KJ magpie200

The Author’s Biggest Mistake

This post ought to be filed under “Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious”. I hope most of you reading it will mutter “duh” and move on.  Everyone else, kindly have it tattooed on an unobtrusive body part.

The author’s biggest mistake is not, as you may think, having your heroine gaze into a mirror itemising her lush hair, full lips and high, firm breasts while feeling insecure about her ability to attract men. That’s #2. I’m talking about contracts.

Let’s start with some true stories.

Friend: [tells me about a complex set up she’s doing with a fellow creator involving transferring large sums of other people’s money]

Me: You’ve got that down in a contract, right?

Friend: Oh, I wouldn’t want to ask for a contract, that would suggest I didn’t trust her.

At a conference contracts panel

Me: Hands up who isn’t clear what “Grant of Rights” means in a publishing contract.

[most hands go up]

Me: Keep your hand up if you’ve signed a publishing contract.

[most hands stay up. Embarrassed laughter.]

And in general:

Author: I don’t understand what all this legalese means but Publisher has always treated me well in the past, so I’m signing.

Author: I can’t believe I’m really gonna be published! I got the contract today and you better believe I signed it right away and sent it back before they could change their minds LOL!!!

Author: My brother deals with loads of contracts for the local council. He looked over it and he reckons it’s fine.

If that lot didn’t make your eyes bleed, you need to know more.

Contracts are scary, dull, and full of incomprehensible jargon. Nobody likes reading them, nobody likes negotiating them. But if you are an author looking to sign with a publisher, you have to read, and understand, and negotiate. It is culpably foolish not to.

The publisher’s job, and thus the job of everyone who works for them, is to make money for the publisher. Not for the author–that’s just a side effect which keeps the business lubricated. I have worked in publishing my whole life, over two decades, half a dozen companies. I have been a commissioning editor and a managing editor; I have negotiated, issued, and amended contracts, and dealt with rights exploitation and reversion. I was a publisher long before I was an author. And I know what I am talking about when I say that the publisher does not approach the contract thinking, “What are the most favourable terms we can possibly give?”

Writers are at a disadvantage here because, generally, we want to be published. We want to believe in the goodwill of the publisher with whom we’re dealing; we’re afraid of rocking the boat by being stroppy and asking too much. We probably can’t afford lawyers at all, and almost certainly don’t have access to an experienced publishing contract lawyer; many of us are unagented. Our eyes glaze as we read, and we’re not really sure what a lot of it means, but, you know, they publish lots of people, don’t they? The editor is lovely; authors say nice things about the publisher on Facebook. Surely it’ll be fine?

No. It is never okay to sign something you don’t understand. Your trust in the publisher’s goodwill will not get your rights or money back when things go wrong. Your unwillingness to read boring legalese isn’t an excuse, it’s an Achilles heel that covers your entire leg.

You should not sign an unexamined contract even if you trust the other party so much you’d get a tattoo of their logo. Because the best of us make mistakes. A contract may unintentionally fail to include, say, a payment schedule, or a date by which the book must be published, or a means by which the author can act on non-performance. The person drafting it can have deleted a clause by accident [raises hand] or just not thought to include something. Contracts are complex and boring, which is a great combination for producing errors. And stuff goes wrong. Relationships deteriorate, people get into bad situations. Some problematic publishers are scam artists from Day One; some start off well but get in over their heads. Some contracts are drafted by spectacularly incompetent lawyers; some have quite evidently not seen a publishing law expert at all.

Checking the contract

It is not an implication of bad faith to scrutinise the contract with great care, or to ask what clauses mean, or to negotiate more favourable terms. This is what the contracts process is for. If you aren’t prepared to take the contract seriously, you might as well just hand over your MS and ask the publisher to give you money sometime. (Don’t do that.)

The opinion of your brother who does contracts for the council is worthless (on your publishing contract at least; I’m sure he’s a great guy otherwise). You need someone who knows what they are talking about and can see potential pitfalls, and you are probably better off talking to a publisher who isn’t a lawyer than a lawyer who isn’t a publisher. The publisher might see what’s missing.

