Queries

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Today’s post is inspired by a question from reader J.P.:

I’ve assumed that it’s okay to have “spoilers” in the plot summary of my query letter. Am I wrong? My book is a mystery. Do agents like to have mystery books’ punch lines revealed before they read the book, or do they like to find out the answer for themselves? Should I put the answer to my mystery manuscript into my query?

This is a very common query question.

It’s totally fine to spoil the plot in your query or your synopsis. Sometimes a query won’t deal with the entire plot and you can save your revelations for a synopsis (if requested or if sending one). But, either way, reveal your twists and turns. Withholding exciting plot points isn’t going to make the agent or editor crave to read it and find out…we most often don’t have the time to read every single manuscript through to its conclusion, no matter how delicious the mystery pitched to us in the query.

There’s a big bonus to showcasing your mystery in the query or synopsis. If you indeed have some show-stopping plot twists, I want to know about them as soon as possible. True surprise is one of the most desirable emotions that you can make your readers feel. If your novel is packed with surprises, if the mystery is unpredictable and twisty, give us a sense of that, tell us exactly what happens, and I will be that much more eager to read the manuscript.

Some writers think they have an amazing and unique idea (and some genuinely do) and therefore they don’t want to spoil it all in a query, but every idea is about execution. No matter how great your plot, I still need to see it come together. So revealing plot points isn’t the end of the world…it will at least give me a teaser of the book itself.

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Almost every time I dip into slush, I find a query (or a dozen) that mistakes my name. I’ve gotten:

  • Dear Editor
  • Dear Agent
  • Dear Andrea Brown
  • Mr. Kole
  • Ms./Mrs. Cole
  • Marry

There are also those people who spell is “Querry” or “Quary” or “Quarry.” (I don’t think I’ve ever gotten “Kwerie” or anything similar, unfortunately.)

Point is, this is a common mistake. What’s also common, though, is emailing immediately in a panic and apologizing for the mistake. Those emails are almost always panicked in tone. A recent writer even went so far as to say “I am beside myself.” (I know you are reading this and, for goodness’ sake, please don’t email me with an apology for the apology!)

Guys.

I’m not going to reject you outright for misspelling my name. My name is an uncommon spelling of a more common last name. In fact, it’s that way intentionally and I like it. So I know it’s not “Smith.” And even people named “Smith” probably get their names misspelled all the time. These things happen.

If there’s one thing I hope you’ve taken away from my blog and my speaking engagements at conferences is that queries aren’t the end of the world. They’re a cover letter. If done right, they will make me more excited to read your sample. If done wrong, or if they contain a silly mistake, they will not end in your demise. I will always read your sample. And I’ve never offered a writer representation for their query-writing skills.

Please don’t freak out to such a degree that you feel compelled to send these frantic apologies. (To the writer whose apology I quoted: You aren’t the first this week, let alone today, to do so, so please don’t worry about it.) It’s okay. It’s all okay. Query mistakes and misspellings happen. I usually gloss over them and keep reading. The apology emails, if anything, just draw more attention to the original typo. I know that most writers do a careful job of researching agents and putting queries together. Errors happen. If that’s the worst thing to happen to you, I’d count yourself lucky.

There is never any need for panic or such deep regret when it comes to queries. Relax and tell us about your story. You’re the expert in it, after all!

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I was reminded by a recent email that I had never covered how to write a non-fiction query letter. Whaaaat?! I couldn’t believe it, either. Now, a non-fiction query isn’t entirely different from a fiction one, but there are some nuances. First of all, I have to make the distinction between a non-fiction picture book and non-fiction for older readers. With a non-fiction picture book, you want to have the full text complete. With non-fiction for older readers, you are most likely pitching with a proposal (there are many excellent books on writing non-fiction book proposals, like HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL by Michael Larsen from Writer’s Digest Books, so, trust me, you really don’t need to hear my thoughts on it).

In your query, you also have a different objective. With a fiction query, I want you to make me care about your characters and your story. With a non-fiction query, I want to know three things:

  1. What’s cool, different, interesting, or unexpected about your idea?
  2. Why are you the one to write this book?
  3. Why does this book on this topic need to be published now?

So, basically: What is it? Why you? Why now?

