Query Letter Expert Mark Malatesta
Recognized as the premier query letter expert, Mark Malatesta has helped 300+ authors get offers of representation from literary agents. Writers of all genres–fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books–have used Mark’s advice about How to Write a Query Letter.
Mark first became skilled at writing query letters during his time serving as a literary agent. As a book agent, Mark helped many authors such as New York Time bestseller Harry Harrison, Jr. (Father to Daughter) launch their writing careers.
In 2011, Mark Malatesta began using his knowledge of the publishing industry to help authors get literary agents. Hundreds of authors have used Mark’s literary agent advice to improve their query letters and get offers of representation.
Click here to see Reviews of Mark Malatesta.
Mark Malatesta – Success Story by Miri Leshem-Pelly
AHHH! OMG, it happened! I’m really excited to tell you that my literary agent got offers from multiple publishers and my book deal was announced this week on Publishers Weekly! I can hardly believe it.
I signed with Kane Miller, a division of EDC publishing. Their sales reps sell to all major retail outlets, including bookstores, gift stores, museums, etc. They also have a direct sales division made up of nearly 18,000 independent sales consultants who sell their books to schools and libraries, and at home parties, fundraising events and school book fairs.
After that, my agent sold my next book to Philomel, a division of Penguin Books.
As you know, I got three offers for representation from top literary agents in the United States for my first book, even though I live abroad! When I woke up and found the first offer for representation in my email in box, I wanted to scream. But my family was still asleep so I couldn’t. 🙂
Pt 2 – MLP Success Story
Just 8 minutes after I sent a query letter to one of my favorite agents, she replied and asked to see my manuscript. A short time later we had a lovely conversation. She was interested in representing me and sounded very positive and enthusiastic about my book.
Since I also got offers from two other agents, I had to turn two of them down. One of them was upset and it felt like I was breaking her heart, but you just have to do it. I kept reminding myself that this is a good problem to have!
The whole process of getting a contract only took 18 days from the time I started sending out queries. It would have even happened a lot sooner but, for some reason, my agent didn’t get the manuscript when I sent it the first time!
I tried to get an agent before, without Mark.
Now I know why. I would never have written anything close to what Mark suggested in my query letter. He says things in the most attractive way, very convincing. Working with Mark also gave me the confidence I had what it takes. That was very helpful.
Pt 3 – MLP Success Story
I put everything into the process because I trusted Mark’s procedure. I just kept going and going and never looked back no matter what. Even when I got rejections I didn’t care, they didn’t hurt me because they didn’t hurt my confidence.
Without Mark I would have kept taking one step forward and two steps backwards, thinking it wasn’t going to happen. That’s what I did before. I would send out 6 or 7 queries and get rejections or nothing coming back. Then I’d think, okay, I probably don’t have a chance. I stopped. I was stuck.
Mark also helped me make small, but important, changes to my manuscript. For example, I realized that my main character needed to solve her own problems instead of having someone else solve them for her. I also got clearer about the message in my book, and the best way to talk about it in the query.
Researching agents can also be overwhelming. When I did it on my own in the past, I didn’t know how to choose the best agents. There are so many. Mark created a list just for my book and divided the agents up into different groups and showed me how to choose. This was a very important part of the process because it’s personal, and it really helped me.
Pt 4 – MLP Success Story
I also appreciated how much Mark communicated with me. He was helpful every step of the way, someone I could rely on through every little situation. Many times I was confused and not sure what to do and Mark answered me quickly and knew what I should do.
The most surprising thing about working with Mark was how fast I got an agent, and the fact that I got several agents interested. I saw other people saying that in the testimonials on Mark’s website, but I didn’t really think it was going to happen to me. So now it is my honor to add my success story to the long list of testimonials I’ve read on Mark’s website. 🙂
Those testimonials helped me decide to work with Mark. I saw different people in different stages of their career and different situations and they all ended up very satisfied with a lot of success. This was very inspiring and reassuring. They also said that Mark is a nice person to work with and very encouraging, which is completely true.
Mark also came into my life at the right point in time, as I said before, when I was stuck and not moving. For several months I didn’t do anything but my dream wouldn’t let go. It was nagging me and I couldn’t just continue to do nothing.
Thank you so much Mark for everything!
MIRI LESHEM-PELLY is author/illustrator of the picture book Penny and the Plain Piece of Paper (Penguin Books/Philomel), Scribble & Author (Kane Miller/EDC), and many other children’s picture books
Miri shared the above success story about Mark Malatesta after working him to improve her manuscript and query letter. She got representation offers from multiple literary agents, followed by a publishing contract with Kane Miller/EDC. Miri’s second book was then acquired by Philomel, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Miri’s deal was announced in Publishers Weekly and her publisher made her book a lead title. They printed a 20,000-copy first print run, created a promotional video trailer, and committed to a book tour in the United States (even though Miri lives abroad). Miri shares her tips for authors hoping to get published, and more about her experience working with Mark, here:
What Others Are Saying About Query Letter Coach and Former Literary Agent Mark Malatesta
Miri Leshem-Pelly Interview with Query Letter Coach Mark Malatesta (Text and Audio)
During this 67-minute interview with Mark Malatesta, author Miri Leshem-Pelly talks about her journey to get her children’s picture books, Scribble & Author (Kane Miller/EDC) and Penny and the Plain Piece of Paper (Penguin Books/Philomel), published. Miri also shares her suggestions for authors of all book genres–not just children’s books–about the best way to write, publish, and promote their books.
