Query letters. Just reading the phrase is enough to make a writer feel nervous. So much of what we do seems to depend on this short epistle, as it is the way we introduce ourselves and our manuscripts to agents and editors.
We want that introduction to go beyond a hurried “nice to meet you, but I need to talk to someone else now,” so it’s important for us to do all we can to make our query letters sing.
We start by learning the basics. Those basics include the following steps:
- target the publishers and/or agents you query – there is no point in sending a middle grade novel query to a publisher who doesn’t publish children’s books, even if they target your particular niche in every other way.
- read submission guidelines carefully – if they ask for 10 pages, don’t give them 15; if they don’t take electronic submissions, use snail mail (and vice versa); if they say they’re currently closed to submissions, don’t assume you’ll be the exception.
- ensure that your letter is no more than one page long, single spaced.
- don’t try to be too quirky or off-the-wall in an attempt to be noticed. This is a business letter.
- do send simultaneous submissions – unless they specifically state that they do not consider simultaneous submissions, it’s best to make good use of your time by sending out several targeted queries at a time.
- don’t send blanket, generic submissions. Address the letter to a specific publisher or agent, following their specific guidelines, and giving some indication of why you think your manuscript would be a good fit for what they’re seeking.
- get the editor’s or agent’s name right.
- don’t get too familiar. Use an honorific and the person’s surname, not their first name, at this stage. (Dear Ms. Agentname)
- BE PATIENT – if they say they will respond within three months, wait that long before checking with them UNLESS they have said “If you don’t hear from us within three months, assume that your manuscript doesn’t fill our needs at the moment.” In that case, simply move on to the next possibility.
The basics in terms of the style and form of your letter include
- a brief introductory paragraph stating the title, word count and genre of your manuscript and including a brief explanation of why you chose this publisher or agent. For example, Dragons Can’t Sing! is a 450-word picture book. With Crashing Cymbals Publishing’s penchant for quirky picture books featuring the arts, I think my manuscript might suit your needs well.
- a paragraph telling about the story. You don’t need to retell the whole story, just say enough to get the editor/agent interested. Make this engaging, with an intriguing “hook” sentence, but again, don’t try to be too quirky or off-the wall.
- a brief paragraph indicating market potential, if you can provide some. This doesn’t have to be elaborate, perhaps a suggestion like “with the current success of x, I believe my book has potential to appeal to the same market” or “since Dragon learns the notes of the scale in the course of the story, music teachers and schools might find this book a good addition to the resources they share with their students.”
- a brief paragraph indicating your publishing history IF you have any. If not, don’t mention it. If you have particular skills, such as “for many years I taught so-called tone-deaf children to sing, and have incorporated my methods into Dragons Can’t Sing!” then mention them. Otherwise, simply leave this paragraph out.
- a brief closing. Thank them for taking the time to consider your submission, state that you have appended the requested sample, and also state if this is a simultaneous submission.
- a formal sign-off. Yours sincerely or yours truly may seem mundane, but they are effective and completely acceptable. Give your name (first name and surname).
- your writing sample. If you are submitting a picture book manuscript, you will usually send the full text. If it is a novel, the guidelines will specify how many pages to send. NEVER send this as an attachment. Copy/paste it into the body of the email.
- If this is an electronic submission, they have your contact info with your email address. If it’s a snail mail submission, make sure you have included your mailing address and, only if they request it, a sase (self-addressed stamped envelope).
While you wait to hear back, get working on your next manuscript!
I learned the basics (and so much more) from author and freelance editor Emma Walton Hamilton, who has an almost magical talent for helping writers improve their query letters. If you’d like to hear Emma’s take on queries, here’s a link to a video she made.
SPECIAL OPPORTUNITY! If you’re a picture book writer and you’d like to learn about queries directly from Emma, she – along with author colleague and friend Julie Foster Hedlund – will be offering a free, live webinar called “Cracking the Picture Book Query” on Tuesday, November 10th at 1 pm Eastern time.
If you can’t attend at that time, the replay will be available for one week following the live event.
To learn more about the webinar, and to register, check out Emma’s blog post here.
Here’s to queries that sing!
Note: The title Dragons Can’t Sing!, the name Crashing Cymbals Publishing, and the background in teaching kids to sing are all fictitious, used only as examples.