Pub Rants

Category: new clients

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

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

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

Just as the title suggests, because agents are also human beings, they are going to embody both good and bad traits found in human nature. No one is perfect. And as some authors have discovered, some agents are more imperfect than others!

Your job as an author is to objectively recognize those human attributes or failings in your agent and decide whether they impact your career. Hopefully they don’t.

To this end, Karen Dionne of Backspace and I have put together a whole list of topics to tackle for “Because Agents Are Human Too.”

Topic 1: Because they are human, good agents keep their client lists small and manageable.

The trick is to define what is considered small and manageable. This question is asked at conferences all the time, and the truth is that the answer is going to vary widely depending on the agent and the agent’s situation.

Some things to keep in mind:

*Is the agent part of a larger organization/agency that supplies a lot of support staff in terms of auditing royalty statements, reviewing contracts, accounting, etc.? Or, if he or she is with a smaller, less corporate agency, how many non-agent personnel does the agency employ?

Many agencies employ a lot of agents but very few support staff. It’s typical in this industry that agents are one-man bands. They handle all the business elements listed above, and even if they’re associated with a larger agency, they still operate as the sole proprietors of their client lists. To be blunt, doing agenting well requires far more work than one person can handle in an eight- or ten-hour day—which means a lot of agents aren’t doing things like auditing royalty statements and thoroughly negotiating contracts.

More support staff = more clients an individual agent can manage successfully.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If your agent has a lot of support in place, a larger client roster is not really a concern. If they don’t, then know that a larger client list is pretty difficult to manage, and more than likely, some business aspects are going to fall through the cracks.

Some possible red flags:

*Some agents operate on what we call the “shotgun” approach. They take on a bunch of clients, throw a lot of stuff out on submission, and see what sticks. These agents will have a lot of clients on their rosters.

*A high number of small- or no-advance deals could indicate that an agent is operating on the shotgun approach.

*Agents who are already established (five+ years as an agent) should have developed strong financial security with their current client roster. Be on the lookout for agents who suddenly take on a lot of clients all at once or during a short period of time. It could mean their current client list isn’t supporting their business.

*Be aware of agents who have high rate of client turnover, or who do a lot of one-time deals for authors but few subsequent deals.

For me, a small client list means fewer than 50 clients. My list is currently at 32.

Other agents may easily have a comfort level at 60 or 70 clients.

The real question here is, as an author, what is your comfort level regarding how many other clients your agent represents?

To celebrate just having spent the day in York with Rhiannon, here is her original query for A WICKED THING that landed me as her agent.

Dear Kristin Nelson:

One hundred years after falling asleep, Aurora wakes up to the kiss of a handsome prince and a broken kingdom that has been dreaming of her return. All the books say that she, and the kingdom, should be living happily ever after.

But her family are long dead. Her “true love” is a stranger. And her whole life has been planned out by strangers while she slept. Aurora wants space to make her own choices, but she cannot risk losing the favor of the prince or the people and ending up penniless, homeless and, worst of all, alone. With rebellion stirring in the backstreets of the city and everyone expecting Aurora’s promised goodness to save them, she must marry the prince and play the sweet, smiling savior that everyone expects, or the kingdom will tear itself — and Aurora — apart.

When Aurora befriends a young rebel, she begins to doubt that the kingdom deserves saving. As the rebellion begins in force, and her wedding day hurtles ever closer, Aurora must decide whether she is willing to sacrifice her freedom to save this new world from burning, or whether she should be the one to light the flame.

AFTER is a young adult fantasy that will appeal to fans of Malinda Lo and Gail Carson Levine. It is complete at 70,000 words.

I graduated from Princeton University with a degree in English Literature in 2011 and work as a freelance writer and academic editor. AFTER is my first novel.

I am submitting this novel for your consideration because I read that you love fantasy YA and are a fan of Malinda Lo’s Ash, which is also one of my all-time favorite books.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Rhiannon Thomas

What did I like about her query pitch? First off, it’s very well written. Even the pitch has a narrative voice to it. But a couple more things:

* I love the turning-on-its-head opening premise of the first sentence. She should be living happily ever after means she probably won’t be. I want to find out why.

