Queries 101: Five Elements of a Good Query Letter
Blogger: Michelle Ule, filling in for Janet Kobobel Grant and Wendy Lawton, who are in New York City for meetings and to attend Book Expo America.
We receive a lot of queries here at Books & Such; we’ve read more than 35,000 in the last 10 years. Today I’m going to write about what makes a query letter stand out, and tomorrow I’ll tell you why perfectly good queries get rejected.
A query is noticed when you:
1. Read our guidelines and only query us if your project meets our parameters.
We state clearly on our website’s submissions page what we’re looking for:
- Adult fiction and nonfiction
- Teen and young adult fiction and nonfiction
- Twenty-to-thirtysomething fiction and nonfiction
- Middle-grade fiction and nonfiction
These categories are pretty broad, but you’ll notice they don’t include screenplays, poetry or children’s books. If you’ve written something of that nature, our agency is not going to be able to help you with your project.
2. Check your facts, spell-check your query and make sure you know to whom you’re sending the project.
Our submissions guidelines ask you to send queries to email@example.com. You’re welcome to address your query to a specific agent, but the submission needs to go to the one central e-mail address. From there queries are funneled to the agents. When you send your query to representation, you automatically get a response saying we’ve received your query. If you send it elsewhere, it may get overlooked, you won’t receive the confirmation we received your query, and you won’t be informed about how we handle queries at our agency.
In addition, you want to make sure you correctly spell the name of the person whom you want to read your work. Some agents specify not only what they seek but what they don’t represent. You can save a lot of time and trouble for both you and the agent if you pay attention to what she wants.
Be sure to spell-check your query. We don’t “take off points” for misspelled words, but you only get one chance to make a first impression, so make it a good one.
By the way, query is spelled QUERY.
3. Are professional–this is a business proposal.
If you were writing a letter to the President of the United States, you would be polite and more formal than informal. We don’t really care if you use our first names, but if in doubt, you should opt for an honorific and last name. For women, use MS; for men, use MR. You can’t go wrong that way. (Or, if in doubt, use that person’s full name.)
Recognize what you’re doing with a query–you’re asking a professional to evaluate your writing and to consider going into business with you. Do you really want to be jocular? How impressed are you when people use vulgar language? Should you make wild promises you can’t keep? If this agent is as good as you’re hoping, she will be able to recognize writing skill.
4. Recognize the query letter is an audition–be succinct and to the point–with beautiful writing.
Here’s the heart of it all–if you write a query letter than captures our imagination, displays terrific writing, demonstrates you understand the market and meets all our stated guidelines, your chances of receiving a request to send your proposal go way up. We wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t love words and books. Sometimes we’ll even request a project we aren’t sure we can represent because we love the writing or the idea so much. You never know what will make us say yes in spite of ourselves.
5. Demonstrate you understand the market and have put in time mastering your craft.
I hate to say this, but people who finish their first manuscript and dash off a query seldom get asked to send a proposal. It takes time to learn your writing craft. Make sure your project is unique and articulate how and why. Tell us why you decided to write your idea and show us you’ve examined the market to make sure there’s a need.
Agents and publishing houses want to work with savvy writers. We’re reasonable people, and we want to introduce fascinating ideas, great writing and a profitable project to the world.
Did you send out your first query before you or your project was ready? What questions do you have about content to include or to remove?