Agent Monday: Why Some Queries Work

MP900439510Happy Agent Monday, everyone. And dare I say, Happy Spring? Okay, I’m putting away my snow shovel. That’s that. This weekend, as I plowed through queries in my inbox, I started thinking  about why some queries work, and why some just fail to grab my interest. I’m talking about queries that are fairly well-written and professional looking. The answer, for me rests in what makes me buy a book at the bookstore.

1. The Subject is of Interest to Me

Seems simple enough. When I enter my local bookshop, I go directly to the sections that I’m interested in. These could include general fiction, memoir, YA and the children’s section. I do not go to the strictly non-fiction reference section, or the category romance shelf, or the science fiction section. That’s just not my interest.

Likewise, if you query me about topics that I’m not interested in, I’m going to pass you by.

2. The Title Draws Me In

If a book is something generic like: A Breeze Blows, or Time, or whatever, then it’s not going to prompt me to think, Hm, now THAT sounds interesting, and to pick it off the shelf.

Likewise, I think writers querying me often forget that a title is the first thing that can spark interest in an agent. It should give some flavor of what’s to come and make me think, yeah, I’d pick that one up to find out more.

3. The Jacket Copy Sounds Interesting

When I pick a book off the shelf, the very first thing I do, after noticing how long or short it is, is to read the back jacket copy, and the flap copy. Does it build on the promise of the title? Do I want to find out more? If not, I place it back on the shelf and move on.

With queries, this is an important moment for the author. You need to describe the book in a way that will make me want to read those sample pages. If you can’t do that, I won’t bother to read those pasted in opening words, and a rejection will be sent.

Too often, the writer will tell me about how the book was written…like alternate points of view, or in three parts, or in short chapters. I don’t care. I want the story to draw me in. WHAT’S THE STORY? Make me want to read it.

Or they’ll wax on about why their book is important and the message that the writer wants to convey. Honestly, I have to say that’s secondary to THE STORY. If it’s not a non-fiction proposal, that info doesn’t matter much at the outset.

I also mention length here, because, truthfully, if a fun escapist women’s fiction novel is 1,000 pages long, then, nope, I’m not lugging that thing home. Also, if a book is really really slim, as a book buyer I gotta think, hm, is this worth even spending money on?  As a querier, know the proper length for your genre, and try to keep your manuscript within an acceptable length.

4. Opening Pages Make Me Have to Know What’s Next

Me at the bookstore again: Next thing I do? I flip open the book and begin to read the opening pages. Not too many of them, mind you. Just enough to know that the book is not for me at all. Or that I’m loving what I see. That I have to read what happens next. Mind you, I don’t flip to a later chapter to see if things pick up. I don’t let a reader bore me or waste my time. This book is for my entertainment.

Likewise for a query. My guidelines allow for the first 20 pages to be pasted into your query email.  Even if you have been able to pull me in with the subject and the title, and I see the length is right, and the premise sounds really interesting, if those opening pages fall flat for me, there is no way I’ll ask to see the full manuscript.

BUT, if you deliver on all those aspects and have 20 rocking opening pages, I’ll ask for that full manuscript. Just like I’ll buy that book off the bookshelf.

Hey, it’s that simple!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: How Fast do Editors Respond?

MP900341375Happy Agent Monday, folks! Hopefully, like me, you are some place where spring is FINALLY trying to assert itself. And it feels about time. Speaking about time… (See what I did there?) This past weekend I was delighted to be a speaker at the Eastern PA Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Spring Forward event. Our panel took a bunch of questions from writers, including this one: How long does it take for an editor to respond to a submission from an agent? One day, one week, one month, three months, longer? My answer was: YES. Here’s the long answer:

The truth is that sometimes editors respond in a flash, and other times, well, not so fast. There are a ton of factors at work here, and this likely does not reflect on the clout of your agent at all (since I suspect some writers might be thinking, hey, my agent didn’t hear back from so and so for three months — maybe my agent’s not bad-ass enough).

First of all, it can depend on the submission. Picture book manuscripts can be read at once, while novels will take some time. And an editor will have a pile of novel manuscripts to read through that have been subbed by other agents as well. Some manuscripts are completely timely, and so demand immediate attention, like if something is in the news NOW. And that can prompt a fast read.

