Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My Successful Query Letter for DON'T EVER GET OLD

As long as I'm sharing writing and publishing advice, I thought I'd show off my successful query letter for DON'T EVER GET OLD.  I sent this out as unsolicited slush, and that's how I found my literary agent, Victoria Skurnick at Levine Greenberg:

Ninety year-old Baruch “Buck” Schatz remembers a time when the only “portable handheld device” anybody needed was a .357, “Google” was the sound a guy made when you punched him in the throat, and “social networking functionality” came out of a bottle.

These days, though, this retired detective is extremely frail and frequently confused.  But when he learns the SS officer who tortured him in a POW camp may have escaped Germany with a fortune in stolen gold, Buck decides to hunt down the fugitive and claim the loot.  He’s got nothing better to do, and keeping his mind occupied is supposed to ward off dementia.

Assisted by his grandson, a law student who knows how to find information using a computer and is allowed to drive at night, Buck finds a lead down the Nazi’s long-cold trail.  But lots of people want a piece of that treasure, and Buck’s investigation quickly attracts unfriendly attention from a Mississippi loan shark, a seven-foot tall Hasidic Jew, a preacher on the take, a cop with a grudge and a bloodthirsty maniac hell-bent on rubbing out everybody who knows anything about Nazi gold.

“Don’t Ever Get Old” is a 76,000 word mystery/thriller about a hard-boiled man in a world gone soft, confronting the existential reality of his inevitable decline and death while trying to get rich quick.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Query Advice: Everyone Gets Rejections, But Not Just Rejections

Stephenie Meyer really didn't have a hard time getting published
It's true that all writers who cold-query literary agents get rejections, and lots of them.  Most literary agents get between 5,000 and 10,000 queries per year, and requesting even one manuscript per week is a huge time commitment.  They have to cull the slush and make very fast decisions about most of those letters.  If you're interested in seeing the process that goes into the decision to request or reject queries, literary agent Kevan Lyon live-tweets her slush-reading sometimes.

Agents may reject a query based on a subjective disinterest in the concept, or because it competes too closely with an existing client's manuscript, or because they only have time to take on one new client, and they're looking for something very specific.  But mostly, they reject queries because the pitches and the pages that accompany them aren't good enough.

Successful authors seem to like to tell stories about their rejections, either to shoehorn their paths to publication into some narrative about overcoming hardship, or to commiserate with aspiring writers who are struggling to get agents' attention. There are legends, repeated constantly at writers' conferences, of bestselling authors who got dozens or hundreds of rejections before breaking through to spectacular success.  

A lot of stories make it sound like successful authors got their agents by accident, like when Nicholas Sparks signed with an agent who fished his query out of a dead person's mail.  But Sparks also spent weeks perfecting his letter, and, as a result, signed with an agent on his first batch of 25 letters, despite sending out letters "at random," rather than targeting agents who represented his genre. 

Similarly, when I attended Thrillerfest last month, three different writers told me about how Stephenie Meyer only got representation for TWILIGHT because an assistant who should have auto-rejected the manuscript for its overlong word-count decided to pass it along to her boss.  People who tell this story tend to omit the fact that Meyer got her agent in her first batch of 15 query letters, and she got a $750,000 deal so fast that some of those 15 agents were still responding to her query after she had already sold her book.

Based on such tales of perseverance, many aspiring authors premise their submission strategy on the assumption that queries fail until they succeed, and that the next agent they query could always be the one who will take on their book. But this isn't quite true; while everybody gets rejections at every point in the process, successful submissions don't get ONLY rejections.  The best queries tend to get a significant percentage of positive responses almost immediately.  Similarly, a query that's getting no requests probably needs to be rewritten.

Despite the huge volume of slush and the very brief consideration any individual query gets, the best letters really tend to stand out.  Most authors I know who have ultimately secured representation got requests for partial or full manuscripts from at least 20% of the agents they queried, which is an amazing degree of consensus when you consider that agents reject about 99.5% of queries.  If an author tells you that 25 agents form-rejected her query, she may be omitting the fact that she also had ten full requests and three offers of representation.  

