Pub Rants

Category: offering representation

From Query Letter to Six-Figure Deal

When writers hear about a debut author who got a six-figure deal, their curiosity gets piqued. How did that author do it? Did they have industry connections? Get a referral? Did they pitch to their agent at a conference? Did their query letter get picked out of the slush pile?

This month, with the author’s blessing, we offer you a look at the query letter we received from Shelby Van Pelt for her debut, REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES, which Agent Kristin sold recently to Ecco (Harpercollins), in a major, high-six-figure deal after a multi-house auction. NLA’s Literary Associate, Maria, pulled this one out of the slush pile and brought it to Agent Kristin’s attention, and Kristin, immediately sensing a hit, acted fast. We can’t wait for this one to come out next spring!

So here it is…Shelby’s query letter, followed by a little commentary about why this is a query letter that works.

Dear Ms. Nelson,

REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES is upmarket fiction with a dash of whimsy complete at 88,000 words. Told alternately from the perspective of an elderly widow, a fatherless young man, and a giant Pacific octopus, this quirky story will appeal to book club readers who enjoyed Fredrik Backman’s Britt-Marie Was Here and Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here.

Curmudgeonly Marcellus, a “prisoner” at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, wouldn’t lift one of his eight tentacles for his human captors, until he forms an unlikely friendship with the night cleaning lady.

After Tova Sullivan’s husband died two years ago, she talked her way into a job mopping floors at the Aquarium. She doesn’t need the paycheck, but keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she’s been doing since 1987, when her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound.

Cameron Catalinich recently turned thirty, but he has some growing up to do. He arrives in Sowell Bay on a mission to find the father he’s never known, and he lands a gig helping clean at the Aquarium after Tova breaks her foot. Marcellus, keenly observant, deduces that Cameron is a missing key to what happened that fateful night. As Tova’s injury lingers, with no family to care for her, she makes plans to sell the house her father built and move to a faraway retirement community. Marcellus must use every trick his invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for Tova before it’s too late.

I have received full manuscript requests for REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES from acquiring editors at [redacted] and [redacted]. My short fiction has won honors in international competitions and has been featured, most recently, by f(r)iction, Flora Fiction, and Funny Pearls. I currently live in the Chicago suburbs, but I was born and raised in the Seattle area near the fictional town where this story is set. It was inspired by my favorite childhood aquarium.

Thank you for your consideration,

Shelby Van Pelt

Why This Query Worked

First, take a look at that opening sentence. Title + Genre + Word Count. Boom. No awkward small talk. No messing around. Those are the first three things an agent wants to know about your project, and the less searching you make an agent do, the better. Also, 88,000 words is well within the appropriate word-count range for a work of adult upmarket fiction, so we’re definitely going to keep reading.

In the next sentence, we get a brief mention of the three POV characters, which include…an OCTOPUS??? Talk about a hook! At this point, Maria was thinking, “This is either brilliant or bananas.” But with the recent success of the Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, which since took home the Academy Award for best documentary (one of those uber-fortunate market-timing things no writer can plan for or predict), Maria kept reading.

This second introduction sentence, by the way, also includes two well-chosen comps—comparable titles and authors—that identify an existing readership likely to enjoy this book. This demonstrates the author’s market awareness, and market awareness is vital to any writer’s potential for commercial success.

Overall, that brief opening paragraph packs a succinct punch, including light-touch but vibrant buzzwords like “whimsy,” “quirky,” and “book club,” while avoiding lengthy explanations describing what the book is. Agents are far more interested in what the book is about. So nail that brief intro paragraph and move on to the pitch, like Shelby did.

Shelby’s three-paragraph pitch is structured in a way that mirrors how the book is structured. Each paragraph introduces one of the major characters. In truth, this is an approach I often warn querying writers not to use, because more often than not, we see it done poorly. It’s definitely not done poorly here! What’s the difference? There are three: (a) conflict, (b) connection, and (c) a ticking clock. Here’s what I mean.

What not to do: “Sally is this type of person. Jane is this type of person. Barbara is this type of person. Over the course of the novel, these three women will confront adversity, face hardship, find love, and discover the true meaning of friendship.” Or, in the case of middle-grade or YA lit, here’s another common iteration: “Billy is a nerd who is constantly bullied. Sam is the quarterback of the football team. Jamie is a fairy from the magical land of Eggwaffle. Together, this unlikely trio will have the adventure of a lifetime.”

