Update on My Novels, and How to Write a Query Letter

Hello everyone,

Many of you know that I’ve written two novels, both historical fiction. One is about the decline and fall of the Inca Empire, told from their own perspective, and the second is about the Zulu Kingdom in the latter half of the 19th Century. For almost two years I have had a literary agent representing me, but in the end it didn’t amount to much: I have a number of lovely personalized rejection letters for my Inca book, but no book deal.

I rewrote my earlier Zulu book, pretty much line by line, but when I recently gave my agent the manuscript to try and sell in addition to the Inca novel, he admitted he just couldn’t get my work published: His clientele is predominately non-fiction –as is most of the publishing industry– and while he was trying to expand his still young practice into fiction through my work, in the end the combination of the poor economic climate in the publishing industry and his own lack of contacts hampered our ability to get my manuscripts into print.

I am not discouraged. Honestly, this is probably the kick in the pants I need to get my work into the right hands to move it forward. It’s true, I would have preferred to give my former agent more time to see what he could do with two very long and difficult to publish first novels instead of one, but I can see where he had run out of steam. He wasn’t ever going to make any commission from my work, so he let me go. That’s fine.

If I am to move on to greener pastures, this time I’m going to make sure my new agent deals predominately with fiction and has a special passion for historical works. I’m happy to say as of my writing this blog post that my Inca book is already under consideration by an agency representing my favourite living novelist. I’ll be sure to update you all as to how that progresses.

So how does one find an agent? Why do you even need an agent? I’m asked that a lot, and as I’m going through the process again right now, I thought I might as well blog about it.

First I should say no one needs an agent to get published, but it makes it a lot easier, especially with fiction. An agent knows the industry, and you do not. An agent can open doors, where all you have are walls.

If you submit directly to a publishing house, your work goes into what is called the slush pile, and the most junior member of the house’s editorial team –often an unpaid intern– wades through that pile from time to time.

The slush pile is unsorted. The slush pile has everything from the ten-year-old’s first story, to the anarchist’s manifesto written under a bare bulb, to the rabid Twilight groupie’s fan fiction, to a potential Pulitzer Prize winner in it. There will be stuff in there printed on pink stationary with glitter on it. There will be stuff in there with unbent staples, ready to tear open an unsuspecting finger. There will be stuff in there written by hand. The slush pile is the unsolicited, the unrequested, the unwanted, and sorting through it is a thankless, thankless task that is only done at all because once in a very rare while there’s genius in it, submitted by someone who didn’t know any better.

Let’s say you are that one in ten million diamond in the rough: If the lowly intern does find your work and is blown away by it, he or she still needs to turn around and sell it to their superiors. An intern who is any good at this does not stay an intern very long. So now yours is an unsolicited manuscript among thousands that have no business ever being read, waiting to be discovered by an individual of rare vision who is yet to escape the bottom rung of the ladder… I’m not saying it never happens, but you have stacked the odds astronomically against yourself unnecessarily. In the meantime, let’s say your work is reviewed, but you catch those lowly interns in a foul mood, or it doesn’t particularly speak to them on an individual level, or they don’t recognize it for what it’s worth: Now you’ve got a rejection letter from the publishing house, and you can never submit your manuscript to them again.

There is a much, much easier way: Get an agent.

Once an agent agrees to represent you, there is no slush pile in your manuscript’s future. Your agent gets in touch with acquisitions editors at publishing houses –people they already know, who they’ve usually worked with before, and who want what you have done– and they say, “This is right up your alley. Give it a shot!” They vouch for you, and your work goes to the decision maker, as easy as that. Publishing houses use agents to vet their submissions so they don’t have to rely on the slush pile. It’s just the way the industry works.

Let me address for a moment some of the hesitations people have about agents: You don’t pay them one red cent. An agent who charges a reading fee is not an agent. They make one hundred percent of their money out of a percentage –somewhere between ten and twenty percent– of what they get you in payment for your work. They might have a policy about billing you for photocopies or postage accrued in the pursuit of selling your book, but by and large that’s just going to be added to what they eventually make from you.

As I said up at the top of this article, I had an agent for two years. I didn’t give him one penny, even after he terminated our business relationship. I cost him his time and paper and postage, because he couldn’t sell my work. He never cost me. As for the justice in their ten or fifteen or twenty percent (and usually that’s a sliding scale based on whether they’re selling domestically or internationally, print or audio or film), if you didn’t have the agent you’d be in the slush pile, so 100% of zero is not better than 85% of an advance, plus quarterly royalty cheques. They earn their money. Don’t begrudge it to them.