M I R I . L E S H E M . P E L L Y
Mark Malatesta: Miri Leshem-Pelly is the author and illustrator of more than a dozen children’s books. She’s also illustrated 14 books for other writers.
Miri recently got three offers from top literary agents in the United States for her new picture book, even though she lives in Israel. Then she got multiple offers from publishers, and her book deal was announced at PublishersWeekly.com. Miri’s publisher is Kane Miller, a division of EDC Publishing. Their sales rep sell to all major retail outlets, including bookstores, gift stores, and museums. They also have a direct sales division, made up of nearly 18,000 independent sales consultants that sell their books to schools and libraries, and at home parties, fundraising events, and school book fairs.
Miri’s latest book, Scribble and Author, is a fun and highly original picture book written with dialogue between the main character and the author. The story introduces the hero’s journey to children, showing them they have the power to choose their destiny. The author’s role is like that of a loving parent, helping Scribble see the opportunities in front of her.
Scribble’s journey starts on a peaceful shore, called the beginning. But things get rough when Scribble walks through a gate to the middle. She learns to be brave and resourceful though using tools to find creative solutions for her challenges. Finally, when all seems lost, Scribble opens the door to the ending. But, of course, it’s not what she expected…
When Miri isn’t writing, she can be found speaking at schools, kindergartens, and libraries. She’s published columns, articles, and short stories online and in magazines, received countless positive reviews, been featured in major print and online media, and appeared on TV and radio.
Miri has also done nationwide book tours in the U.S. and Israel. She’s a regional adviser for SCBWI and participates at their conferences, and she served as the chairperson of the Israeli Association of Illustrators. Miri’s most successful work today has sold more than 50,000 copies.
You can learn more about Miri, and of course, get a copy of her books, including Scribble and Author by simply going to Google and typing in Miri Leshem-Pelly, or you can just go to Google and type in Scribble and Author.
So, welcome Miri!
Pt. 2 – MLP Interview with Mark Malatesta
MLP: Hello Mark! How are you?
Mark Malatesta: I’m good. Welcome, from the other side of the world. It’s wonderful to finally be doing this.
MLP: Hello from Israel! Yes.
Mark Malatesta: So, alright, so let’s just dive right in. I know that I already told everybody a little bit about you, and a little bit about your book, but is there anything else you want to add?
MLP: Yes. Well, you didn’t so much talk about the illustrations, which are a very important part in this book, and right from the start, from this summation, I submitted it as an author/illustrator, with illustrations. And there is one thing unique about the illustrations that I did for this book. They are done in a combination, between the handmade illustrations of watercolor and pencil. And, there are photographs of real, everyday objects. So, the idea behind this is to let the reader feel as if he is looking over the shoulder of that creator of this book. When you’re reading the book, you see how it’s created with the tools, with a pencil, and brush, and other things that are photographed.
Mark Malatesta: I love it. It’s such a hard one to explain. I was wondering how you were going to do that, but you did good, and it was tricky pitching the literary agents, too, of course. It was like, “Well, let’s see if we can get them to agree to looking at a PDF, rather than just sending them the text, because it’s not going to make sense with just the text.”
Alright. I also wanted to add, we don’t have to spend a lot of time on it, but I’m just so happy because, prior to the interview, you and I were catching up a little bit, and you gave me a couple updates letting me know the book has already been listed as one of the publisher’s leading titles. They’re already interested in talking to you about more books, and talking about a book tour. So, it’s kind of like a dream come true. Right?
MLP: Exactly. Yes.
Mark Malatesta: Alright. So, let’s do this, let’s take a moment, for everybody listening, since you know that a lot of people listening to this, they’re a couple steps behind you and they want to do what you’ve done…let’s start with the end goal in mind, and then we’ll go back to the beginning of how you got there. Talk for a minute or two about, you know, where you were, how you responded, when you got the news first that you had multiple literary agents interested, and then when you finally signed with a literary agent. And then, also, how you responded when you got the news that you had the publishing deal, because that’s what everybody is hoping for.
