Tips for Freelancers: How to Write a Great Query Letter

July 11, 2009 at 3:28 pm | Posted in Freelance, Publishing, Writing Craft | 6 Comments
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AFor the last two years, I’ve been Senior Editor at WOW! Women On Writing, an online magazine written by, for, and about women in the publishing industry. During my editorship, WOW! was selected for the Writer’s Digest list of “101 Best Websites for Writers” in 2008 and 2009.

This month, I announced I’m stepping down from the position to focus on my own projects: marketing my book The Break-Up Diet: A Memoir, increasing my speaking appearances at writer’s conferences and organizations, and working one-on-one with writers enrolled in my workshops and coaching programs. (And yes, starting my next book.)

But I wanted to share with freelancers a few tips I’ve compiled after reading thousands of query letters that have crossed my cyber desk.

I’ve taken a couple questions I’ve been asked and used them to present my tips:

Q: What do you consistently see that bothers you most when reading submissions?

A: My biggest irritation is when writers query without taking the time to read the publication and familiarize themselves with the content. WOW! is very obviously a women’s writing magazine focused on the craft; yet, I received countless queries about health, beauty, and fashion. Don’t submit fiction and personal essays when you see WOW! only publishes how-to articles and interviews.

Freelance Market Research 101

  • Study every section of the magazine to see what type of content they publish BEFORE you query.
  • Check the word count.

WOW! articles are content rich and more like print magazines in length. The standard 500-600 word online article is about 1500 words too short.

  • Request/review the submission guidelines of both online and print magazines to find out what the editors expect.
  • Check the editor’s desk section or masthead for the name of the person you should address in your query.

WOW!, a publication FOR women, clearly run BY women, often receives queries addressed to “Dear Sir.” It’s an immediate pass because it shows the writer is lazy and careless.

Query Submission 101

  • Run spell check, especially if you are sending an e-query. Don’t let the informal feeling of email keep you from sending a polished, professional query.
  • Read your email query aloud before you send it. You’d be surprised how much the spell check misses.

Do whatever you need to do to make sure your query is clean—correct spelling, solid grammar, and proper punctuation. If a writer doesn’t take the time and effort to make sure her query is immaculate, editors know she’ll be just as careless with her submission.

  • Bring something to the table.

WOW! often receives email from writers who say they would like to write for the magazine, but have no idea what they have to offer. Telling an editor you are a writer who wants to write is not the same thing as showing an editor you can actually do it. Know your expertise or figure it out, so you can bring something to the table. Editors are always looking for fresh voices, but you must be able to provide content that has value to the publication’s readers.

Q: After a day spent delving into the slush pile, can you tell us what compels you to accept one piece of writing over another?

A: At WOW!, there isn’t a slush pile. All queries and submissions are given equal attention and considered on their own merit. No matter which publication you query—online or print, you will be competing with freelancers who have queried on the same topic. The writer who best conveys how she will execute the proposed idea gets the assignment.

Questions an editor asks herself during your query evaluation:

  • Is the topic of interest to our readers?
  • Does the freelancer have the chops (expertise/ability) to write the article she is proposing?
  • Does she have a great hook and a fresh spin on a familiar topic?
  • Has she fully fleshed-out her idea with  an overview or outline of her intended article?
  • Has she listed her sources, or prospective sources for quotes?
  • Does she have a strong voice?
  • Has she come up with a unique title?

The magazine may choose not to use the title of your submission for the published article, but if it’s memorable—like “How to Hog-tie an Agent”—it keeps the query on our minds, rather than it getting lost in the mix with all the other queries titled: “How to Get an Agent.”

Must-Haves:

Queries should include clips or some sort of writing sample. At the very least, a link to a blog post written like an article. If you are serious about freelancing, you should have a blog that showcases your writing ability and includes a page of links to your published clips.

Show us that you know how to structure an article for the web:

  • subheadings
  • short paragraphs
  • bullet lists
  • sidebars
  • content-rich article with no excessive wordiness

Don’t send out anything less than your best work. If you expect to get paid, make sure what you write is worth the money.

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Mashable: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Social Media

May 22, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Posted in Audio/Video/Media, Social Networking | Leave a comment
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mashableWriters, if you haven’t yet taken the head-first plunge into networking and promoting yourself and your writing through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogging via WordPress or Blogger, it’s time for you to join the online revolution. For a great go-to place for social media news and information to get you up to speed, check out Mashable.

