On Tuesday of this week, I met with mystery writers Shelley Costa and Casey Daniels. I gave them each a copy of my query letter and was ready for them to tear it apart. Before they got into it though, Casey asked me to describe my book, one chapter at a time. This was such a great move on her part. She obviously needed to understand what the book was about before she read the query letter, but it also made me summarize and explain what I had written. When we started to deconstruct the letter, this summary of my book turned out to be incredibly useful for all of us.
So, lesson #2 (if lesson #1 is simply, based on my previous post, write something using a template and don’t worry about it, just get something down) is, when you meet with someone to go over the query letter, do a summary of the book first. It might be useful to take notes on what you say.
Before I talk about what my friends suggested I do to revise the query letter, I should probably show you my second draft. (The first draft appeared in the blog post called, quite brilliantly, I think, “My First Attempts at a Query Letter, Part 1”).
April 10, 2016
Re: Query about What Is a Cozy?
In the 1960s, publishers attempted to kill the cozy, yet it survived, in large part because cozy and traditional mysteries have passionate fans who wouldn’t let their subgenre die. Over the last 10 years or so, booksellers point out that in their stores, cozies are the bestselling subgenre; many consider it the bread and butter of the industry. In my book What Is a Cozy? I explain the necessity of categorization, the value of the much maligned cozy subgenre to the mystery genre as a whole, and what the essential characteristics of the cozy are. My book runs 5 chapters and approximately 175 pages, not including appendices of reading lists and games and quizzes.
For my dissertation by the same name, I received responses to over 700 surveys with answers to over 50 questions from mystery readers as to why they love the mystery genre. I use much of this information in the book as well as examinations of many cozy and traditional works. I believe this book comes at the right time with the decision of many publishers to cut cozy series. Recently, a group called “Save Our Cozies” was formed on Facebook, and within less than a week had over 1000 members. The passionate cozy fandom has returned.
There are at least four markets for What Is a Cozy? Mystery writers, who are often unclear as to what the boundaries are between the subgenres; mystery readers, who know what they feel like reading but want help in identifying particular books or particular types of books; librarians, who are responsible for Reader Advisory and who helped me tremendously in the writing of this book; and academics, who are concerned about issues of subgenre and genre and a blind spot for anything in the genre that isn’t hardboiled, noir, or Agatha Christie. My book explains cozies and places them in the context of other mystery subgenres. It is not an apologia for the cozy, but it does recognize its value.
There is great interest in the topic of cozies. My dissertation was finished in 2008 and was made available electronically. As of April 2016, my dissertation had been downloaded over 1950 times, something that is nearly unprecedented when it comes to dissertations. 734 people filled out my 50+ question survey, and 93.9% said that I could contact them again. In addition to the survey, I conducted 9 focus groups in 4 states and I interviewed 7 independent bookstore owners in 6 states. I have interviewed many librarians, two of whom are involved in their library’s publishing arm. I regularly attend workshops or panels (Malice Domestic being one of the conferences) where my work is cited by participants.
I received my Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland, OH in 2008. In order to write my dissertation, I was the first person in the English department required to participate and follow IRB guidelines since I was doing interviews, focus groups, and surveys. I have been asked to speak about my research to numerous groups including Sisters in Crime, Bouchercon, two Popular Culture Association National Conferences (in Boston and San Antonio), and a nationally known CWRU research conference Collabtech. I have been a reader for Poisoned Pen Press, and I have assisted in organizing mystery conferences. I have designed and taught courses on the mystery genre as well as other topics that are closely related, and in teaching these courses have been nominated for teaching awards. I have a blog in which I discuss the mystery genre and writing in general at mysteryphd.com, and I have a weekly podcast about Buffy, the Vampire Slayer at clevelandhellmouth.org. I am a founding mother of NeoSinC and a founding board member of Literary Cleveland, a new literary arts organization in Cleveland.
Thank you for your time in considering this query. I would be happy to send a book proposal or additional information.
Katherine Clark, Ph.D.
Notes from my friends:
First of all, they didn’t hate my query letter. Both concluded that I could and should trim it. The key suggestions were the following–Casey says I am burying my lead. Paragraph one is supposed to be the most important paragraph. It is in paragraph one that I am supposed to explain the essence of the book, yet she says that my most important comment is in paragraph two where I talk about the cozy fandom. Readers, she is absolutely right.
Shelley and Casey agreed I should mention a word count, and Shelley pointed out the dangers of saying things like “I discuss…” I sound too much like an academic. With that comment, Casey pointed out that the query letter, along with the book, should read like a cozy novel: breezy and easy. Sigh. Sheila Strong pointed out that my language goes up and down throughout the book. My other readers are fine with this–but Sheila, and Casey, are right. I need to work on making my book always accessible to the layperson, not the Ph.D. in English. This, I think right now, is going to be the hardest thing for me to fix, because I do write the way I talk and think. I often have a 10 dollar vocabulary, but I also like slang and informal language. I mix these all the time.
Casey has also suggested that I need a new title for this book. She is probably right, but I am not sure what to do. In many ways I love this title; after all, it is what the book is about. Nobody will be confused about what I’m doing if they bother to pick up the book. On the other hand, it is not a sexy title in the least. What do you think?
My favorite suggestion changing the query letter was from Casey. Shelley asked me what the thesis of the book is. What a great question that I should have been prepared for, but I wasn’t. I said, I can’t do a thesis for the book (though Readers, I think maybe now I can), but I can do a thesis for each chapter. Based on this, Casey suggested that I open the the first paragraph with a quote from Otto Penzler, mystery critic and independent publisher and bookstore owner, who in the mystery world, probably hates cozies more than anyone else. Casey said, start with him whallopping the cozy, and then explain how the cozy was saved and is worth saving. Starting with a Penzler quote will certainly start this letter with a bang.
I love the comments my friends made. They gave me a lot to think about. They’ve said they will gladly read further revisions, so of course I will be sending these along to them. I also plan on roping in a third friend for help. Casey and Shelley, it turns out, have not needed to write query letters. Both have agents. Double sigh. I’m going to reach out to a friend who has offered to help me in the past.
So, here is my commitment. I will both have a revision of this query letter and will reach out to my third friend before April 22. Of course, I will write a blog post on what occurs. I’m feeling pretty positive. Persistence is the key.
Note: I mention Casey Daniels’ League of Literary Ladies series and Shelley Costa’s You Cannoli Die Once novel in my monograph. I suggest that readers check out their books. They are fun.