Second of all, it can depend greatly on the editor. Some editors are just so swamped, that try as they might, they find themselves putting out fires instead of staying on top of submission piles, even if there is a really tempting manuscript waiting to be read. Sometimes it takes action on that manuscript, like another editor putting in an offer, before that editor puts that read at the top of their priorities. Why is an editor so swamped? Well, they can be working somewhere with limited support staff, and a high volume of responsibilities. It can make a real difference when an editor has assistants to log in submissions, to pre-read for the editor, and to help with their many time-consuming tasks along the way.

And it can depend on how the imprint acquires things. Some tippy top editors can just walk into their publisher and say, “I want this. I want to make an offer,” and they can be quickly given the power to make a certain offer. With other editors, they may need to wait for scheduled acquisitions meetings to present their case for a title they are interested in. And at certain places, no matter how high up an editor is, they first will have other editors give it a read and an opinion before taking it to acquisitions…and each of those editors has their own work load to contend with.

So you can see that you can’t always gauge the interest of an editor or the ability of your agent by the time of response. As someone at this past weekend’s event said, publishing is a business of hurry up and wait. It can move slowly, and it can move very fast. That same, carefully considering imprint can suddenly do a turnaround and have an offer in within a day if they feel they must (like when they know another offer is already on the table and it’s do or die).

What can an agent possibly do to speed this process along?

– Well, she can target her submissions very carefully. I only send to editors who I know are looking for this very type of manuscript, and who have a special interest in the subject matter.

– She can pique the editor’s interest when she pitches, so that the editor will really want to read the submission as quickly as possible. When I pitch to an editor, I really try to put in their mind what makes this particular project exciting and unique. And when I then send the requested manuscript to the editor, I add in a note detailing sales hooks that the editor can use to convince their publisher that this one is really worth an offer.

– The agent can keep on top of things. I always make sure that the editor did, in fact, receive the submission. I check back every few weeks in a pleasant, professional way, to see if they’ve gotten to it yet.

– And the agent can learn from submissions which editors are most responsive and which never reply at all, because, sadly, there are a few outliers to watch out for. If an editor, for whatever reason, never responds to any of my calls or emails, then chances are pretty good I won’t be pitching to them again any time soon. Sometimes I learn that something was going on in that editor’s life at that time which would explain this lack of response as a mere blip — then I’ll make contact with that editor again and give them another chance. But in some cases, I learn this is just par for the course, and I’ll spend my time (and my client’s time) differently in the future.

So there you have it. The long and short of submissions!  I’ve had quick acceptances and quick rejections. And I’ve had submissions take a long time with an editor, and wind up with a robust offer. It can be all over the place. As an agent, I try to be as efficient as possible on my end, and as a writer, you can do the same.

Waiting can feel like FOREVER, I know. The best antidote? Work on your next book and make the time really pay off.

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: How Agents Sell Books

Chihuahua Wearing EyeglassesHappy Agent Monday, world! A few weeks back I asked folks to chime in with questions they’d like to see me answer from the agent’s point of view. I got a lot of great suggestions, and a bunch of those questions were answered here. Today, I’m answering questions sent in by Stacy, who wrote: “Though posts about craft and the market are always helpful, I am very curious about how an agent sells books.”

Stacy went on to list 5 specific questions related to this. I’m sure different agents do things differently. But here’s how I do things…

1. How do you package pieces to sell to an editor?

The first step is to always make sure the manuscript is as perfect as the writer can make it. I work with my author, reading through the pages, sending along notes and edits, until we are satisfied it is tight.

I do the same with the synopsis. I prefer to have a short synopsis, so we usually keep it to two pages, max. And we finalize the author’s bio. These steps can sometimes take close to no time at all (the manuscript comes in clean, and little work is needed), and sometimes it can take months (the author needs time to do a more extensive rewrite before we are ready to submit).

Next I create the pitch. This is one or two lines that capture the heart of the manuscript and hopefully the interest of the editor.

As soon as I first see a manuscript, I’m already starting to think of who would love to see this, which publishing houses would make the best home for it. Now it’s time for me to make a more final list. Over the years, I’ve collecting info on an extensive amount of publishers and editors, and I’ve kept track of who has moved where, and how their tastes have changed. Still, every manuscript is just a little different from one I’ve done before, and so I always research editors with fresh eyes.

