For writers who want to go the traditional publishing route, at some point, you will need to write a query letter. A query letter is a one page letter to a literary agent or publisher, giving specific information about the project you are trying to get published.
If you are querying an agent, your letter is your way of enticing them to want to read more. It is the way you go about getting them to represent you. An agent will become your foot in the door with publishers and the more money they make you in contract negotiations, the more money they make, so it behooves them to shoot for the stars for you and your new manuscript.
The reason so much rejection occurs (see post on handling Rejection), is because agents need to be selective with who they decide to represent. You want them to be this way because you are looking for an agent who feels strongly about you and your writing. The more they believe in your story the more they will fight for you to get the deals you hope to get.
If you decide to go straight to publishers, instead of getting an agent first, then a query will still serve a similar purpose. Publishers, however, often request additional things be sent to them. They may want a cover letter and the first 50 pages of your book, along with an author bio, and a synopsis. Sometimes they may even want an outline, giving them a few lines per chapter about what each chapter is about.
Whatever it is that either party is asking for (literary agents or publishers), it is important to follow their requirements as they have them laid out in their agency’s submission guidelines.
A suggestion I would make to any who are at the querying stage: go to the literary agent’s own blog or website that you want to query. Spend some time there. See if they’ve posted anything on their manuscript wish list. See if they want something a little different when you query them than what their agency requests on their submission guidelines page.
I have seen some agents whose agency wants a query letter, plus a couple of other things (first five pages, synopsis, etc.), but they only want the query. This doesn’t happen often, but why not take the time to have a look, just to be sure?
Part of the query letter that there has been a lot of debate about, is whether to include a personalized sentence or two explaining why you specifically selected that agent or publishing house to represent you. This could include sentences like:
I am submitting to you, for you represent [name of author] whose writing style is similar to my own.
I read on your blog that you are looking for Middle Grade Fantasy with an environmental focus. [One more line as to why yours meets this criteria.]
I’ve read some query letters where the writer mentioned the agent would be a good fit, because they represented the category and genre their book was written for. Though it is extremely important to make sure you are only querying someone who represents the type of book you have written, that is something you should already know before querying them. In other words, it is obvious that you are querying them because they represent your category/genre. Try to dig a little deeper if you can.
Read a few of their blog posts on the subject, take a look at their manuscript wish list to see what they are really hoping to find as they sift through the slush pile. For this part of the query, you are hoping to show them that you’ve done a little more research than the norm. If you take time to learn about them, they will be more inclined to reciprocate.
I have found many great resources on query writing in the past year. Queryshark is one of them. This site, run by literary agent, Janet Reid (FinePrint Literary Management), is for writers of fiction, where queries can be submitted to be critiqued, sent back, edited, and then the process starts again. You will get great insight into what you’re doing wrong. Read all the past posts in the archives and see a wealth of knowledge without even submitting yourself.
I found Brigid’s blog, My Life as a Teenage Novelist, very helpful because she has a post called What I Learned from Queryshark, where she goes through Queryshark’s archives for you, getting you all the great tips!
Another great resource comes from literary agent, Maria Vicente, who talks on her blog about everything you will need to know during the querying process, what it’s like to work with an agent, etc. I’ve even taken a class by her on query writing on LitReactor.com: The Art of the Query Letter. I have learned so much from reading her posts over the years and taking her class, that I finally feel I have a grasp on writing query letters.
Query writing is one of those things most writers dread. It fits right in with writing a 1-2 page synopsis of your 500-page book. Some writers have even been quoted saying, “I’d rather get a root canal than write a query.” Querying is about selling yourself and your work, and that makes it a difficult thing to do.
Researching and finding the tools to help you succeed when query writing will give you a leg up on those who are just trying to “wing it”. Spend the time to look at other writer’s examples of queries that landed them a contract, and you will slowly begin to see why theirs stood above the rest.
How are your query letters coming? Have you found other great resources on how to write excellent queries? Please share them in the comments below!