Monday, December 04, 2006

Bad Query Advice: Discussing Your Audience

It's almost impossible to trace how rumors get started. There are agents with differing opinions, agents who publish books to make money, people who are NOT agents publishing books about query letters to make money, and the like. The more generous side of me thinks that at the beginning of this game of telephone, some agent or assistant was attempting to give out good advice about a specific situation, and too many people took it the wrong way.

Bad Advice #1 - "Discuss your potential audience."

This only applies to full non-fiction proposals (the ones that are formatted to go on for pages). It does not apply to query letters for both fiction and non-fiction. We know who your potential audience is: people interested in the genre/topic you are writing about. Books have built-in audiences. That's basically the reason that books are seperated into genres - so people can find what type of book they're looking for more easily in the bookstore than if every single author was just listed alphabetically.

I've seen this taken to stupidly hilarious levels, implying that either most of or all of the population is going to buy and read their book. Three examples, in order of stupidity, of things I've actually seen in query letters:

3. "My detective protagonist lives in an RV home. 4.2 million Americans own RVs, and I think this book will appeal to them." [Yeah, I'm more likely to buy a novel that has a main character living in the same type of home as me. That's a definite sell right there.]

2. "The man who must stop the terrorists is an airline pilot and the novel takes place on an airplane, so it will interest people who have seen or ridden on airplanes." [I've been on an airplane! I can immediately relate to this guy! Sold!]

1. "The protagonist is a woman, and I think that will appeal to the female population. However there is also a male love interest, so the book will cross gender barriers and also appeal to men." [What about transgendered people! Huh?!? That's a big market!]

The only thing you're telling us when you talk about your potential market is that you did some bad research on the internet that told you to do that. It doesn't mean it's an auto-reject, but it doesn't help your case.

24 comments:

Krista said...

My protagonist is a human. I think that'll appeal to everybody on Earth. I'm planning to add a Martian to try to tap into that market too. Do you think there should be a monkey as well? Do monkeys buy books?

CMonster said...

My protagonist is a messy haired kid with glasses. My book will appeal to every one who likes Harry Potter.

Catja (green_knight) said...

My main character breathes, which makes him appealing to every mammal on the planet.

Linda said...

The one I've seen is someone who says there will be a big market for this book because no one else has written anything like this. In this case, this person had searched Amazon and didn't find anything similar. Only problem: I knew of books that were similar--and I hadn't even read them.

Anonymous said...

Making ignorant people look stupid is Borat's gig, Rejector. Come up with a fresh approach.

Anonymous said...

Making ignorant people look stupid is Borat's gig, Rejector. Come up with a fresh approach.

Hey, anonymous; is your approach fresh? *sniffs* Doesn't seem that way to me.

Kimber An said...

It's unbelievable the amount of conflicting advice we writers get. I never put down someone for getting something like this wrong. In fact, I'd give them an extra pat on the back for trying so hard amidst the chaos. I only lucked out on missing this mistake.

Kat said...

I have seen this advice around. I suspect it got extrapolated from three things. The first, as you note, is nonfiction. The second is advice given to people working in certain genres. My friends trying to publish literary fiction tell me that it's often important to establish your "street cred" -- that you either have strong ties to a specific area or that you have the right to write about a minority group (preferably by being a member of said group).

The third is a slightly different set of advice given out to writers: compare your work to that of established authors in your genre. I've heard a lot of reasons for this, from "it proves you know the market" to it giving the agent an idea of your book's tone. I've also heard a great many agents say it's a horrible idea. Do you have an opinion on this?

chambers said...

Anonymous 7.07pm, if you're not into the blog, don't read it.

Kudos to Kimber An for the most graceful post I've seen in a while!

Susan said...

Aren't there... non-stupid ways to do this, though? If I talk about how I've written a women's fiction novel which I feel is likely to appeal to suburban women from the ages of 30-50, or something like that, that seems at least slightly relevant and possibly something you couldn't tell from my first couple pages. There's some risk there--maybe my writing comes off like it's barely past YA--but it seems like a useful fact for a potential agent to know.

