So you can read my books

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Gore Vidal once said, "To call Harold Robbins a writer is like calling a woodpecker a carpenter."

Yet Harold Robbins continually outsold Gore Vidal.

There is art. And then there is marketing.

We writers have to know the difference.

We take months, years even, to finish a novel. Then
burning to see it published, we hurriedly scratch off a query letter in two weeks and send it to six agents found in a dog-eared edition of last year's WRITER'S MARKET.

And you know what happens next.

Query letters are like eyes. You can tell a lot from them. A good agent can look at your one page query letter and tell you things about yourself that would take your breath away at their accuracy.

Harlon Ellison, one of the greats authors of science fiction, said that a good writer can write in any genre. We must consider marketing just another genre -- with its own rules and guidelines.

You could be the next J K Rowling, but if you don't query like Billy Mays, you will never get your novel read.

You must sell yourself first. And what do great salesmen do? They study their target market. See? I rhymed just like Billy Mays. All right, put down the rotten tomatoes.

Our target market? Agents. And with agents think : Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

O.K. They're not in that bad a shape. But close.

1) They have seen an ocean of terrible queries : on scented paper, on colored paper, addressed to their dog or cat, sucking up -- "Oh, wisdom and wit drip from your blog like honey from a comb." Quick! Get me my insulin!

2) They've seen it all, and it has made them : very harsh critics, jaded, and very, very impatient.

3) They are dreamers. Yes, dreamers. You think money got them into this business? They could make more money selling real estate, earth shoes, or unlimited texting to Tiger Woods.

4) They want to discover the next Faulkner or Clancy. Or they wanted badly to be a writer themselves.

5) They are sinking in a sea of bad queries. And when your rowboat is sinking, what do you do? You bail out the invading flood just as fast as you can -- which leads them to do this ...

6) Reading to reject :

No hook? Reject! First three sentences boring? Reject! Addresses it "To Whom It May Concern?" Reject! Calls me by the name of the guy I replaced last year? Reject!

7) They carve a niche in early or late hours to read queries. They read fast. They skim. They're already tired when they begin to hack down the emails or letters. In a few dreary, mind-numbing minutes of root-canal skimming, they are reading with half-listening eyes. YOU GOTTA BE BILLY MAYS HERE! But a smart one.

All right, Mr. "I've got the answers" Roland, what do I do?

A salesman is a hunter. And a good hunter knows his quarry. And it is Agent Season, so be veeery smart and remember these things about agents :

A.) The embers of the dream that got them into the business are still there.

B.) It's up to you to fan them into the fires of renewed hope and curiosity.

C.) Don't give them obvious handholds to toss your query out of their rowboat. Refer to #6 up there for some clues of how to do that.

D.) Remind them why they got into the business in the first place. Spark their sense of wonder at the magic of words. Give them hope that you know your business, that you know them ...

E.) A hunter knows his game's habitat. Go to your target agent's website. Google his recent interviews. Go to conferences where she/he is speaking.

Faithfully read their blog if they have one. Stay away from "the drippling wit and wisdom" bit. But do get a sense of who they are, what they like, what they detest, and what genres they CURRENTLY solicit.

F.) Remember your real goal :

1. not to convey everything
2. not to include the detailed plot, every character, all the themes.

BUT your real goal is :

1.) Get them to want to read more. That's all. Period. The End.

*** Now doesn't that take the pressure off? It crystalizes your focus. Now you can be calm instead of desperately trying to cram 400 pages into a detailed synopsis and thesis of your work. All impossibly in one page.

** You don't want to come across like a used car salesman. No, you want to come across in a calm "Sam Elliot -- Wouldn't you like a steak?" approach.

Another analogy that might help :

Agents are like drug lords. Hold on. Go with me on this.

Imagine you're a poppy farmer in Columbia. You're in front of the lovely new representative of the Drug Cartel. What you say next is literally life or death.

She doesn't want to hear how long you've worked on your crop. She doesn't want to hear how lovely you find her, how witty and charming she is. And what she wants to hear better be quick, to the point, and mighty damn interesting. Or else.

She, like any agent we query, wants to know the answers to four questions :

1) What is your product exactly? {What genre is it. Fantasy. All right, is it urban or classic? You get the idea.}

2) What is its quality? {Do you have a suspenseful story with a definite beginning, middle, and end?}

3) How large is the market for your particular product? {The love life of clams may tickle your fancy, but mostly it is a dead topic to the rest of us.}

4) And will her bosses be impressed with her buying your product for them? {If you're dealing with a large agency, chances are your agent will be lower-rung. She wants to keep her new job, so she doesn't want to hit them in the face with a cold fish.

And if she is a lone wolf agent, her bosses are the publishers to whom she has to take your novel. If they gag at the sight of it, her next meeting with them will be tainted with that memory -- if they agree to see her at all.}

**** We have to be Billy Mays before we get to be J K Rowling. We have to concentrate on what the agents want and need from our query letter. If we can do that successfully, we have a shot at scoring an agent.

Sigh. Which is only the first step in the thousand mile journey of getting our novel published. But it is a very crucial one. Without it being accomplished successfully, our novel and our dreams will stay unborn.

But if we stand our ground, continually grow, then we will succeed. The Texas Rangers had a saying : "There is no stopping a man who believes he's in the right and keeps on coming."