This formula—“list and give backgrounds on the characters and then make a vague statement or two promising that meaningful or exciting stuff will happen to them”—is one we most often see in query letters for multi-POV novels. The problem is, there’s no room in this formula for a burning story question. A burning story question is the thing that lets know you actually have a story (as opposed to just “characters doing stuff and learning lessons,” which is often not story).

Instead, here’s what Shelby did. For each character, she gave us only what information is relevant to her central, burning story question: What really happened to Erik? She does that by hinting at how these characters are connected to each other even though they don’t know they are connected to each other—and we are compelled to read the manuscript because we want to find out how they find out they are connected to each other. That in itself is a second, “meta” burning story question that’s communicated through the pitch’s subtext, and it lets us know the novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. Finally, Shelby also sets a ticking clock: Marcellus has to communicate with Tova before she moves away and it’s too late. Ticking clocks are great ways to give stories tension, urgency, and stakes.

A well-crafted pitch is built on meaningful subtext. Don’t waste space in your query letter telling us you have a burning story question, and don’t tell us what it is. It should be made clear within the pitch itself. Don’t waste space telling us your novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. That, too, should be conveyed by the pitch’s subtext. Don’t tell us your characters are connected in ways they will understand only at the end of the novel (yep—use subtext instead). None of those things tell us what the story is about. Keep the pitch focused on how your character(s) is(are) connected to a burning story question, and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Finally, Shelby’s bio in the query letter’s final paragraph is brief and relevant. It lets us know she’s had editorial interest, which is important. (You wouldn’t BELIEVE how many writers I’ve had in my query workshops over the years who omit this type of thing—or other boosts or accolades—from their query letters because they’re worried it’s bragging. It’s not bragging! Step up to the mic! Give us the goods!) She lists a few prior publications, and then sums up with a personal note.

That’s about as close to perfect as you can get.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

With so many stories emerging of agents behaving badly, if only there was a quick and easy way for aspiring writers to verify a literary agent’s legitimacy. What a boon for new writers navigating a complicated publishing landscape. In good news, there is. 

The job of a literary agent is an unusual one. This isn’t a profession that one learns by going to college (although almost all agents have college degrees and many might have attended a Publishing Institute program). This isn’t a profession where accreditation is required, such as passing the bar for attorneys (although many agents are also lawyers). Any person can literally hang out a shingle and claim they are a literary agent. Because of that, many Schmagents have lured in unsuspecting writers. However, there is an organization that does govern this profession: the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA). 

Initially founded in 1991 under the name Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), this governing body was implemented to form bylaws and a canon of ethics that member agents are required to follow—thus creating a standard of working in the profession. Membership is by application only. An agent must fulfill the professional qualifications and submit letters of recommendation for entry. 

In 2020, AAR began the process of rebranding to the AALA (as there is a sister organization in the UK)—hence, both websites are currently active as the transition unfolds. This rebranding is reinvigorating the organization, which is now much more focused on agent education (via monthly programming), mentorship, and promoting diversity in our ranks. All very much needed and delightful to see. As a new-to-the-biz agent in 2002, one of my first goals was to fulfill the qualifications criteria so I could become a member. After all, I was a mostly unknown agent operating out of Denver. For me, AAR membership was a stamp of legitimacy to ease the minds of writers considering me when I offered representation. 

Currently, the AALA member directory is a tool that writers can use when doing agent research to verify an agent’s legitimacy. If an agent is a member, they do have to adhere to the AALA’s bylaws and canon of ethics or they will be asked to relinquish membership. 

Now, having said that, here are several things to keep in mind:

  • Not all legitimate agents are members of the AALA. Membership is by choice and not required.
  • Just because an agent is a member does not mean they are an agent with good negotiation skills or that they fulfill other criteria that I outline in my What Makes A Good Agent article series (see right side bar). There are many agents who qualify to be members but might fall under the heading of Hobbyist or turn out to be a Blindsider.
  • An agent who is a member might be a good agent but not a good agent for you. 

The existence of this organization, and searching through the membership profiles, is just one piece of the agent-search puzzle. It does not take the place of all the other research you should be doing on the agents you plan to query, which should include their sales record and current client list. Writers, good luck on your representation quest. 

