Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Query Questions with Beth Campbell

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.

The interview today comes from Beth Campbell at Bookends Literary. And watch for Beth coming up in Nightmare on Query Street! 

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

Definitely not. Of course a typo-free query is always preferable, but everyone makes mistakes and publishing professionals understand that. If a query letter is riddled with typos, that might result in a rejection, but one misspelled word or incorrect use of punctuation isn’t a death sentence.
Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them?

Everyone at BookEnds reads all of their own queries! The only case in which we bring in interns is for snail mail queries. We don’t actually accept snail mail submissions and haven’t for years, but we still get a handful every month. Letting our interns look through them gives them experience with queries while still making sure that we look at all of our own properly submitted letters.

Do you keep a maybe pile of queries and go back to them for a second look?

Not consistently, but yes. If I’m really torn I’ll set aside a query or two for the next day when I can look at them again with fresh eyes. If I’m particularly ahead on queries, I’ll set up a small pile of maybes to come back to later, before the agency response deadline.
How important are comp titles? Is it something you want to see in a query?

I don’t think comp titles are vital. A lot of queries nowadays don’t have them, and that’s fine. Sometimes I’ll get a query with comp titles that are all really big-name books and I feel that the author is just throwing out well known names—especially because those books often don’t really fit the manuscript being queried. If you’re going to use a comp, make sure it fits and remember that it doesn’t need to be a big book to work.
Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?

I like a little chit-chat, but the key word is “little.” Mostly I like to hear about personalized information that is somehow reflected in their manuscripts since it’s relevant and gives me a little peek into their lives. I also always smile when authors mention how they found me or what hobbies we have in common. One sentence usually does the trick.
Should writers sweat the title of their book (and character names) or is that something that is often changed by publishers?

Publishers (and Agents!) change titles and character names whenever they feel necessary, and it happens fairly often. A truly terrible title might color an evaluator’s opinion of your query, but 99% of the time titles aren’t something you should worry about so long as you have one.

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

Queries received varies pretty widely based on the season. NaNoWriMo always causes a giant flood of queries. So do the “I’ll write a book” new years resolutions. Whenever I get posted to a new website or do a new interview, I get people coming into my inbox from those places. In any given week, I might get around 100 queries.

In terms of how many requests I might make? That also varies widely. Sometimes authors are more on point than average. Sometimes I’m feeling generous and I request more “on the fence” queries than I usually do. And on the flip side, sometimes I’m a little more critical than average. All of this also depends on how hungry I am for new clients. If I’m really wanting to sign a bunch of new people, I’ll be requesting more. Right now I’m in that hungry mindset, and I’d say I’m requesting maybe around 10% of the queries in my inbox (though math is not my strong suit so… no quoting me on that).

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?

Having an online presence doesn’t tip the scale for me personally unless it’s really significant. If I like your book I’m going to offer on it regardless. If I’m on the fence and you have a blog with 60,000 followers, I’m going to pay closer attention.

I have found, however, that Internet presence can sway publishers. Sometimes if they see a debut author who’s involved with writer groups and has a blog or website for their writing, it will help their decision. If an author seems capable of doing a lot of marketing through their platform, that’s always appealing.
What does ‘just not right for me’ mean to you?

This is such a vague phrase, and it can mean a number of different things. Sometimes it means that your submission doesn’t fit my guidelines—I’ll have authors querying me with genres that I haven’t represented in over a year, and some querying with genres I’ve never represented. Some send me short stories or novellas even though I don’t accept them.

On the other hand, sometimes it means that it doesn’t fit what I’m looking for in a more broad sense. For example: I love stories where characters have close friends or families to bond with, grow with, and lean on. Stories with great standalone stoic characters may be wonderful, but unless they really grab me I often have difficulty connecting to those characters. In those cases, the author may be better off going with another agent because their work is “just not right for me”.
Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent?

I do, but only to the extent that my authors need me to be. Everyone at our agency edits wherever we feel it is needed, and we will also look at WIPs and proposals when our authors request. Some of my clients are very self-sufficient and need very little editing. Others need very little editing but like to brainstorm when they’re in the writing phase. And other either need or want editing at various stages in their writing. I like to say that I’m hands-on without being a helicopter. If they don’t need or want me, I won’t hover.
What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?

YA Sci-fi manuscripts are at the very top. I tend towards soft science fiction rather than hard, so that’s my ultimate preference. I also want a darker urban fantasy YA. And I’d love to be completely pulled in by a thrilling romantic suspense.

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

Tamora Pierce is my end-all and be-all of YA fantasy (well, at least the kind set in fantastical historical worlds). For urban fantasies my tastes skew a little darker a la Holly Black and Scott Westerfeld. Scott Westerfeld is also my go-to for sci-fi, though honestly who doesn’t love The 5th Wave


After an academic career filled with publishing internships, Beth joined BookEnds as a literary assistant in September 2012 and was promoted to Assistant Literary Agent in 2015. She's diligently building her client list and is always excited to meet an author with an excellent story. She's also spent years as the company's rights coordinator and now works alongside Moe to continue selling foreign and audio rights.

Beth's obsession with books began with a distinct fantasy/sci-fi flavor, and she's happily never kicked the addiction. She is primarily interested in signing clients within those genres, YA, romantic suspense, and mystery. She loves seeing diverse characters (sexuality, gender, race, you name it!) and strong friendships across all genres.

Beth currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and their cat. Outside of reading, her personal hobbies include drawing, cooking, gaming, and spending far too much time on the Internet.

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