During my time working in acquisitions at a publishing house, I read many queries and received many pitches. Some of them were great, some of them were awful, and some of them left me with more questions than answers and no idea what to do with the manuscript they were trying to share with me.
Often, since I worked at a small publisher, authors would pitch to me at conferences as a sort of warm up. They would frequently ask me for advice on what they were doing wrong and how to improve during their next attempt. Eventually, I had such a long list of common pieces of advice, that a few years ago I put together a presentation for LTUE (Life, the Universe, and Everything Symposium). Recently, I came across my old presentation notes and decided that even though conferences are being effected by COVID I could still help authors master this important part of the publishing process in a blog post.
What is the purpose of a query letter?
All good writing starts with knowing what you are trying to accomplish. The obvious goal of a query letter is to get a book published, but it’s a little more complicated than that. You want to convince an editor or agent that you and your book are right for them.
So how do you show that to your editor/agent?
An editor or agent will approach new acquisitions with a couple of important questions.
· Is this manuscript in the genre I work with?
· Is the manuscript the right length?
· Is it ready to publish?
· Is the plot good?
· Is the story well-written?
· Will the editing necessary to polish this manuscript to completion fall within our budget?
· Will the author work well with our editors?
· Is the author ready for the publishing process?
· Is the author marketable?
· Will the author work with our marketing team to promote this book?
It is the answers to these questions that will determine whether or not they see this manuscript as a book that could work for them personally (or for their company). Not all of these questions can be definitively answered in a query letter. But if you aim to answer the ones you can and hint at the answers to the others, you set yourself up for a positive response. Very few editors or agents have time to track down the details of an incomplete query. It's your job to anticipate their needs and make your manuscript look like a profitable investment for their company.
Sometimes the answer will be no. Not every manuscript is a good fit for every publisher. So you want to start off by doing your research. Carefully consider the place your book will fit into the market and find publishers that are looking for manuscripts like yours. These queries have a much higher level of research involved, but they are also much more likely to receive a positive response.
Once you've done your research, you need a clear, well-written query letter in order to catch the attention of an editor or agent.
Start with the basics.
Right off the bat you will need a quick sentence that includes the genre, age range, word count, completion status, and other basic details about the manuscript.
I am seeking representation for my completed 70K adult fantasy novel.
I am submitting my completed 70K adult fantasy novel for publication.
If they are an editor/agent who publishes books that fit that description, you have just passed the first hurdle. Just like you want the first page of your manuscript to catch the readers' attention, you want the beginning of your query letter to show that you are offering something that they can use. Editors and agents may get dozens or hundreds of queries for every one manuscript that they are able to take on. They often have to stop reading at the first sign that a manuscript or author is not right for them, so you need to help them out.
Starting with this type of sentence is also really helpful to prepare an editor or agent to read the rest of the letter because now they know what sort of things to look out for. If you tell them that this book is fantasy, they will be looking out for cool magic. If you are pitching a romance novel, they're immediately waiting to be told about the love interest. They have a framework so they know what details are important and what they need to remember. This will make your letter a lot easier to sort through with all the other stories they’ve got bouncing around in their heads.
This first sentence should also be clear what you are looking for from the editor or agent. Agents provide representation for your novel. Publishers will publish your novel. If you ask a publisher to represent your novel you will risk confusing them or looking like you don't have any idea what you are doing. Not the first impression you want to give.
Tell the important bits of your story.
Once you've gotten the basics out of the way, the editor/agent needs to know why this book will suit their needs better than the others they have received today. Sure they publish fantasy, but there are a million fantasy books out there. What’s great about this one?
The answer should never, ever be: "My book breaks all the rules of the genre and dares to do something different." This will hurt your manuscript's chances worse than you can possibly imagine.
Imagine you are at an investment meeting. You are being asked to fund the creation of a frozen yogurt store. The potential owner of this store tells you they want to launch the next big thing in fro-yo and you ask, “Why is this fro-yo store going to do well?”
“Because it sells only the toppings! There’s no fro-yo whatsoever. Nothing that the customers expect to happen will be inside. Won’t that be a good surprise?”
That’s not how marketing works. Sure, not all books have to be the same, but a fantasy book should be a fantasy book and a romance novel should be a romance novel. Readers purposefully go to those types of books to find those things. If you are breaking the basic rules of the genre, you are not giving them what they are looking for.
So frame your query in terms of what the manuscript does do. The way to show this to the editor/agent is to provide a short summary of your book. You don’t have to hit every checkpoint of the genre in your summary, but you should be hitting enough that the editor can tell that if someone comes for fro-yo, they will feel like they got fro-yo.
The summary will need to both show that you have accomplished your genre, but also why fans of that genre will want to read your book over the many others written that year. It should show off the unique twists and strong emotions that occur inside your manuscript. For more details on writing a summary, read my post here. It contains some of the tricks that I have learned over the years from both writing summaries for Amazon and listening to other people's summaries in queries and pitches.
One of the common questions I get is whether or not an author should spoil the ending in their summary. My answer is absolutely yes. I've met very few authors who can properly explain to me the major conflicts and genre of the book without giving away at least some part of the ending. That's okay. The editors and agents are not trying to be surprised by your ending. They're trying to see if your book is something they can sell. And that means not just the first chapter, but also the last.
Show off your voice.
As you do your final polishing of your summary, make sure to really highlight the tone and style of your manuscript. You want these few sentences to show off the unique voice that you are bringing to the story. An editor can fix a messy plot, an agent can handle the business details, but neither can create your voice. That's the most important thing you bring to the table as an author. It can be hard to fit much of that into the query letter, but you want to fit as much in as you can. The more your summary is pleasant to read, the more they are going to want to read your manuscript.
Show that you are ready to treat this book as a marketable product.
Now that you've explained to the agent/editor what sort of manuscript you are offering them, it's time to bring the attention back to you. Books don't get made by throwing money at an author. Agents, editors, and the other people who will work on your book are going to need to work with you to make the final product. Show them that you are ready to be part of the publishing industry. They will want to know that you are going to be reasonable to work with and that you understand the partnerships that exist within the publishing industry. If you are going to reject all their edits, demand final approval over the cover, refuse to post about your book on social media, or otherwise make their jobs difficult, they are going to have a really hard time selling your book. So make sure to take the time to show that you respect what they do and also to clarify what you bring to the partnership.
One good way to do this is to mention your experience as an author so far. Have you published a short story? Has your manuscript been critiqued by a writing group before? Have you taken the time to learn the basics of how the industry works before sending out your query through classes and conferences?
Next you want to include anything the editor/agent should know about your marketing potential. Do you run any social media channels? Do you have a website? Have you spoken in public before? Are you able to travel on a book tour when your book releases?
At this point, you're going to want to include details about your life (think author bio) that are relevant to this book and your ability to market it. If you have a degree that will make you an expert on your topic, that is great to know. If you've been an elementary school teacher for years and have mastered the art of speaking to large groups of squirmy children, a middle grade publisher will be very excited about sending you to do school assemblies and book signings. What parts of your life have led you to be the kind of person that will be professional, responsible, marketable, and likable to their readers?
Show that you've chosen them for a reason
Finally, you want to end your query letter, by showing them that you are truly interested in being selected by them. What attracted you to this particular agent/publishing house? What previous works of theirs convinced you that they would be the right home for your manuscript? What are they good at that you find most impressive? If you can give specific details and examples here, the editor/agent reading your query will know that you are willing to put in the work and make a wonderful book with them.