Another thing I hear from time to time is the fear that an agent might ‘steal’ your book. Think that through for a minute: How on earth could they do that? You have all your notes. You have all your drafts. You have friends and loved ones who have been hearing about your book since it was a blank page. No one could ever keep any money they made from running off with your manuscript. For an agent to steal your book it would have to be worth more to them than their livelihood, and the published book would have to make so little impact in the zeitgeist that it never came to your attention for you to pursue a lawsuit. No agent is going to steal your work and leave themselves open to ruin. They’re just going to be jubilant at the opportunity to represent such a wonder, that they then use in seeking out still more business. Your work is safe in their hands. That’s the whole point.

So, those fears aside, how do you get an agent? Isn’t that just submitting to a slush pile at a literary agency, instead of at a publishing house?

No. Agents don’t take unsolicited manuscripts. They return them unread, or, if you didn’t include postage for that to happen, they throw them out. You apply to a literary agent with a one-page, five-paragraph query letter. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but there is a tried and true formula, and if you follow the rules, you’re already outperforming the vast majority of your competition.

If you are actively researching how to write a query letter elsewhere, there is one rule you’re going to see fairly often: Submit by mail. That’s the one rule I’m going to encourage you to break. Books about publishing tend to take the old world view of the industry. The Information Age is upon us, and an agent who isn’t willing to deal with a one-page query letter by email is not forward thinking enough to represent you. Just take my word for it. I’ve tried both in my time, and the waiting for a self-addressed stamped envelope to make the trip to New York and back to your door with a rejection letter is much, much more aggravating than sending an email. Most of the industry has switched, and those who haven’t were agents before you were born, and already have a full clientele. If they can’t deal with email, then you shouldn’t deal with them.

Still, we’re not talking about writing a query letter that prompts a rejection –snail mail or email. What’s involved in writing a query letter that actually gets a positive response? You have to follow a fairly rigid format, but if you do, you’re actually presenting the agent with everything they need to make an informed decision quickly, and they appreciate that a great deal. I’m sure perfectly good ideas for books are rejected all the time because someone didn’t sit down and compose a query letter the right way. Why would you want to be that kind of author? You need to present yourself as a desirable potential client, and that starts by showing you can follow a few simple instructions.

The Query Letter

You start off with your contact information: If your agent wants to get a hold of you by post, phone, or mail, you should give all that information at the top of your query letter. Make it easy for them.

Next, you need to have a salutation that includes the agent’s name: You can’t say ‘Dear agent’ even though most agents say ‘Dear author’ in their form rejection letters. In this, they hold the cards. If you can’t do the minimum research necessary to pick one individual representative from a given literary agency, how serious are you about being published?

Following that is one simple sentence: I am seeking representation for my novel entitled such and such, complete at a length of X number of words. This provides your potential agent with a wealth of information: You aren’t asking questions; you are seeking his or her services. It has a title that presumably does not make them stop reading your letter. Your book is finished, and ready to be marketed. These are all key points in fiction (non-fiction query letters, to my understanding, do not require a book to be finished).

As to obtaining your word count, the rule of thumb is that you take the number of characters in your work –including spaces– and divide by seven. This is actually a fairly hazy notion, as it harkens back to the days when manuscripts were written on typewriters: Once upon a time you were supposed to take the average number of characters on a line of a given page, divide by seven, then multiply that number by the number of pages in your manuscript.

Today computers can give you an exact number, but that’s superfluous information. All the agent wants to know at this point is the general length of the book. Anything over 150,000 words is considered ‘too long’ for a first novel, but nothing is a deal breaker: Historical fiction tends to run long, and I could quote you a number of authors who had a long first novel. It just makes the road more difficult, and you want to give them that heads up now, rather than surprise them later. Both of my novels pass that arbitrary threshold by a healthy margin, and there’s no sense belabouring the point. For the purposes of my query letter as long as my number is more than 150,000 words, they know what they’re asking for if they want to see the whole thing.

Your next paragraph is the key one: Intrigue the agent. Give them the why of it. Why would anyone want to write the book you have written? Why would anyone want to read that? Why would anyone want to publish it? Why would anyone want to represent you? Why is the person receiving your query letter going to finish scanning the single page you’ve sent them? If you can’t put a hook in this paragraph, you need to stop calling yourself a writer. A nice trick is to include a well-known book you have sought to emulate in some fashion. Your agent plans to sell your work: Show him a good example of how that has already happened.

