It always amazes me how much wind is made around formalities. (And that, dear friends, is why I’m a rebel!)
Let’s look at this:
A contract is an agreement between two parties. Everything else (necessity for witnessing, authentication of signatures, etc etc etc) is really just a series of measures to ensure that both parties will stick to the agreement. But anything (within legal boundaries) can be agreed on, as long as both parties agree.
A writer is a storyteller on paper, or a teacher on paper (depending if it’s a fiction or non-fiction book). An author is the originator of something authentic.
An agent is a person or company that takes your cat and sells it to your neighbour, and as a reward takes on average 15% off your profit for their effort. Really good agents could probably afford to charge a lot more, because their high success rate still makes it a good deal.
And a publisher is a person or company who takes your authentic work and puts it into a format and into places in which it can be publicly accessed and bought. He/she brings your authentic work into the public marketplace.
All these people want you to sign a contract with them, so that they can be sure they will be rewarded for doing this for the author. On the other hand the contract is really good for the author too as you can expect certain things from your agent / publisher: To pay you your royalties and not short-change you; and NOT to run off with your cat and sell it as their own.
So writing a submissions / agent query letter should really be very simple.
Imagine you were writing your subs / query letter to your best friend.
“Heya Jim! I know I’ve been quiet for a while, that’s because I’ve been working on a novel, and guess what, tonight I wrote “THE END” under it! Now I know that you’ve been (Jim thinks: ‘Uh-oh, here it comes’) agenting some people’s novels, and I was wondering if you could do the same for mine?”
What do you think Jim will ask next? Right: “What’s your book about?”
So you answer. Don’t rewrite your whole book to him in your answer. It’s well worth learning how to write a “pitch” for your book… c’mon, fellas, it is not that difficult. I know we’re writers, not salesmen, but your book already prods buttock, all you need to do is make it wear the pointy boots! You need to put the plot into one single, peppery paragraph. Use salient words. Engage the senses. You know how to make a reader taste a lemon. Make them taste lemons! But do it – shorter.
You know, there was a twitter campaign out there in 2009 – doubt it’s still going, because haha – it was self-defeating, and I’m so glad I never found it back then because I would definitely have shot my mouth off – called #queryfail. It was a campaign where agents vented about the query letters they got from authors.
Seriously? You can immediately see what’s wrong with the picture. And one agent worded it beautifully in his blog, saying something to the effect of “you will never see me do that”.
It doesn’t matter how stupidly expressed a query letter may be, how pompous an author may word his request – a fellow author reads the ridicule on #queryfail and thinks, “well, I won’t risk querying that agent! What if I get it wrong and get my letter ridiculed here?”
2007-9 was a weird era
When I started submitting to publishers in 2007/8, I was all at sea how to write those letters. I must have read dozens of blogs and ebooks on how to write a synopsis, how to write a query… and here’s the thing: They all contradicted each other! One thing they all agreed on though: Your subs letter should reflect your “writing voice”.
“Dear John Sullivan*,
Perdita stared at the twenty-first century relic of a word processor that had been placed before her. She gave a little snort of derision, then flexed her dainty hands that were so adept at handling a gun, and drummed out a paragraph on the old-fashioned keyboard, outlining her demand to be published. In Spanish. She could have written it in Danaan too. ‘Carajo!’ she muttered under her breath as she hit the ‘send’ button.
And now began the nail-biting two weeks of waiting for a response. Perdita started mulling over whom she could assassinate.
(*I made that publisher up. No resemblance to actual people. And so on.)
Other sources gave examples of “most successful query letter EVER”, showing off a man who flashed his entire military history, medals included, before justfying that this was the reason he was the best person to write… the novel he had written, which was authentically based in one of the wars he’d fought in.
We respect our veterans, but why does that particularly make him a good author? Without knowing more, it might just be another blood-and-guts style memoir.
Grovel (“oh mighty publisher, I know I’m only a humble author, would you please please…”) or brag? (“As a home-schooling mother of twenty-seven children, I should know best on this topic because I know best on everything!”) Write the sub in your writing voice??
No, and no!
