The Art of the Query in an Ever-Changing Publishing Industry


Getting noticed in publishing is a fine and curious blend of self-marketing and a relentless worth ethic. Today, even with a proliferation of mobile devices and an explosion of publishing services, it is still incredibly difficult for an author to deliver their crafted pieces to a wide audience. Publishing is forever changing thanks in part to an exploding marketplace of mobile devices. [Photo Credit:  Image (c) Herkie. Used under Creative Commons license.]There really is no greater challenge that having an author's content get discovered. In some instances, that is how it has always been - but, with so many new tools at publisher's fingertips, readers might assume this all comes much more easily.

Today, all the same challenges apply and more. Nothing will supplant the incredible work and the fine art of crafting a well-written story.

Back in May, we wrote an article on the blog about Scribd author, Mary Yuhas, who has contributed her works — including select chapters of her memoir, Quit and be Quiet, about her growing up with a mother who had mental illness.

Yuhas has been one of the Scribd success stories - she found tremendous value in the Scribd community. With millions of publishers, readers and users, the Scribd community is a vast place to discover writers on virtually any subject. By publishing content, the users are able to discover written works and publications, share them with their Scribd community and even share them with the rest of the major social networks. By commenting and annotating publications, the users actually are able to engage in an entirely new layer of discussion about a whole plethora of topics.

For Yuhas, she was able to parlay the large amount of reads that were accumulated by her publications and chapter excerpts, and show them to literary agents.

This week, Yuhas wrote a very worthwhile article about the fine art of the query. For authors and writers, the path to literary success begins and ends with the pitch. Some writers have to pitch countless times to many, many agents facing failure and rejection at every turn. Of course, there are the few standout cases of success and stardom, but for a majority of writers, a thick-skin and the ability to turn the page to a new literary agent is key.

At scribd, a lot of writers can get to immediately gain feedback and get their work exposed to thousands. That was the case for one writer, XX, who recently cracked into the New York Times Bestseller List

We extrapolated a few of the best parts of Mary's interview two with two literary agents, Diana Fox and Harvey Klinger -- about the finer aspects of the query as well as extremely informative facts about the ever-changing publishing marketplace amidst a constantly evolving technological landscape, and how these trends impact publishing houses and platforms.

The entire interview can be read here. Do you have additional thoughts? Leave them in the comments below or by tweeting to us via Scribd.

Q. There have been enormous changes in publishing in the last ten years. Much of that has come about because of the Internet and e-books.  What changes do you anticipate in the next five years?

Fox:  I think that we’re going to see changes not just in terms of delivery, but in terms of content. More enhanced e-books and more multimedia applications. As far as the industry, I think traditional publishing will ultimately adapt, but we’re also going to see more consolidation (such as the Random House and Penguin merger) and the continuing evolution of new business models like no advance and profit sharing approaches in place of the current royalty structure.

Klinger: The e-book has been the biggest change. I saw this coming five to eight years ago, and a lot of the traditional publishers were looking upon this with enormous fear and trepidation. But publishers are now giving reading devices to all of their editors, and the whole process of how an agent submits materials to publishers has completely changed. Looking to the future, I don’t see how we can operate with publishers other than the way we always have. We supply material, and they buy and publish. Writers who can’t get an agent or those who think they can do better by themselves and keep total control are the ones who are going to self-publish.

Q. How has the role of a literary agent changed during that same time frame, and what changes do you see for agents in the future?

Fox: I think the majority of agents are wearing a lot more hats than we did in the past in terms of things like editing and helping our authors with their promotional efforts and managing their self published projects − in addition to continuing to place their work with publishers, negotiate contracts, and sell subsidiary rights − and I expect this to continue in the future. We also have to maintain our own social media presence to some extent, and as always keep up with changes in the industry, which is more challenging now given that publishing is undergoing a transformation of a kind that I don’t think we’ve seen since the advent of the mass market paperback. But one thing I believe will always be the case is that publishers will need gatekeepers and authors will need representatives whose interests are solely aligned with theirs rather than those of the publisher, and that’s what I see as the essential role of the agent.

Klinger:  The biggest changes are that some agents are going into self-publishing for their clients. I don’t see that as a role I care to have. I don’t approve of agents getting into the publication of the book. I think that’s what publishers are supposed to do. I steer my clients to a reputable e-book publisher or leave it up to them up to them if I can’t find a brick and mortar mainstream house to buy their manuscript.

Q. Are publishing houses printing fewer books, and if that is a trend, do you expect this to continue?

Fox:  The print runs of books are largely determined by how many copies retailers order, which is calculated based on expected sales. So if consumers buy fewer print editions of books and retailers order fewer print editions, publishing houses will print fewer of them. We saw a decline in sales of print books as e-book sales grew, but if you look at the publicly available data from last year, it looks like the decline in print book sales is slowing down. I think e-books and print books are both here to stay and that we will ultimately reach a stable balance point between the two, but I couldn’t predict − and don’t know if anyone can predict with certainty − where exactly that point will be.

Klinger: Absolutely. E-books are so much more cost effective. There are no warehouse costs, and they don’t have to worry about returns, the bane of publishers. You can’t return an e-book. I think you are also going to see the demise of mass market paperback books other than categories like romance and impulse buys. But plenty of publishing professionals will fight it to the death.

Q. Everyone talks about platform today.  What are the best ways for a writer to build a platform?

Fox:  You need to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction when talking about platform. For nonfiction, there are a lot of resources out there which can answer this question better than I can here, and for fiction platform doesn’t have the same importance. If there’s something in an author’s background that’s relevant to their fiction − for instance, an autobiographical aspect like an unusual profession shared by the protagonist − I think that’s worth mentioning in the submission, but the most important thing is to write a good book. Agents do sometimes sign clients we find through personal referrals or meet at writing conferences, but for the most part I don’t pay attention to writing contests unless it’s a very prestigious contest or I happen to be judging it. The same is true both for writers posting free work online on Goodreads, Scribd, etc. and for self-published books, because I just don’t have time to go looking for that stuff. Unless it comes to my attention in an organic way (like a reviewer I trust recommending it or my coming across the author online on my own) or it hits the bestseller lists, it’s not really going to be on my radar. It’s all I can do to keep up with the amount of submissions I receive, and I think this is true for most agents. That’s why the best thing for a writer to do is to send me a query and follow my submission guidelines. If an author’s self-published work has sold well enough that I think a mainstream trade publisher might be interested, that will get my attention, but the best way for the author to reach me is still to query me.

Klinger: I think writing contests, such as Amazon’s, are good only if it’s a contest that gives the writer some national exposure. A self-published novel that had sales in the 10,000 range would make me sit up and think, I’ve got to look at this. For a writer to try and launch a campaign on a book that didn’t go anywhere as an e-book or POD and hope a publisher will pick it up is not going to happen. I don’t go to conferences anymore, and neither do any of my agents. I think that getting yourself out on the Internet is really where it’s at: virtual book clubs, cyber clubs and authors blogs. Not so much Twitter.