Some professional bodies such as the Society of Authors will scrutinise contracts for members. The RWA does not do this for individuals, although they did, admirably, pay for a legal opinion on a recent contract amendment that affected a lot of authors (including me). An agent ought to assess contracts for you, and have a lawyer to call on. If they don’t, or don’t ever suggest changes, get a new agent. If you have a friend in publishing or know an experienced author, you might call on them for an extra pair of eyes, but at your own risk, and be aware it’s a big ask.

Watch out if you ask an author at the same publisher. Many authors, for understandable psychological reasons, fall into a “my publisher right or wrong” attitude. Ignore anyone who tells you to have faith in a publisher, human or corporate. This is a business, not a family, and certainly not a church.

I know this isn’t easy, and many people just throw their hands up and sign for lack of other recourse. But you can protect yourself, starting by learning to read contracts. If you’re capable of writing a publishable book, you’re capable of grasping the basic principles of a publishing contract. If you have the courage to put your writing out for people to buy, read, and review, you have the courage to write “Please explain clause 4” or “This clause doesn’t cover everything, please add…”  And you will always be the person most concerned to protect your own interests. Nobody else in the process is going to put you first. Trust me on that.

There are tons of helpful posts by experienced authors, agents, and contract people out there. Some good information on Contracts 101 here and also here. I am not a lawyer or a contracts expert so I won’t presume to offer a checklist. I will, however, outline a few of the things that can go wrong, to give you an idea of the wonderful and exciting possibilities that await.

Grant of rights

Rights are everything in publishing. Most publishers will ask for all the rights they can get. If you don’t understand what rights are, do not sign anything till you do. Go away and learn or you will get screwed.

The publisher ought to specify which rights they are taking, in what languages and regions, and for how long.  So you might grant World English Language electronic publishing rights for a seven-year term, or World rights, all languages, all editions and formats, for the full term of copyright. (Which means till after you’re dead.)

Everything not explicitly specified as going to the publisher should be reserved to the author. Do not accept open-ended wording like ‘all media forms currently in existence and hereinafter invented’. Traditional contracts routinely used that, and when ebooks came along it gave publishers electronic rights that they never negotiated or paid for, and which in a huge number of cases they will neither use nor release. If an older in-copyright book isn’t in e, chances are a publisher is sitting on the rights. It’s not worth their financial while to digitise the book, but it would be giving away an asset to return the rights to the author, so they don’t. Business, remember?

Subsidiary rights

Things like audio rights and translation rights can be licensed to other publishers and can make a lot of money. If you grant, say, audio rights to the publisher, they will take a cut (specified in the contract) on any deal they set up. If you retain those rights you/your agent can sell them directly to an audiobook publisher, or you can arrange an audio version yourself. That’s a lot of work and you need to decide what’s best for you.

Publishers often demand subsidiary rights and then leave them unused, to the author’s impotent fury. Don’t sign these away without a “use it or lose it” clause: you give the publisher, say, 12 or 18 months from publication date to exploit those rights, after which period the author can request reversion (getting them back) if they haven’t been used. That gives the publisher a fair chance to make money but lets the author regain control if the publisher doesn’t do the work. And you can of course leave the rights with them after the expiry of that period.

If the publisher insists on controlling audio and translation but won’t agree to a “use it or lose it” clause, you will have to make your peace with never seeing any of those rights exploited, never making any money from them, never having an audiobook or a translation–because that is almost certainly what will happen. My own failure to insist on a “use it or lose it” clause is why my most popular series is not yet in audio, and why two of my other series will probably never be available in print. It is not something I will omit again.

It is not fun to fume in hopeless rage while a publisher sits on rights they will never use, but won’t revert, and it happens all the time. Publishing is a rights business and publishers hang onto rights like Gollum with the ring.

Failure to Publish

A crucial and often-omitted clause that covers when the publisher doesn’t publish the book, or doesn’t do so in a timely fashion. This is far more common than you may think. What you need is a set term in which the book must be published starting from delivery of the MS, and right of reversion if it isn’t. For example: “The Publisher will publish the Work within 12 months of delivery of the completed manuscript unless otherwise agreed in writing between Author and Publisher. If the Publisher fails to do so, the contract will automatically terminate and all rights will revert to the Author.”

