My name is Jeremy Flagg and I’m a superhero author. In 2015 I received a publishing contract and launched my first superhero novel. While I wish I could discuss the wealth and the fame that came immediately after, the reception was less than warm. It was cold, like glacial cold. For the following year I saw low sales, non-existent page reads, and nearly called an end to the series. While sales would eventually increase, the first year netted me almost no income from my writing.
It’s three years later and I am relaunching my series. To help give focus and provide a roadmap for other authors, I plan on documenting the process. These numbers are rough approximations (I’m not the best at tracking my expenses.)
There you have it folks, with my portion of the contract at 40%, my first year I made a grand total of $66.88. The book launched at $3.99. The first month I only saw an income of $23.76 based on 12 eBook sales, 9 physical books, and 2201 page reads. While the launch month was indeed the biggest month of profit, it hardly warranted celebration. This number however, does not show my personal hand sales (it would be in the dozens.)
When I started marketing, I had no followers, no fans, and no connections to the author community. Thankfully because of my day job, I have income to jump start this endeavor. What I quickly learned, throwing money at the problem did not always result in a positive return.
The first two items I purchased to market was a wire service and a blog tour package. The wire service resulted in absolutely no visibility, no coverage, and no promotion. I was able to track which news services picked up my release and I could count on one hand the number of mentions and they were in wildly inappropriate categories (Washington Post Online Business Section?) The blog tour was the next purchase. It not only resulted in no income, but required an uncanny amount of time to fill out questionnaires about mind numbing topics such as my favorite ice cream. Who cares? Who were these blogs? They were nobodies. Waste of money and time and no sales to speak of. I also found the people in charge to be rude, underhanded, and incredibly scammy (this was from an extremely reputable blog tour company as well.)
The rest of the promotional services netted me almost no return. While it didn’t make sense then, it tells me that there is something wrong with the book at this point. Primarily, I believe being in a niche genre reduces the broad appeal, couple this with a cover not depicting the interior and a blurb that confuses the genre, I can understand why there were minimal sales as a result.
Marketing Tactics Prior to Launch
I am roughly two months from when I hope to launch. As of the time I’m writing this, I am waiting to hear back from my cover artist as to when the work will be available. Currently this is the only thing holding up my releases, however it is providing me valuable time to do some behind the scenes work in anticipation of my release.
Newsletter Swaps: I am currently collaborating with authors who I think my books will jive with. I am placing about six authors per newsletter to build up a healthy IOU for my release. I am doing this with authors I’ve connected with within my genre, superhero author groups, and science fiction authors. My goal is to have somewhere in the 15 – 20 newsletters willing to promote my book upon relaunch.
Amazon Giveaway: I am hosting a variety of Amazon Giveaways and requiring entrants to follow my author page. While this tactic has worked extremely well for me in the past, Amazon has drastically changed how they are done. I used two extremely well selling superhero authors (within the top 10 of my category) and was only able to land 67 entries. At this time, I am not currently sure if those who Follow me from a failed giveaway will receive the new release alert. I am currently changing tactics and trying graphic novels with the same tone to see if that will generate more interest.
Mailinglist Building: I’ve resisted building my list for a while. I currently have 2,200 subscribers and have an average open rate of 35% with an additional 10% on campaign resends and a click rate ranging between 4-11%. I have joined six BookFunnel promotions for the month of June including SFF BookBonanza, a Superhero Author Sponsored, NESW Sponsored, and three broader science fiction promotions. I am also participating in a Listbuilder with a fellow superhero author that nets around 6,000 subscribes (about 600 of them will be retained after vetting and scrubbing the list harshly.) My goal is to reach 3,000 subscribers and maintain my open and click rate leading up to my launch.
Costs to Date
Now that I am relaunching I have to start from scratch, which is terrifying, but affords me a new world of opportunities. The first priority is to give my series a fresh edit (not a line edit, but make sure items align to the later novels in the series.) I also need to create new book covers. Thankfully I am a graphic designer by trade so once I have the artwork I can create the jackets and later, the advertisements, for free.
