Pitching an agent? Read these query letter tips…

student-849825_960_720In my work at WordServe, I read a lot of query letters and book proposals (sometimes more than 100 in a week!) that come into our agency. And in my work as a freelance editor, I often help clients develop their proposals and queries before they submit them. After reading hundreds of pitches across every conceivable genre and topic, I’ve come to notice a few significant Do’s and Don’ts that can make or break whether an agent is going to read any further. If you’re newer to the world of publishing and hoping to get your book noticed, perhaps a few of these will be helpful to you the next time you’re putting together your pitch to an agent or editor.

When sending a query to a literary agency…

  1. Don’t claim that your book is going to be a huge bestseller. The fact of the matter is that only a teeny, tiny percentage of books end up at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list—and much of it depends on things outside of an author’s control. If you claim that you’ve written the next Harry Potter, the agent reading your pitch is probably going to assume that you don’t understand the publishing industry very well; have unrealistic expectations; and/or haven’t done your homework. A better way to emphasize your book’s potential is to try something a little less grand that focuses instead on who is realistically going to buy your book: “I’ve written a book about women in the workplace that will resonate with young working mothers across the country.”
  2. Do your homework on the agents and agency you’re submitting to. If you can find out the name of a specific agent at the firm who represents books in your genre, send the proposal to their attention. Mention why you’ve chosen them. Perhaps comment on another author they’ve represented whose work has similarities to your own. If you can’t submit the proposal to a specific agent, send it to the general agency, but make sure you’ve read up on what kinds of books the agency represents. WordServe represents primarily faith-based books; when I get submissions for romance books with risqué content or nonfiction books that argue against our values, I delete without reading any further.
  3. Don’t claim that your book will make a great feature film. Even fewer books end up as movies than end up on the bestseller list (see #1, above) – and agents who see this in your pitch will know your expectations are overblown and be far less likely to work with you.
  4. Do write your pitch in polished prose that reflects your writing style. You’ve got 30 seconds to get an agent’s attention, so represent your writing well. If your book is humorous, inject some levity in your query. If it’s a thriller, create tension with your first line. If it’s literary fiction, elegant sentences that mirror the book’s style are a must. In every circumstance, ensure that there are absolutely no typos; this is your first impression, and it needs to be 100 percent perfect. Seriously: a few typos in a pitch letter is enough to get an immediate rejection.
  5. Do highlight why you are the right person to write this book; but don’t claim that nothing like this has ever been done before. Chances are, it has—and the agent has already seen it. Instead, focus on what sets your project apart, what new angle or new research or new understanding you bring to a topic—and why you’re the best person to tell readers about it. Focusing on your prior experience, personal connection to the topic, research you’ve conducted, or a dedicated audience you’ve built up are all great ways to convince an agent that you’re worth taking a chance on—and that doesn’t require the claim that no one else has ever thought of anything like this. It just requires you to show me why you’re the best person for the job.
  6. Do read the requirements for submission for every agency you send to. Different agencies have different submission requirements, and it’s essential that you provide them with exactly what they want—or your query will likely be deleted without even being read. If an agent doesn’t want attachments, make sure you include everything in the body of the email. Do they want to see five pages of sample material or fifty—or none at all? Do you need to include a full proposal, or just send a query and wait for a response? Following the specific instructions for each agency, while tedious, will result in a much better response rate, as agents will see that you’ve done your research, are taking this process seriously, and have respect for an agent’s time and wishes.
  7. Last, but not least, do show courtesy and respect to the agents you’re submitting to. Thank them for their time (they really are busy), and don’t pester them if you don’t hear back immediately. While it’s appropriate to follow up with an agent if you don’t hear from them within the time frame they list on their website, do not write to them before this window has elapsed. If they say that they aren’t able to respond to every query, accept that you simply may not hear back. With so many queries coming in, agents aren’t always able to give a personal response to each project they see. It’s unfortunate, but a reality of the industry. And finally, if you do receive a rejection, don’t pester an agent to explain themselves or try to argue for reconsideration. Graciously accept the response, and move on. There are many good agents out there, and you want to find one who connects with your work and is excited to partner with you.