The key here is to have the period start from your action, and not from any act of the publisher. (If they insist on the start being acceptance of the MS, then you need a specified time period, eg “at acceptance of the MS or within six weeks of delivery, whichever comes first”.) A small press of which I have heard has an 18-month failure to publish term that starts when the book is assigned an editor. That publisher has been known to sit on MSS for a year or more before assigning an editor, who then doesn’t even read the damn thing for another year, and there is nothing the author can do about it.

A refusal to include a decent failure to publish clause when asked is a flag so red your eyeballs should ignite. Use the flames to set fire to the draft contract and run away.

Other works

A large publisher’s boilerplate contract might forbid you to publish a competing work for a period (eg 2-6 months) either side of the publication date. Fine if you write massive non-fiction tomes once every decade, less so if you want to publish five romances a year. Make this extremely specific (“no competing work of male/male paranormal romantic fiction set in medieval France”). Otherwise signing a series to be published at four-month intervals might make it impossible for you to publish anything else in your genre that year.

Option clauses, giving the publisher first dibs on your next book, can be a problem. You don’t want to have a vile experience with a bunch of jerks and then find you’re obliged to submit your next book to them. Georgette Heyer wanted so desperately to get away from her detective-novel publisher that she wrote Penhallow, a murder mystery where the victim doesn’t die till 2/3 of the way through and we see who the murderer is as they do it. I assume the working title was Shove Your Option Up Your Arse. I have also heard of authors with popular series writing drafts in which their central couple die, purely in order to get out of options. Downside: the publisher might accept it anyway, and then you’re stuffed.

Term and Reversion

What triggers the end of contract. A “full term of copyright” contract may conclude if the book is not available for sale in any edition, which means never given that ebooks can sit on Amazon forever at no cost to the publisher. If you must sign a term of copyright contract make sure there’s a sensible sales threshold below which you can revert, such as fewer than 500 copies sold at full price in a 12-month period. But frankly, consider before signing if you’re ready never to have your book in your control again. (Several author advocacy bodies are trying to get rid of these lifetime contracts: see here for more.)

For smaller presses there is likely to be a set contract term, e.g. seven years from date of contract, after which the author may request reversion at any time. Make sure the reversion process is laid out and simple. Some publishers have rolling renewal clauses, e.g. a two-year contract term, but the contract automatically renews annually unless the author requests return of rights in writing six weeks before the renewal date. This sort of arrangement has no obvious purpose other than to trap authors into another year’s contract against their will.

_____________________

These are only a few of the possible pitfalls. I haven’t even mentioned the big one, money, and there are many more. Many. What if your book isn’t professionally edited, or the editor demands unreasonable changes? Do you get a meaningful say on the cover? Are there provisions for redress in the case of publisher breach?

 

CONTRACTS

It may sound like I’m saying authors should fear and distrust contracts. Not at all. A good contract is the thing most likely to protect your working relationship with a publisher, by spelling out exactly what both sides’ rights and obligations are, with dates, and allowing for redress if those obligations aren’t met. That’s a sound basis for a business relationship, which is what the publisher-author relationship is. It is not a family, or a friendship based on warm feelings of trust. Good intentions, fine promises, and cute dog pictures are all great things for a publisher to offer in addition to a rock-solid well-drafted contract; they do not replace it.

It is absolutely fine to scrutinise the contract, ask for clarification, demand extra clauses and alterations to wording, or ask for clauses to be struck out. That’s negotiation. And you don’t have to be afraid that the publisher will withdraw your offer for asking. (That has happened once in my 20 year experience, and I’ve worked on contract negotiations that took two months and made me afraid to open my inbox. The one where we withdrew the offer was far, far beyond that.) There are of course publishers who will offer you ‘take it or leave it’ terms; to me this is a massive red flag. Consider: if this is how they’re treating you when you can still walk away, what will it be like when you can’t?

