Every step on the hopeful journey to publication is fraught with potential horror, but there’s something especially cringe-worthy about the querying process. It’s a different brand of ugh. I started querying literary agents in the early 2000s, and I unsuccessfully shopped a number of manuscripts.
When I was getting started, there weren’t as many query-related resources as there are today. That was before most agents started blogging. I’m not sure if AbsoluteWrite existed yet, but if it did, I certainly wasn’t aware of it or other sites like it. There was no YA Twitter where you could connect with other writers and find critique partners. I went to Barnes & Noble and found a book about querying–it was full of amazing advice like “Find unusual ways to make your letter stand out! Include little gifts with your queries! Fill the envelope with glitter!”
DON’T DO ANY OF THAT. Those aren’t exact quotes, but they’re close. I can’t imagine that I still have that book, but if I come across it, I’ll share its dreadful wisdom.
Is it any surprise that I made a lot of bad choices when it came to querying? I’m occasionally decent at it now (you can find the final version of Mammoth’s query over on Eric Smith’s blog), but that wasn’t always the case. Since I love pointing out my own inadequacies (my therapist probably just developed a sudden headache and has no idea why), I’m going to share a few of the mistakes I made in my first query letter around 2003. Don’t do these things.
The first project I queried on my own was an urban fantasy called The Shades of Shadow. Y’all. I wrote the query letter from the POV of one of the main characters. Seriously, I went all out. I designed his fancy letterhead and I bought special paper and everything. It was adorable and terrible. DO NOT DO THIS. The letter was also two full pages long–while it’s not an absolute rule, especially now that most queries are emailed, I recommend keeping them under a page. In an effective query, every word counts. You don’t want to ramble.
Let’s check out the opening paragraphs (since I’m too embarrassed to share the whole thing):
What would you do, [agent name], if a character from your favorite novel showed up one evening at your front door? My name is Aidan Brennan, and I am the sort of character who does just that. That’s also exactly what happens to Miriam McKay in THE SHADES OF SHADOW, the manuscript for which I’m seeking representation. SHADES clocks in at 308 pages and is the beginning of a series; the next two volumes are in progress.
I also happen to be a vampire, and I’m well aware that you’re rolling your eyes at my admission. It’s a mistake to pigeonhole my series as nothing more than “vampire fiction,” or even worse, horror or sci-fi. My vision for the series is far more mainstream than that – my writer and I are aiming for a new commercial realm of character-driven supernatural realism, an invasive and suspenseful remolding of the concepts of fiction and fact. After all, there’s more gray area between the two than most people are willing to admit.
Oh no. Oh Jill, you sweet summer child. At least I remembered to replace [agent name] with each agent’s actual name in the copies I mailed. Let’s break this down. In addition to writing from my character’s point of view . . .
I used awkward clichés like “clocks in at.”
I refused to name a genre and tried to make one up.
I dismissed and insulted several other genres.
I talked down to the agent (I blame Aidan for this, heh).
I did this for TWO PAGES.
I opened my letter with a “what would you do” question.
That last detail isn’t as cringe-worthy as the rest, but it’s been done to death and it’s rarely an effective hook. If you can’t grab an agent’s attention with your query, you’re indicating that you might have an equally hard time grabbing readers’ attention with your book.
The genre details were awkward because I demonstrated that I had no idea where my project fit into the market. Offering a few decent comps would have been way more effective than trying so hard to set myself apart.
Interestingly, the response to this letter wasn’t as negative as you might expect. My dream agent was actually really amused; she addressed her (very kind and personalized) rejection to both Aidan and me, and I got several full manuscript requests from other agents. Nothing came of those requests (because the story itself was a mess), but still.
Because of that, my last querying tip is this: Don’t stress too much about the possibility of making a querying mistake. Y’all, if I could get full requests with that query, anything is possible. Do your research, read some examples of good queries, ask a few critique partners or trusted friends to take a look at your letter, and trust in the story you’re trying to sell.
When I was planning Mammoth’s pre-order campaign, I read several blog posts from other writers (like Eric Smith and Rachel Lynn Solomon) discussing campaigns they’ve run. Those posts were incredibly helpful, and since I learned a lot while organizing my campaign, I decided to do a write-up of my own. Maybe it’ll help someone else.
This won’t be short. Grab a snack. Dig in. (HAHAA YES I AM STILL MAKING PALEONTOLOGY REFERENCES I WILL NEVER STOP)
First of all, is it pre-order or preorder? I prefer pre-order.