Pitching agents is a difficult process—trust me, I get it! But by spending time polishing your query and making sure to send it to just the right places, you’ll increase your chance of finding the perfect person to represent your work. Above all, don’t be discouraged! It takes time, and often lots of rejections, before you find the right agent—but it does happen. For the most part, agents are in this business because we love books as much as you do; and we’re always hoping that the next query letter we open is going to be the perfect one for us.

Advertisements

10 Tips For Writing an Effective Query Letter…

10 query tips again

Whether you’re pitching an article or submitting a book proposal, your query letter—or your cover letter—needs to convince a publisher to keep reading. As you’re writing, remember that the reader will be tempted to check out and check Facebook. It’s your job to grab and keep a reader’s attention!

1. An effective query letter is concise.

Demonstrate you’re an effective communicator with the efficient use of words. (1 page!)

2. An effective query letter states your intention.

Be clear, up front, whether you’re pitching an article or looking for a publisher.

3. An effective query letter is personal.

Address your letter to a particular person. Has he or she represented or published something similar to your project? Make a meaningful connection with the recipient.

4. An effective query letter clearly identifies your premise.

What is the one thing this book or article aims to do? Clearly identify the singular unifying thesis.

5. An effective query letter identifies a reader’s felt need.

Why should this be published? What need does it meet? Who has this need? How will reader be helped?

6. An effective query letter captures and holds a reader’s attention.

Hook reader’s attention with colorful anecdote. Then, work to keep it.

7. An effective query letter communicates your competence.

Highlight the elements of your bio or resume most relevant to this project.

8. An effective query letter pulses with your passion.

Demonstrate your enthusiasm for this project.

9. An effective query letter balances confidence with humility.

Thank the reader for her/his time and offer your availability to discuss project further. Demonstrate humility and teachability.

10. An effective query letter is error-free.

It’s one page. Be fastidious.

Cheering you on,
Margot

10 Tips For Crafting Your Book Proposal

10 proposal tips

Every sentence of your book proposal should have one person in mind: the reader. Whether you’re submitting it to an agent or an editor, that “first reader” will be holding the “ultimate reader” in her heart and mind as she reads. Your job is to meet the reader’s needs—both that first reader and the eventual one—by communicating efficiently and effectively.

1. Don’t get visually fancy.

Elaborate fonts, colors and graphics distract. Use Times New Roman 12 pt font in a Microsoft Word doc or PDF. Rule of thumb? Keep it simple.

2. Employ plain language.

High-fallutin’ intellectual language is only appropriate for academic books. More often, communicate using a conversational voice.

3. Write in the third person.

Compose your proposal in the third person, as if your agent or a professional collaborator has prepared it—allowing you to brag a bit.

4. Be clear and concise.

When a reader sets down your proposal, he or she can easily identify the premise of your book. Make the reader’s job easy; don’t use more words than are necessary to communicate effectively.

5. Avoid extremes.

Claiming every person always feels a certain way distracts reader by challenging her to search for an exception. “Most” and “often” are more effective.

6. Communicate value for the reader.

Throughout your proposal, make explicit the takeaway value for the reader who purchases and reads your book.

7. Title effectively.

Your working title suggests the book’s premise and the subtitle its promise. Avoid titles that are either too generic or too clever—both making the premise difficult to identify.

8. Prove you will market your book.

Don’t just say you’ll help with promotion. Offer concrete plans you will put into effect.

9. Practice Humility

Don’t oversell, insisting Oprah will return to daytime TV just to promote this book. And be cautious, even with faith-based publishers, about claiming that God told you to write it. #redflag

10. Offer an error-free proposal.

If you’re not paying for a professional critique, have a word-loving friend scour your final draft for grammatical or typographical errors.

Cheering you on,
Margot

Want to Get Published? A Publisher Needs to See an Author Who Can Write and Promote

Note: This is the last post in a series of four posts: 3 Things a Publisher Must See.

3 things

Let’s say your proposal has convinced an editor that your project has a wildly unique premise. You’ve even demonstrated a viable audience with a felt need.

There’s just one more thing…

You.

The questions a publisher is asking about you, very possibly in this order:

  • Does she have a platform?
  • Can she write?

A publisher needs both.

And this is the difficult bind of many editors—who love great writing, and want to publish great writing—today. It’s not to say that editors don’t ever stick out their necks for someone nobody’s ever heard of who can write really well. They do sometimes.

I’m saying that a publisher’s decision is always a complex one, and the more you can convince them that you have a platform to influence others, the more consideration your proposal will receive.

If you can write compelling sentences that make people laugh and cry, and string those together into a fabulous manuscript, and if your platform is so big that Oprah, Donald Trump and Diane Sawyer want to be your bestie, congratulations.

If one or both of these is not the case, then…

  1. Improve Your Writing
  • Read great books
  • Write every single day, and then write some more
  • Join a manuscript critique group, locally or online
  • Attend a writer’s conference (See one you like from 2015? Google it!)
  1. Build Your Platform
  • Pitch articles to the publications your target reader is reading
  • Develop an audience for your blog by writing consistently and meeting readers’ needs
  • Pursue speaking opportunities—at church, MOPs groups, etc.—in the community
  • Be a great friend on social media by celebrating others’ work

And…be patient.

Very few writers have fairytale stories of wild success with little effort. (Honestly, that was my plan when I started writing. It didn’t work out that way.) Most writers invest time and energy to improve their writing and build an audience.

Cheering you on,

Margot

 

 

How to Know ForSureForSureForSure You’re Ready for an Agent

coffee-1128140_960_720

Do you have that first novel completed? Have you been staying up late and getting up early to study and write about a topic you’re passionate about telling the world?

Then it might be time to query a few agents to see if you have what it takes to get their attention. But keep your expectations realistic. New authors are harder to break out than they’ve ever been. And please, don’t blame the agent. We’re just the messenger of what publishers keep telling us.

You’ll need some criteria to go by to determine if you’re ready. Here are a few dozen hints.

First: Know who you truly are…

  1. Someone who has always wanted to write
  2. Someone with a message you feel God is asking you to put to paper
  3. Someone with a message that others have said needs to be put to paper
  4. Someone who can’t wait to get to your computer to create the stories in your head
  5. Someone who reads a lot, both within the genre they write as well as others.

Second: Understand what the book publishing industry is looking for…

  1. The 80/20 principle is alive and well in publishing. Publishers must have the big sellers to stay in business. So 80% of their advance and marketing money will always go to 20% of the authors and books. And if you’re a new author, unless you’re a pastor of a mega-church or you can write like Hemmingway (or better), you’re likely not going to be amongst the 20%.
  2. Because of the loss of browsing retail, publishers can’t find readers, so they expect authors to find them. They want authors with built-in audiences ready to buy. That’s why they are less willing to take risks on unknown/debut authors, preferring known quantities instead of new voices. If I had 200 new authors to speak to, there would be perhaps 5% who will ever get published traditionally. Not because they can’t write. Not because they don’t have a compelling message. It’s because they still have an information gap about what it takes to get published and be successful at it.
  3. Great writing. They want authors who are sold out to getting honest critique. They want a book with a clear vision/message, and an obvious audience (felt need). They hope authors are willing to study the craft of writing, attend conferences, willing to join and participate in critique groups or have a critique partner. Most of all, they want authors who have “come to play.” They’re working on building audiences; they’re invested in their own marketing and they have a plan to grow. Publishers and agents want more than one book. They want to grow with you and your career.