First, in a non-fiction book market that is suffering because of library and educational budget cuts, I can sell only the most unique ideas. Do we need yet another Ben Franklin picture book biography? Yet another guide to puberty or friendships or doing well in school for middle grade readers? Probably not. But if you can find a unique twist or a subject that is surprising, interesting, or just dang cool, then you probably have a non-fiction book idea. An example of a cool recent non-fiction picture book: SARAH EMMA EDMONDS WAS A GREAT PRETENDER : THE TRUE STORY OF A CIVIL WAR SPY by Carrie Jones and Mark Oldroyd. It’s about a girl who pretends to be a boy and joins the Union Army during the Civil War. It’s not a known person from history but it’s someone with a great and unexpected story, and it teaches readers about the Civil War and about the state of women at that time in America.

For your non-fiction query, start by hooking your reader with what’s unexpected about your story…what unturned stone you’ll be turning over…and then also discuss what the other educational hooks are, like I did when discussing SARAH EMMA EDMONDS. Not only do you need to sell the reader on why your idea is awesome, you need to give it a larger educational context as well, so that you show the agent or editor that you’ve thought of where in the curriculum your idea might fit.

Next, you will need to keep building your case. Now you need to prove that you are the right person for the job of discussing this subject matter. In fiction queries, your bio isn’t all that important unless your life relates directly to what you’re writing. In a non-fiction query, you need to spend more time establishing your authority on the subject you’re discussing, as well as building your platform. Are you a Civil War reenactor who wants to write about a specific battle or person from the history of the war? Great. Do you keep a popular Civil War reenactor blog? How many visits does it get? Do you travel to over a dozen reenactments a year? Speak to groups of students about the war? Teach a university class on a famous battle? Fabulous! Sounds like you should write a book!

For fiction, you don’t really need any qualifications to sit down and start writing. Being alive and wanting to write is enough. In non-fiction, you really do need to convince the agent or editor that you have enough expertise and authority to write about your subject matter, and if you have a media, online, or in-person platform that will help you sell your books, that’s a big consideration. After all, you need a reason to be writing on your particular topic and, once you write non-fiction, you will be seen as an “expert” on it. Make sure you can back that up with proof from your life.

Finally, non-fiction needs a timeliness peg. Is a timely anniversary coming up? Did a new study just come out? Did something just get discovered? An editor will want your idea not only to be cool and written by an expert, they will want something that will be easier to sell to bookstores and libraries, and a hot topic is one of the best markers for non-fiction success in this challenging market.

If I were writing an imaginary non-fiction query, it would go like the following. And please keep in mind that this is a quick example, and not a very good one, but it demonstrates the basic points I made above:

Dearest Mary,

I’ve enjoyed reading your kidlit blog and just found an article on writing non-fiction queries. Funny, that, because here’s mine! Did you know that there are only four cemeteries in the city of San Francisco? It’s true. All of the other ones were dug up during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and moved outside of city limits because of mass hysteria over contamination [true story]. Now, Colma, CA, directly south of the city, boasts a bigger population of vintage San Francisco corpses than it does living residents. This is just one fun fact from my non-fiction book manuscript Spooky San Francisco. This book will take you on a tour of one of America’s most haunted and interesting cities, from the tunnels under Chinatown to the eerie shuttered hospital on Alcatraz Island (tourists are not allowed, but I’ve been there) [true story...I went yesterday, in fact]. San Francisco will host the America’s Cup sailing race in 2013, so there will be renewed interest in the city just in time for my book.

I grew up in and around San Francisco, have taken ghost tours in seven American cities [true!], and even worked at the Winchester Mystery House [okay, so it was for a day, but my roommate in college worked there for two years and I once got to spend the night with her there, just the two of us, it was awesome], the most haunted site in the Bay Area, so my interest in all things spooky runs deep. Through my network, I have access to all of the haunted sites that I will be showcasing, and have a team of ghost hunters standing by [believe it or not, true!] to help me with my research. The 1,200 word manuscript for Spooky San Francisco details the top ten haunted sites in SF, including the old Presidio Hospital, Alcatraz, Chinatown, the University of San Francisco Lone Mountain campus, and more. If you like this idea, I could take my show on the road and highlight the most haunted sites in other cities like New Orleans, Salem, Savannah, and New York City.

The manuscript is pasted below. This is a simultaneous submission. I hope to hear from you soon!