A pre-order campaign is a way to reward people who order your book before its release date. Pre-orders are important. I’m no publishing expert, but from what I understand, a boost in early sales numbers looks good to your publisher and can influence other sales. If early demand for your book is high, more bookstores and sellers are likely to stock it. You want people to pre-order your book, and with so many amazing books coming out these days, it’s not getting any easier to get buyers to commit to yours, especially when it won’t launch for a month or more. I appreciated every pre-order Mammoth got, and I wanted to show that appreciation.
Pre-order campaigns are as complicated as you make them, but they’re always more complicated than you’d expect. Decide how much time you can realistically put into your campaign, and have a budget in mind. Whatever you think it’ll cost, increase that by at least 50%. It will cost more than you expect, and it’s better to have a surplus than to run out of money.
If the campaign is your idea, go for it. If it’s something your publisher is pushing for, ask them to cover at least some of the costs. Heck, ask either way, just in case. You never know.
Your budget isn’t just for the swag itself. It’s also for any related packaging costs, as well as postage. SO MUCH POSTAGE. Keep postage in mind when figuring out what kind of swag you want to include–flat items like stickers and bookmarks are so much easier and cheaper than bulkier items to ship. Research the rates, especially if you want your campaign to be international.
And if you don’t have a lot of experience with packing and shipping, keep things EVEN MORE simple. I ran an Etsy store for nine years and shipped something like five thousand little stuffed monsters all over the world, and that experience came in really handy. So did a lot of leftover supplies I’ve held onto. I would’ve floundered otherwise.
For Mammoth’s campaign, I set up a separate email account for people to submit their pre-order proof (usually a screen grab of their order confirmation). Keeping the requests in an account of their own, rather than having them get lost in the vast caverns of my main Gmail accounts, was really helpful. Some campaigns have web forms instead of email, so that’s another option.
I designed my own bookmarks, stickers, bookplates and postcards, basing most of them around the fossil-heart design from the cover. The additional sketches are my own. I’m not a professional graphic designer, but I have a lot of experience designing promo items, and I think I did okay. If you’re not comfortable doing that yourself, and it’s not something your publisher is doing for you, don’t forget to figure the cost of hiring a designer into your budget.
(Yes, one of my stickers features my cat, Gatsby. It’s a long story. He’s an honorary smilodon.)
I got most of those items printed through GotPrint.com. The quality was great and the turnaround time was very reasonable.
I also created paleontology-themed keychains, which I assembled by hand. I used to help my dad with his hobby of importing jewelry and related components, so I knew how to source the charms, and I put together a hundred keychains while watching a movie. The cost was well under a dollar per keychain, not including my time.
I also wanted to do a run of enamel pins, but that was out of my budget, so I used my button press (a professional model by Tecre–it’s an absolute beast and I love it so much) to make sets of one-inch pins. I had the press and a ton of supplies left over from my Etsy days, so the cost per button was extremely low. They took a considerable amount of time to assemble, but I kind of love doing mindless work while watching Netflix.
Since not all of my items were flat, I didn’t want to risk shipping them in normal envelopes. My go-to choice in my Etsy days was padded envelopes, but those don’t offer protection for flat items like bookmarks. For the campaign, I bought rigid mailers in bulk. (I’m not linking my source because their politics are absolute garbage and I’m searching for an alternative.) The mailers protected the flat items while having just enough room for keychains and buttons.
I packed the mailers assembly-line style. First I packaged the buttons and keychains in their little baggies. Then I wrote my thank-yous on the postcards. Then I counted out how many of each item I needed, and I sorted the items into individual piles. Each pile went into an envelope. Then I went down my pre-order list and plugged each address into Endicia, and printed the postage.
I used USPS to mail everything. Because the mailers were rigid and not uniformly flat, I paid package shipping rates. (I miiiiight have been able to get away with paying for a cheaper option, but I didn’t want anyone receiving a postage-due envelope because some postal employee somewhere got overzealous.) Again, my Etsy background came in handy–I still have the Endicia account and the Dymo label printer I used back then, and the resulting discount saved me about a dollar per envelope (and I printed my postage from home, so I didn’t need to stand in line at the post office).
