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.


  1. What if the author isn’t writing from an authentic perspective (#ownvoices)? What if the answer to the question, “why are you the person to write this story?” is the author cares about diversity and “researched the hell out of it” trying to get it as right as possible? And will get appropriate beta readers for sensitivity. For you, looking at a submission, how much is this a strike against the author? For me, this isn’t academic as I’m revising a manuscript with a Lakota female protagonist.