O.M.G., you guys. I am super-excited to be posting this installment of “Ask a Pro (or Ask an Expert or whatever — JUST ASK),” only I had to re-title it “Convo with an Expert” because there are actually TWO experts, and they’re conversing with each other.
That is, literary agent Sara Megibow chats with one of her clients, romance author Maggie Wells and they reveal some of the process behind this whole literary agent-ing thing.
So let me preface this awesome with how this whole thing came to be.
I’ve been following Sara since she was with Nelson Literary Agency (she is no longer with them) in Denver, Colorado. Gawd, that sounds like I was stalking her. Sara, swear, that is not the case! It’s all social media fact-finding!
Anyway, Sara is super-generous with her knowledge and time, and I signed up a few years back for Nelson’s newsletters because they always had great information about publishing and how-to advice for writing and query letters and approaching an agent. Plus, they would announce what books they’d gotten contracted with publishing houses, and I enjoyed getting that kind of sneak peek. Sara also did this cool thing on Twitter called “10 Queries in 10 Tweets,” in which she pulled from her query pile and Tweeted the genre and whether she would be pursuing or not, and why (here’s an example).
Anyway, Sara left Nelson and is now with KT Literary (also in the Denver area), and I of course signed up for their feeds, too, and I still follow Sara on Twitter and she is still super-generous with her time and all kinds of groovy, and really Twitteractive (see what I did there?).
So one day a couple of weeks ago I thought, “y’know, it would be so awesome if a literary agent did a guest blog on Women and Words.” So I DM’ed Sara on Twitter, introduced myself, gave her the link to Women and Words, and asked if she’d be into it. And TA-DA! She not only was into it, she got Maggie Wells to come along and join the fun! (bless yer heart, Maggie, as they say in the South)
So, Maggie, I’m guessing Sara’s good with this peer pressure thing…anyway, both Maggie and Sara will tell you a bit about themselves and will, through the course of their conversation, reveal SECRETS OF THE AGENT!
For those not in the know, when you approach an agent, you do what’s called a query letter. To put that in perspective, imagine you’re a singer. You have maybe 15-30 seconds to convince someone to check out the rest of your album. 30 seconds of a song, maybe less.
That’s kind of how it is when you do a query letter for an agent. You have a page to convince an agent that she needs to look at your manuscript, that she absolutely HAS to look at your manuscript and omg her life is BEREFT WITHOUT YOUR MANUSCRIPT IN IT, DEVOID of the awesome of YOUR manuscript. Which is why there are whole industries and webinars and seminars and workshops and ninja retreats n’ stuff devoted to crafting the perfect query letter. But agent-ing (as Maggie notes) is also a partnership between author and agent, and you want it to work, so you have to really do your homework about the agencies you’re approaching, and the agents therein. Don’t just fling a truckload of query letters at a wall o’ agents and hope one sticks. No, there’s a process involved here, and Sara and Maggie will chat about that.
So let’s go!
Dear Andi – thanks for having us here today! Women and Words is an amazing blog and we’re honored to be invited to talk a bit about successful querying. I’m Sara Megibow, literary agent at KT Literary. . .
And I’m Maggie Wells. I’ve written some pretty steamy contemporary romances for Carina Press, Harlequin-e, and Kensington. In spring 2015, I came to Sara with a modern-day battle of the sexes story called FULL COURT PRESS, and I’m thrilled to say it will be released by Samhain Publishing in December 2016!
Andi: Thank you so, so much to both of you. It’s a real treat to have the both of you here today. Okay, Sara, so give us some skinny about how Maggie ended up as one of your clients.
Sara: Maggie came to me the traditional way — via an email query in the slush pile. I knew right away that I wanted to ask for a full manuscript because her narrative voice made me smile and giggle. Maggie has a fantastic sense of humor in person and that humor shines through in her writing. The hero and heroine in FULL COURT PRESS are in their 40s — no blushing virgins here. They are both smart, successful, athletic, charming and…FUN! I see a lot of sexy in the slush pile, but it’s rare to find sexy AND funny. Maggie’s personality shone through even at the query phase.
To put the query process in perspective, I read 25,000-30,000 queries per year and end up signing only 4-5 clients out of that. An exceptional query letter marries superior mechanics with a unique, compelling story.
Andi: Head. Explodes. 25 to 30 THOUSAND A YEAR? ::grabs calculator:: That’s…holy crapamoli, that’s, like, 2500+ or more a MONTH. Maggie, bring us up to speed, here. I’ll just sit back and drink this delicious coffee and bask in the wisdom.