Pt. 3 – MLP Interview with Mark Malatesta
MLP: Right. Well, you know what, this whole journey from the beginning, when I started and then until now, it was really like a roller coaster. So, it had a lot of ups and downs and if we’re talking about the high points, it’s not just one. I had several very important high points of real celebration. And, each one of them was another big step. Like, wow, it’s really happening! I especially remember the first positive email I got from a literary agent, one that I didn’t end up with, but she was so excited and I will never forget this line when she said, “I read your book, and I’m in love, and I want to represent you.” So, it was like, wow, this is a dream, right?
So, I just read that sentence again and again, like wow, it’s happening. But it wasn’t the end of it. There were other high points, other wonderful moments and that moment when I had a positive response from a publisher, and then, as you know, that moment when the contract was signed, and all those wonderful moments of ongoing celebration from it. So, yes, it’s really an unbelievable feeling.
Mark Malatesta: As you know, another thing I was telling you before the interview, was that you really paid your dues, so on one hand your success came as no surprise. But, on the other hand, we both know how hard it is just to get literary agents, just one literary agent, paying attention, let alone several. And then, you know, to get to the next step, for the literary agent to make it happen with publishers, but the stars all aligned for you and that was that.
MLP: And it happened very fast. So, it’s really, really exciting.
Mark Malatesta: I always joke and say picture book authors have a tremendous advantage, because the books are so short, usually less than a thousand words–so it doesn’t take as long for literary agents and publishers to read them and decide. Unlike a 100,000-word novel.
MLP: Yes. And mine is, I think, less than 400.
Mark Malatesta: Right, but it doesn’t mean they’re any less difficult to write, correct?
MLP: Oh, no, I wrote it so many times, over and over again, that I could have been writing a novel.
Mark Malatesta: And it’s every step of the way, right? So, you had it done and then I wanted you to make changes, and then your literary agent wanted to make some changes. Did the publisher make you make a couple of changes too?
MLP: No. No. Surprisingly, she said it’s just perfect.
Pt. 4 – MLP Interview with Mark Malatesta
Mark Malatesta: Good, good, very nice. Alright, so, since you know like a big part of what we’re doing today is presenting everything that’s happened for you, as a case study, so other authors can learn from you and model you a little bit, let’s go back now to the beginning of your journey now, way before this book deal, way before you and I ever met and started working together. When did you first get the idea that you might be an author and or illustrator, and which came first?
MLP: Okay, so, if I go back to my childhood, I was a very creative kid and I loved writing and drawing, and other creative things. And I did it a lot. I had my first, you know, story illustrated, a story I wrote when I was in first grade, and I never stopped doing it. I really loved reading books, which is very you know, it makes sense. But, I didn’t think that I was going to be an author, or an illustrator, at that point. It didn’t even come to my mind.
Mark Malatesta: Right.
MLP: Later, I studied art. So, I was going in this direction, and then I became an illustrator, and I illustrated my first two books. They were so terrible that I thought, Oh no, I don’t want to illustrate these kind of books anymore. I want to illustrate much better books. How can I do it? And then I thought, Well, I always loved writing, I always do it as a hobby. Why don’t I write my own book? And that’s how I started writing my first book. It began as an illustrator. And then I started writing and illustrating. And for me, right now, this is one thing. It’s not two separate things. I just create a book with everything in it. Picture books mostly.
Mark Malatesta: And it’s really unusual, I mean, for any aspiring picture book authors out there listening. There’s a lot of confusion sometimes, and you’ll get this from literary agents, but most picture book authors are not illustrators whatsoever. I mean, they’re just writing the text, and then either an illustrator that works with the literary agent or publisher that you end up with usually comes in, but most picture book authors aren’t author/illustrators. So, I don’t want people to think they have to do it all.
MLP: No, but if you really love doing both, or if you’re good at both, it’s the best. It’s just the best. Also, I think that today I see that many publishers really look for people who are author and illustrator. They really love working with someone who can do the whole deal.
Mark Malatesta: It makes it a little easier. But it’s extremely rare that you’re going to have somebody that can do both very well. And there are a lot of picture book authors I talk to that, you know, their text is strong but when they show me some of their doodles, I say, “You know what, I think we should probably just send out the text.” And then, once you’ve signed with your literary agent, if you get a literary agent, then show them your art and see what they want to do because art is very subjective right? And there’s a range, like there are some things, like we all might think are beautiful, and someone else thinks are ugly, and the other way around. You just never know. But the text–the text is clean, and people can add their own images in their mind. So, it’s usually a safer place to start, unless it’s someone like you. And, clearly, your art is incredible.
MLP: I also think it’s important to stay open, that if you’re writing and illustrating, to think about the possibility that a publisher or literary agent might like your writing or illustrating. So, it’s important to be open to that possibility.
Pt. 5 – MLP Interview with Mark Malatesta
Mark Malatesta: Yes, and I know I’m jumping ahead here, but I was just going to say, I always say that authors shouldn’t always illustrate, even if they’re illustrators. And you shouldn’t hire an illustrator. Because, again, your literary agent or publisher may not like it. I mean, someone like you, you’re experienced, it’s fine. But I tell most people, “Listen, your book’s going to be edited, and then the publisher is going to change the layout. And even though you might be the illustrator they want, they might also want you to do different things, so don’t spend hundreds of hours illustrating prematurely, you know?” Right?
