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Faces Come Out of the Rain

On the other hand

Hello Betsy,

Thank you for making yourself available for questions. I’ve read conflicting opinions about the following:

Is it a good idea to include a photograph in the bio portion of the book proposal?

Thank you,

Name Withheld

Dear Name Withheld:

No, it is not. I’ve seen quite a few. Everything from 8 x 10 glossy head shots to a guy standing in a motor boat holding a big fish. I’ve seen bikini clad women, candid photos of friends at Hooters, college year book photos, at a lectern giving a speech, you name it. Unless you are a body builder writing about body building, please keep your pecs to yourself. For some reason author photos look amateurish and grasping when they arrive with proposals and manuscripts. How then can it be explained why we love having them inside book jackets?

Another publishing conundrum.

Thanks for writing. Betsy

Address It To My Wife

As you could have probably guessed, my “Ask Betsy” feature of the blog is getting a lot of traffic. However, most of the emails are not questions. Most readers are using it to pitch their projects. So, it’s sort of a slush pile/question box. At first, I was really pissed about it. It’s not at all difficult to find my agency email for chrissakes. Then I thought maybe I was being too uptight. I mean for fuck’s sake, who cares where a great project comes from, my agency email, my blog email, my ass. So I dutifully read through the queries hoping to discover the next Ordinary People (according to publishing lore, it was found in the slush).

So far, no luck. Needle, meet haystack. What does bother me is that I actually do answer all of these queries and then the person writes again and asks me to look at a nonfiction project once I explain that I’m not taking on fiction. Or, they ask me to review an alternative pitch, or recommend other agents, or give them a detailed critique of their writing. I could do all of these things, but I have to charge. A LOT.

I really love the questions and if you have one I’d love to hear from you. If you want to pitch your project, then please send it to Mail@dclagency.com and address it to my attention. But please understand that I will not respond as your lovable self-loathing blogger but rather as the hard-hearted bitch agent that I am.

Let’s Play Twister, Let’s Play Risk

If you want excellent advice on how to write a pitch letter, go to Nathan Bransford’s blog, or to Janet Reid’s check list, or Rachelle Gardener’s guidelines. OR, come, sit back, and watch me light myself on fire. I’m going to write a mock query letter for a project I’ve abandoned as a way to describe the kinds of things I look for in a letter.

Salutation: Dear FIRST AND LAST NAME. (I don’t like too familiar and I don’t like too formal.)

The one sentence pitch: I hope you might be interested in my memoir, The Potter’s Apprentice, which describes a year of pottery lessons between an octogenarian teacher and his last student: me.

Alternatives: I met you last year at Breadloaf where we spoke briefly about my project, The Potter’s Apprentice. OR, I am a great fan of your clients X and Y, and hope my work might be of interest to you. OR, I read your blog religiously and, perhaps magically, imagine that you might take to my work.

The body: It had been nearly thirty years since I studied pottery and I didn’t miss it. But one afternoon, down a quiet side street in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood, a sign caught my eye: Pottery Lessons. What followed was a year of classes with a master potter, an 82 year old whose craft dazzled me. Between fending off his advances, listening to his tales of the Blitz and mutliple marriages, and letting myself put the blackberry down for two hours and take in the clay, the darling garden, and the wheezing of an old hound, an unlikely friendship developed between the old potter and me. The book is also a meditation on marriage, on love, and on clay. Done right, I hope it will appeal to readers of (we need two good examples here).

The bio: As for me, I received an MFA from Columbia. I was the recipient of (fill in the blanks). My writing has appeared in x,y,z. You can read more about me on my website xxxo.

Many thanks for your time,

Betsy Lerner


Be brutal: would you request the manuscript if you were an agent? What worked for you and what didn’t? How could it be improved upon?

It’s only there trying to fool the public

Hi Betsy,
I enjoy your blog.
I am getting a very high response rate on my query letter. I wrote a kick-ass query letter. One agent told me that, not in those words. I’m afraid my manuscript is a disappointment. I think if you read the whole thing (80,000 words), it might contain the spirit of the query letter. But who reads the whole manuscript? I’ve had about six agents request the whole manuscript, but there responses feel like they didn’t get what they paid for.
Should I write a less exciting query letter? Or, is this just the standard rate of rejection, great query letter or no? I’m new at this, and am quickly gaining perspective.
Thanks for your writing and blog.

Dear CoCo:
I can actually relate to this because when I was an editor I was told on more than a few occasions that my pitch was better than the material. That said, your letter strikes me kind of coo-coo for Coconuts. There is only one conclusion to reach: Pull the book back and work on it. Should you write a less exciting cover letter? That’s like telling a girl with an C-cup that she should get a breast reduction. Your letter is completely seductive, your novel is not. Fix the freakin’ novel. If you don’t have a writers’ group, get one. Or hire a freelance editor. It’s not standard to get such a high rate of interest off a query letter (in fact it’s rare); don’t squander these opportunities. Geez, I’m dying to see the letter. But not the book.
Query letters: what are you doing wrong? What are you doing right?
BONUS: I will critique the first five query letters I receive in the “AskBetsy”  box. I will post your letter and my response IF THAT IS OKAY WITH YOU. Or I will send you a private response.

