OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
I am currently in the air flying down under to Australia and New Zealand. I'll be in and out of the comments but I have some great guest posters for you in the meantime, starting with Jim Gilliam, author of Point Deception and The Campeche Reprisal.
When your SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) comes back it means your query didn't make it through the small end of the funnel. If it had succeeded, you would have received an envelope containing a letter from an agent on her agency's stationary.
Okay, you say, but where does the funnel come in to play.
The funnel is merely a metaphor for the following set of facts.
Of the thousands of books that are published each year only 20 percent are fiction. Yet 90 percent of queries to agents and editors are for novels thus the funnel effect.
Like it or not, writing is a business.
Agents and publishers are forced to go with what sells or go out of business and first-time authors with no credentials are the hardest to sell. If an agent or editor doesn't think your novel will sell 10,000 copies in the first year, you will get your SASE back with a form letter, a handwritten note on your query letter, rarely a short personal letter, or in today's mail a polite form letter with a nice handwritten note on the bottom; I really appreciated that one.
Look at it from the agent's or editor's POV, they are all inundated with thousands of queries so out of necessity the group has established guidelines that guarantee rejection of your query or if you prefer, the more PC term a “pass” on your work. So if the end result of the query letter is an offer of a contract only a few queries make it through the small end of the funnel. On the other hand if the end result of the query is a pass, almost all of these queries make it through the small end of the funnel–shooting your SASE straight back to you.
The perfect query
Now that everyone is thoroughly confused, let's address the quest for the perfect query.
First of all, like the unicorn, it doesn't exist!
The one truism that the vast majority of agents and editors agree on is that this is a highly subjective business. A big amen to that! I know this because almost every pass I get from agents that I've queried says as much in so many words. I've read over a hundred books and articles on how to write the perfect query letter. These books and articles were authored by agents and editors that are well known and respected in the business. One article, in PDF format was sold on Amazon for a nominal fee and admonished the potential buyer to stop wasting your money on other how to guides; she had the inside track because she used to be an intern at a well known literary agency. Her information wasn't necessarily wrong, merely a rehashed summary of several articles.
Best information on query writing
Far and away the best little book on query letter writing is: How to Write a Great Query Letter by Noah Lukeman. The good news is it's free (click on the previous link). The only thing he asks is if you download the book don't email it to a friend, he prefers that individuals download it from his website. Hey, I can live with that.
One of the things that most, if not all, agents and editors agree on is that the query letter must be no more than a single page.
Another thing that seems to be a consensus is: Don't start your letter with something like, Dear Mr. Agent, I am better than John Grisham. You may well be, but let the agent find that out for herself. Things not to say in a query letter are legend. So I will defer to Ann Rittenberg's excellent: Top 10 Query Letter No-Nos . Ann Rittenberg accepts only one unsolicited manuscript every other year. I've received a couple of very short, but personal passes on her letterhead from her. Nice lady. If you go to her website you will find a link to her book on writing a good query letter.
With the advent of the computer and the Internet it seems that everyone has written a novel. Yet thousands of would be authors simply refuse to learn or ignore the rules of the writer's craft. If you're not one of these, congratulations, you're way ahead of the rest of the pack.
I recently participated in Joanna Penn's webinar: 21 Ways To Sell More Books Online. If you did not participate, I highly recommend that you buy a copy of the recording. It will be the best $21 dollars you will ever spend. [Thanks Jim!]
You will get a lot out of the experience and the two things at the top of the list will be her sound advice to
1) Write a very excellent book, and
2) Have it professionally edited.
If you don't do these two mandatory things, then the fact that you've written the “perfect” query letter will not matter.
Query competition or writing competition?
At this point I've stopped querying agents who ask that you send “only” the query and an SASE. Now I only query agents who ask for at least the first five pages of my manuscript. I am not in a query letter competition with thousands of other writers, but rather a writing competition with agents and editors acting as judges. Accordingly, hooking the reader in the opening paragraph is an absolute must!
To quote Les Edgerton's very excellent book HOOKED, the back cover to be specific,
“The road to rejection is paved with bad beginnings. Agents and editors agree: Improper story beginnings are the single biggest barrier to publication. Why? If a novel or short story has a bad beginning, then no one will keep reading. It's just that simple.”
Edgerton's short story, The Bad Part of Town, begins: “He was so mean that wherever he was standing became the bad part of town .”
Whew! I don't know about anyone else, but I'm going to pay attention to someone who writes like that. I commend HOOKED to you. Bottom-line, if your story doesn't get started until chapter four, change chapter four to chapter one. Noah Lukeman's excellent book: The First Five Pages hints that agents will read that many pages before passing on your work.
In his delightful book: Stein on Writing, Sol Stein says,
“Today's impatient readers give a novelist fewer than seven minutes. Some years ago I was involved in an informal study of the behavior of lunch-hour browsers in mid-Manhattan bookstores. In the fiction section, the most common pattern was for the browser to read the front flap of the book's jacket and then go to page one. No browser went beyond page three before either taking the book to the cashier or putting the book down and picking up another to sample.”
I do it that way when I buy books. Remember your first readers of your work will not be Stein's “lunch-hour browsers” but agents and editors. That's the reader you need to hook, not by page five, page three, or even page one. You must bait the hook with the opening line and set the hook by the end of the first paragraph.
At the end of his book Edgerton quotes Mike Farris of Farris Literary Agency, Inc.
“Remember that the beginning sets the tone for the reader. It tells the reader whether you can write, whether you can create a character, and whether you can tell a story. The most important sentence you will write is the first one. You make your first impression on the reader at the start, and you only get one chance to make that first impression. Don't waste it.”
This statement is pretty much shared by almost every other agent in the business.
In a perfect world …
You've written a great book and had it professionally edited.
You've mailed out ten query letters plus the first chapter of your novel.
Six out of the ten respond positively and you pick the agent who you think can represent your interests better than anyone else.
This agent sells your novel to Doubleday for a six figure advance.
Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth. You're a first time author, with no credentials to speak of and all of your seventy some odd queries have been answered with, “Sorry this just isn't a good fit for us at this time.” Almost every agent who has passed on my work has mentioned that agents and editors exist in a highly subjective atmosphere, which means that the statistical correlation of your book hooking an agent or editor at any given time is r = 0.25, or no more than random chance.
Well you can get mad, you can get sad, you can give up, or you can go the Indie route as I did with my first novel Point Deception. Whether we like it or not, ebooks are here to stay. Take advantage of that. Follow Joanna Penn's sage advice and write a great book, have it professionally edited, and don't waste time chasing an agent to represent your work.
This is the electronic age, take advantage of it. If you can show an agent that your book sold 10,000 copies on Kindle, Book Nook, or Apple in less than a year, you will in all probability be offered a contract. That scenario is much more likely than being plucked out of the slush pile.
John Grisham's first novel was A Time To Kill. He self-published it and sold it out of the trunk of his car and at meetings of local garden clubs. When his second novel The Firm took off, Doubleday picked up A Time To Kill. Both books went on to become blockbuster movies.
So who needs an agent anyway? I've heard of some established traditionally published authors who have gone Indie. True you don't get an advance, but the royalties are much better and you see them quicker, especially on the ebook side of the coin.
Do you have any stories or tips about querying? Please do leave your thoughts in the comments.
Jim Gilliam is the author of Point Deception and The Campeche Reprisal.
Point Deception's website: http://www.pointdeception.com.