To query or not to query, that is the query

By on February 15th, 2010
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My latest blog entry has been a bit delayed because I’m still waiting on the final illustrations for my book. But finally! I’ll be receiving the last two pencil drawings tonight, providing feedback, and then getting the inked version later this week. I’ll have all the images I need to add to the book so I can finally share it with a small number of readers/writers to get feedback.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on my query letter. For those who don’t know, a query letter is the preferred method of approaching publishers. It’s intended to be a single page cover letter that serves to introduce your book. It follows a basic structure. Deviate from the format at your peril … publishers and literary agents have little time for shenanigans. Any mailing that tries too hard will likely head straight for the recycling cabana.

The anatomy of a query letter:
Introduction
Synopsis
Biography and closing

That’s it. Deceptively simple. Yet quite difficult in its own way.

The introduction should include a few key elements. It absolutely should include the title, page count, and genre. Even if your genre is ambiguous, you should at least classify it as “literary,” or “literary fantasy,” “alien romance police procedural,” “cook-book horror novel,” whatever you can do to help the editor or agent understand what type of book it is. Beyond that, there are a couple other elements you might consider:

Comparisons to other existing books or authors (as long as you’re careful not to come across as too presumptuous: “My novel, Dumby Spanks the Monk, combines the poetic artistry of Baudelaire with the wit of Oscar Wilde.”)

Discussion of the period or setting. Showing your knowledge of the milieux will help give you cred.

Description of a key theme. This is a more sophisticated approach and shows your book may not be mediocre.

A dramatic leap into the story. This is a risky choice. Bold, but it must be done right or it will flop.

Awards received and significant author credentials such as previously published works.

The synopsis is probably the hardest part. You need to boil your story down to roughly two or three short paragraphs. If you think your synopsis is too long, it is. If your book features a main character, then let the evolution of that character drive the synopsis more than a plot blow-by-blow.

Biography and closing is where you provide relevant information about your writing experience and any details that help qualify you for writing your book. For example, if you were once tortured by an accupuncturist, then it might be appropriate to mention that if your book is set in a political convention.

The last thing I’ll note is that as much as you should get outside feedback on your novel, you should get outside feedback on your query letter. I took a $70 webinar from Writer’s Digest here, which was a nice overview of the query letter structure, and the editor personally critiqued every single query letter submitted. She emailed me a pdf with comments and editorial suggestions. It was primarily helpful to me for the synopsis portion where it’s easy to describe too much. You need to get to the heart of the story in the synopsis.

And that is the heart of the query.


In Hunter-Gatherer mode

By on January 3rd, 2010
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I’m reading (and reviewing)
• Four books on self-publishing The Well-Fed Self-Publisher, Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual 16th Edition, The Self-Publishing Manual Volume 2 and Indie Publishing: How to Design and Publish Your Own Book
• Two books on finding publishers or literary agents Give ‘Em What They Want and The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit

I’m tracking
• Steps I need to take to self-publish by creating to-do lists, short and long term (3 pages so far)
• Authors who might like my book—from whom I will request promotional blurbs if i can reach them
• Publishers of surrealist, experimental fiction and literary speculative fiction
• Artists for cover art
• Expenses (anything writing- or publishing-related is tax-deductible)

I’m scribbling
• Hooks…the first sentence of my query letter.*

I’m surfing
• Research sites for writers and self-publishers. Some great ones include: SelfPublishingReview.com (tips and advice), duotrope.com (for identifying smaller publishers), Poets & Writers (pw.org), writersmarket.com (for identifying publishers, but does require membership fee – $39.99/year)
• Publisher submission policies on publisher sites
• Joining online small press organizations (Independent Book Publishing Association at ibpa-online.org and Self-Publishers Association of North America at spannet.org)
• Publishing blogs and self-publisher message boards (such as the Yahoo Self-Publishing Group, which seems to have much more activity than any google publishing group I can find at http://finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/Se…)

The quest continues.

Coming soon: The Query Letter in detail

*For those who are unfamiliar, a query letter is a one-page letter typically sent to literary agents and/or publishers to land representation. They are intended to grab their attention, convince them your book is worthy of consideration, introduce your credentials, and gain a request for your manuscript.


I am but one of 20,000.

By on November 8th, 2009
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And that’s being conservative. I have heard literary agents receive thirty to fifty query letters per day while some publishers receive up to one hundred query letters a day. (Wondering what a query letter is? More to come on that front in future posts.)

These numbers represent my competition in a year. The odds are frankly not in my favor as an “unpublished” author. Yes, there is more respect for self-publishing today than there used to be—and I have read that publishers are scouting self-published work—but they will still consider me “unpublished” because I do not have a name publisher. I’m just one peon in the slush pile no matter how good my book is.

Is it hopeless? No. Do I have great odds? No.

Another sad note is that when pursuing a literary agent or publisher from scratch, it can take years to strike gold. You send out letters; wait to hear back. Send out letters; wait to hear back. They request a chapter; you wait. Rejected again. Some of them steam the stamps off your SASE and reuse them. Finally, someone picks it up! Oh, I’m on the docket another year down the road? How many years am I willing to wait to see print? I suppose that trenchant social commentary about Michael Jackson’s death isn’t so relevant any more.

So, what is my overall strategy?

I will pursue literary agents and publishers (both large and small) while simultaneously moving down the self-publishing path. That way, whenever I am ready to give up on finding an agent or publisher (that is, when I’m sick of looking and too frustrated to continue), I will be prepared to immediately pull the trigger and publish the book myself, using the same publishing company I established for Death by Zamboni (Bedhead Books).

Because I will be designing my book meticulously and planning the self-publishing process out thoroughly, it will likely take me about that long to start shipping books anyway. If I waited to start the self-publishing process until after I gave up on the publishers then it would likely take me an additional year before the book saw print, which defeats the purpose. Another benefit of starting the self-publishing process is that if I do land a publisher, I will be able to hand off the book designed exactly as I want it to be. So my vision will be developed more precisely, and it will also be ready for printing sooner.

That’s the high-level approach I’m going to take.

Next up: the pros & cons of self-publishing versus landing a publisher. (And there are quite a few.)