If You Liked It Then You Shoulda Put a Ring On It

Dear Betsy,

I was fortunate to have a friend recommend me to her agent. Said agent is on my A-list. A-list agent and I exchanged pleasantries via email, and she invited me to send my manuscript, which had won two substantial novel-in-progress awards in 2009. In October 2009, I mailed the ms. Soon after that, I received an extremely generous critique from another agent who loved the work but felt she couldn’t take it on “at this time.” With that agent’s suggestions in mind, I did a substantial revision and feel that the novel is much improved. Of course, I will ask agent #2 if I can resubmit to her. Meanwhile, I haven’t heard back from A-list agent. It’s been four months. I would love to send her my revision, but I don’t want to annoy her. It is possible that she hasn’t seen my original version. What is the protocol? Ask if she’ll accept a revision? Wait for her to respond to the ms I already sent?

Thank you for any suggestions. I love your blog.

“Wife Number Three”

Dear Three:

This is classic. Classic! Though a little confusing. Usually when an agent says she can’t take on something “at this time” it means NEVER. It means not now, not ever, which spells never. “At this time” is like a guy who doesn’t call back after you fuck him. If he doesn’t call the next day or the day after, will he ever call back? Highly fucking unlikely. Maybe a few months later in the middle of the night when he’s drunk. Maybe. That said, this little minx gave you substantial notes. You don’t give substantial notes unless you would like another role in the hay. So, sure, send it again.

A-list agent has not read your book. No agent reads a manuscript, wants to take it on, and sits on it. A-list agent may have started it, didn’t get into it, put it aside, knew she should give it more time because of the friend connection, but as time passed it became increasingly difficult to revisit . Why? Think of all the books you’ve started, left on your side table, mean to get back to…same thing. Send her the revision. If she hasn’t read, good. If scenario two is to blame, then this gives her a fresh start.

It’s so hard to apply common sense where your writing is concerned. Every action or inaction feels loaded. You can scrutinize this shit to death. It just took me a month to send my screenplay out to someone who INVITED me to send it. I’m no different when it comes to sending out work. I’d rather chew off my arm.

Any missing limbs out there?

Joining the World of Missing Persons and She Was

Thank you for your wonderful blog.
I hope this question doesn’t seem too trivial. On the matter of sending a snail mail query letter: Does it make any difference if the letterhead is professionally printed (e.g., from Office Depot) or does it suffice to go with 24-lb stock and your own laser printer? Will that matter to an agent?
Again thank you.

Dear Kind Person: No question is too trivial, especially after a day like today.* The more trivial the better. Anyway, you don’t need professionally printed letterhead. In fact, you don’t need letterhead at all. In fact, you don’t need paper. Most agents accept email queries. If you still want to send snail mail, just format your letter as you would a business letter. Letterhead always looks a little too, um, self-important. Worse is when the letterhead comes with a little illustration of a pen, for example, or a typewriter, or some mind/body symbol that encourages one to break free. I hope that answers your question. Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Remember the “pounds or pages” challenge? Well, I just had my first writing session with my boot camp coach. I gave him an assignment to write three pages on something that relates to his story. He did a great job (far better job than I am doing shedding weight), and it was very pleasurable to be in a teaching mode. To talk about basics such as tense, pov, pacing, conflict and tension. I liked slipping my agent skin, not thinking about whether something was saleable, or fighting over an e-book royalty, or chasing a royalty statement, or rejecting a project that has so much going for it, but you just don’t feel it.

How are you all doing? I think we said thirty pages or ten pounds by April 1. If you’re not going to make your goal, adjust it. As my trainer says, a 70% success rate is a very good outcome.

Faces Come Out of the Rain


I have searched and googled and read and hunted. Is it better to
finish a memoir before querying? I have read that you MUST finish it,
I have read that it is better to propose and write after the book has
sold or at least the agent is on board to help shape the focus. What
do you prefer? Do you think most editors and agents are on the same

Thank you!

Dear James Frey:

This is an excellent question. And agents have differing opinions here. Generally, what I prefer is to give the publishers roughly 75 pages and a synopsis. I only do this, however, if the pages kill it and the author has some literary credentials such as prizes, publications, or is involved in some kind of literary world like Moth or, you know, has some following, maybe a popular blog, is a regular guest on This American Life, or has done something extraordinary that has garnered attention in the media. If the writer has nothing to help promote him or herself, then I suggest writing the entire book. As with a first novel, a memoir has to prove itself from beginning to end. There are always exceptions and different kinds of memoirs. And a selling strategy would have to take all of that into account.

