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!

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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.

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Free Society of Gentlemen interlude (with catch)

It’s just a few days till A Gentleman’s Position publishes. This is the third book in my Regency ‘Society of Gentlemen’ trilogy, this one starring the highly principled Lord Richard Vane and his deeply unprincipled valet David Cyprian, and it’s going to tie up all sorts of things. Starting with Lord Richard’s conscience in knots. /evil grin/

We left the story in A Seditious Affair with radical bookseller Silas Mason moved into Lord Richard’s household; we pick things up a few weeks later in A Gentleman’s Position to see that Silas and Cyprian have struck up a friendship. So I wrote a special behind-the-scenes interlude, ‘A Confidential Problem’, about the, uh, challenging beginnings of that friendship, for a bit of insight into what was going on backstairs.facebook CP

‘A Confidential Problem’ is a 4,000 word scene which takes place between chapters 15 and 16 of A Seditious Affair (after Silas has gone down to Arrandene, but before the finale). It’s not standalone, and won’t make any sense if you haven’t read A Seditious Affair, but since that’s still ludicrously cheap at the time of writing, I’d get on that now if I were you.

The catch!

This story is only currently available via my newsletter. If you’re an existing subscriber you’ll get it. If you’re not, please sign up to be sent a download link. (Use that link rather than going to the newsletter page or you might miss it.)

You can, obviously, then unsubscribe at will, but please note, I only email when there’s something worth emailing about, such as new books and free stuff, and your address will never be used by me for any other purpose.

Subscribe to the newsletter here to get ‘A Confidential Problem’, or sit back and wait if you’re already a subscriber. I hope you enjoy it!

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A Gentleman’s Position comes out on 5th April.

A Seditious Affair was voted tied first for Best LGBTQ+ Romance in the All About Romance annual poll, and received Honourable Mention for Best Romance and Best Historical Romance set in the UK.

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What I Did On My Holidays (in Burma)

Look, I would not normally blog about my holidays, but seriously. Mr KJC and I ditched the kids and went to Burma (now, but disputedly, called Myanmar) and it was perhaps the most extraordinarily interesting and beautiful place I’ve ever been. It’s also hauling itself out of the grinding poverty caused by years of abuse by the psychotic regime of the generals, and tourism is playing a large part in that, so I wanted to share the love. Plus I’ve had so many people ask about it that this seems the only sensible place to answer everyone at once. So without further ado, here are my holiday snaps. Feel free to bail out now.

Notes

It’s hot there. We went in December, the depths of winter, and it was maybe 33 in Yangon, 28-30 in Bagan. However, the nights are cold everywhere except Yangon. We went to a hill station, Kalaw, and it was about 4 degrees at night. Staying in unheated houses on our hill walk was bitter. Bring a jumper and thermal pyjamas if trekking.

December was getting very dusty and dry. Given the choice I’d suggest going in October, when the rainy season is recently over and everything is fresh and in bloom.

The food is really good. REALLY good.

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You basically point at what you want from a selection of dishes, although the honest answer is ‘all of it’.

Lots of curries and tons of vegetables. People will ask if you like it spicy with almost too much regard for timid Western palates.

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Mmm, chilli.

Eat the street food, it’s amazing.The tiny quail’s eggs inside pancakes are particularly good.

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I want these. I want them now.

You can’t drink the tap water, but pretty much everywhere uses bottled water for ice and often to wash vegetables for salad (an environmental disaster, I know). The only thing that made me sick were the malaria pills, which weren’t even necessary. Not only is there no malaria on the main tourist trail, I didn’t get bitten by a mosquito once, and I am normally an all-you-can-eat blood bonanza.

It’s really safe. No sexual hassle, no sense of threat anywhere–except on one occasion where our guide got in the way of a military person on holiday, who went psychotically, frighteningly Taxi Driver on us, screaming with unfettered rage, spittle flying–because someone had spoiled his photo. That was a reminder that the country is still emerging from the grip of one of the worst regimes in the world. So was the man we met who reminisced about his friends being jailed for eight years after the failed 1988 rebellion and emerging from prison utterly broken in mind and body. Terrible, terrible things have been done to this country. It still felt like a good place of good people. It deserves so much better.

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Aung San Suu Kyi is basically everywhere. People put so much faith in her. Please God.

All the guidebooks say to bring fresh, new, unfolded dollars. They aren’t kidding; people will hand tatty ones back. Same for 5000 kyat notes. Smaller denominations tend to resemble snot rags, and that appears to be fine.

This is a Buddhist country. You need sandals that can be easily slipped off for visiting temples, and clothes that cover your knees and shoulders. Don’t be that tourist. I brought a bunch of stuff and ended up wearing a longyi most of the time because they’re so absurdly comfortable. So did Mr KJC in the end.

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Mr KJC and guide Nyi-nyi engaged in our main holiday occupation: getting snacks.

There is very little hassle, people are polite and dignified. Our guides took us to a lot of places like jaggery (palm sugar) makers, cigar makers, silver workshops etc.

