Successful Queries: Agent Jon Sternfeld and 'Children of Disappointment'

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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 eighth installment in this series is with agent Jon Sternfeld (Irene Goodman Literary Agency) and his author David Chura, for the narrative nonfiction book, Children of Disappointment. (The book has not yet come out.)

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Agent Jon Sternfeld
of The Irene Goodman
Literary Agency

Dear Mr. Sternfeld:

Aware of your interest in social issues as well as education, I would like you to represent Children of Disappointment: Kids in Adult Lockup, an 80,000-word narrative nonfiction book. This book examines important cultural concerns while maintaining a deeply personal approach, telling the stories of kids disenfranchised by their own actions and by society's attitude towards them.

The number of kids in U.S. jails is at an historic high, having risen 35 percent since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. For ten years I shared that life behind bars. As a teacher at a New York county prison, I worked seven hours a day with the kids the media throws away as drug and sex-crazed "super-predators" and with the correctional officers it depicts as sadistic misfits. Children of Disappointment: Kids in Adult Lockup offers a new, more fully realized portrayal of these teens and COs, reflecting my work in the classroom and beyond, into the blocks, the high security unit, the visiting room, and the clinics. The book reveals the gripping and poignant stories of troubled kids and the adults who care for them, experiences unavailable to visitors and volunteers.

Whereas writers and reporters write about kids held in juvenile detention centers - Mark Salzman in True Notebooks and John Huber in Last Chance in Texas - I write about minors already serving time in adult lock-up, a much harsher world than that of juvenile centers. With this insider's view, Children of Disappointment: Kids in Adult Lockup shows what prison is really like, responding to many Americans' concerns and curiosity, while at the same time putting a face on the statistics academics and policymakers analyze and act on. Readers meet the 17-year-old druggie and devoted daddy; the snarling but protective Irish-Bronx CO; the wannabe hip-hop poet; the cheap warden rationing inmate toilet paper. Yet even in the grim prison setting, humor flashes into these stories' darkest corners. Children of Disappointment: Kids in Adult Lockup, with its unique yet universal perspective, mirrors society's challenging family and community problems.

Excerpts from Children of Disappointment: Kids in Adult Lockup as well as my short stories and creative nonfiction essays have appeared in various publications, including The New York Times. The editors of Fourth Genre nominated "Pin-Ups," a selection from the book, for a 2005 Pushcart Prize in narrative nonfiction.

Thank you for considering my request for representation. Below is the first chapter (seven pages) of Children of Disappointment: Kids in Adult Lockup. A complete proposal and other sample chapters are available at your request. I look forward to hearing from you.


David Chura

Commentary From Jon

Having to cull through something like fifty query letters a day, I’ve developed something of a system about what questions to ask myself as I scan queries (yes, scan; sadly, I can’t read every word or I’d have no time for anything else).

The questions are:
1.) Does it interest me?
2.) Does it appear to be well done?
3.) Can I sell it?

Though these three questions are bouncing around my head simultaneously, I’ll take each separately so I can give writers a peak as to how this whole thing works, at last on my end.

1.) Does it interest me?
This includes both personal taste and a sense of ‘wow’ (or ‘aha’, or ‘I haven’t seen this before.’); I feel the excitement in my bones if I feel this. Is it an original take on a topic that engages me? Is it fresh? Is the angle new and (to some extent) groundbreaking?
I represent a mix of literary fiction and social/cultural nonfiction (mostly narrative), so if the book falls into one of these areas and answers question one affirmatively, I’ll usually ask to see more.
David Chura’s Children of Disappointment is right in my wheelhouse; the author clearly researched the kind of narrative nonfiction that I’m looking for. This world piques my interest, both from a socio-cultural standpoint and from a dramatic standpoint. He frames his project as an original and human spin on an area that the news and the public have pigeonholed, so the angle feels new to me.

2.) Does it appear to be well done?
A query letter gives the content of the book, but it also lets agents know if you can write, organize your thoughts/ideas, and express yourself engagingly and professionally. Writers should not just blindly dump content into their query letter and hope the agent wants to read their manuscript. The old “I’m not good at query letters” doesn’t fly with me; if the query letter is poorly done, I most likely will never get to your chapters.
This is an extremely professional and well-written query letter. It’s structured properly, announcing at the outset what the book is and how it connects to me and then giving enough detail without going overboard with its summary (I often ignore long synopses.) The letter has enough voice to give me a sense of who the writer is and he clearly understands how to ‘position’ is book (with comparable titles) in a way that lets me know what ‘type’ it is. I can picture where it would be shelved at bookstores and can imagine myself buying it.

3.) Can I sell it?
Really the biggest question, and the one that is often a guessing game based on experience. With non-fiction, I have to consider the promotional capabilities of the client (known as ‘a platform’), and without some expertise or connections, publishers have no chance to get word out about the book. Besides platform, there needs to be both a definable audience and interest in the topic, as well as something of a gap that needs to be filled. If there are too many comparable titles to your book, then why write another one?
As for Children of Disappointment, it’s certainly a dark area, but there’s something marketable about the project. Writers like Jonathan Kozol and Barbara Ehrenreich have explored the underclass in compelling way and given birth to a new genre in the process. Television shows like “The Wire” and “Oz” have shown that the public has an interest in this subject matter, as long as there’s drama and a humanity behind it; since Children of Disappointment is coming from their teacher, I’m imagining it’s not going to be hard-hitting and cold, so much as eye-opening and moving.
Luckily, the writing turned out to be novelistic and engaging – a huge reason why I ended up signing David and his project.

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Want more on this subject?

    • See all the installments of this "Successful Queries" series here.
    • Confused about formatting? Check out Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript.
    • Read about What Agents Hate: Chapter 1 Pet Peeves.

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