Agents offer comments on successful queries
Published: March 2, 2012
|In the April 2012 issue of The Writer, Elfrieda Abbe wrote about
four debut memoirists and the paths they took to get their books
published. Elfrieda also asked two of their agents what attracted them
to these books.|
From Jon Reiner’s agent Mitchell Waters regarding The Man Who Couldn’t Eat:
What about the Jon’s story excited you as an agent and gave it potential as a book?
The experience of deprivation amidst plenty, on primary physical, sensory, and emotional levels. The fact that while Jon’s illness prevented him from eating or drinking, this was also a story about the appreciation of many different aspects of food and eating, including the crucial role they play in our relationships. We are living in a pretty food obsessed culture, but like so many things we obsess about, we often take some level of access to those things for granted. Jon’s story called many common assumptions into question.
What were the key points you used in proposing the book to publishers?
A wise and experienced publisher once pointed out that a memoir by a less-than-famous person would tend to have to be about an experience that brought the author to pretty dire circumstances, but from which he or she managed to emerge, survive, thrive, but otherwise live to tell the tale. In Jon’s case, it was both chronic illness and near-death experience. As well as deprivation of one of the most basic elements necessary for survival as well as the enjoyment of life–food!
What kind of marketing plan or "platform" do you look for when accepting a book? How did The Man Who Couldn't Eat and Jon fit into those expectations?
Of course it very much depends on the nature of the book but, unfortunately, we seem to be functioning in an era when even fiction writers are expected to have a platform or hook in order to convince publishers that they will have a better chance than the next writer of reaching a respectable number of readers. It certainly helps to have an online presence related to your subject or an established fan base for your writing. This could be your own website or pieces popular blogs, as well as some print publication credentials, but the bigger the following and the more vibrant the responses to your work, the better. The most important recommendation, though, remains your suitability for writing the book at hand. The Man Who Couldn’t Eat is a memoir, but Jon did have something of a platform when we submitted the proposal because the core of his story originally appeared in an article in Esquire and he had already been on one NPR show as a result of that exposure.
Query letter for The Man Who Couldn’t Eat, sent to publishers by Mitchell Waters, Jon Reiner’s agent:
Jon Reiner was middle-aged, happily married with two children and living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, acclimating to his role as primary parent-caregiver after having gone through several professional setbacks. In February of 2009, Jon was stricken by an acute medical crisis while alone in their Upper West Side apartment. Seemingly in an instant, he was catapulted from a life accommodating and managing years of chronic illness to facing the real possibility of imminent death. The many months of treatment that followed were an often doubtful, rocky road to regaining at least a manageable degree of health and stability. The most outstanding feature of that journey was Jon’s inability to eat anything—at certain points to receive nutrition by any means.
The medical commandment nil per os or “Nothing by mouth” came to represent not only the prolonged food deprivation that would have a radical impact on Jon’s sense of the physical world, but the intense and enduring effect it would have both on his own emotional state as well as on his wife, children and friends. Jon’s vulnerability and fear during this profoundly difficult time would strain all of these relationships, but it is the amazing support he received from all of them as he made his way to some semblance of normality, that would alter and deepen his understanding of the value of love, friendship and community.
I’ve known Jon for many years and was just one of the concerned friends who encouraged him to write about his experiences during his slow recovery as a way of dealing with the fear and anxiety he was experiencing. This evolving record of his and his family’s ordeal is told with honesty, humor and growing insight. His exile not just from our obsessive contemporary food culture, but from life-sustaining food itself, brought into sharp focus for me and many others, so much of what makes life seem worthwhile besides mere living. The article has touched a nerve and the book will resonate even more with readers.
I’ve attached the proposal as well as a pdf and Word file of the original article (and follow-up from Esquire’s November issue). I’ve also included an attachment of a radio interview Jon had on the NPR show “Good Food” Other editors are considering, several of whom have expressed keen interest in Jon’s story since reading his Esquire piece. We look forward to hearing your thoughts.
From Melissa Coleman’s agent, Rob Weisbach:
"Melissa is a gifted writer—that was evident even in her query. But she also seemed to have an understanding of the scope and arc of her family's story and an awareness of its potential audience. I got the sense that she was also a real reader. It's crucial for writers to read—a lot—and to have a knowledge of what's being published in the genre. Most important, her note suggested that she could define her story's rich psychological and emotional terrain—the impact of the pursuit of a dream on people who were, at their core, deeply human."
Melissa Coleman’s query to Rob Weisbach for This Life is in Your Hands:
On a humid July day in 1976, a tragic drowning led to the unraveling of my family's bid for survival during the 1970's back-to-the-land movement. We'd been living by choice without electricity, running water or phone on an organic farm next door to Helen and Scott Nearing, who wrote the homesteading bible, "Living the Good Life." But after the death of my three-year-old sister, my parents separated and by 1978, Greenwood Farm was deserted. "This Life Is in Your Hands" is the vivid and compelling memoir of what happened.
Written in the narrative nonfiction style of Jeannette Wall's bestselling The Glass Castle and Alexandra Fuller's acclaimed Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, the story follows the emotional journey of a family who sought to live the good life on the coast of Maine only to find the good life is still life, with all its joys, challenges and tragedies. My parents did not do drugs or have excess facial hair, they simply had a dream of living a self-sufficient life apart from the materialism and consumerism of modern society. In the process they helped lay the foundation for the organic farming and natural living movements. They also lost a child.
While our lifestyle was not sustainable in the 1970s, thirty years later natural living has come into its own. Organic farming books by my dad (Eliot Coleman) are popular staples of the movement. Interest in all things environmentally correct and organically grown is pervasive, and the trend continues to grow with the rising price of oil. Anyone who has ever longed to leave the complexity of the modern world for a simple life in the woods, or just live more simply wherever they are, will be fascinated by this account.
As for my credentials, at the age of two my face was on the cover of the "Wall Street Journal" in an article about homesteading, and photos of me in the garden would be featured in various publications thereafter. I went on to become a magazine editor and freelance writer for numerous publications and I've attended writer's workshops with acclaimed novelists and memoirists.
I would love the opportunity to share my book proposal and the first 70 pages of the manuscript with you. Please let me know if you prefer it emailed as a PDF document or printed and sent by snail mail.
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Elfrieda Abbe is publisher of The Writer. Her many interview include Janet Burroway, Alan Furst and Rick Bragg.