The Bare Minimum
You Should Do for Agents
I’ve been short a few spoons this week, so sorry posting has been light. (Thursday crowd I owe you a newsletter, I have not forgotten.) But I’ve also been mulling a few things I am only now just working out in my head. Carmen Maria Machado wrote this AMAZING newsletter about whether the business of writing should be taught in MFA programs (it literally changed my whole mind about it), among other important things. Then I went to speak at Fairleigh Dickinson University, to their MFA program, and they asked some very good questions, and also the questions all writers ask, which got me thinking more.
I’ve also been thinking about how my publishing and writing advice has changed over my career. I feel like in the beginning, it was THIS IS THE SECRET TO QUERY LETTERS. THIS ONE SIMPLE TRICK WILL… not in a clickbaity way (mostly) but in a this is surely the answer just listen to me way. I remember the writing advice I got from my very seasoned teachers in my MFA program was basically don’t think so hard about all this. Just do the work. You might say wait, one of those is publishing advice and one of those is writing advice, Kate. And you’d be right. But now I’m on a new thing.
Writing advice is publishing advice.
Ok, so, not completely. If you’ve never written a query letter or don’t know what an agent does, or how an advance works, then you need publishing-specific advice. But that’s like one afternoon of reading the archives of this newsletter. As I get older. As I write and try to sell more—for my clients and myself—it’s all starting to boil down to one thing. There are no tricks. There are no magic query letters or proposal formats or secret passwords that make any of this work. It’s just the book and how you write it. I’m not revising my stance that publishing is NOT a meritocracy, because you can write a ~~*~~GOOD~~*~* book and still not get published. But there’s no magic query letter or whatever that will make a half-baked idea work. So I think you should spend your time working on your book, and not worrying about whether I like to be called Ms. McKean or Kate in a query letter.
You should do the bare minimum when it comes to query letters and worrying about agents.
What’s the bare minimum?
Have a basic understanding of query letter format. (It’s just a cover letter, folks.)
Research agents. (Note: I said minimum, not easy or fast.)
Follow submission guidelines.
Honestly, that’s it. Stop thinking about me. Stop worrying about what day of the week is the best day to query. Stop worrying about if you’re going to get “blacklisted” (you’re not) for accidentally calling me Kim instead of Kate. (Check your work! But we know mistakes happen.)
Think about your book instead. Think about your first chapters. NOT will these catch an agent’s eye??!?!?!?! but are these the best first chapters for this book? Think about your reader (who is not just me). Think about what you want your book to say and if you’re doing that justice. Think about your book. I will notice that more than your query salutation, trust me.
This feels like advice you give teenagers about their future that they will never listen to, lol. That’s ok. You’ll hear it when you’re ready. I remember when I got advice similar to this from my MFA teachers. I could barely comprehend it above the buzz of finish finish finish publish publish publish author author author in my head. No one put that there but me, but I wanted it SO BAD. Well. I still want it. That’s ok. Maybe I’m ready for this advice, finally, too.
The other piece of advice I have that you will not listen to is that you can do all of this, honestly and sincerely, and still not get published. You can do this with your current manuscript and it may turn out perfectly according to your vision, and it still won’t get published, for many reasons completely out of your control. There’s writing and there’s publishing, a consumer industry built on selling books in a crowded retail environment. You can’t control any of that. You can’t magic your book to market. You can just write your book. It’s not easy and it’s endlessly frustrating and heartbreaking but that’s the way it is. I can’t fix that part for anyone. I can’t wave my hands and convince an editor that a book is more than it is. I can’t sell them a bill of goods.
Obviously don’t stop reading this newsletter full of TIPS and TRICKS guaranteed to GET YOU PUBLISHED!! lol. But also, stop looking for those TIPS and TRICKS and write your book.
DO NOT MISS this interview I did with New York Times bestselling author Neal Bascomb over at his WORK/CRAFT/LIFE newsletter. He called me “master of the publishing long game” so it’s very on brand for today’s newsletter, too!
Stay safe, loves. Keep writing.