Line Edit: $0
BookFunnel: $12.50 per month
Mailerlite: $25 per month
Amazon Giveaways: $20
Craig Martelle’s Successful Launch Strategies eBook: $4.99
Points to Ponder & Explore
I am currently exploring the options in front of me for my release. Unlike before I will be doing a rapid release of all the books in the series. This will undoubtedly help with my overall sales. I want to include AMS and Facebook ads into this mix as well as select mail blast promotions. The big question hanging over my head is revolving around pre-order. If I offer a 30 day pre-order, I will have access to Kindle Countdown deals. I will also have time to either migrate my reviews or have my fans post new reviews. However, I don’t want an extended pre-order buying into launch day sales and counting down the clock to the inevitable “cliff” books see on Amazon.
Currently I do know that I will be launching the first book of my series at $.99 for maximum exposure and I will be enrolling into Kindle Unlimited to take advantage of page reads. The question will be if I do a pre-order, will I have it at $3.99 and then drop it for the “true” launch or have at $.99 from the get go?
Time & Energy
Currently the majority of my time is being spent editing my books. I have nearly finished the first book. I’m finding that I am not wasting too much time beyond my typical social media habits and writing a new novel. I feel the next stage may require more time as I want to create a few custom graphics to use as teasers leading up to the book. I am discussing graphics and release strategies with my artist and so far things are going extremely well.
I know we don’t talk about energy a lot when it comes to launches, but it is indeed stressful. There is a cloud hanging over my my head and I feel as if there is a lot riding on this to “get it right.” I am stressed with the possibility it may flounder. There is a bit of an emotional toll. Thankfully I have a strong support network and I’m actually doing this release at the same time fellow superhero author Trish Heinrich is doing her relaunch. This is making it much more bearable, however, there is the lingering worry. I know I can make more than $67.00 my first month. But can I make my real goal of $1,000.00 the first month? That’s the big question.
It is a commonly known fact that women are the curators of the man’s work, ingrained deeply into the United States from stereotypes crafted in the early 1900’s and onward. Though the nuclear home ideal is as dead as dead can be with the Millennial generation, in numerous publishing and literary careers women dominate the field.
Women as librarians.
Women as the editors.
Women as literary agents.
I’ve worked as both a librarian and an editor, and I can tell you, finding a man in either one is a rarity. In my three years as a tech services assistant in my college library, I knew two men who worked there, in a staff of thirty people. I was at an Editorial Freelancers Association meeting recently for the Diversity Initiative group; no men.
Even among indie authors, I see far more women and NB folk who wear both hats to pay the bills. They offer competitive but doable rates, and are generally approachable folks. The men I know in writing? Rates so high that you’ll never be able to afford them, and that’s why they are that way. So they don’t have to be bothered.
So why is that? Why is that the men folk rarely work in publishing beyond writing the book, or being a literary agent, or running the whole publishing house?
I honestly don’t know for certain. I’m no expert. But if I had to take a stab at it, I would say that it probably has something to do with the fact that women have always been in the caretaker position. Editing, librarianship, even being a literary agent–all jobs which fall under that category. You are not the one creating the art, rather you are the one looking after it. You’re the one who’s making sure the contract is sound, the manuscript is error-free, and that the books are cataloged correctly to insure access.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s the job you want. Except when I get paid a lot less than a man does, just like every other woman and non-binary person working in every industry. Then we have problems.
Despite the rise in numbers of female and non-binary authors working today, these statistics are still largely skewed by genre. Men still dominate some of the biggest genres around, including horror, SFF, and action adventure. Women who write within these genres are often either pushed to write romance, or shoved into that category entirely due to marketing. During my short time managing an indie bookstore, I became frustrated with the female authors having their works shelved in Paranormal Romance, while the male authors got to go to SFF. In the end, I created an urban fantasy section. Sure enough, sales picked up, because the books were finally where they should be.
