Monday, November 16, 2020

Query Questions with Maria Napolitano

 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 imagine every possible disaster.

Here to relieve some of that endless worrying is a series 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. They are the type of questions that you need answers from the real expert--agents!

I'm so happy to bring Query Questions back from the dead with new interviews. Since I stopped doing interviews, a whole new crop of agents have settled into the business, and I'm sure people would like to know more about them.

Today we get to take another look at an agency with a different aspect on the market. Maria Napolitano is with Bookcase Literary Agency, which focuses on international sales and subrights, along with the domestic US market. 

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

Query when you’re ready! Like most agents, I manage my queries on a rolling basis, so you can’t know exactly what projects I’m juggling or what my schedule looks like, or just how quickly I’ll get to your work. Some moments in the publishing year are calmer than others —like the height of summer or the winter holidays— so an agent might be catching up on queries during their downtime. Or they might be on vacation! Instead of worrying about their schedule, focus on what you can control, like sending your best work, and practicing patience. Publishing is better measured months than days, so getting accustomed to that early on will prepare you well for the long run.

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

I look at the sample pages unless I see major red flags in the query. Sometimes that means the project is in a category I don’t represent. Or it might be a clear signal that this project is not one I’d want to be associated with, ie one with racist or sexist or otherwise bigoted content. I understand that writing a good query is hard work (and not quite the same as writing a good book) so I make a point to also look at sample pages, even if the query isn’t knocking it out of the park.

How open are you to writers who have never been published?

Very! I love working with new writers — I don’t think a previous book or publication is a prerequisite at all in fiction, and a debut book can be a great way to burst onto the scene. (In most categories of nonfiction, however, having a career or expertise in your subject matter can be more crucial.)

The dreaded rhetorical question in a query. Are they as taboo as the rumors say?

I am not a fan of the rhetorical question, because I prefer a query to give me concrete information about the project — rhetorical questions often feel cheesy, or leave me wishing I had one more sentence about world building or specific details instead. But that doesn’t mean they can’t work in the right context, and it doesn’t mean they’re an automatic pass from me! I would just urge authors to make sure the question is doing the most work possible in that query, and not sacrificing some other, more effective bit of text.

How important are comp titles? Is it something you want to see in a query? Are movie/tv reference okay as comp titles?

Extremely important. The comp titles help me understand how you see your project, and how it might fit into the book market. I like to think of comps as a shorthand formula to show a book’s best case scenario in terms of audience, point out its common traits with other successful projects, and showcase its unique combinations of elements. Using TV/film comps puts a lot of cultural touchstones in play, so as long as you mention a book or two as well, I’m fine with it!

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

Chit-chat is nice if you have something personal to say, but the work is what really counts! If you don’t have a personal touch, you don’t need to try and shoehorn something in.

How do you feel about writers nudging on full/partial requests? At what point is it appropriate? 

I would say after a few months, feel free to nudge me! Reading submissions, deciding whether or not I want to have a call or potentially offer rep, or asking other team members for their opinion on a project as well can take quite a while. There’s nothing wrong with checking in and asking for an update if you’ve gone a while with no news.

When a writer nudges with an offer, what length of time is helpful to give you enough time to consider? A week? Two weeks?

Two weeks is pretty standard! Anything less than that would make it really tough to read thoughtfully and come to a decision.

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 and no. Similar to previous publications — in nonfiction, having a platform or established audience can be a plus, but for fiction writers, I don’t look at social media or online presence (except to make sure there are no red flags that would make me not want to work with the author, like inappropriate or bigoted material). At the end of the day, having a large social media following is no substitute for good writing!

If a writer makes changes to their manuscript due to feedback should they resend the query or only if material was requested? Does it make a difference if the changes are from an R&R with another agent?

If the manuscript has changed so much the query is no longer accurate —meaning the major themes and plot arc aren’t represented in the query you sent— then withdraw and resubmit with a new query that represents the project better. If your query still works, you can leave it in play and just send your revised draft to anyone who requests material. You can include a quick note explaining you’ve made revisions if there are differences between the sample/query and material you’re sending, to avoid any confusion.

