Your Author’s Questionnaire

Really, it’s all part of being the Dream Client. You want to be the author that your editor and publisher love to work with. And one of the things that thrills them is when an author helps promote her own work. I will always remember what my wonderful agent (Ann Rittenberg) told me when I was faced with my first author’s questionnaire: “I want you to take your time with this.” The AQ is not just some form you fill out—-it’s a way for you to show how much you care about your work, how intriguing and appealing you are as a potential interviewee, and how much you know about your field.

author at work

Some questions are self-explanatory. You are asked to provide contact info for your local newspapers and their book reviewers, a list of people who might blurb your book, the names and dates of events in which you’ll participate (writing conferences, signings) and the names of any organizations that might have a special interest in the topic of your book. The important thing here is to give the publisher as much as you can. Don’t just list the one big newspaper in your city. Dig up every publication and bookstore possible. I also got a tip from the editor of the Willamette Writers newsletter, Leona Grieve. There is a web site that provides all the newspaper listings and TV stations you need for your AQ. Go and explore. This will save you time, no doubt about it.

In the AQ you are also asked to summarize your novel. I hate this part. I’m terrible at it. But I look up dust jackets and read book reviews of successful novels in my genre and try my hardest. My best tips are not to worry about covering the whole plot and to just give them the premise and a tease, like a good movie preview does.

The real art of filling out the AQ has to do with storytelling. The publicity and sales departments love a good story and they especially love a good story about the making of a good story. You will be asked how your book originated. I start the story of writing my first novel, A Certain Slant of Light, by saying that I was cleaning my apartment and listening to an Anne Rice audio book when I decided that I’d like to write a novel with a similar narrator, someone with an antiquated way of speaking but who is commenting on the contemporary world. But I decided that character didn’t have to be a vampire to be displaced in time– she could be a ghost. When I describe coming up with the idea for my second novel, The Fetch, I set the scene. As I was walking my dog (in a park that reminds me of Russia) I was struck by the idea that there were three very interesting characters involved in the same true story: Grigori Rasputin (the controversial holy man, confidant to the Russian Empress Alexandra), Anastasia Romanov (the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas—she was rumored to have survived the assassination of her family) and Alexis Romanov (Ana’s little brother, heir to the throne, and a hemophiliac.) I’m sure you have just as engaging stories about the moment you came up with your own book idea.

You will next be asked why you decided to write the book and what interested you in the project. This might be part of the same answer as above, but maybe not. Maybe you thought of your plot while reading an advice column on a pet lovers website, but perhaps you decided to pursue the project only after thinking of a particularly hilarious scene inspired by witnessing a woman and her puppy waiting in line at the grocery store. Try to think of the details in your book’s creation story that are the most unusual, funny, touching, mysterious, or creepy.

When you are asked if there was any special research or travel involved in the writing of your book, don’t miss this fabulous opportunity to add color. Even if you couldn’t travel to another country or get your hands on rare documents relevant to your plot, give your publisher something to picture. I tell the story of having grown up in a mildly haunted house when discussing my first book and I describe how fun it was to dig up historical details about Hollywood in 1918 with the help of the awesome research librarians at the Lake Oswego public library when talking about my second.

Here are the three questions on the AQ that are often tricky to answer well. 1.) What books are similar to your book and what makes yours different? Your first reaction might be, “What do you mean? There’s no other book out there like mine!” Definitely don’t say that. If you write nonfiction, tell them what else is out there on your topic and then say why your manuscript brings something new to the conversation. If you write novels, your publisher is looking for something along these lines: Similar to Bridget Jones’s Diary and Twilight, but the narrator is only 13 and the vampires are tattoo artist zombies. You get the idea. If at all possible, compare your book to something fairly recent that made lots of money.  2.) What authors’ work is your writing compared to? You can fudge a little here. If no one has actually told you that you write like Dave Barry or Stephen King, you can still list authors that write in a similar tone/voice/style. You can ask your agent for a hint on this one. 3.) What is the market for your book? Do not say that everyone will want to read your book. Not even, every woman in America. You don’t have to be super specific, but give an easy to imagine audience—Oprah book club women, fans of Janet Evanovich, or Louis L’Amour addicts.

Seriously, after all this they will ask you if there’s anything ELSE you’d like to tell them that would help sell your book. Wide open window here to share a touching or funny or inspiring or even spooky story about your project. If you couldn’t fit a cool anecdote in earlier, this is your chance.  When your agent is chatting up a foreign scout or when one of your publishers’ sales reps is taking a buyer to lunch, they would love to have extra material to work with, believe me.

My last piece of advice about your Author’s Questionnaire is to write it now. Even if you don’t have a book deal or an agent yet. It will give you a fresh perspective on your manuscript and better prepare you for breaking in. Good luck and see you in the papers.


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