How? I go through my own collected data to form an initial list of editors who seem a fit. Then I dig further into recent deals made and new developments, trends, imprints to see who else I should consider. Now I have a solid list of editors in hand.

I pick up the phone and start calling editors. My pitch is in front of me, but I don’t read it. By now I’ve internalized what I want to say. I have this wonderful novel… It’s about… It’s unique because… The author is amazing because… I think it’s right for you because…

The editor says, great! Send it! So I do, along with the bio and synopsis, and in the email that I send to the editor with these attachments, I further detail my pitch, plus outline some markets it would be great for — stuff than I want the editor to keep in mind as she reads, and that can help her to “sell” it to her publisher.

2. How do you analyze an editor’s preferences (how know what ms. will interest which editor)?

This is an ongoing process, ever-changing because editors’ wishes change, editors move to different houses, and imprints are ever-shifting. I call editors and ask them what they are looking for now. I meet with them for coffee and over lunches and at their offices to get to know them and their preferences. I talk with them at conferences. And I keep up with what’s reported online – new deals posted, new interviews with editors, etc. Even when I call an editor to pitch a manuscript, after that pitch is complete, I’ll ask them: have your editorial interests changed lately? What else are you looking for right now? The team of agents at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency is doing all of this constantly, and sharing this info with everyone else in our firm, so there’s a constant flow of information.

3. How do you analyze a publisher’s preferences?

Working frequently with a broad range of publishers, we know what their houses seek. One imprint skews literary, another skews highly commercial, still another is heavy on fantasy, while another is focusing on edgy contemporary. Again, I talk with the editors and do my research.

4. How do you handle rejection as an agent (you loved a manuscript, but the editors didn’t)?

Every rejection is a learning opportunity, in my view. Why did the editor pass? As an agent, I typically get details beyond the “no thanks.” This helps me to refine what to send that editor next time, and it helps my author and I in future rounds of submissions. If a number of editors pass for the same reason, perhaps the manuscript can be edited to correct this issue before it goes out again? Also, I’m reminded again and again that this is at times a highly subjective area. One editor rejects a book because she loves the plot but not the voice, while the very next day an editor rejects that book because she loves the voice but not the plot. And that very same book goes on to be sold at auction in a two book deal! So I never let rejection get me down.

5. What are the houses you work with often, and why?

This varies. Every manuscript is just a little bit different, and I represent a wide range of projects from children’s picture books, middle grade and YA through to adult fiction and memoir. (You can find my submission guidelines here.) I’m always looking for the right fit at a press that creates beautiful books. Often this is at one of the top commercial presses, but sometimes a smaller press that does award-winning titles is just right.

That’s a wrap! Have a great week, everyone, and special thanks to Stacy for all the great questions. If you have any burning questions you’d like to see answered in future posts, leave those in a comment below.

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: Some Quick Answers to Your Questions

SnowflakeHappy Agent Monday, gang! Storm’s coming, Harry!!! Lots of snow on the way here. So, while I still have electricity and hot coffee in hand, let’s tackle some of your questions — quickly!

Last week, I’d asked readers for  questions they’d like to see me answer in future posts. Thanks to everyone who chimed in!  Some responses are worthy of their own posts (keep your eyes peeled for these in the near future), while others can be quickly answered in a short and sweet manner. So here goes…

Q.: How important would you say it is for a person to read their manuscript out loud before calling it finished?

A.: I’d say it’s critical. OF COURSE it’s critical for picture books, which are designed to be read aloud. But for any level of writing, the author simply must read their prose aloud. And listen to themselves. As an author myself, I always read my writing aloud as part of my revision process. It helps me to pick out when phrases are overused, or punctuation needs to be changed, or when pacing is off. And it helps to listen to dialogue – is it ringing true?

Q.: Does a historical setting automatically categorize a manuscript as being historical fiction? Is it acceptable to have a historical setting even if that history is not integral to the plot?

