By Glen C. Strathy
A query letter to an agent or publisher has one primary purpose: to convince the recipient to look at your book, so you have a chance of selling it. You should think of it as a sales tool.
You may not be a salesperson by profession or inclination. Nonetheless, you can use a few simple sales strategies to make your query letters more effective and improve your chances of getting published.
For instance, let's start with the biggest mistake writers make when it comes to this important task...
Imagine for a moment that your name is John Smith and you are looking to purchase a vintage BMW to add to your car collection. You visit the vintage car dealers and car shows regularly, letting people know the exact years and models you are looking for.
Then, one day, you get a phone call from one of the dealers who says something like, “Good morning Mrs. Smide...”
Right away you dislike this person. After all, if he couldn't even get your name and gender right, he is either trying to insult you or doing a good job accidentally.
He continues, “I have a vintage Volkswagen microbus that I know you would love to buy!”
This guy has obviously got his story wrong. You were very clear about what type of car you are looking for, and a Volkswagen isn't it. So why is he wasting your time?
You try to tell him that you are only interested in BMWs, but instead of listening, he starts telling you how wonderful his Volkswagen is, how much time, effort, and money he has spent restoring it, how much love he has lavished on it, and all the wonderful features of his Volkswagen. His speech sounds very rehearsed, like he was reading from a script. You can barely get a word in edgewise.
It's obvious that this guy has no interest in helping you meet your needs. He's only interested in himself and in making money from his precious Volkswagen. So as soon as possible, you hang up the phone.
Agents and editors are a lot like the Mr. John Smith in this example. They have feelings. They have wants and needs. And every day, they get query letters from writers who fail to respect those feelings, wants, and needs - writers whose love of their own creations and deep desire to have them published causes them to give the wrong impression.
The guiding principle behind a great query letter is that it addresses the recipient's feelings, needs and wants, rather than the sender's.
So what do agents and editors feel, want, and need?
Let's start with the obvious...
Getting an agent or editor's name, title, and gender correct is an easy way to begin to show respect. So is getting the name and address of the agency right. To show respect for the reader's time, make your query letter no longer than one page (that's the most they will read anyway before making their decision). And don't waste it by sending them things they aren't interested in. You don't appreciate salespeople who try to sell you things you don't want – and salespeople who try that tactic make few sales. Nor is there any excuse, considering that agents and editors generally take the time to let the publishing world know what they want to see.
Thanks to the internet, it is very easy to find out which agents and editors are interested in the kind of book you have written. You can get lists of agents from websites such as Agent Query , Publisher's Marketplace or any number of sites catering to writers and other publishing professionals. Many of these sites have information about the types of book each agent is interested in representing, submission guidelines, and whether the agent accepts unsolicited manuscripts or proposals (few do).
Similar sources exist that will give you information about publishers, such as Publisher's Catalogues. Alternatively, you can use reference books such as the Writer's Market series, with the caveat that such books may quickly become out of date. With publishers, you want to find out which editor is responsible for the type of book you are writing. It is always best to write to a specific person.
Regardless where you obtain the names of agents and publishers, you should also take the time to check out each entity's own website for the latest information about what types of books they are looking for and their current submission guidelines.
Each agent, publisher, and editor may have slightly different guidelines for submissions. They have established these guidelines so they can read as many promising queries as possible in the time available to them. Following these guidelines is another way of showing respect for their time and gives them one less reason to reject your book out of hand.
If all else fails, you can phone an agency or a publisher and ask about submission guidelines. You can do this without wasting anyone's time because most companies will have someone answering phones who is quite used to fielding such calls.
Another way to show respect is to not be too pushy. Don't claim your book will be a Pulitzer prizewinner or New York Times Bestseller. Don't tell the agent he would be crazy not to represent you. Just present the most appealing features of your book and let the agent decide for himself how much potential it has.
What else do agents and editors want? Well, how about...
You may feel that, in order to make your query letter stand out from the herd, you should use some kind of creative attention-seeking trick, such as hyperbolic or folksy language, bright coloured stationery, a perfumed envelope, an enclosed chocolate bonbon, a red rose, or a musical card. Don't. Agents and editors want queries from professionals, not nutbars. Your query letter is a business proposition, not an invitation to a children's birthday party.
Yes, there are cases where such devices have not led to disaster. J.K. Rowling, according to her unauthorized biography, included her own drawings when she submitted Harry Potter to the agency that decided to represent her. However, because of that trick, her submission was initially placed in the reject pile. I have also heard stories of the “chocolate bonbon” trick resulting in a submission that arrived covered in melted chocolate, and making a very poor first impression indeed. Perfumes, in turn, risk giving the agent an allergic reaction. Ditto with flowers.