But I do tend to think that a target audience is supposed to be a fairly specific but marketable group... not "women in general" or that ilk, or what's the point? This would all be my marketing background talking, though. If I was supposed to sell something, I myself would like to know who I'm supposed to sell it to. If nothing else, it ought to be useful for weeding out the people who don't really know their product.

The Rejecter said...

Susan,

The reason not to include it is it's a waste of time, even if you get specific. We know who your audience is - we work in publishing. It's our BUSINESS to know that information. We figure it out from the story description. There's no reason to tell us.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear this because I never write, "my novel is women's fiction" because it is obvious and a waste of words. And, I never compare my work to another author, it seems pompous--"readers of Mary Higgins Clark and Wally Lamb will find this appealing."

However, I do wonder about linking up your book with something the agent represents. Perhaps the agent represents a book that is similar in some ways to yours--and because you researched them and know this, you are querying them. I've read this is a good thing to do--is it?

Anonymous said...

I was told in no uncertain terms -- by a published writer, no less -- that I should mention what great movie potential my fantasy-adventure had. It seemed a little uncertain to me, but since I've yet to get published, I figured "What do I know?" and went ahead with it anyway. Looking back on it, I'm fairly sure that the only thing it really accomplished was to make me look silly.

I wish to hell and back that all of this contradictory "advice" to unpublished writers would dry up and blow away. I've come to the conclusion that what works, works because a specific agent on the specific date under the specific phase of the moon decided that s/he was caught by the query for reasons even s/he can't articulate beyond Standard Industry Cliches. Half of it is having an engaging query letter style; the other half is the random motions of atoms in the Universe.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 10:14, I bet the actual writing had something to do with it as well!

Anonymous said...

"I've come to the conclusion that what works, works because a specific agent on the specific date under the specific phase of the moon decided that s/he was caught by the query for reasons even s/he can't articulate beyond Standard Industry Cliches. "

so True anonymous 10:14.

If I hear one more agent on a panel try to quantify what they are looking for--"I just have to fall in love with it" I think I'll puke. Just be honest for Christ sake--you like what you like and that is what it comes down to--on any given day, your hormonal cycle, your "catalog," your blood sugar level, what you think you can make a ton of money on-
oh, and yeah, good writing trumps all-- so too bad the quality of your book is judged by a query letter.

Anonymous said...

I think you're giving exceptionally good advice. My concern is that many agents (the ones with web sites, anyhow) often put up very fussy requirements on query letters and synopses. I agree with one of your earlier posts where you say a synopsis is a waste of time -- why not just get into the story as written -- but many agents insist on just the contents of a query letter that you find silly, as well as insist on a 3 page synopsis, single space, first line of paragraph indented 1/2 inch.

And of course, you should have an MFA.

I think this is part of the problem un-agented writers face: the agents who'll read their queries, even leaving out the newbies and the frauds, don't seem especially bright.

writtenwyrdd said...

One can go crazy reading all the dos and don'ts! Taken to the extreme, you could decide it's bad to say "this is a YA novel," or "this is a romance."

But seriously, I gather from what you say Rejector that just a mention of genre is enough. Got it. I can do that.

Amie Stuart said...

I"m twisted...Krista made me snort green tea though my nose. But again, I'm twisted.

Anonymous said...

so too bad the quality of your book is judged by a query letter.

Er... Has it not occurred to you that a query letter is also a sample of your writing?

If you can write a great novel, you can write a great query letter. And just like any sort of writing, it takes some work to learn how to do it well. Don't whine; just get to work.

And always interpret the words "send query" to mean "send query letter plus five sample pages". :-)

Garridon said...

Not to mention that if the story doesn't work, it's going to show up when someone tries to write the query letter and synopsis. It's entirely possible to write a 350 page book and have no story--and worse, most of the writers are unaware of it.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 10:14, I bet the actual writing had something to do with it as well!

I'm sure it does -- when anyone actually looks at the sample material and doesn't just toss the whole thing after reading only the query.

Kim Stagliano said...

Sigh, does anyone else feel "anonymous 12:15" stuff makes comments seem like lost Bible passages? Funny, the anonymous posts are usually rather preachy too, aren't they!? Coincidence or evil religious plan?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Wow, all of this and no one noticed that 4.2 people own RVs? Was it a murder mystery or something? I'm still trying to imagine how 20% of a person can own an RV...