It’s rare to have a guest interview here at Pub Rants. I am delighted to welcome Viniyanka Prasad to the blog. I’ve known her for years. She has something awesome cookin’ here in the Mile-Hi city, so I’m shining the spotlight on her and The Word, a nonprofit Denver-based writing sanctuary for diverse voices. This terrific organization launched in 2016 and their first programs became available in 2017, and now Viniyanka is launching a new conference called [margins.] this summer. This is a welcome addition to the Denver scene, so welcome, Viniyanka!

You are the founder and executive director of The Word. Tell us when the organization launched and what is your missiYou are the founder and executive director of The Word. Tell us about your mission.

Hello and thank you so much having me to share more about The Word! In a whirlwind few years, we’ve had the privilege to offer dozens of workshops, mentorships, submissions opportunities, and reader events.

We fight for equity and celebrate storytelling from marginalized communities. In the ideal literary world, there is equal access to resources that amplify stories and equal freedom to share with the creator’s own vision. 

You are launching a new conference called [margins.] in 2020. Tell us about this conference. What should readers know about how they can participate in various capacities?

The [margins.] conference (August 1-2) is a space for community and craft building that places writers from the margins at the center. We’ll be talking writing craft, publishing know-how, and literary activism. 

The strength of a space like [margins.] is in its ability to build lasting connection, even in our new 2020 virtual setting. So, it’s not just an array of pre-recorded sessions for consumption. 

We’re creating small group gatherings, one-on-one feedback opportunities, and community roundtables so that attendees will walk away with writing/publishing tools as well as a new family to look to for support. 

Our celebration is for everyone in a number of ways! We’ll be hosting a public virtual bookfair with readings and titles everyone will want to explore. We’re already hosting a series of discussions that are free and open to the public, so please join in throughout the next month!

We also invite potential presenters and publishers who would like to submit titles or presenters to reach out. Finally, everyone can be a part of supporting this vision during our Kickstarter which has just a short time left to meet our goal—that’s also a place to build community, for example with our virtual book club offering! More information can be found here, and our continually updated list of programs and speakers is here.

Why is it important to provide safe spaces for marginalized voices to be heard both by each other and by the world?

Writing from the margins often means explaining the need for your story to be told, the need for greater representation. It is an exhausting way to exist in literary spaces. When a wide range of writers from across marginalized backgrounds gather, everyone can show up as themselves—no majority within which you do not fit. And when we remove the need to explain why we are here, we get to actually do the things that brought us: find our strongest voices, brainstorm the best ways to represent our communities while sharing our truths, and learn how to navigate healthy writing careers.

Creating this space shows our communities, and everyone, what a literary world that embraces a variety of perspectives can be. The incomparable poet and activist Suzi Q. Smith, also [margins.] co-organizer, reminds us often that we have to imagine ourselves in the future we want before we can build the future that we need. With [margins.] we get to do one better: we get to make that future a micro-reality right now.

What would you like to tell agents who are looking for #ownvoices clients? What do agents need to learn most?

A very welcome question, and an agent who is asking this is asking the best one. To answer this thoroughly would probably require an entire conference itself, and certainly a range of voices other than mine (another project for us one of these days)! With hopes of being helpful here, I’ll focus on an important and core consideration: the agent’s questions about their own identity.

In any space where equity and inclusion are challenges, each of us brings our own vulnerabilities, which, yes, come with defenses. To be truly open to other perspectives, we need to clear out our own junk by acknowledging our own internal tapestries of challenges and privileges. It helps us trust in another person’s “unimaginable” experience without feeling that it erases what we each have lived. It helps us balance our gut connection with a humble openness to artforms that we haven’t been primed to understand.

To any agent whose first reaction is skepticism to that suggestion, I ask you a question: is it possible that your skepticism is a defense?

What are the greatest challenges facing writers from marginalized communities today?

I think it’s important to make room in our minds for the universe of interrelated complexities that contribute. From not seeing enough of ourselves in literature so that we internalize the idea that we do not belong, to not having the soft inroads that exist because of insularity that has been perpetuated over time, to the repeated experience of manuscripts reaching publishers who do not know what to do with them. I could go on, and that is why The Word has to engage readers, writers and the publishing industry with its work.

I think at the moment there is a real danger in the idea that publishing is progressing due to “diversity” trending. We’ve been here before; this is not the first time in publishing history with a push for diversity-focused acquisitions or hiring initiatives. We are repeating ourselves because victory was declared based on limited, short-term gains. 

I also believe that we are in a place of unique momentum. To harness that for lasting change, the literary world needs to shift from initiatives to a vision for sustained practice. We also need to continually be aware of the risks for tokenization along this path.

