It’s a well-known fact that while lots of people fancy the idea of becoming a published author, very few of them actually achieve that goal. The most common failure stage is almost certainly the first one: most people don’t actually write a book. That’s evident from my personal experience and also well-established from the statistics kept by National Novel Writing Month, an event that challenges participants to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people join NaNoWriMo. And each year, only a fraction of them (12-19%) reach the goal of 50,000 words. In other words, the failure rate for this first crucial step is about 80%.
This is almost certainly an underestimate, because NaNoWriMo participants are more likely to actually write something than the average dreamer.
Of course, writing a novel is just the first step of many toward publication. It’s fair to say that there’s a similar rate of attrition between finishing a novel and landing a book deal with a traditional publisher. I’m fortunate to have watched many of my close writing friends reach that coveted milestone. The factors underlying success in this regard are numerous, and many of them are beyond the author’s control. And yet, there are two things that many writers who break in seem to have in common:
- Perseverance. They kept writing, revising, and submitting even in the face of constant rejection. Rare is the author who gets to debut with the first novel they wrote.
- Knowing the industry. This is an important but often-overlooked character trait of most successful writers. They actively study, discuss, and demonstrate at least basic knowledge of the publishing industry.
In the Query: Show, Don’t Tell What You Know
Most querying writers are somewhat new to the industry. They’re not expected to possess an intimate knowledge of publishing’s inner workings. At the same time, there are some basic things that you should know when you’re querying an agent, and there are specific ways you can demonstrate your knowledge during the query process. As with many things, this is best done by showing, not telling. In other words, when an agent reads your query, he or she should get the impression that you understand:
- How to structure a query letter. The formula has remained more or less the same for decades. I learned the basics from Anne Mini’s Query Letters 101, but there are countless similar resources out there. Learn the formula, follow the formula. It’s that simple.
- What the querying/submission instructions are. Look them up, verify them, and follow them exactly. If an agent wants a query plus five pages, send a query plus five pages. If they want chapter one, send chapter one. When you follow the instructions precisely, you show two things: that you bothered to look them up in the first place, and that you can follow directions. These things matter.
- The agent’s name and what he/she represents. You show this by properly addressing the letter to the agent by name, and by sending them the type of work they represent. For bonus points, pay a compliment by calling out something they recently sold. If I were querying my agent Paul Stevens, I might use the phrase, “Since you so ably represented Kel Kade’s FATE OF THE FALLEN…”
- Age categories and book genres, specifically, the ones that apply to your book. You show so, so many of your cards when you describe the book for which you are seeking representation in terms of its age category, genre, and word count. The age category is probably one of the following: middle grade, young adult, new adult, or adult. It can be qualified (e.g. “upper middle grade”) but it cannot encompass two age categories. For genres, it needs to be an actual genre. As in, something that describes a section of a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Using a broad genre is okay. If you wrote a dark second-world RPG-inspired epic fantasy, the correct genre is fantasy.
- Realistic word counts for your book’s category. Your query letter will contain one very important number: the number of words in the manuscript. That number should fall within the acceptable range for your book’s declared age category and word count. If your manuscript is outside the acceptable word count, you should not be querying the manuscript. It always killed me, when I was a Pitch Wars mentor, to have people submit adult SFF books that were 190,000 words (twice the expected word count). Or 42,000 words (half the expected word count). Please do yourself a favor and show that you understand industry requirements by querying a book with an appropriate word count.
A good query letter that checks all of these boxes (or if you’re British, ticks all of these boxes) demonstrates to an agent that you’ve done your homework and learned the basics of the industry.
Where to Learn the Industry Stuff
There are many, many resources online to help the vast swaths of querying writers learn these things. AgentQuery and QueryTracker are good places to start (yes, QT really is a dot net URL; they do still exist): they provide how-to articles as well as databases of literary agents. If you’re feeling brave about your query, I’d also suggest Query Shark, a wonderful resource in which an agent critiques (voluntarily submitted queries), pointing out what works, what doesn’t work, and how to revise.
To understand some of the nuances of the query process and how best to approach literary agents, may I suggest some agent blogs? Some of my favorites are:
- Janet Reid, Literary Agent
- Books & Such Literary Management
- Babbles from Scott Eagan
- All Things Books with Katelyn Uplinger
You can also learn about agents and querying on the blogs of established authors. Chuck Wendig wrote a gem entitled 25 things authors should know about agents, with plenty of wisdom and the usual Wendig flair.
Knowledge is (Author) Power
I am not a literary agent, nor do I speak for them. I could be completely off base about whether these things matter. Even so, I believe knowledge is power in this industry just as any other. It can’t hurt to stack the odds a little bit in your favor.
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