Monday, October 19, 2015

Query Questions with Courtney Miller-Callihan

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.

Courtney Miller-Callihan is an agent at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates and she's sharing answers about her query slush. Thanks, Courtney! She's looking for women's fiction, romance and historical. 

Is there a better or worse time of year to query?

There isn’t really, though things are a bit more likely to get lost in the shuffle during times when a lot of people are out of the office (especially August and December).

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

Definitely not. Everyone makes mistakes! But I will say that more than one mistake (especially a misused word) looks sloppy, and may send the message that you’re not as attuned to language as you might be. One mistake is no big deal; more than one and I start to get a little skeptical.

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

I will always look at the sample pages if the query sounds like a project I can sell. Some categories are more difficult than others at any given time; think YA vampires, or magical boarding school. But if I think it has possibility, I always want to look at the writing. 

Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them?

I check all of them, though at times I have an intern who is reading alongside me.

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

Yes! The stronger the query, the more of my time and attention it requires.

If the manuscript has a prologue, do you want it included with the sample pages?

Yes. (Try to get rid of the prologue altogether, though, as it’s probably not doing the manuscript any favors!) When you send sample pages, always start the sample with the first page of the manuscript.

How important are comp titles? Is it something you want to see in a query?

They’re incredibly useful if the writer has a good sense of the market. It’s better not to cite a megabestseller as a comp title, even if said megabestseller is actually in your genre.

Some agencies mention querying only one agent at a time and some say query only one agent period. How often do you pass a query along to a fellow agent who might be more interested?

Almost never—perhaps ten times a year, which is far less than one tenth of one percent of all my queries. Do check on a specific agency’s policy on this. At SJGA we prefer you query one agent at a time, but you are welcome to query other SJGA agents if the first agent declines the work.

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

Chit-chat is best if it stays focused on the work; for example, it’s clear from my bio that I used to live in Baltimore, so if your novel is set there, it might be of interest to me. I also talk a lot online about knitting, running, and caffeine, so people often mention those in queries if they’re relevant to the story they’re pitching. However, while it’s always fun to hear from fellow Banana Slugs or fans of Doctor Who, it’s really better not to mention that in a query unless it’s actually pertinent to the work.

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?

“Red flag” isn’t the phrase I’d use, but I do strongly prefer that that information is included. The genre is important, because it gives the query specificity (aren’t all novels about relationships, on some level?), and the word count is important, because it’s a very good indicator of whether the writer has told a story of a marketable “size.” If you leave either of those details out, I may not have enough information to make a decision, in which case my answer is likely to be no.

Writers hear a lot about limiting the number of named characters in a query. Do you feel keeping named characters to a certain number makes for a clearer query?

It’s a good idea, though I’m not going to give you a specific number. The query letter is not the place to detail secondary characters or plotlines, basically.

Should writers sweat the title of their book (and character names) or is that something that is often changed by publishers?

Choose a title that will get your reader’s attention and will give some indication of what the story is about. It’s true that a title often changes between submission and publication, but it is nevertheless an important marketing tool at every stage of the process.

It’s exceedingly rare for a publisher to change a character’s name, unless too many characters have names that are too similar, or unless there’s an external reason why it’s not a good idea to leave the names alone. (We won’t see a lot of YA heroines named Bella for a while.) But the publisher will never change a character’s name without the author’s permission—it’s far more likely that they’ll tell you that the name needs to change, and leave the changing up to you.

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

It varies a fair amount, but I probably average between 50 and 100 queries per week. My request rate varies too, but probably somewhere between two and ten percent. If I think the work has potential, and if I get to the end of the sample pages and want to read more, I’ll ask for more.

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?

I can’t make anyone do anything, ha. Social media has become an increasingly important tool for authors, and it’s worth trying to get comfortable with Twitter and Facebook, at minimum, before you have a published work to promote. I don’t care if an unpublished author has a social media presence when I sign them, but I encourage everyone on my list to find a way to make social media work for them. Not everyone is comfortable on every platform, and it’s worth experimenting.