I also set limits. International shipping costs have gotten increasingly bogus*, so I only offered flat swag that could go in a normal envelope to anyone who pre-ordered from outside the US. I felt kind of rotten about this, but I tried to keep it as fair as possible without maxing out my credit card in the process. I also limited the keychains and buttons to the first 75 US pre-orders. In the end, I didn’t hit that limit, but I’m glad I had it in place. There are so many unknowns to consider in terms of potential results. I know of campaigns that have gotten less than 50 requests, and campaigns that have gotten more than 500. That’s a big difference in terms of cost and time.
Also, consider the environmental aspect of all this. Envelopes, any additional packaging materials, the swag itself . . . It adds up. Consider using recycled and recyclable supplies. You can avoid this aspect by offering digital bonus items (I gave people who pre-ordered Mammoth early access to a companion short story and a “fashion field guide” from Natalie’s blog).
There’s also the aspect of fairness. Not everyone can afford to pre-order books, so if you can have an option for those who request the book at their local library (which is also really helpful!), it’s a cool thing to do. Digital bonus items are great for this, as is flat swag if you can afford the postage.
So was it worth it? I mean . . . probably not? Getting the word out without constantly spamming my social media was so hard. But I heard from several people who weren’t aware of Mammoth before they found the campaign, and who then pre-ordered because of the campaign, so there’s that. Plus, I had so much fun putting it together. Like I said earlier, I can happily spend an afternoon bingeing Netflix while doing mindless work. It made me miss my Etsy days. Plus, now I hand out the leftover swag at local events, so it still helps me promote Mammoth.
(I even considered starting a side hustle doing pre-order campaign packages for other writers, but I’m not sure I could get the cost down enough to make it worth it while still covering my time. But maybe. It could be an interesting project for 2019. Have I mentioned how much I enjoy all this?)
The one element I think wasn’t worth it was the sweepstakes. I offered two prize packs within the US and one for international pre-orders (again, because of shipping). I don’t think they got much attention or encouraged anyone to order, and they were costly to ship. Plus, there are so many rules and legalities to consider. On the other hand, the winners have been SO HAPPY, and I’m a people pleaser, so that element worked well for me.
Would I do another campaign? Probably. I’d skip the sweepstakes aspect, and unless I came up with an irresistible idea, I’d consider sticking with flat swag to make mailing cheaper and easier. For example, I’d love to hire an artist to create character portraits for trading cards or small art prints. I also really like the idea of digital bonus content, especially from an environmental aspect, but I don’t know if that’s tempting enough to generate any pre-orders.
One last thing: Sadly, there are ways to fake order confirmations, and some people will go through a lot of fuss to get something for free, even if they have no interest in actually ordering your book. If you run a campaign, keep an eye out for anything that looks fishy.
I think that’s about it! Sorry for the length, but I really did learn so much, and there’s a lot to consider if you’re thinking of running a campaign yourself. Feel free to ask questions in the comments!
*No, seriously. When I started selling on Etsy in 2006, it cost about $3.00 to ship a three-ounce padded envelope to, say, the UK. Now it’s about $13.00. I CRY. It cost me more to ship a button set, keychain and bandana to the UK than to ship a four-pound box via USPS Priority Mail halfway across the country. I knew that was the case, but if a writer organized an international campaign without being aware . . . What a punch to the gut. As of 2018, an envelope of flat swag weighing less than one ounce only costs $1.15 to ship internationally–that’s a lot more reasonable and easy to budget for.
Can we talk covers for a moment? I’m still not over the darling cover art Turner Publishing came up with for Mammoth:
I have ALL THE APPRECIATION AND GRATITUDE for creative director Madeline Cothren and artist Jo Walker because this design still makes me fall in love every time I see it. Mammoth is about hard, unyielding things — fossils, the reception women receive in male-dominated fields, the kind of raw ambition that can result in reckless decisions — but it’s also a soft, sweet, optimistic story about discovery and vulnerability and love. Somehow, this cover captures both sides of the narrative.
I mean, come on — a heart made out of half-buried mammoth bones? It couldn’t be more perfect. I SWOON.
However, Mammoth almost looked completely different.
