Book marketing 101: query nuts and bolts

I realized after I posted last night (it’s amazing how conducive to self-criticism a truly uncomfortable hotel room can be) that although I had just urged you to send out queries to agents to whom you did not pitch at a conference — sometimes, it’s just not practicable, and it would be a shame if the shy were not able to reap any marketing advantage from conference attendance, right — I haven’t actually written a blog on how to put together a query letter since…could it have been as long ago as February?

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 it seems like a dandy time to run through query basics again. Actually, I wish writers talked amongst themselves about the nuts and bolts of querying more

Why? Well, 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.

It is not, contrary to popular practice, an occasion for either begging or boasting; you will want to come across as a friendly professional who has done her homework. (Or his, as the case may be.) A good query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

This should sound familiar to those of you who have stuck with me all the way through Book Marketing 101: this was the purpose of the Magic First Hundred Words, wasn’t it?

And, like the hallway pitch, your goal here is not to make the agent fall down on the floor, foaming at the mouth and crying, “I will die if I do not sign this author immediately!” but to prompt a request to submit pages.

That’s a much less formidable goal, isn’t it?

How does one pull that off? By being businesslike without using business format (long-time readers, chant it with me now: documents without indented paragraphs appear illiterate to folks in the publishing industry).

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 elements:

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 like 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 estimate word count — most of the industry does not operate on actual word count — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book.

3. A BRIEF paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book (that’s the target market, mind you, not a paraphrase of your dedication page) 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. Actually, it’s not optional for NF, and it’s a good idea for everyone.

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?

Before you tense up at the prospect, here’s the good news: if you have been prepping your pitch, you’ve already constructed most of the constituent parts of a professional-looking query letter.

Don’t believe me? Look at how the building blocks just snap together to make a log cabin:

Dear Ms./Mr. agent’s last name (NEVER just “Dear Agent”),
I enjoyed hearing you speak at the Martian Writers’ Conference. Not many New York-based agents take the time to come to Mars to meet the local writers; we really appreciate the ones who do.

Since you so ably represented BLUE-EYED VENUSIAN, I hope you will be interested in my book, {TITLE}. It is a {BOOK CATEGORY} that will appeal to {TARGET MARKET} because {#1 SELLING POINT}.


I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, because {the rest of your SELLING POINTS, including any writing credentials}.

Thank you for your time in reviewing this, and I hope that the enclosed synopsis will pique your interest. I may be reached at the address and telephone number above, as well as via e-mail at {e-dress}. I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Aspiring Q. Author

You can do that without breaking a sweat, right?

Don’t worry; this structure isn’t my last word on the query, by any stretch of the imagination, but for today, I’m going to leave you to ponder the possibilities while I go and ponder this great big ocean that is casting buckets of light onto my typing hands. A big part of staying in this business for the long haul is knowing to pace oneself, after all.

Keep up the good work!

24 Replies to “Book marketing 101: query nuts and bolts”

  1. Hi, Anne–

    Are there any fine points to e-queries we should no about? (ie- are pages sent in the body of the email or as attachments?)


  2. Referencing comment #3, we see a prime example of Anne’s insistance that everything be read aloud from hard copy. I think all of us who comment, or may I add, write for this blog, are probably guilty of such typos. It just points out the difficulties of trying to edit or proof on the screen.
    As to Tammy’s non-indented query letter…I seem to have had better success with those that are indented. Yet I’ve seen some sources that say to write them in modern business format. Those sources are fast loosing their credibility with me. I’ll stick with what Anne advices. But before you enter an era of dispair over having sent a non indented query letter, at least wait and see if you get a response. If it is a form rejection, move that particular agent to the bottom of your list. By the time you get back to him or her, several months will probably have passed. If you are still querying, your query letter will probably be greatly refined over what it is now, and will no doubt be properly indented. Query that particular agent again, as the odds are very slim that he or she will remember the earlier letter. (I made a somewhat similar gaffe a few months ago, while I was in a querying blitz. Like many, I have a standard query letter that I change here and there to fit the agent it’s going to. Twice I changed everything except the name in the salutation. A letter to Ms. X said, “Dear Ms. Y:” and so on. My initial reaction was to send a follow up, apologize profusely, and beg that she consider my query despite the flub. Then I realized that the less said the better. If I’m still querying when those particular agents come to the top of my list again, there is a better chance neither will remember the particular gaffe of several months or even a year or so ago.