The next paragraph is the only one where you talk about the plot of the book. The whole thing needs to be in that paragraph, and you need to make that paragraph something very close to the blurb inside the flyleaf, or on the back of a paperback. That’s the bit that tells your character and your story in a way that leaves the reader wanting to turn to page one. Again, if you can’t do that, you’re just going to have to try harder. One paragraph is all you get, so make it count.

The paragraph after that is why you are the person to write this book. Think of an agent as having a collection of writers, each a remarkable individual, well-suited to their work: Why should you be added to their collection? What makes you someone worthy of being represented? If you have any publishing credentials –even a school paper– it’s time to trot those out. If you have any education or life experience relative to what you’ve written, this is your time to declare that. You’ve sold your idea. You’ve sold your plot. Self yourself. This is no time for modesty.

The last paragraph is the one where you are all kinds of helpful, but you let them know they aren’t the only fish in the sea. The query letter phase could take a life time if you wait to hear back each time, one at a time. Many agents don’t even respond if they are rejecting you! Agents assume you’re submitting to multiple representatives at a time. Say so. Then you put in the promise: If you ask for my stuff, you’ll get it, and no one else will get anything from me until you make your decision. I can send you the whole thing, or any portion of it, or a synopsis while you deliberate. Be helpful, and courteous, and let them know they have to express their interest at once or risk losing you to a competitor. At this point they’ve already decided you’re a commodity worth examining: Let them know there’s a time factor.

After that, just a polite sign off, and you’ve done all you can.

My Query Letter

Here’s the letter I’m using to seek representation for my Inca novel. I might personalize the first or last paragraph to reflect any peculiar submission guidelines of the agent, or mention one of their clients who I admire, but this is the template:

Geoff Micks
My mailing address
My phone number, my email address

Dear (Agent’s name),

I am seeking representation for my novel, Inca, finished at 160,000 words.

How much do you know about the Inca? I’m confident you have heard of them, but a sad truth is that most people can’t do much better than mention them in the same breath as the Aztecs and the Maya. In just three generations the Inca built an empire three thousand miles long and five hundred wide across the second highest mountain range in the world. Within forty years of their zenith rebellions, plague, political purges, a civil war, and finally the arrival of the Spaniards left so few of the Inca nobility alive that very little unbiased and coherent information was ever told to their conquerors. While working my way through the conflicting histories I found myself wishing that someone had written about the Inca’s long fall from their own perspective, as Gary Jennings did in his masterpiece Aztec. After a great deal of research I have written the book I wanted to read.

Inca is the life story of Haylli Yupanki, a man who served three generations of emperors and watched his whole world shatter and shatter again, leaving nothing behind but his memories and his pride. Hiding in the jungle with the last free Inca, Haylli transcribes his memoirs from quipus –the Inca’s writing system of knotted string– into Spanish with the help of a captured priest. Beginning with a childhood of privilege and a youth spent as a fugitive from Imperial justice, through a successful career as the Inca’s most powerful bureaucrat, to an old age spent in the ruin of his life’s work, Haylli was present at all the important moments of his people. Through his words he hopes their story will be remembered.

I am a graduate of the journalism programs of both Centennial College and the University of Toronto with a double minor in History and Classical Studies. I have almost a decade’s experience as a contributor, editor, and sometimes a founder of more than two dozen publications, including the National Post, The Woolwich Observer, and the Toronto Community News collection of community newspapers. I’m a young man with one book ready for your consideration and another about the Zulu complete but still undergoing minor revisions. I need an agent who loves historical fiction, and I imagine you are looking for writers with some ambition and fruitful years ahead of them. I invite you to see if my work is to your satisfaction.

I have sent out multiple submissions, but I promise that should you request a manuscript, sample chapters, or a synopsis I shall only deal with you until you have made your decision.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you,

–Geoff Micks

You see? Not so tough. I have an agent looking at the first fifty pages of my Inca manuscript right now. Within a week or so he’ll either ask for the rest, or he’ll pass. By then there will be a queue of agents asking to see some of my work. I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again. Maybe this isn’t how publishing will work ten years from now when e-publishing changes books the way iTunes has changed music, but this is how it works right now if you plan to get paid for what you do. You write the book first, and that’s a whole other essay. Then you write the query letter. Then you get the agent, and then it’s the agent’s job to get the publisher.

I’ll keep you all updated as to how things develop. Cheers!

ADDITION (Oct 30th, 2010): I have just received a lovely personalized rejection letter from a literary agent. You can find it here.

2 Responses to Update on My Novels, and How to Write a Query Letter

  1. […] I mentioned in my earlier post, my quest to replace my last literary agent continues. I just received another lovely personalized […]

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