Several years ago, when I was unagented, I considered self-publishing Mammoth. I held off because I couldn’t come up with a cover concept I liked, so I never got as far as commissioning an artist/designer to create anything for me. I knew I didn’t want a photograph of a model meant to look like Natalie (the book’s main character, plus-size fashion blogger, and resident paleontology geek). I liked the idea of representing Natalie without actually depicting her, so in early 2016 I played around with this mock-up in Photoshop:
Totally different! A pair of dig site tools and some random bits of dirt scatter over a skull image from one of Natalie’s sketchbooks. (She usually sketches fashion ideas, but I can totally imagine her drawing a fossil here and there.) The title’s scribbled with Natalie’s signature lipstick. There are retro-inspired polka-dots and a black/white/red color scheme Aunt Judy would adore. There’s a bit of a skull-and-crossbones theme representing how Natalie occasionally goes rogue when a paleo discovery’s at stake. But overall . . . It’s harsh. This design is like Natalie early in the book, when she’s strong and flawless on the outside, but there’s no hint of the evolution she undergoes during her time at the dig site. The story’s softness is missing. I never moved forward with this concept, obviously, and I’m glad I didn’t. (Especially since I made such a mess of the brush bristles in Photoshop! I’m definitely an amateur when it comes to design.)
It wasn’t a total loss, though. I’ve gotten to recycle a few of its elements in swag designs. My skull sketch is on bookmarks, info cards, buttons…
Mammoth had to wait a few more years for a perfect cover, but it has one now. ❤
Should authors read reviews of their books? OH BOY. Let’s talk about this for a sec.
One of my best friends is currently reading Mammoth. “You know,” she said the other day, her tone hesitant, “this one’s a lot better than Spookygirl.”
I kid. She’s right.
I like to think I’ve learned a lot in the years since Spookygirl. I love that book, I do, but its road to publication was unusual (winning the ABNA) and it might have benefited from the extra steps attached to more traditional publication methods. A savvy agent would have called me out on certain details before the book even got near an editor, and I might have been a bit surer about whether I should leave some plotlines open (since I originally envisioned the story as a trilogy or series) or tie up everything neatly.
I was anxious and curious and new to publishing, and I read every Spookygirl review I could find. So many were wonderful! What surprised me, however, was how constructive a lot of the more negative reviews were. I learned so much about relying too much on stereotypes. About the risk of populating too much of a story with throwaway supporting characters. About when to dig deeper. I really did listen, and I’m grateful to readers who took a moment to explain why they didn’t like the book instead of just hitting that one-star rating.
(IMPORTANT: I’m not saying you should tag authors in your negative reviews! I’m not saying you should send authors your criticism. No, nononono. That’s kind of cruel, and some readers seem to delight in it. Don’t do that. But know that some of us do appreciate your honesty, even when it’s critical.)
I thought a lot about whether I should do the same with Mammoth reviews. After all, I used the lessons I learned from Spookygirl reviews when I wrote and revised Mammoth. Shouldn’t I want to keep learning?
Erm, hold up. That’s where my therapist would stop me and call me out on using “should” language. Shoulds are tricky. They seem so sensible, but they’re a great way to load yourself down with pressure and expectation and anxiety.
Mammoth is a deeply personal story. I put a lot of myself into Natalie and her struggle to love and accept herself. The book deals with sensitive topics like weight and self-image, and there’s no one right way to tackle those things. There’s no universal experience when it comes to being fat. Some readers will identify with Natalie’s path. Others won’t. I fully expect criticism from those whose experiences have differed from Nat’s, who wanted something else from the story, and that criticism is valid. But at some point I’ll have to draw a line and protect my own anxious, scattered brain a bit, along with my heart, which is so thoroughly invested in making sure Mammoth’s fashion-blogger-science-geek realizes just how awesome she is.
They say that you can’t please everyone. To a people pleaser like me, that just sounds like a challenge.
Nah. I’m tossing that saying aside and going with “You’re allowed to disappoint people” instead. Every book out there (and every movie and every show and every song and and and) disappoints someone. If you’re preoccupied with that, you won’t be able to create your best, strongest, bravest work. You’ll risk diluting your brilliance into something bland. You don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that, either.
The disappointment will be out there, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you have to go digging for it.
It’s been a minute since I blogged about Mammoth-related goodness, so let’s do a quick round-up of what’s been going on.
First of all, Mammoth will be at Book Expo America this week!! *ALL THE HEART-EYES EMOJIS* My friends at Turner Publishing Company will have over 150 Mammoth ARCs available, as well as these super-cute totes to carry your books and swag. (I think they’re at booth 2829!) I love how the bag’s color scheme perfectly matches the book’s Central Texas Mammoth Site setting.