  3. We must not only read aloud, we must double check spelling and sentence construction. The agent sees the query as an example of our writing ability. We must put our best fut forward. G.

  4. This exchange made me smile, because I wrote this post and the previous one in a VERY loud café in another city. I couldn’t read them out loud without disturbing, in clockwise order, the barista, the teenager writing poetry furiously (or furious poetry; I couldn’t tell which) in her journal; the guy alternating between tapping on his laptop and reading pages at a time from COLD MOUNTAIN; my mother’s conversation with my partner, and the band. I worried all weekend about what gaffes might have ended up in those posts — but please, don’t tell me.

    On to business. I’ve done a few posts about e-mail queries, Cerredwyn, but i’ve only recently started a category about them at right: E-mailing queries. I really need to hire an intern to go back through my old posts to slot things into new categories.

    Send the pages as a Word attachment, not in-text. Pretty much all the formatting will get lost if you copy and paste pages into the body of an e-mail.

  5. After I blithely referred you the the E-MAILING QUERIES category, Cerredwyn, I went to check, and lo and behold, the (single) post in it did not even come close to answering your question. So now I’ve gone back and included it in an earlier post, so the next person looking for it will have a better chance of finding it (because, you know, it’s THERE) and added more posts to the category.

    So on behalf of everyone who will be searching for the answer later on, thank you!

    1. With regards to e-mail queries, I think the best thing is to check the agent’s/agency’s policy. Some want the letter and any submitted pages pasted into the e-mail itself. I’m sure they realize that format is probably going to be messed up, but so many folks don’t want to open attachments from strangers. I wouldn’t send anything as an attachment unless the agency specifically says to do so.

      1. You’re right that it’s always a good idea to check, Dave, but I think we’re talking about two different kinds of e-submission (although admittedly, the kind you had in mind may have been closer to what was being asked in the original question).

        Since it’s a basis rule of thumb NEVER to send unrequested materials to an agent (you might be able to get away with slipping a synopsis in with a query letter, but that’s about it), I was assuming that any pages an e-mail querant would be sending would have been requested. Since, as I mentioned, it’s impossible to maintain standard format in an in-text paste, the general expectation is that any requested pages would be sent as a Word attachment.

        The kind of page submission that you’re talking about is the relatively rare instance where an agency specifically requests that a query be accompanied by a set number of pages. This is done to save the agency time in the long run: if they like the e-query, they can check to make sure that the first few pages of the submission do not contain any red flags. It’s nice for writers, because ostensibly, they’re being judged on an actual writing sample (although generaly speaking, if the query letter itself does not spark interest, the additional pages will not be read).

        When agencies ask for this kind of writing sample as part of the query process, they often do request that it would be sent in-text, because the sample in question is generally so short, and they’re less likely to be exposed to viruses.

        As you say, it’s a good idea to check before the initial query, But if an agent has asked for pages in response to a query, he’s going to be expecting to see them submitted in standard format.

  6. Anne,

    I have been getting some agents very excited by my query, but a lot of others have been sending me form letters (to my clean, typo-free queries), and I think I know the main reason why: my query has been mentioning the word count, which is pretty darn high.

    Now I know several bestsellers in my category with word counts even higher than mine, but once you get into this category of 500, 600 pages, I think a lot of agents get nervous.

    My last three query rejections mentioned the word count, and I got form letters from two agents who have famous novelists who both gave me personal recommendations that I’d mentioned in the query — I figure either these agents are too busy with current clients or their screener dumped me by the word count.

    So now my latest batch of queries have left the word count out. But eventually they’ll have to know, like when they ask for a partial and see the word count on the cover page — and then what?

    1. You must have a pretty terrific query letter if you are getting rejections that tell you why it’s being rejected — that level of courtesy has become quite unusual, alas. So pat yourself on the back for that.

      And yes, they definitely get nervous abuot higher page counts, partially because at around 500 typeset pages, there’s a rather large jump in the cost of binding. That doesn’t mean that longer first novels don’t get picked up, of course, but it does render them a rather harder sell.

