If you’re just starting out, I can tell you that agents and editors do respond to well-written cover letters and to opening sentences that bring a manuscript to life. In fact, a cover letter usually announces the writer’s facility with words or lack thereof.
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When I give writing workshops, I use two exercises to make the point of how important that first impression is. I distribute two handouts, the first a packet of query letters and the second a packet of first pages from actual manuscripts received over the transom. I ask the participants to determine two things based on the letters and sample pages: Would they invite the writer to send his work, and would they continue reading the novel based on the first page? In every workshop I’ve conducted, the students are in almost unanimous agreement about which manuscripts they wanted to continue reading and which letters piqued their curiosity.Evaluating manuscripts, like grading papers, produces a bell curve of what appears to be natural ability. It quickly becomes clear which papers are the most accomplished, which letters the most inviting. Indeed, editors and agents alike enjoy nothing more than being startled awake by a witty or moving letter or reading the fresh pages of a well-written manuscript.
“I try to remind my students that most of the editors I know are not opening that envelope hoping to find another story like the 10,000 they’ve already seen,” Michael Cunningham says. “They’re hoping to find something alarming, brilliant and unprecedented.” Doing your homework
Too many writers, in trying to secure the services of a literary agent or publisher, simply do not do their homework. The best way to get an agent’s or an editor’s attention is to write an intelligent and succinct letter. And then send it to the right person.
Too many aspiring authors send blind letters of inquiry in the vain hope of piquing the recipient’s interest. These letters, which we receive by the dozens, both depress and astonish me. What’s depressing is how much misguided energy goes into these efforts. What’s astonishing is the sheer industry. Because writing is such a personal endeavor for most people, some forget that they are entering a professional relationship. Editors and agents are turned off by letters full of misspellings (including the recipient’s name), or those that assume a relationship where none exists. Just as the reading public judges books by their covers, we judge manuscripts by the accompanying query letters. And if you can’t write a good, crisp sentence by way of introduction, it’s doubtful that you’ll inspire any interest on the part of the recipient.
Over the years, I have received gifts or gimmicks included with query letters or manuscripts intended to butter me up, amuse me, or entice me, including chocolate cigars, a stained-glass pendant, a $5 bill, a bottle of patchouli oil, numerous author photographs, a box of Band-Aids, a box of Kleenex, a pack of cigarettes, and a bottle of wine. Just to make matters perfectly clear, please resist the temptation to do any of these outlandish things. Also, if you are sending your material in hard copy, do not use colored or scented paper, bind your manuscript, attach stickers or drawings, or include a 9-by-11 glossy of yourself with too much cleavage. (At a previous job, there was a bulletin board of all the photos we received in the slush. It looked like a cross between a Most Wanted list and a dating service.)
If you are submitting via e-mail, most agents prefer you send the query without the attachment—only sending the material upon request. Do not allow the casual nature of e-mail to confuse you—this is still a business letter. And in either kind of submission, no jokey, attention-getting first lines such as the one I recently received: “Have I got something hot for you!” Um, no. No crazy fonts or colors, no sob stories, no excuses, no overly long explanation of what your project is about, and no ridiculous or overstated marketing statistics. If you’re listing the competition, tell us why your book is different—no need to trash talk. Overselling the work
I am always struck by the writer who, with no credentials per se, compares his work to current or past bestsellers. Were you to believe the claims of query letters, every travel memoir would be destined to become the next Eat, Pray, Love. Every dog story, Marley and Me. Every cat story, Dewey.
Everyone in publishing knows that in order for a book to work (that is, sell) a great many factors must come together, including the quality of the book itself, publicity breaks, bookstore support, and so forth. It’s too simplistic to claim that you or your project is the next anything. Just once I’d like to see a writer make a humble promise or estimation of his expectations. Just once I’d like to see a writer compare her work to a book that isn’t a commercial blockbuster. Better yet, let the publisher draw the conclusion, based on the quality of the work. I promise, a simple, dignified letter with a clear statement of your intent and credentials will win more affirmative responses than any gimmick or hype.
Don’t address your query “Dear editor” or “Dear agent.” Do your homework and find the right person’s name. This is a much less daunting task than it used to be, when the best resource—scouring the acknowledgments pages of favorite authors to see whether agents or editors were thanked—was fairly hit or miss, and the Literary Market Place (known as the LMP), an encyclopedia of publishing information, didn’t list agent or editor names. Now you can subscribe to Publishers Marketplace, a worthwhile investment. On this site, you can search by name or category. You can see which agents have sold, for example, health books or cookbooks or young-adult novels. You can see everything an agent has sold, to determine if she might be right for you, and vice versa. If that isn’t enough information, you can check out most agents’ websites, search for them on Google, or read their blog (if they have one, ahem).