What is your greatest hope for the future of diversity and representation in storytelling and publishing?

Complete equity is the utopian goal we should always stubbornly demand, but I’ll also offer up an interim goal.

Right now, with so little representation, each book from a marginalized writer carries something close to all the hopes and pain for all the people who have ever felt unheard. One book should be that—one story thoughtfully and lovingly created. This weight stacked upon writers from the margins, to heal every hurt within their communities, is of course an impossible one. It will absolutely continue to limit which stories are shared. 

So, my hope is that we do more than just invite new storytellers to the table. My hope is that the literary community acknowledges the unhealed wounds caused by underrepresentation, a first step toward an effective balm. I hope we then see the old table as just that, and trust that there is something better to be built together. 

1. Agents get rejected, too. We understand the pain. We often offer on projects that we are deeply passionate about, feel we’ve made a strong connection with the author, and end up being passed over for another agent. It is heartbreaking for us. There is day drinking! Like exes who just can’t let go, we follow these authors’ careers, hoping one day they might come back to us. We grieve. But we dust ourselves off and try again. This is one of the most difficult but necessary parts of working in this industry: the ability to keep moving forward in the face of often relentless rejection.

2. Day-to-day and week-to-week, not linear. I typically set goals for what I want to get done in a day or week, like catching up on my queries or reading a few submissions. Those goals are often derailed. Maybe an author just received an offer of representation from another agent. Now that author’s manuscript has to be read within a week or two so I can determine if I, too, want to offer rep; I have to prepare to chat with them to see if we are a good fit, and then, if we are, I have to sell myself to them. Now my week has gone to a potential new client and their manuscript. Or maybe a client who is out on submission might get an offer from an editor. Now, I’m spending my time reaching out to all the others editors who are considering the manuscript to let them know there’s an offer on the table. If I can’t reach them by phone, I email them. I then have to prepare a deal memo so I have a solid idea of how the negotiation is going to proceed based on the publisher’s offer and what would be ideal for my client.

3. Our Clients Come First. This is good. It is our intention to build and maintain our client lists that primarily makes an agent great—without clients we have nothing to sell, and we make no money! So when our clients send in their manuscripts for edits or when they have a crisis, they become our focus. This means reading and full manuscripts that we’ve requested gets put on the back burner.

4. If We Live In NYC, then part of our time is spent networking. We have coffee, lunch, and drink dates with editors so we can learn what they are looking for and how their imprints work, and so we can make new contacts. We go to mixers or maybe even stop by a publisher’s office to meet all the editors at a specific imprint.

5. Agenting isn’t a 9-to-5 Job. I try to have as much work/life balance as I can, but sometimes a 40-hour week isn’t enough. This can mean working seven days a week and pulling in 60-, 70-, or even 80-hour weeks. All unpaid. It is often necessary, but it’s exhausting. It does mean that as much as we want to tackle our overflowing inbox, we often need random mental health days or time to just read for fun, or take a walk, or lie in the park, or see a movie. The point is, we aren’t ignoring queries or submissions.

6. Publishing is a Small World. You never know where the agent you go on a rant about or who you unfollow on Twitter because they rejected you will end up in their career. They might move to the agency that you ultimately sign with. They could become an editor whom your future agent might query. Your agent could part ways with you or leave the industry, and now you need a new agent. Don’t burn bridges. Rejection is hard. No one likes it. But you should still remain a professional when faced with it. Keep rants to yourself or your friends. Don’t take it to your blog or social media.

7. The Most Important Fact: We do this job because we love it and are passionate about books!

Creative Commons Credit: Skyler King

At some point during your publishing journey, it will seem like all you’re going is waiting. There’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait in publishing, and it’s hard to know what to do when you feel like you have nothing to do. Here are a few suggestions for how to pass the time:

1. Write Something. Ideally, something completely different. The best way to not dwell on the project that’s out with agents or editors is to get busy with new characters. Don’t write the second book in your planned series. Don’t rewrite the manuscript you just queried. Start a new project. Try out that idea that’s been kind of taking shape in the back of your head but that you think is way too off-brand for you. Even if you turn out to be right, every project hones your skills and makes you a better storyteller. You still have a few weeks of NaNoWriMo left!

2. Socialize. These moments of in-between are great opportunities to become the best literary citizen you can be. Part of being a successful author is being connected to your local publishing scene, no matter how small. Get out and network. Hit up a conference, a reading, a lecture series, or a local publishing drinks event. Not only could you have the opportunity to vent about the waiting with other writers, but you might also make some valuable connections for the next steps in the publishing process, such as asking for endorsement quotes.

