Putting together a query letter or book proposal is a fact of life for writers. In today’s competitive market you’ve got to be head and shoulders above your peers to garner an agent or editor’s attention. There’s a wonderful new book that shows you how to do just that. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Book Proposals and Query Letters by Marilyn Allen and Coleen O’Shea. Both are partners in the literary agency www.allenoshea.com. In this book they share their tips and insider information. It’s one I highly recommend if you want to take your career to the next level. Here is my interview with them. Plus, they’re giving away a signed copy to one reader. All you need to do is leave a comment by midnight on Sunday February 27th, 2011 and Marilyn and Coleen will pick one at random.This giveaway is for US residents only.
Susan Palmquist (SP)-Tell us about yourselves and your back ground?
Marilyn Allen- From the earliest age, I loved books. I majored in English Literature in college and planned to teach. After college teaching jobs were difficult to land, so I started working in a bookstore–and discovered my life’s passion! This lead to jobs in publishing, where I worked for many major houses including Penguin, Simon and Schuster, and Harper Collins in the sales and marketing departments.
Coleen O’Shea- I love words and storytelling. When I was young I went to the library each week determined to read my way through the entire collection. I am still a voracious reader—and I read my favorite volumes often. In college I majored in American Literature and got my teacher’s certificate. The most fun I had as a student teacher was helping the high school students start a school newspaper. I also wrote for my college paper and was editor-in-chief of the yearbook. I decided publishing was more interesting to me than teaching, and so I went to NYC in search of a publishing job. I worked my way up from editorial assistant to executive editor with stops at several publishing houses along the way.
SP-What prompted you to start a literary agency?
MA-As my career advanced in publishing I found that I was spending most of my days in meetings or dealing with management issues. I really missed working closely with authors and their works. Aha, I thought…I will start a literary agency.
COS- Some publishing companies want editors to focus on a special category. I have a lot of interests and I wanted to do a wide-range of projects, working with authors across categories. As an agent I get to work with a variety of authors and deal with topics that have tremendous bearing on a writer’s career—contracts, editorial, production, marketing, publicity, sales, and more.
SP-Had you ever worked together before?
MA-We actually did. Early in our careers Coleen and I worked together at Avon Books. I sold the list of romances and Coleen edited them. We became friends.
COS- Ditto above. It’s great to work with a colleague with whom I have both a professional and personal relationship.
SP-Why did you decide to write this book?
MA-We love to help writers and felt as if we were giving the same advice over and over. We decide to write this book to give aspiring authors tools for navigating the complex publishing process.
COS-Publishing is an evolving business and putting this information in one place is useful for us, and we hope for writers as well.
SP-What will we find between its covers?
MA-You will find the advice of two agents and former publishing executives about how to get noticed in a very competitive business, how to prepare professional materials that will show your project in the best light and lots of samples of what to do and not do.
COS-Writers will find the key material they need to master in order to get noticed in a competitive business. They will learn that every idea may not make a great book, but smart ideas, presented in unique and professional ways, will increase their chances of finding a suitable agent and publisher.
SP-If you could give three tips about putting together the perfect query letter what would they be?
MA-We like to tell writers to focus on the hook, book and the cook in their one page query letters. The hook–what is unique about your book and why will a consumer pay $25 for your work vs. all of the other titles in the marketplace already; the book–what do you plan to cover in your work and who is the audience; the cook–why are you qualified to write this book?
COS-Three important tips include creating a compelling subject line; make sure your content overview is clear and to the point; express succinctly why you are best qualified to write the book. For fiction, demonstrate the mastery of your story-telling skills.
SP-How about three tips about writing a book proposal?
MA–A strong marketing platform to support sales is expected by editors these days, so work on it before you start looking for an agent. Know your audience/community and show how you can reach it. Let your passion for the subject shine through in all of your materials.
COS-Today publishing is concerned with identifying and connecting with your niche audience. Make sure your proposal identifies how you are uniquely positioned to reach your audience; your content should be fresh and innovative (do your research—assess your competition); and demonstrate that you are a knowledgeable, skillful and professional writer.
SP-What are the essentials of putting together a book proposal…what must always be included?
MA and COS- Start with a powerful overview; include an annotated table of contents (describe what will be in each chapter); your bio pitched for this project and your publishing history; a marketing profile which includes any media clips or links; and some sample chapters to showcase your writing talent and demonstrate how you will cover the material.
SP-What common mistakes you do see writers making when they submit a query letter to you?
MA- Most writers neglect to use the subject line (in email queries) to grab attention. We see many writers who have not researched the correct agencies for their project. We see lots of spelling and grammatical errors.
COS-I include the above list as the most obvious faults, but another problem we find is a lack of honest appraisal of their work. Before you push “send” get an impartial reader to evaluate your submission. Make sure you put your best work forward.
SP-How about book proposals?
MA-many of the nonfiction projects we see are too generic. It’s important to have new information or something new to add to the literature. A focused and tight topic is usually more appealing than a sweeping overview. (There are riches in the niches.) Many of the fiction submissions seem rushed and not ready to be presented to editors.
COS-We can get turned off with the “me-too” submission—a project that replicates books already in the marketplace. Strive for fresh and innovative material. Fiction is complex—make sure your storytelling succeeds on all levels: plot, character, setting, theme, and so on. Above all, make sure your writing style is the very best you can achieve. Write, rewrite, polish, and rewrite some more.
SP-Do you ever get feedback from the editors you work as to why a query or proposal didn’t grab them? If so what are editor’s biggest pet peeves?
MA-We do get feedback and typically the editors mention things like; author does not have a big enough media platform, the topic does not sell well or is over published.
COS-Editor feedback frequently hinges on the lack of author platform or a crowded marketplace or that the material seems too familiar.
SP-Do most agents work with potential clients to polish queries and book proposals? Or is the competition so high that agents just move on to the next author?
MA-The business has become very competitive and everyone is overworked. We try to help our clients but it’s so important for writers to really polish their materials and educated themselves about the publishing business. And remember–it is a business.
COS-We’re a small agency so we are actively involved in developing work with our clients. But we are running a business and potential clients must hit a professional threshold before we can take them on. We’ve got to believe in the work and the author before taking the next step in the partnership. It’s the writer’s job to convince us to do so by writing a killer query letter and an appealing proposal. Sure, we’ll help them polish the material, but the core submission must be solid.