Third, what motivates you…

  1. Money. Okay, that’s not terrible. Would C.S. Lewis have written The Chronicles of Narnia for free? Provision—whether it’s today’s manna or retirement’s manna–motivates us, and it’s not evil. However, if this is your ONLY motivation, you have to ponder whether God will bless it. You also have to recognize that it’s harder than ever to make a living as a writer today, and that the days of six and seven-figure advances (with a few exceptions) are largely gone.
  2. Legacy. Publishers don’t care about this unless you’re already famous. Legacy projects get self-published, and that is perfectly fine.
  3. This does not include “ax to grind” books. Please, self-publish those. We can’t sell them.
  4. “I can’t help myself.” Obsession is a good place to be, but not if you’re sacrificing your health, family, bank account and soul to do it. Your obsession should pass the “sniff test” by those who know you best. Just because you feel “God has told me” to do this, doesn’t make that statement true. Obsessions MUST be confirmed by several people in your life before you give them wings in a big way.

So, with all of this in mind, here’s how to know “forsure-forsure-forsure” you’re ready for an agent.

For sure…

  • You have something inside of you that must get out. A novel, a message, a memoir, a brand. When I started FaithHappenings.com two years ago, I was like a dog with a bone. My excitement did border on obsession.
  • You’ve put at least half of the book on paper–the whole book if you’re a novelist. (With novels, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.)
  • You understand that traditional publishing is a business and you won’t question their motives if they reject your work. People DO know more than you.
  • You feel God’s pleasure in your efforts to communicate what you want to share.
  • You can’t wait to get to your computer.

For sure, for sure…

  • You know your motivation. It doesn’t have to be pristine, you just have to know what it is.
  • You know your book will get published no matter what. You are going to do this! Start traditionally if that is a goal, but not let that stop you from doing what’s needed to publish independently, if you have to.
  • Someone has said that your message, life story or writing is above the curve. But even so, remember this: Perhaps one person per state ever makes it to the major leagues in each year. The pyramid is very small at the top in any professional endeavor.
  • You are patient with the process and want to trust an industry professional to help guide your book/career. Once you think you know more than they do, turn off the tap on traditional publishing. And this is fine. Some are wired to be control freaks. Go with it. Don’t drive yourself and an agent/publisher crazy if you want to control every step in the process.

For sure, for sure, for sure…

  • You have 5,000 to 10,000 “followers” (blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) Further, you are convinced—and you hereby solemnly swear to not complain—that you must help any publisher you go with—traditional or your own efforts—FIND READERS.
  • Twenty people who don’t know you well have seen your book/writing and they’re not adding much more to it. You hear the term “great writer” from several different people.
  • You know your genre, your audience, your message—you have FOCUS!!!
  • You have a great proposal that answers the publisher/agent questions. If you don’t, get the agent’s proposal template. We all have one. Work hard on it. Don’t have typos, and follow directions! There are too many other people vying for an agent or editor’s attention for them to waste time on a proposal that doesn’t meet the basic requirements listed.
  • Read three book marketing books. And then in your proposal, give the agent five pages of marketing ideas you KNOW you can do.
  • You have counted the cost:
    • Family/Time
    • Money
    • Inevitable rejection and bad reviews, perhaps even the “ten mean church ladies” who write scathing letters and reviews on nearly every book they see.
  • You know you have “come to play.”
  • You know what five agents/agencies you want to be with. Get to know what they have represented. (You aren’t sending your proposal out en masse to every agent whose email address you can find.) Of these five, take the first one who says yes. Realize that you may not get the top guy, but the reputation of the agency is what you’re after.

If you can check off nearly all of these criteria, you’re forsure, forsure, forsure ready.

Want to Get Published? A Publisher Needs to See a Compelling Project

Note: This is the second post in a series of 4 posts: 3 Things a Publisher Must See.

3 thingsYou’re heard of the fabled “elevator pitch”? You’re in an elevator and are suddenly given the opportunity to pitch your idea to someone who could make it a reality. You have a few sentences to communicate clearly the nature of your project.

Pressure’s on.

And this really is a Goldilocks and the 3 Bears situation:

  1. If you say too little—either the number of words or the impact of those words—you lose.
  2. If you say too much—either the number of words or the impact of those words—you lose.
  3. The way you present your project needs to be “just right”

You could say….