A bad contract is worse than no contract, just as a bad publisher is worse than no publisher. It may not seem that way when you’re desperate for publication; it bloody well will five years down the line. And you may feel that a publisher has you over a barrel now, but that barrel will not become more comfortable if you sign a document that allows them to keep you there for seven years.

Signing a contract without full consideration is the biggest professional mistake you can make. This game is hard enough at the best of times. Make sure you read the rulebook before you play.

_________________

KJ Charles has worked for seven publishers as an editor (including many, many contract negotiations) and with four as an author, and has made every possible mistake in that time.

Her newest release is An Unseen Attraction with Loveswept.

Let’s Talk About Stets

AKA how writers and editors deal with disagreement.

In recent days I’ve spoken to several new authors who have told me the same thing re their first edits: “I didn’t know what stet meant.” Argh.

Stet is one of the most important words for an author dealing with editors. It’s one of those bits of trade jargon so essential that it often doesn’t occur to professionals that it needs explaining. So the editor will say, “Stet where you feel appropriate”, and the newbie author, lacking the confidence to admit ignorance, nods in a “yes I will definitely do that” way, and things go wrong.

Stet simply means “let it stand” (it’s Latin) and in publishing terms it means “do not make this change; keep my original text”. So you can put stet next to a change you don’t want. Here the editor has cut a repetition, but it’s character voice that I want preserved, so I have reinserted my original text.

stet 1

It has become a verb of course. I stet, I have stetted. You can stet a specific change; you can also do blanket stets (“Please stet all Americanised spellings to British”) and you can also ask in advance for things to be left alone when sending a MS to the editor:

“The character Silas uses nonstandard grammar in both speech and deep 3rd person point of view. This is character voice; please stet throughout unless there is a problem with understanding, in which case please flag.”

Stet is an important tool in the editing process. If an editor makes a change or suggestion, the author may agree; or agree but change the change; or disagree but still change; or stet. Stet makes it uncompromisingly clear that you want your original kept as was, and that is extremely useful to a busy editor.

Many new authors don’t feel they can argue with edits. You really can: that’s why editing has a special word that’s designed for you to do exactly that. Whether you should is something we will come on to now.

Should You Stet?

It’s very easy to think, well, the editor is the expert so she must be right. The thing is, editors and proofers vary. Some are excellent,  some are not.  Some are hungover or tired or have been working for twelve hours straight. Some are experienced professionals and some are people who just like reading and work unpaid for a free copy of the book from the publisher. (Pause to consider why you are giving this publisher part of your income.) Some editors are high-intervention and prescriptive about grammar, some work for publishers with rigid style sheets and get in trouble if they diverge. Some misread, fail to understand, or don’t get it. I’m an editor, I’m pretty good if I say so myself, and I have failed in every possible way in my time. Nobody’s perfect.

What all this means is, you can’t just accept every change as though the editor is supporting your intended meaning. Hopefully the editor will be a knowledgeable professional whose every change improves the book; sometimes she won’t. The trick is knowing the difference.

I have worked with many authors who aren’t equipped with good grammar and punctuation. (Before anyone rants about how that’s a vital authorial skill, please remember the many marvellous story creators who are dyslexic or otherwise not neurotypical, writing in a second language, or were not beneficiaries of an education that gave them those tools.) I have also worked with many who just think that grammar and punctuation is boring stuff that’s the editor’s job to fix. (Feel free to rant about them.)

What I’m getting at is, I don’t know how good at writing, grammar and punctuation you are, or how good your editor is. I won’t tell you “stet everything!” or “stet nothing!” But here is a case study, dealing with something that’s come up for me a few times in recent edits, as a ‘how to handle it’ example which doubles as a punctuation class. There may be a test.

Dots and Dashes

This is an ellipsis: … Three dots. It signifies missing text, and in dialogue is used to show tailing off or hesitation.

This is an em dash: — It’s called an em dash because it originally was the same length as the letter M, twice as long as the en dash –, which is in turn longer than a hyphen. (These are not interchangeable little lines. Read up.) An em dash can be used to set off text which doesn’t need to be in parentheses—like this—and can also be used to show breaking off.

