Query letters are tough. I get it. These are those nasty little things that authors just want to skip (along with the synopsis). They have been told, in the end, it is all about the manuscript so why can't they just send in the story and we assess that. While this might sound plausible, it is not feasible. A well crafted query letter is still the best way to get your foot in the door.
Now, let me say this before going any further. People who tell you that their query letter got them the contract are misinformed and clued out. The query letter did not sell the book. It was, after all, the story. But the query letter did get the process moving.
Understand that, aside from authors submitting projects that editors and agents don't acquire, or simply writing an awful story, the query letter is really one of the biggest reasons those submissions get rejected.
So, let's start with the basics. The query letter is a cover letter. When you send in a resume to a potential employer, you include a cover letter. The things that go into that cover letter are the same essential things that go into your query letter. Let's review some points:
- The query letter is not a one size fits all... Authors seem to think they write one letter, change the person's name in the letter and fire it off! WRONG!!!! While there might be some information that will remain the same, you always take the time to shape the query letter around exactly what that editor or agent is looking for.
- You must showcase why you and your story is a perfect fit... Again, when you write a cover letter, you take the time to highlight to the potential employer why you are what the company needs. You showcase the things they have posted in their job description and you tell them why you fit that description.
- You don't hint, you show... Come on authors, you know this! SHOW DON'T TELL. If you tell me your story is similar to another author, tell us how. If you think your story addresses the needs of a particular audience, explain how!
- Don't tell me your weaknesses... I know this sounds strange but time and time again, authors tell me things such as: They are still learning. They have not sold anything so far. They have now been with multiple agents. Editors have already been rejecting them. Really????? Just tell me you are pathetic. Of course, if you do have all of these issues, you have some other things to work on.
- You don't talk about your book... We get tons of letters where the author tells us the title (maybe) or rambles on and on about all the things they can do, but give us nothing about the book. Sorry, if we have to ask for more just to figure this out, you will be rejected.
- You lie... OK maybe that is a bit harsh, but hyperbole is not going to do it for us. When you talk about the huge numbers of people who like the novel, but that number is just your immediate family, you are stretching the truth. When you tell me Oprah or all of these producers are considering you book, when in reality, you just got a form letter that says they "will look at it" but it is just a polite way of saying no thanks, then you are stretching the truth. When you claim these big name authors say they have read your project and love it, when all you did was maybe have a scene read in a conference, then you are stretching the truth.
- Don't leave out details... So, you were previously published. That's great. BUT... if it was 20 years ago and you were fired, this might be a bit of a problem. When you leave off the fact that you have not finished the book, or it is 500,000 words, or that it has already been rejected, then we have a problem.
OK, so what should go into the letter?
- THE BASICS - Tell us title, genre and word count. Tell us what the high concept is and tell us EXACTLY why your story fits what we are looking for. Why did you pick me as an agent of interest.
- THE BOOK - Tell us the central story line. We need the setting, characters, conflicts and general plot. Keep it to the point.
- THE BIO - Who are you as an author. If you are previously published, have awards and so forth, tell us. If you are a first time author, that's fine, but tell us about other projects you are working on.
- BE PROFESSIONAL - You are applying for a job. No jokes. No swearing. No information that has nothing to do with your book and career.
Get the idea???
And again, if the editor or agent does not represent it, or they do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, don't send it to us.