Query Letters: The Hook, the Book & the Cook

A query letter should be like a skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to keep it interesting.

–Anon.

Agent Katharine Sands believes that the writing you do about your writing is as important as the writing itself. A query is a one-page letter, single-spaced, with a space between three or four indented paragraphs, and without sounding self-serving–it describes the why, what, and who: the hook, the book, and the cook:

  • The hook: whatever will best justify publishing your book

            * (Optional) a selling quote about your book (or a previous book) from someone whose name will give it credibility and/or salability. The quote could also be about you.

            * (Optional) the reason you’re writing the agent:

                        –the name of someone who suggested you contact the agent

                        –the book in which the author thanked the agent for selling that inspired you to write the letter

                        –where you heard the agent speak

                        –where you will hear the agent speak and hope to have the chance to discuss your book

            * Whatever will most excite agents about your book:

                        –the opening paragraph

                        –the most compelling fact or idea about your subject

                        –a statistic about the interest of people or the media in the subject or the number of potential readers

  • The book: the essence of your book:

            * A sentence with the title and the selling handle for the book, up to fifteen words that will convince booksellers to stock it. The models for it: one or two books, movies, or authors. “It’s Harry Potter meets Twilight.”

            * A one-sentence overview of your book, and if appropriate, what it will do for your readers

            * The book’s biggest market(s)

            * Its actual or estimated length

            * The length of your proposal and how many more pages of manuscript you have ready to send

            * (Optional) The names of people who have agreed to give a forward and cover quotes, if they’re impressive

            * (Optional) A link to illustrations, if they’re important

            * (Optional) Include the subjects or titles of the next two books, if you’re proposing a series

            * (Optional) Information about a self-published edition that will help sell it

  • The cook: Why you’re the right person to write the book

            * Your promotion plan: the four or five most effective things you will do to promote your book online and off, with numbers if they’re impressive

            * Your platform: the most important things you have done and are doing to give yourself continuing visibility with potential readers, with numbers if they’re impressive: your online activities, published work with links to it, and media and speaking experience with links to audio and video

            * (Optional) Your credentials; experience in your field; or years of research; prizes, contests, and awards in your field

Include anything else that will convince agents to ask to see your proposal.

A fothcoming post will tell you how to speed up the query process.

 The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Writing to Make a Difference / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Million-copy selling authors Dan Millman (Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)

Memoirists: Are You Fiction or Nonfiction?

William Hamilton once did a cartoon showing an aspiring young woman writer asking a balding, mustachioed literary type: “Are you fiction or nonfiction?”

If you’re writing a memoir (a me-moir to the cynical)  you may wonder whether it would be better as a novel. What reasons might there be for making that decision?

Legal Reasons

Publishers are extremely wary about anything that might cause litigation. If you’re going to include unflattering things about living people, they may sue. You can disguise them, but if you’re living in a small town or people will know who you’re referring to anyway, that won’t help.

Personal Reasons

Fictionalizing your past may make it easier to write about. A memoir is constrained by the truth. Writing fiction liberates you to alter your experience as you wish.

Literary Reasons

What are your literary goals in writing the book? If you want to create a legacy for your friends and family, writing a memoir makes more sense. Nonfiction is easier to write because you’re drawing on your experiences and facts you can verify.

But writing fiction liberates you to create whatever combination of character, plot, and setting will have the most impact on readers. And a memoir should read like a novel. Frank McCourt’s bestseller, Angela’s Ashes, which ignited the interest in memoirs, certainly does. You could call it a novel without changing a word. The dialogues he had as a child with his family capture the emotional truth if not the factual truth of what was said.

Like a novel, a memoir has to describe places, characters, and situations so readers will want to keep reading about them. The book needs a story arc that traces your transformation from who you are at the beginning of the book to the person you become after being changed by your experiences. Many novels, especially first novels, are autobiographical, and all novels make use of the author’s experience filtered by the imagination and the needs of the story.

Commercial Reasons

What are your financial goals for your memoir? Will it be more salable as a novel? Will it be more promotable? Will it have more film and foreign rights potential? Will have more potential for follow-up books?

My partner, Elizabeth Pomada, spent quite a while trying to sell Pam Chun’s biography of her great grandfather, The Money Dragon. Finally, we suggested Pam call it a novel, and the first publisher to see it published it complete with photos and trial transcripts. It became a prizewinning bestseller in Hawaii, where it’s set.

