Monday, September 19, 2022

Thoughts on This Year's #PitchMe Entries

I've now read every entry, and once again, you guys didn't make it easy on me! Multiple times, I added six or seven entries in a row to the longlist I was building, which made me keep wondering how I'd ever trim it down. As we make our final choices, here's a little food for thought:

Overall Impressions

  • Longtime agent Donald Maass has written multiple books about writing breakout novels, but writing break-IN novels--and especially PBs--is probably even harder. Established authors can write to trends and cover previously trod ground because they have relationships with agents and editors--and because those agents and editors know that their names alone sell books. For emerging authors, though, a PB about a dog or a YA about a boarding school may not generate interest.
  • Most queries ended with the Query Shark-approved "Thank you for your time and consideration," but many also added something along the lines of "I look forward to hearing from you." I brought this up last year, and I'm bringing it up again because I firmly believe queries shouldn't include this line. It can sound passive-aggressive if an agent has established a no-response-means-no policy, which is never a great look. Save this line for when you send agents requested material (because I firmly believe agents owe writers responses once they've requested your work).
  • It felt like roughly half of the novel-length entries were contemporaries while the other half were fantasies. This isn't good or bad--it's simply what the breakdown was--but if you're querying a manuscript in one of these two genres, you may be giving yourself a lot of extra competition.
  • More than one query admitted that this project was the first thing its author had ever written. Don't tell agents this upfront! The first thing most writers write is destined for the deep, dark drawer where people keep their old retainers and junior high-era school pictures, so don't make it easier for someone to reject your work.
  • And on a related note, you almost certainly don't need to tell agents that this manuscript would be your debut. If you don't mention other books that you've previously published, agents will assume it will be:)

PB Notes

  • There were 142 submissions (!) within this category (one less than I reported a couple of weeks ago, as I found a duplicate).
  • Far too many of these entries failed to credit illustrators of the comp titles they used. If there's one thing I've learned from Tara, it's ALWAYS CREDIT ILLUSTRATORS! They put the picture in PBs:)
  • I also thought some of the bios in these entries were too long. (And this wasn't just confined to the picture books, mind you; it just seemed to be an issue among more of these entries.) Unless your name is Stephen King, your bio paragraph should be the shortest one in your query--and if your name IS Stephen King, your reputation precedes you. Definitely tell us if you have any other published books, any lived experience with what your book is about, or an exceptional platform. (Hint: I don't think my platform is exceptional enough to mention in the body of a query, though I always include links to my blog, Twitter, etc., in my signature block.) Above all, keep it short and sweet.
  • A handful of these entries didn't mention their word counts, which made it really difficult to evaluate their marketability (especially in the context of this contest, as we may not have allowed you to send the full manuscript). If you want to give your picture book the best possible chance, keep your word count under 500. Nonfiction PBs have a lot more latitude--agents wouldn't bat an eye at anything under 1,000--but 500 words is a pretty firm ceiling in the current fiction market. 

I'll let Tara have the last word on the PBs: "Comp titles do not have to be about the same topic as your own book, i.e. TIGERS ARE AWESOME does not have to comp to TIGERS ARE CUTE, TIGERS ARE ORANGE, and TIGERS ARE TERRIFYING. You can comp to any book that has a similar theme to your story (friendship! forgiveness! kindness!) or the type of story (lyrical, humorous), but you don't need to strictly stick to the exact topic of your book.

"Please ensure your story is a story 'that's yours to tell.' I saw several PBs about neurodiversity where that was not the author's own background and some about disability because it was 'about my friend with a disability.' We need to leave room in the marketplace for stories from authors who have lived these experiences (neurodiversity, disability, etc.) themselves."

MG Notes

  • There were 46 submissions within this category.
  • There were also lots of fairies. And stories that revolved around the current climate crisis. There's nothing wrong with fairies or the climate crisis, right (or at least there's nothing wrong with centering a book around them!), but in this batch of MG queries, those plot elements stood out.

YA Notes

  • There were 49 submissions within this category.
  • I noticed lots of missions to avenge dead/missing parents in this batch of YA queries. (And when I say "lots," of course, I really mean, like, four or five, which isn't many in the end, but that plot point did stand out.) Same note as above: missions to avenge dead parents aren't dealbreakers on their own, but they may have made it harder for an entry to stand out.

Adult Notes

  • There were 46 submissions within this category, which is actually one more than I told you two weeks ago. (Clearly, my counting skills need work...)
  • This year, I tried to focus on the writing, writing, writing. I mean, I try to focus on the writing every year, but in the past, I've gotten wooed by super marketable concepts and kind of let the writing slide. This year, I said, "No more!" so if I didn't think the writing was ready for prime time, I forced myself to pass on super great ideas.

Lastly, I wanted to add that the nature of this contest creates some artificial issues that straight querying doesn't. Every agent who agreed to participate last year was looking for MG while significantly fewer were looking for adult. Conversely, almost every agent who's participating this year is looking for YA while significantly fewer are looking for PB. Since we want to feature projects that best match the agents' tastes, we have to choose fewer PBs than we otherwise would based on the number of entries (just like I had to choose fewer adults than I otherwise would have last year).

Finalists announced TOMORROW instead of on Wednesday!


Jaida Hancock said...

This is so helpful! Yay!

Andi Chitty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andi Chitty said...

This is such an interesting breakdown! I received a query critique from an agent a few months ago, and they recommended using "I look forward to hearing from you" (as it showed confidence), as well as including "xxxx would be my debut book." It's so interesting how preferences differ! Looking at your reasoning, though, I'm thinking I will definitely remove the first from future queries. It's always been a concern that it may sound passive aggressive, but you've confirmed it!

Thank you again for this breakdown, it was such an insightful read!

Thank you, as well, for taking all the time to read through so many manuscripts. I'm impressed you've finished in such a short time period!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to share these insights!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Happy to hear it, Jaida!

Good points, Andi. I definitely should have said that these notes are just my suggestions based on my experience--but I think I'm right, ha! ;) I can see why an agent would suggest you include the line "[TITLE] would be my debut," since debuts are often easier to sell than subsequent titles from midlist authors and you want to highlight all your story's selling points. Thank you for sharing these thoughts!

My pleasure, Anon!

Thompson McLeod said...

Love that you did this, and thanks for publishing your thoughts here.