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.
A few years ago, after I had submitted the completed manuscript of The Bible’s Most Fascinating People, I received back a stack of such queries from my editor in London. Reader’s Digest in New York had hired a theologian to go over my book and her comments and questions had now come back to my editor in London. So my London editor 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.”
I heard: “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 make up my book, less than half had generated any comments from the outside expert hired by Reader’s Digest, 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 in London. Her 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 in London was pleased with my responses, which she then forwarded to Reader’s Digest in New York. Three weeks would pass before I’d have to face any queries again.
And they did come, and I once again spent time fixing them; one requested change–in a single sentence–by the Reader’s Digest “expert” was nonsensical and my editor and I spent most of a day figuring out how to say what I wanted to say, while satisfying the so-called “expert.” We were ultimately successful.
After all the queries were satisfied, the galley proofs of the book were printed in China: the actual printed, but unbound, pages of the book. Reader’s Digest in New York then received them from my editor in London, and I also got a set as well (which I still have on a shelf in my office). Our task at that point was to pour over them carefully, mostly checking 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.
A few months after that, the book was printed, distributed and in January, 2008, appeared on bookstore shelves. It was subsequently published in 13 languages, including 2 Dutch editions–and it was reissued in 2012 in English.