The query letter that got me four agent offers
Using data to write advertisements for yourself.
This is the story of my querying “journey,” which could be helpful to you if you’re pitching a project right now. It is also a little meditation on self-promotion, which I’ve been thinking about a lot because, since last September, I’ve done so many uncomfortable things that it’s probably given me mesothelioma. Promoting a book is one part dream come true, two parts face-planting with witnesses.
Do you feel this too, an overriding awkwardness that comes whenever you try to present yourself in some even sort of together light? Do you struggle to talk yourself up in emails, website bios, fellowship applications, and queries? Excellent. Please join my class-action suit against the universe. It’s not fair how hard this stuff is to figure out or to execute.
Yet others have figured it out—arguably. Or at least plunged in with great vigor.
Case in point: Edgar Allan Poe wrote fake letters to the editor praising his own work. A couple of years later, the great historian and biographer Thomas Carlyle invented sources in order to quote himself, glossing his own opinions with more authority. This being Carlyle, all his fake sources’ names were scatological German puns. What a guy. Norman Mailer, in the 1950s, wrote a whole book called Advertisements for Myself.
So perverse is the human imagination that even anonymity can become a form of self-promotion and credibility-mongering. Think of Banksy. How many people would care about that work if the artist’s identity were known and all the speculation stopped? Enough to fill a 7-11?
Now here’s a better question: What if these examples are to be emulated, not just smiled at? I don’t suggest drafting fake letters or spray-painting London. I do think that, then as now, the attention market is crowded, and thus some self-promotion is necessary to have a career at all. By the same token, it’s a good idea to try to cultivate authority and credibility, knowing as we do that people tend to care as much about who’s talking as they do about what’s being said.
You don’t have to invent this credibility wholesale, however. This is the internet age. The data is out there, like Big Foot and aliens and maybe even Banksy.
How this applies to querying is straightforward.
How can you appear credible to literary agents, or simply more credible to literary agents? With all the usual caveats about how other people’s mileage may vary, I think one big way is to use specific numbers and vivid anecdotes. In short, to use data.
More on that in a sec, but first, if “query letter” is new to you, this is the term for the emails you send to literary agents when you’re seeking representation, while “querying” refers to the larger process. Still, the principles involved aren’t narrowly applicable to querying. They apply to all sorts of emails a creator might send and to all manner of horribly necessary self-promotional efforts.
By the time I sent the query letter you’ll see below, I’d been approaching agents off and on for over a decade, though always, before this point, with fiction projects and with highly conventional queries—i.e. ones following the typical query advice you see everywhere, which involves pitching the idea before you pitch yourself. It never worked.
This go-round proved more fruitful. In the week after I sent my query, four agents offered to represent me. I’d approached eight agents in total, so that’s an offer rate of 50%.
While I can’t say for sure why this query worked, I’m pretty certain it’s because I presented the data, especially the market data, instead of waiting to do so until some later point. See how the longest paragraph is about audience:
I’m contacting you after coming across your profile and realizing that you agented [Book Title] as well as [Book Title]. My name is Catherine Baab-Muguira, and I’m a writer who’s contributed to New York Magazine’s The Cut, Playboy.com, Salon.com and FastCompany.com, among others. My June 2016 Quartz essay, “Millennials Are Obsessed with Side Hustles Because They’re All We’ve Got,” has been shared on Facebook more than 50,000 times and also became the focus of an April 2017 episode of NPR’s On Point.
I’ve just finished a nonfiction book proposal that I believe may be right up your alley – one that comes with some nice proof of concept, too.
In September of 2017, my essay, “Edgar Allan Poe Was a Broke-Ass Freelancer,” ran on The Millions. It quickly became one of the site’s most-popular articles of the entire year, and was picked up and shared by blogs and magazines including Publishers Weekly and Arts & Letters Daily. Even Michiko Kakutani liked the story on Twitter.