Even before all this technology, writers found their way. When Susan Sontag finished The Benefactor in 1963, she made a list of publishers. “Farrar, Straus was my first choice, because they had just published The Selected Works of Djuna Barnes,” she recalled in Conversations With American Writers. “New Directions was my second choice, because they published many more writers I admired, but somehow I had the impression that they were more inaccessible. Third was Grove Press, because they were publishing Beckett. I put the manuscript of The Benefactor in a box and left it at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Two weeks later I got a call, was asked to lunch by Robert Giroux, who offered me an option that turned into a contract.” By seeking those whose work she respected and responded to, and leaving her package without much flourish or craven exaggeration, she found herself a publisher.
Unfortunately, most of the unsolicited queries that editors and agents get come from people who have not taken time to research the playing field. If you go to the trouble of writing to editors and agents, at the very least target your search through careful investigation of what the house publishes, what that editor has worked on, or whom the agent represents. Checking in
Don’t call or e-mail. I cannot emphasize this enough. Returning the e-mail of an unsolicited author ranks very low. Yes, you can have the last laugh when your book stays on the bestseller list, and those who once took weeks to return your calls are now fawning all over you. But as an unsolicited writer, you’re at the bottom of the barrel.
Plus, if you are calling to see if the agent or editor has read your work yet, I can promise you she hasn’t. No one reads a manuscript, loves it, and doesn’t call the author. She’ll call if she’s interested, or she will reject it. This may take up to six months. Unfortunately, it’s a don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you world until further notice. Exception: A polite nudge via e-mail is acceptable four to six weeks after submitting your book. Sometimes a manuscript gets lost or mislaid; it doesn’t hurt to check. More important, assuming you sent out your novel or proposal on a multiple submission (and you should), and one of the agents is interested, this would be the time to get in touch with the others. This, my friends, is called leverage, and it’s your moment to exercise it. Let the other agents know that someone is interested in representing you and ask that they take a quick look and let you know their thoughts. This will shake a few rejections loose, but you will probably have more than one agent to choose from at the end of the day.
The only other reason to get in touch while your work is under consideration would be to report something significant in your literary life. You won an NEA fellowship, The New Yorker accepted your first story, Stephen King gave you an endorsement.
There is some truth to the old saw that the squeaky wheel gets the oil, but in my experience calling too soon or too often will have the opposite effect, and you’ll be branded as a nudge. All editors and agents already have enough nudgy authors to deal with. In addition, unless you were referred, the editor probably has no idea who you are. Most editors and agents don’t read their slush or unsolicited query letters. They depend on their assistants to pass along anything that might be of interest. Dan Brown can be a nudge. You can’t.
Writers always ask whether they should multiply submit. The answer is yes, unless you hope to work with an agent who has expressly stated that he will not read a multiply-submitted manuscript. I recommend sending your work out to a half-dozen agents, unless you have a good referral or contact at an agency or house; otherwise you could spend a year making three or four single submissions. However, I also recommend that you make the most of your multiple submissions by paying keen attention to the responses. And I would mimic the strategy our high school guidance counselors suggested for applying to colleges: Make two submissions that are a reach, two that are in range, and two you would consider “safety schools.” Try an agent or two at one of the big firms, a couple at medium-sized agencies, and a couple who are out on their own.
The long silence that follows the submission of your work can be maddening; frustration and paranoia tend to run high. Every now and then an editor will receive a call from an irate author who cannot believe that no one has jumped on his opus or that months have passed and his highly explosive nonfiction proposal remains on the unread pile. Many writers become agitated, and some turn hostile, as if those of us in the corridors of publishing were deliberately trying to sabotage their careers. Granted, nothing is more frustrating than waiting for a response for months and then getting only a form letter. However, a form letter is all that any agent or editor owes you. After all, you are seeking professional, not educational, services. If you receive only form letters in response to a query, then you should take a good look at your approach. Chances are that it needs serious refining, revising or rethinking. And before you waste any more of your own time, you should consult books on getting published. For nonfiction, I highly recommend Thinking Like Your Editor by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. It has an excellent chapter on how to write a proposal. Or seek out a writing workshop, a course on proposal writing, or perhaps a freelance editor or copy editor to review your work and offer specific help.
If you do receive some personal notes from editors or agents, take this as a very good sign. Perhaps an agent has even offered to read a revision should you make some changes. As with love, all you need is to find one person who believes in you.