Sincerely,
Mary

Okay, so this is not a very good query, but I think you get the point. I’ve tried to hook the reader with some interesting facts, I made a lame attempt at explaining why a book about San Francisco would be timely (to answer the Why now? question…which I don’t do very well because a boat race has nothing at all to do with ghosts…yours should be better), and I cherry-picked some interesting details about myself that make me sound like somewhat of an expert in the paranormal (again, yours should be better…if yours is as lame as mine, maybe you haven’t found the right non-fiction topic to cover yet). I’d probably reject this query because it’s not very good and the author, despite having really cute hair, didn’t build a very good case for herself, but, since I’m the same person and since I wrote it in like five minutes as an example, I don’t feel too badly.

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Gotcha. There isn’t one. But as you can tell from the comments on last week’s query post, and several other query posts I’ve written, everyone is still obsessed with query letters. Even after I’ve implied that everyone is overthinking it and should simmer down.

Why are people so obsessed?

  1. Queries are your first contact with an agent, your foot in the door, your first impression.
  2. They have an overwhelming amount of perceived importance: if this letter isn’t awesome, the book won’t get read, I’ll never be published, etc.
  3. There are so many opinions out there about queries…from message threads to entire blogs devoted solely to queries.
  4. Writers don’t have a slush pile to read so they have no context for what a bunch of real, live queries actually looks like (or any idea of how many people they will outshine just by writing their letters in basic, grammatical English).

And I get it. I’m not trying to poke fun at how fixated writers are on query letters, nor to diminish their importance. But I always get really frustrated with writers who start freaking out.

Here’s my take on it: the writing sample is so much more important than the query. The query is a 250 or so word cover letter that is meant to introduce the agent to a writer’s premise and qualifications in a snappy, enticing way. That’s all.

The basic query has the following parts (in no particular order):

  1. Salutation (“Dear Ms. Kole” or “Dear Mary” are much better than “Dear Agent.”)
  2. Hook (A one-line “Hollywood” or “elevator” pitch) optional
  3. Query meat (the good stuff, all about your book…here‘s how to write it)
  4. Biographical information (preferably short, to the point, and full of only relevant information)
  5. Agent personalization (“I’m querying you because…”)
  6. Vital statistics (“BOOK is a 50,000 word YA manuscript. The full is available for your request. This is a simultaneous submission.”)
  7. Your sign-off and contact information (“I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely,…”)

Some people put a hook at the beginning, then the meat, as shown above. Others put the personalization, omit the hook, and dive into the meat. The salutation always goes first, the vital statistics and the sign-off usually go last. In between? You can make it your own.

Looking at the comments, I’m seeing writers who are so overwhelmed by the different advice available on queries that they’re really frustrated, some almost to the point of shouting “Just tell me the way to do it and I’ll do it!”

Well, I can’t give you the perfect formula for the perfect query. Why? Because:

  1. I’m just one agent…we all have our preferences and mine may not be the same as a colleague’s at a different agency…or even a colleague’s at my own agency.
  2. Not every writer who will ever write a query will read this blog and “get the memo.”
  3. For every person who can think about a task and follow directions, there are a dozen who can’t and won’t and will misspell your name, to boot.
  4. It’s really not about satisfying my tastes in query letters, it’s about writing your own and not worrying whether or not you’ve used my favorite word or formatting quirk. I really don’t care. Honestly. Please believe me. I have many other things to think about.

Every query that I’ve ever loved, for every client that I’ve ever taken on, for every project I’ve sold, has been different. There’s no secret formula that we’re all keeping from you. I’m not staying up at night, tossing and turning, because you put your bio paragraph before your salutation. By the time I’m reading the manuscript and loving it, the query is a fuzzy memory that I usually dig up only when I’m writing my own pitch letter for the project, just for fun. I don’t think I’ve ever read the perfect query, nor am I convinced that such a thing exists. There are queries I’ve loved, like Karsten Knight’s for WILDEFIRE, but copying that query and substituting your own details, like one writer actually did on a message board a few weeks ago, isn’t going to work. It’s his query and shone so much for the exact reason that it had his unique personality in it.

That’s why I don’t like agency submission forms that ask you to fill in all the details of your book according to my preferences. I really do want to see what you do with the query. Not because it will determine your fate or the fate of your book or your life, but because it’s another way I get to learn about you as a writer. I know I’ll get some pushback on this post, but I don’t care.

Write your query, try and follow the advice you’ve read that makes sense to you, put it away, revise it, get some feedback from your critique group, and then go back to the more important thing: your manuscript.

