The query letter is the way to connect projects with agents, publications, and publishers, with the payoff of positive results. Without sending a query, you cannot receive a “No, thank you” or a “Yes, I will gladly review your work.”
It is a one-page letter encouraging publishers, agents, and editors to read and consider your fiction or nonfiction book proposal. If looking for representation for a novel, you need to have the book written, not just a great idea. With nonfiction, once interest in the project arrives, the next step is submitting a proposal package and sample chapters.
Combine great writing aimed at the right person to avoid endless frustration along with wasted effort and time. This is the first hurdle of your marketing strategy and one big step on your way to publication and sales. The query is your calling card; your first contact; extending your hand to introduce yourself, your story, vision, writing, and thinking.
Display your best writing by presenting your project along with your credits, background, and goals. Readers of your query are evaluating your communication skills and story along with marketing potential and future sales. I recommend carefully editing your query and manuscript. If editing is not your strongest suit, consider hiring a professional. Everything sent out with your name on it must be an example of your skilled approach and writing style.
Avoid the most common errors. Do not say, “I hope you will like this as much as I do” or make outrageous promises or statements such as “Everyone says this will be a best seller.” Be concise, grammatically correct, and to the point—no fluff allowed. Engage your reader. Think of it as an advertisement and pique interest by enticing readers to keep reading and ask for more.
Before sending your pitch to an agent, editor, or publisher, read that particular person’s guidelines and follow them. Create a master list of people working in your genre by first identifying the niche for your project and researching the agents, editors, and publishers specializing in that area. Immerse yourself in your research and study the most recent books, similar to your project, in Barnes & Noble. Read the author’s acknowledgment page of thanks to agents and editors to find people interested in what you are doing.
Review Publisher’s Weekly; Writer’s DigestGuide to Literary Agents: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting an Agent; and Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents: Who They Are; What They Want, How to Win Them Over. It is important to understand how the agent and/or publisher works. Agents and publishers know what they need from you and you need to be aware of what skills and abilities you seek in them. If their style or approach does not appeal to you, do not add them to your list.
Follow the directions listed in the submission guidelines. Often a short résumé, media clippings, and a one-to-five-page double-spaced synopsis of the manuscript are helpful and appropriate. Do not include hundreds of pages or an unsolicited manuscript uninvited. If the guidelines say to query first, without any additional attached material that is exactly what you should do. If the directions are to send a cover letter summarizing the story and introducing yourself, along with the first twenty-five pages, put it together and send it out. Be sure to include your book title and word count of the full manuscript. If asked only for a query letter, do not include sample chapters, but do add a note that the book is written and available upon request.
The best queries include in a great hook, story synopsis, supporting material, and author’s credentials. The hook includes the most important words you will ever write. It is essential to pull your reader in with your strongest material (saving the details for later). Do not start slowly and pick up momentum. Research shows that more than ninety percent of agents and their readers decide if they will read the full query by scanning the first two sentences within fewer than ten seconds.
The story is the meat of your proposal. It is a synopsis of who does what, where, why, when, and how. Do not hold back. You need to demonstrate what you have in order to convince an agent to invest his or her time in you.
Supporting material shows that you have done your homework. Agents and publishers are looking for a return on their investment and you need to prove you are a professional who knows what you are doing. Share your marketing plans, connections with specific markets and organizations, and particular sales venues, all of which will build confidence in your ability to deliver a professionally finished product.
Your job is to demonstrate why you are the right person for this particularly timely project. Include in your biography experiences and credentials that directly support writing and selling your book. Highlight your media training, author’s platform, and social network following. Include links in your contact information to clippings about you that include your recently published work.
End with a tight sentence stressing the ideas and potential of the book. Never divulge what no one needs to know: “One hundred agents passed on this query.” Be persuasive, polished, professional, and cross your fingers. Focus on pitching your idea to those qualified to help you. I send out twenty-five queries at a time, which usually results in my receiving at least one positive response. I also personalize each query to include the agent’s name and something he or she is specifically seeking that I can deliver. When a company specifies “no multiple submissions,” that refers to their reviewing the actual nonfiction proposal or book, not your query.
My writing friend Jacquie has a great attitude. Her annual writing goal “is to collect one hundred rejections.” To achieve that, she must continually produce the work needed to reach her objective and each “no thank you” moves her closer to achieving her goal. Some agents reply with words of wisdom and suggestions on what needs to be improved: “Enclosed is a list of twelve things I need you to fix and consider, then resubmit.” That message led to a sale. Yes, standardized rejections are often disheartening; however, personalized notes often include helpful hints and feedback from the very person you targeted, representing people like you writing in your genre. Good luck! You can do it.
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I wrote this blog while preparing my presentation on writing queries and pitches for the How Publishing Works in the Real World panel with Chris Knopf, Neil Nyren, Gina Panettieri and SJ Rozan at the Mystery Writers of America, New York Chapter, CrimeCONN 2018 Conference held on June 23, 2018 in The Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT. I loved it. I learned so much by attending the full day of events, being part of the panel, and meeting so many wonderful writers and readers. Please subscribe to, and enjoy, three of my videos from CrimeCONN on YouTube
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