Publishing 101 Part 2
Publishing is selling. There is no easier way to explain it. One of the sayings I teach at writing workshops is, “Don’t write what sells . . . unless you want to sell what you write.” It sounds kind of obvious, but the point is that if you have no plans to sell what you write, you can write whatever you heart desires. But as soon as you decide you are writing for publication, you must give at least some thought to what is selling. That is not to say you should chase after every trend, “Vampire books are hot. Maybe I should write a vampire book.” But you should research the market enough to understand the trends and know what is selling and what is not.
When we last left off, we had researched the market, discovered the publisher we wanted to pursue required an agent, and got a copy of a publication that listed agents. Now, you have a book or website with a whole bunch of agents in it. What’s next? Well first, you need to narrow down the agents to the ones that are the best fit for your work. It is a waste of your time, and the agent’s time to send him or her a manuscript that she does not represent. This is not a lottery. You do not increase your odds of selling your manuscript by randomly sending out submissions.
The first thing you want to do is decide what genre your work falls into. There are many, many sub-genre classifications. Horror can be anything from psychological thriller to splatter-punk. But at its essence, it is still horror. So you’ll start by finding agents that represent horror [or fill in your genre here]. Of course, your story probably has elements of romance, mystery, action-adventure, etc. But for the purpose of finding an agent, you need to start with a single genre. Romance? Mystery? Women’s fiction? Fantasy? If you can’t decide what genre you are writing, you are not ready to find a publisher. Go find books that are similar to yours and see what genre they fall into.
Next, you need to know who you are writing for. Is this a picture book? Early reader? Middle Grade? YA? Or adult? One again, many books cover many audiences, but you have to decide. You can’t tell an agent, “My book is great for everyone from one to a hundred.” Agents specialize in certain areas. If you are writing a middle grade mystery, you don’t want to go after an agent who only reps adult books. Don’t worry if you are not sure whether you are writing a middle grade novel or a YA. The agent will let you know if you are wrong—or may even ask you to change your protagonist’s age, down the road.
Let’s assume you are writing a YA mystery. You will look up agents that represent YA and mystery. Then you will read their submission guidelines to see if they do YA mysteries. Most agents who do YA, are going to accept a YA mystery, but not all agents who accept mysteries also rep YA works. Once you have a list of agents that represent your work, you want to see if they take new and unpublished clients. Not all agents do. Some agents have all the clients they can handle. Some take on a small number of new clients every year. Others are actively seeking new writers. Other things to look for include how many and what type of works the agent has sold. This may require a little additional research, but hey that’s what Google is for, right?
Okay, so far, so good. You’ve decided what genre you are writing and found agents who represent this type of work. You’ve put together a list of twenty agents. Now rank these agents from the one you would like the most to the one you want the least (remembering that any of the agents would be acceptable or you wouldn’t have chosen them, and that you are going to do much more research if one of them actually offers to take on your work.) The next thing to do is find out how the agent prefers to be contacted. (Sound familiar? It’s just like the publisher guidelines we checked out in the Publishing 101 post.)
While most of this information will be listed in the same place you found your agents in the first place (Writer’s Marketplace, etc), I prefer to double check it on-line. Agents move around, and often their guidelines will change from what’s shown on a current year’s print listing. So for this example, let’s head over to Bookends Literary Agency. This is one of the better submission pages I have seen. If you read the whole page (including following the various links), you will learn what they are looking for and how they want it sent.
Notice a few things. First, they are only accepting unsolicited manuscripts via e-mail. Let me just step in for a minute and say, “Hallelujah!” Those of you who know me, know that I believe paper submissions—in particular the whole SASE idea—is a waste of time, paper, and money. We are in an electronic age, and it’s about time more agents did away with the wasteful practice of sending out reams of paper and using countless stamps just to hear, “No thank you.” I LOVE the fact that Bookends is doing away with all of that.
Second, they clearly tell you what they are actively looking for. Can’t get much easier than that. If you fall into one of these categories, submit away. If not, find another agent.
