Thursday, July 7th, 2016
by Sara-Jayne Slack, managing the not-for-profit publishing house Inspired Quill
How To Craft A Perfect Query Letter: Standing Out (Positively!) In The Age Of Slush.
Query Letters: two simple words that strike terror into the hearts of fiction and non-fiction authors alike. And no wonder! The age of email has ushered in an even bigger struggle to be heard among all the other digital noise, to stand above the crowd and wave your arms in an attempt to be noticed and, yes, liked by those elusive ‘Gatekeepers’. (Quotation marks my own, but I may get to that in another post).
In reality, Query Letters are rather simple (once you get over the fear of first impressions and the information overload). And to prove it, I’m going to walk you through one right now in a way that you can actually use, instead of just adding to your information overload. But first, a couple of high-level notes.
Note 1: My experience with Query Letters comes from my position as the MD of Inspired Quill Publishing, and liaising with other small publishers. This means I have no experience with what individual Agents like/don’t like.
Note 2: This should not be taken as absolute gospel – as mentioned above, everyone has their own quirks and requirements for Query letters, so it’s important you read through the submissions page of any website very carefully. Consider the items below as ‘best practices’, rather than ‘do these or never get published ever’.
The Handy Step-by-Step (or Paragraph-by-Paragraph) guide to writing a Query Letter for Small Publishers.
Okay, so here goes.
Paragraph 1 – This Time, It’s Personal
Here’s a secret: publishers are people too! And small publishers, especially, tend to be very ‘front-facing’, rather than the walled halls of the bigger players in the industry. Being treated like a human rather than an acquisitions minion will go a long way. You can start off strong by answering the following questions within this first paragraph.
- Why are you contacting THEM specifically?
- Recommendation – Did you see someone singing their praises online somewhere? Where? Or maybe you met one of their authors at an event and they said good things about them?
- Ethos / Work Ethic – Do they have a mission statement that really resonates? Have you read a title (or two..or three) of theirs and appreciated their attention to quality in terms of editing, artwork etc?
This paragraph shows that you’ve done your homework, and that you’re already engaged with what they do. It helps to build a rapport with the people you’re hoping will publish your title. (And rapport building is, after all, one of the most important aspects of any sales pitch).
Paragraph 2 – Hook, Line, (No) Sinker
Remember that saying, “The first sentence of your book should make the readers want to get to the second. The first paragraph to the second. The first page to the second…” and so on? The same needs to happen here. I affectionately call this ‘Hook’ line the ‘Bare Bones Blurb’. That is, you need to sum up why your manuscript is awesome in 1-3 lines.
- Example 1: What does your character want? Why? What’s stopping them?
- Example 2: What’s the problem? Who has to deal with it? How?
Paragraph 3 – Boil It Down!
Ugh. Synopsis. In more than half a decade I have yet to meet an author who writes one of these things with a smile. And for good reason. After all the blood, sweat and tears that went into your book, it’s tough to boil it down into a short, snappy couple of paragraphs. Here are some tips:
- Start long! Write to your heart’s content about all the amazing twists and turns and characters and sub-plots, etc.
- Look at how many words you’ve just written.
- Half it.
- Highlight the absolute most important bits and prioritise them. Cut the rest. Then do so again until the word count has been halved.
- Look at how you’ve written the synopsis.
- Are there any parts that can be tightened? Have you used 10 words where 2 will do? Tighten the language used.
- Half it.
- Continue in this way until you’ve managed to cut down your synopsis to no more than 2 short paragraphs (approx 150-250 words).
Remember: The aim of a Query Letter is to get the publisher interested enough to ask to see the full manuscript. If they’re impressed by your synopsis, imagine how their minds are going to be blown when they read through all the subtle twists and turns and amazing characterization in your work!
Paragraph 4 – Time for Technicalities
This is where you get a bit of a mental breather. Make sure you include the word count and genre of your work. You could even mention whether it’s a standalone, part of a series, and any interesting themes associated with it.
- Example: My Awesome Book is a 67,000 word, Dystopian novel that deals with themes of Awesomeness, Journeys, and Writing. It’s currently standalone, but has an open possibility to become part of a series set in that world.
Paragraph 5 – Who Am I? (Le Mis Lyrics Not Included)
Note that this is an optional paragraph, but recommended. Remember earlier, when I said that Publishers are people too? This is your chance to show ‘em that you’re also a real human being.
In priority order, here’s a list of the things you could add. (But remember, keep it brief!)
- Publication Credits – Be specific! Instead of saying ‘a number of magazines’, list the most relevant 2 or 3, then say ‘amongst others’ (or similar). This is where you can also list any significant writing awards received.
- Education/Career – Where relevant! Degrees are good to list, as are well-known workshops or summer schools with a creative writing lean.
- About you – Add one or two sentences (max!) about yourself in a way that lends weight to your pitch. If your book is action/adventure and you’ve spent a year learning Parkour, or if you have another way of showing a piece of your personality, go for it!
Paragraph 6 – That’s All Folks
Once you’ve written the previous paragraphs, it’s time to wrap up and stop!
- Thank them for their time, then say you look forward to their response, then sign off.
Also, there’s no need to be creepy with your thanks.
Good Example: “I appreciate you taking the time to read this query, and I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience. Sincerely, Mr Spock.”
Bad Example: “Thank you so, so much for reading this query. I only hope that you feel it was worth your time and that you will be able to get back to me whenever you can. I know you must be super busy, so please feel free to take your time. With all the very best wishes in the world, Mr. Creep.”
Not so confusing now, right?
Hopefully this post has helped calm your nerves regarding writing your Query Letter. All you need to do now is get someone to proof read it for you so that any typos get oblitorea…obliturrat…deleted, before you press ‘send’.
Because there are absolutely pitfalls that can trip up enthusiastic writers at the last hurdle, here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of things to be very careful of while proofing your letter.
- Write more than an A4 page (approx 400 – 500 words)
- Say that your book is “like X mixed with Y” a far more subtle way to show thematic and genre similarity would be to say “inspired by X and Y”.
- Send without having a fresh pair of eyes proof read for typos, etc
- Forget to include your contact details. Use your Email and Phone Number for emails. Your address is only needed when sending out physical letters – if you do this, also send a Self Addressed, Stamped Envelope!
- Follow up after 2 weeks. Leave it at least a month, unless a time is specified on the publisher’s website
- Say that your mother/husband/Neighbour/Goldfish read the book and loved it
- Mention this is your 23rd attempt at querying (including mentions of ‘almost accepted’)
- Mention your very detailed marketing plan. (You can mention your online activity/platform if you think it’s relevant)
- Set out your query letter to read like a press release. It loses any individuality (remember item 1?) and comes across as incredibly arrogant.
- Tell them that the novel ‘really gets going around halfway through chapter 2’. If that’s the case, why on earth haven’t you deleted the first 2.49 chapters?
Sara-Jayne is a social entrepreneur, convention panelist, (very) amateur actress and lover of all things tea related. She splits her time between her Day Job™ as a Focus Mentor, managing the not-for-profit publishing house Inspired Quill, and thinking up excuses not to exercise. She’s also scarily comfortable talking about herself in the third person, and holds the belief that ‘To Do’ lists breed when your back is turned.
(Posted by Cherry Mosteshar)
Follow Cherry Mosteshar on Twitter at @mostesharcherry