Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How to Become a Better Querier

Is "querier" even a word? I suppose it is now, and you read it first here, on the internet's penultimate writing blog, Mary Ann Loesch's AllThingsWriting.*

Mary Ann's previous post really resonated with me. I've been pretty busy the last few months coping with a failing economy. Seems I'm working harder and harder for less pay even as the price of things is going up. At the end of the day I just don't have a lot of energy left. At the same time, I have to admit to myself that I waste a good bit of time. Having a set, or at the very least a more strict, regimen will make a difference.

Now, I know we writers just do it because we love it. We don't care if we ever get published, we're all about the art. Yeah, right! That's easy to say once you get published, but if you got published it means you were out working hard to get published, because it doesn't just happen. Yes there are rare instances of spontaneous fame, but replicating that is like trying to replicate winning the lottery. It is NOT a business plan. I do agree that we have to love writing foremost, and that we should not use publication as the only metric of success, but ultimately I think most writers want their work to be read.

Despite the rise of electronic books, self-publishing, and micro or indie presses, I still think the big fish is traditional publication. Getting your books on a shelf gives you legitimacy and exposure that can't be had in other ways. Especially - especially - if you want your work picked up by schools, libraries, and book clubs. And even though querying is probably the single most distasteful thing you'll ever do, you better get better at it or the big fish ain't gonna' bite yer hook. So, the second in my series on queries (unintentional rhyme) is about how to get better at writing queries.

If you're like me you've written a lot of queries. Dozens. Scores. Hundreds? For most of my query-career they all read something like this:

Dear Ms. Agent:

Oh God, please, please-please-please, pleeeeaasssseeee publish my book! I hate my day job! My boss is an asshole! I don't have any money! You're my only hope! I'm an awesome writer because I finished a book! It's the best book in the world! <pant - pant - pant>

To be honest, that's not exactly how it read word-for-word, but going back and reading some of my early queries, that's pretty much how they sounded after I sent them.

Frustrated by my inability to catch the attention of a reputable agent with this strategy, I took a foray into the indie-press world in which I published two books. They have sold fairly well (we're talking indie here) picked up a bunch of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and even got me a finalist slot for an indie award. I didn't get the big breakthrough that I wasn't expecting, but I don't regret going this route. The reason I don't regret it, even though I still work a day job and I do in fact like my boss, is because of the query I wrote last week, that read more along the lines of:

Dear Ms. Agent:


Brief synopsis

Market assessment

Publishing experience including, finalist in a contest


Before you say, "Brewer, you're an idiot, everyone knows that!" let me say, "That's the same format my old queries all followed." It wasn't that my old queries were written all wrong. I studied the 'art'. I knew what they wanted. The difference is that when I wrote my old queries I didn't know what I was talking about. Market? Ain't that where you buy bananas? In fact, I'm not the same person I was. Two years as a published author trying to market and sell my work has given me an education I'd have never gotten anywhere else, and certainly not from attending a one hour session at a conference. As a result, when I wrote the query it was a business letter. A marketing letter that demonstrated some knowledge about why books sell and how they are sold. It matters not one whit how 'good' my book is if I - the author - don't know why books sell, and how to sell them. Two years of marketing and sales has taught me exactly why my books didn't take off, and it has nothing to do with how good they are.

So, back to the subject of this letter. How to become a better querier. Step one: learn about the business of selling books. Writing them is important, but it isn't half as important as selling them. Why do you think Tyra Banks, the supermodel, got a publishing deal? Because the publisher knew they'd sell half the copies they printed to adoring fans and the other half to people who wanted to see just how bad it was. If you sell most of what you print and you make a little money along the way, you stay in business.

Got a manuscript you think is good? Rewrite it again and give some indie presses a shot or even try self-publishing. Chances are you won't make the big time, but if you take it seriously I can guarantee you that you will learn about selling books, and you will learn what it feels like to get a one-star hatchet job. Then, when you write that query you won't sound like a desperate guy trying to get a date with his latest crush. You'll sound like Cary Grant. And we all know how well he did!

*Seriously, some of Mary Ann's and Clive's pieces are better than anything you get from more well-known writers.

John C. Brewer is the author of Multiplayer an MMOG YA SF novel, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear romance that was a finalist for the 2013 Eric Hoffer Awards, Montaigne Medal. You can learn more about him and what he is doing at his website,


  1. Thanks for the vote of confidence, John. Much appreciated. You write some pretty cracking stuff, too.

    My record rejection from an agent came in the early hours of the morning when I sent off my package (all exactly meeting their specification) and it was literally turned down within the minute. This was just about the final straw for us and is a key reason behind why we set up our own agency.