Queries, Literary Agents and the Publishing Game

My brain is filled with sentences, all attempting to describe my novel—working title, Diogo’s Garden. It’s finished, I think. Certainly it will need more edits, but it’s time to move on to phase two and I’m scared. I’ve been putting my heart and soul into this work for several years and I don’t want to fail. Too much is at stake, but from experience I’m well aware that being offered a contract from a major publishing house is akin to winning the lottery.  I ‘ve been working on what is called a query letter all week. In three brief paragraphs I’ve been  attempting to extract from my  complicated story, what narrative threads are the most compelling.

Imagine your book published is the standard advice, and just write what you’d expect to read on the back jacket. Sounds simple until you start reading other novel’s book jackets and realize that often what is written to entice you to buy a book is not really what the book is necessarily about. For example, I recently read The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg.  The book jacket blurb emphasizes Edie Middlestein’s inability to stop eating. However, when I finished the novel I wasn’t thinking about Edie’s fixation with greasy hamburgers and Chinese food. I was primarily thinking about the role of husbands and wives in Jewish immigrant culture and Edie’s daughter Robin and her future relationship with her father.

 Many reviewers describe this novel as humorous, but I found it too tragic to laugh. Just as we all remember events differently, readers find different things in the same book. Ever notice how two people can listen to the same speech and hear two different messages. A query requires the writer to speculate on what is going to sound appealing from a marketing perspective. Can they make it sound like this book is certain to sell millions of copies.  Readers come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and cultures.  A book one person might love, another might hate.

 In the author’s quotes on the back, Kate Christensen describes the The Middlesteins  as “Topical and universally timeless” while Aryn Kyle says , “This is a novel about fear and forgiveness, blame and acceptance”.  Large themes, however, do not resonate as well with potential readers as specific character descriptions. Standard advice tells writers to describe their main character, but what if there is more than one important character?

If a query letter does not intrigue an agent with a book’s selling potential, they’re not going to  ask to read the manuscript. A literary agent is the first step towards potential publication, so getting an agent to read what you’ve written is very important.


 Most likely, an interested agent will ask for you to make changes to your manuscript. Then they’ll spend some time deciding whether they want to work with you as a client.  If your goals and their goals are not compatible, you’ll need to restart the query process. Smaller publishers or self-publication are other possible routes, but the path to readership narrows.

Like the young hero going on a quest, I’m about to undertake what  is called in the literary world, “The Hero’s Journey.” Think of the classic Star Wars film and Princess Leah’s call to be rescued or in the cycle of King Arthur tales “The Quest for the Holy Grail.” My call to action is the completion of my manuscript, but I must undergo many trials and tribulations to seize the golden ring a claim my prize—a publishing contract. Once published, there are no guarantees it will sell thousands of copies and remain on bookshelves. Unless I put it out there, however, I’ll never know.

Large traditional publishing house editors only work with writers who are represented by agents.  Agents are barraged by writers trying to grab their attention.  Often interns and assistants are the ones who initially decide if a query is worth an agent’s attention.  Rejections are high. This protocol  streamlines the process because  theoretically the work has already been vetted.  The stubborn writer tries again and again, sending out many inquiries. Like  the young hero going on a quest, many tasks must be accomplished before I reach my goal. 

Nadja Maril

            The famous writer John Gardner is quoted as saying there are only two plots: A  man goes on a journey and A stranger comes to town.  The protagonist in my novel could be called a stranger because although she’s been living year-round in a small town for ten years she’s never been fully accepted by her in-laws. She is also going on a journey, although the journey is not a physical one. Instead, her journey is emotional as she must deal with the sudden illness of her husband and his medical care all the while grappling with her role as a mother, artist, and breadwinner. And then I have an antagonist, the brother-in-law, who sees the world very differently and has his own desire to become the favorite son in a traditional Portuguese-American family.

      Have I written my perfect query letter yet? I’m still working on it, but maybe by putting some of these thoughts down in this blog I’m a little closer to my goal.

Published by Nadja Maril

Nadja Maril is a communications professional who has over 10 years experience as a magazine editor. A writer and journalist, Maril is the author of several books including: "American Lighting 1840-1940", "Antique Lamp Buyer's Guide", "Me, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat", and "Runaway, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat". Her short stories and essays have been published in several small online journals including Lunch Ticket, Change Seven, Scarlet Leaf Review and Defunkt Magazine. She has an MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Former Editor-in-Chief of What's Up ? Publishing, former Editor of Chesapeake Taste Magazine a regional lifestyle magazine based in Annapolis, and former Lighting Editor of Victorian Homes Magazine, Maril has written hundreds of newspaper and magazines articles on a variety of subjects..

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