Ready, set: QUERY!

I’m completely exhausted today, dear readers, but extremely happy: two days ago I finished my novel revision for the excellent editor at major-publisher-who-shall-remain-nameless-until-there’s-a-contract-on-the-table. Printing and proofing always takes longer than any reasonable creature would guess it would, so it was not boxed up until well into yesterday evening, and not mailed until this morning. But it is done, done, done.

I shall now collapse into a little puddle of gratified endeavor until my next project starts poking at me. I estimate I have until Friday.

Now that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is past, it is once again safe to send queries to agents: true, they still need to get tax information out to their clients by the end of the month (the IRS keeps an eagle eye on royalty payments), but by now, the New Year’s Resolution rush of queries has died down a bit. Translation: they are a WHOLE lot less grumpy today than two weeks ago.

I have been concentrating for the past couple of weeks on helping you prep for contest entries, since PNWA’s contest deadline is in February, but talented and insightful reader Janet gently reminded me of something last week: I haven’t actually written a blog on how to put together a query letter since…could it have been as long ago as September of 2005? Yet here I was, blithely sending those of you who have never done it before out into the tiger-filled woods with no guidance.

So I’m going to take a brief detour from contest prep issues to run through query basics again. Because, although I know that my readers are too savvy to fall into the pitfalls of the average writer, the vast majority of query letters agents receive are either uncommunicative, petulant in tone, or just poor marketing.

We can do better than that, I think.

For those of you absolutely new to the process, a query letter is a 1-page (single-spaced) polite, formal inquiry sent out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest. Businesslike without being in business format (I hate to be the one to break it to those of you who just love the non-indented paragraphs common to business letters, but that style appears illiterate to folks in the publishing industry), a good query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

There are a zillion guides out there, each giving ostensibly foolproof guidelines for how to construct a positively stellar query letter, but in my experience, simple works better than gimmicky. (Possibly because the former is rarer.) Typically, a query letter consists of five basic parts:

1. The opening paragraph, which includes the following information:
* A brief statement about why the writer is approaching this particular agent (Hint: be specific. “I enjoyed hearing you speak at Conference X,” “Since you so ably represent Author Q,” and “Since you are interested in (book category), I hope you will be intrigued by my book” all work better than not mentioning how you picked the agent in the first place.)

*The book’s title

*The book’s category (i.e., where your book would sit in Barnes & Noble. Most queries leave this off, but it’s essential. If you don’t know what this is, or are not sure where your book will fall, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right).

*Word count. (Actually, I have never included this, because it makes many novels easier to reject right off the bat, but many agents to have it up front. Because, you see, it makes it easier to reject so many queries off the bat. If your work falls within the normal word count for your genre – for most works of fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words – go ahead and include it. And if you don’t know how to figure word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book. (If you already have a 3-4 sentence elevator speech prepared, feel free to use this as your second paragraph.)

3. A BRIEF paragraph explaining who the target market for this book is (over and above the book category) and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. If the demographic is not especially well-known (or even if it is; agents tend to underestimate the size of potential groups of readers), go ahead and include numbers.

Don’t make the very common mistake, though, of having your book sound like a carbon copy of a current bestseller: you want to show here that your work is unique. If you can compare your book to another within the same genre that has sold well within the last five years, this is the place to do it, but make sure to make clear how your book serves the target market differently and better.

4. An optional paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book — or, indeed, absolutely the only sentient being in the universe who could have. Include any past publications (paid or unpaid) in descending order of impressiveness, as well as any contest wins, places, shows, semi-finalist lists, etc., and academic degrees (yes, even if they are not relevant to your book).

If you have no credentials that may legitimately be listed here, omit this paragraph. However, give the matter some serious, creative thought first. If you have real-life experience that gives you a unique insight into your book’s topic, include it. (Again, it need not have been paid experience.) Or any public speaking experience – that’s actually a selling point for a writer, since so few have ever read in public before their first books have come out. Or ongoing membership in a writers’ group.

Anything can count, as long as it makes you look like a writer who is approaching the industry like a professional. Or like a person who would be interesting to know, read, and represent.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph, thanking the agent for her time, mentioning any enclosed materials (synopsis, first five pages, whatever the agent lists as desired elements), calling the agent’s attention to the fact that you’ve sent a SASE, and giving your contact information, if it is not already listed at the top of the letter. (If you can’t afford to have letterhead printed up, just include your contact information, centered, in the header.) Say you look forward to hearing from her soon, and sign off.

There, that’s not so impossible in a single page, is it?

Okay, so it IS difficult. Even more so if you play fair: 1-inch margins, 12-point type (yes, they WILL notice if you shrink it; the average agency receives in excess of 800 queries per week), and avoid flashy paper and typeface choices that might make your query stand out from the crowd.

Yes, these probably will make your letter visible in the midst of a great big stack, but probably not in a way that it going to help you.

Remember, this is an industry where standardization is regarded as a sign of professionalism. So bright white paper –20-lb or better, please – actually tends to make the best impression, as does using the preferred typefaces of the industry in query letter and submission alike: Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New.

Yes, I know it’s silly to be judged so purely on presentation, but trust me on this one: 99% of the time, a query letter in Times New Roman printed on nice white paper will be taken more seriously than EXACTLY the same set of words typed in Helvetica on floppy copy paper. Or on even on classy off-white stationary.

Go figure.

Do keep in mind that the SOLE purpose of the query is to engender enough excitement in the reader that she will ask to see a representative chunk of the book itself, not to reproduce what you would like to see on the book’s back jacket or to complain about having to work through an agent at all.

Believe it or not, I’ve seen both turn up many, many times in unsuccessful query letters. I didn’t mention petulance above by accident.

Yes, querying is a chore, and an intimidating one at that; yes, ultimately it will be the agent’s job, not yours, to market your work to publishers, and an agent or editor probably would have a far better idea of how to spin your book than you would. Agents and their screeners (it is rare for agents at the larger agencies to screen query letters themselves) are in fact aware of all of these things. And your query letter needs to market your book impeccably anyway, in a tone that makes you sound like an author who LOVES his work and is eager to give agent and editor alike huge amounts of his time to promote it.

As I said: not a walk in the park, definitely, but certainly doable by a smart, talented writer who approaches it in the right spirit. Sound like anyone you know?

I shall overwhelm you with more tips and tricks of the trade tomorrow, I promise. In the meantime, I would appreciate any and all positive vibrations you might see fit to send wafting toward my manuscript as it makes the way through the committee that needs to approve it for publication. I’ll keep you posted, naturally.

Keep up the good work!

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