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By: Jon Gibbs
Even though it wasn’t real, the most famous ‘query letter’ of all time has to be the one immortalized by the Beatles within the lyrics of their 1966 classic, Paperback Writer.
But what if Paul McCartney (who wrote the song) really had been an unknown wannabe, trying to get an agent or editor to read his book? What kind of response would he have got if he’d sent a query letter like the one he sang about?
We’ll never know for sure, but here’s how I think Agnes Hardacre, former senior agent at The Write Good Read Literary Agency (who some of you may recall sent me feedback on my query letter for Dracula vs. the Daleks a couple of years ago), would have responded:
Dear Mr. McCartney,
With reference to your recent correspondence seeking representation for
yourself and your novel, I regret to inform you that The Write Good Read
Literary Agency will not be inviting you to join our client roster.
As someone who harbors ambitions of one day becoming a published author myself, I fully understand your desire to become a ‘paperback writer.’
I share the frustration we authors feel when our work is rejected with little or no explanation as to why it’s deemed unworthy. With that in mind – and please understand this is in no way a request for you to re-submit your work – I’d like to offer some observations about your letter of enquiry, along with some helpful advice which, if heeded, I believe will greatly increase your chances of getting past that all-important first stage of the representation process when you submit your work elsewhere.
1: DO YOUR HOMEWORK
You start your letter of enquiry with ‘Dear, sir or madam, will you read my book?’
To use the modern vernacular, I’m afraid you ‘Shot yourself in the foot’, not once, but twice, within your very first sentence. In this modern technological age, a quick call to Directory Enquiries would have gotten you this agency’s telephone number. Had you then telephoned our main office, a member of our secretarial staff would have gladly furnished you with the name of the person to whom you should address your letter of enquiry (in this case, myself).
A little extra effort would have gone a long way, believe me.
2: LEAVE OUT THE OBVIOUS
As for ‘will you read my book?’ of course you want us to read your work. Why else would you have sent it to us? To ask even once in a letter of enquiry is redundant, to ask twice, as you did, smacks of desperation.
3: LEAVE OUT UNNECESSARY INFORMATION
Moving on. A good book is a good book. Readers (and agents) don’t care how long you or any other author worked on a novel (even if it did, as you
claim, take you years). In a similar vein, nor do we need to know about
your current need for employment. It makes you sound desperate.
4: BE AWARE OF POSSIBLE COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT
You say your plotline is based on a book by another author – a Mr. Lear as I
recall. You should be aware of the potential for a lawsuit if you’ve
used characters created by another writer without his or her express
5: GIVE MORE (AND BETTER) STORY DETAILS
Your covering letter tells me next to nothing about the novel you’d like us to represent, not even (and this is an enormous faux pas) its title .
All I could glean from it was that you’ve written a somewhat smutty story
about an ill-groomed, unkempt man whose wife won’t give him space and
doesn’t appreciate him (or his ambitions, I couldn’t tell which). This unnamed man has a son (also unnamed) who works at a newspaper, but (like you) harbors an ambition to write paperbacks.
It’s too vague. Give me a reason to care. Give me a reason to ask for more.
6: FINISH YOUR BOOK BEFORE YOU SEND IT OUT
When I read your offer to write extra chapters and/or rearrange the plot if
we like your writing style, it became obvious that your book is still a WiP (a modern acronym which stands for ‘Work in Progress). We want people to send us finished work. Besides, at a thousand pages, your manuscript is already too long. I believe you should consider splitting it into two, or even three, novels.
7: IT’S NOT OUR BOOK IT’S YOURS
It’s also a mistake to tender the rights to your work without pre-conditions. A less ethical agency might have taken you up on your offer.
8: DON’T MAKE WILD CLAIMS
I sincerely doubt that your (or any other unknown author’s) book would generate a million pounds for our agency overnight. It does you no good to claim otherwise. In fact, it makes you look unprofessional, which is never a good thing in the literary world.
9: IF YOU WANT THINGS RETURNED, INCLUDE POSTAGE
You state that if we must return your manuscript (or as we like to call it these days ‘ms’), we can send it back to you, but since you neglected to include the necessary three shillings and sixpence in postage stamps, I’m afraid that’s not possible.
On a final note, I detect a lyrical symmetry in the way you wrote your letter which makes me wonder if your efforts might find better reward in the field of poetry, or even songwriting. Perhaps you could set your letter of enquiry to music, though I’m not sure a song about wanting to write paperback books is exactly the sort of thing young people would listen to. These days, everything on the hit parade seems to be a variation on the theme of love.
I sincerely hope you find my comments and observations helpful. Wishing you the very best in your future endeavors.
Agnes S. Hardacre (Junior acquisitions editor)
For The Write Good Read Literary Agency
I think that just about covers it.
Born in England, Jon Gibbs (www.acatofninetales.com) now lives in New Jersey, where he’s a member of SCBWI, The Liberty States Fiction Writers and Garden State Horror Writers. He’s the founder of The New Jersey Authors’ Network and FindAWritingGroup.com.