Lastly {no applause at that -- you'll just depress me}, this entire post has been a blueprint for your query letter. A title that grabbed your attention. The first sentence that made you laugh. The meat of the post which gave you hope.

And that is the blueprint for your query in a nutshell. Eye-Catching Book Title. Hook at the beginning. Make them laugh or smile. And briefly tell them why they can't let another agent make off with your great writing. Oh, and let them know how they can get back into touch with you.

And here is something stirring for your ears ...


  1. If you're wondering. This post was written over the weekend to use as back-up. Glad I did it. Roland, who is staggering off to bed as he types on his laptop.

  2. Great "backup post" ;) well said.. and I like the comparison of agents and drug lords. lol.

  3. I'm glad you stopped by my blog because I got to come over here and have a laugh!! Great post - loved the music too!

  4. I know what you're trying to say, Roland, but I don't want to be either, Billy Mays or JK Rowling. I want to be me. Pure and simple.

  5. What a very good way to look at marketing! I've always been a marketing enthusiast but you've just made me even more so by making me look at query letters in a different way. Thanks!


  6. [damn google refused to post my comment yesterday... tried several times] grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

    exemplary advice, bud

    while the product put out by hollyweird keeps deteriorating, for the most part, the tales in videogames keep getting better... so, of course, hollyweird wants in!

  7. Great post Roland. Thanks for the advice.

  8. Great post Roland, funny, entertaining, but most importantly truly informative and succinct.

    I point this out on my blog all the time: Remember a query has one purpose: to get the agent to read your pages. That's it.

    Thanks Roland!

  9. Well I'm not desperate enough to take testerone tablets in order to grow Billy May's beard yet *winks* - I did get your point. In the end it's all about offering that unique prospective, making you an original hot commodity.

    Hope your getting some much needed sleep. (Hugs)Indigo

  10. "Agents are like drug lords"! LOL!

    A very thoughtful and thoroughly researched post on querying - thank you! And GOOD LUCK!! to all who are on the threshold of getting stuck in with query letters!

    Take care

  11. Great post! You make writing a query sound easy. ;)

    Loved the drug lord analogue. But don't drug lord's kill people? I guess some agents kill some writers' dreams.

  12. Great post Roland. I love the queries are the eyes line. :)

  13. You gave me lots to think about. Thanks for the insights.

  14. Thanks, Roland! You hit the pen on the head. Loved the drug cartel analogy. And big applause for "all right" instead of "alright"...the most common error around, with "your" and "you're" next on writers' blogs (gasp!)-- ahhhhh! My eyes cross!

  15. Great post! Thanks. I love the analogies.

  16. Great post, thanks!

    ~That Rebel, Olivia

  17. Great post Roland! Now I just have to EXECUTE (and I don't mean slaughter) the darned thing... It does make it a little easier though, to think about who THEY are and what they NEED from the query, because whether we desire to be a literary award winner who goes over the heads of the masses like Vidal, or a widely read schlep like Robbins, we STILL need to get an agent and then a publisher to want our book. [I think we need BOTH kinds of books, honestly, but it's true, we need to write to the agent either way]

  18. In the employment world I used to inhabit, this sentence "They have seen an ocean of terrible queries: on scented paper, on colored paper, addressed to their dog or cat, sucking up --" would be perfectly accurate if you replaced the word "queries" with "resumes." So, because I sat in a similar chair for many years, I know you are exactly right...and sometime in my future when I get ready to query, this is a fantastic reminder to do it right. Thank you for your insights and for following my blog.

  19. Yes, good backup post! Thanks for the info.

  20. the joke's on me when i recently queried an agent who said she considers the romance genre and heard back, "We publish Christian books which mostly don't have the heroine being seduced." hahahaha

  21. Great post, what on earth was it backup for? Were you going to reveal the secrets of the universe? ; P

    I'll have to remember to check again here when I'm finally at the query stage!!

    Love the garfield comic, btw hehehe

  22. Thank you for the tips! This seems like good advice. One thing I've also heard: Don't give too LITTLE of the plot, hoping the agent will be curious enough to request a partial. Likely the agent will instead be impatient with you and move on to the next query.

  23. Good advice Roland. It's so easy to overanalyze the query and panic about it (I'm good at the panic part!). I need to breathe and relax :)

  24. Roland, thanks for stopping by my blog. Appreciate it. I re-read my comment above and I think you misunderstood. I was talking about my eyes crossing when I read on some blogs (not yours), "When your going on holiday...." instead of "When you're going on holiday..." I guess this ole English teacher didn't do a very good job of saying that your writing is so good, so grammatically pure that I'm really splitting hairs to provide the suggestions you request of a quasi beta/blog reader. About my blog, I'm already at 150% and am thinking about a larger font. Thanks for the input. K.

  25. That's a lot to consider. Hmmm. I'm still writing for the fun of it, but will take it all in if and when it ever gets to that point.

  26. You're so right! We do have to sell ourselves and be capable of marketing our writing skills not only in writing a novel but in giving "the" pitch. Thanks for the tips.

  27. Thanks for stopping by my blog. This is definitely an informative post. It rolls together all the info it took me an entire school year to find and learn, when I could have just come here for it! Great way to get it out there to people who don't know. ;]

    And certainly I will pray for you as well that you will get published. It's the one thing for which we writers dream!

  28. You are a thoughtful writer.

    ps I miss Billy Mays

  29. Thanks for the tips. What a cool way of looking at things.