If an agent requested material and you’ve made substantive changes of this scale while they’re considering, I think it’s ok to contact the agent and ask if they would like to see a new version. But that would be pretty rare, and you’d have to feel the new manuscript is practically a different book! If you’ve only made cosmetic tweaks or fixed a few typos, don’t bother. Those minor changes won’t make or break a decision — the bones of the book are what really count here, so there’s no reason to ask an agent to start their reading over.

When it comes to revise & resubmits: most are done under exclusive, so in that situation you shouldn’t be sending that draft out unless the agent who requested it has passed. If that happens, you can keep sending that material out in either of the above scenarios, but I don’t think it’s necessary to mention that it was the result of an R&R. That shouldn’t affect someone else’s decision making, but in reality, it might undermine their confidence in the work if they know others have already passed on it. Better to start your conversations with a clean slate.

Do you look at trends or editor wishlists when deciding to sign a manuscript?

Not specifically, but I am keeping market trends and shifts in mind and paying attention to what editors are looking for in broad terms as I’m looking for new clients. I won’t sign a client just because one editor said they’re looking for something in particular. But hearing folks clamor for rom-coms or horror might push me towards those categories, too. I want to feel confident that there’s a market for the work that I sign, but I don’t make decisions based only on other people’s wishlists: I have to feel passionate about a project and believe in it myself, and be in sync with the author as well, in order to sign them.     

Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent? Does a manuscript have to be sub-ready or will you sign stories that need work?

I’m pretty hands-on. I don’t expect manuscripts to be ready for submission and enjoy working with my clients to get to that level. But I do expect the queries and manuscripts I see to be as good as the author can get on their own, with a certain level of sophistication and polish — no half-baked or rough drafts.

What is your biggest query pet peeve? Is there anything that automatically sinks a query for you?

Being rude — to me or other authors! Some authors pitch their books as better than X, Y, or Z, or insult other writers or projects. That attitude does not make me want to work with you, even if your writing is off-the-charts-incredible. I’d rather see a pitch that sells me on your work than a query that puts others down.

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

My taste is wide-ranging! The elements that unite my favorite projects are well fleshed out characters, a unique voice, and a palpable sense of momentum in storytelling. Often I fall for books that have some strain of weird or dark humor, an adventurous conceit, or a tragic angle. Which if you think about it, are some ways in which a strong character, singular reading experience, or strong narrative propulsion can manifest. I also love a book that can make me see the world in new ways, twist a classic trope, or poke fun at the world around it.

Lately, I’ve been reading The Authenticity Project by Claire Pooley and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, and watching The Queen’s Gambit, Schitt’s Creek, and the brilliant Spanish heist show La Casa de Papel.

Thinking a bit more broadly, some books that have really stuck with me over recent years are: Mostly Dead Things by Kirsten Arnett, The Alice Network by Kate Quinn, When We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert, Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams, A Woman is no Man by Etaf Rum, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames, and the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. 

Maria comes to Bookcase from literary scouting, where she fell in love with the process of matchmaking books with just the right editors and publishers around the world. Her free time is largely spent reading or running—but none of that reading-on-the-treadmill nonsense. Maria is a born New Yorker who currently lives in Astoria, Queens with a sourdough starter named Ryeley.

Maria is currently open to queries for adult fiction, especially commercial to upmarket women's fiction, rom-coms, and suspense & thriller. Strong characters, especially women and underrepresented voices, and high-concept projects that beg to be read in a single sitting catch her attention best. She is also looking for select nonfiction: memoir/essay from a unique and immersive perspective; inclusive, wide-angle health and life advice from experts in their field; pop science (not pop culture) and narrative nonfiction that answers questions she didn’t know she had about things she didn’t know she cared about. She is not looking for politics, religion, poetry, cookbooks, or diet books.

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