Jon’s debut novel, Fur-Face (Echelon Press 2010), a middle grade science/horror/fantasy for boys aged 10-12, was nominated for a Crystal Kite Award. His popular blog, An Englishman in New Jersey (https://jongibbs.livejournal.com), is read in over thirty countries.
Jon can usually be found hunched over the computer in his basement office. One day he hopes to figure out how to switch it on.
Matt Sinclair says
Funny! I've thought about that song in that light ever since I started working on query letters.
Mr. D says
Regardless, it's a great song!
Awesome!This was a really clever post!
This was a clever post. Nice job. 🙂
However, it does absolutely prove my point that query letters are a terrible, inaccurate way to screen writers and should go the way of the Dodo bird.
Anyone who turned down Paul McCartney's query would have lived to deeply, deeply regret it.
Steve Axelrod says
Just for reference …
Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
It took me years to write, will you take a look?
It's based on a novel by a man named Lear
And I need a job, so I want to be a paperback writer,
It's the dirty story of a dirty man
And his clinging wife doesn't understand.
The son (The Sun) is working for the Daily Mail,
It's a steady job but he wants to be a paperback writer,
Paperback writer (paperback writer)
It's a thousand pages, give or take a few,
I'll be writing more in a week or two.
I can make it longer if you like the style,
I can change it round and I want to be a paperback writer,
If you really like it you can have the rights,
It could make a million for you overnight.
If you must return it, you can send it here
But I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer,
Matt Borgard says
Also, thanks for posting the lyrics, Steve. I totally didn't catch the "son/Sun" reference until just now.
Cathy Yardley says
SO going to have this song in my head all day. 🙂
Sarah McCabe says
Isn't it far more likely that the agent just wouldn't respond at all?
Hilarious! Thanks for the laugh!
It took me years to figure out that the backing vocals are singing the old French children's song "Frere Jacques".
Fun post! I never paid close attention to the lyrics before — puts them in a whole new light. I'll be humming this tune all day.
Kevin Lynn Helmick says
Two years ago for Christmas, my wife bought me "A Hard Days Write" The stories behind every Beatles song. Great book! Paul had been challenged by one of his Aunts to write a song that wasn't about love. He looked around and Ringo was reading a book. he said, "I'm gonna write a song about a book. Much of the lryic was taken directly from a letter that Paul received from a fan/aspireing novelist. The man named Lear, was probably Edward Lear, a painter and poet that John liked to read. Like most of their songs the lyrics are driven by the sound of the words, and not the logic of them.
"Literally, it's about a writer who has composed a book based on novel about a paperback writer. In other words, it's a novel based on a novel about a man writing a novel-which in turn presumably based on a novel about a man writing a novel."
And that's nothing short of brilliant.
Brilliant piece of writing by Paul, brilliant song, one of my favorites since I was old enough to walk.
Fun post-as far as the agents response? lol, sounds like a typical agent; missed the point entirely. lol
Thank you for the kind words, everyone, and a special thank you to you, Nathan. It's an honor to see my post appear on your blog 🙂
This cracked me up! The Beatles used a lot of nonsense lyrics, so no surprise there's vagueness and cliches here. Big no-nos for queries!
Kitty Bucholtz says
LOL!!! When I started reading the first section, I went to iTunes and played my copy of this song while I read the rest of the post. Even funnier to have it playing while I'm reading! LOL! Thanks for the fun! 🙂
Kristin Laughtin says
1) I would read the heck out of DRACULA VS. THE DALEKS.
2) "Paperback Writer", as silly as it is, is going to be my jam when it comes time for me to query.
3) The cat on your cover looks like mine and therefore I am intrigued, though I am not a 10- to 12-year-old boy.
Seriously, though, very entertaining post.
Years ago my husband worked for Mercury House in San Francisco, and they actually received the lyrics of this song typed out (yes, typed—it was a long time ago) in query letter form. They figured it was a prank pulled by a friend of someone who worked there, but it made for a fun day at work.
Regge Ridgway says
OMG. Jon. You are famous.. great blog post about rejection letters. Most of mine have been rather impersonal but polite. That one is a hoot.
A Paperback Writer says
Well, I, for one, am most certainly entertained by this post.
Many ha, ha, ha's. And brilliant post, John! The lyrics of the song are clever, too. I always assumed Paperback Writer was written by John Lennon because he did publish 2 paperback books. A Spaniard In the Works was one. Perhaps Paul was having fun at John's expense? *g*
Again, thank you everyone for the kind words. As Mr. D. said in his comment, it's a great song. I had a lot of fun writing about it.
Kristin, if I ever do write Dracula vs. the Daleks, you'll be the first to know, then I'm sending it to the SyFy channel 🙂
That was genuinely funny! Next, the elevator pitch from Sympathy for the Devil?
Neil Larkins says
Treating the song like a serious query was seriously funny! And educational. Looking forward to someone taking on the Sympathy for the Devil critique.
If it's an elevator pitch, it would have to be to the tune of The Girl From Ipanema 🙂