THE LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP THAT MIGHT DEFINE YOUR WRITING LIFE
Unbeknownst to most readers, there is a world hiding behind each and every book—a world of sales, haggles, and six-figure deals. No matter how wonderful a book is, literary marketing is anything but magical. Those who are in the process of sending out their proposals are often referred to as authors “in the query trench,” a not-so-tactful reference to the mucky bombardments of the First World War.
There is a reason for this. While trying to sell your book may not put you in any physical danger (Of course, I’m assuming you’re not going to such extremes as John Toole.), the frustration, rejections, revisions, and desperate scrambles to gain inches of progress can be overwhelming.
Writing a book is hard, but in my experience, selling a book is much harder.
When you feel that your book child is ready to take the stage, the first thing you need to think about is a query letter.
“And what, precisely, would that be?” you ask.
Good question—the exact same question I asked when I began my journey. I simply Googled “how to sell a book” and was handed the most banal, overarching bullet points I could have hoped for.
“Yippee!” I said to myself. (I am, after all, a bullet point enthusiast.) “This is a simple, step-by-step process! I simply write to an agent, tell her I have a best-selling book, and then wait for the bulldozers to dump piles of money on my front lawn!”
Alas, those were the days of innocence.
To write a book, you must be a dreamer. To sell it, you need to be something of a realist.
When I say that the query letter is a business proposal, I’m not exaggerating: You’re an entrepreneur looking for support, and you pitch your idea to someone who has the resources (agent/publisher) to make your business (your book) a reality. You offer a portion of your proceeds with the understanding that the partnership will be mutually beneficial.
Your query letter should include three things: a summary of the book, a description of the book, and a bit about the author. Let’s break it down.
This is perhaps the most difficult part of your query letter. Yes, your book may be 120,000 words, but you’ve got to summarize it in 250.
You heard me right: 250.
A query letter should be around 300 words, and it should never be more than a page. That includes the book description and an author introduction, so you’re going to have to wrap that summary up tighter than a pair of hippie pants.
Parsimony takes practice. Practice, practice, and more practice. I wrote close to fifty different versions of my query letter before my agent finally said yes. Don’t fret if your query takes more time than your actual manuscript. That’s normal.
When thinking about how you’re going to summarize your plot, you should ask yourself three questions: Who? What? and What?
Who is the protagonist?
What does he want?
What is keeping him from getting what he wants?
Let’s have an example: Chippy the Pony.
Chippy the Pony is a roguish Shetland who lives high in the French Alps.
Chippy wants to win first prize at the May Day Fair.
Evil Farmer McKnack-Knack, who holds a grudge against Chippy for tromping through his cabbage patch, is the judge of the contest.
Hero. Desire. Obstacle. Batta-bing, batta-boom.
Of course, that’s not all you need to include. A good summary has more than just an outline of the plot—its got stakes. Personally, I don’t care if Chippy finds a way to move Evil Farmer McKnack-Knack past his petty, pony-pejorative grudge. So what if Chippy doesn’t win? No skin off my back.
Let’s add some stakes, shall we?
Chippy is a roguish, fun-loving Shetland who wants to win first prize at the May Day Fair so that he can use the prize money to stop the foreclosure on the orphanage. But there’s just one problem: The judge of the contest is Evil Farmer McKnack-Knack, who still blames Chippy for the destruction of his cabbage patch. Will Chippy be able to play the xylophone, balance a bowling pin on his nose, and warm McKnack-Knack’s cold heart? Or will the orphans be left out to freeze?
We’re playing a game of “if-then.” If this happens, what follows? (Chippy wins the money and saves the orphanage.) If it doesn’t happen, what are the consequences? (All the orphans will die of hypothermia.)
Much more interesting, mais non?
Note that your query summary will differ from your full summary. A full summary is exactly what the name implies: It summarizes the entire thing. In a query summary, you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) give away the ending. The query summary above leaves us wondering if Chippy will prevail. If I were doing a full summary, I would reveal that (most unfortunately) Chippy slips on a lettuce leaf, breaks his neck, and is unable to participate in the May Day Fair.
THE DIRTY DETAILS
If you’re selling a product, you should do your best to lay out a description of that product. When shopping for an acquisition, agents usually like to see word count, genre, and comp titles. A “comp title” is simply a comparative title you include to give the agent a better taste of what you’re about. It is good practice to use recent releases (i.e., don’t go comparing your book to The Canterbury Tales) and to avoid saying things like, “This is the next Harry Potter!” or “This book is gonna end up as successful as The Da Vinci Code!”
