I think we all have a bit of a twinge, bit of a cringe, when we recall our first efforts of getting our work onto a publisher's editor's desk.
Yes, publisher's editor, not literary agent. Because, before we knew any different, we didn't even query -- just composed a confident covering letter bundled it with our typescript (or handwritten ms) and winged it off to a publisher.*
Yes, we had the Writer's and Artist's Yearbook (first published in 1906), but it didn't offer many clues about prevailing markets.
Today, apart from publishers such as: Alma, Canongate, Constable & Robinson, Monday Books, Myrmidon, Macmillan New Writing, Snowbooks, and Two Ravens Press, we all know, personal connections notwithstanding, we need a literary agent to broker our introductions to commissioning editors.**
And, today, we can call on the generous advice of J.A. Konrath, Miss Snark, the Query Shark, the Frugal Editor, and the Evil Editor, and consult Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages and How to Write a Great Query Letter, to help us craft a killer query. They are all useful, reliable and recommended sources. However, their expertise is in helping you with specific, technical aspects of the query process.
From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake is a good, solid source of advice and information which discusses the query hurdle within the context of the whole process, from deciding what to write, through to deciphering royalty statements. It should be considered the standard work for U.K. based commercial fiction writers. And I'm sure a good many U.S. based writers will find it very useful. The index is excellent.
Carole Blake, co-proprietor of Blake, Friedmann Literary, TV & Film agency, (where singer-songwriter Dido once worked as an assistant) knows what she's writing about, and she's a popular speaker at several writers' get-togethers.
I know some writers cavil at some of her advice, such as: "You shouldn't send manuscripts [to prospective agents] that smell (As a life-long non-smoker I have sometimes reeled at the smoky smell given off as a manuscript is unwrapped from its envelope. I could never take a cigarette-smelling manuscript to my home to read, I would find it too unpleasant.)." But I regard that as useful information.
I will stress that Carole Blake's formula (p.31 in the 1999 edition) for an ideal submission (query) package is very much her own, designed to meet her needs when considering material -- you should always format and package your queries according to the wishes of the specific agent you are approaching. Always check -- even individual agents within the same agency have their own preferences.
* I did exactly this with a collection of short-stories way back in 1973 - and it worked - prompting dialogue with an editor at Macmillan which lasted several months.
** Browsing around I turned up quite a few (so far U.K. based only) publishers who will accept submissions from writers - so I'll research this, and post a list of links to publishers who will accept submissions from writers.
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