Thursday, June 19, 2014

What NOT to say to an editor or agent

According to one source, about 80 percent of all Americans say they want to write a book. Among that number, most will never write the first word. From among those who do, most either never finish, or don’t know where to turn when they do.

It’s only a tiny subset of those aspiring authors, who will ever get around to pitching their work to an agent or publisher. Are you one of those brave souls? If so, you’ll need to know what to say and – very importantly – what NOT to say. Whether you’re sending a query by email, or conversing over coffee at a writers’ conference, here are a few things that probably won’t help your case:

“I have self-published a hundred books.”

I don’t want to burst your bubble, but at face value, this claim is not impressive. Anyone can self-publish a book these days, or a hundred, at little or no cost. (And frankly, we all know that most self-pub titles are lousy.) But did it get reviewed in Publishers Weekly? Did you sell thousands of each title? Did you get an endorsement from someone famous? That’s what we want to know. Get to the point, and quickly.

“My book is copyrighted.” Or worse, “copywritten.”

Nothing screams “amateur,” on the first page of a manuscript, quite like a copyright notice. No reputable industry guide suggests it, and no editor or agent respects it. In fact, I’ve met quite a number of editors who tell me they won’t even read such material. We’ll interpret it as an insult upon our professionalism, an accusation that we might steal your work.

From the moment that you put your story down to paper, it’s legally protected. It’s yours, whether or not you ever register with the Copyright Office. Title 17 of the United States Code says so, and we know it. We’ve worked for years to build our good reputation, and we’re not about to squander it now. Honestly, if we like your work, we'll likely make tons more money if we publish it with YOUR name on the cover. Paying royalties you you, will be MUCH cheaper than a lawsuit and legal fees. We have nothing to gain, and everything to lose.

But the real plagiarists are more clever than you know, and for them your © won’t make a whit of difference. And yes, I’ve actually had a handful of submissions with a cover letter warning me “this book is copywritten.”

“I will seek an endorsement from (Bill Clinton, Warren Buffett, Queen Elizabeth).”

We all know that endorsements can move a mountain of books. (My first client’s first book was endorsed on the cover by a prominent Evangelical preacher, and it did very well.) Of course, your mother loves everything you write, but in the marketplace that means nothing. So we seek out famous people with recognizable names. Wouldn’t we all love to gain the blessing of an ex-president, or a known captain of industry, or a ruling monarch? Of course we would.

But here’s the thing: I don’t want to know your wish list. (Julia Roberts might be the perfect person to write a blurb for your book, but she’s busy at the moment.) What I need for now is for you to tell me who is realistically gettable, and who is likely to return your call. An agent or publisher might help, but generally it's up to you. And it might be a while before you hear back from the pope. 

“My story is completely original; there’s nothing else like it.”

No it isn’t. This is not just my own perspective, it’s demonstrably false. The last truly original story was written at least 10,000 years ago, probably somewhere in Greece. So don’t even try it. The best that any of us can ever hope to do, is to craft a fresh retelling of an old tale. (West Side Story = Romeo & Juliet. Sharks and Jets = Capulets and Montagues.)

But even if your claim is true, it might be a liability. If the market has never demonstrated an appetite for this kind of book, why should we believe it exists now?  You’re already asking us to take a risk on an untested author; do you really think it will help your chances if you ask us to invent a new genre at the same time? I can’t see it.

“I’m a bestselling author.”

Every agent, and every publisher, loves to sign deals with writers who have a known record of selling truckloads of books. Indeed, if you’re one of those people, give me a call. But if you do, be sure to tell me the title and the index. (“Moby Dick, NY Times, June 5, 1998.”) Make no mistake, I will check it out.

To date, however, every “bestseller” proposal I’ve seen (dozens), existed only in the world of Amazon. This is a magical land where the rulers calculate “top-ten bestseller” status according to their own secret formula. Long story short, this “top-ten” list could potentially include thousands of titles each week, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that one book sold more copies than another. Yup.

“I have hundreds of four and five-star reviews”

Again, I’m skeptical. Where do these starred reviews appear? It’s on Amazon, where the reviews are easy to manipulate, and everyone knows it. Authors collude to trade raves, and then ask all their friends to do the same. Without spending endless hours in research (and who has the time?), it’s hard to distinguish the genuine from the fakes. I’ve met several authors who generated hundreds of reviews while selling only a couple dozen books. We’re not impressed.

“I have written a fiction novel”

Last time I checked, a novel IS fiction, and this sentence alone causes me to question your writing skills. Show me that you’re a pro (such as, you have a decent grasp of the industry lingo), and I might ask to read that “fiction novel.”

(If you’ve already identified your work as a mystery novel) “My target audience is mystery readers.”

Yes, it stands to reason that mystery readers will naturally seek out more mysteries to read. We don’t need you to remind us. What we need to know here, is your perfect demographic: Male or female? Young or old? Podiatrists or airline pilots? Americans or Frenchmen? Your prospective publisher won’t just evaluate the quality of your writing, she will also need to catch a vision for how she might build a marketing campaign. If you don’t know, they won’t know either.

You might ask (and many do), they’ve been in business for a hundred years, and they can’t figure it out by reading my manuscript? That’s the thing: they haven’t read it yet. The purpose of your query or proposal is to persuade them to read it.


  1. Extremely helpful. Thank you for posting.

  2. Great info. Remind me not to tell you about my self-published books that sold three copies each.