3. Get Online. Waiting is also a great opportunity to get your social-media house in order. I’m a firm believer that writing should be your first priority, but if you’ve hit “the end” and sent that manuscript out into the world, you now have some time to focus on your professional online presence. Make sure you have the infrastructure set up for your social-media accounts as well as an author website or landing page, and start creating an online community for yourself by following and interacting with other writers.

4.  Read. If you’re someone who can’t read while they write, or if you can’t read within your genre while actively working on a project, then waiting for your agent or editor to get back to you is a great time to catch up on what’s recently been published. In addition to being an entertaining distraction, reading other authors might help you find new comp titles for your work or inspire you to diversify and write in a different genre.

Creative Commons Credit: Luca Florio

Or to give this article a subtitle: 365 Days of Agent Slumber Party

I have to say that 2017 has been absolutely amazing for me. When I took the next step to expand Nelson Literary, I had my work cut out for me. I knew that. I had my sleeves rolled up and was ready to mentor young agents to success. Little did I know how much fun I would have in the process.

In January, Danielle and Joanna came on board and when September hit, Quressa joined the team. Every Tuesday afternoon, the agents of NLA connect to share our own stories about what submissions we are currently reading, what might have an offer of rep that we need to discuss, and what sample pages are causing excitement.

It’s basically been 365 days of an agent slumber party geeking out about writers and sample pages.

We four agents are so simpatico, it’s been a non-stop year of great conversations, giddy excitement when an author said yes and joined NLA, and heartbreak when we didn’t land that client.

Oh the heartbreak.

Rarely do writers hear that it happens on the agent end as well! We don’t always win the agent beauty contest and trust me, we four felt really bummed when that happened.

In 2017, it held true that a really good project would receive multiple agent offers. I’m not sure if that’s because there are a lot more agents (than there were, say, a decade ago), or if the pool of great projects has shrunk in the last two years. (I prefer to think the reason is that there are more agents so the competition is stiffer).

Some projects we were very keen on had as many as 10 offers of rep on the table. Statistically speaking, we certainly can’t win them all. And if a more established agent offers, well, it’s going to be that much harder for a newer agent to win that representation competition. After all, their reputation and client lists are still building.

But here’s a thought I want to share with writers. There is a good argument for seriously considering the offer from an agent who is earlier in her career. Here’s why:

Wouldn’t it be awesome to nab a top agent before the world knows they are a top agent? In other words, agents who will, 5 or 6 years from now, have so many well-known clients that they will be highly sought after? Agents who in just a few years will have client lists that would be a privilege for you to join? Or to put it another way, wouldn’t it be terrific to be the author who makes the agent’s reputation because of your success?

Heck yeah that would be fantastic. Over the years, I’ve heard back from many a writer who turned me down early in my career before my reputation was solidified. (By the way, I hold no ill will as I completely understand that I was unknown then. It’s a bigger risk than signing with an established agent.) It’s just interesting that years later I will often hear from some of these writers. They’ve sent me lovely notes highlighting that they wish the could turn back time and say yes instead.

With Danielle, Joanna, and Quressa, here is your chance. Risk-free. These agents are aggressively growing their client lists at NLA. Under my tutelage, they are honing their tastes so editors know to move their submissions to the top of the reading pile. They are learning exactly what it means to be a top agent in negotiation. They are learning how to analyze royalty statements, assess foreign deals in a context, and leverage Hollywood effectively. They are watching and learning how to manage a “big” author’s career. They are learning how to be a top agent.

And the best way for you, the writer, to be a part of that is to say yes to an offer of rep from them in 2018.

I’m going to make a bold prediction: these three ladies are all going to be considered top agents within the next 5 years. Agents whose client lists you’ll want to be a part of.

And all you writers need to do is say yes when they offer in the new year.

*grin*

Creative Commons Photo Credit: dlovins99

In the last two weeks, we at NLA have offered representation to seven authors, most of whom received multiple offers. All agents are aggressively seeking new talent right now! It’s awesome to talk to savvy authors who have a list of good questions prepared for their initial conversations with prospective agents, questions like:

• What is your communication style?
• How would you describe your dream client?
• What is your editorial vision for my work?
• What would your submission strategy for this work be if you took it on?
• What happens if my project doesn’t sell?
• Are you open to me writing in different genres?
• Can I chat with a current client?