I have recently done a whole batch of copy edits in which the editor has replaced em dashes in dialogue with ellipses. This was so prevalent, across two MSS, that I suspect a style-sheet blanket rule of “incomplete speech takes an ellipsis” is being applied.

stet 5Punctuation matters. It is not something to which you can apply a universal style sheet because it changes the meaning of the text. And it is the author’s responsibility to keep hold of your meaning in edits.

Example! Here we are in a nightclub, where our heroine has just bumped into a lady with whom, she realises, she had a one-night stand some time ago.

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

“Natalie.”

The editor, obedient to a style sheet or some inner compulsion, changes to an ellipsis.

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…”

“Natalie.”

But that changes the meaning. Allow me to demonstrate by filling in the gaps.

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

“Natalie,” the other woman said quickly, eagerly, and Jenny felt her lips curve in response.

or

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

“Natalie,” the other woman said over her, which was odd, because Jenny remembered very clearly that she had called herself Lizzie.

or

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…” Shit, shit, shit. Was it Natasha? Nora? Anna?

“Natalie.” She didn’t look impressed.

or

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…” Her voice died in her throat. She’d dreamed of seeing this woman again so often, thought of everything she’d say, and now she was here, right in front of her, and Jenny couldn’t speak a word.

“Natalie.”

In the first example, Natalie is talking over Jenny; in the second she interrupts. Both need an em dash because Jenny’s speech is broken. And you can see they need an em dash because when we use an ellipsis, in the second pair, that gives a different effect: Jenny trailing off to try and think of the blasted woman’s name, or because she’s afflicted by Romance Heroine Speech Impediment.

The big question is, what does the author mean? (Not ‘what does the style sheet say’. Style sheets are just tools, and if an editor insists on the style sheet to the detriment of the author’s meaning or the quality of the text, that’s a massive problem.) What did you mean? Did you in fact want a break, or, actually, is the ellipsis more appropriate here and the editor was right?

Was the use of poor grammar a conscious choice to convey character, or does your grammar just suck? Is this multiply queried thing throughout the MS a quirk of your authorial voice, and if so, is it a grossly overused quirk that you ought to get under control because it’s going to annoy the hell out of people (KJ)? Is this deliberate for effect, or inadvertently clumsy, ambiguous, or just plain wrong, as we all are sometimes?

There is no shame in having got something wrong, or in realising there’s a better way; that’s what editors are for. And there is no piece of writing that can’t be improved. But if you feel that the editor’s amendment is not an improvement or just doesn’t look like what you meant, you can do the following:

Discuss, particularly if you don’t feel confident in your own punctuation/grammar. (“I intended to convey hesitation here, I’m not sure this works.”) Most editors will be thrilled to work with an author who listens and wants to learn; it saves a lot of time on the next MS.

Rewrite. There’s no law says you have to accept an editor’s change, but if something’s been flagged, it’s for a reason (good or otherwise) and it’s worth considering what that is. Perhaps you don’t feel there’s a problem but it’s worth tweaking in case; perhaps there’s a different way of phrasing it that dodges the problem altogether. You never have to accept the editor’s amendment as it stands; editors don’t get to stet their suggestions.

Or, if you meant exactly what you wrote in the first place, you don’t want it changed, you don’t think the editor has a good reason, then stet. The word is there for you to use; you’re the author and ultimately the editors are there to support your writing. That’s not a free pass to be overbearing, and if you don’t listen to good advice you’re a fool. The Dunning–Kruger effect applies to authors too.

But in the end, the author has to know what she means, and author and editor should be on the same side in bringing out that meaning in the best possible words. It’s your writing. Work on it, improve it, but own it. That’s your right, and it’s also your job.

____________

KJ is an editor, a writer, and probably a massive pain to edit. Sorry about that.

KJ magpie200

Writing Query Letters (or, how to be touched with a bargepole)

Queries are simply letters which summarise your book and ask if an editor or agent is interested in reading it. Some people want a query letter alone and will request (or not) three chapters and synopsis on the back of it; others ask for the query letter plus three chapters and synopsis. (Click here for how to write a synopsis.)

Aspiring authors get pretty ground down by this stuff so herewith a few tips.