MLP: Right. No, no, they really ask that if you are sending dummy of the picture book with words and illustrations, then don’t complete it, send it as mostly as sketches, or only like two or three finished. It’s important.
Mark Malatesta: And now for you, you’re able to get away with it, because you have more experience and a better sense of what it’s going to be. But most people, I think they’re going to have a bigger learning curve.
Mark Malatesta: Okay, is there anything you want to talk about regarding other types of writing that you did before you started writing your picture books?
MLP: Well actually, my first book was, I was 26 when it was published, and it was the first writing, you know, thing that I did. It was immediately a book. But, after that, I did some more projects, like I wrote for magazines…but mostly, it was my books. I have fiction and nonfiction books, a lot about nature. Nature is my favorite subject, even though it’s not the subject of this specific book.
Mark Malatesta: I don’t know if I ever asked you this before, but how did you get the idea for Scribble and Author?
MLP: Well, it’s funny. The first thing that I did, before I wrote this book was decide that I wanted to be published in the United States. It really started from there.
Mark Malatesta: Really?
MLP: Yes. I just decided. Like you say on your websites, “Getting published isn’t luck, it’s a decision.”
Mark Malatesta: Right.
MLP: It’s really, this is how it worked for me. First I just marked my goal: I want to be published in the United States. Then I said, “What I want to publish is a picture book that I’m going to write, and illustrate, and I’m going to write it in English, and I’m going to publish it.” It was just a decision. And then I said, “Okay, what kind of book do I want to do?” And I felt that I wanted to do something fun. I just wanted to have fun. I didn’t know where it was going to take me, so I just sat with the paper and started doodling all kind of characters. Then I found myself wondering, What if I could talk with my characters and ask them where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do? Maybe they could take me somewhere. And from that moment I started dialoguing with them, and that’s how this book was created, by writing a dialogue between the author and the character. So, I just started from let’s have fun, from a place of let’s see what happens.
Pt. 6 – MLP Interview with Mark Malatesta
Mark Malatesta: Pre-interview, you and I were talking about a talk that you’re going to be giving later in Israel. I know so many of my clients live here in the U.S. But, I also have a huge number of them who live outside, and so your success story means a little more to me in that way, because you’re outside the U.S. When you live in a country outside the U.S. you wonder if it’s at all possible because it’s harder to get in the U.S. if you don’t live there. So, explain a little bit of your thinking about that, and why it’s more difficult.
MLP: Okay, so first, it’s the publishing industry. I know so much about the publishing industry in Israel. I know what is working, and how it’s working. And I know about the stories, and about the publishers, and I know so much about the Israeli market. But, I don’t live in the United States. So even though I try to learn about it, through reading and blogs and conferences and other things. But it’s not the same, I don’t live there, I don’t feel it. So, it seems scarier, like an unknown territory. You think, “Why would any American publisher look at me, and what if I don’t understand the mentality, or how things work?” And, so, I felt insecure about presenting myself to literary agents in the United States. In Israel, I feel safe when I write. I know everything, but approaching the United States seemed very hard, an almost impossible step to make. But, for years, I just had the feeling that I was going to do it.
Mark Malatesta: A lot of authors feel that way, even in the U.S. They feel like publishing is an alien world, an impossible world, and it’s even harder approaching the U.S. from another country.
MLP: Right. Yes, there’s so much to learn, before you can do it.
Mark Malatesta: Alright, so let me ask you this: Everybody–and I love asking this next question because every author is different–it’s basically about your quote/unquote author education. Some authors are self-taught completely. Others do a lot of things formally, whether it’s classes, workshops, getting a Master of Fine Arts degree, or something like that. What did you do along the way, other than working with me to become a better writer or illustrator and learn the business?
MLP: Well, I did read some books about writing and about illustrating, and I went to some conferences in the United States. You said earlier that I’m in SCBWI, which is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I’m their original advisor in Israel. So, I flew to the United States, to the SCBWI New York conference and to their Los Angeles conference. I learned a lot at the conferences, about how to write better, the publishing world, and American publishing. I also did an online course through the Children’s Book Academy that was great.
There is a craft to the business of picture books and it was a very, very thorough course. I learned a lot, and, actually, I wrote Scribble and Author during the course. They want you to start working on a new manuscript and bring it to the course, and work on it during the course. So, my book is the result of that wonderful course, and I really want to recommend it to everybody who is listening and is writing for children. I also recommend that children’s book authors join SCBWI because it’s the best thing you can do for your own career. I really love the organization and it’s been helpful for me every step of my way.
