...if the writer has the energy, determination and persistence to develop more stories, and is open to learning and perfecting his or her craft, then s/he can offer another story, and maybe get a second date, and a third, and perhaps become a couple. How great is that?Read More
It is time to shake off the writing routine of the last year, and turn to marketing. Storytelling to Storyselling
The discipline, focus, and skills that were so essential while writing the novel must now make way for business demands and professional responsibilities. Characters that have been present in every waking thought for so long now have competition for my attention. And so it is with sharpened senses; heightened awareness of current events, business trends, cultural tremors; and unflinching focus on the mission that I turn my attention to the all-important query.
A good query letter is a blend of copywriting, letter writing, business writing, and the finest creative brief writing, all balanced for clarity and purpose. A great query letter rises above to the level of message that ignites the imagination. This hybrid of writing craft and style is an Everest of a challenge. It must inform, establish credibility, entertain, and entice. The craft part can be fun. It is energizing to chisel away at the non-essential content in my drafts, like Michelangelo did with his block of Carrara marble 500 years ago until David stood naked in the piazza, as if he’d only been waiting for release from the stone. The art exists inside the clutter, and each bit of unnecessary verbiage that is cut away sharpens focus.
The first draft usually has a kernel of the desired power in it. There is a sense of the story's marketing potential, yet this aspect requires different intellectual tools and skills that often feel foreign to the author who has for the past year been so immersed in research, experimentation, and passionate story-weaving. My letter may have have excellence within in it, yet seen from this new perspective, more work is needed to separate the wheat from the non-essential chaff.
My approach is to aim for three paragraphs:
Hook - the unique value proposition my book offers expressed in a succinct and engaging statement that captures the big idea in a way that resonates immediately;
Core elements - my book described in three talking points; and
Credits - a relevant professional credential to reinforce the confidence instilled in the preceding two paragraphs.
The goal is to spare the reader any of the process of the book’s creation. It should be lean and purposeful, a clarion call to the reader to engage in the book.
No one knows the winning formula for the perfect query letter. Like any relationship, the successful query is a happy mystery. A convergence of desire, hope, stagecraft, sincerity, belief, facts, fiction, charm, shared aspiration, willing suspension of disbelief, drama, humor, strength, vulnerability, intellect, nerve, sensory awareness, risk, hunger, selflessness, selfishness, and luck. It is ethereal and elemental. Ephemera and permanence. The editor dearly wants to be surprised and yet, to open themselves to surprise, first they must trust. If the letter arrived in a quality paper envelope, the address legible, the letter intact, and the single page inside emerges into the rarefied light of their office not too dense with gray type, you have metaphorically caught your correspondent’s eye and made it across the miles to stand before them.
Who are you?
If this is my initial contact, I go for an arresting statement of fact that captures the essence of the book. If this is my response to their request for an outline or sample chapters, I remind him/her that I am responding to his/her request. Next, a spark of light on my credits. Something about why he/she can trust my work.
Then, that lean, mean, irresistible pitch in an understated, to-the-heart-of-it flow about secrets this book reveals, and where it takes the adventurous reader.
If I feel up to risking my reader’s patience with an extra paragraph, I’ll explain how my proposed book stands apart. I’m on thin ice here, but if I have the right stuff – a reference to one of his/her client’s works to which my work has a meaningful connection, for example – I may attract enough interest to inspire a second reading, and a sense of me that resonates a day or two later.
Finally, a simple and sincere request to send them a few sample chapters. Perhaps the entire manuscript? (This alerts the reader that the manuscript is complete.) Thank you, (editor’s name HERE). I look forward to hearing from you.
Sincerely yours, (judge for yourself whether sincerely is on pitch). Have you established an authentic connection for which sincerely is appropriate and reinforcing? If so, then sign off sincerely. If not, leave well enough alone and end with Thank You.
Close the Deal
Anyone who has dealt with an agent, a publisher, or a producer knows that negotiation is part of what makes the writing life possible. As organizing principles go, this is pretty straightforward. While we have plenty to think about in negotiating representation, publication, and (hopefully) production, one goal should remain clearly in focus: close the deal.
Remember a Few Key Points
Robin Davis Miller, General Counsel of The Authors Guild, offered some advice on contracts and the negotiation process at a seminar in Los Angeles. I have benefitted from her counsel. I hope you benefit, too. Here are a few notes:
- Publishing is a moving target. Change is constant.
- NEVER accept assurances for marketing of your book on the website or anywhere else. Get it in the contract.
- Avoid the OPTION Clause. Agents tend to leave it in because it ensures their commission even if you leave your agent and place the book yourself.
- As the author, you deserve to know the publisher's printing and circulation figures. Publishers don't release this information easily. They fight it. Remember - by the time they make an offer, they know precisely how many copies of your book they will print.
- Research your agent's and publisher's reputation for using sub-rights. Has the publisher executed for others? Has your agent executed for other clients?
- Time is your ally. The more time that an agent or editor or publisher invests in you and your work, the more reluctant they are to let you go.
- Books are a business. Think and speak from a business point of view.
- Insert an out of print clause anywhere the publisher attempts to punish the author for underperforming sales.
- Always insist on receiving a statement. Have them e-mail it if they are reluctant to invest in postage. How else are you to know they are doing their job?
Ernest Bevin (1881-1951), British politician and statesmen, offered:
The first thing to decide before you walk into any negotiation is what to do if the other fellow says no.