The best way to help with your execution of that writing is to keep working on your craft. Find a mentor, not just a critique partner; expand your circle to writers and events you haven't met or been to before to consider different perspectives and different tips and approaches. Try out different tools for plotting and pacing; run your synopsis, not your first chapter, by your critique group and see if it makes sense to them, is predictable, has holes. Think critically about the feedback you receive.


As a last step, if you think you have a "yes" to all of these points, I would like you to take a moment to reflect on how long you've been at it with this book. Are you stuck in a revision cycle, when the best course of action might be to let this one go for now and come back to it after you've grown with something new?

And if you've done all of the above, and you're ready to throw in the towel...what makes you think you're done? What makes you think it's everyone else, and not you?

Writing can be a very isolated journey, even with social media. And sometimes, the inspiration you need is a break. Spend three months to a year as a reader and author advocate - offer to edit, but not write, promote, but not be promoted, listen, not be listened to. Surround yourself with inspiration. And begin again.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Querying: Why IS it So Damn Hard?

Dear Ms. Lakosil:

I've seen an agent have a list of 26 do's and don'ts for submission criteria.  13 do's, 13 don'ts.  I decided not to submit to said agent.  I quite literally imagined a stick in her bum.  I imagined our relationship as agent/writer being similarly woody and passed.  GOD stopped with 10 commandments.  Was he phoning it in?

Furthermore, why do so many agents ask to see a 'beautiful sentence' instead of a beautiful story?  I've seen an agent say she loves well placed commas.  Well, that's nice...I guess.  It reminds me of an accountant loving decimals instead of the numbers he's adding.  HARRY POTTER had some UGLY sentences while telling an amazing story.  I'm guessing she I shall call 'Agent Comma' would have passed on poor Harry.

While I'm ranting...why do agents put shockingly heavy emphasis on the query letter?  I can see why it is a component of grabbing the eye.  I get it.  Yet, shouldn't the manuscript itself be where an eye levels first?  If agents are judging entirely on the query  and skipping the actual work, they are missing great stories.  Many agents want as few as five pages, specifically the first five.  That's like looking at one cell in a microscope and judging the health of the human body by it.  Why not allow a writer to submit a sample of their favorite chapter?  

If I sound frustrated, I am.  I'm hoping you can shed more intense light on this process than I've read online and through experiences in the query process.  

Sincerely,

Stephani Martin


Dear Stephani, and all writers in the query process:

Yours is a valid and understandable frustration. I'm in a unique position, in that I've been in both shoes: that of the writer, desperately seeking agent, and that of agent, desperately seeking compatible clients. I think I wracked up upwards of 150 rejection letters before I stopped writing and querying.

I share my similarly-frustrated query in the post linked above; I too had very much reached that pulling-your-hair-out-why-the-hell-is-no-one-biting point.

So I get it. I want to start with that.

I've ruminated on this before, but there are some additional points I think are worth making that might help shed some light on the other side of the fence.

I just posted my query stats for 2016; I received a total of 4,612 unsolicited query letters. I probably also received roughly another 100 query letters direct into my personal inbox, which, if you read my guidelines, I deleted.

I can admit that my guidelines, and that of our agency's, aren't really the most user-friendly; there's red text, there's green text, there's guidelines for one agent that are different for another, and they're OUR guidelines, not necessarily any sort of industry standard. I want to also add for the record, that most agents understand that it's not EASY to research and appropriately query agents.

But.

On our guidelines page, we did try and add some explanation as to why we need things a certain way. For example, when you're getting as many unsolicited emails as we do, LOTS of things are determined to be spam. We set up a special filter that relies on key wording in the subject line to prevent that. With the sheer volume, it's also difficult to respond to check-ins - so we've outlined the response time. We don't want a bunch of viruses, so we've also told you we don't want attachments. We also understand, sometimes query letters aren't the best, so we give you a chance to submit your first chapter so we can see a sample of your work. We want the beginning, not a random piece, because as much as YOU might love a specific scene, we have no context for it, and thus, there's no way it will resonate appropriately for us.

