Last month I went over what Lucienne Diver, Holly Root, Nathan Bransford, Caren Johnson, Kim Whalen, Jim McCarthy, Heather Osborn, Chris Keeslar, and Deb Werksman had to say about websites, voice, and marketing plans while at RWA Nationals in San Francisco. This month we’ll talk about what you can do to get the attention of an editor or agent and what they expect of you once you have it.
We all know that one of the most common first steps to getting the attention of an editor or agent is to send a query letter. Cold contact sales are difficult to make in any business, but in publishing with editors and agents receiving hundreds of queries a month, sometimes in a week, it’s remarkably tougher. And increasingly important to stand out from the masses. One simple way to give yourself a leg up, though it’s something that numerous people fail to do, is to always do your research into the query/submission guidelines for the industry professionals you’re targeting.
Lucienne Diver, Holly Root, Heather Osborn, and Nathan Bransford respond to every query and submission that crosses their desks and meets their guidelines. Caren Johnson tries to respond to all queries, but if twelve weeks pass with no response she suggests you follow up with her. Deb Werksman, because she accepts un-agented and unrequested full manuscripts at the beginning of the submission process, will send a reply that varies on how far she gets into the manuscript. If she makes it through the full manuscript, almost always the writer will get a call with direction r an offer. Chris Keeslar (in regards to full manuscripts) tries to respond within 4-6 months if it’s close to what he’s looking for, but no one should wait longer than that before sending it elsewhere.
With as tough as it is to get beyond the query letter, I began wondering just how much weight agents and editors put into the one page letters that we sweat and panic over. Have you ever wondered if you are being judged as the author more than the concept of your story? Can they get a sense of you and how far you’ll go in your career?
One of the quickest things an agent or editor can tell from a query letter is whether or not you’ve done your homework. If you’re querying Nathan Bransford with poetry or screenplays (something he says on his blog that he doesn’t represent), even if you have an amazing query letter, you’re sending the message that you weren’t proactive enough in your own career planning to research the person you want as an advocate.
As Lucienne Diver said, it’s a matter of the author hitting the right notes of capturing the tone of their book, maintaining professionalism, and showing that they’ve done their research. Holly Root and Caren Johnson feel that while they can get a sense of a person from their query letter, sort of like the professionalism of targeting the right person for your work, it ultimately takes talking via phone or email or working together to deepen an understanding and establish your ability to work together in a professional way.
Chris Keeslar says the most he can get from a query letter is a sense of someone’s focus, talent, energy, and intelligence, which lines up with Nathan Bransford’s opinion that it’s sometimes more a sense of seeing what isn’t there that should be. So when you’re working on your query letters remember to customize it for each agent or editor you intend to send it to. And rest assured that they are not determining the health and longevity of your career as they read that single page.
Though industry professionals don’t judge you as a person based on your query letter, and they remain open to resubmissions of new work from you that fits their guidelines, there is a surefire way to cut off your chances of working with them: misbehave in the wrong settings.
Every person I interviewed agreed that an author talking negatively about an agent, editor, or another author, or generally behaving less than professionally in situations where the behavior may be witnessed or overheard by industry professionals or possible future readers, could be directly hurting their career. Regardless of talent, few agents or editors want to take on an author that they know will be difficult to deal with or manage, so bear that in mind when you attend conferences or even join in on chats online.
In speaking with agents, editors, and aspiring and published authors it became obvious to me that so many people seeking agent representation or publication target their energy into writing the story and putting together a query letter. A small number of people that I’ve met think to question what happens once they get an offer. In fact, most either have taken, or say they will take, the first offer from an agent or editor. Why that is not the mindset an author should have is for another article, but one thing I walked away from my interviews with was the importance of asking what your chosen agent or editor expects of you once you’ve entered into a relationship with them in regards to how many books a year you should produce.
Lucienne, Holly, Heather, Nathan, Chris, and Kimberly all agreed that the number of books produced per year depended on the author. Lucienne will advise her authors to slow down as soon as she notices their quality slipping or if she thinks they are beginning to no longer enjoy the work. Holly feels authors need to stay focused and have a strategy. Than an author’s outlook should reflect their pride in themselves and a high quality of work. If an author can support a multi-book schedule per year then Holly is more than willing to support that.
From an editor’s standpoint, Chris and Heather like to see at least one book a year from their authors. Chris feels two is better, but anything less than one a year makes it hard to establish a career.
So when you begin the query dance with agents and editors consider how long it takes you to write a book and have it ready for submission, and as a debut author if you can have an inventory of books then you could ease some of your own stress in the first year or so after you sell. Though it is not necessary to have an inventory.
You are the best judge of you, how fast you can work, and what you want from your career. Agents and editors are advocates for you and your books because they feel a connection to the stories you craft and because they respect what you do, but there are some who do not always have your best interest at heart.
Take your time with the query and submission process. When the moment of decision comes, take your time to consider all of your options before signing on the dotted line. Never allow yourself to feel that you’ve sold out too early or settled for less than you wanted.
Chris Keeslar is a senior editor with Dorchester. www.dorchesterpub.com
Deb Werksman is an editor with Sourcebooks. www.sourcebooks.com
Heather Osborn is an editor with TOR. www.tor-forge.com
Caren Johnson is an agent with the Caren Johnson Literary Agency. www.carenjohnson.com
Holly Root is an agent with The Waxman Agency. www.waxmanagency.com
Jim McCarthy is an agent with Dystel and Goderich Literary Management. www.dystel.com
Kim Whalen is an agent with Trident Media Group. www.tridentmediagroup.comLucienne Diver is an agent with The Knight Agency. www.knightagency.net
Nathan Bransford is an agent with Curtis Brown Ltd. www.nathanbransford.blogspot.com
Nikki’s a member of RWA, North Texas RWA, Dallas Area Romance Authors, and is a RWA PRO. She is currently working on her fifth manuscript. Nikki’s a contributor to the RWA PROspects Newsletter and her articles have been published in over fifty RWA Chapter newsletters and list serves. While seeking publication, Nikki continues creating the stories living vividly in her imagination and studying the publishing industry. More on Nikki can be found by visiting www.nikkiduncan.com.