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Making cheroots

This is the sort of thing I have always tended to avoid the hell out of, but at the moment this is still people working by hand, with extraordinary skills, using incredibly intricate traditional techniques, really worth seeing, and producing fantastic work. We brought *so much stuff* home.

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Palm sugar grinder. NB: jaggery is basically what you get if you cross sweeties and crack. Especially tamarind jaggery. Excuse me while I check my stash.

Perhaps the worst thing I saw on my travels was in a fairtrade shop for a charity that is attempting to bring water tanks to rural villages, where women have to walk miles each way on mountain roads to get water. The shop was selling handmade goods like a hand-woven bag of wonderful quality for $12. A tourist–a European tourist who was doubtless spending thousands of Euros on her holiday–stood in there and bargained to drive down the price of fairtrade goods being sold for the benefit of people so poor their lives are basically medieval. What the hell can you say about people like that.

Yangon

Rangoon, as was.

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A thriving city visibly transforming itself into a modern capital, but still with markets on many corners, restaurants where you eat sitting on plastic stools on the road, missing paving slabs through which you can fall into open sewage, packs of dogs roaming the street and howling at night.

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Spiritually speaking, all publishers are this

If you like cities, this is the absolute best; we stayed five days, just roaming through crowded streets, checking out the crumbling colonial architecture, exploring the fabulous markets, eating any amount of wonderful things, and people-watching.

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The old colonial seat of British government. Look on my works, ye Mighty…

If you don’t like cities, just go to Shwedagon Paya, which is pretty much a Buddhist St Mark’s Square.

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The tiny stick person there is me. The place is big.

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The stupa is covered in real gold, estimated value $30bn, and topped with diamonds.

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We spent New Years Eve on a rooftop bar with this view of the Shwedagon Paya. Not bad.

Bagan

World Heritage Site doesn’t begin to describe this. It’s a massive plain with over 2500 pagodas, stupas and temples, many a thousand years old. I mean, there are so many. It’s incomprehensible; it leaves you slack-jawed.

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Many have old frescos and paintings, you can go into some of them and watch the sunset over the plain, or splurge on a hot air balloon trip.

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Hti’s Cocktail Bar does the best rum sours we had in Myanmar (the local Mandalay rum is excellent). Their happy hour is a two-for-one deal, which they interpret as ‘if you order two rum sours we’ll bring you four’. I’m not going to argue with that.

Kalaw

A hill station, with plenty of old colonial buildings and a big military presence because of rebels in the northern Shan State. It’s an interesting place to roam.

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It also has an absolutely fantastic dive bar that only serves rum sours (brutal ones), with everyone huddled round the circular bar from the cold, half locals and half tourists, talking in five languages at once, and a guy on guitar singing Coldplay songs in Burmese.

Trek to Inle

You could easily walk Kalaw to Inle in two days, one night. (It’s downhill; the other way would be very hard work.) Don’t even think about doing it without a guide, you’re a long way from rescue helicopters here. Our walk looped through fields and forests and over railway lines.

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It was outstandingly, staggeringly beautiful. This is a hill walk, you don’t need big trekking boots. Our guide wore flip flops.

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We stopped in various villages. Tribe is still a big thing in Burma, there are maybe 130 ethnic groups, and people in neighbouring villages have mutually incomprehensible languages.

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A Pa’O tribeswoman weaving on a hand loom.

Most of the agriculture is done by hand in the hills of the Shan state, and many villages are self sufficient, producing their own oil and rice.

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There was no running water where we stayed overnight, electricity only from solar panels, and that very limited. Washing facilities are a bucket of water outside. We brought travel backgammon and played by torchlight because it was pitch dark by 6.30.  The stars were beyond belief.

Inle Lake

Glorious. A huge lake fringed by houses on stilts. People grow food on floating rafts of earth and compost that can be moved around and staked into place. I can’t tell you how lovely this place is.

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Inthein

A village off Inle Lake that is basically a big market, and an incredible area of ruined stupas. Just, honestly, jawdropping.

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We didn’t go to Mandalay, but everyone we spoke to who did says it’s a concrete traffic jam. We didn’t make it to Mawlamyine either but I really wish we had, it sounds stunning.

Basically, this was the trip of a lifetime and a massive privilege to have the chance, and if you are thinking about it and in a position to go, I can’t say enough good things. Happy to answer questions in the comments!

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We had our flights and hotels booked for us, and guides arranged where necessary, through Pro Niti Travel, who are a local firm and were absolutely excellent. I recommend wholeheartedly.

KJ magpie200

Storytime: The Worst Phone Call

I told this story as part of my keynote speech at the UK LGBT Fiction Meet. I’ve been asked for the text, which is far too long to type out. But for those who weren’t there, I give you my favourite publishing story: The Tale of the Worst Phone Call, a.k.a. How KJ Went Off Customer-Facing Roles Forever.

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This was back in the day when I worked for a small independent publisher. We had a narrow rickety building, maybe 15 staff, and a very profitable mass market list to prop up the boss’s occasional wild eccentricities.

