Writers write. A pretty basic philosophy, but, sadly, there’s more to it than that. Writing is really all most of us want to do, and then have that writing appear out in the world and bring a nice dose of appreciation and fulfillment…and yes, even a little fame and fortune would be quite acceptable.
The sad part is that the writing won’t get out there by itself. You need a publisher. Some publishers will take care of your writing quite professionally if you give them a bunch of money, but the big publishers who will take on the responsibility, risk, and expense of the whole process for you…well, they won’t pay attention to you unless a reputable agent shows them your work. Now it’s getting complicated.
There are lots of other writers out there competing with you for those publishers, and the agents who can lead you to the publishers. You need to get an agent’s attention and convince them to take you on. How? The query letter.
The query letter is the basic tool every writer uses to find an agent. It tells the agent who you are, what you have to offer the world through them, and why you think they should want to represent you. Most queries follow a very similar format, though different agents have slightly different views about what’s most important and what attracts them, so you need to research them by strolling through their websites and blogs and social media to find out specifically how to tailor your approach to each. A great source for finding and researching agents is the Query Tracker website, and I’ve written another post about that here.
But actually writing the query is one of the hardest things you do as a writer, because you need to condense your entire work, your bio, and all your persuasive pleadings into one page. It’s a little daunting.
Here’s a thorough but concise article by Hannah Guy at Kirkus Reviews that explains what it’s all about in a nutshell, and it’s an excellent synopsis of the process. She also includes links to other articles that can clarify the whole thing a little more.
The main thing is: get started. Don’t wait until you have a finely-polished manuscript ready for the presses to start thinking about this. Learn what you have to do and start working on it while you’re finishing up your masterpiece, and if your query is ready when your book is ready, you can capitalize on the excitement and momentum of the manuscript to help you through the query process.
Conquering Query Letter Anxiety
BY HANNAH GUY • May 28, 2019
“Brevity is the sister of talent.” ―Anton Chekhov
While a writer can construct an entire world and then create a book—or even a series—around it, the prospect of crafting a query to a publisher or agent can often seem daunting. “I’d rather write another book than write a query or book description,” a new author once admitted to me. “It’s so much easier.”
For many authors, creative writing is infinitely preferable to promotional writing. Self-promotion may be uncomfortable, but if you want to sell your book, that’s exactly what you must do. The query letter is the “elevator pitch” for your book. In one page (and never more than one page), you must not only deliver a snappy, compelling short description but also sell the agent or editor on you. Like the cover of your book for readers, a good query letter is your best chance to grab an editor’s or agent’s attention and convince them to request your manuscript.
Is that a lot of pressure to rest on one letter? Yes. But it’s also easier to write than you think, because the guidelines and expectations are very clear and the letter itself follows a general formula.
Approaching Your Query
As you begin work on your query, remember that professionalism—plus research and polished formatting—goes a long way. We’ve covered the mistakes that authors can make when looking for an agent, and many of those “little errors” can add up here as well. Make sure you:
1. Check the submission guidelines. Ensure that you are following the editor’s or agent’s guidelines to the letter. Make special note of their policy on attachments (when in doubt, don’t send them), information they may wish to see, and what kind of books that they are looking for. Some publishers and agencies prefer email queries; others prefer mailed submissions. Almost everyone has a different set of requirements, so it is important to do your research and then follow the instructions. You may find it helpful to create a spreadsheet that tracks each agent or editor you’re querying, their requirements, the date you contact them, and any response you receive.
2. Address the agent or editor by name. Most agents and editors tend to dismiss queries that are not personalized. Addressing an agent or editor by name and mentioning their agency or publishing house shows you’ve done your research and are interested in working with them specifically.
3.Treat your letter as business correspondence. Your query letter will be judged not only on its content but also on its presentation. From “Dear [Name]” through each subsequent paragraph, your query should be formal and polished. Use a commonly accepted font (you can never go wrong with 12-point Times New Roman), left-align your paragraphs, and don’t forget to include your contact information at the bottom below your signature. Take your time and don’t send out your letter until you’re confident it’s your very best work and it’s completely error free. You also want to avoid gimmicks; let your writing speak for itself. Keep your book description in third person, and resist the urge to get creative with your formatting. No part of your letter should be bolded or in all caps, use colored font, or contain emojis.
4. Keep it simple. Seriously. You have one page to accomplish your goal. Your paragraphs should be short and to the point, focusing on only the necessary information. Resist the urge to get wordy. A good approach is to draft out all your paragraphs, then go back and eliminate unnecessary words or sentences and any digressions, and continue editing until your letter is tight and clean. If you have a tendency to be overzealous in your use of adjectives and adverbs, or you ramble on at length and without purpose, the agent will notice it—and will assume your book is similarly written.