Publishing 101: From Query To Shelf

At the Chicago Writer’s Conference, Liz Pelletier of Entangled Publishing put on a wonderful workshop about the publishing process from the publisher’s POV. Not only was it enlightening, but kinda scary too. It’s amazing that any publishers make money in the business considering how much it costs to publish books!

When Liz talked about the query, a lightbulb went off in my head. I’d been approaching the query completely wrong and was doing it in a way that a lot of people do. Most people who do write a successful query that lands the coveted agent or editor has figured out what I’m about to tell you.

The purpose of the query is not to tell the story. Strange, right? All this time, I thought that was the purpose–to let the prospective agent or editor know what my story was about, all the plot threads, etc. I agonized over how the hell I was supposed to cut down a 300-some-page book into 250 words.

Well, guess what guys and gals. You’re not supposed to use the query to tell the story. Instead, the query is supposed to be a marketing tool to sell the story.

Oh. My. God. My world righted and things came into focus. You’re supposed to sell the story, not tell the story! So it doesn’t matter that all 10 plotlines aren’t in the query! You only need one! Now, it might be hard to determine what the main plot is, especially if you’re writing a series. One thing you must do when writing a series is make the first book a standalone. You have the overall series arc, but the main plot must have an ending in that first book. If your publisher contracts series in two or more books, then you have more leeway, but as a rule, make the query about the main plot, not the series arc. I’ve found something that helps narrow down the plot is if you write a pitch that fits on the back of a business card–no more than 35 words. Or even better, write an elevator pitch between 15-20 words. This forces you to focus on the main plot, and then you can use that as an outline for your query.

Now for a high concept. What’s a high concept? I didn’t have a clue either. Basically, it’s one attention-grabbing sentence that states what the book is about, so a hook, logline, whatever you call it should go at the top. Now, I say should, not always. Some agents don’t really care about a hook or logline. Most agents have blogs or websites and they state what they want to see in a query.

The dreaded word count. This varies from publisher to publisher and genre to genre. I won’t go into specifics here because once you’re to the point of writing a query, you should’ve already researched your genre and expected word count, but make sure you include it in your query.

Salability. Is your book salable? Meaning, is it something fresh and new? One thing we have to consider is that by the time books come out, they were bought 2-3 years ago. What does that mean for us lowly writers? It means that after something fresh and new comes out, a ton of writers start writing about it to ride the wave, so soon after the fresh and new is out, it’s not fresh and new anymore. For example, the dystopian teenage drama is out. Paranormal romance is out. Magical realism is in. Urban fantasy is in. Vampires are out. Again, read agents blogs/websites to see what it is they’re looking for. Does this mean you shouldn’t write that great vampire novel or the paranormal romance of the century? No. Write it. Because even though it’s out right now doesn’t mean it’ll be out forever. One thing you can do is make the story you’re working on now that might be considered “out” and turn it “in.” How? Turn your paranormal romance into magical realism or urban fantasy. Give your dystopian teenage drama a magical bent. Make it “in.”

Finally, the author platform. That final paragraph where you talk about you. There are differing opinions about this. Some agents say to write something, anything about yourself. Others say only put it down if it’s relevant. This publisher said only put it down if it’s relevant, such as, if you’re already successfully published and have won awards or made the NYT Bestseller’s list or if your background is actually in the area you’re writing about or if you’re a major celebrity. Otherwise, if you’re a debut author with no publishing credits and you’re job only somewhat resembles writing (like mine, I’m a medical transcriptionist), then don’t include it. But again, it’s up to the individual agent/editor you’re querying. Do your research and find out what the agent/editor expects to see.

Okay, so we went over the query part of the process. Next week: Acquisitions! Now doesn’t that sound exciting?


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