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I’ve been seeing some query letters lately that state the obvious. It’s unnecessary. For example, you don’t need to waste your time writing any of the following:

I am querying you for possible representation of my novel.
I am writing to you because I would like representation from a literary agent.
Publishing a novel is my goal.

Etc. I’m an agent with a submissions pile. If I get an email to that inbox, I know exactly what it is, exactly what it’s doing there, and the exact intentions of the email’s author: to publish something with the aid of a literary agent. You really don’t need to waste the time or words and state the obvious.

Also, don’t give the agent instructions. For example:

Please read the following sample pages and reply if interested.
Contact me to discuss representation.
If interested, please reply and I will submit a partial or full manuscript.

This may be your first query, but it’s not my first time getting one, by any stretch of the imagination. If I’m interested in your project, I know exactly what to do. Leave tips and pointers out of your query as well and let me do my job. Instead of these inane and obvious phrases, do your query job and make me care about the character and plot, instead. That’s really the heart of the letter, and you can see my tips for doing just that here.

None of these little phrases are an automatic rejection, per se, but they do indicate to me — perhaps unjustly, but they do indicate it nonetheless — a lack of higher order logic or thought put into the query. So make sure you’re not sending that message.

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At last, another good picture book querying question! Plus, this one is useful to novel writers, too (if only a bit less relevant). Read on, everyone! Megan asks:

How often is too often to query an agent with different projects? For example, I’m in the process of sending queries for project A and writing project B. By the time I wait for agent responses to trickle in, I may be ready to query project B. Is it crazy to send another project to an agent who rejected me within 3 or 4 months? Am I just being annoying? Or, since picture book manuscripts can be written, revised, revised, revised, and polished faster than other genres, maybe this frequency for queries is expected?

I tell my picture book writer clients — AND THESE ARE CLIENTS…people who’ve already cleared the “hurdle” — that one out of every ten of their picture book ideas/manuscripts is going to be saleable. Picture books are “easy” to write and generate and revise and get 700 or whatever words into shape, sure, but it’s infinitely harder to hit upon a winner idea. GOODNIGHT MOON was first published in 1947 and parents still read it to their kids every night, all over the world. Publishers are tightening their lists and, ideally, would love a book with that much power and longevity. In other words, everyone wants something that will backlist for eternity. It’s not easy. I would even argue that’s it just as hard to hit upon such a picture book idea as it is to write a publishable novel, especially in this current marketplace.

Personally, I balk a little when writers hit me up with picture book after picture book, even if some time lapses between attempts. The point is to evolve and go to the next level between picture book manuscripts. Every submission round to agents will bring you valuable feedback and insight. (If you get absolutely no personalized feedback, that’s feedback in and of itself.) Keep writing while you’re on submission, of course, but you should also, in my opinion, wait to see how a submission round goes before you jump back into the querying game. You don’t want to give off the idea that you’re just churning projects out without stopping to learn and grow in between attempts.

Look at it from my angle. I have, oh, six picture book clients. They can all, in a good year, give me 10 manuscripts. That’s 60 manuscripts. Say I decide to just go out with them all (which I would never do). For each submission, I go out to about 8-10 editors at various houses. That would be between 480 and 600 picture book projects that I would send out. About 10 submissions a week. There are about 300 editors actively acquiring in children’s books these days (at the major, mid-size houses, and smaller houses), so even if I cast my net as wide as possible, I would still hit up every editor at least once, sometimes twice, regardless of whether they’re a good fit or even looking for picture books (if you want to know, that particular number of PB-hungry editors is at about 70-100). You also have to consider that, if an editor and I have a good relationship, existing projects together, or similar tastes, I will send to that  group of particular editors more frequently over the course of the year. Those editors — the ones I really love and want to work with — would probably get more like five or ten projects each.

Do you think all those editors are going to see my email or get my phone call and think, “Wow, I haven’t heard from Mary in a while, and I know she only goes out with projects she thinks are really top notch, so I am really excited to hear all about this one!” Absolutely not. They will most likely think, “Yikes, another call/email from Mary. What does she have for me this month and how quickly can I get it off my desk?”

I don’t go out with everything my clients give me. I have to be selective and keep my currency with editors high, so that if they see something from me, they don’t roll their eyes. The worst position you can be in, I think, is if someone gets an email from you and groans. So I’m selective. And I have extremely high standards for the work that I pitch to publishers (just ask some of my impatient clients…and we all know how I feel about patience). You should strive to be this way, too, so I don’t groan when I get your second or third or fourth query for the year.