But that piece was just a small excerpt from a much larger project I’ve been working on. It’s called How to Say “Nevermore” to Your Problems: Surprisingly Great Life Advice from Edgar Allan Poe, the World’s Most Miserable Writer. To put it glibly, it’s the world’s first ever self-help book based on Poe. It’s one part Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, one part Jen Sincero’s You Are a Badass.
As you might expect, I’ve had a lot of book ideas over the last few years, but I ran with this Poe idea because the commercial potential was obvious to me from the beginning. Poe fans are legion: He has four million fans on Facebook alone, and there are Poe museums in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Richmond, Virginia. Demand for works of Poe biography and criticism has stayed strong for nearly 200 years. And yet, while so much ink has been spilled, no one has ever looked to Poe for advice on how to live a fulfilling, worthy life. This unique, new angle occurred to me when I was suffering from a nervous breakdown in 2016 – which is the starting point for this book and puts some of the “narrative” in the narrative nonfiction.
My hunch is that you’ll like the voice and the direction I’ve taken with this premise, so I’m attaching my proposal and first chapter. If you’d like to discuss them, you can reach me by email at [emailaddress] or at [phone number]. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Thanks again, and all best,
Of course, I sounded about 4 billion times more confident than I felt, and to this day I feel a little ehh in having name-checked poor, innocent Michiko Kakutani, who just happened to like a tweet one day and most assuredly does not know or care who I am. But I would use the same basic approach again for several reasons.
In general, focusing on strategy and tactics takes the pressure off.
Instead of squirming in self-consciousness, you think in terms of technique, and this makes the job of talking yourself up much easier. Beyond that, a few more considerations:
Data is powerful because it inspires belief. It can make you look legit no matter how you illegitimate and jumped-up you may really feel down deep in your soul. (Hi!)
In a query, data could take the form of specific numbers including traffic, shares, likes, what have you. For instance, to get the number of Facebook shares for my Quartz article, I just used the FB search function. Zuckerberg & Co seemed to have changed that function since, making it harder to find out how many times a specific piece of content has been shared. But often times an editor can give you some traffic numbers, or you can approximate popularity/reach by looking at how many other publications or prominent people have shared or referenced your piece. If you’re publishing through Substack or similar platforms, you’ll have much of this data already.
Maybe you don’t freelance or write a newsletter. It’s still possible to use data. You could cite short-story publications or contest wins, include blurbs from highly placed friends or acquaintances, or cite your degrees, Peace Corps experience, YouTube following, whatever. (Granted, I’ve never sold a novel. I still think all these methods may be just as applicable to fiction queries as non-fiction—that it can be a good idea to pitch yourself before you pitch your project, and to point to a possible readymade audience/market.)
Don’t have data, or have some good data but think it’s too dry? What about vivid anecdotes—any of those hanging around? It doesn’t have to be high-end or status-y. It could be an idea-origin story, or a pithy thing some stranger once said to you that changed your life and set you on the path to this particular project. Etc, etc. The point is to provide some kind of memorable color.
When it comes to the specific idea you’re presenting, focus on “proof of concept,” i.e. evidence that suggests your project has commercial potential. Has the idea already worked as a shorter piece? Are there Facebook fan groups, Quora followings, Reddit boards, physical locations or similar that are dedicated to your subject? If so, cite those numbers. Data, friends! Magic!
This might all seem dully practical, I realize. Personally, though, I always want to talk about how the sausage gets made. And speaking of Carlyle, he said that ambition is like being a dog with a kettle tied to your tail—the faster you run, the more of a clatter you raise, and so you try to solve the problem by running even faster. In other words, everyone can hear the noise. The funny thing is to imagine we can somehow hide it.
I’m ambitious! So are you if you are reading this, probably, I am just guessing! Why shouldn’t we trade notes? We might all be a tiny bit happier and more comfortable every day. Maybe more successful, too.
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A Good Link
Here’s a longer querying story from me that I wrote for Jane Friedman’s site, in case that sounds interesting.
As always, thank you for reading, and best of luck with your querying if you’re querying,
All of this is good, Catherine, and the first paragraph is a killer. Thanks for a great start to my day.
Super helpful, Cat. I'm passing it on to everyone I know who's a writer