All of this “online stuff” may seem daunting to writers who spend their time in quiet seclusion, creating characters and engaging stories, or writing to share information or a message. I know a lot of you feel that in social networks there is just so much noise, so many people… The technology is advancing so quickly. How could you ever keep up? Where do you begin? What do you do to get your message out there? How do you get noticed? What is it really all about? Does any of it really matter?

The answer is—Yes, it does matter. Social media is a great way to get your message heard, to reach out to people with common interests, and to make a difference. There are so many positive reasons to embrace and participate in social networks and not a single negative reason not to.

Here’s a quick-start overview of basic tools to get you going in the right direction:

  • Explore the articles in Mashable’s How-To List
  • Carve out a piece of cyber real estate for yourself—establish a blog. (I recommend WordPress.)
  • Begin to expand your social networking circle by joining Twitter.

Twitter is one of the easiest and quickest ways to get your social networking feet wet. I wrote a post about Twitter back in August last year that also included a video tutorial. Since that time, Twitter has gone even more mainstream and has been used in so many great ways to connect with people—even by our current president!

On the personal side, Twitter has been directly responsible for my book, The Break-Up Diet: A Memoir, being optioned for adaptation to a cable television series; book sales; reviews and interviews on high-traffic websites; increased traffic on this blog; visibility and personal connection to major players in the publishing industry—and just this morning, I was surprised and excited to find myself on Mashable’s list of Nonfiction Authors to Follow on Twitter! All of it has grown organically from sharing what I’m thinking and doing, providing help when I can, commiserating and offering support, chatting about random topics, and generally enjoying the people I meet. That’s what it’s all about.

Writers, if you need some help getting yourself and your writing out there, I have an upcoming workshop, Online Author & Book Promotion, that launches in June. You can drop me an email with any questions you have or sign up on the workshops page.

Social media is here to stay. It will only get bigger and better with an incredible global reach and so many diverse and wonderful ways to use it. Check out this video interview with Mashable’s Pete Cashmore about Social Media for Social Good.
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Book Award Contests Take the Money and Run

February 9, 2009 at 2:54 pm | Posted in Promotion | 13 Comments
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cute-duckling-scamI was emailing back and forth with a new writer friend who passed on a link to me for an upcoming awards contest for self-published books. She loved my book, The Break-Up Diet: A Memoir, and thought I should enter the contest.

Now, she’s fairly new to the publishing game, so I tried to put myself back into a pair of shiny newbie shoes and see the excitement of it from her perspective—instead of looking at it through the eyes of my crusty, well-worn cynicism.

Then I thought: “Hey, wait a minute!” This snarky ol’ broad (me) has learned a thing or two by taking quite a few tricycle trips around the publishing block. So, I decided I need to warn the newbies: keep them from falling into the open manhole (er…personhole?) of wasting money and hope on award contests that don’t deliver the gift-wrapped manna from the publishing gods that they often promise.

I went to the link she provided and decided to read the contest FAQs to see what this “opportunity” was all about. Ok, I’ll be honest, I went there to gather good fodder for a blog post. And I knew I’d find it. One claim I came across made me choke on my own spit. (Don’t try to pretend you’ve never done that before.) I thought this particular claim was either wonderfully egocentric and naive, or insidiously misleading for a clueless newbie who may not know any better:

“What makes _________ Book Awards so special?
The ________ Book Awards is the only awards program of its kind because cash prizes and/or awards and maximum exposure (even possible representation) with a leading New York literary agent are given to the top 70 books entered.”

I won’t even talk about how much of a hot mess that sentence is. But, seriously? Claiming it’s the ONLY awards program of its kind?! Um…no. Not gonna fly.

The top self-pub awards: ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year (11 years); The IPPYs (13 years); Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards (17 years), and The Nautilus Book Awards* (10 years). These awards programs are actually worth entering. Long-standing proof of excellence? Yep. Respected judging panels? Got it. Industry-wide recognition? Check.

Newbies, grab a Q-tip. Clean out your wet-behind-the-ears ears and listen closely: If the awards contest you plan to enter DOES NOT have these qualities—step away from the PayPal button and go make a cup of tea. My favorite is Zen Mango with honey. Pour me a cup while you’re at it.