Last, they tell you how to send your information to them. If you are not familiar with what a query letter is, read their whole FAQ, it is a wealth of information. There are a gazillion different ways to package a query, but remember that a query is like the clothes you wear to an interview. It won’t get you the job, but it could very well disqualify you. Bookends does a great job of identifying what they want in a query letter.
1) Your name, address, phone number, e-mail address, and any other pertinent contact information. This is pretty self-explanatory. But make sure your information is up to date and that this contact info is included with every piece of correspondence you send. More than once, an agent has read something they really liked, only to discover they have no way of contacting the author. Also, make sure you spell the agent’s name right. Misspelling an agent’s name is not the way to get off on the right foot with them.
2) The book's title, the genre it best fits into, and the length or word count. Keep it simple here. Death in a Fruit Cellar, cozy mystery, approximately 73,000 words. Do NOT try to get fancy here with something like: Working title, Death in a Fruit Cellar (but I’m open to changing this), mystery/thriller with a touch of romance and intrigue. Word count about 73,000 (I’m not sure as I haven’t finished writing it yet.
3) A very brief synopsis of your book. This is the most important piece of the letter since this is the one thing that's going to hook the agent. We don't need to know every detail of your secondary characters, but we do need to know what those key things are about your book that makes it different or special. To use one of our own books as an example:
"Featuring amateur sleuth and wine expert Nikki Sands, Murder Uncorked is the first in a proposed series set in California's wine country. When Nikki stumbles upon a body in Napa Valley, it isn't long before her nosiness gets the best of her. Now she's knee-deep in trouble and must find the killer before he finds her. In addition to a terrific cozy mystery, I've incorporated wine-pairing suggestions with delicious wine country recipes."
Pay attention to the brief part. That is the agent giving you a big hint about what they will throw in the trash. A query letter should never be more than a single page (I know we are dealing with e-mail here, but you still know what a page looks like.) The hook should be no more than two paragraphs max! The hook should include: who the protagonist is, what he is trying to accomplish, what stands in his way, and the consequences of failure. This is not a synopsis. Save that for later. This is a hook that makes the agent go, “Wow! I’ve got to see more of this.”
4) A bio that highlights any significant writing experience you have had. Key word here, significant. Do not tell the agent about how much the neighbor kids (or your grandma) liked your book. Do not tell the agent how many other agents rejected you before. Do not tell the agent about all of your other unpublished works. Keep it simple. Previous publishing experience. Awards. Marketing experience that is applicable to this work. If you don’t have any previous experience, just leave this blank. Don’t try to make something up.
Let’s put this into action with a sample query letter:
In 1964, in the small town of Twin Forks, Utah six second graders were lost in a Utah gold mine. After days of searching, five of the children were found. The sixth was never recovered, and eventually the mine entrance was dynamited closed. Now, more than thirty years later, tragedy has returned to Twin Forks. Someone is killing the survivors of the mine incident. All clues seem to point Cal Hunt, Chief of the Twin Fork’s Police Department, to the dead boy’s ghost.
Struggling to deal with the recent and unexpected death of his wife, Cal must stop the killings before all the survivors end up dead, while unraveling the secret of what happened in the mine all those years ago. In order to do that, he may have to admit the presence of the supernatural and come to grips with his wife’s passing.
Dark Memories is a 102,000 word supernatural thriller. I have previously published a nonfiction book on rose pruning and several magazine articles. I have an excellent PR background and have procured interviews with television, radio, and print media. I have also taught many writing classes and seminars.
If you would like to see more of my novel, I can be reached at 801-555-1212 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
J Scott Savage
That’s all there is to it. Keep it simple. Make it interesting. Check very, very carefully for typos. Your manuscript may not be perfect, but sending a query letter with misspellings and poor grammar is not the way to impress an agent. Finally, once you send out your query, forget about it and move onto other things. Do NOT send another e-mail a week later, saying, “Hi! Just wanted to make sure you received my query.”
In part three, we will focus on how many queries to send out at a time, who to send them to, and what happens if the agent asks for more. And remember, there are lots of scams out there. NEVER, EVER pay an agent or publisher. The money should always flow to you. Not the other way around.