At the Columbus Writer's Conference I had the pleasure of
attending one of Jennifer DeChiara's informative seminars. A New York
based literary agent who owns her own company, Ms. DeChiara's website
can be viewed at: http://jdlit.com Her enthusiasm and love for books and
the publishing industry is quite contagious. She attends several
conferences and conventions per year and I highly recommend attending
one of her sessions.
Thank you for
taking the time to talk to us, Ms. DeChiara.
What mistakes should a writer avoid in a query letter?
Jennifer DeChiara: It is absolutely essential that
writers learn to write great query letters. Although it's totally
different from creative writing, it's a skill that can, and must, be
learned if a writer hopes to get anyone to read his book. Here are the
most common query mistakes:
* letters that are overly long
One page should be all you need for a great query. More than that just
shows that you're not capable of writing succinctly. A famous author
wrote, in a letter to a friend: "I'm sorry I wrote such a long letter,
didn't have time to write a short one." By writing concisely, you're
showing respect for the reader's busy schedule. Agents receive thousands
of query letters a year; believe me, we appreciate writers who get right
to the point.
* letters that contain irrelevant personal information
Unless it's directly pertinent to your book, agents don't need to know
that you're a wife or father of three. Don't tell me your life story; it
* letters that rave about the book
Authors who go on and on and tell me how wonderful their book is only
make me think they're desperate and unprofessional. I have to feel
passionately about a book to want to represent it, so it doesn't matter
to me what a writer says about his own work.
* letters in which the writer tells me about all the friends, children,
family members who've read the book and loved it
Again, none of this makes any difference to an agent. People who are not
publishing industry professionals are not the best judges of fine
We need to feel strongly about the book and make our own decisions.
* letters in which the writer tells me how long he's been unpublished
how many rejections he's had.
If you don't have anything good to say about your writing career, then
don't say anything at all. No agent is going to be excited about taking
someone who's been rejected by everyone. Put your best foot forward.
Make an agent feel that he's getting an incredible client.
* letters that are unprofessional -- dirty, sloppy, handwritten, have
or grammatical errors or misspellings (or all three!)
First impressions count. Invest in a good computer and professional
letterhead stationery. Make sure you've proofread your letter carefully
you send it out. Fold your letter in thirds. Make sure the font is clear
dark and large enough to read easily -- a 12-point font is preferred.
* letters with no SASE
It's unrealistic to expect agents to pay for your postage; letters with
no SASEs are automatically tossed. By forgetting this simple item, a
seems either amateurish or forgetful (or both).
* letters with more than one pitch
Don't give the agent a grocery list of books or projects and ask them to
pick which one or ones they'd like to see. Besides being unprofessional,
makes me wonder why they haven't been published or haven't been trying
to sell their work.
FF: How would you define your
expectations of a good query letter?
A good query letter should, above
all, make me want to read the book. It should state the book's theme, or
"hook," in one concise sentence in the
first paragraph. The author's credentials should be included in one
paragraph, along with his contact information. It should be well
simple, and straightforward. Thanking me for my time is always nice, and
don't forget the SASE.
FF: How many manuscripts (partials and
whole) do you read in the average week?
How many manuscripts I read
depends on what else is going on that week, but on average, I probably
read about one manuscript and five proposals a week.
FF: How important is a synopsis in
selling a book to a publisher?
In my experience, a good
one-sentence "hook" and a brief one-paragraph synopsis is all I've ever
needed. An editor needs to know the setting, the protagonist, and the
obstacles with which the protagonist is faced. Long synopses are
cumbersome, unnecessary, and usually not read.
FF: How important is it for an unknown
author to have an agent in terms of
getting their manuscripts read?
Occasionally an author will break
through and have their work read, and sold, by their own efforts.
Unfortunately, these occasions are rare. Most
publishers don't accept unagented submissions, so unless a writer has an
agent to submit his work, it just won't get read. Editors rely on agents
to not only send them manuscripts that are well written, but also to
send them manuscripts that are suited to their own literary tastes and
What qualities must a manuscript possess in order for you to really push
to see it published?
I push for every manuscript I take
on; I don't represent an author or a
manuscript unless I'm passionate about them. The kind of authors I take
have unique, beautiful voices. They have their own special take on the
they have something special to say and a special way of saying it. It's
certain spark that's hard to describe or put into words, but once I find
it's unmistakable -- it hits me in the gut.
FF: How many copies would an author
have to sell for you to consider
representing a self-published novel?
It's not about the number of
copies sold, but more about the length of
time it took the author to sell them. If someone sells 3,000 copies of
book in one year, I'd definitely take a look; if they sell 3,000 copies
took them three years to sell them, I'd pass on the book. However, if
someone came along with a brilliant book that, because of extenuating
circumstances, didn't sell, I'd certainly give it a chance.
What are the biggest pitfalls facing a new author in the negotiating
their own contract?
There are a lot of books out there
on publishing contracts, and every
writer should study them. If a writer is offered a contract, they should
definitely hire a publishing attorney to negotiate their contract if
have an agent. Some issues to consider are: when is your book considered
"out of print" and when will your rights be reverted back to you; by
what standards can your publisher deem your book "unacceptable"; and
what happens to your book and your rights if your publisher ever goes
bankrupt? Every word in a publishing contract has the potential to
damage an author's career; it's imperative that authors seek
professional help when negotiating their publishing contracts.
FF: When looking at submissions from
unknown writers, how much emphasis do you place on a writer being able
to market himself or herself?
The book has to stand on its own
merits. Of course it's wonderful when I find a writer who has some
marketing experience or is, let's say, a
publicist, but that fact won't sway me to represent them. I have to love
writing. After I decide to represent someone, however, I always have a
conversation with the writer and discuss, among other things, the
importance of their promoting their own books. If I find that a writer
is reluctant or unwilling to learn and work on book publicity, I
definitely rethink my offer of representation.
FF: Has the publishing industry's
views on e-publishing changed much in the last 3 years and are on-line
publishing credits (either in novel or short
story form) taken seriously?
E-publishing is taken much more
seriously these days. I think the
publishing industry realizes that e-publishing is the wave of the future
here to stay. A lot can be said about e-publishing, both pro and con,
but I would definitely consider someone who had on-line credits. Good
writing is good writing; the distribution of it or the format in which
it occurs doesn't matter to me.
FF: What advice would you give the new
author seeking publication?
First and foremost: make sure that
your manuscript is ready for
publication. Too often writers get caught up in the idea of being
authors; often this becomes their goal when, instead, they should be
focusing on becoming the best writers they can be. Once they are at that
point, they should try to learn as much as possible about the publishing
industry. They should read books on the topic, go to writers
conferences, start or join a writers group, and read periodicals about
the business of publishing. (Publishers Weekly is a great resource.)
And, in the words of Winston Churchill: "Never, ever, ever quit."
© Copyright 2003 Tina
Morgan. All rights reserved