5 Rules for Query Letters that Work

So you’ve written a book or an article. You’ve taken the time to painstakingly edit and revise and now you think it’s ready to publish. You look around for the next step, seeking the advice of all those who have come before you. You want an advance but need an agent to get one. How do you get an agent? You query them.

Sounds pretty simple but nothing that sounds simple turns out to be. There are so many factors to think about here. What should you include in your letter? How do you send it? Is there a format you need to know? On to Google you go to figure it all out and chances are, that’s how you arrived here.

There is an art and a science to query letters. With that being said, there is no foolproof method to getting an agent to accept your work but most of the battle is getting out of the query slush pile and having the agent actually read your query…the entire thing. When I say “Writing a Query Letter that Works,” I’m not guaranteeing you’ll sell your work. What I can say is this proven query format and method keeps more queries out of the slush pile and in front of those that can sell your work.

This may seem to have nothing to do with query letters in general, but everything I am about to impart is important and will get your query letter read.

#1 – QUERYING ISN’T JUST A LETTER, IT’S A PROCESS.

A paradigm shift needs to happen with authors just as much as the industry has adjusted to digital media. Most writers still insist the query is just a letter and that’s it. It’s not. This is a process that starts with you reading this article and others to figure out how to write the letter properly and ends when you get past all the rejections and land that elusive contract. Everything you do from start to finish affects your saleability i.e. your brand. Your query letter is your first impression in the publishing world at large and if you think it’s just a form letter you send off, you’ll never get out of the slush pile

#2 – PROFESSIONALISM SHOWS THROUGH THOROUGH RESEARCH

Bottom line, don’t just send your query out to everyone. Know who you are querying. There are some things you need to know about every person you query and each thing is essential.

  • Their full name or whatever you can find to complete their name.
  • Who they work for.
  • What genres they represent and sell.
  • Where they are located
  • MOST IMPORTANT – How they want to receive your query.

You wouldn’t query someone who represents children’s literature with your 85k plus erotic novel, would you? You would be amazed at how many people actually make this mistake. They find an agent representing one of their favorite authors or they connect with the bio on a website and send them a query with no regard for what they actually represent. An agent has to have an interest in your work to have the passion to sell it.

Also, the second biggest mistake is people sending a query in all the wrong ways. Most agents and agencies have a specific way they want to be queried. How do they want it sent? As attachment or in the body of an e-mail? Via snail mail? Do they want the first 10 pages of your manuscript or the first 10,000 words? How do they want the manuscript formatted? So many things people overlook and it makes them look unprofessional which is where the slush pile starts. If you don’t have the time or energy to send it to them the way they ask for it, you’re sending out the red flag you don’t know how to research or follow directions, which can make an author look difficult to work with.

If they don’t ask for a submission in a certain way, the rule of thumb is .doc or .pdf in 12 point Times New Roman or Arial font. (I prefer Times because it’s a little easier on the eyes). Margins at 0.75 inch except the bottom should be at 0.5 inch because you will have a standard footer with the page number. I cannot tell you how many times I have dropped a manuscript only to have the pages erupt into every corner of the room before I can get it stapled together. Please do not format it into a 6×9 sheet or add extra formatting. A standard format is fine with 1.5 line spacing. When in doubt, follow the defaults of a typewriter because that’s what it’s all really based on anyway.

Does this mean you have to reinvent the wheel every time? No. It is fine to have a general template for your query but you should never send out a generic, one-size-fits-all letter. Every query you send should be personalized to who you are sending it to.

#3 – BE PREPARED FOR THE YES

What does this mean? Oh so many things.

  • Have your work ready and prepared to the point you claimed in your query. Don’t lie. Don’t embellish. Don’t think you can finish before they get back to you because then your work won’t be edited or as presentable as what you already sent the agent. This is often referred to as the Trojan Horse tactic. Your submission should be an example of the work in its entirety. As an example – I have had commercial queries ignored until they need the article to fill a last-minute gap in their content and be given a 24-hour turn around time. It’s rare for it to happen, but it can. Will this happen for a manuscript, not necessarily, but if it’s relevant and now, they may want to fast track it, which is very similar. If the entire work is not as done as your sample, you look unprofessional and aloof.
  • Know your work better than anyone else, especially if you don’t read the genre in which you are writing (which should never be the case). You should always be apprised of the latest hits and newcomers as well as the classics of the genre your work fits into. Comparisons are good if your concept is a little into left field or relatively unexplored in the genre of your work. You need to have your elevator pitch, your extended pitch, your synopsis, your summary and ideas for back cover copy ready. If you don’t know the difference in all those things, there is a glossary article on this page or look it up and understand the differences and similarities.
  • Know how contracts work or have a lawyer handy or at the very least, have one in mind that you want to use that knows about the publishing industry. Never sign a boilerplate contract and READ THE ENTIRE CONTRACT. It is a big mistake to assume the agent has your best interests at heart. They do and they don’t. They want you to be successful because they are profiting from your success. Read that sentence again before moving on. Never allow them to rush you and when in doubt, negotiate.
  • Know about the industry itself which includes all this and more. The vocabulary. How royalties work. How advances work. What marketing do you need to do yourself (be prepared because you will do a lot of your own marketing). What imprints represent your work in the industry. Who does what in your specific industry and how does that affect how you will interact with these professionals.
  • Accept you will still get edited. And while editors are worth their weight in gold, they are also a pain to work with on occasion, especially when they are certain they know best at all costs and/or you don’t necessarily mesh well. It happens. You walk the fine line of standing your ground and looking smart and standing your ground and looking difficult to work with. AND it is a very fine line. No work is perfect…even after it’s published.