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Some writers are notoriously shy — or at least timid — when it comes time to plug themselves in queries, at conferences, etc. I’ve heard lots of published authors say that they’re writers, not salespeople. They rely on their agents to vouch for their work and pitch it to editors, so they can focus on their craft and building their readership. Contracts, pitching, negotiation…that’s the domain of agents.

Well, what happens until you get an agent, or if you choose to go without one? You advocate for yourself. From your query to your networking at conferences to meeting librarians and booksellers and telling them about your book, you’ll have to sell your book at least a few times in your career (ideally, you’ll have the opportunity to sell it to lots and lots of readers). So how much plugging is too much? Where’s the line between confident and bombastic?

Whether you pitch in person or in writing, here is the dividing line and where it lies for me:

Bombastic: This is an amazing story of wonderful proportions, full of thrilling adventure and poignant emotion, lovable characters and a breathtaking plot…
Confident: My thriller pits my main character against his biggest enemy in a high-voltage climax, with a surprising twist ending.
The Difference: Don’t be lavish in your self-praise and, for goodness’ sake, cut down on the adjectives. Everyone knows you love your story…that’s why you wrote it. Nobody wants to hear you praise your own work. It means nothing coming from your mouth, so I’d avoid all the fluff.

Bombastic: My uncle, who is a (unpublished) writer, thinks this is the best book ever written. My children love this story and ask that I read it to them every night. My professor, who has a PhD (in, ahem, civil engineering), said I was an exceptional writing talent.
Confident: Award-winning sci-fi writer, Writer McWriterpants, says of my book, “A rare debut full of heart and fantasy thrills. A great new voice on the scene!”
The Difference: Praise doesn’t count as much when it comes from a relative or friend of yours, unless maybe your brother is Stephen King. I’d much rather hear what an unbiased third party has to say about the book, and ideally have it be someone who knows what they’re talking about (ie: a writer, not an engineering professor). If you can’t get any casual blurbs like this (and that’s totally fine), don’t include something just for the sake of including it.

Bombastic: This will sell like hotcakes and there are endless opportunities to leverage my idea. It lends itself easily to greeting cards, music videos, apps, video games, theme parks, movies, t-shirts and other merchandise, and, of course, sequels!
Confident: The ending of this manuscript gives my story sequel opportunities and, as a trained screenwriter with a cinematic writing style, I can see potential for the screen as well.
The Difference: We all want our work to go from book to screen to the toy store to the clothing rack. If you have experience and possible connections to another industry that can be a great cross-promotional avenue for your book idea, you can hint at it. Maybe bring up some marketing or subrights ideas if you talk to agents or editors on the phone after they express interest. But keep the pie out of the sky and don’t rattle off all your merchandising dreams in the query.

Bombastic: My self-published/previously published book was a bestseller.
Confident: I sold 200 copies of my self-published book in its first year and it is regularly reordered by two independent bookstores in my community. My previously published book enjoyed three printings in one year from a small press.
The Difference: Words like “expert,” “bestseller,” “hit,” and others are a bit like adjectives. They sounds like fluff. If a book sells five copies at a local indie bookstore, sure, it can end up on their bestseller list, especially if your book has a regional tie-in to the region or if you recently did an event at the store. But that’s quite a different level of bestseller than what Stephenie Meyer gets to write on her resume. Use words like this sparingly, and be really specific as to what they mean in your case.

What are the takeaways here? Be specific. Instead of blowing your pitch full of hot air with adjectives or buzzwords like “bestseller,” be straight and direct with the reader. You want to project a healthy amount of confidence, but make sure everything you’re saying is grounded in fact and doesn’t go flying off into Hyperbole Land. All that stuff isn’t what I’m reading for when I read queries. In fact, I skim over most of it.

Caveat: I often tell people to look at the copy on the back of book jackets when they’re crafting their queries. That’s about the length and tone that you’re aiming for when you write the meat of your pitch. However, book jackets can get away with adjectives and buzz and blurbs and all that hype because they’re actually trying to make someone go to the cash register and buy the book.

When I look at queries, I care more about the story you’re pitching to me than how you’re pitching (check out my evergreen article on How to Write a Simple, Compelling Query), but I would greatly prefer a writer who falls on the confident side of the fence rather than the bombastic. If you’re having the opposite issue, and you tend to undersell yourself when you present projects, look at the confident examples again and see if you can’t take more of a stand for you and your writing when you pitch. Either way, remember: we want to be sold. We just don’t want the sweaty-handshake-used-car-salesman hardball sell. Nor do we want the looking-at-your-feet-and-mumbling sell. We want the simple, compelling, concise, and thoughtful pitch that comes from your confidence in your work!