I’ve worked throughout the many stages of publishing and the life-span of the written word, from library, to book store, to now freelance editing and indie author. I would love to say things are getting better, but only to a point. I’m a born-female, androgynous identifying person, writing and publishing LGBT Action Adventure. I don’t know anyone like me, not in my genre. Sarah Gailey probably comes closest, but she’s more SFF than my espionage leanings.
That’s it. A single author.
I knew well and good that I would be playing a man’s game the moment I decided that I wanted to get into writing espionage. Yet in the last three years, I’ve not seen any traction in the action adventure genre at all. It worries me, and it frustrates me. It forces me to title my books under initial, rather than my full name, because there is still major push-back for a non-male author to write a book with male leading characters.
But it also drives me. I write in this genre because I love it, always have. I was reared on Ian Fleming and campy action movies. My feel good films are the Shadow, the Phantom, and From Russia With Love. I am not going to stop playing in action adventure just because I’m one of a handful of LGBT and non-male folk here.
Women get to be caretakers, but they also get to be whatever the hell they want. Same goes for trans and non-binary folks. You have a choice. Break up the boys’ clubs. Kick the door down if you have to. You deserve it. You are worthy. Anyone who tells you otherwise, clearly doesn’t know what you’re capable of.
I published my first book, Suburban Zombie High in October of 2013. I had been writing for a few years and decided it was time to press the dreaded “publish” button. I self edited the book (my mastery of the English language is questionable at best.) The story didn’t quite fit into a genre, and the only saving grace was a cover illustrated by Amanda Kahl. I don’t know what I expected. It sold. People other than my family purchased it. Reality finally struck in the form of my first royalty statement: $18.65.
I didn’t have high expectations, but I think we all secretly hope it’ll take off and before we know it there’s a movie, a toy line, and a new societal trend based on our books. I recall staring at the number, and truth be told, I was a bit devastated. I was a novice, unsure of what I was doing, and not entirely sure I wanted to be a “writer.” Imposter syndrome (as I would later learn the term) sunk its ferocious nails into my hide and refused to relent. Authors don’t talk about their royalties frequently, it’s a well guarded secret. We might be judged based on our success because of a single number. The reality, we judge ourselves harshly based on that number.
That first year, I made $34.34.
My self-worth became married to that number. I wasn’t even worth $40. I couldn’t pay a bill after a year. I could barely afford a decent take out meal. Depression, insecurity, and wavering love for my hobby started to crop up. I was alone. I couldn’t talk to the “big authors” because they obviously wouldn’t understand. They’re living the dream and I can’t even afford a week of Starbucks.
I was picked up by a publisher and Nighthawks, my first superhero novel came out in February of 2016. I was stoked to have a partner in this journey and start washing away that horrible first experience. My confidence strengthened and I started working at a brisk pace. My book was professionally edited and the cover was supplied by the publisher. I was green, for me, this was the moment, my big break, my chance to be worth more than thirty dollars. In May of 2016, I received my first royalty statement for Nighthawks. My heart sank as I saw the phrase, “Grand Total: $7.66.”
In 2016, I made $105.76 from my fiction novels.
I had four books out at this point, three fiction and one non-fiction. My non-fiction managed to do well enough to make mortgage payments. I didn’t want to be a non-fiction writer, and I grew angry at the success of a work I didn’t feel passionate about. I had managed to make enough with my fiction to pay a single month of cable, a single hotel night, or gas for my car for a month. This “not good enough” mentality refused to shake free. I started believing I might simply be bad at this “hobby.”
Then things started to change. I decided to take a bit of a different approach to life after some catastrophic events happening in my professional life. I needed to be done with stress and start looking at things through a glass half full lens. Why did I have these doubts? Why did I feel insecure in my work? Why did I just feel not good enough all the time?
Let me point out some things:
- I published a god damned book. How many people fail before this step?
- I made money on something I love doing. Strangers bought my creation.
- My profit increased from one year to the next.
- My output increased. I now have fifteen (soon to be sixteen) titles between novels, anthologies, and audio.
- I started to learn the industry behind the “hobby” I love.
