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Jumping into the Query Trenches

It’s time! I have finalized Doubting River, and it’s time to jump into the query trenches and begin querying agents.

Why traditional publishing?

I’m a huge proponent of “self publishing well.” However self publishing well takes a fair amount of money, excellent craft, and a LOT of business knowledge. I also believe, for several reasons, that traditional publishing is the best path for me and this book at this time:

  1. Doubting River is standalone book club fiction. It will do best if it has access to opportunities such as book stores, big box stores, book boxes, book clubs, and libraries.
  2. I want the external validation that my writing is READY for publishing. 
  3. Traditional publishing can give me a wide fan base that I can leverage for self published books in the future, if I decide to go that way.
  4. Traditional publishing will introduce me to the business side of publishing, and do so with a much easier learning curve than I would face if I self published first.
  5. If I self publish first, I will have blown my debut status.

I discussed these reasons and the pros and cons of self publishing and traditional publishing in a previous post.

What happens now?

I used Query Tracker to curate a list of agents who rep book club fiction, and I’ve organized my list into batches (first round, second round, etc.). It’s important to query in small batches until I’m certain my query package — query letter, synopsis, and pages — are getting requests. I also created a spreadsheet to track information about who I’ve queried, response times, results, agency policies, and so on.

I’m sending out my first queries today–September 20, 2020. 

And then what happens?

The hope, of course, is that agents will read what I’ve sent them and request the full manuscript. It can take five minutes or three months to hear back on a query. I’ve heard that agents are responding more slowing during COVID because there’s so much else happening.

Responses to requested fulls can take…forever. Months. Many months. I’ve heard stories of writers getting offers well over a year after they sent their requested full.

So, really, my job is to query and wait. Traditional publishing is a lot of waiting.

Will I get an agent?

There’s no way to know. If I get requests, I know I’m doing SOMETHING right. Does that mean I’ll get an agent? No. Most queriers don’t get an agent, especially with the first book they’ve queried. I read somewhere that the average number of manuscripts queried before getting an agent is four.

This is my first. I’m hopeful, but I’m also realistic.

Will you give updates?

I’ll let you know if I get an agent. Hell, I’ll probably rent a skywriter if I get an agent. But, no, I’m not going to update you on rejections and full requests. That’s bad form. 😉

Wish me luck!

Querying agents

Traditional Publishing — “Do I Need an Agent?”

One of the first questions writers considering traditionally publishing ask is “Do I need an agent?” There’s a lot of misinformation floating around about agents. Let’s set the record straight, starting with…

How much do agents cost?

Agents cost NOTHING upfront. If an agent tries to charge you any sort of fee, run the other direction. There should be no reading fee, no retainer, and no fee for editing.

  • Your primary agent is paid 15% of your earnings. The publisher pays the agent (usually), and the agent pays you.

Example: You are given a $1000 advance. The publisher sends the agent a check for $1000. The agent keeps $150 and sends you a check for $850.

TO BE CLEAR: Your agent doesn’t get paid unless YOU get paid. The agent’s money comes from your advance and/or royalties. This motivates the agent to sell your work.

What do agents do?

Agents do FAR more than sell manuscripts. Different agents have different strengths depending on their backgrounds and interests, but some of the tasks they commonly perform are:

  • Edit and evaluate manuscripts to ensure they’re ready for sale.
  • Network with editors to stay on touch of their preferences and current wish list.
  • Negotiate advances and royalty percentages.
  • Negotiate contracts to make them as author-friendly as possible.
  • Sell secondary rights like audio, foreign, and movie rights.
  • Act as intermediary between editors and authors. This ensures no one says anything stupid and destroys a good working relationship.
  • Review royalty statements to ensure authors are getting all the money they’re due.

They don’t do everything, though. Here’s a great list of what an agent WON’T do for you.

Is it worth it?

It’s pretty much universally accepted that agents will get you a better publishing deal than you would get for yourself. They negotiate higher royalties and advances, they reach publishers closed to writers, and they are able to sell rights you cannot sell yourself.

Yeah, they’re worth it.

If you want to publish traditionally, honestly you have nothing to lose by querying agents instead of approaching small publishers directly.

  • If you land an agent, and your agent is able to sell your manuscript, you’ll make more money than you would have if you had sold it yourself.
  • If your agent is unable to sell your manuscript (or if you are unable to get a manuscript), you can STILL approach small publishers. Your agent may be able to get you a better deal, but even if not, you will likely have a much better query package to present.

Again: If you’re going to query agents, don’t query small publishers — not until your agent has exhausted all possibilities or until you give up on trying to get an agent.

Do I need an agent?

Traditional Publishing — Step 2: Write a Synopsis

If there’s anything writers hate more than writing a query, it’s writing a synopsis. A synopsis is a telling of your novel’s plot and character arcs, including plot twists and the ending.