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This post is for all the author/illustrators out there, and the question comes from Siski:

I’d like to know more about agents and how they go about repping author/illustrators. I read an awful lot about query letters for authors but how does an author/illustrator query?

As we do with our authors, agents help author/illustrators develop their projects, work up a submission plan, and connect our clients with potential editors. The nature of the editorial work is a bit different, though. I’ll be the first to tell you that I am not an artist. (Despite a very promising banana still life at age three that remains framed in my mother’s…closet. Ouch.) But my mom is actually a rather well-known fine art painter. I’ve spent my entire life around art and almost every fall, I go on tour with her and hang out in even more galleries. I may not know how to pull what’s in my mind and get it down on paper visually, but I do know what I like (and what’s good) when I see it.

With author/illustrators, I comment on issues of composition, image choice, character, expression, color, etc., but the art mastery has to be there before I sign an author/illustrator or illustrator. All of my illustrators came to books from being artists first, writers second. It is much easier to hone the picture book writing side of a creator’s craft (though it’s still very difficult to write a timeless, smash hit picture book) than it is to teach them art. That’s why I don’t recommend writers take up art and try to become illustrators. Unless you are gifted visually, it will be very difficult to compete with all the illustrators on shelves today or in BFA or MFA programs. Aspiring illustrators should spend a few hours in the picture book section of a bookstore and see what the professionals are doing. Even the most deceptively simple styles have a lot of artistry going on behind the scenes. Adding writing to an illustrator’s toolbox is a lot easier (and more feasible) than adding illustration to a writer’s.

So for me to take on an illustrator, I need to be wild about their illustration style and talent. They also need to have at least one really fun or commercial story idea that we can work with. If the writing isn’t stellar (yet), I know I can work with them just like I would my author clients in order to get things into shape.

Submissions work similarly with author/illustrators, except I’m often sending out a full sketch dummy, anywhere from two to five mock finishes (full color renderings of sketches), and the manuscript text. I will either send this in the form of a physical, mail submission, if the art works better when you can spread it out in front of you and really dive in, or as a digital PDF file.

The other part of how I work with an author/illustrator is trying to rustle up illustration work. This is very tough going for most agents, and most illustrators, because a lot of illustrator-project pairing is a matter of luck and timing. Not all editors are equally patient or talented when it comes to stretching their imaginations for either a text or an art sample. This isn’t a slam on editors…far from it. Matching text to art is quite a skill, and that’s why some children’s editors don’t even have a lot of picture books on their list, because working with art isn’t something they love to do.

Some will see an artist’s sample postcard and, if it features a dog, think of their text that also needs a great dog character. A match is made! Some editors will leave a text sitting unmatched until the last possible moment, then see a great postcard that crosses their desk and…again, art alchemy! Others will fall in love with an artist, keep their postcards on hand or a link to their online portfolio in their favorites, and hunt tirelessly for the right text.

Most illustrators and editors swear that it’s all about when an art sample crosses their eyes. The right sample at the right time will get hired. Others think it’s about consistency…if they see an artist a certain number of times, they will start to think about them for jobs.

My job is to work with my artists to create the perfect sample image, portfolio, and postcards and then get them out there. For some clients, my colleagues and I do postcard mailings. I also do digital art mailings, the ABLA Artists of the Month email blasts that go out every month and feature two artists the agency’s client lists. Editors love having both hard copy postcards and links to online portfolios, so we try to do everything we can to get illustration jobs as well as sell the client as an author/illustrator (get them a book deal where they do both and there’s no other name on the cover).

As far as query letters for author/illustrators go — and remember, we only accept online submissions — I prefer having a query, a link to your online portfolio mentioned in your query letter, then the text of the picture book copied and pasted in the body of an email.

Yes, you do need an online portfolio, absolutely. It can be simple and you can pay someone to do it, but make sure you can update it easily with new images. I’d say you need about ten to twenty really strong examples of your characters, some micro scenes that focus really closely on one or two things, some macro that get a wide scope of action in one picture, some setting, some animals…really show off your range.