Pt. 7 – MLP Interview with Mark Malatesta
Mark Malatesta: I love what you’ve done to study writing, art, and the publishing industry. So many people get stuck in their art, the intuition piece, or the creative part of writing. But without learning and seeing structure and rules and the business of writing, you only know part of what you need to know.
MLP: It’s very important. Yes.
Mark Malatesta: So, let’s talk about your best advice for authors about how to write a book. Share your best general tips that would help authors of any genre that’s great, and anything you have for picture book authors or book authors or books for younger readers in general.
MLP: I think the most important thing is to choose a topic or genre that you’re very passionate about. I think it’s very important, because you have to realize, when you dive into writing a book, even if it’s a short picture book, it’s a long process. If you don’t really, really love the subject, you’re going to suffer and you’re going to leave it. So, choose something you’re excited about and love. It’s also very important to be open to changes and be flexible during your process.
Even without showing someone else, even when you’re just working in revising your own story, sometimes you feel like, you know, you’re falling in love with a part of your story and you think, Oh, it’s so perfect, I don’t want to change it. But the story really requires that you change it, so you have to stay open and see where it takes you. It’s also important to write for yourself. You’re the first audience, and you have to like what you’re writing. Don’t try to write for some mysterious audience. Write for yourself, first of all.
Mark Malatesta: I love that.
MLP: Really, it’s something that I learned the hard way. I mean it’s so–you’re writing, writing, writing and then you end up with a very long story. And then you have to take the essence of the story, and because a picture book is really short and it’s, so you really have to know how to let go. And you have to erase many of those things. One more piece of advice that I want to say to writers of all genres–and it’s my best advice–is to join a critique group. I’m in a critique group and it’s so helpful. I get a lot of feedback that’s very important and I learn so much.
Mark Malatesta: And you’re getting positive feedback, not just constructive criticism. Talk about that aspect. Some people are probably like, “What do you mean? You’ve published 13, 14 books, and you’re with a major publisher. Why in the world would you need to kind of continue to do that?” How would you answer that?
MLP: Well, it never ends. Every story, every book, is a completely new world and learning curve. Each time I learn a new thing and you never stop learning. If you stop learning, you’re going backwards. I mean, you should always continue to learn and be open to critique. And, it’s a very encouraging environment to be part of a critique group.
Mark Malatesta: If you’re in a good one.
MLP: Yes, yes, yes. Of course, if you feel bad then it’s not for you.
Mark Malatesta: I think you and I are the same. Whatever you do in life, there’s going to be a learning curve forever. You can be in denial about it, embrace it, or at least tolerate it. But it’s much more fun to think, “Okay, I’m going to enjoy this journey and enjoy the learning.” Otherwise, you’ll just get frustrated because life’s never going to behave, and it’s not always going to be easy or happen the way you want.
MLP: I love learning all the time.
Pt. 8 – MLP Interview with Mark Malatesta
Mark Malatesta: So, let’s talk about publishing now. It’s an epidemic these days in that everybody just wants to press the button and self-publish and be published overnight. And for some people, in some situations, that’s okay. Most of the time, however, that just leads to those authors being frustrated and then later trying to go traditional. So, walk everyone through your thought process about that. Why did you decide to go after traditional publishers through literary agents instead of just self-publishing?
MLP: With all 13 or so my books in Israel, I always published with a traditional publisher. I never wanted to even try self-publishing. There are several reasons, I think. First, when I started as an illustrator, I happened to work with several others who did it as self-publishing. So, I witnessed what happened. All that procedure of producing a book is fine, if you do it correctly. You need a good editor and designer. But even if you do everything perfect, like the authors I saw, at the end of the project, they still had many boxes full of books in their garages. They weren’t thinking ahead about how to sell them. It’s so hard to market and to distribute. And, I didn’t want to do all that. And the chances of reaching a big audience are so small when you take the self-publishing route.
I also see that many of self-published books are just not good enough. So, even if your book is good, if you self-publish it, people are going to treat it with suspicion. I believed in myself and in my books, so I wanted traditional publishing. I’ve had several books rejected, over and over, and sometimes I realized, okay, this book is just not good enough. So, I’m not saying that you’ll always succeed. Sometimes you need to continue until you find the right publisher, the one who says yes, but sometimes you might realize a book isn’t good enough and you need to put it aside for a while, instead of printing it, and start a new one.
Mark Malatesta: That’s the voice of an experienced, mature author, because someone listening to this who just finished their first book can’t comprehend that, but it gets easier the more you’ve written. You become less attached because you know you’re good and you know have other books that are successful or will be. So, it’s a little easier to let go. Right?
MLP: Right. Yes. Maybe.
Mark Malatesta: Never easy, but easier. So, let’s talk about marketing. You’re unique in this sense as well. You’re not someone, like most of the people I interview during case studies like this, who’ve just published their first book. You’ve been around the block. You’re also well networked and part of SCBWI. So, what’s the best marketing advice you have for authors, for authors before they’ve gotten anything published, or for those whose work is out there already. What are some things you think are most valuable for authors to think about or do?
