Successful Queries: Agent Jen Rofe and “Skyship Academy: The Pearl Wars”

This 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 57th installment in this series is with agent Jen Rofe (Andrea Brown Literary) for Nick James’s YA novel, Skyship Academy: The Pearl Wars (Sept. 2011; Flux). The book was called “a fast-paced adventure that delivers solid action sequences throughout” by Publishers Weekly, while Booklist said, “This first novel is a refreshing departure from the strict dystopian trend. There are plenty of plot surprises and action sequences to keep the pages turning, and the treatment of terrorist attacks and environmental concerns will prompt readers to make connections with their own lives.”

(Read tips on writing a query letter.)





Dear Ms. Rofe:

Fifteen-year-old Jesse Fisher can’t pass a test, pilot a space shuttle, or make it through a day without tripping over his own feet.

Now his clumsiness has cost Skyship Academy a precious Pearl. While on a foolproof mission designed for a trainee, Jesse is ambushed by Cassius, star operative of Madame, the Academy’s ruthless archenemy. And instead of fighting back, he nearly gets himself killed.

In a future Earth drained of its natural resources, Pearls are more valuable than a stack of gold. Just one can power an entire city for months. Madame, the leader of the depleted American government, seeks Pearls to further her own profit. To control them, she needs the power locked inside of Jesse–a power he’s completely oblivious to.

When Madame sends Cassius to capture him, Jesse–eternal klutz and clueless fighter–has a chance to prove he’s not as mondo pathetic as everyone thinks he is. But round two with Cassius yields unexpected revelations as both boys begin to unravel a past that ties them directly to the mystery of Pearls.

Of course, none of this will matter if Jesse can’t find the skill to fight back before Madame’s forces close in and shut him down forever.

Skyship Academy is a 45,000-word YA adventure with series potential aimed at the middle school market. As requested in your submission guidelines, the first ten pages are included at the bottom of this email. A full manuscript is available upon request. I look forward to hearing from you.

Nick James

(How long should you wait before following up with an agent?)


Commentary From Jen Rofe:

Sci-fi has never been my “thing.” I’m not a fan of Star Trek, Star Wars puts me to sleep, and I can count on one hand the number of sci-fi books I’ve read (until recently, the answer was one — and that’s because I literally had no other book option at the time).

Then I received a query for Skyship Academy: The Pearl Wars by Nick James. Nick’s query wasn’t perfect — the storyline was muddled and he labeled his manuscript a YA aimed at the middle grade market. Still, there are a number of reasons why I was compelled to review Nick’s sample pages. Here are four, in a nutshell:

  1. In September 2008, Nick’s query stood out from the multitudes in my inbox for paranormal romance and suicidal teen YAs. Skyship fell into a genre that wasn’t yet popular but that wasn’t too far off from what was gaining traction — dystopian. Hunger Games had been released around the time I received Nick’s email, and I anticipated that light sci-fi in the vein of Skyship would take hold in the market, as well.
  2. The storyline captured my interest. Mysterious pearls from space are the world’s most important energy source, but nobody knows where they come from, and a clumsy teen can control them, except he doesn’t even realize it?! Wow!! Count me in.
  3. The conflict seemed exciting. The government is after Jesse because of his power to control pearls, so he’s on the run. He also has limited time to figure out how he’s connected to the pearls. Which, to me, meant two things: ticking clock and action! Which leads to reason four.
  4. I felt certain this story would appeal to teen boys. From where I sit, finding books that will appeal to boys is no easy feat. Writing them is even harder. As far as I was concerned, Nick James had it in the bag.

In 2009, we sold Skyship Academy to Brian Farrey at Flux. The book was released this fall (2011). Nick is presently writing a sequel.


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6 thoughts on “Successful Queries: Agent Jen Rofe and “Skyship Academy: The Pearl Wars”

  1. KingGramJohnson

    I know this isn’t really the place for this, but I can’t think of anywhere else to put it. When will there be another “Successful Queries” post? There hasn’t been one in a long while, and I find them to be very helpful!

