The Query Letter

This is another post primarily for writers, but about the business end of things.

Yesterday, @saramegibow mentioned in her #10queriesIn10tweets Twitter feed that she passed on a query, in part, because the writer said agents are crazy. This boggled my mind: Why would anyone put that in a query letter? It’s a business communication, not a manifesto.

Your first introduction to your editor or agent is most often a query letter. When you’re introduced to a person for the first time in real life, you don’t say, “Hey, I’ve heard you’re not as big of a [bleeeep!] as other people in your field.”

At least I hope you don’t. It’s insulting. And a little on the crazypants end of the spectrum.

Okay, quite a bit on the crazypants end of the spectrum.

There are four parts to a query letter:

  • Salutation (why I’m sending this to you in particular)
  • Manuscript statistics (word count, genre, the fact that it’s done)
  • Blurb (enough of the story to make sense and get the reader interested in the rest — not a synopsis)
  • Bio (something about the writer’s writing background)

For the salutation, you might mention you follow the person on his or her blog, or you met at a conference, or you know he/she has bought/sold books in your genre.

You don’t say anything about traditional publishing gatekeeper trolls; it’s not relevant, it’s not polite, and it isn’t going to make this person disposed toward working with you. Period.

For the statistics, all you need to say is “Best Book Evah (your title) is a [genre genre], complete at [computer wordcount] words.” That’s it.

And please don’t say “fiction novel” — you can get away with “science-fiction novel” or possibly “womens-fiction novel” if you hyphenate it. Otherwise, they will giggle at your redundancy; these are word people, and we word people find that sort of faux pas amusing.

The blurb is where you put your version of back-cover copy. Beware, you want to sweat over this, because a) it can make the difference between a request and a pass, and b) when you sell, the production team might just use it as the basis for the real back cover copy. I have had that happen to me. I suck at back-cover copy for my own books, so this is a little worrisome.

Please note that a blurb is not the same as a pitch or a synopsis. A pitch is generally one sentence, something you can blurt out between floors in an elevator, particularly if you’re terrified at the time.

A synopsis is a high-level summary of the entire manuscript (including the entire plot, character arc(s), and voice of the manuscript, if you’re good), usually 3-5 pages long.

It won’t fit in a one-page query, but many editors and agents would like to see it with the query, so write it to go with the query. Sweat over this one, too. It’s how you prove you can write a character and structure a story. Again, when you sell, the publisher is going to use the synopsis in production, giving it to the cover artist, the blurbist, the sales force.

The last part of a query letter is the writer’s bio. This is the place to mention that you have an MFA, or you’re a member of a professional organization such as RWA, or if you’ve had books published. You can also mention self-published titles, particularly if they’ve sold well.

Agents and editors will do an internet search on you if they’re interested in your work, so if you put a link to a professional-grade website or blog, or a social media handle, that’s okay, too. You might want to skip the Facebook profile with naughty photos or the twitter handle @gross-stuff.

Once upon a time (the 1980s), I was the college student who copy-edited and typed a children’s book manuscript for a lovely senior citizen. She also asked me to look at her query letter; I was appalled, because she was sending her checking account number to Vantage Press (a venerable “vanity publisher”). In a query letter.

Please don’t do that; it scares me. Yes, I talked her out of it, but it wasn’t easy. And it was in the vicinity of 30 years ago, so probably slightly less dangerous than it would be today. Still.

Be careful with those query letters.

2 comments so far

  1. Stephanie Berget on

    Thanks for a clear, informative blog on Query letters. I’m starting to work on mine and I’m not very good at it. This will help.

    • ValRoberts on

      I’m so glad I could help. 🙂

      It really bothered me that someone would be that rude in a query letter, so I had to say something about it.

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