Blogger: Michelle Ule
Part 2 of 3
Yesterday I explained how our agency’s query system works and why. Today I’m going to look at what makes us enthusiastic about a fiction query.
First, the numbers.
I chose a random month in 2011 and did a statistical analysis of the types of queries we received.
75% of the projects were fiction.
Of those projects, fully 19% weren’t suitable for Books & Such because of content, subject matter or language choices.
In addition, 19% were for paranormal, science fiction, or picture books, all of which we tend not to represent. 6% were fantasy.
5% were apparently the work of writers who didn’t understand their genre, word count parameters or basic literary methodology (as in, they didn’t spell query correctly).
Also worth noting, 11% were YA or middle grade books, 5% were memoirs and 4% told stories of some form of abuse. 4% were romance, 2% mystery and 5% suspense.
What does that mean for you if you have a fiction project?
Do your homework.
Whatever agency you query, make sure that agent represents the type and genre you’re writing. Our submissions requirements are listed here.
That means you need to be aware of what titles are selling in your particular category or genre–along with why and for how long. Amazon is a great place to get a feel for what genres are the most popular.
Since it generally takes 12-18 months between contract of a project and publication, you need to be looking beyond current popularity to what may be coming ahead. In other words, you want to be on the front end of the popularity wave, not the back end.
We often get requests from writers who tell us they can write anything, just tell them what sells and they’ll write it. That doesn’t sound as though the writer is creating what he/she is passionate about.
We tell writers to write the story God places on your heart–because that’s what you’re passionate about, and you need passion to tell your story well.
What gets our attention?
It starts with the subject line.
Let’s say you have a project you want our agent, Rachel Kent, to consider. You could write a subject line like this: Query Rachel Kent: New Jane Austen novel.
Anyone who follows Rachel’s blog posts knows she loves Jane Austen. She might even open that query first.
Fiction queries that catch our attention begin with a compelling hook that makes us want to read further. That’s basic. You need to capture our imaginations and/or intrigue us. If it’s appropriate, we enjoy subtle humor. A question can work as long as you’re pretty sure you know how the reader will respond. (Sports questions tend not to work well with most of our agents.) Your first paragraph, after you spell our name correctly, can be that one sentence hook.
A query is a short, selling pitch. If one of us likes what we hear, we’ll want to know more. Keep that in mind when putting together your hook.
For the second paragraph, briefly describe your story and tell us the genre. You, the writer, are a craftsperson trying to sell us on your idea. We’re a business trying to decide if you have a salable project based on our information about the very tight marketplace.
Your genre and short description tell us if you understand the publishing world. If you don’t know the project’s genre, how can you write in a way that fits the genre? Cross-genre projects tend not to work for us.
Once we understand what your project is about, we want to know who you are. What makes you a good scribbler for this project? Briefly describe your reason for writing the book. Intrigue us with both you and your personal angle on the subject. Briefly describe your publishing history.
But be succinct. Details belong in the proposal; the query is just a way to catch our attention and show us if you can write well.
Finish up by telling us how you heard about us, what sort of platform you might have for selling your manuscripts, and if you have any pertinent experience.
And remember. You’re a writer. We’re watching how you use words, what pictures you paint, your personal warmth and confidence. You only get one first impression. Make it a good one.
What makes you want to read a book? How can you translate those components into a query that makes us want to read your manuscript?
Where do you look to find out information about genres, markets and the publishing world?
Great post! This tells me just what I need to do when submitting to this agency. It amazes me that people query agents who don’t take their projects. This definitely shows a lack of research on their part; I would think this would strike as very unprofessional.
I read several agent blogs and major writers’ blogs to gain insight into the industry.
(And yay for Jane Austen, by the way! She’s my favorite.)
Wonderful, informative post Michelle; thank you!
This pertains more to the proposal than to the query, but regarding your question about where to find information about the publishing world and market, I’ve found publisher websites to be a great resource. When creating the market comparison portion of the proposal, authors can find a plethora of details by visiting publisher sites. Bethany House, for example (whose website also displays information for Revell) displays books in any number of manners: by genre, release date, author… so one can find up-to-date information on recent or soon-to-be-released titles.
Be warned though, such visits will inevitably grow your “to be read” list by leaps and bounds!
Thanks for this beneficial post Michelle. Straight forward and detailed with enough hints to answer questions if we’re not accustomed to the literary lingo!
In the paragraph concerning platform, when you mention “pertinent experience” are you referring to any previous publishing experience or experience in selling?
