Getting published the traditional trade book way

11 Oct

Book cover for Beyond the Tripping Point

Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.

— Cicero

I’m off to another public reading for my just released collection of mystery short stories Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, 2012). It’s all part of the book promo and it is and has been busy, what with trying to get book reviews, nailing TV and radio appearances, etc. My publisher shares this marketing, which really helps.

But before you get into this book PR, you have to land your publisher or literary agent. And that can seem daunting. There are so many unpublished authors with talent, many more than “publishing spaces.” E-books are creating more readers (and more publishing space), but some authors are going the self-publishing route and I say more power to them. But what about those who prefer the traditional route?

You can’t just dump your novel or short story collection on an agent or publisher. They don’t have time to read the whole story unless something about it grabs their attention. Your job is to get their attention – right away.

One way is through query letters, synopses, and sample chapters. Some agents and publishers want this whole package; most prefer the query letter only and then if that gets their attention, they will ask for more.

A good query letter has to hook the agent or publisher with the first sentence. Starting with the obvious “I’m looking for an agent to represent my novel” will put the agent to sleep. Grab the agent with a wowee sentence about your book. Here’s an example. “When Abigail Cooke reunites with her birth mother, she has no idea that her new family connection will lead to buried bodies, psychosis, and the Mob.”

There are variations to the “when setup,” which focus more on the characters, the time period – whatever is most pertinent to your novel AND will grab the agent’s or publisher’s attention.

In your second paragraph you get to expand – a little. In this mini-synopsis you give the highlights of your novel’s plot and main characters. Pick the attention getters. Don’t do it resume style – it has to flow – and watch for boring summaries starting with “Abigail Cooke is a tall, slim blonde who teaches kindergarten.” Yawn. What does that have to do with your beginning sentence? The agent or publisher wants to read on from paragraph one. It also is a good idea to give the title of your book. Better would be “In Can of Worms, Abigail Cooke, a young schoolteacher who was adopted at birth, has always found something missing in her life – her birth mother. After agonizing the pros and cons, she starts searching online and finds her birth mother, Sara Tusani. The two begin an email correspondence. Despite Abigail’s apprehension about Sara, which she puts down to “just nerves,” she agrees to meet Sara in her native Rome, Italy during her summer vacation. When she’s met at Leonardo da Vinci Airport by her mother’s chauffeur, but not her mother, she ignores her gut feeling of apprehension and relishes the luxury. When she arrives at Sara’s mansion on the outskirts of Rome and meets her mother’s brother-in-law, Luigi Tusani, a philandering alcoholic and her half-brother, Giuseppe Tusani, a computer nerd who hibernates in the attic, she has second thoughts. But her mother seems normal, gracious and friendly…at first. As the day turns to dark, loud bangs and a haunting caterwauling in the mansion wake up Abigail. The next morning’s questions give her only “you must be imagining things” answers. That night when the noises come, Abigail is ready. Grabbing a hairbrush for a weapon, she leaves her room, walks along the hall and goes downstairs into the kitchen, sees the basement door open, and takes the stairs down…”

You would add a sentence or two, supplying a bit more information. Depending on your storyline you can have a summary sentence that perhaps goes back to your first paragraph’s sentence, for example, “Abigail finally realizes she should have listened to her instincts and now must lose her new family or risk losing her life.”

Paragraph three covers your background – published writing (books, stories in journals or magazines, newsletters, especially if you’ve won any writing contests or awards). Not a published author? What about your education and expertise? Is it related to your novel? For example, for Can of Worms if the author is adopted and tried to find her birth mother, is or was a school teacher, and has travelled to Rome (in order of importance to the novel – all not necessary), you can use that to establish credentials for writing the novel.

Some agents or publishers want a little marketing information from you, so you could either put it in a second sentence in paragraph one or write a short fourth paragraph (better). Focus on how your novel is different from what’s out there. Be specific, including naming another novel. Also state who your readers would be (thirty-somethings, seniors, adoptees, etc.).

Your final paragraph is The Thank You and the Ask. Thank the agent or publisher for their time, ask if they would like a synopsis and sample chapters and you look forward to their reply.

Your query should be only one page but with most sent by email you can cheat – but just a little – no equivalent to one and a half to three pagers. Another suggestion: check submission guidelines on the agent’s or publisher’s website and follow them to the well, query letter.

For those of you in the Toronto, Ontario, Canada area, Brian Henry is running a workshop on Getting Published which includes writing a query letter and a literary agent as guest speaker. This workshop is sponsored by my East End Writers’ Group and will be held at The World’s Biggest Bookstore in downtown Toronto from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, October 13, 2012. Check for more details and how to register at

Next week we’ll go into another way of getting the attention of agents and publishers, including how I got my publisher for Beyond the Tripping Point.


Sharon A. Crawford


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