The mainstay of the mass market publishing was what I’ll call the Mega Books list. These were highly profitable because brutally cost controlled: cheap content; all the same format, paper and cover stock; and always reprinted in multiples of two or four because doing two or four books together made the print runs significantly cheaper for reasons I won’t bore you with.

The Mega Books were collections. There was the Mega Book of Adventure Stories, the Mega Book of Science Fiction, there was Fantasy, Historical, Detectives, accounts of historical events, political speeches, anything as long as you could get 528pp of text for cheap. And there was erotica. The Mega Book of Erotica, of More Erotica, of Historical Erotica, Gay Erotica, Lesbian Erotica, Dark Erotica, et cetera ad nauseam. And I mean ad nauseam, because this was not high-end stuff. It was twenty years ago, issues like ‘consent’ and ‘trigger warnings’ were not on the agenda (at least, not that particular acquiring editor’s agenda), and…let’s just say that erotica comes in every flavour, and this one was frequently ear wax.

Anyway. There I am, junior marketing gonk, busily propping up the British book trade (or playing Minesweeper, one of the two) when the phone rings.

Receptionist: KJ, we have a complaint, can’t make head or tail of it. Here you go. /click/

So I take the call, and it is a quite posh lady who is incoherent, incandescent with rage.

Me: May I ask what the prob–

Customer: I bought The Mega Book of Reportage and I am shocked. This is absolutely disgraceful. Disgraceful!

This book is all eyewitness accounts of important historical events. The worst you could say is it’s got a £6.99 price tag for mostly out-of-copyright material. I am confused.

Me: What’s wrong with it?

Customer: Page 416!

Me: What about page 416?

Customer, spluttering: I’m not repeating it! Look for yourself.

So I grab a copy, turn to page 416, and it’s a report about the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Me: Um, I’m looking at 416, what’s the issue here?

Customer: The issue? Just read it! Do you think that’s acceptable?!

Me: No, madam, I don’t, but you’re going to have to take that up with the Chinese government.

Customer: What?

Me: The events of Tiananmen Square are not my responsibility, so I’m afraid–

Customer, full shriek: THIS IS NOT ABOUT TIANANMEN SQUARE!!!

This escalates. She still won’t tell me what the problem is, but now she is also absolutely livid at my obtuseness. She says I am mocking her, that she is going to sue. I am utterly baffled.

Across the room, the production manager starts waving wildly at me. I put the customer on hold, and the production manager says the words I should have thought of.

Signature swap.

Here’s the thing: You make a book by printing on a huge sheet of paper, folding it over and over and cutting the edges. This creates a 32-page booklet called a signature. Put the various signatures together in the right order (10 for a 320-page book), sew or glue them at the back, stick on a cover, and Bob’s your uncle. Here’s a book printed without cover on the spine so you can see the signatures.IMG_20150916_091004674

But, very, very rarely, the signatures can get accidentally swapped over. That is, if you have books A and B on press together, a signature of A might be exchanged with a signature of B. And now you have a copy of book A with 32 pages of book B in the middle of it, and vice versa.

Uh-oh.

Me: Did we reprint Reportage recently?

Production manager: Yes, we did.

Me: Did it go up with something else?

Production manager: Oh yes.

Me, bracing: Go on.

Production manager: Gay Erotica.

Of course. I reach for the file copy of Gay Erotica, turn to p.416…

…right in the middle of a fisting scene.

Of course, fisting scenes, like any sex scene, can be written with love, care and respect. This one was not. Not even slightly.

Clearly this was a horrendous fail on our part. The only way it could have been worse is if it had been Dark Erotica, for which the first proofreader actually walked off the job. It is not OK to sell erotica to people who didn’t want to buy it, the customer has a faulty product and a legitimate grievance even if she isn’t very nice, and the only professional response is a sincere apology.

Unfortunately, at this point I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. The production manager was sliding off her chair howling, the receptionist who’d come up for a nosey was lying on the floor hammering the carpet with her fist, and it took several minutes for me to get a grip on myself. All the while the customer was still on hold, and not getting any happier.

Me, finally: Shut up, all of you. I have to take the call, she’ll hear you. SHUT UP.

[takes customer off hold]

Customer: WELL???

Me: Madam, we’ve discovered what the problem is, and I can only apologise. This is an incredibly unfortunate printers’ error and I am very, very sorry. I assure you, we are all extremely upset about this—

At which point the publicity manager swings into the room and announces, at full volume and entirely audible to the customer at the other end of the phone, “Oh my God, I just heard, that’s hilarious!”

***

I will draw a veil over the rest of the call. I can only add that some poor so-and-so must have paid £6.99 for a copy of Gay Erotica and got hit by 32pp of Tiananmen Square at just the wrong moment, but at least they never contacted me about it.

And that’s how I decided my future did not include customer service.

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KJ Charles is a writer and editor who still twitches when the phone rings. Her most recent title is A Fashionable Indulgence.

If you get a book with signature swap (repeated pages or randomly wrong text), just call the publisher and they’ll replace it. There’s no need to shout.