#4 – AGENTS AND EDITORS ARE BUSY PEOPLE

We’re all busy but agents and editors don’t give chase as a fundamental part of their sanity. If you make it difficult to reach you, you’re hard to work with and unprofessional. Don’t return phone calls, you’re an arrogant author who fancies themselves too important for contact. The slush pile is there for a reason. Once your letter gets read by an industry professional and they show interest, do yourself a favor and don’t force them to add you to the slush pile later.

With that being said, there is a second caveat to this particular rule. An agent who has been in the business for any amount of time over two years has seen every gimmick you could possibly come up with. If you are given a choice between being clever or being direct, never choose to be clever. It wins you no awards and garners you no favor. A gimmicky letter is the swiftest way to arrive at the bottom of the slush pile.

In addition, keep it concise. Few queries should ever be more than 15 sentences in length and I can almost guarantee yours is not the exception. Yes, I said 15 sentences. No more than one page in 12 point text, no smaller, spaced no less than 1.5 lines. That’s not a lot of space for a first impression. Professionally formatted is best, even if it’s in the body of an email. It shows you know your stuff and you respect old school as well as new, which can be a good message to send when you’re dealing with someone who has been in the industry longer than 5 to 7 years-ish. The industry has changed very quickly over the last two decades alone. Show you recognize and know how it’s changed while respecting people who may be a little behind the curve.

#5 – THIS IS A BUSINESS

You are in the business of writing. If you strive to make money from your work, you are in the business of writing. That business includes marketing and branding. Agents, editors, and publishers believe in what you do but they also know this is a business, first and foremost. They stake their livelihood on the business, not the writer. You are a tool in their business because they don’t or won’t or can’t do what you do.

This is the second paradigm shift that is absolutely critical to your success. You don’t have to approach the craft of writing as a business but once you have crafted the story and want it to be sold, it becomes a tool in your business. None of this means you have to become ruthless and it shouldn’t affect your voice or craft, but it should have an impact on every detail after your final drafting process.

Commercial success has less to do with what you write and more to do with how you write it, market it and sell it. Agents and editors know this and practice it every day. You need to be on the same page when it comes to your work if you want commercial success which starts with finding an agent. Editors and agents know the business of writing. Agents and publishers know the business of selling your writing.

FORMAT YOUR TEMPLATE

Use 10 point Times New Roman or Arial font put all your contact information in the top left-hand corner of your query.

Kendra Brooks-Smith

Pen Name: Kenny B Smith

1234 South 5678 West #90

Salt Lake City, Utah 84111

yourprofessionalsoundingemailhere@youremailserver.com

(555) 555-5555

Justify the text to the right and input the agent’s contact information. This is done this way because this is formatted for envelopes with windows. Old school – right?

P.S. Agent

Best Agency Here

1234 North Fork Road

Cleveland, Ohio 12345

theagentmayhaveanemail@theirserver.com

(555) 555-5555

(Below, use 12 point Times New Roman or Arial font)

Dear P.S. Agent

In the first paragraph, you introduce yourself. If you met them at a conference, dinner or by sheer fate, note that here if they asked you to send them a query. Chances are, they meet a lot of people and will need a reminder of how they know you. Don’t make this up. If you haven’t met them, tell them you read what genres they represented in whatever place you actually read it and that you feel they are a good match for your work. Don’t insinuate they are perfect for it and don’t make it sound like you were stalking them. Be blunt and straight-forward. You can use the opportunity to give the title of your work and the word count if you want to. THERE SHOULD BE NO MORE THAN 3 TO 5 SENTENCES IN THIS PARAGRAPH. Read the previous sentence over and over until it sinks in.

This is the paragraph that talks about your work. This paragraph should be no more than 5 sentences. NO MORE THAN 5 SENTENCES. In it, if you haven’t already done so, give the title and word count and your summary which must have your hook. A little-known fact is back cover copy is often crafted from this paragraph. Make it as good as you can because this is also the paragraph most agents read first. If you need help on crafting good cover copy – there’s an article on this page as well.

The last paragraph needs to thank them for their time, ask if they require further submission (if they haven’t already requested it in their query guidelines) and a sincere statement about possibly working with them in the future. If you have included anything additional that was not requested in the query guidelines also goes here. No more than 5 sentences, no less than 3. (Are you seeing a pattern here yet?)

Sincerely,

Your signature.

Seriously, sign it in some font that looks like handwriting. You can always be fancy and throw a different color in there but make sure it won’t blind who you’re querying.

Is this guaranteed to sell your work? No. But it does give you a 90% better chance at actually getting read by an editor or agent which is the best odds you’re going to get in the long run.

If you found this article helpful, click here to get your free Writer’s Success Work Sheet to help you with your paradigm shift. It will help you prepare for the entire query process.

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