      You’re right that they’ll figure it out eventually, but once they have a submission in their hands, they will at least have the opportunity to fall in love with your writing. So the trick is to get them not to reject it when they see the title page.

      It’s kind of cynical, but here is how an agent representing the book would handle it: leave the word count off the title page, at least for submission with a partial. I’ve seen agents submit even full manuscripts this way, however, and for precisely this reason.

      I know it seems a trifle dishonest, but it’s done commonly enough at the editorial submission level that it’s more or less understood that NOT including it means that the book is over 100,000 words. Making them ask just how much over is quite permissible.

      It means, in practical terms, that the discussion of length is delayed until AFTER there’s already some interest in the manuscript. Which is pretty much always better for a good writer of long books.

  7. Forgive me for sounding amateurish, but I am assuming that even though you indent each paragraph, there is still a space between each of them. Is that right?

  8. I’m glad you asked this, Sheri — I hadn’t realized until I started posting my STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED series (listed in the categories at right) that I hadn’t addressed this point specifically. One of the disadvantages of the blog format is that it makes it difficult to show formatting.

    To answer your question: no, there should not be a skipped line between paragraphs. Just as in a printed book, the indented first line is signal enough that we’ve moved on to a new thought.

    The only time that you should skip a line between paragraphs in standard format is to indicate a section break.

      1. I don’t quite understand the question, I’m afraid — in a manuscript, nothing should be single-spaced. By definition, a manuscript is double-spaced.

        Or do you mean in a query letter? The lines there would indeed be single-spaced, the paragraphs indented, and no lines skipped between paragraphs.

        You see, the practice of skipping a line between paragraphs was never correct — it’s an invention of the business format for letters. And the only reason that a line is skipped there is that they (ungrammatically) do not indent paragraphs.

        1. I was wondering, since your latest post was on the synopsis, whether you could give us an example of the standard format for a synopsis (slug line, where the title goes, etc), and also of a query letter (indenting, spacing of paragraphs, etc.)

          I am about ready to submit and I don’t want to get anything wrong.

          1. Actually, your earlier question was the reason that I moved synopses up in my planned discussion of contest issues. I had planned to show an example of a synopsis later in the week.

            It’s going to be off-topic to include a query letter, though –logically, it would be kind of a stretch. A lot of readers are very literal-minded, so I don’t want to give the false impression that a contest entry should include a query letter.

            If I have the spare time this week, I may do a separate post upon it, to avoid confusion, but I can’t promise that I can manage it. But there are plenty of formatting guides out there that will show you how to structure a basic letter. If memory serves, Word even has a template for it.

            If that fails — this is going to sound like a flippant suggestion, but honestly, it would work — find a career secretary over the age of 50 and ask for help. Business format didn’t really become widely popular until the advent of the Internet, so anyone whose job it was to type letters would know how to do a formal letter format.

            Since it sounds as though you are very visually-oriented, I would also highly recommend joining a good critique group, so you could see a number of properly-formatted manuscripts and gain some experience in creating that format within a supportive environment. Agents and editors assume that writers are already familiar with these formats; their feedback tends to be rather rushed, so it’s very helpful if a writer already has a clear mental image of what the final product should look like.

  9. Thanks for the synopsis stuff you’ve done the past few days, it’s great. I have one last detail question if you have time. You have said in the past not to use an em dash but a space two dashes and another space. Does this also hold true for elipses? i.e. space three periods without spaces and then another space?

    Thanks so much.

  10. I’ve got an ethical question today. On the subject of writing credentials for those of us who have very little, is it okay to say “this is my second book” if the first one was never published?

    It sure does a lot to make me look more experienced, but it does feel deceptive.

    1. You CAN say it, Jake, but it probably won’t help you land an agent. You see, the first thing an agent is likely to think upon reading such a statement is, “Why isn’t he still with the agent who handled his first book?”

      Unfortunately, there are not very many possible answers to that question that would make a writer look very easy to market– and realistically, if you were just looking to change agents, you would probably have said so. The original agent could have died (and not worked for a large enough agency to absorb the writer), for instance, or the writer and agent could have parted under hostile terms. The writer could have self-published the first book, or published it with a small press — which begs the question what the sales were liked.

      In short, it may not actually create the effect you want.

      You’ve mentioned winning awards for your writing, however — why not stick with those?

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