Saturday, June 20, 2009

The query that sold "Boys of Steel"

At the Wooster (OH) Young Authors' Conference, an aspiring author (and mother of one of the Young Authors) was asking me about getting published. We've stayed in touch and this week, she e-mailed me two questions.

One of the questions: "Do you have any suggestions as to how I can sell myself to an editor when I have never been published previously?"

Every editor is different so there is no one-pitch-fits-all answer. But generally, it doesn't matter if you've been published. What matters is if you wrote a good book. (Every author used to be an unpublished writer. And every author, regardless of how many well-received books s/he's had published, can still turn out a subpar book.)

Of course an editor will not get to your good book unless you introduce it both in a professional manner and in a way that makes it irresistible. In the query letter, describe your book as if it were flap (or back cover) copy, or even a poster tease, engineered to hook that casual browser.

Here is the query I sent Janet Schulman, the editor who eventually bought Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman (which, at that time, was Boys of Steel: The Subtitle Is Undetermined):

I'm a writer who's authored over [oops—should have been "more than"] 40 books with publishers including Scholastic, HarperCollins, and Dutton. I also write regularly for magazines including Nickelodeon and National Geographic Kids. I don't work with an agent, which is why I'm contacting you directly.

May I have your permission to submit a picture book manuscript? I ask you because of The Boy on Fairfield Street. My manuscript is similar in that it focuses on the origin of another 20th century icon. Here's a one-line summary:

In the thrilling days of yesteryear, after a sleepless summer night, two shy boys create a character who will become the greatest icon in the history of pop culture.

I know the picture book market is tough right now, but this would be the first book on this subject in this format; plus the subject is as kid-friendly as they come. With all due respect to Ben Franklin, Pocahontas, Rosa Parks, and Neil Armstrong, the shelves are starving for some new blood, and my subjects are particularly inspirational. I'm confident that this book would appeal to a whole bunch of libraries, school and public. And there's a whole other active market for it which will be obvious once you read it.

If I may send it, to what address?
I didn't give the title or even specify the subjects of the book. Funnily, the book itself doesn't include the word "Superman" in the story proper. But that's off-topic.

The other question the aspiring author asked this week: "What is currently the turnaround time from putting an article or query letter in the mail to receiving the editors acknowledgment and answer?"

There is no "currently." It varies from editor to editor, day to day.

I e-mailed the above query on 2/22/05 at 11:10 a.m. I heard back at 11:26 a.m. But I e-mailed other editors queries before that...and, in some cases, have yet to hear back. So again, it varies.

(I should clarify that industry protocol typically dictates that unpublished writers not e-mail an editor unless submission guidelines or the editor him/herself has stated that is okay.)


Karen Romano Young said...

Hi Marc! Your Facebook note intrigued me. I'm always fascinated to look over another writer's shoulder, and I'm particularly impressed at your chutzpah in not even mentioning the guy in the red boots. While I agree that the editor would be intrigued (I am, and I know the answer) I'd love to hear your thinking on this, and whether it had you chewing your nails. Obviously the editor went for it, but what did he/she say? Thanks for sharing it in any case. It's a great letter. -- Karen

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thanks Karen. I, too, am always fascinated to look over other writers' shoulders, which is why I do posts like this!

Not mentioning Superman by name was a lark rather than a challenge I set for myself in advance - it just worked out that way, given the structure of the book. I stuck to it because I felt it would be fun to ask kids at school visits how many times "Superman" appears in the text. (For some reason, an answer I have gotten multiple times is "18"?)

Every query, no matter how strong I may feel it is, leaves the desk for the same great unknown. I was just as anxious to hear on this one as any, and perhaps it's only in retrospect that it seems effective. (Again, other editors got the same query and did not go for it.)

My editor said the query hooked her, but as you know, it's then a whole other level of anxious waiting to see if the manuscript itself will!

J. L. Bell said...

Don't sweat the "over." It's a shibboleth, not a rule.