I think this is an encouraging fact, because it means the query process is something you can control. It may seem like your letter is a single piece of paper in a vast sea of submissions, each with only one chance in 250 of getting an agent's attention, but it's actually more like 210 queries with zero chance of ever getting requested by anyone, 25 queries with a slim chance some agent might take a look, and maybe 15 queries that will get requests a significant percentage of the time.  All the agents will be requesting from among the same handful of manuscripts. Although any given agent is likely to reject 12 out of the 15, the authors will be querying dozens of agents, so multiple agents will be reading each of these books.

It's not a lottery; agents really read the queries you send them.  If your letter is the best one an agent reads in a given week, there's a pretty high chance the agent will request your manuscript. 

If you delve into the query-tracking threads on forums like AbsoluteWrite, you'll see that this is how it plays out: a few people will have 8 or 9 full-manuscript requests from 30 queries, a couple of people will be pinning their hopes on one partial request, and everybody else will have nothing but rejections.

Of course, that means the people everybody's jealous of also have a pile of rejections, so when established authors talk about the agents that turned them down, many aspiring authors take away the wrong message.  You aren't looking for one "yes" in a sea of rejections; you're looking for a positive consensus among a substantial proportion of the agents reading your submission.

Most agents will only consider a query from you once per novel, so it is a mistake to continue to exhaust all your leads hoping for a different outcome when your previous feedback has been unanimously negative.

If you send out ten queries with your first five pages to ten agents you think represent books in your genre, and you get zero requests, you shouldn't respond to that by sending out more identical queries.  You should go back and work some more on your letter and your pages (and possibly your entire manuscript) before you send it out to more agents. Query in small batches, and keep working on refining the letter if you aren't getting the responses you want.  AbsoluteWrite and other message boards have spaces devoted to query critiques, and you should use those.

Perseverance is an important quality for writers, but the way you persevere is by writing enough to develop the skill-set that will produce the best manuscript in an agent's slushpile.  If you fail, read more good books, write more, and produce new work you're even more proud of.   

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why Authors Sign With Commercial Publishers

We've been hearing a lot of narratives over the last few years about self-published bestsellers, but it remains true that almost everyone who has the option to publish with a commercial publisher chooses to do so.

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner had a post a while back about why authors still want deals with trade publishers.  I'm going to point out a few other things that come with traditional publishing that are unavailable to self-published authors, and which translate into real benefits:

1. (Perceived) Legitimacy

A lot of authors say they want to publish commercially because they want "validation" from a trade publisher.  This may sound like a vanity concern, but reviewers and readers also perceive a validity inherent to trade-published books that is not automatically assumed of self-publishers.

All writers think they're talented, and that their books are good.  Most of them are wrong.  Readers want to see some endorsement of a book's quality other than the author's high opinion of himself. When a publishing house puts a book out, there's an expectation that it will at least meet a certain standard of competence.

There's nobody standing behind a self-published book except the author.  For new self-published authors, it can be very difficult to get anyone else to look at the book, even if it's actually good.  Many readers -- perhaps most -- won't read self-published books at all.  Many online reader forums, including Amazon's customer discussions, have made rules excluding authors from participating in forum threads because readers don't want to interact with self-published authors or have their discussions spammed with self-promotion.

In 2011, Bowker counted 211,000 new ISBN numbers for self-published books.  That's a huge number of people competing for readers' attention.  Even bloggers and reader-reviewer communities who are dedicated to spreading the word about self-published books can't possibly sift all that slush.

The solution to this problem has been for self-published authors to give away a ton of e-books.  The hope is that, by giving away 5000 downloads, maybe a couple of hundred people will actually read the book and five or ten will review it on Amazon or on their blogs, or recommend it to friends.  But with so many authors giving away books, even the audience for free e-books is swamped.

