Successful Queries: Agent Kate McKean and ‘Frantic Francis’

This new series is called “Successful Queries” and I’m posting actual query letters that succeeded in getting writers signed with agents.  In addition to posting the actual query letter, we will also get to hear thoughts from the agent as to why the letter worked. 

The tenth installment in this series is with agent Kate McKean (Howard Morhaim Literary) and her author, Brett Perkins, for his book, Frantic Francis.

Frantic Francis

September 14, 2006

Dear Ms. McKean:

I am working on a nonfiction book that would seem to fit your interests and have included a brief synopsis that you may enjoy. Thank you for taking the time to read the following.

Knute Rockne, “Pop” Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg are college football’s immortal coaches, celebrated in books, movies and myth, yet none of them have influenced modern football more than the forgotten Francis Schmidt. The game’s wide-open style, which has helped to make it the most watched and most profitable sport in America, is largely the creation of Schmidt, an intense eccentric with an insatiable imagination. In The Rise and Fall of Francis Schmidt: How One Coach’s Madness Changed the Way Football Is Played, I rediscover one of the most unusual and influential men in football history.

Between the World Wars, Schmidt’s collegiate squads at Tulsa, Arkansas, Texas Christian and Ohio State won eight titles in three different conferences. Altogether they won 157 games by a staggering point differential of +3,753 points. What made these teams so dangerous was the use of Schmidt’s groundbreaking strategies. He preached speed, deception and imagination, while his counterparts stuck to Victorian football, built on simplicity, power and caution. Most teams of the era used playbooks consisting of 20 to 50 plays, while Schmidt’s boys employed an omnibus of more than 400 plays that was altered daily. The intricate diagrams were daring and far ahead of their time. Some of them were just plain crazy, like the play in which the ball was lateraled four times, the quarterback touching it first and last. The bewildering juggernaut was unlike anything seen in the sport’s 65-year history.

The Rise and Fall of Francis Schmidt is a story. It’s about a man who rose from unpaid, volunteer high school coach to a shot at the big time, coaching at one of the nation’s most famous football schools. Schmidt is an oddball trying to prove his unorthodox methods while a nation of football lovers look on with curiosity. It’s these years as head coach of Ohio State that serve as the backbone of the book. For seven seasons (1934-1940), the Buckeye faithful would go on a wild ride. Unimaginable highs would be followed by shocking reversals. Using Schmidt’s progressive system of offense, the Buckeyes became nationally famous in the football world. The ending was ugly and ultimately tragic. After burning bridges in Columbus, Schmidt ended up in coaching exile at the University of Idaho where he would soon die at the age of 58.

Like many great innovators, there seemed to be nothing normal about Schmidt. He was brusque and socially awkward, as well as paranoid and manic. In reality, he probably suffered from hypomania, a form of bipolar disorder. His players called him “Frantic Francis.” He forgot their names, shocked them with his relentless cursing and confused them with his erratic behavior. It was this madness that would make him forever important but it would also hasten his demise and allow his influence to go unexamined for so long.

A large number of the coaches who had worked or played under Schmidt?that is, who had been exposed to his altered state of football?would go on to create waves in the game, changing it forever. Modern NFL icons like Al Davis and Bill Walsh acknowledge Schmidt’s lineage and its influence on their own highly touted modern strategies. Although Francis Schmidt is an important figure in football history, he is currently unrecognized by the mainstream. This book will change that forever.

If you would like to see the full book proposal, please contact me using the information below. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon,

Brett Perkins

Commentary From Kate

Brett’s query had me at “college football.” I’m a big fan. But also, Brett’s introductory paragraph was short and sweet–no “this-is-why-I-had-to-write-this-book” reasoning that is all ego and no info and often gets in the way in query letters.

He dove right in with the book’s hook. He promised a hidden gem, and untold story with an arc, and a tangible contribution to the field. Plus, with the insane stats he shares in the third paragraph (+3,753 point differential!), I could see the proof behind his claims. Most importantly, his even tone lent the letter authority. No THIS IS THE BEST STORY IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL hyperbole to oversell the story.  Lastly, Brett addressed the market (Ohio State Buckeye fans, recent players who tout Schmidt), without citing irrelevant numbers. Not all (roughly) bazillion college football fans will be interested in this book. They should be, but it’s more important to hook the ones who will than address the vague masses.

I did a little research of my own to see if I could tell if Schmidt was the real deal or not, and if there was room for him on the shelf. Sometimes, when there isn’t already a book on a subject, it means there isn’t a market to support it, not that no one’s tackled it yet. But I was convinced there was a market for this book. *I* wanted to read this book.

I will say, his letter is a little long, and it doesn’t need to be this detailed. Brett should have also sent along a proposal and sample chapters with his query, but I won’t fault him on that one because our website wasn’t up at the time of his letter.

All told, the content of Brett’s letter got my attention, and I requested his proposal. He sent it, I signed him up, and we edited the proposal together. We accepted an offer from Bison Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, well known for their sports history titles. I think Brett’s done a fantastic job with the book. And check out that cover! Isn’t it handsome? Brett and I fought hard for this book, and I’m very proud to see its publication day, today.  Please check out the book on!

PS: Go Gators.


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2 thoughts on “Successful Queries: Agent Kate McKean and ‘Frantic Francis’

  1. Chuck

    Generally, queries should be one page, single-spaced, in a Microsoft Word doc. They should adher to that same length when cut and pasted in e-mail. However, writers have a tendency to "abuse" the rule a bit in e-mail (with no page breaks) and the feeling is probably that it can be a little long, but not a lot long.

    Secondly, I’ve noticed that nonfiction queries tend to be longer because there’s a lot to be said about all the facets of the book as well as the audience as well as author credits and platform.

  2. Rachel Heston Davis

    I’m not a football fan, but even I found this query letter interesting. I particularly liked the sub-title "How One Coach’s Madness Changed the Way Football Is Played." One coach’s MADNESS? Hm. Now I’ve got to read it!

    One thing that bewilders me about this query (and many others I’ve seen posted online as examples of success) is the sheer length. Many query letter resources I’ve read stress that queries are to be short, short, short: a hook, a paragraph about the book, a paragraph about your credentials, and you’re done. Less than one page.

    What’s the story on that? As a currently-querying writer, I’d like to know what length of query would be most warmly accepted by most agents–especially since not all of them post query letter length guidelines on their sites.

    Rachel Heston Davis
    Up and Writing


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