MLP: What’s working for me most is school visits and art visits. I do it a lot, and I personally, I like doing it. I enjoy presenting, and I enjoy the meeting children. So, I see it as a win/win situation because recently this has become my income. My main income is from all the lectures and workshops I’m doing as an author. So, there I am marketing my books during school visits, because many of the schools are buying my books, and the kids themselves buy my books after they hear me talk. So, that’s working very well.
I also worked with the marketing guy at my publishing house in Israel to make flyers with a special offer discount. I give those to the kids at every school I visit. It was unbelievable, a major success, because many kids, you know, after they hear an author, want to buy the book. If they have something in their hand they can show their parents, it’s good.
Pt. 9 – MLP Interview with Mark Malatesta
Mark Malatesta: I love that. I mean the simpler lesson through all that is there’s often a way to kind of–rather than just working harder–to kind of take a step back, whether it’s you know, on your own or with help, like a part of a critique group, or a mastermind group, or a coach or whatever, and see a smarter way to kind of put out the same amount of energy, but get to a three, five, or ten times better return on your investment of time.
MLP: Yes. Yes.
Mark Malatesta: And that, for you, when you talked earlier about how you took a moment and you thought, Okay, wait a minute I could just keep publishing books here in Israel, or I could take a risk, try to create a new book that’s going to reach a bigger market, maybe a global market. Then, all of a sudden, that book could sell ten times as many copies and lead to animation or movie stuff. The ripple effect can be huge.
MLP: Exactly. Yes. For me I see my career, you know, I built it with step after step, so I always look ahead to see how can I move forward in doing something for a bigger audience. What’s my next move?
Mark Malatesta: I love that. Alright. So, let’s talk for a bit now about what you and I did together, so everyone listening can get a better sense of how author coaching works, and for me, I’m going to keep underscoring for everybody that what’s most important is the idea of getting help, period. Getting help outside of yourself and outside of your circle, whether it’s with me or someone else. Get someone who has perspective you don’t have, to help you grow and get to the next level, because none of us does anything truly great without influence from someone else. So, let’s start with what motivated you to work with me in the first place.
MLP: Well, as I said earlier, I was very insecure about reaching out to the United States, but after being there, at the two conferences, hearing literary agents speak, I tried to contact some of them. I think I submitted my work to maybe seven of them, but I didn’t get anything back. I mean, some of them sent me a rejection, but some I never heard from. I think what made me contact you most was that I felt like I was afraid to make a mistake. Maybe I wasn’t doing something right. So maybe I should speak with someone.
Mark Malatesta: I love that. We talked about this earlier, when you’re talking about being part of a critique group, even though you already have more than a dozen successful books out there. You can always keep learning. I look at it the same way. I don’t know whether this makes people trust me more, or less, but I don’t think you should ever get cocky or overconfident. I’ve [now helped hundreds of] authors get literary agents, but I stay open and humble, because every project, every situation, is different. So, I treat my process the same way.
Like I told you, right before you we started sending out your first round of queries, I was excited and positive. But I also wanted us to both be cautiously optimistic because you never really know what’s going to happen. I mean, I was pretty sure we’d get there, but until you’re out there in the trenches, you don’t know. It might take ten months for something to happen, or, the way it turned out for you, it went really quickly. I prefer that, of course, and that’s more likely to happen if you get help. The sooner you do, you can catch some of the subtle things that gets lost sometimes doing things on your own. You can avoid grinding it out. And you can avoid burning bridges with literary agents.
Okay, so we talked about what you tried to do before we worked together. Now let’s talk about what we did during your introductory coaching call, which we did by Skype since you live in Israel. I looked at your stuff in advance, and then we talked about it. Can you explain your experience so everyone listening can understand it?
MLP: Yes. Well, first, before our talk you sent me a very long questionnaire. With many questions.
Pt. 10 – MLP Interview with Mark Malatesta
Mark Malatesta: Don’t say how many, I don’t want to scare anyone away.
MLP: Okay. It took me a long time, but it was so interesting to fill it out and get all the necessary information, because it really, you know, directed me to what’s important, and what I need to know. There was so much there, even before the coaching call, and then you let me to choose like three major things that I most wanted to talk about. The call was very helpful. It organized my thoughts. I really understood where I was going, and what needed to be done. It was very good. At first I thought maybe the one call was going to be enough for me, that I could then continue on my own. I got many useful tools, only from the one call, but later I thought that it would be best to continue with you and get even more important things. I’m really glad I did continue, but even the first call was very helpful.
Mark Malatesta: I love the way you described that for everyone, because I work hard to try to make it that way for people during that first call. I tell everyone before the call, “You don’t have to be nervous about whether we’re going to do more together and it’s not going to affect what we do, because this isn’t going to be a ‘teaser’ call. I’m going to tell you everything I can, so that if this is the only time we have together, it’s going to help you move forward.”
