Plus ça change…

The more things change, the less anything changes…

That’s an old saying that has been around for decades, but in recent times the Publishing industry has blown it out of the water… Almost nothing in today’s publishing industry is remotely comparable to what was known and normal fifteen years ago. The arrival of the Electronic Book has altered everything.

There is one area, though, that is still recognizable to writers: the problem of coming in from the cold as an unknown and gaining access to established publishers is still the bane of every new and budding writer, and the difficulty is increasing. It is now a fact of life that virtually all Publishers rely completely on Literary Agents when it comes to finding new material. That wasn’t quite the case when I emerged from the sticks with my piles of manuscript back in 1990 and approached my publisher directly… But that single fact has now become the biggest stumbling block and bugbear facing new, unpublished authors. How does anyone, emerging new and unknown from the sticks, go about finding and procuring a qualified, accredited literary agent?

That’s probably the single most common question I’m asked by new writers wherever I go, and I know I’m not alone in being asked it. There are workshops and presentations on the subject at every literary conference and festival I attend, and everyone seems to agree that the major obstacle to success involves that scariest of exercises, the dreaded Query Letter.

I’ve just changed computers recently, graduating to a new, supercharged MacBook Pro powered by OSX Lion, and as part of the transition, I’ve been sorting through some of my old files and agonizing over whether or not to dump them. But I have found some interesting blasts from the past among my eclectic Archives and one of them, in particular, addresses this matter of the Query Letter, so I’m going to reproduce it here for anyone who might be interested in my perspective on a thorny, chronic problem that never seems to diminish… It’s a response I wrote to a young woman whom I knew personally, back in 1999. She had written a book and was having difficulty attracting any attention at all from agents, so she asked me if I would take a look at a couple of her Query Letters to agents and tell her what I thought. Because I knew her fiancé at the time, I agreed. I don’t know what happened after that, because I never heard back from her. I guess she didn’t like what I had to say.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote to her. If you’re a writer faced with the same problem, you might find something useful in it…


I have read your letters several times now, and I’ve decided to respond to you with my exact reactions, as nearly as I can recall them, in the order they occurred to me while I was reading. I’ve agonized quite a bit over that—I always do, which is why I never do this kind of thing any more; it’s far too easy to hurt people’s feelings and sensibilities unintentionally, simply by being truthful when what they really wanted was white lies…comfort and acknowledgment, along with a few platitudes and encouragement to continue.

The egos of writers, as I’ve discovered to my chagrin, are hideously fragile and vulnerable. Well, I’m a liberal dispenser of encouragement and a huge fan of perseverance in writing. But I will never be able to see any benefit at all, to anyone, in lying to people about the inherent, up front quality of whatever they have sent me. If it is good, I’ll say so and acknowledge it and encourage them to keep after their goals. If it is bad, however, I’ll say so, too, and I’ll sometimes attempt to explain why I can’t rave about it. That said, though, Good and Bad are relative terms and I judge them as they appeal to my own admittedly idiosyncratic standards; a book or a project that appeals to my personal tastes will attract me far more than one that does not. That’s a simple truism and it applies to everyone; to every agent, publisher and editor your will ever encounter: we all know what we like and many of us insist on liking what we know, to the exclusion of all else.

So what do all unpublished authors have in common? The truth is (and I’ve discovered just how true it is since I became a published author) that everybody wants to write at least one book and be a bona fide Author, with that capital “A”. Unfortunately, though, the inevitable corollary is that only a very small percentage ever can or will write one. And the absolute bottom-line truth is that no one can ever be a good, effective author without a solid, working knowledge and understanding of the nuts and bolts of the medium in which authors must work: the written language, whether it be English, French or Hottentot.

Every individual person believes, implicitly, that he or she has a unique story to tell and that it could be a best-seller if only people knew about it. Unfortunately, though, while that might be true, the telling boils down to both the creative and the linguistic capabilities of the individual narrator… It seems easy, looks easy, ought to be easy (because don’t we all speak the language like natives already?) and it will be easy, we know, once we actually get around to sitting down and doing it… But no, it doesn’t work that way. It’s not easy at all. It is horrendously difficult, and it is back-breaking, mind-bogglingly repetitious work. And of course, the statistics telling us that the average North American has a working vocabulary of less than four hundred words at his/her disposal only compound the difficulties. I have often told students and readers that the act of writing is relatively easy. It the re-writing and editing that will kill you, because that process never stops. Each time I pick up any one of my novels and open it at random I immediately find something I can improve immediately. Most people, however, have no slightest interest in re-writing anything. If they ever manage to get something down on paper at all, then that’s it. The prevalent attitude then seems to be, “It’s wrote, and it’ll stay wrote!”

Were I an agent, reading either one of your two Query Letters, I would reject them immediately…and I might not even write back to you to say so. But don’t rush off to commit hara-kiri yet! That’s not a rejection of your novel… It’s a rejection of your letter!

There are a couple of fundamentals, home truths, that we all lose sight of when we’re sweating over searching for, and finding, an agent. Only when you’ve succeeded and you have an agent, do you begin to see those basic truths. A Literary Agent (actually an Authors’ Representative) is called an agent because he/she works for, and represents, you, the author. And because the preponderance of successful North American agents nowadays seem to be women, I’ll treat the Ideal Agent as a woman here from now on.

