Category Archives: Publishers

Agents of Chaos: Researching Agencies and Avoiding Scams

You would be hard-pressed to come up with a more heartbreaking scenario.

A writer spends two years crafting the best novel she’s capable of writing.  After much toil and travail, her abstract transhumanist coming-of-age young adult police procedural is polished and ready for submission.  She queries agent after agent, only to receive form rejections in return.

Then, one day, someone says yes.

Dear Ms Kamarajian, the agent writes, I read your manuscript, Super Robot Cops, with interest.  I believe you’ve written the next Great American Novel.  It is my pleasure to offer you representation.  Welcome to the Not-a-Scam Literary family.

In my opinion, your manuscript needs no further polishing and is ready to move to market as is.  Please submit the nominal administrative fee of $2000 so we can get the ball rolling.

Our hypothetical author is over the moon.  Someone wants to publish her work!  And really, what’s two-thousand dollars here or there, if it means she can make her writing dream come true?  She takes out a second mortgage, calls in some debts, and sells her guinea pig into slavery.  She submits the “administrative fee” and waits.

And waits.

And waits.

Untold eons pass.  The sun grows cold.  Humanity moves underground, sliding slowly into degeneracy as social order breaks down.  Ms Kamarajian is still waiting for word on her novel.  She will wait forever.  Ms Kamarajian has been had.


How Do I Avoid This Scenario?
In the Internet age, scam artists lurk around every corner, waiting to ensnare the gullible, the desperate, and your grandma.  (Mostly your grandma.  How many “tool bars” is she going to download before she figures it out?  Christ, Nana.)  Most of us know to cast a wary eye on Craigslist ads and YouTube comments.  Yet when it comes to finding representation for our novels, we are strangely deferential to perceived authority.  Part of it, I think, is that we just want to get published so bad.  The other part is straight-up failure to research.

Here are some sites to help you do just that.

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Query Letter No-nos

I touched on some of these in my last post, but I thought it would be nice to have them all in one tidy list.  These are a few of things you absolutely cannot do in your query letter.

“What do you mean, cannot?” you say. “What, am I gonna get arrested?”

Let me assure you: yes.  You will be arrested and fired into the sun.  Tread lightly, friend.

What Not to Do in a Query Letter
1. “I’m the next big thing, baby!”
Maybe you are and maybe you aren’t; it’s not your determination to make.  Confidence is great up to the point where it shades into megalomania.  Knowing writers as I do, I suspect this kind of self-flattery is an effort to conceal deep-seated self-loathing.  We hate ourselves, we writers.  Every one of us.  Agents and publishers know this, so any declarations of greatness (or assurances that you’re going to make the publisher like, so much money) are going to come across as really phony.  And also obnoxious.

2. “My mom read this story and she loves it!”
Slow down there, Motherboy.  Your mom has to like your writing, just as she has to like you.  Mothers are not the most objective audience, so their opinions don’t track much with publishing professionals.  You shouldn’t use your mother as a reference.  Similarly, you should avoid mentioning commendations by your father, sister, brother, grandma, best friend, or parole officer.  In fact, you should probably reconsider including the opinions of any of your “first readers.”  A publishing professional will either be interested in reading your manuscript, or they won’t, and it doesn’t really matter what a complete stranger thinks of it.

3. “I’m an aspiring writer.  Maybe this manuscript isn’t that good, but I tried my best.”
Ho boy, you went in the complete opposite direction, didn’t you?  Come on, kiddo, there’s hundreds of degrees between self-eulogy and telling the agent you hate yourself.  I definitely understand the urge to self-deprecate–I’m from the Midwest, after all–but your query letter isn’t the place to do it.  Don’t talk yourself down.  Don’t describe yourself as an “aspiring” writer.  You wrote a book, didn’t you?  You’re not just “aspiring;” you’re the real deal.  Chin up!

4. “Have you read my manuscript yet?  I sent it to you like, five weeks ago!”
No one likes a pushy pain in the butt.  Slush piles reach mammoth proportions, and it can take months for yours to rise to the top.  Agents and publishers are people too.  They don’t want to do business with a diva any more than you would.

