Monday, August 19, 2013

Query Questions with Kate McKean

Writers have copious amounts of imagination. It's what makes their stories so fantastic. But there's a darker side to so much out of the box thinking. When a writer is in the query trenches, their worries go into overdrive. They start pulling out their hair and imagine every possible disaster.


Here to relieve some of that endless worrying is a new series of posts called Query Questions. I'll ask the questions which prey on every writer's mind, and hopefully take some of the pain out of querying. These are questions that I've seen tossed around on twitter and writing sites like Agent Query Connect. They are the type of questions that you need answers for the real expert--agents!

If you have your own specific query question, please leave it in the comments and it might show up in future editions of Query Questions as I plan to rotate the questions.

Please welcome Kate McKean from the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. Kate has recently reopened to queries. 

I’ve heard August is a time when publishing shuts down. Does that make it a better or worse time to query?

--It's harder for agents to get answers from publishers, because of everyone's dueling vacations, but it not necessarily harder for an author to get a response from an agent. Agents go on vacation, too, so that might slow things down a little bit. Really, there's no one better or worse time to query. If we all thought August was the best time to query, then everyone would query then, and then it would become the worst time to query!

Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?

Of course not. But it can add up. Agents can tell a typo from mistakes that show the author does not have command of the language. Try extra hard not to, however, get the agent's name wrong.

Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?

It depends. If the query is not in a genre I represent, I'm not going to spend time on the sample pages. But agents know it's hard to write query letters, and we can be sympathetic.

Do crazy fonts caused by email gremlins make for an automatic rejection?

Agents can tell when there's a formatting error caused by conversions. We understand and won't hold that against the author. (Dancing gifs and purple fonts on purpose are annoying, though.) There's no automatic rejection, except when I see a query that's clearly in a genre I didn't represent. Authors should be less worried about automatic rejects--it's a bit of a myth that perpetuates the agent as the evil gatekeeper who enjoys killing writers' dreams. That's just not true. We just want books we can sell, and we can't sell every book. Even some good ones.

Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?

I want to hear about the manuscript. Chit-chat won't get you rejected, but it won't get you represented either.

Most agents have said they don’t care whether the word count/genre sentence comes first or last. But is it a red flag if one component is not included?

Yes. I need to know the word count. I cannot sell a novel that 375,000 words long, or an adult novel that 13,000 words long. Genre is also very important, though we recognize that you might not get it right on the first try. If you're stumped for what genre to call yourself, imagine what shelf in the bookstore (a physical bookstore) you'd be on. You only get one shelf. Start there and add maybe ONE adjective. Like paranormal Romance (romance being your shelf). Or near future Science-Fiction (Science-Fiction being your shelf). Don't call yourself a military thriller mystery love story with a hint of fantasy. Where the heck would that go in the store?

Is there a bias against querying authors who have self-published other books?

A bias? No. Can it complicate things? Maybe. Can it help you? Maybe. If you've sold a very large quantity of books, it can help you (think +50k to 100k copies). If you've sold 2,000 copies, that's strong, but some traditionally published books only sell 2,000 copies. What if those are the only 2,000 copies your book could sell in any situation? What can a traditional publisher do then? I see many, many queries that say "I tried self-publishing and I was really disappointed. I want an agent and traditional publisher to make me a success now." That makes me sad. I probably can't help those people, and self-publishing may have hurt them. Every book is different, so there's no one answer to this question. But self-publishing is not a fast track to stardom like some think. It's a full time job. I just hope authors who do decide to do it, because it can really work great for some authors/books, do all their homework before they self-publish. Those sales numbers don't go away. Ever.

Do you go through a large group of queries at a time or hold yourself to a few?

It varies. Sometimes I can answer them right away. Some times I block off a Saturday and binge. Sometimes I hold the ones I want to spend more time on too long. I wish I had a foolproof system, but my workload varies weekly and there are always more queries to read.

How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?

I receive 100-150 a week and I may request one a week. Maybe.

Many agents say they don't care if writers are active online. Could a twitter account or blog presence by a writer tip the scales in getting a request or offer? And do you require writers you sign to start one?