All these are questions you should ask; you definitely want your agent to be a good personality match and share your vision for your career. But you also want that agent to be your best advocate and protect your business interests in the publishing industry. With that in mind, here are five key questions authors should also be asking, but in general I never hear:

1) What is the average duration of a contract negotiation at your agency? At NLA, average time is three or four months, as we’ll stand firm on key clauses until a compromise is reached. We don’t rush it. If a publishing house has recently revamped its boilerplate contract, then that timeframe can more than double, as we’ll have to negotiate the boilerplate contract first, and then negotiate your specific deal.

2) Will I be involved in seeing the original offer and then the final offer from the Publisher? NLA always shares with our clients the details of the first offer and what we negotiated to create the final offer. Clients are always invited to participate in the process and weigh in.

3) Will I have a chance to review the original contract from the publisher as well as all the requested changes documentation, and then the master redline of the final contract I’ll be signing? Can you walk me through any contract clause that I might not understand? At NLA, we share all this documentation, whether clients want to read it or not, so that clients are 100% confident that their deal and contract have been fully negotiated. And I’ve spent many an hour on the phone or Skype, combing through contract particulars with clients to make sure they’re completely comfortable with what they’re signing. Most agencies simply forward on the final contract for signatures, and that’s it.

4) Do you regularly audit royalty statements? How much money has the agency recovered by doing so? At NLA, we’ve recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years for our authors because we regularly catch errors when auditing their royalty statements. And we catch errors in almost every accounting period—that’s how frequently it happens.

5) How many non-agent support staff are at your agency? This is important, as it’s very hard for an agent to do all of the above, and do it well, without significant assistance from non-agent support staff. At NLA, we have three agents and a team of six in-house non-agent support staff to protect our clients. Most agencies have a lot of agents and very little, if any, support staff. The agents are expected to be independent silos and handle all of the above plus all agenting duties. It’s not possible to juggle all that without letting stuff fall through the cracks.

Bonus question to ask if you are feeling bold: What percentage of your clients make their living solely from writing? If you ask me this question, I can truthfully say that 95% of my clients earn their living as authors—meaning they earn enough money to support themselves without a secondary job or support from a partner.

Back in the crazy days of the late 2000s, there was a popular agent, active on social media, who landed a lot of clients, posted some sexy six-figure deals, and then disappeared. I ended up taking on a former client of this now defunct agent/agency and realized, to my horror, that the author had been signing boilerplate contracts with no negotiated changes. The agent hadn’t negotiated a thing! The author was new to the business and had no way of knowing the agent wasn’t doing the job. Even though that agent looked hot from the outside, s/he had actually done very little to protect the client’s interests.

You can make sure that doesn’t happen to you. This is your career. Ask the above 5 Qs. After all, these aren’t the sexy tasks, but they do affect an author’s bottom line. Don’t feel uncomfortable or worry that you might insult the agent. If an agent becomes defensive when asked legitimate questions, then chances are that agent isn’t right for you.

Stay smart, savvy, and shrewd. Check out my “What Makes a Good Agent” article series on Pub Rants. You are your own best advocate.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Chris Potter

All aspiring writers want their magic number to be one.

The first novel a writer ever wrote is perfect from conception.

The first novel lands a literary agent.

The first novel is so awesome, it immediately sells at auction.

The first novel is published to great fanfare and much commercial success.

The dream-come-true of overnight success. Well, I’d like to tell you something about that. Overnight success is a fabrication created by media outlets because it makes for a good story.

Ninety-nine-percent of the time, overnight-success stories are fiction. Most of these stories don’t divulge that the author ghostwrote ten novels for other people, or wrote three of their own novels that are tucked away because the author was working on craft.

In real life, what is the magic number—the number of novels written before a writer gets picked up by an agent, sold, and published?

I’ll tell you right now, it’s not one. If you poll a large number of authors and ask them how many novels they wrote before their first one sold, and then if you average the numbers they give you, my sense is that you will land right around four.

One of the truths I highlight at writers conferences is that for more than half of my clients, I passed on the first project they sent me. It wasn’t until they sent me a later, more mature work that our agent-author love match bloomed.

Why do I tell you all this? If you’ve just completed your first novel, awesome. Celebrate this huge achievement. But it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t sell, or if you independently publish it and it doesn’t get much traction.

