Query Letter Tips: Don’t Put the Cart Before the Horse

Writers, one of the most valuable query letter tips I can give you is not to put the cart before the horse in terms of what you’re pitching. When I was a literary agent, sometimes I’d see writers who’d say, “I have such and such project that would make a great app. And then this other project just screams to be developed into a touring ice show. Finally, I can just see the face of my third protagonist plastered on everything from stuffed animals to t-shirts.”

query letter tips, book rights, film rights, movie rights, ancillary rights, foreign rights
Horse firmly in the lead; cart follows behind. Apply this idea to your query letter and omit any discussion of ancillary rights.

Query Letter Tips

There’s a lot to be said about focusing on your project as a book idea rather than a multiplatform publishing idea. I saw enough of this type of pitch that I want to drive home one of my query letter tips: it’s okay to simply have a book that’s going to make a good book. In fact, that’s the point of trying to query a book.

1. It’s About the Story, Not the Ancillary Rights

And let me just add to what I’ve already said by emphasizing that nowhere is it stated that every single book idea will get every single ancillary product/right/option in the world. When you look at the sheer number of things that get published every year, a much smaller percentage goes on to merchandising opportunities, movie options, video game licenses, and all of the other things that some aspiring writers dream about.

I think that all this talk of apps really got people’s imaginations going. “It’s going to be a book AND an app, guaranteed,” one thinks, “because everyone is talking about apps!”Then that “and…” mentality spread to theme parks and licensed coffee tumblers and international editions. I get it. But it’s very important to remember that most books don’t get apps, or foreign sales, or entertainment deals.

2. Avoid Requirements

That’s the danger of REQUIRING anything on your publishing journey, whether it’s a trilogy of books in order to tell your story or a read-and-play app that plugs into your premise. The more you require, especially as a debut, the fewer incentives you’re giving a house to take a chance on you. Your “and” turns into their “but,” ie: “We really see the potential for this book idea BUT they’re pushing us for a trilogy and I’m just not sure that we can make that kind of investment.”

3. Tone Down Expectations

Require less, open your mind to telling your story in the simplest way possible, and celebrate the ancillary rights that roll in. It’s often a fun and happy surprise when Hollywood calls or a comic book edition is picked up, and it can pay a month or more of your rent. Yay! But it’s not guaranteed and it’s also not the end all and be all. Keep it in perspective. That’s the best way to establish market savvy and tone down your expectations, thereby becoming a writer that many more people would be willing and excited to work with.

Hire me for query editing and I’ll help you nail the tone and content of your letter.

9 Replies to “Query Letter Tips: Don’t Put the Cart Before the Horse”

  1. I hate to admit it, but I was caught up a bit in this. I’ve developed a great game, (not video, or board, think outside, like paintball) but over time I found myself more focused on that than the book. Not good. I put the game aside for now, and put first things first.

  2. Yes, BUT, I’m sure that with the right movie director/fashion designer/app designer/toy maker/jewelry designer/pastry chef MY idea could change the world. Or maybe I should just write a story about how it does . . . .

  3. Thanks, Mary, for the reminder that “it’s okay to simply have a book that’s going to make a good book.” I think it is wonderful that there are so many different venues through which books can succeed commercially, but none of that can happen without writing a great book first!

  4. I like this post, Mary. Whenever I start a new middle grade I usally envision it only as a book that a child will be able to read and enjoy. If an agent or editor can make something more of it after publication, wonderful. But it’s reassuring to know that I can just write the best book I know how and not worry about the rest.

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