  • “I’m writing a book.” (yawn, check phone) Four words is probably not enough.
  • Or you might spit out, “I’m writing a book on marriage” (There’s no impact, nothing memorable, nothing distinctive.)
  • Or you might go with, “I’m writing an in-depth treatise on the common misperceptions about the mating rituals of married white American evangelical females between the ages of twenty-eight and twenty-nine occurring in suburbs within twelve miles of six major U.S. cities after nine pm…” (Just wrong on so many levels.)

Nothing about any of those makes a publisher want to know more.

  • But what about: “The Singular Secret To a Vibrant Marriage”?

Now the editor is curious to know more. What is it?!

A book proposal is really just an expanded elevator pitch. You need to communicate very clearly and efficiently what your book is about so that publisher will want to know more. Don’t make them work hard to figure it out.

Exercise: Right now, give the two-sentence pitch for the book that’s in your heart. Out loud. To the walls. Write it down. Then, when there’s a human within range, give them the pitch. Then ask them:

  1. Do you feel like you know what the book is about? Could you communicate it to someone else?
  2. Is it unique? Are there other books like it?
  3. Based just on the hook/pitch, does it engage you to want to know more? Do you want to buy and read it? Why or why not?

With this feedback, work further to articulate what is unique and compelling about your book.

Cheering you on,

Margot

 

Want to Get Published? 3 Things a Publisher Must See

Note: This is the first post in a series of 4 posts: 3 Things a Publisher Must See.

3 things

You have a book in your heart that you’d love to see published. It may even be a great book. A publisher and her editing board need to see three things to say the “yes” you’re hoping for. They need to see: a unique project, a viable market and the right author.

1. A Publisher Needs to See a Unique Project

Although what you’re writing may seem fresh to you, know that publishers have already received countless pitches for “My Cancer Journey,” “My Eating Disorder Journey,” “My Spiritual Memoir.” Does this mean you scrap your project? No. But it does mean that you need to demonstrate how yours is unique. For example, these might catch a publisher’s attention:

  • Why Cancer Was The Best Thing To Happen to Me This Year
  • How My Eating Disorder Was Cured When I Won “The Biggest Loser”
  • I Was a Satanist High Priest and Now I Love Jesus

Make an editor curious enough to open your proposal!

One baby step toward publication: Read other books in your genre and identify what, if anything, makes yours unique.

2. A Publisher Needs to See a Viable Market

The publisher also needs to see that there is a market for this book. Who are the readers who will buy your book? What is the felt-need they have that will cause them to purchase your book, read it and rave about it to their friends? Research the market so that you can demonstrate that there are book-buying readers who need your book.

One baby step toward publication: Develop a one- or two-sentence “elevator pitch” that succinctly communicates the substance of your book, who will read it and what distinguishes it from similar books.

3. A Publisher Needs to See an Author Who Can Write and Promote This Book

A publisher is looking for authors who can write and who can also get that writing before an audience.

You’ve probably heard that author platform—your ability to reach readers—is the most important thing to a publisher. (And it’s pretty important.) But hear this: every publisher wants to publish great writing.

Chapters and pages and paragraphs and sentences and phrases need to engage readers. Your goal is to get a publisher (aka “reader”) to read the first sentence of your proposal and want to read the next one and the next one. You may think it’s an editor’s job to give your proposal a thorough reading, but it’s not. Her job is to find quality books to publish. When she is perusing your proposal, she can check out—and check facebook—at any point in the process. Develop your craft so that you can write prose that a reader does not want to put down.

And there’s also that platform business…

Who has platform? Oprah. Rick Warren. Francis Chan.

Intimidated? You don’t need to be. You can be building your platform right now by:

  • pitching and writing articles for publications
  • developing an audience for your blog
  • building your speaking resume by speaking places for free: MOPs groups, churches, etc.

The key is finding what works for you and sticking with it.

One baby step toward becoming a great writer: Sign up for a local writing class, sometimes available at city colleges, or attend a writer’s conference in your area.

One baby step toward building platform: Set a goal to publish one article or story, with a reputable national publication that appeals to the eventual audience for your book, in the next three months.

Cheering you on,

Margot