“And hey maybe I’m a critic, a cynic, or am I crazy, do they all hate me?”
-Forever The Sickest Kids, “What Do You Want From Me”
Ah, the excitement of finding an agent or publisher is so exhilarating in the beginning. The author is fresh off their final edit and believes their story is going to be the next great novel. It’s then going to be adapted into an award-winning film, and they will become established in the lavish life of famous authors and entertainers.
Then reality sets in, and they’re rejected over and over as we discussed last week. I know this doesn’t sound appealing, but how do we get to the opportunity for rejection? We risk our whole story, no matter the genre and quality, on how well we can write marketing content, and structure each pitch specifically to the guidelines of agents and publishers. We’re going to structure your query letter in this post.
Um, that still doesn’t sound appealing. You’re right; it doesn’t. You know what else doesn’t? Research.
Unfortunately, research is a must when it comes to querying multiple agents and publishers. First, you need to find agents who are interested in your genre or publishers that focus on publishing your genre. If you’re starting out, one observation to be wary of is the length of an agent’s list of interests. If they enjoy almost every genre, it’s going to be more difficult to obtain representation.
After you’ve narrowed down your search, visit each agency’s or publisher’s website and learn more about everyone and everything. When it comes to literary agencies, simple online searches and blogs or articles directing you toward a certain agent won’t tell the whole story (was that kind of a pun?). There may be a better-suited agent to query for your book within the agency, and they usually have detailed bios and an informative company profile. Here are three important questions that will help while researching agents:
- Who represented my favorite authors in my genre?
- Who published my favorite books in my genre?
- What is in the agency’s or publisher’s catalog like, and what are their most recent projects?
Hey! You slipped in a fourth question. Why do I have to do research AND take a test? Oh, don’t worry, you have to write a paper, too.
I recommend creating a spreadsheet (oh, come on!) with the agents/agency and publishers, each’s contact information, notes to make your query personal, how they prefer their submissions, when you submitted and, of course, a column to put all your “no’s” (don’t worry, only one of them has to be a “yes” and the spreadsheet is a success—or an utter reminder of failure that will never leave the cloud).
When you’re ready to submit, read the guidelines for each agent or publisher very carefully because they’re all just different enough to really make your life annoying. Everything from page or word count, to headers and page numbers, to contact information to query structure will force a change in your generic draft. And that’s the point: they don’t want a generic draft; they want you to show you’ve learned about their agency or press, can follow guidelines and aren’t wasting theirs or your time (spoiler alert: we’ll go back to time—no, not “back IN time,” “back TO time.” Stop wasting time!).
The one question you may come across is whether or not the agency or publisher accepts attachments. Most will state if they want all material in the body of the email or as an attachment, but if they don’t mention their preferences, give them a call or email before you submit. You will get either an answer and it will show them your diligence, or they won’t get back to you and you can cross them off your list. If agencies and publishers are going to hold a standard for authors, then they must show the same standard. They can deal with their inefficient, impassive and probably a little pompous staff on their own time.
See, it comes back to time. Agents and publishers make it very clear how valuable their time is and how overloaded they are with submissions, and we respect that, but what about the authors? This is a problem not only in the entertainment industry, but everywhere. Take academia, for example: a student spends more time researching, formatting their references and making sure their citations are correct in a paper than writing the content. When a person applies for a job, their beautiful resume they spent hours, maybe days, creating doesn’t mean anything because they have to either fill all the information out again on online job sites or a company’s portal. What is the point of a resume if you just have to change it every time you apply? What is the point of a query letter if you have to cater it to a plethora of individual preferences? You’re doing everything for them to make sure their time isn’t wasted, but your time is—and you’re not even getting paid, and there’s a high chance you will never even make a living off writing! I will be honest; I think garnering all the different guidelines and obsessive particularities has taken more time than actually writing a novel.
The other side could argue that an author needs to work hard and pay their dues, but there comes a point when all authors have done so more than enough. It’s like an unpaid internship in the Twilight Zone that spans multiple decades. During employment searches, companies want candidates with experience, but how can someone gain experience if no one gives them an initial chance? The same goes with unestablished and established authors: how can an author become established if no one will give them a chance?
I once saw submission guidelines that explained how the house would only accept exclusive submissions and they would need three months to respond. Do people out there think others have nothing else to do with their life except wait around? It’s kind of like how every single article of clothing says on the tag to “wash separately.” Seriously, who has time to do that? This is why an author needs to submit to multiple agencies and publishers: they’ve dedicated so much time to their work with the intention to earn income off their intellectual and creative property, and then have to anxiously wait around for answers that sometimes don’t even come. As a courtesy, all agencies and publishers should at least send an email declining an author’s work. They’ve spent a majority of their free time, sometimes years of it, writing a novel for free, so why can’t someone send an email that takes a few minutes to draft? We value the time of agents and publishers, but sometimes the respect isn’t reciprocated.
Man, this is awful. First you imply I need to be a better marketer than writer, then you tell me I have to do homework, then I have to take a test, then I have to write a paper and you end by mentioning no one cares about my time! Querying sucks. It sure does, but let’s go ahead and structure your letter anyway.
- Addressing: Make sure the agent’s name or publishing house is correct. Seriously.
- Schmooze paragraph: Just a couple sentences explaining how you found the agent or publisher and why you chose to query them—make it personal between you and them.
- Pitch paragraph: One or two sentences selling your story; it has to be short, informative and damn intriguing. Here is my most recent pitch:
- The T206 baseball card set is one of the most famed collectibles in the world, and international criminal Jack Swift is after the full assortment for a hefty payday. As he finds the oddest cards scattered across the world, he unearths the ugly collusion between the mob, gambling, and a little voodoo.
- Brief synopsis: “Brief” is important here; think of it as what you would read on the back of a published book. Here is my brief synopsis of the same book from above:
- Swift baits his rival, Detective Jim Beckett, with his trademark hints during an international journey peppered with conspiracies, trophy heists, sports jinxes, and the occult. Witchdoctors, legends of legends, and fiery twin bosses of the Manzoni mob family stand in the way of each’s end game. Will Swift or Beckett end up victorious? Or will they even survive the wrath of the seductive and powerful Manzoni girls?
- Additional information: Sometimes the guidelines will ask for a word count, genre or if the manuscript is part of a series. Here is my additional information paragraph (sentence):
- “Curses!” is an 80,000-word crime novel and the second installment in the Jack Swift series.
- Author bio: This should be pretty self-explanatory, but the important thing to know is only provide RELEVANT information. If you’re querying a crime novel, don’t talk about your children’s picture book you have in the works, or that you’re currently employed as a barista.
- Gracious outro: Be appreciative of their consideration like any normal human should be about anything.
- Signature: Spell your name right. Seriously. And provide your email address (I know that they should know it because you emailed them, but do it anyway) and your phone number.
Disclaimer: This query is currently being shopped and hasn’t been picked up (but has been rejected), so it may be a bad example… or just an uninteresting story.
And there you have it. That doesn’t seem so hard. Now, don’t forget your much-longer and more-specific synopsis.