Here’s the deal, there are soooo many book “awards” sites that are all primed to take your money. They may be legitimate awards contests: Yes—you pay the entry fee and have the chance to win some prize money and you get a medal/trophy/ribbon or gold-plated mouse pad. And maybe a literary agent will look at your book (or maybe not, you’ll never actually know). But, no one in the industry takes those awards seriously. And while you are crossing your fingers and toes, hoping to win, the person hosting the contest is laughing all the way to the bank with your money and the money from hundreds (maybe thousands) of hopeful author/publishers just like you.

Don’t be the author who helps fund his first-class ticket to Barbados.

***

*Editor’s note: Thanks go out to a reader for catching my oversight in mentioning the Nautilus Awards in my original post. The Nautilus recognizes books that inspire spiritual growth, conscious living, and positive social change. And I can’t think of a better reason for a book award!

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Hand-sell Your Book Successfully

October 1, 2008 at 11:22 am | Posted in Promotion | 6 Comments
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When it comes to promoting your book at a festival (or a bookstore event), the most important thing you can do is reach out to readers. Your personality is what sells your book. The more approachable and engaging you are, the more likely you are to attract readers to your table.

Your goal should be twofold—to meet and form a personal bond with readers, and to sell books. The reader wants an experience. Before your story has the opportunity to whisk them away on a literary journey, you can begin the adventure by making it personal.

This last Sunday, I promoted, signed, and sold my book, The Break-Up Diet: A Memoir, at the West Hollywood Book Fair. It was my second fair this year and I really had a great time interacting with the readers and writers who came to the booth. So, I decided to offer up some tips for successfully hand-selling your book.

The biggest mistake I’ve seen authors make at book fairs that I have attended as a reader and where I have displayed as an author is when the author sits behind the table like a chunk of driftwood. Just the act of being there in-person isn’t enough.

Smile and Say Hello
Greeting someone is the #1 action that encourages people to respond favorably to you. I often ask if the person is a reader or a writer. Book events attract both. If the person responds that she is a reader, I ask what she likes to read. That opens a dialogue where you both can discuss your favorite books and you can segue into telling her why you wrote your book. If the person responds that she is a writer, I ask what she likes to write. That opens a dialogue about the writing process which gives you the opportunity to talk about writing your book.

If Your Book is Informational Rather Than Narrative Based
Open with the same smile and friendly greeting, but ask about their interest in your topic. If you’ve written about anything “how-to” from Dealing with Aging Parents to How to Break into Modeling, you can engage the person by asking about their experiences. Sharing common ground and offering tips based on your book is a great way to invest the reader in your expertise. You have information they want/need. Sharing some of that freely in conversation will encourage them to learn more from your book.

That Little Thing Called Sales
Everyone has a different style and comfort level when it comes to selling and promoting their books. I’m not a hard-sell kinda girl. I enjoy meeting people and talking to them about my story. I’d rather they have a great experience, remember me as an author who is genuine, and then buy my book later, than have them walk away feeling hustled. But that’s just me.

Just by engaging the reader, you’ve established a connection with another human being and it allows you to share about your book. The aggressive hard-sell turns off the potential reader and doesn’t encourage a good experience or a willing book purchase.

In a previous post, Promoting Your Book at A Book Fair – Part One, I suggested promotional ideas to help you create a visually attractive display and included a comprehensive list to make sure you have all the items you need for a day at the book fair. Many of these promotional items can also be used to dress-up your table at bookstore signings.

What if They Looked but Didn’t Buy?
If someone is truly interested in your story or the information you have in your book, they will buy it in their own time. Make sure you have promotional materials they can take away with them. Many readers I encountered picked up a bookmark and said they buy their books on Amazon, so they can get the discount and free shipping. So, remember your twofold goal—bond and sell. If you’ve established a solid connection with the reader when you met them, and they didn’t buy immediately, the sale will come later when they are ready.

Follow Up
If you’ve followed my suggestion to have a guestbook on your table (Promoting – Part One), remember to ask the readers who buy your book (and the people who are interested in your story, but didn’t purchase a book) to sign your guestbook and leave their city and email address. Offer to let them know when you will be in their area and tell them you will let them know when your next book comes out. If you have a reading group type book, offer to do a Q&A with their group. For an informational book, offer to do a seminar for their group or organization. It can be in-person or a telechat.

Once you return home, enter their email addresses into your database and send them a quick note to say you enjoyed meeting them, include a link to your book website, and invite them to follow you on your social networks.

It’s all about making a connection. No matter where you promote and sell your book, you want to make sure to leave a positive and lasting impression on your reader. They will become your biggest word-of-mouth marketers and they will be there to support you when your next book comes out.

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