Query Letters 101: Your Query Letter

You may think you have an entire synopsis to impress an agent but really, you have one sentence. A great query letter is about so much more than a convincing synopsis of your manuscript. It’s about relating, conversing, understanding, and grabbing an agent’s attention.

  • No less than 250 words, no more than 700. Aim for about 400.
  • Don’t try to be cute and use weird paper or fonts. Stick with Arial, Cambria, or Times in 10 or 12 point font.
  • Use paragraphs! Don’t stick everything in one huge chunk of text. You’ll scare agents.
  • Personalize your letter! This sets good letters apart from great letters. While each one of your query letters is going to be 97% the exact same as the last, 3% of that should be personalized for each new agent you send it to. Show agents that you’ve put in the time and effort to get to know their tastes before querying them.
    • Always address each letter to the agent by name
    • Use one or two sentences to tell them why they are the right match for you.
      • “I noticed that you represent Gregg Olsen’s YA series ENVY. Because of this, I really think you’ll also enjoy my dark, psychological, YA thriller.”
      • “I had to query a fellow journalism woman!”
      • “I love that your nieces and nephews play such a huge role in your literary career. I hope one day, they’ll get a chance to read my novel.”
      • “I read your blog post titled ‘Be the Evel Knievel of Writing’ and it inspired me to finish my manuscript with a non-linear story structure.”
      • “I read your interview on Day-By-Day Writer and felt compelled to send you my query for _____.”
  • Use your letter to embody everything about your writing. Keep your voice and tone consistent but remain professional.
    Focus on the project you are currently pitching, even if you have been previously published. There is a place to talk about previous publications! Don’t worry. PITCH ONLY ONE MANUSCRIPT PER LETTER.
  • Be specific about plot details but don’t give everything away. You want to leave the agent wanting more so he will request your full manuscript!
  • Optional: Include the first five pages of your manuscript copied and pasted into the e-mail after the closing signoff. NO ATTACHMENTS. Some agents say not to include these pages, some do not specify. But there is always the chance that she will find herself just reading the pages anyway.
  • No e-mail blasts. It is unprofessional, lazy, and not personalized.
  • If another agent or publisher has referred you to an agent, mention it in your letter.
  • Query Letter Must Haves:
    • Personalized salutation, Personalized tidbit about agent, Title, Genre, Word count, Protagonist name, Description of protagonist, Setting, Inciting incident, Villain, Protagonist’s quest/purpose, Protagonist’s goal, Your Bio, Author’s credits (optional), Your name, Where you can be found online
  • Know your genre, type of project, and age group.

Much of this information came from an excellent class I took on LitReactor.com taught by the brilliant and lovely Bree Ogden. If you want more, sign up for some classes there!! There’s another Art of the Query Letter class coming up in February.

Check out the previous parts of the Query Letters 101 series:

Research and Glossary

Letters and Agents

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Query Letters 101: Research and Glossary

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Research is Your Best Weapon

Care about your writing and your project enough to learn as much about the industry as possible. Being prepared, researching agents, and knowing the jargon is going to give you a huge leg up.

  • “Big Six” (Now the “Big 5” as Random House and Penguin have merged) – The six largest publishers: Random House, Penguin Group, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan
  • Commission – The amount an agent receives for their services. Agents typically receive a commission of 15% for all domestic sales and 20% for foreign sales. Agents only receive commission on works they sell, and thus aren’t paid unless the author is paid.
  • Exclusivity – When an unpublished author gives an agent an “exclusive” look at their manuscript, usually for a period of time. This means the author cannot then send their manuscript to another agent during that time period.
  • Genre fiction – A blanket term that refers to books with certain familiar settings and plot conventions. Genres include romance, science fiction, mystery and suspense, westerns, etc.
  • Partial – A partial manuscript. When an agent likes a query they may ask to see a certain number of pages or chapters. If they don’t specify, just send 50 pages.
  • Royalties – The amount an author receives on every net copy sold of their book (see “net sales”).
  • **TWO TERMS THAT YOU WANT TO USE VERY CAREFULLY: Author and Book. You are not an author until you are published. Until that point in your career, you are a writer. You have not written a book or a novel until you are published. Until that point in your career, you have written a manuscript.
  • Key agencies: know the reputable agencies. Check websites such as querytracker, absolutewrite, literaryrambles, and agentquery to read up on the good and the bad agencies.
  • Contracts and Rights: You can’t know all of the different types of contracts because every agency and publisher will be a little different. But know the overall norms of contracts and rights. Such as: how much percentage is normal for agents to take on your advance, what a typical advance from a publisher is, what the royalties on a paperback, hardcover, or e-book are…etc. This will help you to avoid pitfalls. It will help you avoid agencies or publisher out to take advantage of you. You can find a lot of advice on publishing contracts on the web.
  • Comparative Book Titles: It’s good to know other published books that are similar to yours. This will help you accurately categorize your manuscript. Also, by knowing the popularity and success of these comp titles, you can adjust your publishing expectations.
  • This is a fantastic glossary of publishing terms. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/08/book-publishing-glossary.html

From Query Letter to Sale (In an Ideal World)

Your manuscript MUST be completed (unless you are writing nonfiction) and have gone through as much editing as is possible. You may have sent it through one or more beta readings. You may have even paid a substantive or line editor to go over your manuscript.

You will send out approximately 80 bazillion query letters to appropriate agents. Steel yourself.

An agent(s) will express interest and request a full or partial manuscript. She will love your book and offer to sign you. It’s possible that multiple agents will request your manuscript at roughly the same time; a good agent will give you appropriate time to consider which agent/agency to accept an offer from.

A good agent will keep frequent contact with you, probably via a phone or Skype call. This is a serious relationship so be sure it is the right one. Be sure they are going to fulfill all of your professional needs.

An agent will give you ample time to look over a contract and should be able to answer any questions you have about it.

Check out the other parts of the Query Letters 101 Series:

Letters and Agents

Your Query Letter

New Year, Old Novel

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My main project at the moment is completing the manuscript for “Dark of the Wood,” an urban fantasy story inspired by Little Red Riding Hood. It sounds weird, but I promise you it works. Anyway, I have a mental timeline for getting this project done and then setting it free into the world of agents and publishers.

January 31: I will have the first draft of the novel completed.

March 31: I will have the second draft of the novel completed (possibly after some beta reading).

May 31: I will have the third and final draft of the novel completed.

June 1: I will begin querying agents (I have my query letter written and polished already).

Forever(?): I will keep querying agents and annoying people and working my butt off to sell this book.

Why? Because I believe in it. I like it. I think it’s funny and dark and well-written and highly marketable. But, more importantly, I have to believe in my work because if I don’t – who else will?

Believe in yourself. Believe in what you’re doing. Work and rewrite and drive yourself crazy and talk to friends and other writers and edit and polish and BELIEVE. The hardest part about writing is just doing the darn work. So if you’re writing – you’re already succeeding.