No, to both. A book is good or a book is not good--in fiction. In non-fiction, it's a whole 'nother ballgame, and you have to have a demonstrable platform and a considerable online presence. I like it when a novelist has an online platform, because it's great to have that in place before publication, but it's not a condition in our agency contract or anything. It doesn't make a novel instantly more saleable, to me.

What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?

"This is my first novel." is a completely acceptable author bio if there are no publishing credits. It is the preferred author bio over: "I've been writing since I as three. I was published once in the 8th grade yearbook and had two poems in my college literary journal." 

What does ‘just didn’t connect enough’ mean to you?

There wasn't a spark that made me go "OH." It didn't make me sit up and pay attention to it, over the din of the other queries. There wasn't a special enough hook, or it was too similar to many other things I'd seen that day, week, month, or year. The writing might be good, but nothing stood out to me.

What does ‘just not right mean for me’ mean to you?

It's sometimes close to "just didn't connect enough." It was either in a genre I don't represent (though I have a form reject for that case, too) or is in a tone that I just don't get (like snarky satire that's meant to harpoon an industry or culture--I just don't read or like those kinds of books). Sometimes it means I just don't think I can sell it.

What themes are you sick of seeing?

Angels/demon heaven/hell stories, ghost kids coming back from the dead to solve their murders, parents dying in car crashes in YA novels, orphan/foster kid stories in YA novels, super quirky middle grade novels about kid geniuses that must save the world, adult novels where the author clearly has an ax to grind with their ex/boss/job/failed career path. Women's fiction about cancer survival, jerk husbands, or getting your groove back. Women's fiction about the cute guy from high school back in town/tempting the woman, oh and someone's probably restoring a B&B somewhere. I see these things every day in the query pile. Please show me something new!

What’s the strangest/funniest thing you’ve seen in a query?

There are many strange things in the query pile, but the ones I remember most are the angry queries who respond to rejections. (Don't do this.) Some are profane and mean (I've been called a racist, a jerk, braindead--you name it.) But some one did respond once, in big, red, 99 point font--BIG MISTAKE. I'm sure this person thought I was making a big mistake. That's fine. But the huge font and red type made me giggle.

What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?

Contemporary YA, Contemporary Women's Fiction, Craft books (sewing, knitting, etc) by authors with a demonstrable platform.

What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes?

My favorite movies are Back to the Future 1 & 2 (though I don't necessarily like time travel books), A Hard Day's Night, and I'll watch The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movie anytime it's on. (I love those books, too). I'm a big Star Trek: TNG fan. Among my favorite books are E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, Nicole Krauss' The History of Love, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, MT Anderson's Feed, and hundreds of others.

Kate earned her Master's degree in Fiction Writing from the University of Southern Mississippi before starting her career as a literary agent.

Her interests lie in:

Fiction, for adults: Contemporary romance, contemporary women's fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction set in the 20th Century, high fantasy, magical realism, science fiction.

And for children/teens: Middle grade, young adult, and new adult full length novels only in the areas of: mystery, thriller, horror, romance, LGBTQ issues, contemporary fiction, sports, magical realism, fantasy, and science fiction.

Non-Fiction, for adults or children/teens: Books by authors with demonstrable platforms in the areas of sports, food writing, humor, design, creativity, and craft (sewing, knitting, etc.). Narrative Non-fiction by authors with or without an established platform. Some memoir.

She is NOT actively looking for:

Fiction, for adults: Mysteries, thrillers, crime, paranormal romance, urban fantasy. She is not the best reader of fiction that features: cops/private detectives/FBI/CIA, fairy tale retellings, dragons, werewolves/vampires/zombies etc., satire, spoof, or the picaresque. No novellas.

Fiction, for children/kids: books that feature dragons, angels/demons/Grim Reaper, werewolves/vampires/zombies etc., zany middle grade stories about a character's wacky adventures, stories about bullying, stories that center around orphans or parents who die in car crashes, ghost-teens back to right wrongs. No novels in verse. No picture books or chapter books.

Non-fiction, for adults, children/teens: Memoir in the areas of cancer survival, drug addiction, mental heath, infertility, or other topics WIDELY covered by current memoir, mind/body/spirit, religion, politics, diet/exercise by authors with NO demonstrable platform, collections of blog posts or newspaper columns for republication.

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