The only difference between someone who does that first call with me, and someone who does more with me, is that I’m able to help authors implement everything we talk about, at the highest level, and I’m there as a safety net to make sure, like, in your case, when you had three literary agents interested, that you knew what to do and make the best choices, without blowing it.
MLP: Yes. Now I can’t imagine doing all those things alone. I mean, even if I had done everything on my own, I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten the same result. I mean, maybe I would have gotten a literary agent. But maybe not this one. Yes. It made a lot of difference, I’m sure. And, feeling safe and getting encouragement all the way. It was so important to have someone to talk to, someone to consult with, every step of the way. We also worked on my story, with a lot of revising to make it perfect for submission. I remember one, for example, one very good [piece of] advice you gave me that really helped my story when you said, “It’s important that the main character solve her own problems.” Do you remember that?
Mark Malatesta: Oh, yes, especially for books for younger readers.
MLP: There were other things, too, but that’s the one I really remember. Then, after that, we worked on the query letter, and it was very surprising for me how much I learned about that, because I really thought that, you know, I already knew how to do it.
Mark Malatesta: How would you describe the difference between your old query letter–and what you’ve seen out there–taught by other experts, and what your final query letter looked like, the one we worked on together?
MLP: Well, as you know, I was thinking about it, and I think it’s like I learned that writing the right query is like choosing the right dress, because when you go to the store, and you’re choosing the right dress, you want to present yourself at your best, and a good dress is showing what needs to be shown and covering what needs to be covered. And really, it just makes you look a million dollars, right? So, that’s how you should treat your query letter, because there are things you don’t have to say. And for me it was something that I really learned from you how you did it. It’s not that I didn’t like or I, you know, that the query letter was 100 percent incorrect. But there are ways to say things, and what to emphasize and write to cover and write. It’s really an art.
Pt. 11 – MLP Interview with Mark Malatesta
Mark Malatesta: It is an art form, kind of like the first time you’re meeting someone that you might be romantically interested in. You know you’re not sharing all your baggage and bad habits–anything that’s going to hurt your chances. You’re putting your best foot forward, trying to make yourself look as good as you can, without deception. Or it’s like a resume for a job. And that’s the problem with books or websites–even mine–about how to get a literary agent or write a query letter. You can learn a lot from a book or website, but every person, every book, is completely different. So, there were things I was able to emphasize about you and your work [in your query letter] that I wouldn’t have been able to say about someone else.
There’s only so much of a formula you can use. Then you need personalization. And I have a special place in my heart for the picture book authors I work with. It’s a more intimate process to me because there are so few words in a picture book, that any changes I suggest have a major impact. I always tiptoe around that a bit initially, to make sure the author trusts me first. I want them to realize I don’t have any agenda except to help them make their stories and writing better. It can be hard for some authors, so I admire and appreciate each author’s willingness to be open, especially someone like you who’s already a well-published author. Then I come along, I’ve known you for five minutes, and I start telling you what you should do. I know that’s not easy.
MLP: Yes, but it’s important for authors to put their ego aside and remember that what’s important is the story. Not the author. The story. I always want the story to be perfect, so that’s what I keep in mind.
Mark Malatesta: Remind me, how fast did getting a literary agent happen for you? I’m going to ask you, because you’re one of the ones that it happened pretty quickly for. It doesn’t happen that way for most authors.
MLP: Yes. I remember it was at the beginning of a month that I started submitting. And, by the end of the month, I was signed.
Mark Malatesta: I have to qualify that though. Most authors who work with me, within a week or two of sending out the first round of queries, get some kind of positive feedback, but I don’t want anybody to expect that they’re going to get a literary agent that fast. You were able to get a literary agent that quickly, partly because you were pitching a picture book. Literary agents can read your book and decide in a few minutes. Most books take a lot longer. So, anybody listening to this who’s in the grind right now, sending out things waiting for literary agents, be patient. If it’s not happening quickly, whether you’re working with me or not, like don’t get discouraged by stories like this. Instead, get inspired. The more people you see who are being successful should help you focus on the positive, that it could happen for you as well–five minutes, five days, five weeks, or five months from now.
MLP: Yes, I was willing to do more if I needed…
Mark Malatesta: Now you’re off the hook.
MLP: I thought, I will never give up.
Pt. 12 – MLP Interview with Mark Malatesta
Mark Malatesta: Alright. So, let’s talk a little bit about what I know you were probably thinking at some point, especially if you talk to anybody who’s part of SCBWI or some other writers’ group that might not understand what I do or why you’d want or need to hire someone like me. Plus, there are people out there doing shady things, scammy things…and there are supposed experts who don’t really know what they’re doing, or they’re not very good at what they do.
So, did you have any nervousness or reservations before your first call with me, or before taking the bigger step into my longer-term program? Be completely candid about what was going through your mind, because someone else might be thinking or worrying about the same thing, and they might relate.