I hope these considerations help you answer the question of whether to fictionalize your memoir. Everyone has a story to tell, and I encourage you to tell yours. First get it down on paper in the most effective, enjoyable way you can, and get feedback from a fiction or memoir critique group as you write. Then, if you still can’t decide whether to fictionalize it, let your community of readers help you figure out how best to offer your story to the world. If your writing has enough humor, drama, insight, or inspiration, it will find its audience.

Take heart. The hardest part of many memoirs is surviving the research!

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Changing the World One Book at a Time / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Dan Millman (Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)

Publishing Goes to the Movies: Part 2

I’m not in the this business to make art; I’m in it to make money to buy art.

–Producer Joel Silver

More similarities between publishing and its West-Coast cousin, the movie business:

  • They have a star system that caters to those who generate the most business. Hollywood suffers from “sequelitis.” It needs brand names, either “bankable” actors or the titles of series, billion-dollar “franchises” like science fiction epics that begin with the word Star or include the name Harry Potter. You know when the stars in publishing’s firmament have a new  book, because their names pop up on bestsellers lists. The most visible celestial body? James Patterson, who, with the help of coauthors, had nine books out and made $70 million last year. His publisher has earned the right to change its name to Big Brown.
  • They want big openings. Although the first weekend’s income from a movie rarely determines how much it will ultimately contribute to the bottom line, a big opening weekend is a good portent. Books can also start slowly and become bestsellers, but the explosion of sales when books by stars are published catapults them onto bestseller lists.
  • Publishers and movie studios make editors and producers who generate enough profits intrepreneurs, in-house entrepreneurs. Studios support producers while they develop projects for them to distribute. Publishers give editors their own imprints so they can publish what they want and benefit from the sales, marketing, and production resources of the house that sustains them. 
  • They have a parallel release pattern. Movies in theaters are like the hardcover and ebook publication. DVDs, pay per view, and Netflix, like paperback editions, follow. Finally, they are on cable and network television, and sold in stores that mark down DVDs and sell remainders and used books.
  • They recycle what they produce in as many forms, media and countries as they can, and have a growing international audience.
  • They rely on their backlist for part of their income. Movie people call their backlist the  “library.”
  • They are dependent on chains that are replacing single-screen theaters and independent bookstores which struggle to survive.
  • They create synergy. Publishers test-market books for Hollywood, which buys many books for the screen. Bestsellers sell movie tickets, and when movies succeed, they can make books bestsellers or return them to the list as it did for Eat Snooze Love. A portent: Relativity Media, which will film Nicholas Sparks’s new book, Safe Haven, is promoting the book, online and off, even though they don’t even have a screenplay yet.
  • They have an insatiable craving for fresh ideas, new writers and good writing. Newcomers are more likely to make their way in the system by starting out producing their own work or with independent publishers and producers. But when they’re ready for the big time, the big companies will welcome them with open arms and wallets.

Write to meet the needs of the marketplace and sooner or later, you’ll get where you want to go.

 Upcoming Event

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Changing the World One Book at a Time / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Dan Millman (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)

Publishing Goes to the Movies: Part 1

Broadway Meets Hollywood Boulevard

There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows a Hollywood producer in his office on the phone saying: “There are two ways we can go here, 2% of the gross or 99% of the net.”

(It’s a Hollywood tradition that movie studios try to avoid having net profits no matter how much money a movie makes.)

[By the 1970s], the only major difference between the book business and the movie business was that in the book business the money was smaller.

–Former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief and bestselling author Michael Korda in Another Life: A Memoir of Other People, my candidate for the most enjoyable book ever written about publishing.

If you want to be a successful author, you need to have a positive but realistic perspective about publishing. You also have to be able to read between the lines of what’s happening so you can figure how to take advantage of it to achieve your goals. What goes on in the film business will help you understand publishing.

Hollywood and publishing have a lot in common:

  • They are each dominated by six large companies. Two of the publishers and movie studios are parts of the same multimedia, multinational conglomerates:

             * HarperCollins is owned by the News Corporation, which also owns 20th-Century Fox.

             * Simon & Schuster is owned by Viacom, which also owns Paramount.

             * (Random House Films partners with Focus Features, a division of NBC Universal, on books Random publishes.)