A.: Historical setting in a novel DOES make it historical fiction. If the setting doesn’t influence the thought of the characters, their actions and their challenges/life in some way, then why not set it in present day? It doesn’t need to be a moment for the history books, but it does need to belong in its time period. The exception? A time travel piece, which would make it fantasy or science fiction vs. historical. Even then, though your main character isn’t of that time, the time period would influence that character’s adventures, and the people surrounding him would be of that time.

Q. When an agent asks to see more manuscripts (picture book), is it advantageous to send in manuscripts that are consistent style-wise vs. showing a breadth of style?

A. First of all, it’s great that you have so many manuscripts completed that you have choices! Speaking from my own point of view, what I’d most want to see is your very best work – whatever the style. Unless the agent asked for more of a “type” of book from you, that would be your best rule of thumb.

Q. Have you ever rejected a manuscript because you were not “connecting” to the material, narrative arc, and/or the main character? What did that mean to you personally?

A. That happens often. What this means to me is that I’m just not personally excited by what the author is trying to do for some reason, or that I’m not finding myself feeling drawn in. This can be for many reasons, such as I like the idea of the plot, but find I’m not liking the main character. Or I like the character, but I find the plotting too obvious or too hard to believe. Or I don’t “get” why the main character is so upset or reacting the way she is. In short, something is stopping me from relating to things or feeling invested in the story. I have to really want to root for my authors and their writings – and you really want an agent who will do that. So keep querying and writing and polishing until you DO find someone who “gets” you.

So that’s it! Some quick answers to quick questions. Now it’s time for me to quickly use all the electricity I can while I still have it (makes mega-pot of coffee). Stay safe and warm, everyone!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

 

Agent Monday: Ask Me Now!

Young Boy at School Raising His Hand to Answer in ClassHappy Agent Monday, everyone! Busy, busy, busy here. I’ve got lots of stuff to read, emails to answer, details to attend to, etc. I hate to skip an Agent Monday post, but sometimes I do. And usually it’s because I don’t have a topic that’s jumped out at me as a “must-do” for this site. I’ve covered a lot of things over the past few years – queries, conferences, etiquette, market tips, and so on. But I’m sure there are some subjects or details I haven’t touched on that YOU would like to know more about.

So here’s your chance to ask. Please leave a comment with a topic you’d like to have me do an Agent Monday post about in the near future, something you don’t think I’ve covered before.

Send those burning questions my way. And ask your fellow writers to chime in, too. I can’t promise I’ll cover them all, but I do promise to consider your suggestions.

Thanks so much for your input!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

News!: I’m Now Officially a Picture Book Author

Dog with Birthday Hat and BalloonsHi everyone! Okay, so you may know me as a Young Adult novelist and a Literary Agent, but today I’m excited to announce that I’m also now officially a Picture Book author!!!

My husband, Landscape Architect Baldev Lamba and I have penned a picture book text titled GREEN, GREEN, which focuses in community gardening in a city.

 

Here’s the deal announcement in Publisher’s Marketplace:

January 15, 2015

Children’s:
Picture book
Literary agent and Young Adult author Marie Lamba and landscape architect Baldev Lamba’s debut GREEN, GREEN, a celebration of community gardening that reveals how green land grows into a vibrant city, and how an unused lot is made green again, to be illustrated by Eisner Award nominee and HERE I AM illustrator Sonia Sanchez, to Susan Dobinick at Farrar, Straus Children’s, by Jennifer DeChiara at The Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency (NA).

Baldev and I have collaborated on many an article in the past, all centered on garden design elements, and our pieces have appeared in national magazines including Gardens & Landscapes, Garden Design Magazine, and Your Home. It’s been a while since we’ve worked together on a piece, and this is our very first picture book together. Baldev is associate professor of Landscape Architecture at Temple University, and owner of Lamba Associates, Inc, an award-winning Landscape Architecture firm. Among his wide range of past projects are a number of urban gardens, including, most recently, the PHS Pops-Up urban garden in Center City, Philadelphia that grabbed a lot of attention. He’s also designed a number of Temple’s award-winning exhibits at The Philadelphia Flower Show, including one titled “Metromorphosis,” so urban renewal and community gardening has been floating around in both of our brains for a while now.

And speaking of “for a while,” it’s wonderful to be turning my mind back toward picture book writing after so many years. It’s where I started out, going to college to study writing and fine art and trying a few picture books, then I found myself penning novels instead. Picture book writing feels like coming home creatively for me, somehow — and I’ve got a few more in the works right now. Fingers crossed!

