Agent, Jeff Kleinman
At the Columbus Writers' Conference, I had the pleasure
of speaking with Jeff Kleinman, an attorney and
literary agent with Graybill and English L.L.C. Mr.
Kleinman very generously agreed to do an interview with
Fiction Factor. I think you'll find his responses very
informative and helpful. Thank you, Mr. Kleinman for
taking the time to speak with us.
Factor: What mistakes should a writer avoid in a
Anatomy of a Less Than Fabulous Query Letter:
desperate (lots of exclamation points are a dead giveaway)
*Appearing unprofessional (handwritten, poor
spelling, bad grammar)
* Rambling (going on for more than a page or
so probably means that you're telling too much)
* And most important: contacting agents before
the material's ready to go, before it's in its best
Here are ten helpful tips:
1. Assess yourself and your project
dispassionately. Is this a book with nationwide
commercial appeal? If nonfiction, are you an expert
prominent in your field?
a fabulous writer. HONE YOUR CRAFT.
3. Build your credentials. Every
publisher's looking for the next new author whose career
is taking off. This may mean publishing short stories in
prestigious literary journals, appearing frequently in
the media, or getting an advanced degree on the subject.
Just imagine looking at the author's bio on the back of
the book - does the bio alone induce an unknown reader to
plunk down $30 for the book?
4. Personalize the letter. Let the agent know
you're writing to him (or her) in particular - that
you've read other books he's represented, that you met
him at a conference and you liked what he had to say,
that you've checked out her website and felt that she's
the kind of person who would understand your book.
5. Don't grovel. Some
agents do have extraordinarily large egos, but they
should never be addressed as "Dear Subdeity of the
Publishing Industry" or by other such appellations.
6. Memorize Strunk
& White's Elements of Style - still the best book on
the subject. Keep in mind, though, that since it was
published, italicizing words or sections is now
acceptable - and is actually preferable to underlining,
which can get distracting.
7. Don't ramble on
about your project. Use one or two - no more - sharp,
clear, professional sentences to describe it.
8. Use a computer. No
handwritten love-notes, either. Stick to either Times-Roman
12 or Courier 12. Your manuscript should be double
spaced, but the cover letter can be single spaced. Don't
put an extra space between double spaced paragraphs, and
always indent the first line of each new paragraph.
9. Make sure your
name, the book's title, and the page number appears on
10. For novels, always
send the first pages (or chapters) - never chunks from
the center. If the first pages aren't the best, tightest,
most well written in the book, then revise the entire
novel until they are.
FF: How would you
define your expectations of a good query letter?
The Anatomy of A Successful Query Letter
* Single Page Letter
* Paragraph 1: Catchy but
professional introduction (how you heard of agent, great
plot idea, etc.)
* Paragraph 2: Your
experience (credentials for writing the book - can be
professional and/or personal experience). Your
credentials are crucial for nonfiction, and may be less
important for fiction, where the quality of the writing
is paramount, but sell yourself. Nobody thinks it's
* Paragraph 3: Description of
the project in one or two sentences. If fiction, one- or
two-sentence "log line", plus word count; if
nonfiction, a brief description of the project, plus
finish this sentence: "My book is the first book
* ALWAYS include a self-addressed stamped
envelope (SASE), as well as all other means of contacting
you (phone, fax, email).
* Always include the first sample pages (or
chapters) if fiction; sample pages (or chapters) if
nonfiction. At the very minimum, include the first page
of the book along with the cover letter.
Writing an effective query letter is an art form, I'm
convinced - but I'm also convinced that if you write
well, and really hone your craft, that ability will come
through in each sentence. There's some kind of
indescribable page-turning-ness about good writing;
agents tend to know it when they see it.
As you write, pretend you're applying for a job - treat
an agent the way you would a potential boss looking to
hire a new employee. Don't seem desperate - agents can
smell the desperation, and run the other way. I once got
a letter with a bright orange paper bearing the words:
PLEASE READ ME. Candy, balloons, or other gifts (last
week someone sent a shirt) just won't help if the writing
isn't strong enough, or if it's not the kind of material
the agent represents, or if the author's credentials
won't support the kind of book he wants to publish -
although, to be perfectly fair, my daughter's quite
pleased when I open the gift-bearing envelopes at home.
Along the same lines, don't proclaim that the book is the
"next best-seller", or is very similar to a
brand name author (Stephen King, Tom Clancy, etc.) - no
one, not even publishers, knows what makes the "next"
best-seller; and brand-name authors are a law unto
themselves, so comparing yourself to them may make you
In your letter, always focus on just one book - you may
have a drawer filled with finished novels, but saying so
will only make an agent wonder why the others haven't
been published. Finally, proofread all your materials and
be sure that there are no grammar, punctuation, or syntax
problems - you'd be surprised how many people mix up it's
and its, for example. Its horrible when you're mistake
comes back to haunt you.
many manuscripts (partials and whole) do you read in the
JK- Partials: about 50
- 150, I suspect. - Manuscripts: 2 or 3, if I'm lucky.
FF: How important is a
synopsis in selling a book to a publisher?
JK: I don't have a clue.
I think a synopsis is helpful because it will give the
editor an indication of how the entire book fits
together, and the editor can use a good synopsis to sell
the book to the publisher, but I've sold books without
synopses, and nobody ever punished me for it.
FF: How important is it
for an unknown author to have an agent in terms of
getting their manuscripts read?
JK: It depends on the
publishing house, and the author's contacts. If the
author's going after the big publishing houses, and the
author doesn't have any stellar contacts at the
publishing house, having a good reputable agent is
absolutely necessary. If the author's going after
smaller or more regional presses, an agent may not be
necessary at all.
FF: What qualities must
a manuscript possess in order for you to really push
to see it published?
1. Missing Subway
Stopness: I must miss my subway stop, reading the book.
2. Gushability: I
must gush about the book to any poor slob who will listen
(and many who won't).
FF: How many copies would an author have to sell
for you to consider
representing a self-published novel?
JK: I think that really depends. Probably
somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000, but maybe less.
And maybe more. It depends on the book, the market
for the book, the ability of the author to reach the
market, and so forth.
FF: What are the biggest pitfalls facing a
new author in the negotiating
their own contract?
Negotiating their own contract;
their brother-in-law the real estate attorney to
negotiate their own contract. In general, publishing
contracts are fairly arcane, fairly difficult pieces of
literature. If you're going to negotiate them
yourself, be sure you've read a book that talks about the
publishing contract before you start.
FF: When looking at
submissions from unknown writers, how much emphasis do
you place on a writer being able to market himself or
lot - it's helpful to know the writer's a self-starter,
or is very promotable, or something along those lines.
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?
as far as I can tell. It depends on where the piece
is published - Salon, Slate, etc. are still very good
credentials; but others aren't as helpful.
FF: What advice would
you give the new author seeking publication?
question about it, this can be a tough business. If your
query letters are all coming back with form rejection
slips in them, don't despair - but do revise your
approach. From my side of the desk, I most often see
materials before they're ready: dialogue doesn't quite
work, or a plot with problems, or characters who aren't
quite developed enough. So before you go out agent
hunting, spend some time really honing your craft - take
workshops, meet fellow writers and exchange manuscripts,
read books on writing: whatever it takes to develop into
a writer, not just somebody who writes.
And good luck!
Copyright 2003 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved