A Literary Agent Answers Your Fevered Questions: The Return -The Toast

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPrevious installments in this series can be found here. Have a question for Ginger? Ask her!

Is there an optimal season or month to submit queries for novels?–Jacqueline

Every agent has their own frantic time and quiet time–or, times when they are not rushing through query letters, and times when they are. For me personally, the week before and the week after the Bologna and Frankfurt Book Fairs would qualify as busy. (The week I’m in Bologna or Frankfurt I am working from 8 AM until 10 PM and I’m also dealing with insomnia due to jetlag, and also any emergencies with clients back in NYC–which means I’m also, you know, busy.) My quiet times are mid-August and December. Most of publishing is closed the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Other agents will have different ebbs and flows.

When authors have asked this of me at writers conferences I sense an attempt to game the system by sending in their query at a time when few queries are coming in. They suspect there’s a time of year where agents are sitting at their desks, staring at empty query inboxes, desperate to request partials. That time of year does not exist. Good agents are busy agents and they always have more to read than they have time to do it in.

But, if you really are curious about the biggest query days of my year, they are:

– January 2nd (everyone resolving to get that novel published this year combined with NaNoWriMo)
– The Monday after the Easter weekend
– The first full work week in September (so, the week after the week after Labor Day)

What’s the optimal time for you to query? When your book is truly ready. That’s when.

Is it pretty much impossible to get a novella published if you’ve never been published before?–A.L.

If you had asked me this four years ago I would have tried hard not to say “yes.” I would have been diplomatic but yeah, I would have warned you off this as much as I could.
Except, it’s 2013, and we’re in the age of every major publisher having a digital-only imprint where they routinely publish novellas from both established and debut authors. Most of those imprints are genre-focused, of course, and so it will be easier to publish a romance novella than a literary fiction novella.

There is also self-publishing–which is a very rich (and fraught, oh, so fraught) topic. I could spend days going over how to self-publish and why it’s not right for everyone and every book. But, again–four years ago I wouldn’t have suggested you self-publish a novella, because the e-book market wasn’t yet more than a few small percentage points of the overall book market.

You’ll note I’m discussing novellas and focusing on the digital marketplace. That’s because novellas cost as much to print as novels. While a 200,000 word novel is more expensive to produce than a 100,000 word novel, a 30,000 word novel is not that much cheaper to print than a 100,000 word novel. There’s a minimum cost, and there’s also the fact that you can charge $25.00 in hardcover for a 100,000 word novel but if you charge $20.00 for something a third that length and readers are going to feel ripped off.

One last bit of advice: if you go here, you’ll see that the Hugos have a category for novellas. (And novelettes! I bet you didn’t know those existed! Yeah, neither did I until I got into this business). And you’ll see that they are published in collections, anthologies, online and periodicals. Another market for novellas are magazines, journals, and websites.

How you do you write a query letter for a book that isn’t plot-based? As in, how would you pitch Seinfeld if Seinfeld were a book?–Anonymous

I would pitch Seinfeld as a groundbreaking comic novel about four narcissists living on the Upper West Side in the 1990s who wind up being charged as accessories to murder, and that the voice was unlike anything you’ve ever read before, Editor, so read this overnight or you might miss out. North American bids only, and we’ll take a two-book deal with separate accounting.

To your first question: I assume you meant a query letter that doesn’t focus on the plot. If you aren’t focusing on the plot in your query letter, I assume you’re focusing on the writing style, or the characters, or your writing credits. That’s fine. You might be the second coming of INSERT YOUR FAVORITE LITERARY GENIUS HERE, but an agent is still going to want to know what your book is about.

However, if you mean “my book doesn’t have a plot,” then please get a plot. Go directly to the Plot Store (interestingly on the same block as the Jerk Store) and browse the selection and pick whatever you feel is best, but for god’s sake, have a plot.

Plot is one of the three legs that the Book Stool (I just made that up—you won’t find that in Poets and Writers) rests on: Plot—Characters—Dialogue.

You need plot.  While the joke about Seinfeld is that it’s a show about nothing, almost every episode included at least two plots, possibly up to four, and there was not a lot of “dead air” on screen after that first short season.

Even THE GOLDEN BOWL has a plot, it’s just really hard to find for some people who gave up at page 92 and asked her book club if they could read THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY instead (and they did and they loved it! Take that, GOLDEN BOWL).

PS: Elaine worked at a book publisher for part of the series and her dad was a cranky writer who terrifies Jerry and George in one episode.
PPS: I reserve the right to add more legs to the Book Stool whenever needed.

I’ve read that “market research” is important, but I’m not 100% sure what that means–reading all the books in your (proposed) category to make sure your writing is not too much like someone else’s? Is that all part of this nebulous thing I hear called “building a platform?–Anonymous

Yes, it’s reading all the books in your proposed category. Yes, you totally have to do it. I know, you think it’s going to be boring. It won’t be—because you will start to view your own book differently, and figure out what its strengths and weaknesses are. You’ll also sound much more informed and confident in how your book will be successful when approaching agents. And market research is something all authors should do, in all fields.

Building a platform is something separate from “market research.” It means building your public profile, and that’s very important for non-fiction. You can do this by being an expert on your topic; you can do this by blogging; you can do this by developing a profile as a speaker.

Market research and platform are all things that can be found in a non-fiction book proposal, which I can discuss more in a future column if enough of you are interested.

How do agents respond to complementary works created in the setting of a submitted manuscript? EG: Would an agent want to know that I’m working on a tabletop roleplaying system for my fantasy novel? What about concept art?–David

Do not put the cart before the horse or the MMORPG before the high fantasy novel. Query an agent and focus on discussing the book you have written. If she’s interested in representing you, you can mention briefly that you have wondered if it would make a good role playing game if it’s really important to you that she know you’ve got that already planned out. But your book first has to sell to an editor, be edited, be read by sales and marketing, be discussed by the publicity department, be given a cover, be given a new cover when a bookstore chain objects, have the title changed, be actually released, and then become a bestselling series before game companies will be interested in discussing a roleplaying game.

So–and I will likely give this piece of advice out a lot in my upcoming columns–your first priority should be to write the best book possible. Don’t try to write the screenplay at the same time, or worry how it will sell in Brazil.

Write the book. Make it better. Then find an agent.

Ginger Clark is a literary agent at Curtis Brown. The opinions expressed above are solely hers, and do not reflect the opinions of her employer or colleagues. Would you like to ask her a question about publishing and writing? Email her and she might answer it in a future column. No question is too specific, obscure, or small. If you wish to send her a professional query, please email her at her Curtis Brown email address.

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