March 29, 2013

Query Letter Quest

Once upon a time. . .

Virtually no resources existed for aspiring writers to research agents or publishers and find their contact information, not mention submission guidelines.  Guides were published and sold, but by the time they were bought, many were out of date. The aspiring writer who had slaved for months (or years) over their work had to rely largely on luck to search out a way even to make it into the currently dreaded slush pile. 

Nowadays, for those with an internet connection, the opposite is true.  Not only do agents and publishing houses have websites, Facebook pages, twitter accounts, and blogs, but many are also listed on sites such as AgentQuery, which is quite aptly named, as the first step in reaching out to agents or publishing houses is what is called a "query letter".

Like for finding agents and publishing houses, many resources exist describing query letters and providing tips, insights, tricks, directions, etc.  Of course, with so many resources out there, some inevitably contradict each other.  Quite a few agents also list specific requirements for first contact—synopsis of varying lengths, a certain portion of your manuscript, etc.  Inevitably, though, every type of first contact requires a query letter.  A well-crafted query is akin to the magic key necessary to unlocking the door to the publishing world, once you find said door.

Because contradicting advice exists, aspiring writers ultimately have to decide which advice to follow and which to ignore.  AgentQuery also has forums where people post successful query letters, and of those that I've read, most do not follow absolutely 100% of the advice.  Some rules I nevertheless believe to be wise as I craft my query letters are:
  1. Your query letter should include a personalized salutation, not a general "To Whom It May Concern" or "Dear Editor" and the details of your manuscript (which should pretty much always be referred to as "finished" or "completed") including word count (round to the thousand), title, genre/sub-genre.
  2. You absolutely must have an amazing pitch for your story, in the vein of a back cover blurb.
  3. Finish with a mini bio with your accolades and credentials:
    • Contests your writing in the genre has won
    • Relevant degree
    • Significant life experience that is useful for your manuscript, e.g.: if you're a forensic pathologist and your book includes solving murders
    • If you're an active member of critique groups or writing associations
  4. Do NOT:
    • Be arrogant, e.g. claiming your work will save the agent's career or publishing house's fate, or that it's the next great American novel—even if you think it is
    • Include bribes
    • Have gimmicks, like colored paper (for traditional mail) or multicolored fonts, etc.
    • Be rude or condescending
    • Write more than one page
      • Sending queries by email makes this somewhat flexible, but they are nonetheless expected to be concise
    • Simply tell the recipient to look at your website or an attachment except as part of your signature or if they requested attached supplemental materials.
  5. If you're absolutely confident in the comparison, consider including works in a similar vein to yours, but again, be humble about it.
  6. Ensure this is as good an example of your writing as your manuscript itself.
  7. Check each recipient's particular preferences, then check them again, and adhere to them strictly!

Will all that in mind, the "anatomy" of the letter nevertheless seems to be up for debate.  Some people jump right into the blurb and intertwine the bio and the personalization; others start with a log line, then include the practical details like word count, then have the rest of the blurb.  Personally, I am choosing, for my first round of queries at least, to begin with the personalization and logistical details, then include the blurb, then a very short bio, and of course a final sentiment thanking the reader for his/her time.

In addition to general guidelines for query letters, an incredibly useful find for me on drafting a query letter was examples of inline responses that agents posted on their blogs, which show exactly how the person reading the query letter mentally reacts.

Ultimately, I am, like most writers, hoping my query simply elicits a response—preferably a positive one.  What about you?  How are you crafting your query?


  1. I bought a couple of books by Nicola Morgan as the synopsis and query flummoxed me. From the exercises in the books, I managed to craft a query similar to your examples in part.The exercises were really useful in finding the 'hook'. However, a short, sharp,blunt rejection followed which I'm sure I'll get over lol. xxx

    1. From all the accounts I've read, a rejection is the next best thing to a request ;-) Are you going to keep submitting?

      p.s. Your comment brought to mind "To sit in solemn silence..." haha