Firstly, this is honestly not as complicated as people make out. It’s just a basic letter so the agent/editor can see if the book might be appropriate for their list, and also if the author falls into the category Do Not Touch This Person With a Bargepole (‘bargepoles’ for short).

Compulsory bits

1) Read the guidelines of the publisher/agent you’re subbing to and follow them. There is no point at all in you querying an agent or editor who doesn’t handle your type of book, so don’t mess about. If you don’t follow instructions, you flag yourself as the kind of person who can’t follow instructions, i.e. a bargepole. If there are no guidelines, just do a standard letter as follows.

2) Address the letter to the person by name, and formally. Dear Mr Jones, Dear Ms Patel. If the editor is Alex Smith with no photo and no indication of gender, then Dear Alex Smith or phone the company to find out how they like to be addressed. Don’t guess, and don’t call them Dear Alex if you don’t know them. Consider if you’d like to be addressed as ‘Dear Agent’ or ‘To Whom It May Concern’.

3) Contact details. I wish I didn’t have to say ‘include your contact details’ but I do. If you have a decent online presence, supply links. If your online presence is picking fights with strangers and moaning about your commute to 28 followers, don’t.

4) Introductory sentences: “I would like to submit my [TYPE] book TITLE for your consideration. The book is a [WORD COUNT] [SPECIFICS OF BOOK]. The manuscript is complete.” Thus:

I would like to submit my romantic novel* THE MAGPIE LORD for your consideration. This is a 50,000-word** gay paranormal romance set in the Victorian era***. The manuscript is complete. ****

* Say the type of book straight off because if the author is the kind of bargepole who submits poetry collections or histories of the Second World War to Harlequin, the editor would like to know that at once. (Do please check they accept your kind of book before you send the letter. You’d be amazed how many people don’t.)

** Word count matters as they may have restrictions. Plus, if it’s 2,500 words, or 2.5 million, that’s something the editor or agent would like to know now.

*** Brief specifics about the book here. A history of the Byzantine empire, a medical techno-thriller, just something to give a handle on your book. If you can make useful comparisons—the key word being useful—do so. “28 Days Later in space” or “a contemporary medical romance in the spirit of Betty Neels” is highly informative. Pro tip: no comparison to Harry Potter is ever useful, and particularly not claims of the MS being likely to sell at least as many copies.

**** Say the MS is complete if it is, because you’re wasting her time with a half written MSS. If it isn’t complete, stop reading this post and finish the damn thing. You get to sub back-of-an-envelope ideas later in your career. And don’t lie, because if the agent requests the full and it’s not written, you just blew your chance and marked yourself as a bargepole.

5) Paragraph about the book. This should be a top line summary, elevator pitch sort of thing. There’s no hard and fast rule, but if you try to write a really good blurb, that would do. (Because that’s so easy ahahaha. Blurb-writing tips here.) It should introduce the setting, MCs, plot and conflict. You don’t need to give the ending. And in the name of mercy keep it short.

London, 1880s. Lucien Vaudrey has returned from twenty highly enjoyable years of exile and disgrace in China to take up his unexpected inheritance of an earldom, but finds himself attacked by supernatural forces. He summons a magical law enforcer for help, but the man who arrives, Stephen Day, has every reason to want the entire Vaudrey family dead. Stephen and Lucien must now confront the past, and the unwanted attraction that ignites between them, while also trying to solve a series of magical murders—and avoid falling in love.

I did that in about 3mins, it could be better, but you see my point. Setting, characters, conflict, and since this is a romance, the romantic conflict too.

Don’t pull your hair out. Your good outcome here is that the editor skims it, doesn’t see any red flags, and reads on. Nobody is looking for authors with a genius at writing summary paragraphs. They just want to know they aren’t wasting their time in turning to the chapters.

I would, myself, stick to third person overview here, rather than trying to write in character. Even if the book’s in first person with a strong narrative voice, you’ll have to do a very good job to make that work for the editor in the 4-5 sentences of a pitch. I’m not sure any potential gain is worth the risk of failure. If you do try for an unusual voice, make sure it doesn’t get in the way of conveying what the book is about.