* I’ve never seen a Sleeping Beauty retelling where the princess wakes up 100 years later. Wow. She might as well be on another planet. Everything she knows is dead and long gone. I can’t imagine what that would be like. This story is going to be intriguing on that aspect alone.

* The pitch is wonderfully written and the conflict is clear. Should she marry the prince? Is that truly her destiny or what is best for her people?

* The author comparisons used are apt for this work.

It’s a shoo-in for me to ask for sample pages.

Happy Release Day Stacey Lee! UNDER A PAINTED SKY is now in bookstores.

Since I’ve been doing nothing but blogging about queries for the last week, what better way to celebrate the release of her debut novel than to share Stacey’s original query letter (with permission of course!)

Dear Ms. Nelson,

I am seeking representation for my 77K-word YA historical romance novel, GOLDEN BOYS.  Arthur Levine selected GOLDEN BOYS for the 2012 Golden Gate Award at the recently held SCBWI Asilomar Conference. GOLDEN BOYS is also a finalist in the Chicago North Romance Writers of America Fire and Ice Contest, results to be announced in April.

When fifteen-year-old orphan Samantha Young kills the richest man in Missouri in self-defense, she disguises herself as a boy and flees to the unknown frontier.  She knows the law in 1849 will not side with the daughter of a Chinaman. Along with a runaway slave, also disguised as a boy, “Sammy” joins a band of young cowboys headed for the California gold rush.

The trail poses far more hazards than the demure violinist imagined, not just from pursuing lawmen, but from Sammy’s own heart when she falls in love with one of the cowboys, West Pepper, who doesn’t know she’s a girl.  Sammy can’t reveal her true identity for fear of losing the cowboys’ protection.  But when West’s confusion over his feelings threatens to tear them apart, Sammy has to choose between her love for West and her own survival.

I wrote GOLDEN BOYS because I often wondered how a Chinese girl born in the U.S. during its expansion west would have fared.  My great great grandfather was one of the first Chinese to come to California at the time of the gold rush.

Thank you so much for your consideration,

Stacey H. Lee

So what inspired me to request sample pages? The terrific writing and the sheer originality of the premise. A Chinese girl violinist on the run via the Oregon Trail? I’m in. To me, it was a story that needed to be told and when I fell in love with the manuscript, I offered representation.

It certainly wasn’t because cross-dressing young adult historical westerns were all the rage in 2013. Talk about swimming against the current trends then….

The novel, after several revisions, transformed away from the historical romance to an enduring story of Sammy and Andy’s deepening friendship. And that is the story of UNDER A PAINTED SKY that readers get to enjoy starting today.

An Abundance of Mikes!

STATUS: If John Greene doesn’t mind our borrowing his “title” for a bit.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? BIG LOG by Robert Plant

Sara is just back from the SCBWI National conference in New York and today we finally got to connect and catch up. And the timing of this is hilarious. Speaking of testosterone….

So unbeknownst to me, Sara has offered rep to two Mikes this week.

That on top of Mike she already reps and a Micheal on my client list, well, we suddenly have an abundance of Mikes! Statistically speaking, if your name is Mike, I guess your odds of getting offered rep have just gone up significantly.

*grin*

In the last month, I’ve signed two new clients as well. Both of them guys but alas, not named Mike.

That ought to balance the percentages a bit. We’re just rolling in the T.

Now back to editing! The client fulls have piled up. Must get a move on here.

A Few Good Men And Then Some

STATUS: I wasn’t in the office yesterday so today is catch-up.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? STRONG ENOUGH by Sheryl Crow

Our eNewsletter goes out on the 1st of every month (unless the 1st is over the weekend, then we wait for the first Monday after the month begins) but you get the picture.

And I guess I need to assume that some newsletter readers are not also blog readers because every month, I get an email asking me why we don’t rep male writers.

I imagine Stefan Bachmann, Jamie Ford, Jason Hough, and Micheal Planck would be slightly offended by this question.

