letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 244
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 2
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: SF thriller (1), fantasy (1)

This week for some reason there seemed to be a large number of queries wherein the author had not yet finished writing their novel. I also received a couple pre-query emails asking whether the author actually needed to finish the book before starting to query. The closest to casualty was the query in which the unfinished debut novel was accompanied by an explanation of why, due to the economy, the author would be unable to finish the book unless I advanced them at least four figures. Um. I’m not even sure where to begin in answering that one.

In any case, the answer is yes. If you are a debut novelist, the publisher will want to see a full manuscript. Ergo, you should finish it before you begin to query. Agent Janet advises that you should write a second one before querying the first one.

Why do you need to finish (and polish and revise)? To some extent because a new author is an unknown quantity. Can they finish a manuscript? No one knows yet, but as those of you in the writing trenches know, it can be a challenge. For some reason the number of people who finish a novel is somewhat less than the number of those who start them. The other reason is plain ol’ simple supply and demand rules. As anyone who reads agent blogs knows, there is a seemingly endless supply of new novels. Heck, a new novelist is probably born every day. Makes it darn hard to run out of queries to consider.

Of course, everyone has heard of at least one exception where some publisher paid a six-figure advance for a debut novel based on a two-page pitch. If I knew what was in the Koolaid they were drinking…..

Note: This only applies to fiction. In non-fiction, I understand it is quite a bit more common to sell on proposal, particularly if the author has a good platform. For more info on that see this entry on the BookEnds blog.

20 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. Great stuff, as always. Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

  2. I have a question I’ve been wanting to ask you for a while, and it’s only even crossed my mind because I’ve noticed a new trend in the (mostly SF/F) market for a while.
    Conventional wisdom, as I was taught, is that new authors don’t – and shouldn’t – pitch ideas for series. Even if the first book, or the first five books, are already written. That they should focus on writing and selling stand-alones first to build a name and a following.
    I have noticed, however, that trilogies from debut authors seem to be very common these days.
    I’m wondering your thoughts, as an agent, on this matter? Do you consider queries from new authors who say, “Bee tee dubs, this is the first book in a planned series, and if you like it I’m sure you’ll love the 29 after it?” Or is that too much, too fast, with a danger of overexposure?

    • I’ve got ten books in 3 different series out under my CE Murphy byline and my publishers pretty much said “no” flat-out when I suggested a stand-alone. They were slightly more polite about it, but I had it impressed upon me that series are easier to find, literally and figuratively, and they cause repeat business, and that I don’t yet have the numbers to support a stand-alone.
      It’s a goal. πŸ™‚

      • That is so interesting to hear. Have the rules changed over the last few years, or is the advice I got in the beginning just bad? πŸ˜‰
        I have been totally meaning to pick up the new Walker Papers book, by the way. I think that’s what I’ll do this weekend. (I love them. Seriously.)

        • I…y’know, I really don’t know. I’d also heard the stand alones thing, have heard it for *years*, but…well. *laughs* When I was eight I started writing a mystery series with five child protagonists, a la the Bobbsey Twins or Trixie Belden, because it was clear to me even at that age that series were the way to go for career stability. My opinion apparently didn’t change between ages eight and thirty-two, when I got published, as what I had in the can were first books of several series, and most of THUNDERBIRD FALLS as well.
          My impression is kind of that the advice is well-meaning, and possibly stems from essentially the same sources which say “make a name for yourself writing short stories, then graduate to writing novels”. I know at least four people off the top of my head for whom that worked…but I know an awful lot more, including myself, for whom it has approximately the same relevance as a suggestion to become a really top-end shoe polisher, then graduate to writing novels. I’m not sure it’s *bad* advice. I’m just not sure it’s widely practical, either.
          I know Del Rey, for whom I write, seems to really love being able to launch a writer with a series by putting out 3 books back to back, like they did with Naomi Novik. It’s a way to make a real splash and to get shelf space. Other houses, I donno, but all the debut authors I know (except possibly Jenn’s client Ekaterina Sedia) have sold series. So, well, there’s a data point for you, I guess! πŸ™‚
          *beams* Glad you’ve been enjoying the Walker Papers. Do go get it this weekend, first month sales numbers are important. She said coyly. πŸ™‚ And I hope you like it!