Basically, our guidelines are in place for a reason; every agent has similar reasons for why he or she needs you to submit to them in a specific way. Most agents aren't trying to be threatening or overly specific and rigid - we're just trying to very clearly lay out what we need. And very clearly communicate that we have no time to review projects outside of those guidelines. I imagine the agent who listed the do's and don'ts of querying was really just trying to be helpful.

The time we spend reviewing submissions is completely unpaid work. Even if we hire an assistant to read the queries, and yes, some agents have a salary vs. commission, that assistant's work and that salaried time spent on submissions doesn't immediately lead to revenue. In fact, most of it will never lead to revenue at all. There is value in it, for those who are actively seeking clients, which is why we do it. But any successful business needs to focus on and prioritize revenue-generating activities by the level of return investment.

Think of the query process like the job search process; this is our business, and this is how you are applying for the "client" job.

I'm sure, just like with queries, you would love to be able to show up to your dream job and SHOW them how AWESOME you would be. But no employer wants to take the risk and time for applicants to do that; most applicants who apply, just like with query letters, aren't even qualified for the job, regardless of what they think!

We need a way, as agents, to quickly weed out those who wouldn't fit what we're looking for. Query letters are your resume and cover letter. A big red flag is someone who can't follow directions, or simply CHOOSES not to. Why is that a red flag? Because it implies (whether your mean to or not) a lack of respect for my time and judgement - that you as author know best how to submit to me- and what does that say about our potential working relationship? It's your chance to highlight that you are qualified for the position, and stand out from all the others who are equally as qualified so I will meet you in person. In order to do this, you do need a well-crafted query letter.

It's also a step that readers expect, too! When browsing, do readers turn first to pages, or the blurb at the back of the book? ANY reader (agent, editor, buyer) needs a way to determine if it's a fit before they commit to reading. It's the art of advertising - movies have trailers, goods have commercials - this isn't something specific to the publishing industry. And yes, bad products have great commercials, and great movies get horrible trailers - so do your book justice and invest in the art of the query and pitch!

I spend about 30 seconds on the query letter. Truthfully, I'm not holding it against you if it's not perfect. Really. Maybe some agents do - and more on that in a second. What I'm looking for:

1. Is this an area I represent?
2. Is this something I think I can sell?
3. Is this something I think is marketable?
4. Is this an author who has the platform to go with it all?

If the answer is yes to even 3 out of 4, I'll turn to the sample writing. Because the most important question is #5: is this well executed?

If you've followed guidelines, you're probably being rejected because you didn't get a "yes" in #1-5 above. I see TONS of query letters that get a yes to #1-4, and fizzle at execution.

And that's back on you, to work on your craft, and send me something that'll knock my socks off.

Yes, it's frustrating that you don't know which it is - which # did you miss at? Is it your idea? Is it that you picked the wrong agent? Is it that the execution was off? The execution of your letter or your writing? Well. That my friends...is for another post (which I've already scheduled for next Friday! Say whaaaaat!).

For now, I'll end with one last thing: I've used "most agents" and "some agents" a lot in this post. That's because I can't speak for every agent. And also because not every agent is going to be a fit for YOU.

It is absolutely your right as an "applicant" to judge the potential "work environment" as not compatible with your style.

When agents compete against one another, we call it a beauty contest; that's because quite frankly, sometimes it just comes down to who is shiniest and prettiest. We can all do the same thing (ahem, schmagents excepted), and many of us represent very similar areas.

That's why we're "out" there - that's why our guidelines are out there. We want you to think about whether or not we'd be a fit, too. We want you to come in the door having done all that research. And we're people; we need to have a good relationship with one another in order to work well. This is especially important right now - you'll see a lot of agents on social media very blankly telling you they won't work with clients from certain view points. Does that make them bad agents? No; that makes them good recruiters, because they're actively telling you: I am passionate about this! You will NOT be happy with me if you don't agree! We won't respect each other!

You don't have to agree with them. You don't have to suck up to them. You just have to decide: not for me. But if you decide: for me, follow guidelines.

And for the record, Stephani, the voice in your letter to me was quite engaging. I hope that passion translates to your characters on the page!