  2. Taurean Watkins

    My take on this query-

    While I never read the query pre-publication, Nick and did swap manuscripts years ago, and I know while his story is not my preference (subjective taste only) it did nothing to diminish how good his writing is, which is more than I can say in his evaluation of my novel, and four years later has yet to win anyone over, but I do think it’s because as hard as I tried, and keep trying, my own query letters don’t do their job, but that doesn’t mean the story has to be rewritten eight ways to Sunday.

    I think we give query letters too much power of our ability to write our stories well, and this is only one aspect of the process, an important one, but not the ONLY one.

    Back to the topic at hand, as his agent said, he had good timing since sci-fi and/or dystopian backdrops was beginning their comeback to the literary limelight, but we can’t foresee timing.

    I also saw the appeal for his book would have reach for those who loved The Hunger Games, before the last two in the trilogy came out, so timing was a factor.

    I do wonder though how much of the “boy appeal” holds true, since I’m male, and having been a teen boy not too long ago myself, this would not be a book I’d immediately grab if I were the target age for this book, since like the agent, Sci-Fi wasn’t normally my thing, but I’m positive it was the actual execution from the sample pages that made the difference for this specific agent, and from my own experience writing these last ten years, I now believe more than ever that with the right story, you can win over people who normally don’t gravitate to certain types of stories, because nothing spoke to you, until THAT story showed up.

    This is just as true for writers as it is for non-writer readers.

    I was not surprised when I heard from Nick in 2010 that he’d sold this book, and I know from the few times we’ve corresponded before even getting an agent that he’s far more at home (If not “comfortable”) in the surge of YA fiction than I am, but I know like me, he’s had to gut and rewrite the same as me, but I suspect it doesn’t effect him the way it does me, given how he approaches evaluating others work as hard as his own.

    Plus, having such a tight letter (At least in terms of length) also helped his chances, he obvious said enough so the agent wasn’t totally lost at what this story’s about, but not so wordy and meandering, which is never something a writer wants to subject to anyone, especially the readers you one day want to have.

    1. Taurean Watkins

      I think his attempt to express crossover appeal to both MG and YA readers wasn’t a convincing or feasible one, given his agent’s comments, because while these age groups have some overlap, it’s really hard to gauge, since things younger MG readers (8-10) may find fun and engaging can change drastically in the upper end of the spectrum (9-12).

      Since I mostly write with MG readers in mind, I can see the confusion here, and while we always hear the lines between MG and YA aren’t as hard lined as they used to be, they are some things that set them apart, the biggest one being that parents are more directly involved in what kids are reading in the chapter book to MG books on the lower end of the 8-10 range.

      Also, different publishers have minor or often extreme differences in opinion of how they categorize MG books.

      Some publishers view middle grade as a crossroad between chapter books with simple plots and sentence structures, to novels with more depth and subplots, where even the most advanced chapter books usually have only one plot line, small cast of characters, and demand short sentences, instant immediacy and low-complexity, and unrelentingly short word count. Did I mention short word count?

      Some MG books, especially by mid-sized indie publishers like Candlewick have books that get close to YA in terms of plot complexity and the flow of the writing,, but still stay fairly away from much of the edgy ground covered in YA these days, but there there are always those oddball exceptions to the rule, that sell just as well, or even better in the long run, than some NYT bestsellers.

      It’s much easier (From a marketing standpoint) to better gauge YA-Adult crossover potential in books since there’s less of a gap in what teens and adults find compelling in books, and you don’t have to play “Word Cop” all the time, like you do for readers younger than 13.

  3. ChiTrader

    I liked the query a lot, despite it’s noticeable flaws ( I concur with Ms. Rofe’s analysis). It’s nice to know that a great story concept can overcome a less than stellar query. Of course, the more I write and study the art and craft of writing, the more I realize that a great, or at least very good, story idea is the most important piece of the puzzle.

    Congratulations, Nick.

    1. Sheila Lewis

      I too am not a super fan of sci fi, but there was something very unique about the voice and also the intrigue–Pearls as an energy source controlled by a “klutz.” It seems that Nick also got in before this genre was overdone. It pays to have a great query albeit with flaws, that promises a strong story line and in this case, a very intriguing plot. Good luck, Nick! See you out there, Sheila


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