Keep on writing. Your magic number might be two or six or ten. My guess is that if you are passionately writing with ten novels under your belt, success is just around the corner.

Photo Credit: Andy Maguire

(Just a note, this post is from our archives. Some references and links may be from past years.)

Just recently, PW published an article in which agents shared their thoughts on children’s books and YA trends. Although I’m quite tickled that so many agents are seeing lots of submissions featuring diverse characters, it’s dangerous to consider diversity the latest YA trend.

I’m sure I’m not the only agent who can say they’ve been repping diverse authors/books since day one. It certainly didn’t take a trend for me to sign those books and authors (for example, Kelly Parra’s awesome MTV Book Graffiti Girl in 2007, Kim Reid’s memoir No Place Safe in 2007, and Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry in 2008). But I can say this: unequivocally, before #WeNeedDiverseBooks became a rallying cry in April 2014, selling in a diverse author/book was tons harder to do. I have my submission logs to prove it. It often took me about 12 to 16 months of grim determination to find a diverse book a home.

If diversity is now hot enough to make the selling-in part a lot of easier, trust me, I’m all for it. Yay! Finally! But I absolutely do not want diversity to be considered a trend in young-adult literature, and here is why: If something is a trend, then it can go out of fashion just as quickly as it came in. And quite frankly, that would be a travesty.

The blunt truth is that selling a diverse book is a perfectly normal thing to do in publishing. So my rallying cry? Agents, new and old, even when diverse books become harder to sell, as they inevitably will (in publishing, trends of every kind have always come and gone), keep on keeping on.

Diversity is not a trend. It’s simply here to stay. This is the new normal.

Photo Credit: Ahmed Alkaisi

Emily Easton at Crown Books for Young Readers has won, at auction, Scott Reintgen’s debut science fiction young adult trilogy beginning with THE BLACK HOLE OF BROKEN THINGS. In the novel, a Detroit teen accepts an interstellar space contract only to realize the promised millions must be won in a brutal competition where winners face the ultimate choice—take the money and become pawns in the corporation’s sinister plans or find a way to fight that won’t forever compromise their humanity. Publication is scheduled for 2017. Kristin Nelson at Nelson Literary Agency brokered the mid-six figure deal for North American rights.

To celebrate Scott’s awesome news, I’m delighted to share with my blog readers Scott’s original query letter that landed me as his agent and resulted in an auction for a mid-6 figure young adult book deal.

Date: July 1, 2015 at 1:58:01 AM MDT

To: querykristin@nelsonagency.com

Ms. Nelson:

I have the highest respect for you and how you represent your clients. After looking through your submission guidelines, I felt that my novel might be a good fit for your list. Thank you for your time and consideration.

THE BABEL FILES [title was changed for the actual submission to editors] is a completed, YA science fiction book of 83,000 words. Readers familiar with Pierce Brown’s Red Rising or Fonda Lee’s Zeroboxer will find similar elements in my work. I do feel one of the most important features of this novel is the focus it has on a main character who is a PoC. Having worked in urban schools my entire career, I so often find my students have little to no representation in these types of books. I was hoping to give them an opportunity to see themselves, vibrant and on the page and victorious. To this end, I followed advice I received from author Mary Anne Mohanraj at the World Fantasy Convention. She suggested I seek readers of a diverse background in the beta process. I did just that and was incredibly pleased at the response to Emmett’s authenticity and relevance.

Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Why Babel recruited him is a mystery, but the number of zeroes on their contract has him boarding their lightship and hoping to return to Earth with enough money to take care of his family, forever.

As he and nine other teenagers wormhole their way through space, Emmett discovers the promised millions aren’t a guarantee. Each recruit must earn the right to travel down to Eden. There, Babel will use them to mine a substance that’s quietly become the most valuable in the world. Emmett’s year-long flight will act as a competition. Every training session is measured, every point matters, and Emmett will do anything to win. But Babel’s ship is full of secrets. Secrets about the volatile substance they’re hoping to mine, about the reclusive humanoids already living on Eden, and about their true intentions for the kids that don’t win their competition. As Emmett uncovers the truth, he realizes he’s not fighting for wealth or glory, he’s fighting for his life.

I am a 10th grade English and Creative Writing teacher who has spent years sharing my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels with my students, and I’ve started writing stories with them in mind. THE BABEL FILES is my third completed novel, and the first in a science fiction trilogy. I have included sample pages below for your consideration. I look forward to your response.

All best,

Scott Reintgen