  • They are being transformed by technology, which makes it faster, cheaper, and easier for newcomers to participate. Technology is also moving the culture from words to images, from product to experience, from possessing books and films to downloads. Meanwhile, the number of theatergoers and book sales are declining, so these companies are cutting costs and reducing their output.
  • Publishers and movie makers must produce winners to make the chains happy and meet corporate profit expectations. Hollywood must have hits—“tentpoles;” big publishers must have bestsellers. “Studios want movies that are bigger than ever,” said veteran Warner producer Joel Silver in an excellent piece about the cost-conscious state of Hollywood in the Sunday Business section of the New York Times (9/29).
  • They use marketing to build and sustain momentum, but what they release must generate good word of mouth and mouse to succeed. However, they are at the mercy of subjective, unpredictable responses of critics and consumers and fail most of the time. Less than one percent of what they produce becomes as profitable as they want it to be. Because they’re hit-or-miss businesses, the hits have to compensate for the misses. It’s the “Spaghetti Factor.” You throw a plate of spaghetti against the wall, hoping some of it will stick.
  • They spend fortunes on failures and unheralded work by independent publishers and producers strike it rich. In Another Life, Michael Korda quotes one of former S&S president Richard Snyder’s favorite sayings: “Anybody in this business who is right more than fifty percent of the time is a genius.”  If independently produced books and movies break out, the big companies welcome the winners with open arms and wallets.

In the next post, more similarities between companies that would like to monopolize your eyeballs.

Upcoming Event

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Changing the World One Book at a Time / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Dan Millman (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)

The Most Important Letter in Publishing

I eat my peas with honey.

I’ve done it all my life.

It makes the peas taste funny,

but it keeps them on my knife.

–Colonial ditty

However you eat your peas, know that P is the most important letter in the alphabet stew of publishing. Here is a taste of Ps that drive publishing for you to digest:

  • Publishing: The art of transforming black lines of words into a green bottom line and an industry with an unknowable future.
  • Problems: What publishers have always had and have always figured out how to solve. When you’re using a publishing system that goes back a century to sell a technology that goes back five centuries, problems are inevitable.
  • Progress: Technology is 

              * transforming writing and publishing

              * creating profit, turmoil, uncertainty

              * forcing us to be creative and improvise

  • Power: Publishers have the power to say no and make decisions about the commitment they make to a book and how to publish it. Agents with potential bestsellers, bestselling authors, and major customers have the power to make demands. Writers have the power to be publishers.
  • Profit: What publishers must make to survive and pay authors. Authors survive on hope and a paying job.
  • P&L: A computerized profit-and-loss form editors prepare for books they want to buy guesstimating how the books will be profitable enough to justify buying them.
  • Price: An evolving number determined by costs, competition, powerful customers, the need to maximize profits, and what the traffic will bear.
  • Print on Demand: Behind the explosion in self-publishing because publishers only produces books when there are buyers for them. An alternative for new writers, if only to test-market their books, and for established authors who can reach their readers. Publishers are using it for backlist books, and booksellers are starting to use Espresso Machines in their stores to produce and sell books they can’t stock.
  • Privishing: the premature demise of most books that are deprived of the time and other resources they need to succeed because of the plethora of books published every year that prevents publishers, booksellers, reviewers, and book buyers from doing justice to them.
  • Process: From deal to bookstore, publishing a book at a big or midsize house can take two years, a process that’s hard to accelerate if you’re publishing hundreds of books a year.
  • Prose:  Style, voice, and impact determine readers’ responses to a proposal or manuscript for which the writing is crucial. Prose must be as effective as it needs to be to satisfy readers. How well writers string words together to embody their ideas will, sooner or later, determine a book’s fate, regardless of how it’s published.
  • Passion: Publishers yearn to be passionate about every book they publish, a luxury only small houses can afford. Authors have to be passionate about their work.
  • Pitch: The brief description of a book that must excite agents, editors, sales reps, booksellers, the media, and book and subsidiary-rights buyers
  • Proposal: A 35-to-50-page business plan for a nonfiction book that must convince a publisher to gamble on it. For fiction, a synopsis as  much of the novel as agents’ and editors’ guidelines request.
  • Platform: Continuing visibility, online and off, with potential readers. Authors of  certain kinds of books need one to sell books to big and midsize houses.
  • Promotion: Online and off,  marketing is vital for success, and authors do more of it than publishers. Authors and publishers can only be as effective as their books enable them to be. Promotion can’t sell a book that doesn’t deliver what it promises.
  • Publicity: Free time and space in the media are more cost-effective than touring and advertising. The Web empowers authors to publicize their books without leaving their desks.
  • Perseverance: What it takes to see publishers (and authors) through the complex, creative, time-consuming challenges of writing and publishing books, despite the hurdles involved the process.
  • Pride: Like authors, publishers want to be proud of their books. Only your best will do.
  • Promise: Publishers are perpetual optimists who let themselves be seduced by their hopes for a book and an author’s potential.