MLP: Wow. Okay. So, I think my main concern was all the time it might take, or that maybe I could do it myself.
Mark Malatesta: Right…
MLP: I was worried that maybe I would pay a lot of money, and, in the end, I would find out that I really didn’t learn so much, anything new. That was, one of my concerns. Like, how can I know for sure that this person has a lot to teach me. Maybe it’s helpful for beginners, but not for me. I wasn’t sure about that, so those thoughts were going through my mind. I wasn’t so worried about what you do being a scam, because I read a lot of your testimonials and articles, and felt you were reliable. I just wasn’t sure if you would really have a lot of value for me.
Mark Malatesta: High level stuff, right?
MLP: Yes. But after our first call, I felt, wow–like I learned so many new things, so, if I take a longer program, I’ll probably learn so much more. And that’s what really happened. So, I really appreciate this. I guess if you’re working with someone who’s a beginner, you handle it differently and adjust yourself to the level of this person. You really gave me so much value, so many things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know.
Mark Malatesta: I like that, and it’s true. I have to be a bit of a chameleon, especially during those introductory coaching calls. Some people I talk to don’t think they need to do a thing with their manuscript, and so, I’ll focus more with them on their platform, or their query letter and their synopsis, wherever they’re going to get the most benefit, out of that hour. That’s what I’m going to do with them, to try and advance them, and you know, there are other people, like if it’s a beginning writer, and they’re writing is really bad, I might spend most of our time together helping them with their writing, and say, “Listen, like there’s no point, at all, in us even talking more than five minutes today about your query letter, because your writing is in a state of crisis. So, let’s focus mainly on that.”
Then I encourage them to find an editor, or a critique group or whatever, to get to that next level, because if I know that you’re not going to have a prayer of getting a literary agent any time soon, then I don’t want to encourage you to go in that direction, and I won’t invite you to do more with me at that point either, because I know what’s going to happen. None of us have a perfect crystal ball, but part of my job is to be a pretty accurate predictor of what’s going to happen, you know? The same way someone acquiring books at Random House better be pretty good at predicting what’s going to sell well…or they won’t have that job for very long.
Pt. 13 – MLP Interview with Mark Malatesta
MLP: Right. Yes. And, you guessed right, in my case. You told me all the time, you really felt my book has the potential and you thought it was going to happen fast, that you didn’t want to promise anything, but, that’s what you felt. And, that’s what happened!
Mark Malatesta: Yes. Wonderful, so, do you have any final thoughts or advice, or wisdom, about absolutely anything, pertaining to writing, publishing, promoting a book, anything for authors that we haven’t talked about?
MLP: No. I think those are my best tips, and, really, again, I encourage children’s book authors to look for their nearest SCBWI chapter because there’s so much going on there, also, critique groups, you can find through there, and so much more. So, check it out.
Mark Malatesta: Yes, and even if someone lives in a very remote area, worst-case scenario, you can find critique groups online, things like that. There’s no excuse these days.
MLP: Yes. My critique group is online. Sometimes we meet in person, but usually it’s online, and it’s working perfectly.
Mark Malatesta: That’s great. Alright, well, thank you so much, Miri, for agreeing to do this. It’s always fun for me, a win/win, these interviews, so much fun, because it promotes you, I know it’s going to help you sell books, and I’ll have this in my permanent audio library forever. And I know your advice is going to help a lot of people. I also really appreciate you taking the time to give people a better sense of what it’s like to work with me, so they can see if it’s the right fit for them, if they’re serious, so they can take that first step with an introductory coaching call, so thank you so much.
MLP: Well, thank you, Mark…for everything.
This interview with Mark Malatesta was recorded with Miri Leshem-Pelly, who worked with Mark to improve her manuscript and query letter. Their collaboration led to representation offers from multiple literary agents, and book deals for Miri’s children’s picture books Scribble & Author (Kane Miller/EDC) and Penny and the Plain Piece of Paper (Penguin Random House/Philomel).
More About Mark Malatesta, Query Letter Expert
Mark Malatesta is the creator of the well-known Directory of Literary Agents and this popular How to Get a Literary Agent Guide. He is the host of Ask a Literary Agent, and founder of The Bestselling Author and Literary Agent Undercover. Mark’s articles have appeared in the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and the Publishers Weekly Book Publishing Almanac.
Mark has helped hundreds of authors get literary agents. His authors have gotten book deals with traditional publishers such as Random House, Harper Collins, and Thomas Nelson. They’ve been on the New York Times bestseller list; had their books optioned for TV, stage, and feature film; won countless awards; and had their work licensed in more than 40 countries.
Writers of all Book Genres (fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books) have used Mark’s Literary Agent Advice coaching/consulting to get the Best Literary Agents at the Top Literary Agencies on his List of Literary Agents.
Click here to learn more about Mark Malatesta.