Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Query Letters - 101

For the next couple of days, I want to focus on the submission process in the same way we view apply for jobs. Yesterday, we looked at the general concept of submissions. Today, we focus on the query letters.

First of all, let me stress that query letters are not easy to write. The difficulty comes from the single fact that this is the first impression you are giving to that editor or agent. This is where the editor or agent starts and if you mess this up, it doesn't necessarily mean your whole career is over, but it does mean you might have given the wrong first impression.

As I said yesterday, the publishing submission process is exactly the same as apply for a job in "the real world". The query letter is the same, in many ways as the cover letter for your resumes. You might also call this your "Letter of Application."

First of all, despite what a lot of people say out there in publishing, your query letter WILL NOT get you a job.l The same goes for the cover letter in a resume. In an article from Forbes Magazine, Roy Cohen of the Wall Street Journal and Marcie Schorr Hirsch, of Hirsch/Hills Consulting noted, “A brilliant letter that’s a response to a job posting may not make a difference,” Cohen says. “In an overburdened workplace, it’s less likely that that letter will get a lot of attention.” (2011). But, with that said, that cover letter may get some attention, enough so that the potential employer may want to read more.

That is what we focus on in the query letters for editors and agents. You want to hook us and excite us about the manuscript your are pitching. If you fail to do this, we will simply pass on it. In other words, if you didn't care enough to talk about your book in an exciting way, them we won't have a desire to read more of that manuscript.

Hirsch and Cohen note that a cover letter should start out with something straightforward and to the point. "both like letters that start by spelling out what job you’re trying to get, including the name of the company, followed by a summary of your career, a list of your relevant accomplishments and then a last line that requests a meeting and says when you plan to get in touch." (From Susan Adams of Forbes Magazine).

Let's talk query letters now and let's do the same thing.

Dear Mr. Eagan,

I am submitting to you a 93,000 word contemporary romance called, Query Letters Rock Alison's World, for your consideration. According to your guidelines, you are looking for stories about real women in real situation and this story does just that as it focuses on a girl in corporate America

or something like that.

Susan Adams writes the following that can parallel nicely with query letters:
The first paragraph lays out the specific job you want and, in the best case, names a mutual acquaintance. If you’re approaching the person out of the blue, take a look at this piece I wrote on direct contacts. You might say you’ve been following the person’s career for a long time, or you recently read about her in Forbes, and then say why you want to pursue a position at the company.

In the next paragraph, write a short summary of your career, tailored to fit the company you’re approaching. In the third paragraph, lay out several specific accomplishments that are relevant to the prospective job. Wendleton likes to do this in bullet form. Put your most impressive accomplishment first, she emphasizes. In the fourth paragraph, say when you’ll be getting in touch.

If we start out the query letter the same way, we are on the right track.
Paragraph 1 - The BASICS - Here we focus on the basics of the book (title, genre, word count). We also want to highlight why we are approaching that editor or agent and what the high concept is for the book. What is it that makes this stand out? What is the BIG theme of the book.

Paragraph 2 - The BOOK - Here we focus on the story itself. We need to know who the protagonist(s) is/are, what the conflict is, and where this book is heading to. We need to have a sense of the entire story. It is sort of like that teaser in the back of the book, but you will provide a bit more information.

Adams goes on to write in the article that the next one or two paragraphs in your cover letter should talk about what you personally bring  to the company and then the contact information. The same goes for the query letter

Your paragraph 3 would focus on your writing career. Demonstrate what you have that goes along with this book. This would include contest wins (if significant), publishing credits (in the genre or similar genre you are writing), and future works in progress. You then wrap it all up with what you are submitting and that is it.

Now, the one thing you will find about cover letters is that there really isn't a single formula for writing the darn things. You do what is necessary to get your foot in the door and that demonstrates you are the right candidate for the job. The same goes for query letters.

Tomorrow - synopsis writing.


  1. Thanks for all the helpful information!

    It looks to me like you value the "This is why I'm writing" and the "call to action" section of a business letter in a query. Am I clear on this?

    Last week an agent posted and tweeted a rant that she found both the "this is why I'm writing" and "the call to action" sections an insult to her intelligence as an agent. Paraphrased: As an agent, I know why the author is writing, and that they want contact.

    On the occasional agent site, you see the business letter format requested as professional. And leaving it out as unprofessional, despite some agents opinions.

    How does a querying author determine whether an agent is repulsed, or delighted, by the business letter aspects of a query letter?

  2. April,
    How do you know? The answer is really simple. Look at his or her website and FAQ pages. Some of us prefer a more business approach and others don't. Remember what I have said before - there is no one right approach. Yes there are those out there who think their way is the only way. If she is your target agent then do what she wants.