Archives: Query Letters

Writers can slave away at their books, sometimes over the course of many years, before emerging to find an agent and publisher. As an inherently isolated task, writers fall prey to an almost inevitable mistake: they lose touch with the current market for literature and contemporary authors, many of whose books achieve the same goal, or worse, tell the same story.

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I recently did an interview with my longtime partner in crime and book blogger extraordinaire, Lori Hettler of The Next Best Book Blog. (P.S. Lori will probably never edit me again, but we had a fun time with this, right Lori?)
Here’s a cut:

Is readership diminishing in the advent of digital publishing?
There will always be readers so long as there is human curiosity. I see digital publishing as a major advantage, not merely in terms of the infinite marketing avenues it allows, but also in terms of hard data that, historically, has not been accessible for authors or their publishers. We never knew who readers were before; what books they liked to read. My personal thought is that what I call “app-sized publishing” (or #micropublishing) is not a bad thing at all, but conversely offers authors and publishers a greater chance to stand out in a high-volume marketplace. This means more books, ultimately with lower production costs, more appeal for multimedia, and more readers—albeit with smaller attention spans.Consider my friend Ted, an avid reader who is also an MD/PHD. Ted has an IPad, an Android; he loves obscure social networks and blogs, and he likes to read on diverse subjects in the little time his schedule permits between classes and residency. In other words, on the subway.

Ted is the reader of the future: the kind writers need to write for, and publishers need to market to.

What does this mean for publishers and authors?
Book purchases at lower costs and higher volume. Greater reader engagement through interactive/social media integrated into enhanced eBooks or mobile apps. More visibility, creative power, and possibly financial benefit for authors.
Those of us who enjoy looking at visual media and reading books but are conservative in our spending—those who  wait for movies to release on-demand, and for cheaper iterations of the IPhone and IPad—likely do not buy a hardcover book at $25.99, unless you just can’t wait another minute for Elizabeth Gilbert’s, Tom Connelly’s, Stephanie Meyer’s, JK Rowling’s latest book. We’ll splurge to that. But a debut author with no prior bestselling credentials and zero recognition, save that great book review in the Times that your mother mentioned? Limited.I’m not saying don’t try to be a bestseller, get an agent, get a book deal with Random House! But if you come up dry, you have options. There are plenty of successful self-published authors out there, and with the dawn of “micropublishing”—not yet an industry term, FYI, just a term I’ve coined—readers can find and impulsively buy your books on mobile devices; we can follow you using social media. You could be the next Kindle Mover & Shaker. And then you can pursue that book deal you’ve been wanting, with your audience already established (which means, a bigger book deal.) Writers need patience above all…any agent or editor will tell you the marketplace is all about timing.

And yet, aspiring authors still see big deals happening for hardcover books….

I love the way the legendary editor Jonathan Karp puts it in a recent New York Magazine article, ‘As for the big advances,’ he says, “when publishers swing for the fences, I think that’s admirable. Does anyone want publishers to bunt?”  Publishers today bank on a book’s possibility to go out of the gate like gangbusters. But everyone knows this kind of success to be negligible, just like publishing’s precedents in music and film.  It’s a very difficult business to represent authors today, however talented, however devoted we are to their books. And so, while I love Karp’s wording above, I find it completely contradictory to his preceding sentence in the very same interview: “Why anyone would write a novel and not want everyone to read it is a mystery to me.” Wouldn’t that just prove that the app-sized or micropublishing model of lower advances, lower production costs, and lower prices is the preferable option if it offers the most expansive visibility bar none?Do you still even read The Book Review, or do you scan Goodreads for recommendations? Vote here.

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Myth 1: “Because I have an agent, I have a book deal in the horizon. It’s just that the horizon looks cloudy.”

Fact: No savvy agent is going to take you on if he/she doesn’t believe your book will sell! But you won’t see in your author agreement with an agency that your book might very well not sell. Myth unraveled: all agents have faced circumstances in which they are unable books—a reality of a tough business. And anyone in the industry will tell you the marketplace is more restrictive than ever, though better than it was a few years ago, before eBooks could bring a whole new revenue stream, and substantially added value.

Myth 2: An agent is like a real estate broker. His/her job is to sell my book.

Fact: When writers believe this analogy, a reasonable confusion occurs. Yes, an agent’s foremost intention is to sell your book, but our responsibility also extends to troubleshooting any issues with your book later on, lending insights to your marketing and publicity strategy, brokering ancillary deals around your book (television, foreign rights), legally and emotionally and financially protect you. All of this makes a literary agent more landlord than real estate broker.

Myth 3: An agent is not an editor. (There’s a trick here)

Fact: You’re right. An agent isn’t an editor. But agents play editors all the time. We need to share their eye, and we need to share the workings of their brain. (This is where “platform”–or a built-in audience in your field or via social media–has become the most overused term in the industry, but it’s a word writers should know and be able to claim, before approaching any agent.) In deciding upon an agent, you should expect editorial attention, not simply a dealmaker.

Myth 4: “I do not need an agent.”

Fact: I think it’s unequivocal that writers who have an expert partner and advocate benefit most from the publishing process. Who else can fight for their best interests in a contract negotiation, verse them in the particular lexicon of the industry. The majority of writers need editing help, which good agents provide; they need marketing insights, which many agents can inform; they still need legal, emotional, and financial protection whatever format they publish in. Who wants to go through this alone?

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