Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Writing a Query Letter

If you are planning to lure a literary agent to represent you and your work, you must write a query letter. A query letter introduces you and your literary work to possible agents. It must be short, provocative enough an agent (or better yet many agents) is intrigued, and be formulaic enough it can be read quickly. So, you see, a query letter is a paradox. You must stand out without standing out too much.

Of course, there is a lot that has been written about crafting the perfect query letter. The sources I am leaning heavily on were written by people who have been on the receiving end of query letters, and have the experience necessary to be good resources.

Tips for Writing a Query Letter



Reading through these posts, you'll find querying the right agent, and identifying why they are the right agent, features prominently. For more about this, I'll direct you back to my last post about researching agents (P.S. I'm still researching. There is so much info, and so many options, it is definitely time consuming  to whittle the list down. However, I have high hopes the right agent is out there, and doing the leg work will pay off...I guess we'll see if I'm right later!).

Another common theme in the three posts I shared above is that your writing needs to be concise. This is not a book you are writing! A query letter needs to be simple. Ironically, simple, straightforward writing is hard and time consuming.

Concise Writing
In my day job, I mentor students and professionals on clear communication. Writing succinctly is a skill, and like any skill, you will get better with practice. No matter how good you are, there is room for improvement. These are some of my recommendations:

  1. Write your first draft. Get it in good shape. Now, walk away and come back to it in 1-2 days. This break will give you fresh eyes. You will be less likely to read what you meant, and instead read what is written. Revise as needed for simplicity and clarity. Here are some tips:
    • Remove the word "that." 
    • Drop all those Howevers, Sos, Therefores, and In Conclusions. 
    • Ask yourself if a piece of information is necessary. Does leaving it in add value? Does it communicate what you are trying to convey? Is there a simpler way to say it?
  2. Repeat step one. Really? Yes! But now read for more than just content. Are you using passive voice? Did you use the same word more than once? If the answer is yes, you have more work to do. 
  3. Once you have the "perfect" letter, read it out loud. This forces you to slow down and digest what you have on paper. You may find something that seems strong on paper (to you) is tangled when it comes out of your mouth.
  4. Have someone review your letter. If you are a member of a writing or author's group, use those connections to get your query letter reviewed.
    • I'll add a caveat here: if someone says there is something wrong with your writing (i.e., it is unclear, confusing, wording is distracting, etc.) you have to believe them. They are right. That's how it came across to them. How they suggest fixing it isn't necessarily right. You can even choose to think about their point, mentally acknowledge it, and choose not to make changes - it is your writing, after all. Just don't berate your reviewers.
Give yourself plenty of time to craft your query letter. This is not something you jot off because you're ready to send your book out into the world. A query letter is a job application for your book. You need to make sure it is as strong as it can be.

I'll also add that having considered your personal author branding already, you'll have a head start on researching agents and crafting a strong query letter. Know thyself. Then use that knowledge.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Finding A Literary Agent

If you plan on going for traditional publishing, you probably need an agent. Publishers use agents to filter out the vast majority of authors and send the likeliest candidates to the publisher for additional screening. Though there are publishers who accept new, unsolicited authors without an agent referral, they are few and far between. Additionally, it is worth noting that the publishers who do this are more likely to be sketchy and try to take advantage of hopeful authors by asking for reading fees, screening fees, etc. So author beware if you try to go it alone.

Agents may seem superfluous, and expensive since they keep 15%-20% of your profit, but actually they are gatekeepers. Plugged into the literary scene due to their previous experiences as publishers, editors, and interns, agents have the ability to get a book in front of the right publisher.

Due to their experiences, agents are often experts in one particular niche. They might have previous experience in publishing children's picture books, for example. They know which publishers are looking for books like yours this season. They can call up contacts and help increase the likelihood a publisher will look at your book rather than let it stand ignored in the inbox.

What this means is that not all agents are right for you (or vise verse). You can't just send your book to any potential agent. You need to do your research and find the agents who could work for you.

To help me identify potential agents, I purchased this book: https://www.amazon.com/Guide-Literary-Agents-2019-Published/dp/1440354383

I read through the list of agencies and agents, and identified which were a good fit for me. I have put together a spreadsheet of these agents and am currently investigating my short list. Specifically, looking at websites, agent blurbs, authors they represent, etc. In addition to finding agents who represent the type of literary work I want to produce, I am considering how I want to work with an agent and using that to help screen through potential agencies.

Agents understand marketing, contracts, and can help you negotiate with potential publishers. They can help you leverage any success you have, as well as make sure to capitalize on that success. Many agents also specialize in foreign publishing, so can get your book out in other countries, as well as book to movie transitions. I have read over and over again that agents are worth the money, so don't let the shared profit margin sway you. But identifying which of these categories and topics is most applicable to you is a good way to help determine which agents are best to approach.

I want an agent who will help me develop a diverse author identity that captures the full scope of the work I produce. When I read websites and agent info, it is clear that some agents are a better fit for my needs than others.

In addition to the internet, you can also make connections with agents at author conferences (a list of 2019 conferences: https://citybookreview.com/terrific-list-of-writers-conferences-for-2019/). Unfortunately, there are not many in my neck of the woods, so I have not participated in any so far. Most author conferences I have looked into are genre specific, and advertise agent and/or agency representation. It sounds like participating in these events are a great way to make contact if your writing clearly falls within a particular genre. It is less clear that this type of contact will work for authors whose writing is harder to label.

Personal referrals are even better, if you have literary contacts. Name dropping is a big part of the literary world. If you have a name to drop, do not hesitate to do so!

Best of luck on your search! If you have anything to add, please do so in the comments.

Querying an Agent, part one million

I started the query process several months ago. It was necessary to take that initial plunge in order for me to realize that I wasn't do...