          • I am so glad I’m not the only person to remember Trixie Beldan or the Bobbsey Twins. @=) Everyone else I’ve ever mentioned it to looks at me stranglely.
            I do have to interject a note, though on the BT issue. ISTR hearing that this was an idea sold by a book packaging company where they hired multiple writers to write under a house name. Not sure if Trixie Beldan was the same situation or not. I do know that Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys work along this model. As does the “Warriors” series. So, it’s not quite the same thing as other series / trilogies by debut authors. Different other mechanism altogether.

    • What I’ve read on other agent blogs (so keep in mind that I’m no expert) is that at the query stage, it’s alright to mention that you have ideas for a sequel and beyond, but that they don’t want to deal with the crazies who expect they’re going to launch right away with a 15-book series. You have to sell the first book before you can worry about the second or third. I do agree with you, though, that in SF/fantasy, series seem to be very popular, even if the first novel was envisioned or sold as a standalone.

    • Now, when you authors shouldn’t pitch ideas for a series, you’re meaning in a query? Because at query level, no, don’t. Publishers are quite happy to take on debut authors who want to do series, because series are easier to sell (easier to convince a reader to continue with the same characters they already love).
      And agents certainly don’t mind if people have a series in mind. What they don’t want is someone saying, “Bee tee dubs, this is the first book in a planned series, and if you like it I’m sure you’ll love the 29 after it.”
      Or at least I don’t. Why? 1) Often authors take this a step further and query all the books at once and it’s annoying to get that much material in one go, even if you aren’t going to read more than the first one.
      2) If you’ve already written 30 books (or even 3) in a series but haven’t been published, this seems to indicate that you’ve just continued writing the series as you get rejections, and I assume that if you have 3 books written, it took a while to write them, and so a lot of people have rejected you already. While I’ll still fairly assess the query on its own merits, you really don’t want someone going into your material thinking, “Lots of people passed on this already.”
      3) It’s unnecessary. If the agent doesn’t like your first book, then why would it matter if you’ve written the other 30? Unless they are better, and if they are, then why are you querying with your not-as-good material first?
      A line at the end of the query saying, “I could also see this book turning turning into a series” is fine. You show foresight without coming off as crazy.
      Even writing more in the series while you send out queries is perfectly fine. I gotta say, though, I was hugely impressed with one guy who, after I received his partial, mentioned that while he saw this book as the first of a trilogy, he hadn’t gone on to write the other two because he didn’t spend all that time on them if the first wasn’t receiving any interest. Instead, he went off a started writing a stand-alone while he queried. That, to me, felt like someone who was going about things intelligently rather than getting swept up in it all. Of course, others might disagree for very good reasons. That’s just my thoughts.

      • I meant in general. I had been told that it was a big, giant, bold-faced ‘no’. All the feedback I’ve received (both here from you and Caitlin as well as from my writers’ forum) seems to suggest this was brilliant advice 10 years ago, but less so now.
        What they don’t want is someone saying, “Bee tee dubs, this is the first book in a planned series, and if you like it I’m sure you’ll love the 29 after it.”
        I hope you realized that my tongue was planted firmly in my cheek on that one. ;D
        1) Often authors take this a step further and query all the books at once and it’s annoying to get that much material in one go, even if you aren’t going to read more than the first one.
        Okay, that’s egregiously obnoxious.
        2) If you’ve already written 30 books (or even 3) in a series but haven’t been published, this seems to indicate that you’ve just continued writing the series as you get rejections, and I assume that if you have 3 books written, it took a while to write them, and so a lot of people have rejected you already. While I’ll still fairly assess the query on its own merits, you really don’t want someone going into your material thinking, “Lots of people passed on this already.”
        I don’t understand where you’ve come to this assumption, though. I would continue to write several books before I even thought about querying, for several reasons. Firstly is that having the first three done gives me a much more solid idea of what kind of series this is, what the core of the story is that needs to be told, and what direction this series will take. It also offers further distance from and insight to the first two books, a distance that is useful in revision.
        Secondly, I would write them (and continue to write, even if I were rejected from every agent and house from here till Mars) because I have stories to tell, and I want to share them so yes, my ultimate goal is publication. But I am not writing to feed myself; I’m writing because I have to write. For the love of the story. So if those 30 manuscripts are absolutely, completely unmarketable, then I will stuff them in a drawer and chalk them up to a learning experience – but I’m not going to stop after 2 just because nobody’s buying… the story certainly won’t be deterred that easily!
        I hope this offers a bit clearer of a perspective of where I’m coming from with this question. I have a YA series I’m working on, halfway through the second book, and a fantasy trilogy I’d like to (re)start. My working plan is to write the first 3 of the series and then the first of the trilogy, to give myself brain breaks from each but to make progress on both. And be marketable to different audiences.
        I appreciate your thoughts on this. Is this a situation that sounds viable to you?
        EDIT because I realized the last line could be misinterpreted as me subtly trying to throw my mss at you through LJ comments, which was so not what was intended. Mea culpa!