5. *stuffs glitter into query letter envelope*
I wouldn’t even mention this, except that I’ve heard horror stories from multiple literary professionals.  Shockingly, this is something people actually do.  You want your manuscript to stand-out, but preferably in a “this is some really solid writing” way, rather than a “Lisa Frank just sneezed all over my hands” way.

Query Me This: Writing Query Letters for Fiction Writers

Writing a fiction manuscript is a long, hard road—and it only gets harder once you’ve finished! Then comes the editing, the re-working, the sending out of your newborn piece to those all-important “first readers,” more editing, more re-working, crying yourself to sleep, editing, editing, editing, promising the Dark Ones dominion over the post-human world if only they’ll let you be done already, editing, crying, and maybe a nap.

Assuming you’ve cut and prodded your manuscript to within an inch of its life, the next logical step is submitting it for publication. Maybe you’re planning on sending it to a literary agent, or maybe you’d like to apply directly to a publishing house. Either way, there’s one thing you’ll probably need: a query letter.


Most agents and publishers are so inundated with manuscripts that they have stopped accepting unsolicited work, so you need to ask permission to submit. A query letter is the industry-standard way of asking permission. Because it’s so important, and because so many people are in need of genuine guidance on this topic, I’ll set the sarcasm aside for this post.


…well, I’ll try anyway.

Step One: The Heading

Depending on your age, you may never have written a formal letter with a proper heading before. Heck, most letters these days, my own included, start with something like Hey bbz! or Yo, sup! or I humbly come before His Satanic Majesty to beg forgiveness. None of these are appropriate ways to launch a query.


Ideally, you want to include the date, the name of the person whom you are querying, their place of business, and the name of your novel (in all caps or italics). There’s a right way and a wrong way to execute this.

The Right Way

5 May 2014

Ms. Gloria Brooks
Mega Rad Media Group



The Wrong Way

5 May 2014

Lady Jade Butterface
mega RAD media grp


Get the person’s name right, and tack a “Mr.” or “Ms.” on the beginning. This is the easiest part of the entire letter. Whiffing it will bring nothing short of humiliations galore.

Step Two: The Hook

If you’ve ever had a high school teacher harp endlessly on the importance of catching the reader’s attention at the beginning of a piece, then you know what a hook is.

(Note: If you are picturing that thing Batman uses to swing between buildings, please stop. That is a grappling hook. We are not talking about grappling hooks. PLEASE DO NOT ATTACK AGENTS WITH GRAPPLING HOOKS.)

Different writers have different ways of approaching a hook. Some like to start with a cold-open of sorts: Imagine you’re locked in a laundromat, and all the washing machines come to life and there are leprechauns!

Others—if they’ve been lucky enough to meet the person they’re querying—like to mention that fact: We recently met at the Anti-Marmite Convention. In the midst of your heated scree against Marmite and all the irreparable harm it has caused you, you happened to mention that you work in the publishing industry.

If you haven’t met the agent or publisher in person, don’t despair! I find it useful to read up on the person I’m querying and use what I learn in my hook: I read in Publishers’ Marketplace that you are interested in high-concept middle grade pre-Raphaelite post-modern humanist crime procedurals. Subsequently, I read [insert names of books the person has represented or published], which I enjoyed very much.

Let’s take a look at the right way and the wrong way to do a hook.

The Right Way

Dear Ms. Brooks,

A few weeks ago, we met at the 11th Annual Greater Des Moines Area Writers’ Conference. I spoke to you about my novel, LOVE IN THE TIME OF ECZEMA, which I have recently completed. Previously, you represented Rob McRobert’s debut novel, ONE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGITUDE, a work that I love and that is thematically similar to mine. Based on this similarity, I thought you might be interested in taking a look at my manuscript.

The Wrong Way

dear butterface,

do you think about foot? have you ever seen the foot in the place the foot is not belonging? i have writing book about foot, name of book is FOOT. please read and RT

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