I hope this pot pourri of Ps has given you a perspective that will push you to persist in getting published.

13 Wonderful Truths About Publishing

Publish and Flourish

The trouble with the publishing business is that too many people who have half a mind to write a book do so.

–Editor William Targ

Publishing faces its share of challenges, but I hope these wonderful truths about the business will reassure you:

1.  You have more options for getting your books published than ever.

2. The phrase unpublished author is becoming obsolete. It’s faster, easier, and cheaper than ever to self-publish your book: ebooks, print-on-demand, podcasting, blogs, serialization, and  websites cost little or nothing. If a book costs nothing to write and publish, and only sells one copy, it’s making money.

3. There are thousands of editors and publishers in America and abroad whose existence depends on them finding books to publish, and they love to discover new writers.

4. Publishers accept more new ideas, writers, and books than the gatekeepers in other fields.

5. Technology is making the industry more effective than ever. Publishers

  • Edit and sell books and subsidiary rights more efficiently.
  • Promote to the public and the trade—booksellers of all kinds, subsidiary-rights buyers, and publishing media, online and offline. Big houses have techies who specialize in online promotion.
  • Are converting their lists into ebooks.
  • Receive daily sales figures from Nielsen BookScan that account for 75 percent of their sales. This enables them to

      * print, reprint, and distribute books faster.

      * Know how their books and competing books are selling.

      * Schedule reprints based on sales, which lessens returns and ensures stores have a steady supply of books.

      * Acquire the kinds of title that consumers are buying.

6. If publishers believe in a book passionately because they love it, they think it will sell, or because of its literary or social value, it must be published, they’ll publish it.

7. A book that serves its readers’ needs for information, inspiration, beauty, and entertainment well enough is unstoppable. Publishers spend millions of dollars every year buying and marketing books that fail, while self-published books and books from small and university presses become bestsellers.

8. Television and word of mouth and mouse enable books to succeed faster than ever. One of our authors, Chérie Carter-Scott, appeared on Oprah, and that afternoon her book, If Life  is a Game, These are the Rules, rocketed to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. Its momentum carried it to the top of The New York Times best-seller list.

9. Books have more subsidiary-rights potential than ever. People in more countries are buying books in English, and more countries are acquiring translation rights than ever..

10. Anything is possible.

  • Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care by Benjamin Spock has sold 50,000,000 copies.
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has sold more than 80,000,000 books.
  • The more than one hundred Chicken Soup books have sold more than 115,000,000 copies.
  • The Harry Potter series has sold more than 300,000,000 copies.
  • Barbara Cartland’s romances have sold one billion copies.
  • The Agatha Christie mysteries have sold two billion copies.
  • The Bible has sold more than six billion copies. 

11. Thousands of new authors succeed every year. First-time fiction bestsellers include

  • The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
  • The Christmas Box, originally self-published by Richard Paul Evans
  • Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
  • Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  • The Shack by William P. Young
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett

 Recent first-time nonfiction bestsellers include

  • Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson 
  • Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
  • Julie & Julia by Julie Powell

 12. Books are more accessible than ever:

  • They’re available in more forms, media, and countries.
  • It’s faster and easier to buy books and find discounts for them.

 13. The more people know, the more they want to know. If book buyers like one book on a subject or in a series enough, they will want to read others, so books continue to sell as more new readers discover them, and publishers continue to market all the books in a series.

A Paperless Future?

Futurist Ross Dawson has predicted that by 2022:

  • Newspapers will be gone. We’ll access crowdsourced news on smartphones and news readers that will be “foldable, or rollable, gesture-controlled and fully interactive.”
  • iPads will be free.
  • We’ll have a “media economy, dominated by content and social connection.”

But books are an essential part of our culture. No matter how they are written, published,  promoted, purchased, and read, books that people need and want to read will continue to provide what only books can.  And the authors who write them will continue to flourish.