Selling a book is the least glamorous and most grueling part of writing. People think of writers in their studies, typing away at their work, creating the next essay, scene, novel, or memoir. Friends of mine think that all I do as a writer is write all day.
I wish this was true. I love sitting down to an empty sheet of paper (screen) and filling it from top to bottom with words. It’s one of life’s great pleasures. I get to tell stories. I make stuff up if I’m writing fiction. I play in memory when I’m writing memoir. I document and report if I’m writing a piece of nonfiction. I recount the past when I’m writing history.
Many of the essays I write for you are publishable outside this limited sphere of my website, but that is a subject for another blog post. I tell you this because I think, now, that I’m a good writer. I’m also a fine author. The book I wrote, I believe, is a good book and publishable. That is, I think I’ve written something that other people could read easily and get something out of. I wrote the book I would want to read. In addition, it was a writer’s book. It pushes the boundary for both travel writing and memoir, and is a complicated, layered story that I think anyone can access.
That said, there’s another facet to writing that isn’t so much fun, at least, not for me. It’s the selling of the writing, the getting it out there to be published by someone else. Fear of this process and the rejection that is very much a part of it fuels a self-publishing industry that mostly active in ripping people off.
My salesman hat goes on in the morning shortly after I’ve made my first cup of tea. I sit down at the computer. Next to it lays the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents, 2018. It’s one of many sources of information about literary agents, what they want, and how they want you to approach them.
I use this Guide as a starter. I look for agents that specifically say they want memoir, which basically describes my book. I especially pop when I find an agent who likes memoir and travel, which is precisely what my book is. When I find an agent I might like—usually the next one in line in alphabetical order, the way the Guide is organized—I go online and read interviews or articles about that agent. I try to see what kinds of books they have represented in the past and make some determination as to whether my book fits in with their vision. I look for personal information I can reference.
Then, I sit down and write a couple of sentences in my query letter (which I include below) that speak specifically to that agent.
Why? Because most agents want to be stroked. They do not want to see “Dear Agent” at the head of my query letter. They want me to know what they have done. They want me to see how my book can fit with their other titles. They want to be made to feel special.
So, I play that game. I mention, if I can, someone I know who knows them. (I’ve actually only done this with one agent, the only agent anyone recommended to me.) If I don’t know anyone they know, I’m really out in the cold knocking on the door. My job is to make sure that when they look through the peephole, they like what they see enough to open the door.
I’m torn. I need an agent, as most publishers and editors do not deal directly with writers until an agent has set up a contract. Because so few publishers deal with authors before the contract, an agent is a necessary part of the publication process. There are no Max Perkinses and haven’t been for decades. I conjecture that Thomas Wolfe would never make it through the door of this process these days with Look Homeward, Angel in the form that he and Perkins ultimately forged into a great American classic. With very few exceptions, everything a publisher does, they do with the least amount of effort. They are not interested in editing and shaping, that responsibility has fallen to the literary agent. They aren’t even that interested in selling my book. They expect that I will do that for them.
On the other hand, I’m not really finding the ideal agent. Every now and then, I identify one that, yes, I would like to represent my stuff. But I’m not sure I want an agent who needs to be made to feel special. (But don’t get me wrong, I’m trying anyway.)
The agents I really hope will take my book are those who say they don’t give a damn about the personal fluff. They want to see the idea. They are not interested or invested in whether I’ve gotten to know them before our relationship has even begun. I’ve run across a couple of these agents and agencies, and there are precious few. I want an agent who is professional, straight-ahead, no frills. I want an agent who develops friendly relationships with editors. Our relationship will start once they’ve decided if they want my book. Until then, it’s all business.
After I pen a few sentences directed toward the agent, I paste in my query letter, altering it to the agent’s specifications. If they want a sample chapter or pages, I include a sample—the same with a proposal, synopsis, chapter outlines, whatever they want. I check it all over and make sure the fonts and sizes are consistent, that the typos are corrected. I double check the grammar and language.
Then, I hit send and it’s all out of my hands. I move on to the next agent in alphabetical order and repeat the process.
My goal for this summer is to query at least four agents a week—this week I’ve done seven. My job is to get the queries out there and be consistent. I could get busy and bite off a larger share of the Guide, but I find that in the numbers game, it’s best for me to do it bit by bit. Over time and with patience, I build up the number of agents who are considering my book.
Plus, if I do just a few at a time, I will have more success than if I try to get ten or 15 out the door on the same day. I have problems paying attention to detail. Doing a few at a time helps me meet this challenge. These agents are confronted with a bunch of great ideas every day. They are looking for reasons to say no to a query or proposal. A typo, misspelled name, missing word, or inclusion of the wrong material are good reasons to reject a query. Going slow allows me to do the query right.
