Archive for November, 2010

9 Tips for Effective Query Letters

November 28, 2010

 

I give a lot of classes and presentations at writers’ groups and conferences. Whenever I do, I get questions about how to write effective query letters.  You can find advice about writing queries floating around the Internet and in magazines like Writer’s Digest.  So this information is widely available. I see a lot of misinformation and bad advice as well. It usually comes from people who promise sure fire success getting published if only the writer will  follow a certain technique. Don’t buy that for one minute. The only road to success in publishing (and it is by no means sure fire) is by working on good projects, writing it well, and having the platform to get attention by an audience of readers. There is no kabalistic knowledge of query technique that will bring you closer to getting an agent. 

These tips are what work for me. Other agents will likely see things differently.

1)      Do your research in preparing your submission list. There are over  2000 literary agents listed in Publishers Marketplace. Most of them specify the subject areas they are seeking. You can find it on their websites or on databases like:  Association of Author Representatives   and Agentquery.com. Don’t waste your time and theirs sending queries to agents who aren’t interested in your genre.

2)      Always do multiple submissions. The odds for finding an agent through unsolicited queries isn’t so great, so you might as well maximize your chances. I get about 3000 queries a year. Out of that number I probably will respond to about 50 asking to look at their   proposals. From that number I might take on 5 as clients (probably less, really).  And I might succeed in getting one published. Agents’ decisions are subjective.  Harry Potter was rejected by lots of agents.

3)      Follow agents’ submission guidelines. This might also be on the  agent databases mentioned above , but it will always be on agents’ websites. Specifically look to see whether the agent wants queries by email or post, and what and how much information they want included . Some agents will even specify what words to use in the subject heading of the email.

4)      Keep the query short. I like less than half page for the entire query. Save the rest of the information for the book proposal. Remember that agents are getting hundreds of unsolicited queries a month. Chances are that they will be spending about 10 seconds deciding whether they want to follow up with you. Make sure those 10 seconds are used effectively  to find the information the agent needs.

 5)      Answer the key questions: What? Why? Who? What is the genre? What is the book about? Why does it need to be published? Who am I to have the authority to write it? And remember that in this day and age “platform” is everything in commercial publishing, so most agents will look for your qualifications first.

 6)      Be professional and sound professional. Writing for publication is a business as well as an art. Familiarize yourself with the proper terminology and terms of art in  publishing. When you specify the genre of your project in the query, make sure you know what the standard genres are. More than once I have received queries that begin: “This book is a narrative non-fiction novel.”  This is not an impressive way to start a query.

 7)      Be transparent. Avoid hype. After hearing thousands of pitches, agents (and publishers) have pretty good bullshit detectors. A query brimming with hyperbole sends a message to me that the author is either imbued with grandiose delusions or playing me for a fool. Neither of these messages bodes well for a happy author-agent relationship.

 8)      Be patient. As we have mentioned above, agents get hundreds of queries a month. Responding to them is not always the highest priority of an agent. Some agents are not even interested  in new clients and  accordingly may  not respond  at all to your query. You can usually determine this by looking at their submission guidelines in the databases. I try to respond within a week, but I don’t always succeed and I am in the minority on this. If you don’t hear back, assume that the answer is “no”.

 9)      Writing queries isn’t very hard. Chances are that you didn’t need to read this list of tips to write an effective query. Agents are all looking for good projects that have a chance of finding a publisher.  We aren’t going to reject one of those projects because the query diverges from a desired format. If you have a great idea and are the right person to write it, I’m going to discover that regardless of the form of the query.

 

 

 

 

Buy E-book Downloads from your Independent Bookstore — Now!

November 20, 2010

I have been writing a lot about the role of the independent bookseller in the brave new world of e-books. A lot of people have been talking about this, usually  with sad-countenanced  head-shaking and hand-wringing. And it is true  that  indies are facing and will continue to face enormous challenges.  Recently I wrote an article in Publishers Weekly reprinted in this blog trying to provide some hope in this situation.  But it was pretty speculative. Today I am going to interview Len Vlahos, who is Chief Operating Officer of the American Booksellers Association, the trade association that represents over 1400 independent bookstores operating in more than 1700 locations nationwide. We are going to talk about the future of indie stores, their challenges and their opportunities, in the  age of  the  e-book.

Andy: Len, I assume that the ABA is not just sitting back and ceding the terrain of the e-book to Amazon and Apple. What is ABA doing to bring the Indies into the game?

Len: ABA offers members an  e-commerce product called IndieCommerce. Through this service, members can have a turnkey website with a great search engine, shopping cart, and robust content management tools. The sites exist at the store’s URL and with the store’s brand. A few examples:

 

http://www.politics-prose.com/

http://www.bookwormofedwards.com/

http://www.bookpassage.com/

We’ve partnered with both Google and Ingram to allow our members to offer e-books for sale to their customers in four different formats – Adobe (works with Sony eReader, Nook, Kobo), Palm/iPhone (works with iPad, iPhone, other smart phones), Microsoft (with the Microsoft Reader), and Google (works with most devices other than Kindle). Some of the Ingram titles are already live. Google will be live before the end of the year. Between these two aggregators, the 200 + IndieCommerce sites will have a robust catalog of titles, and will offer a competitive experience relative to the rest of the market place.