- I met amazing folks who support me unconditionally.
How do I put a price tag on those things? You can’t. Suddenly, my outlook changed. I stopped looking at myself as a creator and started thinking of myself as an artist who needs to commercialize their craft. I’m a graphic designer, essentially an artist for hire. It clicked. My worth is not a number. My identity isn’t a royalty statement. Those numbers are a byproduct of my effort and my blood, sweat, and tears.
In 2017, the number increased by ten fold. 2018 isn’t over, and the number is continuing to climb. I wish it was ten fold again, but I’ll take double or triple (you can calculate the math to guesstimate my income.) The number continues to climb.
I got my royalty statements yesterday. I didn’t even look at them until I needed to pay one of my vendors. I opened my account and said, “Uh, that’s more money than I thought.” I inspected my royalty statements and realized I made more in one month than I had between 2011 – 2016. Can I live off it? Absolutely not. Can I pay all my bills? I’m happy to report we’re nearing that threshold.
What I want you, the author reading this, the struggling artist, to take away? I want you to know that 1) you are not a royalty statement. You are so much more. You are a creator of worlds, a long-winded poet, a human. 2) Authors may not divulge our numbers openly, but when you get a royalty check that doesn’t amount to dinner on the dollar menu at McDonalds, we have all been there. Many of us are still there. We all struggle, even if it’s not visible, communicated, or disseminated across social media. 3) If you want to do better, you control your future. You can be better. There is no magical cap on your potential. Hard work can (and will) get you there.
I used to measure my success in royalty statements. It still colors my definition, but I’ve broadened what I find to be considered success. My definition of success comes in small steps, and each step I take leads to the next. I am not going to be Angela Lansbury and solving crime by tomorrow. I may not have a Netflix series out next month. But someday, one step at a time, I will finish this marathon a victor, even if my time is monumentally longer than those in first place. The take away of this I guess, you are not a number.
I’ve been publishing for several years now and had the chance to work with extremely amazing people. The stories have ranged from heartfelt successes to humorous failures. I’ve sat with million dollar earners as well as authors struggling to make a single sale. What I’ve noticed as a big difference between the two, the successful author is able to remove their ego, package it up, set it on the shelf, and shush it when necessary. I admit there is an artistry to the craft we’ve undertaken, but great art does not equate to sales and often times this ego rearing its ugly head is the author’s biggest dilemma. I’m here to drop a truth bomb, your ego, it’s got to go.
Let me amend where I’m going with this statement. This is targeted to the author looking to make a career from writing (which means making $$$.) This is not targeted to the authors who write as a passion project. However, if you hope to have your passion project seen by the world, or at least more than your family, this is very much directed toward you. I wrote for passion for many years (and still do at times) so I never want to discredit or tell an author how their journey should be directed. But herein lies the conflict, when authors, even passion project authors, want their work read by many, but refuse to see their authorship as a career. So let’s start with major mistakes.
Photo by takahiro taguchi on Unsplash
Bookshelves are a thing of the past.
There is this romantic image of an author casually browsing a bookstore and stumbling upon their work. They may ask to sign it, the store rewards them in free lattes and by some bit of magic, throngs of fans arrive demanding story time. Let’s be frank here, this is not the case. Angela Lansbury and Castle are fictional. The romantic image of the writer is 99.9% myth. And I’m not sure about you, but I don’t build a career on the possibility of winning the lottery (which has nearly identical odds.)
Consumers are steadily growing, but they’re not growing in the bookstore sector. We can see this with the demise of Borders and the frequent profit loss reports of Barnes & Noble (which is kicking and screaming to its grave.) If you do out the math of what is selling in bookstores, you’ll find most often it’s only the .1% that is making sales worth it. I’ve met multiple authors who have gone to bookstores and set up sales channels only to find the books do not fly on the shelves like they imagined. I write superhero novels, and I thought putting them in comic shops would be a great market plan. After countless hours, I managed to get them into several stores where almost none sell. If I did the sales and divided by the time spent, I probably made about $.10 an hour.