Special thanks go to our wonderful editor Susan Dobinick, our amazing agent Jennifer De Chiara, and to Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers for believing in this manuscript.

Young girl celebrating with confettiI think they are shooting for publication in Spring 2016. I’m SO EXCITED, and can’t wait to see the gorgeous illustrations Sonia Sanchez will produce to pull this all together.

Yippee!

 

Agent Monday: Your Assignment – Learn from Bookstore Shelves

Boy reading in the libraryHappy Agent Monday, everyone! Yes, it’s January and bleak and cold. BUT it’s also a shiny new year, and the days are growing LONGER. Yes! Time to get energized and kick your writing career into higher gear. If you are seeking a literary agent, that means you are writing something you hope will be commercially successful. Something that will land on the bookstore shelves all across the country. So here is a task you must all do without delay: Visit bookstores and see what is actually on their shelves right now. Why? There are vital lessons you can learn from a bookstore!

Visiting a bookstore and browsing for books is a vital part of being a writer, for sure. But I want you to actually go there now as a student of the commercial book market. Bring a small notebook, and keep in your mind where you think your own work in progress will fit on the shelf.

Now go to that shelf — first of all, does that shelf exist? If it’s a category that doesn’t exist, you’ve got a problem right there. As an agent, I can’t sell books that are so different or such a mash up that they don’t fit into a particular category when it comes to sales. Why? Because an editor can’t make an offer on such a book. Why? Because an editor can’t convince his or her publisher and sales team that a book without a category will sell. And why does that matter?

Because a book that won’t sell, will be a book that will fail to make any money. The publishing business is a business. And a successful book is one that sells. Yes, writing is an art. But once you are approaching an agent, you are approaching the commercial market. So step one in your bookstore bookshelf class is to figure out what shelf your book will belong on.

This is why saying your book is for all ages is a fail for you when you pitch. There is no shelf for that. What you CAN say is that your book is a YA with cross-over appeal. That means it’ll sit on the YA shelf, but that adults will also go to that shelf to find it. This is why saying there is no other book like yours is a fail when you pitch. It is like SOMETHING, it has SOME MAIN READER. You need to find these somethings and someones, so you can say it is, say, a romance, but unique because it features…  See the difference? Now you have a category, plus a unique sales hook that will help your title be found by readers.

Okay, so once you find your shelf, the next thing you need to do is to see what is already on it.

What’s on the end caps, what titles are face out, which ones have multiple copies on the shelf? Those are likely the “hits.” Good to be aware of these.

Look closely at the type of books elsewhere on your shelf. At the titles. At the covers. Which are the most effective and the most interesting to you? How does your own novel’s title compare? Can you imagine what the cover might be?

Which other books might the reader of your own novel also be drawn to? Have YOU read these? You should. Why? Because then you can have a current take on the market yourself. You can then honestly say in your query something like: Readers who love the high stakes and honest characterization of THIS POPULAR BOOK, will be drawn to WHAT’S IN YOUR BOOK.

Now, before you leave the bookstore, buy some books. Help your bookstore succeed. You want them to be thriving, don’t you? Someday they will be selling your books!

Visiting the bookstore, notebook in hand, gets you seeing the big picture. Where your book fits. Who your audience really is. What market an agent/editor/publisher can sell it to. Buying books is also an important part of the commercial cycle. A cycle that you want to fully involve you and your work.

Your homework will pay off in numerous ways:
– Now you’ll know without a doubt what your book’s category is.
– You’ll have a list of current competing titles (and of authors – who were THEIR agents?…not a bad list of agents to consider approaching, right?).
– You’ll have a more focused outlook overall about your novel, a more realistic idea of your market. This will all result in a better targeted query letter, and a commercial view of your book’s potential that agents and editors will appreciate.

*NB: Be grounded and realistic, too. Trust me, saying that this is the next HARRY POTTER will only make eyes roll. But saying that your work offers a twist on the middle grade fantasy, with an unusual magical theme that fans of Rowling should enjoy… well, you see the difference in the two statements, right?

Understanding all of this is an important step for you. Publishing is a business. YOUR business. So head on out there and study up.

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.