Another great way to sell a memoir is off of a magazine piece. The first memoir I ever acquired when I was an editor was based on a Harper’s Magazine article. The agent submitted the article and a few more pages. Done. The next memoir I acquired was off a 30 or so page proposal. Later, when the writer was struggling with the book, I discovered that she had more than 800 of pages that were a mess. No surprise those weren’t included. We signed another memoir based on the sole endorsement of a very famous writer. Hell, people are selling their memoirs off of superb blogs such as Julie and Julia, or I’m Not the New Me, or It Sucked and Then I Cried. I believe I sold my own frickin’ memoir, Food and Loathing, on about 50 pages and a synopsis, but these pages included a scene where I describe how I want to smear chocolate custard all over the walls of a Dunkin’ Donuts, which I believe I refer to as a pink and orange shitbox. I mean, who wouldn’t pay cash for that?

No matter how you sell it, you still have to write it, and make it true-ish. Anyone have a good memoir story? Especially how you tried to sell one. Or recommend your favorite memoirs. Oh, and dearest darling readers, thanks for all the comments this week. I love the rodeo. Betsy

Let’s Not Do Lunch

May I please have the dressing on the side?

I want to write about a strange publishing phenomenon which I call phantom lunch or faux lunch. This is where a lunch invitation is extended that will never materialize. Or when you actually have a date but then start canceling and rescheduling, knowing that you will never actually sit across a table from this person and stuff a California roll down your gullet.

The faux invitation: we’ve all been there when you are the recipient of a vague invitation, an email, say, that ends with a p.s. let’s do lunch. If it isn’t followed with some possible dates to actually have lunch, then it’s a faux. An empty gesture. Don’t be fooled. It doesn’t mean let’s have lunch; it means let’s not have lunch and say we did. Or, in a perfect world, we might be cooking raw beef over a Korean b-b-q, but we’re not. Or, I’m vaguely interested in you and haven’t totally written you off, but that doesn’t mean I’m prepared to sit for an hour and a half and watch you scarf the chicken paillard at Molyvos.

Then there’s the cancel/reschedule dance. Big show of being sorry about rescheduling. No, no, no, I totally understand. Your next free date is months from now. Then that gets bumped. Then the next. It’s one thing and another: author in town, editing a crash book, sales conference, yeast infection, family brutally murdered by random attacker. Oh god, I hate when that happens. Well, don’t worry, we’ll reschedule when you’re back in the office. No worries. Well, my friend, highly fucking likely that you’ll be enjoying the roasted cod with fingerling potatoes at Balthazar. Your lunch date ain’t happening. Trust me on that.

I Saw Her Today At The Reception

True or false: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. I’ve been thinking about this lately. Some writers have no trouble asking for what they want and need. They are in your grill. Others nearly disappear themselves. Some authors send me a query letter and follow up a week later. One man this year wrote me every day pitching himself and the merits of his project. Some send a project and follow up many months later, hoping not to bother you.  Why does it feel like the person who is too pushy can’t be a particularly good writer? Maybe because being a good writer requires a certain amount of emotional intelligence, sensitivity, communication skills. Then again, there are the Norman Mailers of the world. I’m just guessing, but I don’t think Mailer was shy about what getting what he wanted.

Sometimes I bristle when a client pushes me too hard, but then I tell myself that this is his job. If he can’t be ambitious about what he wants, who can. Other clients need me to be ambitious for them, to suggest the parameters of a dream, or look into my crystal ball. It’s extraordinary, really, watching how a writer’s ego, esteem, confidence, insecurities, and talent combine to help or hurt them as they put their work forward. Even after 25 years of working with writers, I marvel at how some can shout it from the mountaintops, while others barely whisper in your ear. How do you comport yourself as writer or author? Do you find you get what you need, and if so how? More bees with honey? The squeaky wheel?

If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right

Years ago, long before I became an agent, I fixed up three couples, all of whom got married. I didn’t even know any of them particularly well. I just had a “feeling.”  And when things worked out for the happy couples, I applauded my own prescience. (Let the record show that this skill did not extend to my own romantic adventures.)

My point: this same “feeling” applies to agenting. Of all the things the job entails, first and foremost discovering writers,  the next most important decision you make is selecting the editor you are going to submit any given project to. I think this is common knowledge, but in case it isn’t, you can only submit your book to one editor at a publishing company. If that editor passes, it’s a pass for the whole house. You can’t try the editor in the next office over. Your chance with that the publisher is over. So a good agent will have relationships with a few or more editors at every house and have as much hard as well as anecdotal information about each editor with which to target the submission. Writers often ask how we decide which editors to send to. You choose a certain editor over another at a publishing house to submit a project to because :

  • You have a perfectly clear sense of what they are looking for; it has “their name on it,”
  • You have sold them books in the past and you’re tight.
  • You have some inside knowledge from lunch dates about the editor’s  life or taste .
  • You’ve done copious research (i.e. a publishersmarketplace.com search) into their buying patterns .
  • You saw their name on a restroom door at Grammercy Tavern in conjunction with a certain sexual proclivity.

I wonder what’s more difficult these days: getting married or getting published.