Once a query is out the door, there’s the wait, which is likely the least pleasant part of the process. Some agents claim they receive so many queries in a day that they can’t possibly answer them all, so they don’t. They say that if you don’t hear back from them, they aren’t interested.
I particularly like the agents who reject my book, even with a form rejection. It means that someone has actually considered my query, even if they have decided to turn all the queries for that day away. I have received a couple of personal rejections, and these are the most pleasant. That indicates they read my idea and thought about it.
Note that I say I prefer outright rejection. Rejection’s what the selling of a book is all about, unless you are one of the lucky few. I don’t have celebrity. About 30 people read this blog every time I put something new up here. I don’t have 5,000 Facebook friends or give TED talks. I’m just a writer with a good book. A rejection is tangible evidence of work accomplished.
And I have become inured to rejection. I bank on it. I fully expect that the agent I queried today will turn away my appeal. Someday, an agent or publisher will say, hey, this is a good idea, let’s see what we can do with it. Until that moment comes, I keep my head down and do the work. Head down. Do work.
Here is a query I sent to an agent yesterday. If you have any comments or ideas on how to make it better, let me know at email@example.com or give me a call at 816-896-4746. I’d love to hear from you.
Ms Reiss Gendell,
I come to you after reading your interviews and what your writers say about you. Your professionalism and long experience are attributes I seek in an agent. I also understand that you want to acquire memoir and travel. I have completed a 95,00-word memoir that includes aspects of travel memoir, Ferment: Wine, Vineyard, and Manic Depression. I appreciate the chance to pitch my book to you.
Ferment opens with a seven-year-old getting drunk at his first communion and leads the reader on a journey through alcoholism, mental illness, and an audacious move to Germany that brings him redemption.
Ferment is my search for the truth behind hopping a plane in a depressive haze to escape a dead-end existence in Kansas City, MO, and find work in Germany’s vineyards. The exploration reveals the influence of alcoholism and mental illness on my decision making, the course of my life, and the formation of friendships that have endured three decades. As a 22-year-old, I landed in Germany with no language ability, money, or contacts—or even a home to come back to. I lucked into work at a famous winery in the ancient city of Trier, where strangers who became life-long friends ushered me into another culture and mindset. In , present-day visits to these Germans take the reader through central Germany and rural France, and, ultimately into a now-mature American man’s search for more of himself. Throughout this pilgrimage, family and friendly relationships, foibles, and joys grow—while breakout depression and mania lurk in the shadows much like Robert Pirsig’s Phaedrus in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
I understand the 23-million-book sales memoir market is competitive and that recovery tales populate that market. Ferment, however, avoids confession and is not a typical recovery story or tale of vagabonding in Europe. My previous work dealt with subjects—a walk across Great Plains and a 2,200-mile canoe trip down the Missouri—in ways that made what could have been well-worn tales unique in the market. Ferment offers a unique view of how alcoholism and mental illness affected one man’s personal journey and the lives he touched. It touches on human universals of personal development, human companionship, and loyalty. It reveals, as well, ground-level perspective of important cultural landscapes seldom seen in recent European travel memoir.
The University of Nebraska Press published my two travel memoirs. Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains (2009) recounts my 1,450-mile walk from Kansas City to Helena, Montana. Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer (2015) takes readers down 2,200 miles of the Missouri River from Helena back to Kansas City. Canoeing the Great Plains won the creative nonfiction category of the 2016 High Plains Book Award and the 2016 Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award. I write book reviews and articles for scholarly journals. My poems and essays have been published in numerous newspapers and literary journals, including New Letters, daCunha, Indiana Voice Journal, Garo, Kansas City Star, and others. I arranged dozens of book talks at libraries, clubs and organizations, book clubs, and forums. Midwestern newspapers have interviewed me about my books and I’m not shy when it comes to selling. I even keep stock in my car trunk should an opportunity arise.
I earned a doctorate in American History and American Literature from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2013. I have been an award-winning journalist, book editor, college professor, and ironworker. Presently, I teach American History, Modern Latin American History, and Western Civilization at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS. I conduct memoir-, nonfiction-, and travel-writing workshops at the Writers Place, a Kansas City literary center and at the Mid-Continent Public Libraries.
Ferment is ready for your review. I paste my bio, chapter summaries, and sample chapter below.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Dr. Patrick Dobson
1717 Jarboe St.
Kansas City, MO 64108