What do they need to do? Don wife beaters and have a Harley in their author photos to stand out?

And that doesn’t count all the new guys we’ve just signed on but haven’t sold yet.

Enough already. We’ve got plenty of testosterone on the client roster.

A Story The Editor Will Never Know

STATUS: Doing all the crazy wrap-up before the three-day holiday weekend. Yes!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? LEAVING LAS VEGAS by Sheryl Crow

I’ve mentioned before what I call The Curse Of The Sophomore Novel. For whatever reason, authors invariably trip when it comes to writing the next novel after their debut.

My hypothesis is that the first novel took many years to write, had lots of feedback and many drafts. Then novel 2 needs to be written on deadline and usually in under a year’s time. With that crunch, a lot of talented authors kind of blank on all the great tools they used in the debut novel that made it so good. By the way, it doesn’t matter how talented the author, what genre the author writes in, or how many previous novels he/she has under her bed. More often than not, a new author will whiff on book 2.

Good agents anticipate and prepare for this—which leads me to a terrific article my author Kristina Riggle just sent me from Poets & Writers. Editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler has been doing a series of articles on editors and agents and every one of them is a gem. If you haven’t seen them before, I suggest tracking all of them down.

What this month’s article tackles is best described in Jofie’s own words. He says: “This is a story about literary agents. It’s a story about good literary agents and bad literary agents and, more specifically, it’s a story about the tireless, often intangible work that good literary agents perform for their clients during the period after the contract is signed but before the book is published.”

Interestingly enough, none of the agents in the article tackled the curse of the sophomore novel so I thought I would in today’s post.

As I mentioned, good agents anticipate the curse. I always strongly recommend that I see the sophomore novel before it’s delivered to the editor. In fact, I encourage our authors to send it to me (if at all possible) 2 months before the delivery deadline to the editor. Just in case. Occasionally, the author does just fine and the sophomore novel is great. No intervention necessary. More often than not, the curse has reared its ugly head.

For the story I want to share, the editor (to this day) does not know—and this is why details will remain anonymous. In fact, I should say “stories” and “editors to this day don’t know” because it’s happened more than once and none of the editors know.

Author delivered the cursed sophomore novel. I read and said “good heaven! This won’t do. The poor overworked editor will blow a coronary if we send this on.”

Called author and delivered the bad news. Then buckled down with the author to, literally, rewrite the entire novel in 6 weeks. (The author sent me 2 chapters every 2 or 3 days. I would edit and turnaround in 2 days to shoot it back. Author would send next batch and while I had that, author reworked already edited chapters until entire novel was revised.)

Author delivered wonderful “first draft” of novel to editor on deadline.

Couple weeks later, editor called just to tell me what a pleasure reading the novel was and how the editor has never had such a clean sophomore novel delivered to her before.

I responded with “I know. Isn’t the author amazing?”

And I’m positive I’m not the only agent to have ever done this.

By the way, this only ever happens to an author once. After the sophomore curse, the author never missteps again.

Happy 4th of July! See y’all back here on Tuesday.

Hot Commodity

STATUS: This week is all about royalty statements reviews. Getting reconciliation to prints, following up with questions, fixing errors spotted. The usual.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? OPPORTUNITIES by Pet Shop Boys

I’m sure that those of you who have struggled to find an agent as of late won’t believe me but writers are a hot commodity at the moment.

More so then I’ve seen in my whole career.

For the last six months, any project Sara or I have wanted, we’ve had to fight for. In other words, when we offered rep, the author already had, bare minimum, five other agent offers on the table in addition to ours.

Ack. What is up? Talk about stiff competition. Every time I see the sale on Deal Lunch for one of those projects we wanted, I can’t help but groan aloud. Grin.

I thought it was just me but then an agent friend emailed me this morning to literally to say the same thing and had I noticed the increased competition for any project. We ended up in round robin email groan fest on the topic with another agent for most of the morning.

But seriously, I’ve noticed it. In 8 years it hasn’t been as tough as I’ve seen these last 6 months.