When I’m using comp titles, I try not to compare myself to other authors and pick a particular aspect of my book to focus on. For instance, I’ll say that my book has “the madcap humor of Nimona” or “the twisted thrills of The Eighth Day Series.” I’m not saying that I write like Noelle Stevenson or Dianne K. Salerni, but that there are attributes in their works that are comparable to mine. When giving my elevator pitch (30-second summary), I described one of my books as “Artemis Fowl meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
It doesn’t matter if it is your first or fifth published work. When presenting your book, you also want to present a little bit about yourself. If you have credentials in the literary world (i.e., you’re a librarian, you’ve won awards, you have a degree in Russian Literature), include them. If your book somehow relates to your personal experiences, don’t hesitate to point out how you and only you are qualified to write such a story. Author Katherine Blakeney is an excellent example. Katherine is an archaeologist by day, and her science fiction revolves around extraterrestrial digs. You’d better bet money she included that in her query. Who better to write about excavating aliens than an archaeologist?
Even if your book does not directly relate to your credentials, it’s always nice to include something about yourself. Give the agent an idea of who you are and why you wrote the book. Make it personal.
Agents are not just looking for books—they’re looking for savvy, marketable authors.
When you put all of these things together, you’ll have something that resembles a decent query letter. Your first draft will not be the draft you send. Your tenth, twentieth, or even hundredth may not be ready.
When you think your query is locked and loaded, I suggest that you send it out for critiques. There are numerous critique groups on the internet (Agent Query Connect is one of my personal favs), and by reading other queries, you’re bound to improve.
Another option is to hire an agent to help you. Query critiques can range anywhere from $50-$200, and the money may be well-spent, depending on your situation. I can say with all confidence that the best investment I made was having my query critiqued by Kris Asselin, aka, THE QUERY GODMOTHER. Normally, I’m not one who advertises in the middle of a blog post…
But my agent responses quadrupled after hiring Kris.
Sometimes, you just need a little help.
I will never say that I’m a query expert (That’s Kris’s title, after all.), but I will share with you the query that got me my book deal. Is it the best query ever? Most certainly not. Is it better than what I started with? Oh, yeah.
As you read, make yourself a mental checklist:
- Who is the hero?
- What does he want?
- Who/what is opposing him?
- What happens if he fails to get what he wants?
- How long is the book?
- What genre is the book?
- What are the comp titles?
- What do we know about the author?
Based off your call for spooky middle grade and a strong female voice, I hope you’ll consider SKIN AND BONES, a 40,000-word horrific retelling of HANSEL AND GRETEL for middle grade readers. In the scrumptious, thrilling style of GOOSEBUMPS, this book merges the chills of Mary Downing Hahn with the twisted, fairy tale terrors of CORALINE.
Meat is murder. At least, that’s what twelve-year-old vegetarian Raine Foxworthy thinks.
But Raine isn’t sure what to think when her neglectful foodie parents drag her along for a family vacation at L’Hotel Sanable, a luxury resort specializing in reuniting estranged families. Raine, accustomed to disappointments and an empty apartment, is enchanted by the hotel’s accommodating (albeit strange) program. While the parents enjoy all the boring, adult features the resort has to offer, the children are taken to “the pasture,” an isolated wonderland of games where nursemaids stand by with mountains of good things to eat. The tight-lipped hotel staff caters to Raine’s every whim, and the charming hotel manager, Madame Ingrid Mastanotti, promises the children anything and everything they want.
The Sanable is a picture of perfection. So why can’t Raine shake the feeling that something’s wrong?
When children from the pasture start going missing, Raine grows suspicious. She doesn’t understand why the staff insists on regular weigh-ins, and no one will tell her where “long pig”—the succulent, renowned mystery meat the hotel claims as a specialty—comes from. Raine escapes the pasture to find out for herself, only to discover that the truth may be more than she can stomach.
Madame Mastanotti has developed a taste for a sweeter type of meat, and she’s brainwashed the parents into an affinity for her cannibalistic culinary creations. Armed with her wits and a few card tricks, Raine must puzzle her way through the horrific hotel labyrinth to find her parents and save her own skin—before she ends up next on the menu.
When I was a child, I walked in on my pet hamster devouring her babies and promptly concluded there was nothing more terrifying than being eaten by one’s own parents. Childhood trauma aside, I am also a professional storyteller in America’s most haunted city.
Thank you so much for your time and consideration.
It’s not bad, but it’s definitely not the best. To get a better idea of what works, I would highly suggest studying both successful and unsuccessful query letters, both of which can be found on Janet Reid’s blog, queryshark.blogspot.com.
Go to Agent Query Connect. Go to Query Shark. Review them closely, and learn from other authors’ triumphs and mistakes.
The ultimate tragedy is a good book doomed by bad marketing.
If you have ever watched an episode of Shark Tank, you can see how a great idea can flop when presented poorly. You may have the most splendiferous novel in the world, but until you can convince someone to give it a chance, you’re not getting anywhere.
Whatever your book is about, let’s hope that you pitch it better than rentable umbrellas.
Want to know more about querying? Stay tuned to THE NEWBIE AUTHOR for an interview with Kris Asselin—the Query Godmother herself.
 For more querying resources, please see the “RESOURCES” tab.