Successful Queries: Agent Sharlene Martin and ‘River of No Return: Tennessee Ernie Ford and the Woman He Loved’

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 20th installment in this series is with agent Sharlene Martin (Martin Literary Management) and her author, Jeffrey Buckner Ford, for his book, River of No Return: Tennessee Ernie Ford and the Woman He Loved.

This query excerpted from Sharlene’s awesome new work, Publish Your Nonfiction Book, out this month (Nov. 2009). If you’re looking to sell a book proposal, this book is a must-buy.


Dear Ms. Martin:

I’m sure I’ve browsed to your site several hundred times if once, and I continue to come back; drawn primarily, I think, by the evident priority that you place on your authors.

Ernie and His Lovely Wife, Betty is a narrative recounting of the lives of Betty Jean Ford and her husband, Ernest, the man known to the world as Tennessee Ernie Ford. In a career that lasted half a century, Ernie Ford achieved a degree of fame that went beyond his success as an entertainer. It was a fame that weaved him into the fabric of popular culture, and earned him a permanence in history: three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, walls of Gold and Platinum records, and a television legacy spanning generations.

But Ernie and His Lovely Wife, Betty is not a biography of Ernie Ford, but rather, a record of the lives of two people. It is a portrayal of the complex and beautiful woman who shared his life; a gifted artist the world would never know, whose own star might one day have eclipsed even his, but instead, slowly faded over the years, paling under the weight of the lengthening shadow unwillingly cast by the man she loved – a shadow she believed she could escape, but only by taking her own life.

From their first meeting on a desert airbase at the dawn of World War II, to their last moments together nearly half a century later, the story of Ernie and his lovely wife, Betty, is an American love story, an American tregedy; a portrait of an ordinary family changed forever by an extraordinary life. A family whose story is also my own. Ernest Jennings and Betty Jean Ford were my mother and dad.

I am haunted by the memory of these two souls. I am gripped by the arc of their radiant lives, and wounded by the memories of their deaths, This book is my hope of healing those wounds; a hope bound with the promise that one day I would tell their story.

The book stands completed at just over 92,000 words. I would be honored if you would consider reviewing a partial submission.

Jeffrey Buckner Ford

Commentary from Sharlene

As you see, there is a blood relation in this nostalgic celebrity memoir, but it is a mistake to think that just because you are related to somebody famous, you have an actual book in you. Relationships are one thing, but you are either able to write about them with alacrity and depth of insight, or you are not.

This author is careful to explain his protagonist in paragraph two, so that you know what the scope of his story will be. But it is in the third paragraph where Jeffrey Ford demonstrates why he was not merely born into this family; he was born to write this book. The paragraph is consumed mostly by the second sentence, and after reading it, can you doubt that this writer possesses the sensibilities required to tell this powerful tale of quiet frustration?

This author also took the impressive step of writing a complete draft before seeking literary representation, although this can sometimes work against you. With memoirs, which are more narrative in nature, writing a full draft can be helpful. However, many publishers of nonfiction books like to have some input into the flow of the information and the text. Before the book is sold, it usually is best to put your time and energy into your platform, your proposal, and then your query – in that order.

River of No Return: Tennessee Ernie Ford and the Woman He Loved sold to Cumberland House in Tennessee, in Ernie Ford’s hometown of Nashville.

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