Faced with the intimidating task of approaching such an important personage, as a yet-unknown writer, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you are not making that approach to her in order to ask for a job. If you have a finished manuscript you want her to peddle on your behalf, then you’ve already done your job, (short of editing and polishing the final product.) What you are doing in this approach is offering her an opportunity to benefit very nicely from your abilities; an opportunity to profit by representing you and your work to, and within, the publishing industry. In return for that representation, your agent will receive 15% to 20% of everything you earn thenceforth by the sweat of your body and mind… That can be, depending upon your success, a hell of a lot of money for comparatively little work. Sure, she might have to work really hard at peddling your first book; it might take months to make that first sale, but from then on, once she has sold you, and if you are as good as she and you believe you are, then it’s pretty much all gravy… Given that your first book sells, you become easier to represent. Eventually, if you are really lucky, your own name and reputation will sell your work, and you might even come to believe that you really don’t need an agent, although the truth is that you’ll always have and need at least one. But she’ll continue to take 15% to 20% of everything you earn on everything she sells on your behalf: advances, royalties, special fees and electronic rights…everything, plus all the attributable expenses entailed in the prosecution of your affairs.

That means, dear New Writer, that you don’t need to go cap-in-hand, as though looking for charity. You don’t have to grovel. Agents depend on writers for their livelihood. They are always on the alert for new talent. Always. And the dominant question in their minds when they look at your submission is, “Can I make money off this?” If they decide they can, you’re in business. It’s that simple, that basic and that honest. Agents are motivated by the same thing that motivates everyone else: a one-word answer (Money or Success or Reputation) to the question, “What’s in it for me?”

Once you accept that, the entire process of writing an inquiry letter becomes far more simple and straightforward: you are looking at no more than engaging the agent’s interest and eliciting a favourable response.

That, however, involves a few basic observations: An agent is not necessarily an intellectual or a reader. An agent is a commercial facilitator, motivated by profit. She doesn’t want to read your novel yet…certainly doesn’t want to read it in a query letter from a stranger. She believes—though you might quibble—that she has better things to do with her time.

An agent knows why you are writing to her, so you don’t have to explain that; they get dozens, sometimes hundreds, of similar letters each week.

By extension of that logic, an agent will read and respond only to those letters which attract and hold her attention instantly, and that does NOT include long, awkward, densely-worded epistles that look formal and stilted and promise to be time-consuming, convoluted and boring.

Precisely because of that, your letter should be short, sharp and pithy. No autobiographies, and no synopses of what your novel is about. What you need to send is a short letter that will make an agent—any agent—write back and say, “tell me more (about how I can get rich off your efforts and your talents.)”

You should never start such a letter by saying “please find enclosed in this letter an excerpt from my recently completed novel entitled blah blah blah.” Because blah blah blah is exactly the attitude every agent has to every unpublished novel to which they don’t hold the rights.

By the same token, you should never say, “I would like to interest you in my novel with the hope that you might consider taking me on as your client.” They know that already, and it makes them feel powerful to hear you begging for a crumb of recognition.

So, I hear you thinking, what should I say?

Well, whatever it might be, it should immediately convey your attractiveness. It should demonstrate, right out of the starting gate, that you are first and foremost and above all else a writer; a person who is utterly familiar and at ease with your language and your own ability to use it skillfully and seductively to sell yourself and your ideas. Your storytelling career begins with the opening of your Query Letter, because if the opening paragraph of your letter doesn’t sell you, the final chapter of your book isn’t going to, either, simply because it won’t get read.

I can’t tell you what to write or how to put the words together, but that’s your job anyway; you’re the author and it’s up to you to judge the best way of presenting yourself in an attractive and straightforward manner.

Here’s one such letter written by a young writer I know. I liked it when I first saw it, and it worked for her. She’s published now.

Dear Agent:

My name is ______ and I live in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It rains a lot here on the Pacific Northwest Coast, and so in order to keep the moss and webbing from growing between my fingers, I have spent the past few years writing a novel [N.B., no title given here.] which I have now, quite incredibly, completed.

Completion, however, has brought new frustrations, because now my friends are asking me what I intend to do with all these piles of paper and I, of course, after years spent slaving over them, have absolutely no idea, other than to attempt to get it published. Wishing and achieving are two different things, though, and I have now spent a lot of time digging into How One Should Proceed. One of those exercises produced your name, and I have been encouraged to contact you professionally.

I’ve written a Coming-Of-Age novel about a young woman who believes she is being persecuted by her own family. That might make it sound like a turgid, psychological drama, but I prefer to think of it as a wry, humorous and whimsical retrospective on Every Woman’s Puberty Years, from the perspective of a unique personality…

I have no idea of what your work load is or what your client list entails, but I’m sure they are both pretty well full. Nevertheless, if you think you might be interested in what I have, I would be delighted to send you a brief synopsis and a sample chapter. The synopsis will thumbnail my story and, of course, the sample chapter will tell you if I’m qualified to tell it.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Etc., etc.