Optional bits:

4) Relevant bio if there is any. If there isn’t, just don’t. The editor doesn’t need to know you’re a keen amateur hockey player if it’s a book about cats. She might care if it’s a hockey romance; she needs to know if it’s a history of hockey through the ages. If you have nothing useful to say here it’s absolutely fine to skip (unless the guidelines demand it).

Absolutely do not include irrelevant professional experience. (“I have worked in local government for twenty years, here’s my BDSM erotica set in ancient China.”)

If you’ve got relevant previous publications (including self pub with sales figures), mention. If you have irrelevant previous publications mention super briefly. (“This is my first novel, although I have published a number of gardening titles with PUBLISHER.”) The agent can follow up if interested, and knows you can finish a text. But don’t fill the page with this.

Story time: I once saw a query for a sci-fi space opera that came from a man who worked for a famous dog show. I know he worked for the dog show because he said so in a paragraph that went, basically, “I have worked at [org] for years, and have a number of qualifications regarding dogs including writing several dog books. However, this is not a book about dogs and despite my qualifications in the dog world I don’t want to write a novel about dogs. I have lots and lots of interests that aren’t dogs. I’m not obsessed with dogs at all. Please judge my SFF novel on its own merits, and not dogs!” The very first line of the MS was, I swear to you, ‘“Come over here!” the captain barked’, and I couldn’t stop laughing for days.

5) Good endorsements. If you’ve had a published, Googleable writer or relevant professional give you a nice quote, use it by all means. Otherwise, no. Absolutely don’t say that your mum/writing group liked it, or that you read it to some children and they were really enthusiastic. (Particularly if it’s hardcore erotica.)

6) Previous publication of the MS. If you’ve had the whole thing available free on Wattpad or whatever you need to make that clear because it might trip contract clauses regarding prior publication. If you have a 200K following on Wattpad, now is also a good time to mention that. Don’t keep this a secret for fear the agent or editor wouldn’t like it. These are relationships based on trust: don’t start by lying.

***

Okay? It’s not hard, honestly. A few additional tips for not looking like a bargepole:

  • Don’t muck about with fonts and colours. It’s a professional communication.
  • People often try things to ‘make their submission stand out’ but the thing about standing out is, it’s what bargepoles do. I still shudder at the query letter I received purporting to be from a bunny rabbit, signed Mr Flopsy with a paw print, plus a bunny author photo. That ‘stands out’ in that it gets pinned on the corkboard in the office kitchen, but not otherwise.
  • If a snail mail query includes sweeties, author pics, fluffy gonks etc: bargepole. If there’s glitter or confetti in the envelope, I hope the sender treads on a slug in bare feet.

And a big one: This is not the place to rehearse your disillusionment with the publishing industry. I have seen all of the following:

  • The Sore Loser. “My MS has been rejected by Faber and Canongate, but seeing the meretricious crap they publish now, I’m honoured they didn’t think my book was for them.”
  • The Considerably Better Than You. “I am sorely disappointed by the tripe that passes for [genre] today and knew I could write a better book than any of the rubbish currently being published.” Bonus points if the author mentions the publisher’s own books as examples of said rubbish.
  • The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. “I am well aware the elitist clique that runs the publishing industry works on the basis of ‘who you know’ rather than giving anyone else a chance, and I dare say you won’t even bother to read this submission.” Correct, but not for the reason the author thought.
  • The Resentful. “My last book was left to sink without trace by X publisher, whose editorial and marketing left much to be desired. I trust you will do a better job.” Might well be true, but not this editor’s problem. Putting complaints that are nothing to do with the recipient in a query letter is not a good look.
  • The Really Resentful. “I have the following pending litigation against previous publishers…”

Keep it professional, short and relevant, proofread the living hell out of it, and you’ll be fine. Good luck!

____________________

KJ Charles did twenty years as an editor and has read more query letters than she would care to count; she is now a published author and doesn’t have to write them any more. Oh happy day.

KJ is currently offering two free development edits to British BAME romance authors in the support of more diverse British romance, so if you’re an aspiring author ready to query, click here and take me up on it.