And here’s the third No:
One of the lines of ridicule on #queryfail discussed how an author had the audacity to approach an agent 1) anonymously and 2) didn’t think it was important to have a huge social media following.
Hold on a minute? The job of the agent is to take the cat – the book – and put it over the fence to the publisher; the job of the publisher is to make it publicly accessible; the job of the author is to provide authentic content! Not, to have the entire marketing platform in place! That is the battle of the publisher. Not even of the agent. And to demand (after GDPR we understand this so much better, don’t we) of an author to strip himself of anonymity (anonymosity?) and do a publicity circus act (and possibly, as some authors are somewhat shy, run the huge risk of being ridiculed, which for some souls is so serious it may end in suicide – no kidding, statistics link public shame to suicide) – peeps, is that in any way still reasonable?
No! We don’t need to grovel, brag, do cart-wheels and circus tricks, “demonstrate our writing voice” in our synopsis (our novel is not a synopsis, this is why readers enjoy the actual book), flash our qualifications, demonstrate marketing skills and a huge social media following, or anything of the sort!
We only need to be authentic.
There you have it: Authentic. Honest, sincere. And writing under a pen name is not “dishonest”, it is millennia-old custom among authors.
For that reason, and that reason alone, I have once again put patronizing “subs guidelines” on our website – in case an author feels lost how to go about it.
The guidelines outline what genres we accept; they give an address where you can email your submission; and they disambiguate what you need to (and don’t need to) write in a query letter. We’re uncomplicated. Doesn’t matter if you are pompous or grovelly in your approach, if you are a decorated star in your field or someone too shy to give her real name. If you have 7000 followers on Twitter or none at all, on any antisocial media. If you’ve done a whole lot of marketing for us or nothing. It’s not about that. We want to know about your manuscript.
Should we decide that (for whatever reason, and it will not be your query letter or synopsis) your work doesn’t fit in with our concepts, we’ll let you know – respectfully, because for all we know we may be making a mistake and the next publisher will make a lot of money from your book.
About mass submissions
And here’s another thing. If you address us with “Dear Sir/Madam” and know nothing about our company, and have copied 23 other publishers into the same round-mail…
… let’s be realistic. Writers write. Agents do the market research of who’s who in the publishing world. Writers write.
I feel it is unrealistic to expect of any author (who would much rather be writing a new novel or the sequel) to sit and in-depth study 900 publishers and agents, for their company history, eating habits and dental records.
Because, 900. Hold onto that figure.
That is the amount of submissions (give or take) it took JK Rowling to get her “Harry Potter” published.
Do you honestly think she had the time (between writing 6 massive sequels) to research 900 publishers and agents, submit to them one-by-one, and wait 2 weeks for an answer from each before addressing the next?
The year has 52 weeks. Half of that is 26. 900/26 = 34.62. It would have taken her 34 and a half years.
And every publisher wants to publish the next JK. Every agent wants to agent her. Do you really think you’ll get her if authors can only drip-submit? It works the other way as well! If you are agent 20 on that author’s list, you will have to wait 40 weeks for your next quality submission that you could have had right now!
We all need to remember one thing. The whole book industry wouldn’t even exist without writers writing. So now the question is: Would you (as publisher, agent or author) rather keep feeling important or would you rather make a lot of money?
There are no wrong answers here. It’s all good. (Dr Phil: “And how is that working out for you?”) Recognition. Much has been said about it.
The tricky part is learning to tell whether you’re actually approaching a publisher who wants to talk business, or whether you’re just feeding someone’s ego. And I guess a real short-cut is the mass-submissions letter. You will be guaranteed to weed out those who want to be worshiped, and only get responses from those who are interested in your manuscript. But it goes both ways. If you don’t get a reply from any of them, don’t take that as an offense to your ego.
A passing thought on synopses and blurbs:
It helps immensely to have another author who has beta-read and enjoyed your work, write it for you. You can trade favours that way. Because (my 2 pence) the author is too close to her own work to write a really pack-a-punch book blurb or a good synopsis.
Hope this helps, and hope you none of you will ever join a career-suicide campaign like #queryfail (or similarly risky “#agentfail”). I know I would have been dumb enough.