At first glance, you might wonder what on earth can the nonfiction query teach you about your fiction query. Those are completely different kettles of fish. While you may (strangely enough) have fish in your kettle, you should also have elements of the nonfiction query in your fiction query.
Today I'm sharing five vital elements of a successful nonfiction query and showing how these five things can help you focus and market your fiction query. Hopefully this nonfiction angle will help you think about your query from an agent's perspective and will help you sell, sell, sell!
Let's dive in.
Sell your wares! (Source)
Five Vital Ingredients for a Successful Nonfiction Query and How They Can Improve A Fiction Query
Market: This one might seem a bit obvious in that every book must have a market—especially if you are hoping for an agent and/or publisher to pick it up. The story, voice, and style can be utterly amazing, but if the agent and editor don't know who to market it to, good luck. There MUST be a market and in the nonfiction query you have to get very specific about who, what, and where that market is and how big it is. (And no, you can't say there are 54 million moms in North America and your book will appeal to each and every one of them. You have to get more specific than that. Shucks, huh?)
If you know the market for your fiction query, add it in. Seriously. (Unless it is really obvious like with a middle grade adventure novel or chick lit—those two examples are pretty self-explanatory market-wise and you'll look silly saying who will read them. Trust me on that one.) On the other hand, it isn't a bad idea in several fiction situations to mention who your market is. Especially if you are writing slightly off the beaten path—agents and editors may honestly be at a loss on where you fit into the market. So if you know it will appeal to the granny book club market say so. One line. Nice and simple. You just helped them out.
How does this look in your query? Around the closing of your query you can add something to the effect: My commercial fiction (notice this is a HUGE genre) novel, "How to Kill Off Your Husband In Five Easy Steps" will appeal to the growing murder-mystery granny book club* market.
Timing: This ties in with the market. If your timing is off in terms of market, it may, sadly, suck to be you. If 20 books on how to use Facebook were published last year and you want to join the crew, well, you probably missed the timing boat on that one.
Personal example: In the fiction world, I queried my first 'good' chick lit novel at the height of the chick lit flooded market—months before chick lit was declared dead. (At least in terms of acquisitions.)
On the flip side, if you see a trend beginning and there are no books published as of yet, you might be able to get in on the front end. Use your query to share some data convincing the agent/editor that this is an up-and-coming trend. Don't take long—just a quick sentence to help open their eyes. It can be tricky convincing agents and editors that there IS a market for this new to-be trend. However, if the trend is already really obvious and you can't pass a book in the bookstore without spotting one of these, you are most likely way too late as most first time authors can take as long as two years to get to market.
What does this look like in your query? Tap this in right before the line on marketing: MacLean's Magazine recently stated that the largest predicted market for all things entertainment, and particularly books, will be female baby boomers.*
Platform: This can be the bane of the nonfiction writer, and at times, also the bane of the fiction writer. Briefly, in nonfiction circles, a "platform" is your audience reach. If you have a newsletter, write for a newspaper, have a popular blog all dealing with the content you aim to cover in your nonfiction book, that is your platform. And you must, must mention it. This is vital.
If you are a fiction writer, having a platform, or a presence on social media networks can help. It is, however, not essential. As a fiction writer, you can be unknown and still get picked up. However, if you have an audience (platform or social media following) mention it. It might just tip the scales in your favour—especially as more and more publishers are requiring authors to do a lot of their own publicity. (And your numbers have to be significant. If you started a blog last year and had 400 visitors over that time, this does not count. Sorry!)
How does this look in your query? In you bio area say something simple like: I currently tweet humorous murder-mystery related tidbits to my 35,000 Twitter followers and interact with my 8,500 Facebook friends.
Uniqueness: In the nonfiction world, having an unique angle on your proposed book (nonfiction books are queried as a proposal and are not finished—except in the case of memoirs) is a must. You must have an angle that will make you stand out in the market. What are you bringing to this book that will make it different? What'll make it important? How will it stand out? How is it filling a need?
In the fiction world uniqueness is even more vital than writers realize. If you wrote a fantastic, well-written story but agents just can't see what makes it different and how it stands out in a busy market, you are going to find yourself on the wrong side of a reply. Bummer. Majorly. (Soooo heard this one with my women's fiction novel—many compliments on my writing, but … well, you know. Won't stand out enough.) So make sure when you are writing your query that you show, show, show, how your plot, characters, situation, what-have-you is an unique take. (Think Gregory Maguire and his takes on well-known tales.)
Brevity: There is so much we can (and usually want to) say in a query whether it be fiction or nonfiction. There is a lot to cover. However, it is important to keep it under one page. Around 350 words is the sweet spot according to some agents. And while that might not always be easy, it is important. Too many words and your message gets flooded and washed out. If all else fails—keep it under one page!
After looking at your query from the write angle, is there anything you can tweak to make it stand out in a brief and compelling way, show it has a place in the current market, is unique, and that you are the most-awesome-most-perfect person on the planet to write it/have written it?
Let me know what you think. Agree? Disagree? Have questions? Something to add? I love query talk.
That's right, talk query to me, baby.
* Made up examples. I don't recommend using these so-called facts in your queries. :)
Jean Oram is an agented nonfiction writer who also has a passion for writing fiction. She has been rejected many times and has learned all of the above tips the hard way. You can also find her on her blog and on Twitter venting, goofing around, and sharing writing tips.