Remove the romance of writing from your business model. Push to where the market is strongest, and for many, this is online. This goes with the determination of selling physical books in online stores. Do not ignore them by any means, but also realize an ebook sale is often easier, faster, and selling in bulk can be more profitable in the long run. Don’t let your ego get in the way of letting go of outdated mentalities.
Book signing events
This is where I admit my ego often rears its ugly head. I’m an introvert by choice, but every now and then, I want to go out and bask in the glow of my admiring fans. I set up a book signing event and expect the line down the street, where people will let me sign their chests (it’s happened!) and kiss their babies. To my amazement I’m sitting alone gabbing with employees basking in the smell of fresh books. Poor.
We all have our vices, this one is mine. The reality of the matter is, unless you’re well-known, you’re not going to have people showing up to your signings. Or if you do, it’s people who would have bought your books without needing a hand sale.Most bookstores do not have the budget to advertise more than a social media post or a sandwich sign out front. The four hours I spend at a bookstore, is time lost doing something else, like selling books or writing. When I factor in the payout at the end of my last couple author events, I probably made nearly $.25 an hour and maybe met six people, five of who just know me and want to hang out. My ego is burning money, creating anxiety, and ultimately, disappointing me. But let’s be honest, this is where my vice will probably never let up.
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
Libraries can be a time suck.
I am the son of a librarian. I support libraries. Librarians are some of the most underrated superheroes in the universe and should be sung about. With that being said, getting your book onto library shelves can be tedious, a waste of time if you over invest, and ultimately, not reward anything other than your ego. I have sent mailer cards to every library in the state (multiple states even.) My sales from this? Of over six hundred libraries, I sold three books. That didn’t cover the shipment or hours wasted sending release notices to librarians.
Do not discount libraries as part of your marketing plan, just make sure you’re investing a reasonable amount of time and money. My new strategy to help myself and still reach these golden bastions of information is to reach out to my newsletter and ask my fans to inquire about my book at their libraries. It takes a few minutes of my time, my fans do the leg work, the library sees interest in my title, and ultimately, I’m helping support libraries. This level of time commitment, it’s a smart business decision. Losing hundreds of dollars pushing your books onto librarians, not so much.
Industry reviews are not reader reviews.
So you’ve decided your ego needs a huge boost or a huge slam. You’re ready to go for one of those fabled, massive, professional recognized reviews. It’ll cost you an arm and a leg, and you’re hoping they like your book and give it a positive review. You’re gambling. You’re gambling your reputation and your money. Your ego has reared its ugly head and it demands that you be recognized for your hard work. But when was the last time, a reader went to read these reviews? Sure you can add it to your Amazon product description that you received the golden star of the BigCompanyReview.
Honestly, when was the last time you, as a reader paid attention to that? I go to book pages because I either like the author and buy everything they write, or I browse and look at people reviews. I don’t care what some big company said about your book, I want to know what fans, people like me, have to say about your book. I want social proof that I won’t be let down.
These big review sites, they’re for professional ego stroking. Would I like to have BigCompanyReview tell me how much they love my work? Sure. But not for the money it requires and not at the risk of a bad review. The worst part, of the people I know who have received glowing recommendations, nearly all of them agree, the reviews have not made them sales. So then why get them? The determination for peer acceptance? Or is it our ugly friend again, the ego?
Books alone are not always viable.
This is aimed at the authors looking to make writing their full-time career. It’s a hard pill to swallow. My personal dream is to live in a remote cabin, write manuscript after manuscript and roll around in my money. Truth is, my writing alone isn’t going to cut it. I’m doing well, and reaching my personal goals, but the big goal is to be a career author. I’m finding my revenue is starting to shift from writing of books and now includes audio and boxsets. It’s still my writing, but it’s not solely books.
You may find that a combination of writing and patreon is your solution. It could be speaking engagements and writing are your thing. You as an author may write books, but that is not your only marketable skill. Diversifying your revenue streams to include a little here and there will eventually add up. I’ll keep praying that I land a movie deal, but I can’t put all my chips on a long shot.
Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash
A business requires goals.
The idea that you are a writer is a glamorous life filled with Starbucks, late night inspirations, and falling in love with fictional people. It is also a job, and at times, your boss will be the biggest pain in the ass. But that boss is pushing your business toward a goal. These goals do not need to be large and mighty. Most often the best business plan has small steps. These small achievable goals push us toward the greater goal, no matter where you define success.
I’m going to give you a small exercise, and I think it’s important, so be a trooper and join me.
- Take a sheet of paper and at the top, write and finish the statement: My goal as an author is… Make it a single overarching goal. Perhaps look at it as your ten-year goal.
- Make three columns
- In the left column, take ten minutes and write down every thing you do as a writer. Include your writing habits, your marketing, your events. Literally try to write as many things as you can think that you’ve done in your author career journey. For me, it might be: attend cons, ams ads, facebook ads, writer conference X, attend author expo, manage NESW, boxset promotion, audio books….
- In the center column, this is where it gets a bit difficult. You need to write how each item in the left column achieves your greater goal. You need to be honest here. No inflating the purpose. Some of these you might not know if you haven’t done them yet. This is where you can ask people who have. Never attended a convention to sell books, ask veteran sellers, they’ll be honest about their goals. Never done a book signing event and not sure how it might achieve your goal, ask.
- Now here’s the part I find authors have the most difficulty doing. Tape that paper somewhere in your office. Each time you execute one of the items on the left column, write the result in the right column. If it does not achieve that goal in the center, kill it. If it does, then make notes. If it did something unexpected, it’s time to rewrite how it’s achieving your greater goal.
- Stick with it. You’ve just unknowingly created a business plan. It might be loose, it might be incomplete, but you’ve started. This works for authors seeking a career, hobbyist, and even the causal, “I do it for the love.”
I will bluntly say, all the above advice should be taken with a grain of salt, a lot of scrutiny, and raked over with your personal and business goals in mind. No person’s career is identical to another and there are numerous paths to be taken. But the one thing I stand by, and I urge people to conquer for the sake of sound decision-making to advance your goals, your ego.
If you want to know why it’s important to copyright your artistic creation, just ask George A. Romero.
(Not literally, of course. The guy’s dead.)
(Or IS HE?)
Romero’s classic horror film Night of the Living Dead is and always has been a public domain creation because the original theatrical distributor, the Walter Reade Organization, forgot to put a copyright notice on the film. According to copyright laws in 1968, that meant Romero had no legal claim to his own creation, which meant anyone could show, sell, or reimagine the movie without having to receive permission from Romero and without having to pay for the privilege.
Copyright laws have gotten a little better since then. As of 1978, writers are considered to be the legal copyright holder the minute he types out the first word of their manuscript. You don’t even have to add the “© Copyright [Year of Creation] – Indie Author” notice anywhere, though it’s generally considered a good idea as it strengthens any legal defense of your work in the event of plagiarism or unauthorized use.
That also happens to be why you should consider going through the formal process of copyrighting your work.
While the inherent copyright that comes with creating a work and the addition of a copyright notice have legal standing, they don’t have strong legal standing. Without a formal copyright from the US Copyright Office (https://www.copyright.gov/) you cannot sue for copyright infringement in the US, nor can you receive statutory damages for copyright infringement if said infringement occurred before the work was registered (or within three months of post-publication registration).
That doesn’t mean you have no recourse if you find someone using your work without your permission. You have the right to send cease-and-desist (C&D) or Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices, and that’s often enough to make an offender back down, but if you have to go to the next step of litigation, you’re not going to get far without that formal copyright.
To obtain a formal copyright, you register your work with the US Copyright Office, which does cost money — $105 for “a document of any length including no more than one title,” i.e., your novel. You can file electronically, but you will still need to provide a hard copy for the Library of Congress, so there will be mailing expenses as well.