I use my tote all the time, and I have a few extras that I’ll be giving away when Mammoth’s November 6 release date is a little closer, so if you aren’t able to grab one in NYC this week, keep an eye out!
I recently pieced together this paleontology-themed keychain design. I need to source some sturdier jump rings, but once I do that, I plan on sending out some of these babies as Mammoth-related swag.
I got some adorable bookplates this month as well. I’ll be autographing these and mailing them out to anyone who pre-orders Mammoth. More on my pre-order campaign this summer! I’m still planning additional swag, too. I’m thinking bookmarks and buttons for sure, and maybe stickers. I’d looooove to design an exclusive enamel pin — we’ll see! Let me know if you have a favorite kind of book swag!
And hey, speaking of pre-orders, Mammoth is popping up all over. It’s now available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. Ask about it at your local library and your favorite indie bookstore to put it on their radar!
I’ve been participating in #IGWritersApril over on Instagram this month. The prompt for day 26 was “writing inspiration,” which could be interpreted in so many ways. The Waco Mammoth National Monument inspired the dig site in MAMMOTH. My love for the city of Austin inspired several MAMMOTH settings, and my bff Dava inspired some of my favorite plot points. I could have posted a photo of my childhood copy of JURASSIC PARK, or a still from the movie, or a favorite page from the dinosaur encyclopedia I read over and over as a kid.
Instead, I found some photos of myself as a young teenager. I shared the kid who never felt thin enough, likable enough, cool enough, pretty enough. She was never enough.
In MAMMOTH, Natalie is a popular plus-size fashion blogger. She has an amazing vintage-inspired wardrobe. She rocks a red lip and perfectly winged eyeliner. She works for her aunt’s indie clothing line and knows how to design, sew, and alter for a perfect fit (and how to use shapewear to make that fit even more perfect). Natalie’s that fatsionista you envy on Instagram because she’s got it together (or at least she looks like she does).
Natalie adopted that persona because she was bullied in middle school. She reinvented herself so she’d no longer be “Fat Nat.”
Unfortunately, changing how others see you doesn’t fix how you see yourself. In MAMMOTH, Natalie has to figure out how to love and appreciate herself for who she is beneath her fashion armor. If she’s going to stand out during her dig site internship, she’s going to have to do so in an authentic way. She’s going to have to accept that she is enough, just as she is.
This means that Natalie isn’t as perfect as she appears. She has flaws, especially in how she thinks about herself. One of those flaws in particular, a habit Natalie has of being too aware of body size, is a detail I’ve discussed with readers, my agent, and my contacts at my publisher. Some people love it. Some people hate it. It’s polarizing, and whether to include or cut it has been a tough call! I went with what felt like the most authentic option, even though I’m still second-guessing myself about twenty times a day. The detail evolves as the story progresses. I hope readers will give my girl a chance so they can see that evolution happen.
Body image is so personal. SO PERSONAL. I’ve struggled with the concept since I was about seven years old, and because a lot of the self-doubt and anxiety in MAMMOTH mirror my own, putting this book out there is kind of terrifying. But if Natalie can be bold enough to stand out in paleontology, I can be bold enough to share her story.
I’m sharing it for that kid in the photos. She was enough, even though she never realized it. I’m sharing it for kids like her.
You are enough. Changing what’s on the outside won’t fix things until you accept and embrace that.
I was flirting with the idea of self-publishing MAMMOTH. The only thing keeping me from doing so was that I hadn’t yet come up with a cover design I liked. (More on that in a future entry!)
Eric was on my radar because I knew several of his clients (Rebecca Enzor and I ran in the same toy collecting circles well over a decade ago, and I knew Rebecca Phillips from the ABNA), and I figured, hey, might as well get one more opinion.
The TL:DR version is that I asked if fat characters are really such a tough sell, and Eric said nope. “If you’re getting that kind of feedback from agents, they simply aren’t the right agent for you.”
“Don’t give up.”
DON’T GIVE UP.
If you’re a writer in the querying trenches, go back and read that last bit again.
DON’T GIVE UP.
Eric shared a ton of great info in that AMA (seriously, go read the whole thing if you haven’t already), but those three words are the most important part. You might be one email (or tweet or Reddit post) away from the right connection, and you don’t want to miss that. I’m glad I didn’t. Turner Publishing is releasing MAMMOTH this fall.