        • *lol* Oh, I do know yours was tongue in cheek, but you would be amazed how often almost that exact phrase gets in queries. ^_^
          I realize I probably shouldn’t have used “you” so freely; it was more indicative of the general “you” than you specifically. Especially since you’ve clearly thought through your querying. The majority of queries I receive are from people who haven’t thought things out like you have. They say how they’ve just barely finished their book or they’ve got a great idea for a book or they’ve got a screenplay (which always throws me and makes me wonder where on earth they got our name). So I tend to assume that most authors query immediately after finishing their first book (if not sooner) and so if a query talks about having many books done, I assume they’ve been querying a while. It’s not a fair assumption, but that’s the nature of assumptions, and that’s why, as I mentioned, I don’t use that as part of my actual assessment of the query.
          I’m also not saying it’s bad for people to write lots and lots of books in a series before try to get them published. In fact, whatever writing process works for you, totally go for it. I’m just saying, as someone reading the query pile, don’t tell me about it. *lol* The thing is, often in a query authors really want to tell you how hard they’ve been working and how much they’ve done, and while it’s lovely that they’ve done that, as reader, it kind of puts me off. It’s like going on a first date with a guy and having him tell you how much he goes to the gym and how meticulous he is about his diet and all the creams and products he uses to keep himself looking so devastatingly gorgeous. Even though it doesn’t make him any less gorgeous, it makes me look at him differently. Like, “If he’s trying that hard, then he must be hiding something awful.” The same is true with a query. It might not be remotely true, but it’s what the brain automatically thinks.
          And no worries, I didn’t take it as a mss drive-by. πŸ˜‰

  3. I imagine the people who never finish a novel started it thinking it was quick and easy.
    I’ve had one stupid English teacher who said, and that is an exact quote:
    “I wanted to write a book once, but started and after 2 pages decided writing was too hard”.
    I mean, how do you want to write a book if you don’t write in the first place? Although that would explain Twilight

  4. series
    I’m no expert either, but in addition to what others have said I heard one writer say he works with two publishers, one who handles his series fiction and another who handles his stand-alones. Each publishers wasn’t interested in doing the other. So it seems it’s not a general thing, but each publisher has their own opinion on the matter, and probably agents too. Just one more thing to narrow your prospects!

  5. If I knew what was in the Koolaid they were drinking…..
    …you would totally buy some to slip into editors/publisher’s coffee when you’re pitching your clients’ work at ’em? *grin*

  6. As far as the fantasy genre’s concerned, the answer seems pretty obvious to me. I know a lot of people who buy a lot of fantasy books, and they all like series. Ask ’em about a “stand-alone book” they enjoyed and they can’t even name one.

  7. Michael Robotham sold his first novel SUSPECT on 67 pages, all had written (and it went on to sell some 1.2 million copies) – but he’d ghost-written many autobiographies (I know, it’s an oxymoron) and those first 67 pages were superb.
    But everyone else had better have the damn thing written – and rewritten until it shines.
    And I speak from personal experience.

  8. Now I need another cup of coffee, but I’ve always thought that the SF/F genre was partial to series because A. fans expect immersion and ongoing escape/entertainment with the characters in the fictionalized setting; and B. it shows both publishers and agents the author’s long-term commitment to writing as a craft and a career.
    Also, hasn’t the genre been established on series/trilogies? Tolkien, CS Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Mervin Peake…

  9. My theory is, I’ve written the first book in my series. It works as both a stand-alone and the first book of the series. I will not write the second until I sell book 1. Until then, I will work on another project (a definite stand-alone novel), with a couple of other projects in development stages and short stories. If I don’t get the series book sold, I’ll try with the other book.
    If I can’t sell my series, maybe I can sell my stand-alone. But I’m not going to put all my eggs in one basket by hoping the series sells and writing along that instead of working other projects.

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