Maggie: And I am over the moon to get to work with Sara. I knew as I was writing FULL COURT PRESS that I had something a bit different from some of my other work, and wanted more than anything to find someone who understood and loved these characters as much as I did. Kate and Danny came to me as these fully-formed people who needed me to tell their story. They’re a little older and somewhat wiser than most couples we read about in romance novels. Kate and Danny are also equals, and Sara totally got that when she read the manuscript. Kate knows who she is right down to the soles of her shoes and is unapologetic for her awesomeness. Danny is man enough to love her more for her strength and success, and doesn’t feel threatened by it. I’m biased, but I think they are an unstoppable team.
Sara: Maggie, what’s the one thing you wish writers knew more about in the query process?
Maggie: Early in my publishing career, I looked at querying agents as a means of having my manuscript published, but choosing representation is so much more than that. By the time I was ready to pitch FULL COURT PRESS, I wasn’t worried about publishing the book so much as looking for a partner who could help me take my career to the next level. I took my time researching the agents and assembled a list of those I was most interested in speaking to about my work. I can honestly tell you that Sara was at the top of the list (No lie. It’s in an excel spreadsheet, and anyone who knows me will tell you spreadsheets are very important to me), so you can imagine the backflips I did when she offered. 🙂
Sara: How did you learn to craft such a spectacular query?
Maggie: Ha! I don’t know about spectacular, but it worked! Mostly, it’s like the old saw about getting to Carnegie Hall, it takes practice, practice, practice. As writers, we spend a good amount of time thinking about our books from all angles, and that makes it truly difficult to keep it simple. The query is all about the story. With FULL COURT PRESS, I repeatedly went back to my elevator pitch, then expanded it by just a few lines to set the hook. I’m just so happy that you took the bait!
Sara: Was writing a query helpful in any other way besides getting an agent?
Maggie: Well, queries are still used when pitching directly to publishers. I had to learn to write catchy queries to make it through the digital-first slush piles. I also use parts of my query when building the blurb for the book. I look at the query as a sales tool. The first part gives all the product specs, the middle touts all the features I hope will entice someone to buy, and the last gives me a chance to brand myself as well as the work.
I recommend thinking outside of the box when it comes to research. Reading a few blog interviews given by an agent can give an author a pretty good glimpse at how they may interact with potential clients. I also like to browse the #querytip and #mswl hashtags on twitter for a heads-up on any pet peeves, most-dos, or Next Big Ideas. Most importantly — be scrupulous about following the guidelines agents and editors post. No point in irking someone straight out of the gate, right, Sara?
Sara: HA! So true! The number one mistake I see, by far, in the query slush pile is writers contacting me to represent books in a genre of work I don’t represent. I don’t represent picture books, literary fiction, self help, etc. so no matter how good those books are, their queries receive an automatic rejection. Alas, it’s not a perfect system but it does work. Most of my clients came to me via query slush pile and I am so proud of them all.
My current turnaround time on queries is 4-10 days. Maggie, I’m curious…while muscling through the query process, what were you working on?
Maggie: I usually have more than one project going at a time, so I was finishing up the draft of my June release, A WILL AND A WAY (A Worth the Wait Romance, June 2016, Kensington/Lyrical) as I started the query process. Once I sent FULL COURT PRESS out into the world, I turned my attention to the next book in my Coastal Heat series, FLIP THIS LOVE (April 2016, Kensington/Lyrical), but you were pretty fast! I’d barely finished writing the first chapter when you responded.
From there, it was a matter of finalizing the deals for both the Worth the Wait and Coastal Heat installments. I love both of these series for very different reasons. The Worth the Wait stories (THREE LITTLE WORDS and A WILL AND A WAY) focus on heroes and heroines who are in their late 40s/early 50s and are smoking hot. The Coastal Heat features a cast of bright, witty characters with big plans to help revitalize the Gulf Coast area after the natural and man-made disasters of the last decade.
Andi: Yowza! So there you have it, friends. Maggie’s query letter convinced Sara that OMG without Maggie’s book, life was a drab, barren landscape. With it, there are rainbows, shooting stars, and dancing unicorns. THAT’S the power of a strong query letter, friends, in this weird business we call publishing.
Maggie and Sara, thank you SO much for stopping by. It was really cool to get a back-and-forth like that between an author and a literary agent. I don’t have a dancing unicorn, but I do make a decent cup of coffee, so don’t be strangers!
All right, everyone! Happy Friday and go forth and FUN!