Before I got published, I only knew one meaning for queries: a one page letter that a writer sends to a book publisher or agent, describing a book and asking if the publisher or agent might be interested. That sort of query is, in essence, a sales pitch. I often pictured myself like Bob Cratchit, the father of Tiny Tim, hat in hand approaching Ebenezer Scrooge and on bended knee begging for a lump of coal.
Of course, in reality, publishers are not scrooges. But they are businesses. When they look at an offered book, be it fiction or non-fiction, the big question on their minds is a very simple one: will it sell.
“Is it good,” may pop into their heads at some point, but that does not necessarily have anything to do with the money question. Great literature does not necessarily sell well. Compare the ratings of
America’s Top Model with Masterpiece Theatre. If you’re a business, your goal is making money. So which do you think a business would pick if it had to choose?
Therefore, if you want to make it as a writer, find something that is commercially viable. You can do the great literary work of art that makes reviewers swoon later, after you’ve made money for your publisher. Only when you can sell anything just because your name is on the cover can you afford to do art.
But hat in hand begging is not the only meaning of the word “query.” There is another meaning, a scary meaning that published authors dread. After you’ve sold your book to a publisher, and your editor tells you how wonderful it is, and after they’ve sent you money, then along will come a dreadful word: “but.”
Whether you’ve done a work of fiction, or a work of non-fiction, the editor will pass your manuscript around her office—and in the case of some works, around the country and across oceans. This also happens even for books that the publisher came to you, hat in hand, and queried you to write.
These people who read what you’ve written, who are not your editor, especially these people who are outside experts—will comment on your work, ask questions, demand verification, and point out all the flaws in your beautiful, utterly perfect baby…um book.
After finishing the manuscript in 2008 that became The Bible’s Most Fascinating People I received a stack of such queries from my editor in London. Meanwhile, the publisher in New York had hired a theologian to go over my book and her comments and questions had now come back to my editor. So she was now passing them on to me. These queries added up to twenty-seven typed pages. They had arrived on my editor’s desk mostly as handwritten notes. So my poor editor had carefully and thoughtfully typed them up for me. The bulk of that page count was the consequence of the theologian quoting me and then commenting, or asking a question.
My editor told me, “It doesn’t look too bad.”
“Oh, what a cute baby.” Long pause. “Did you notice it had an ugly wart on her nose?”
Okay, maybe it wasn’t really so harsh. In fact, the bulk of the queries were regarding issues of spelling, or terms to use, or the occasional typo. Sometimes she had questions along the lines of, “are you sure that’s what the Bible says?” Or, “have you considered this other way of looking at things?” And then sometimes she thought it would be good to give a reference.
Of the hundred Bible characters that made up my book, less than half had generated any comments, and so it took me only a pair of eight hour days and skipped meals to respond to all the issues and email them back to my editor. My editor’s take on the queries was “I always find queries like this a bit frustrating, and am tempted to answer, ‘No, I just made it up for the fun of it’ when faced with a query like ‘True?’ over and over again. But then sometimes inaccuracies are caught that way, so you have to bite your tongue.”
I was pleased to learn that I wasn’t alone in feeling annoyed with some of the queries. My editor was pleased with my responses. Of course, three weeks later more queries arrived from New York.
The next step in the march toward a printed book was getting the galley proofs that were the actual printed, but unbound, pages of the book. My editor in London, the publisher in New York, and I all got a set. Our task was then to pour over them carefully, mostly to check for typos. Proofreading of that sort is not a whole lot of fun, either, but instead of doing plastic surgery on your baby, at that point it’s mostly just checking to see that her clothes are not on backward and that her hands and face are clean—and perhaps dealing with that odd smell coming from her backside.
Of course, after the book is published and sitting on the shelves, it’s only then that you’ll notice your baby has mismatched socks on her feet. No matter what, you’ll never catch all the errors—until it’s too late.