Pertinent experience would be in both arenas– (these are made-up examples), something like my debut novel was a New York Times Bestseller because______________. I have a degree in marketing and my father owns Amazon.com. I pastor a church that will buy 10,000 copies to use in Bible study. Something that sets you and your experience apart from other writers and would make you more interesting to publishers.
You also might mention awards–I was Genesis finalist, I was nominated for the Pulitzer prize–you get the picture. It should be pertinent, though. I don’t care if you won a writing prize at your one-room school house when you were in third grade. Though congratulations, of course. 🙂
Thank you Michelle for taking the time to respond and clarify.
Your responses to other comments have also been extremely helpful.
Michelle, were you a numbers kid in school? I love the stats. Not only does it tell me you care enough to take the time to share the best information, what you provide shows us where not to go wrong if we wish to submit to you.
Thanks so much. I appreciate it.
Married to and the mother of engineers–I think statistics always put things into quantitative perspective. The Romance category probably isn’t quite right–I’m sure the percentage is higher because romance finds a place in so many of the other categories and, frankly, romance is the big seller these days.
David A. Todd
Sometimes the “here’s what I’m/we’re looking for” statements on agency/agent websites are so general it’s difficult to know what they do and don’t represent. Before attending one conference I studied websites of those agents who would be attending, and from those picked my first choice agent. I managed to schedule a pitch session with her (not a B&S agent, BTW). After making my pitch, she said she only represented books for women, so mine wasn’t appropriate for her. I guarantee you her website didn’t say that, and still doesn’t. So I wasted my fifteen minutes and hers and took away a time slot from someone who might have made a sale, all for the lack of five or six words on a website.
I guess I’d just recommend that all agents/agencies make really sure that their websites reflect what they will and won’t represent. This needs to be re-checked frequently, and updated as often as necessary.
Good suggestion, David, and I’m sorry for what happened to you at the conference. The same thing happened to me at ACFW last fall and it’s frustrating.
One of the reasons it is so vague is because of the “you never know” factor. Sometimes a writer will present one idea, but something clicks in the agent’s mind and when they ask about other projects, they discover the writer has something else that intrigues them. Bloomsbury was not looking for a wizard story when Harry Potter was plucked from the slush pile, but something about that project caught someone’s imagination and the rest is history.
When you have an appointment mismatch, you can take an opportunity to learn more about publishing and the editor. I used my ACFW appointment to talk about what trends that editor saw coming, what she really liked and why. I established a relationship with the editor, who looked at my project list again, sighed and said she personally would like to read what I had written but it didn’t match what her publishing house was working on. Chances are, though, she’ll remember my name.
I like to read stories with a twist. The best way to translate that into a query is to tell why my story is different, or as you put it, give it that compelling hook.
Most of my information comes from the interenet. Blogs such as this are invaluable in the learning process. I’ve also joined RWA where I can attend meetings on topics ranging from using dialogue tags properly to marketing.
Taking it all in is as daunting as eating an elephant. Thank you for breaking it down for us.
As a person who enjoys numbers and developing statics, I really appreciated your opening analysis; we are of like mind.
However, as a person who has misspelled query, that comment gave me pause, but at least I’ve not made that error particular in a query!
I know platform is incredibly important for nonfiction, but is lack of credentials always a deal breaker for fiction as well? We all have. To start somewhere, after all. Would lack of credentials in an otherwise captivating query elicit automatic refusal, or would you save your dec8sion until aftet considering the rest of the pitch and/or sample pages?
I know platform is incredibly important for nonfiction, but is lack of credentials always a deal breaker for fiction as well? We all have. To start somewhere, after all. Would lack of credentials in an otherwise captivating query elicit automatic refusal, or would you save your decision until after considering the rest of the pitch and/or sample pages?
Platform is vital with non-fiction. Almost the first question editors ask us is, “what is the author’s platform.” If we say none, they don’t even want to hear about the project.
It’s not so important with fiction, but it still is important an author have an on-line presence. At the least, an author should have a facebook presence, possible a blog and maybe twitter–because that indicates the author understands that in today’s very tight market, they have to participate in the marketing end of publishing to promote their book.
Truly captivating writing? We would think long and hard–and the author’s attitude toward building a readership would play into our decision. The time to begin building a readership and a “tribe” is before a book is published.
Thanks! I guess I should dust off my neglected blog, huh?
Thank you, Michelle, for helping unscramble the mystery of the query. As a first-time novelist, I tend to stare at the myriads of rules and advice for an “attention-grabbing query” with glazed eyes. You have given me the succinct information I need to create that perfect query letter.