All the things that might have helped a book stand out eighteen months ago, like buying professionally designed covers, running large-scale giveaways, and pursuing pricing strategies to manage Amazon's internal recommendation system are becoming standard practice across a much larger chunk of the market, so it's getting harder for self-published authors to gain traction.

A survey of self-published authors by Taleist found that the median self-published author earns $500 per year.  In fact, that number is probably high; the survey uses self-reported data, so unsuccessful authors may have lied about their sales or may have been less likely to respond to the survey.  And since Taleist found self-published romance authors make twice as much as other self-published authors, if you're writing in any other genre, your results will probably be even worse.

If the median self-published author pays a freelance editor for copy-editing and hires a freelance jacket designer, the cost of these services will likely exceed the royalties from the author's book.

2.  Trade Reviews

There are four major trade publications that review books ahead of their release: Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal.  Each of these magazines reviews about 7500 trade-published books a year, so if your novel is published by a big publisher, there's a good chance you'll be reviewed by a trade.  If your novel is published in hardcover by a Big-6 house, you're likely to be reviewed by all of them.

For traditionally published books, these reviews are free if your publisher sends galleys for the trades to review.  But the booksellers and librarians who subscribe to the trades don't stock self-published books and aren't interested in reading about them.  The freelance critics who review galleys for the trades don't especially want to read self-published books.  The only people who want to see self-published books reviewed in trades are the authors, and that means self-published authors have to pay the trades to review their books.

If your book is self-published, you can pay a fee for a listing in Publishers' Weekly's quarterly supplement about self-pubbed titles.  They also select some titles for review, but buying a listing does not guarantee a review.  Kirkus charges a significant fee to review self-published books, and they post these reviews in a segregated part of the Kirkus website.  Kirkus calls prides itself on employing "the world's toughest book critics;" so even if you pay them, they may not say nice things about you.  If you don't like your review, Kirkus won't post it, but they'll keep your money.  Booklist and Library Journal do not review self-published books.

A positive review from a trade gives you a good pull-quote to use for promotional purposes, and earns you notice from booksellers in librarians.  Fewer than 10% of the books reviewed by any given trade will earn a starred review.  DON'T EVER GET OLD was starred by all four trades, which is very rare, and really jump-started my sales.

3. Libraries

Libraries are a major revenue stream for the publishing industry and for trade-published authors, and they're almost entirely inaccessible for self-published authors.

There are 9200 public library systems in the US and nearly 17,000 library facilities.  They buy a lot of books.  Many hardcover releases from Big-6 publishers sell thousands of copies into libraries.  To put this in perspective: if you sell about 20 self-published e-books a day, you'll maintain a Kindle store rank of around 5,000, which is very good.  That moves about 600 copies a month, so it takes you 5 months at that rank to sell 3000 copies.  If only 1 out of every 5 library branches buys just a single copy of a traditionally published author's book, he's matched your 5 months of Amazon self-published success before he sells his first retail hardcover or e-book.

DON'T EVER GET OLD sold very well into libraries, likely on the strength of the starred trade reviews.  Librarians have also been very enthusiastic promoters of the book to their readers and on their blogs.

4. Foreign/Subsidiary Rights

Some self-published authors have secured foreign rights sales, but it's uncommon, and your self-published sales have to be extremely strong to generate international interest.

Translation and other rights are often very lucrative for traditionally published authors. DON'T EVER GET OLD has sold Portuguese, Japanese and French translation rights, as well as large print, audio and film rights.

5. Events/Speaking Engagements

There are literary festivals all around the country, and a number of famous and bestselling authors spend a lot of time traveling among them.  These trips offer great opportunities to attract new readers, and the costs are often partly defrayed by event organizers or publishers.

I've been invited to the Decatur Book Festival outside Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, and the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in October.

While some of these events do include self-published authors, the indies are often put in a separate tent or have their readings scheduled on a separate stage, and they may have to pay the festival for space to exhibit their books.