FYI the first: there are any number of outfits that claim they will help you file for a copyright. A few are complete scams that are actually trying to steal your copyright out from under you, but more likely they’re just trying to make money by doing the work for you. The process really isn’t that complicated. You figured out how to write and publish a novel. Figuring out the copyrighting process is a comparative cakewalk.
FYI the second: there is no legally defensible shortcut to obtaining a formal copyright. A common myth is that you can obtain a copyright by sending a copy of your manuscript to yourself via registered mail, effectively making the US Postal Service your “witness,” but the so-called “Poor Man’s Copyright” provides no more protection than simply slapping the © mark on your work.
Some final quick-hit factoids:
- Posting a work online does not automatically make it public domain. You have to explicitly declare that your work is public domain before anyone else can use it legally.
- Anyone who uses your copyrighted material without your permission, even if they do not realize financial gain from its use, is in violation of your copyright. That includes fanfic writers using your stories as inspiration for their own (or fanfic you write yourself and post online).
- “Fair use” allows for limited reproduction of copyrighted material, usually for purposes of commentary and critique — e.g., someone posting a copy of your book’s cover art along with short excerpts from the book, preferably with full attribution to the creator, as part of a book review.
- Unlike trademarks, you do not have to actively defend your copyright in order to retain it.
This is not a post about writing computer code or database queries, for the record. It’s about talking to literary agents.
I was reviewing a query letter this morning, as a favor to someone important to me, not because I’m some kind of expert in writing query letters to agents. The letter was fine in some ways. It was personally directed at the agent and demonstrated that the writer had researched the agent’s specific interests. Good. It connected the dots between the agent’s interests and the book in question. Good. It described the gist of the book coherently. Good. And finally, it explained the writer’s relevant credentials. All good.
The thing is: when I got to the end of the letter, I wasn’t sold. I had to spend some time pondering what wasn’t working for me to realize how on point that description of my reaction was: I WAS NOT SOLD.
The writer had taken the approach of trying to use the letter to demonstrate their narrative style…which happens to be lyrical and indirect in that Jane Austen sort of way that sneaks up on you from behind and smacks you in the back of the funny bone with a killer punchline you weren’t expecting. The style is brilliant for delivering gentle-yet-sharp observations on society, and it’s a gem of a choice for the book in question. A query letter, however, offers neither the space nor the communication objectives for this style to do its best work. The result? The letter was passive and confusing.
The fundamental problem in the way the author was thinking about the letter was that they weren’t focused on the question of selling. I want to reiterate here that I’m not any kind of expert on talking to agents…I’ve been intentionally exploring the indie thing and have literally never queried an agent in my life. I’m a writer, though, with a lot of writer friends and a few agents I pay attention to peripherally, and what has stood out to me from watching the ones who actually make money at it (unlike me) is that the point of a relationship between writers, agents, and publishers is TO SELL BOOKS.
Agents might take on the odd risky passion project when they’ve got time and money to burn, but by and large, when they take on a new client, it’s because they see in that person and their work an opportunity to make money. This is not because they are cynical or hardened or sellouts: making money at selling books is what allows them to continue being employed in their much-loved and extremely competitive field.
What this means to me is that the primary job of a query letter is to make it crystal clear to a prospective agent that your book will be easy to sell. They read huge numbers of these letters: if they have to do the work of extrapolating the quality of your writing style in its best context and then imagine for themselves how they can turn that work into a consumer-friendly pitch, they might just move on. A query letter has to do that work for them.
The other thing I’ve observed is that agents want to see that a new client is going to be a good partner for the time-intensive work of bringing a book to publication and selling it. If a query letter requires an agent to wander a garden maze of misdirection to hunt down the point, it suggests that professional communication with the given writer is going to be time-consuming, exhausting, and full of misunderstandings. In short: it would be a pain in the ass. Your query letter needs to you as a business partner as much as it sells your work.
We must be able to codeswitch with our writing, to use the right words for the right context. If you’re writing poetry, write the best poetry you can. If you’re writing a query letter, get out the scalpel and write a business letter.