If you have a physical dummy blocked out, mention that in your query. If I like what I see electronically, I’ll give you the mailing address to send it my way.

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Estee came up with a really interesting question, inspired by Wednesday’s post:

I’m curious if you remember the slush. I mean, if someone submits something that isn’t good enough, revises it and re-submits it at least six months later, do you recognize them?

Other comments joked about agents and their all-remembering powers. Since we see thousands of submissions a year, it’s a funny idea that we’d remember them, right? Well, I have news for you. I remember submissions pretty well, considering the circumstances! I can’t really remember what I had for dinner a few days ago or to pick up the one thing I really need at the grocery store, but I do start to get submission deja vu when reading something I’ve seen before.

For me, and I don’t know about other agents out there, it’s always a turn of phrase or a description that triggers my memory. In cases where the query or submission had a really focused premise, the premise will jog my memory if I see it again. The same goes for other random tidbits: funny character names, strange author names, jokes, exotic locations that the author is writing from, random connections we have that they might have brought up in their queries, etc. There are a million different things that catch my attention, of course. And I probably wouldn’t recognize everything I’ve ever seen if it was presented to me again, but my memory has been pretty accurate so far.

If the question was asked in the context of whether to mention a resubmission in the query, I say you should always mention it. Don’t count on the agent to forget that you’ve submitted before. Most of us who use email can search for your previous correspondence. And it’s not a bad thing to resubmit something. We all know that writing is a craft and that writers end up revising, sometimes days after they send their first query, sometimes months or years.

What do you say if you’re resubmitting something? How about something simple along the lines of:

Dear Mary,

You saw this query and passed with some really insightful feedback (Ha! My fake letter is laying it on a bit thick, but if you did get a response from the agent the first time around, don’t be afraid to mention something about it…). I’ve since revised the project and am hoping you’ll be interested in taking a second look. To refresh your memory, the story goes like this:

And then you launch into the meat of your query again because, as good as my memory may sometimes be, I’ll always appreciate another pitch to remind me of the key points of your project.

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Every conference I go to, I’m asked about the Andrea Brown Literary Agency rules and policies about submissions. Even though I think it’s all very clearly spelled out on our website’s Submissions page, I’ll take a crack at clarifying our instructions. These are the questions we usually get:

“Is a ‘no’ from one really a ‘no’ from all? Can I send my project to another ABLA agent?”

At ABLA, a “no” from one of us on a project is indeed a “no” from all. If you have chosen one of us — and I know it can be hard, with nine such wonderful agents — and we reject you, don’t send to another one of us just to be sure you chose the right agent in the first place. We are all looking for talent, whether debut or well-published, but we tend to pick only the top caliber submissions out of our slush. If you get no response or a rejection, assume that none of us is interested in the project as is.

You are, of course, welcome to submit a new project to us, whether you send to the same agent or a different one. You can also resubmit your original project six months (or more) after your first rejection, to the original or a different agent, if you can honestly say you’ve revised it and the work is different and stronger than it was the last time one of us saw it (be honest).

“Do you share projects of merit with your colleagues if the project doesn’t happen to be right for you?”

Yes. If I get a submission of very high caliber but it happens to be not quite right for me, I often pass it off to my colleagues for an additional read. We all do this. If someone else is interested, we connect the author to the agent and let the new agent take over the submission, if the author likes the idea.

If we do share your work, whether it ends up a pass or an offer of representation, you will most likely know that this level of enthusiasm exists. The agent who passes it around or the agent who ends up liking it will usually fill you in on the situation.

“Does no response after 6 to 8 weeks really mean rejection? Do you write personalized rejections?”

Our official agency policy is that we do not respond to queries unless interested and that no word after 6 to 8 weeks means, unfortunately, a rejection. The only email you should expect to receive from some of us is an automatic auto-response to confirm receipt of your query, and then an email expressing enthusiasm if we think your project is a good fit. Some of my colleagues do stick by the above guidelines. At this time, several of us, myself included, do still respond personally to every submission that follows our guidelines.

“Does my submission have to follow guidelines?”

When a submission doesn’t follow guidelines (is sent to every agent at the agency, has no sample pages, has an attachment, etc.), we delete them and don’t respond.

There are lots of other questions that querying writers ask — “Will you give me feedback?” or “Will you refer me to another agency that might be a better fit?” (my answer, here) — but the above are the more ABLA-specific and seem to come up the most. If you have any ABLA submission questions, in particular, now is the time to ask!

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