Friday, March 16, 2012

Five Things The Fiction Query Can Learn From a Nonfiction Query

by Jean Oram

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


JeffO said...

Good advice. This whole market thing is currently the bane of my life. Where does my book fit? What is it similar to? I really don't know. I've tried to figure it out by process of elimination (it's not romance, it's not sci-fi, it's not etc.) but really hate pigeonholing.

Regarding brevity, I've heard the target number in query is 250 words, not 350.

Great post, thanks a lot!

Cat Woods said...

Great post, Jean.

I always mention my audience in a unique way. Usually why trying to slip in what makes my manuscript stand out.

For instance, I stated my pirate chapter book was specifically for those readers transitioning between picture books and the more mature Pirates of the Caribbean. Obviously, both those markets are saturated, but not so much in the CB/Young MG categories.

In fact, I actually wrote a proposal before querying agents where I did market analysis so I knew exactly which books were my direct competition and which ones merely had a pirate in them.

I researched pirate titles for the past five years and found only one series similar to the one I proposed. Then I made sure to mention how they were different.

I don't know if this info helped, but I found a wonderful agent with that query.

My belief is that the business side of fiction is nearly identical to the nonfiction pitch. It is our job as fiction writers to know where we belong on the bookshelves and what it takes to get there.

It's not the most fun part of writing, but it is extremely educational and can really help strengthen our writing if we pay close attention to what needs our novels fill for the reading masses.

Thanks for bringing this up!

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post, Jean! Timing is so important and so hard to control!

Maree Caseri said...

Oh boy, looks like I need some major work on my platform. =[ 13 twitter followers and 3 from facebook...9 for my blog...I'm not even near 100. Thanks for the great info. I will definitely keep all that in mind.

Jean Oram said...

Jeff: When it comes to word count, I suppose whatever gets the job done--as long as it is under a page--will work well.

I hear you on pigeon-holing. Have you tried looking around the bookstore to see where your book might rub elbows with others of its 'kind?' Some people find that helpful.

Cat: That is excellent that you did all that marketing work for your title! I think sometimes we get rejected on the basis that an agent looks at it and says, "Where does this fit in? Where is the market?" If we show them, it can really help them out. (In a way that isn't telling them how to do their job--of course.) And I love how you saw there was a need for a bridge between chapter books and the older crowd. My nephew fell in that hole and his parents ended up opting to jump him into the older stuff just to keep him interested in reading, etc.

Jemi: Timing seems to be the bane of my writing career thus far!! ;p

Maree: Having a platform as a fiction writer isn't a 'must have' but it does help agents sell you. These days been able to put yourself out there with social media is a huge plus. So much book marketing happens out there now. I talked a bit about queries on my own blog today and I included a link to an agent's post about this very thing. Here is the direct link:

Jean Oram said...

Sorry, I thought that link would hyperlink automatically. Let's try this to make it easier for you!

Jean Oram said...

ARGH! That didn't work either. RC Lewis? Where are you when I need you?


If that doesn't work, I give up--sorry!

Charlie Holmberg said...

Ah, interesting perspective, and one I had not considered before. Thanks for the post!

Jean Oram said...

No problem, Charlie. Thanks for stopping by. I think as agents end up with more and more on their plates (such as editing and wading through more queries every year) we will find that it'll become increasingly more important for the writer to know the business and marketing side when it comes to their work. Writing the novel will feel like the quick and easy part! :O

Matt Sinclair said...

Top-notch post, Jean! Really good advice.

Jean Oram said...

Thanks, Matt.