The best thing you can do is make your query letter look professional. Use standard business letter format, a standard 12 point font, and good but standard white stationery. If they ask for email queries, use a plain text format, not hypertext. Make sure your spelling and grammar are proofread perfect (better than what you'll find on this website), so they know you can write well. Give the person you are writing to what she asks for, and nothing more. This will assure her that you are willing to work cooperatively with her.
So much for the basics. Next, there are 3 main elements a query letter should contain. Keeping in mind that a query letter is a sales letter, they are:
Publishing isn't always the highest paying line of work, especially for small publishing houses, but it offers other rewards. One of those rewards is the opportunity for an agent or editor to be the person who discovers a bright and shining new talent. What better satisfaction could such a person have than to be the agent/editor of the next Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, or Agatha Christie?
Maybe you're not in that league, but at the very least, your query letter should give them reason to believe your book will be one that they are proud to introduce to the public. Maybe even one that will be a bestseller, win an award, or get made into a Hollywood film. However, don't tell them it will do any of these things. Let them come to that conclusion themselves.
What you want to do in your query letter is make a promise to the reader that your book has potential. You do that by providing a brief encapsulation of the most intriguing aspect of your book, the thing that will make readers want to pick it up. Perhaps you have chosen an unusual subject matter or a setting that few people know about. Perhaps you have devised a surprising and original plot line that makes readers desperate to see how it all pans out. Perhaps you have created a unique and fascinating main character with whom your readers will strongly identify. Either way, your query letter must tell the reader the key feature that makes your book special.
You may have to distance yourself a little from your book to make sure you focus on what most people would find appealing about the book, not necessarily what you love most about it.
Round out this initial promise with a brief summary of the plot. This is to show that your book will deliver on its promise. Don't go into detail. Two or three sentences is all you need.
If you are writing non-fiction, provide a brief summary of the biggest, most surprising, most powerful, and most original ideas in the book, and/or the biggest benefits the reader will get from reading it. Give them a description leads them to say, “Hey, this sounds like a book millions will want to read!”
If you want examples of good plot summaries, the back covers of bestselling paperback books in your genre are a good source. The only difference is that book jackets seldom reveal how a novel ends, whereas in a query letter you probably should tell the ending, so the reader knows you have written a satisfactory finish.
The summary of your book will help an editor or agent decide whether to request a full proposal or manuscript from you. However, if you have unique qualifications as an author, that also counts for something.
If you are writing a non-fiction book, mention in your query letter any experience or expertise in the field the book covers. If you are writing about health and you are a physician or physiotherapist or a native american medicine man, say so. If you're novel is set in the ancient Mayan empire and you once went on an archaeological dig to Machu Picchu, say so.
Even seemingly minor experience can count. For example, in 2008, a 12-year-old boy named Alec Greven published a book he'd written called, How to Talk to Girls. You might wonder what his qualifications were, since he was so young. Turns out he did a class project observing how boys and girls interacted on the playground, and that gave him the unique expertise that formed the basis of the book.
It may also be worthwhile to mention if you have a degree in Creative Writing, or if you have published other books or articles. That lets the reader know you have some skill as a writer and that you are serious about your writing career – not someone destined to be at best a one-hit wonder.
If you don't have any writing experience, don't worry. Use the extra space to sell the book rather than you.
It is a good idea to tell the agent or editor a few mundane facts about your book, to prove that it fits the category he is looking for. Such facts include...
- The title of the book.
- How long the book is (number of words).
- The genre (mystery, romance, etc.), although in some cases the genre will be obvious from your description.
- The intended audience (adults, preschoolers, young adults, women, etc.).
Opinions differ regarding which of these 3 topics – Promise, Credibility, and Product – should appear first in your letter. Some experts recommend you put the product details in the first paragraph. This certainly tells the reader upfront what you have to offer. The downside is that it gives the reader a chance to reject your book before getting to your promise. Since the promise is usually the biggest selling feature, it may be better to lead with the promise. Product details can come last, after your credibility, as a way to assure the agent that you have done your homework.
On the other hand, there are times when an author's credibility is the strongest selling point, in which case you should lead with that.
You may want to draft your query letter several times, experimenting with the order, to see what has the most impact.
Finally, and Most Importantly...
End your query letter with an offer to send the reader your finished manuscript (fiction) or proposal (non-fiction). Make sure you include your contact details – name, address, phone number, and email address.
If you are sending your query letter by mail rather than email, include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) for the person's reply. To be honest, if the agent or editor decides to request the full manuscript or proposal, he or she will probably phone or email you. A SASE is generally used to send you a rejection slip, which makes you free to approach the next agent or editor on your list.