Andy: I pointed out in my article that the new model for e-book pricing is for the publisher to set the price of the book. It seems that Amazon.com has always succeeded in gaining market share  by price completion. Can you describe the new plan. Is it going to help Indies?

Len: In the traditional  (often called “wholesale”) model of publishing, publishers set a suggested retail price for a book and  then sell that book to a retailer at a discount. The retailer then sets its own retail price and sells that book to a consumer. Under this model, chains and big Internet retailers  have been selling popular titles — in both conventional editions and digital editions — at significantly below-cost pricing and with loss leader marketing in what appears to be a blatant attempt to acquire market share and to concentrate power in a small number of mostly online retailers.

 

Under the  new and developing  “Agency” Model, a publisher sets a retail price for a specific book and engages an agent — typically a retailer — to facilitate the sale of that book to a consumer, at that price. In this model, the retailer is bound by the price set by the publisher. To date, this model exists only for digital content. The retail price set by the publisher reflects production costs — acquisition, editing, marketing, printing, binding, shipping, etc. — which vary significantly from book to book.

The artificially low prices at which e-books have been sold are threats to any profitable business model for writing, publishing, and selling books.  They offer consumers only a fleeting bargain while enacting serious long-term losses. Ultimately such below-cost pricing is very likely to drain the resources publishers need to discover, develop, compensate, and successfully publish new authors, a loss of diversity that ABA believes will have very bad long-term effects on many fronts.

ABA strongly favors the “Agency” Model for the sale of digital content. The benefit of the Agency Model to our members — independently owned bookstores — is obvious. It’s an essential defense against predatory pricing, and it allows for a wide diversity of retailers in the marketplace. It also helps to ensure the continued distribution of books by smaller, independent publishers with a variety of viewpoints, ultimately benefiting consumers by showcasing not just discounted bestsellers, but a wide selection of writers. Finally, it will help prevent the concentration of power within the hands of a few megastores and chains. Such a narrowing of options would significantly harm consumers and our society.

Andy: Do you see any other models for  e-book distribution on the horizon that also would offer opportunities to independents?

Len: A long-range goal would be to partner with a technology company to use geo-locating software to allow a customer in an indie store to download an e-book to her smartphone from within the store, and then have the bookseller be credited with that sale. This is down the road a bit, but should be possible. It opens up interesting opportunities.

Andy: It is a little unclear to me how indies can provide a kind of convenient channel for downloading the e-books. One of the nice things about e-books, as they are being sold by the big guys,  is the seamless way the book buyer can order books without getting off his tush.

Len: With Google in particular, we will provide just as seamless a solution if you’re using your iPad, Android, or other tablet or smartphone. You can sit on your couch in your PJs at three in the morning, or sit in the airline frequent flyer lounge, and search for, purchase, download, and read your e-books, all from one device.

Andy: And do you visualize independents as selling e-readers as well? At the very least, that seems like a way of showing that indies are serious about being in the e-book business.

Len: This is trickier, as we’ve yet to identify the right device partner, but we’re still looking.

Andy: You might as well prognosticate about the future. Everyone else is, after all. Are e-books going to spell the end of the traditional book? How are independents positioned to benefit from the trends?

Len: ABA firmly believes that print books are here for the long haul. But to think that e-books are not already impacting print book sales would be a bit of a stretch. The focus of our channel must be on serving our customers how, when, and where they want to be served, and to sell the right book to the right customer in the format of that customer’s choice. That’s what we’re trying to empower our members to do.

Andy: Thanks, Len. I just clicked on my favorite bookstore, Book Passage;  and I see that they are, in fact, selling e-books for immediate download in Adobe and Palm format. So I urge you all out there with e-book readers to go to their website and start downloading.

The Ten Best Bookstores in the World

November 17, 2010

Travel Publisher, Lonely Planet, has just issued its list of  the world’s best bookstores. The only American store on the list is City Lights of San Francisco, which also happens to be number 1 on the list. City Lights was started in 1953 and was touted as the world’s first paperback bookstore.It was founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  In 1955 the store started a publishing company that still exists. It is most famous for its publication of the beat poets. Allen Ginsberg’s, Howl, is considered one of the  great poetic works of the western literary canon. It the 1950’s City lights was the intellectual center of the Beat Poets and the whole beat culture in San Francisco.

A little shameless self-promotion here. My last visit to City Lights was to attend  a publication party for my client, Paul Krassner, whose book, Who’s To Say What’s Obscene, was published by City Lights. (It was my first book that I represented as an agent.)

Congratulations, Lawrence and  City Lights. What an honor! You deserved it.

Read Mary Norris’s Essay in the Sunday New York Times

November 8, 2010

For all of the 27,000 people worldwide who have read my interview with Mary Norris on copy editing at The New Yorker, you should check out her essay in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. It is on the back page and talks about her relationship with her famous brother/sister, Baby Dee, who  decides to have a sex change operation. It is very funny.


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