As far as tipping the scales, it’s unlikely that an unpublished novelist would have a significant-enough presence online for this to be a real factor (unless they were well-known in another context, like YouTube or Instagram). Never say never, I guess. For published authors (including self-published), I definitely do consider social media presence when I’m considering an offer of representation.

Some writers have asked about including links to their blogs or manuscript-related artwork. I’m sure it’s not appropriate to add those links in a query, but are links in an email signature offensive?

It doesn’t really bother me, but do be sure that you’re not talking about the query/submission process online, especially if you give me a link to your blog. Every agent I know has a story about a writer they were really excited about, and when the agent looked at the writer’s blog, there was a (weeks-old) post about the writer being rejected by their “dream agent.” Agents are realists, and we all hear the word “no” all the time, but nobody wants to feel like they’re a second (or third or fourth) choice. Be aware of the digital trail you’re creating for yourself, if you choose to talk about the writing/submission process online.

If a writer makes changes to their manuscript due to feedback should they resend the query or only if material was requested?

I’d say the latter; there are a lot of queries that won’t be right for me no matter how thoroughly the material has been revised. However, if you’ve met the agent at a conference or are friendly with them on Twitter etc., it doesn’t hurt to check in. The worst they (I) can say is no.

 What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?

It’s OK with me if you leave it out entirely, or say “I live in [city or geographical area.] This is my first novel.”

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

What it says on the tin. Publishing is a very subjective business, and everyone who reads more than a book or two a year is aware of a book (possibly a lot of books) that they don’t understand the appeal of. I come from a family of readers, and there’s tremendous disagreement within my family about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (I was not a fan.) But just because I don’t care for something doesn’t mean someone else will feel the same way. I’m lucky enough to get to work on books that I love, on the kinds of things that I really like to read and want to see more of in the marketplace. But I get the same number of hours in my day as everyone else, and I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to work on things I don’t love.

It’s not for me to say what should and should not be published, so when I say “not right for me,” all I mean is that something is not right for me. It may well be right for someone else. But I don’t love it enough to take it on.

What themes are you sick of seeing?

This is a landmine of a question, but I will say I don’t tend to be drawn to revenge stories about divorce, or novels with a Holocaust theme. But if you’ve written a really amazing novel that falls into one (or both?) of those categories, please send it to me anyway.

Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent?

Very much so, which is not to say that writers shouldn’t send the most polished work they are capable of producing.

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

I plead the fifth. J

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

I’m a fairly active contributor to MSWL, so it’s worth checking my “wish list” there.

I’m always looking for books in all genres I represent with a diverse cast of characters (racial, ethnic, religious, LGBTQ+)

I’d love to find more:
Lighthearted YA
     Contemporary women’s fiction
     YA or adult fiction with a mystery/suspense element

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

I’m obviously immensely proud of all the books I’ve worked on. I also adore Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I’m reading Americanah now and it’s extraordinary.

Movie-wise, my taste is really varied. I love The Godfather (especially Part II), Back to the Future, Amélie, Inception, and the Cornetto Trilogy. My favorite movie of the past year (or so) is Kingsman: The Secret Service. And I’ve watched both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and all eight of the Harry Potter movies more than can really be deemed healthy.


Courtney is currently seeking women’s fiction, romance, and historical novels, as well as nonfiction projects on unusual topics, humor, pop culture, and lifestyle books. For nonfiction, a strong platform and excellent credentials are a must.
She represents a limited number of children’s book authors, and is especially drawn to middle-grade and YA fiction with voices that jump off the page. She is not currently seeking new picture book manuscripts.
While she prefers that authors query about one project at a time, Courtney is passionate about growing writers’ careers, and is always looking for clients who feel that they have a lot of great stories to share with the world.
Courtney began her career in publishing at Random House, where she spent a number of years in subsidiary rights sales and in contracts before joining Sanford J. Greenburger Associates in 2005. A member of the Romance Writers of America, she works closely with authors to help them reach their full creative and commercial potential.
Courtney holds a B.A. in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz and a M.A. in English from The Johns Hopkins University.  She lives with her family in Southern California and travels frequently for meetings and conferences.

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