A synopsis is NOT a marketing doc, per se. It’s job is not to persuade. Its purpose is to show an agent or publisher that you know how to plot, organize, and pace a novel. If your book is sold, the synopsis may be given to the publisher’s marketing group to help them understand the book when they design the cover and plan the marketing.

The most common length for a synopsis is 1000 words or two pages, single spaced. It’s not uncommon to be asked for other lengths, however. I’ve seen everything from one double-spaced page to ten double-spaced pages. Remember, whatever the publisher or agent requests is what you send.

Synopsis tips

  • Imagine how you would tell the story to a friend. A synopsis is similar.
  • Writing counts. Like the query, write the synopsis in third-person even if the novel is in first-person. Make sure the synopsis reflects the style and voice of the novel, but again like the query, don’t write it from the point of view or voice of a specific character.
  • Focus on the main plot line and the character arcs of the main characters. Simplify if you need to.
  • Do not include every subplot or every character. Mention as few names as possible. For secondary characters that need to be mentioned, use relationship descriptions instead like JIM’S MOTHER as much as possible. Rule of thumb, only 5 or fewer names, CAPPED on first use.
  • Do not write your synopsis as a series of unconnected events. Think about cause and effect. “This happens, and AS A RESULT this happens.”

NOT:

Harry gets letters he’s not allowed to read. Mr. Dursley takes them to an island. Hagrid reveals Harry is a wizard.

INSTEAD:

Harry gets letters he’s not allowed to read. Trying to prevent Harry from receiving the constant barrage of letters, Mr. Dursley takes the family to an island. However, the first night, Hagrid arrives. He gives Harry the letter and reveals that Harry is a wizard.

Get feedback

Have people who are unfamiliar with your book read your synopsis and give you feedback. Note where they got confused and what they had questions about. You don’t want to leave an agent confused.

Answer ALL of the reviewers questions to their satisfaction, and rewrite until reviewers are satisfied. If you are unable to answer their questions or they are confused by or dissatisfied with the answers, you may well have discovered a problem in the manuscript. This is a GOOD thing, even though it’s painful at the time.

One of the differences between a newbie amateur and a professional writer is a desire to get better, even when that requires rewriting that novel for the third, fourth, or tenth time. Painful feedback SUCKS, but it makes you better.

It’s also a necessity if you’re going to successfully traditionally publish. If your reviewers are identifying holes in your story, it’s a given that an agent or publisher will. Listen to that niggle in your gut: fix the problems before you submit and blow your chance with an agent.

TIP FOR SUCCESS

Write your synopsis as soon as you finish your first draft (or earlier, if you’re a plotter). Let it help you identify issues related to structure and pacing.

Write a synopsis

Traditional Publishing — Step 1: Write a Great Query

You’ve decided to publish traditionally. That’s terrific! Traditional publishing isn’t as simple as choosing the publisher you want to work with and submitting your manuscript. Most publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. In fact, most publishers don’t deal directly with writers at all. Instead you’ll need to get an agent first, and then the agent will submit your manuscript to publishers.

Note: As I said in my last post, you could submit directly to indie publishers in lieu of querying agents. I really don't recommend that in most cases, so I'm focusing my posts on how to query an agent.

Your initial contact  with an agent is usually made via a query package. Each agent lists on their website EXACTLY what they want to receive. It will generally be some combination of cover letter (UK), query letter (US, sometimes UK), synopsis, and opening pages from the manuscript.

NOTE: The US and UK have different expectations for query letters. In the past, the UK query pitch was significantly shorter and excluded details like character names. Although I've heard the UK query is becoming more like the US query, I don't know enough about them to recommend relying on the guidelines below. These guidelines are specifically for queries to agents and publishers in the US.

Query letter guidelines

  • 300 words or fewer
  • Purpose: To entice the agent or publisher to read your manuscript.
  • Subject line for e-queries: Query: NOVEL TITLE / Last name
  • Address the query to a specific person by name: “Dear Ms. Jones.” Not “Dear Agent” or “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To whom it may concern.” Spell the name right. (I shouldn’t have to say that.)
  • The body has four parts: a personalized explanation of why you’re querying this publisher or agent, the query pitch, the novel’s metadata, and a paragraph describing your pertinent writing credits.
  • Don’t stress if you don’t have a special reason for querying this person or if you don’t have pertinent writing credits. The important thing is your query pitch and the metadata. 
  • Metadata is the manuscript’s title, genre, word count, and comp titles. Comp titles are other current books or movies similar to yours.
  • Do NOT mention your age. It’s irrelevant.
  • Do not say this is your first novel. That’s…not a selling point. If you’ve never published, you can say this is your debut novel.
  • If your story is the first in a series, state that it is a standalone book with series potential. If the book does not stand alone you are severely limiting your chances of traditionally publishing.
  • Make it perfect before you send it. Not a single grammatical or spelling mistake. Stand out from the crowd by being professional.

