Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Eight Things My Old Job Taught Me About Querying

Before I made the transition to writing full-time, I worked as the radio producer for a news show. It was a crazy, wild, interesting job where I learned a lot and never took lunch,* and after I left, I realized a lot of the skills gained at that job were super helpful in querying.

See, as the producer, I had a big role in deciding what we covered or who went on the air. Generally, I got between 50-100 emails a day, the vast majority of which were pitches for our show.** I had to decide, often in a glance, whether or not a pitch was right for me,*** and it gave me a weird insight into the kind of email onslaught that agents deal with on a regular basis.

Here are some of the best things I learned:

1. Know where you’re pitchingOur show was primarily economics/finance/politics-based, but the pitches were across the board. Telling me something is “perfect” for my show when you don’t even know the name of the show? De-le-ted.
For querying, that means… Research the agent you’re contacting. You might have an amazing book, but if she’s not the right one to sell it, she won’t care. Make yourself familiar with her list, what books she’s sold, and where her interests lie.

2. Adapt your pitches – We’d also look at a variety of different topics if they were especially topical. This is where a good PR person who understands her list is vital. Got an author with a history of gay rights AND the president has come out in favor of gay marriage? That’s practically doing my job for me.
For querying, that means… Take a look at what else is on the market. Get your comp titles down, and make sure they accurately reflect the novel you’re pitching and represent something that people want to read. Give the agent a clear image about where your book might fit on the market and how she might be able to sell it to editors.

3. Common courtesy! – Spell check. Check the spelling of my name. I have a gender-ambiguous name and would often get emails as “Mr.”, which didn’t bother me except when I’d meet someone in person and they’d say “You’re Kendall?!” Stay polite, courteous, and professional.
For querying, that means… Spell check. Check the spelling of the agent’s name. Stay polite, courteous, and professional.

4. Don’t make promises you can’t keep –Occasionally we’d book an author with the understanding they’d talk about a specific topic, only to get them in front of the mic have them admit they knew nothing about that topic. Usually this happened because either the PR person didn’t know the author well or the author just really wanted to get on radio, but it’s bad news for everyone. The author sounds like an idiot on air, the PR person can’t be trusted, and the radio producer gets slammed for booking a bad segment.
For querying, that means… Don’t query a project that isn’t done yet. Don’t query a project where the query doesn’t accurately reflect the story or the level of writing. Don’t think you can slide by with a query because the agent will fall in love with your novel as soon as they see it. Honesty really is the best policy.

5. No phone calls, please – Although I’m in my twenties, I have nothing against talking on the phone. But email was made for pitches. Email would let me clearly see what you have to say and forward it to my host if I liked it. If I had questions, maybe a phone call would be better, but every time someone tried to cold call me, I’d say the same thing: “Put it in an email.”
For querying, that means… I shouldn’t even have to tell you that agents hate phone calls—absolutely do not call unless the agent personally invites you to. Not only is it annoying, it’s ineffective. I found it incredibly difficult to go from focusing on one thing to having to think about someone’s pitches. It’s much easier to see something in an email and think about it on your own time.

6. Keep in touch– We often repeated guests, and the guests that were most-frequently rebooked were the ones who kept in touch, either personally or through great PR people. Truth is, it's hard sometimes to remember that the great guy from last month would also be good to talk about another subject. Stay in touch, stay in our heads.
For querying, that means… Let’s talk about what it doesn’t mean first. It doesn’t mean bombard the agent with queries. It doesn’t mean if an agent doesn’t get back to you immediately to resend a million queries. What it does mean: build a relationship, if you can. If you get a form reject, a reply isn’t necessarily (and often unwanted), but if an agent rejects pages, write a quick “thank you for your consideration.” Sometimes agents will ask you to get back in touch with them, but when I was querying, if an agent requested pages and I knew what my next project was, I would reply back to a rejection with “Thank you for your consideration! I’m currently working on another project, a novel that’s X meets Y. Would you be interested in taking a look when it’s completed?” Sometimes they’d say thanks, but that’s not right for me. Sometimes they wouldn’t respond. But more often than not, they’d say something like “Sounds interesting! Yes, please query me when it’s ready.” That means you get to write that magic sentence at the top of the next query: “I mentioned that I was working on this novel, and you asked me to get in touch with you when it was completed.” It’s a nice way to stick out in someone’s mind and build a relationship.

7. No response means no – With all the pitches I got every day, I admit that I only responded to those I was interested in. At first I tried replying with a boilerplate “I’m sorry, but I don’t think this pitch is the best for our show,” and nine times out of ten I’d get a response asking why. It’s not my job to tell you how to pitch me. The best PR people understood that I read every email carefully and didn’t get annoyed if I didn’t respond.
For querying, that means… I have a lot of respect for agents who respond to every query. Frankly, I don’t know how they do it. I often hear writers complain about agents who don’t respond, and I understand—it’s annoying to feel like your query is out there in the void. But agents don’t really owe writers a response and they certainly don’t owe writers a reason for a rejection. Remember: figuring out how to pitch your novel is your job.

8. An amazing pitch can make up for a lot of mistakes – Did we book guests whose pitches were terrible? Who had misspellings or wrote in colored text or included photos? Yes. Because sometimes an amazing pitch would trump other misgivings. Very, very rarely—and it’s not something I would encourage—but when the right idea came along at the right time, I was pretty happy to overlook that someone misspelled my name.
For querying, that means… Your pitch is everything. You can follow all these rules and still end up with a stack of rejections if your pitch isn’t great. Although I would recommend following the rules and having a great pitch, ultimately all the other stuff is window dressing. It’s a sign that you can be professional, follow rules, and pay attention to the market, but none of that matters if the book itself isn’t great.

I hope this helps any queriers out there! If you have any questions, leave them in the comments!

*But I still have stress dreams about it! Last night I dreamed that I was coming back from vacation and my fill-in producer hadn’t booked any guests for the show, so when I sat down for our morning pitch meeting, I had six blank spots on my guest list. I can’t believe I left this job two years ago and it’s still taking a psychological toll…
**Fun story! One time I went on vacation for a week and didn’t check my work email. I came home and booted up the iPod app that had my email account. It could only load 50 emails at once, so as I kept pressing refresh, I asked the then-fiancé how many emails he thought I would get. 300! 400! 500? Not even close. I got 800 emails in a week where everyone in my office knew I was gone. When you send a pitch, that’s what you’re up against.
***Approximate time it took to decide? Less than ten seconds. Seriously, I could read the first sentence and know immediately if it was right or not. Most often--not.

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