Writing the query pitch

The goal of the query pitch is to entice the publisher or agent to your manuscript. In that way it’s similar to the blurb on the back of a novel, whose goal is to entice readers to buy the book.

There are different ways to write a query pitch. Some people start with a hook, and then move to the more detailed pitch. Others skip the hook and jump right into the detailed pitch. There’s no perfect formula. Experiment until you find a combination that works for your book.

To write the query pitch, I recommend starting with the following information:

  1. Who is the protagonist, how did he get into this situation, and what is he trying to achieve?
  2. Who is the antagonist, and how/why is he trying to stop the protagonist from reaching his goal? The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person. For example, if your protagonist is trying to climb a mountain, the mountain and the weather and his own physical short-comings could be the antagonist.
  3. What horrible thing will happen if the protagonist fails? (This is where most beginning novelists trip up. They fail to have significant stakes.)

When you write the query pitch be specific about what happens. Skip nebulous descriptions and cliches. If you’ve heard a phrase before, it doesn’t belong in your query pitch!

General tips

  • Write the query in third person, even if the book is written in first person. You do want the query to reflect the voice and style of the book, but not to the degree that you’re writing as the character. If the book is funny, the query should be funny. If it’s a tightly-written thriller, the query should be equally tight and exciting.
  • Research the individual agent or publisher to find out EXACTLY what they want, and send them EXACTLY that. It may seem like a frivolous hoop for you to jump through to send a slightly different query package to different agents, but each agent is doing you a favor by telling you what they need to make their decision.
  • Workshop your query extensively. Expect to do a LOT of different versions before you get it right. Writing a killer query is hard.
  • Don’t be surprised if, when writing your query, you find out that your story needs work. It’s better to find this out before you query than after you get a bunch of rejections.
  • Read the QueryShark blog from April 2008 to the present. Seriously. It is a masterclass in query writing.
  • Don’t rush. You get ONE chance to submit to an individual agent. If you send a poor query, you may blow your chance with that agent — they may not even glance at your pages. Take your time, and get it right.
Write a great query

Traditional Publishing: Indie Publishers

Traditional publishers can be broken into two types of publishers: imprints of the Big 5 and smaller, independent “indie” publishers. Though Big 5 imprints and indie publishers are all traditionally publishers, there are some important differences. 

Terminology alert

Indie publishers and indie writers are different and unrelated.

  • An indie publisher is a publisher that is not an imprint of one of the Big 5 publishers.
  • An indie writer is a self published writer.

Big 5 vs. Indies

Imprints of the Big 5 and indie publishers are both traditional publishers. They share some characteristics and benefits, but they also differ in significant ways. Not all traditional publishers are created equal! Let’s walk through some of these differences.

  • Advances. Indie publishers generally offer smaller advances. Many offer no advance at all.
  • Design and editing. Quality indies offer editing and cover design just like the Big 5 imprints. Unfortunately, the quality of these services can be lacking at some indies, particularly the very small and new.
  • Bookstore distribution. Only the largest and most established of the indies offer any kind of bookstore distribution. All will tell you that they list your book in the Ingram catalog, which means any bookstore can order your book. Realistically, though, none will. A few partner with larger publishers for distribution — this is a good thing. If you consider an indie publisher, be sure you find out exactly what distribution they have. Many can offer you  no more than you can do yourself.
  • Cost. Neither imprints of the Big 5 nor indie publishers charge you ANY money. If there’s any cost to you, that is a vanity publisher, no matter what they call themselves.
  • Marketing. The imprints of the Big 5 have a higher budget for marketing. Some indies do absolutely no marketing, though most do a little.
  • Agents. Nearly all the Big 5 imprints are closed to unrequested submissions, which means you need an agent to submit. Most indie presses, on the other hand, are open to unagented submissions. There are exceptions to both.

Not created equal

I see two questions commonly asked by writers who want to publish traditionally:

  • “Should I get an agent, or should I submit to indie publishers directly?”
  • “Can I query agents and indie publishers at the same time?”

There are some great indie presses out there. Nevertheless, my personal recommendation is to start at the top — query agents. If you exhaust the list of agents who rep your book’s genre, you can then submit directly to indie presses.

Do not do both at the same time, however. Agents can’t submit to publishers you have already queried. They won’t appreciate it if you reduce the pool of potential editors they can approach.

In the next several publishing posts, I’m going to talk about querying. Although the information works for querying indie presses as well as agents, I’m going to focus on querying agents.

Indie publishers