How to Write a Query That Gets Noticed

Michelle Ule

Queries 101: Five Elements of a Good Query Letter

Blogger:ย  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 protected] 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.ย  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.ย  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?

35 Responses

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  1. I love the blend of professionalism and grace at Books and Such. Great job, Michelle. I can’t imagine wading through 35,000 book proposals! All the more reason for authors to exercise care in their queries.

  2. Thanks for the great stuff, Michelle. I think it’s difficult for an author to know when is the “right time” to send off a query. When is the book actually finished? Any advice on that?

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Lindsay Harrel ยป As a tweaker to the very end, I’m not sure I’m the best one to say when a manuscript is finished . . . ๐Ÿ™‚

      When we ask for a proposal, we want to see the first three chapters or fifty pages of a project. You should focus on making the beginning as strong as possible. You also should ask others to read your project–writer friends, critique group members, a well-read person–all people who will comment honestly. If they tell you they think it’s ready and why, I’d say you can query.

      If more than one of your readers has a reservation, you need to take another swing at your manuscript.

      We’re a literary agency, your project needs to be as well done as you can make it before you send it to us. While we have editorial skills, we don’t have time to spend on projects we don’t represent.

      Hope this helps.

  3. Did I send out my first query prematurely? Of course. I’d wager that the vast majority of writers did the same when they started out. The instinct is universal to hit “send” as soon as possible, so the world can see our work of genius.
    As for Lindsey’s question, I’ll echo the sentiment I’ve heard elsewhere–books, like poems, are often not finished but abandoned. In other words, we can tinker with them forever. When someone comes up with a good rule as to when it’s time to quit, I want to read it.
    As always, thanks for sharing with us. It’s a privilege to be able to say, “My agent is with Books & Such.”

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Richard Mabry ยป And then there are projects that just need to be set aside for awhile and revisited later. Indeed, after finishing a project, I would do something else for a month or so and then come back and read it through. Sometimes you just need a little time away to get perspective. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Lovely to have you with us, Richard.

    • That was my thought, too, Richard! It’s never really finished…always something else we can do to it. ๐Ÿ˜›

  4. Tiana Smith says:

    These seem like solid recommendations. Of course, I started querying on an earlier project before it was really ready. Looking back, I can see that now. Since then, I’ve worked a lot more on my skill rather than just learning the particulars in how to write a good query. I was putting the cart before the horse there, but I really do feel like my writing has improved so that next time, I’ll be more prepared.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Tiana Smith ยป We’ve all gotten excited prematurely, Tiana, but it certainly sounds like you’ve learned a good lesson. While I said you only have one opportunity to make a first impression on a project, we’re always happy to look at a new idea.

  5. Jeanne T says:

    Thanks for your insights, Michelle. I found it very helpful. This may be a silly question: I’d how do you identify what a unique idea is?

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Jeanne T ยป We encourage writers to explore their theme and topic before they start writing–to ensure they’re not simply adding to a canon of work that’s been done before. (You should do this with titles as well. In this case, Amazon is your best friend).

      In my discussion of proposals in April, see here, I talked about how to do that investigation.

      You might try out your idea on well-read friends–describe your project and watch their reaction. For example, I’m working on a Civil War novel right now and there are lots of those on the market, so I’ve developed a “tag line” for my story and when I use it, people’s faces change. I’m confident, therefore, I’ve got a solid angle on a perennial topic.

      If you’re at a writer’s conference, you might ask an editor if you can run your idea by them–right then–and get an opinion on its freshness. Another option would be a librarian or perhaps even an English teacher–all people who are familiar with books.

      And if they say, “gee, that sounds like Gone With the Wind,” you either need to go read the book or figure out how your project is different.

      As for us at Books & Such, we’ve read so many queries a truly fresh idea stands out and prompts us to say, “hmmmm.”

      We like that. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Hi Michelle, I just wanted to let you know that when I clicked your highlighted ‘here’ I got the B&S member login. Maybe it’s just me. But I thought I’d mention it.

      • Michelle Ule says:

        Thanks, Jennifer, corrected!

        Don’t worry about the crayons–all the queries are in black and white on our computer screens!

      • Jeanne T says:

        This is very helpful, thanks, Michelle. Your practical suggestions help. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Thank you for this explanation and concrete way to discover it. Much appreciated! I always have trouble being sure mine is unique enough.

  6. Jen says:

    Thank you for this post! It is always encouraging to come across a positive post from someone in the publishing industry. Gathering your information is key to crafting and submitting a stellar query.

    Have I ever submitted one before a project was good to go? Of course! Thankfully I recognized that and have spent the past few years reworking it. It’s still not ready, but it’s getting there!

    Jen

  7. I’m fairly sure my first query was written in scented crayon with glitter in the envelope and unicorn stickers instead of stamps. Okay, not really, but close! Round Two starts soon, with some interesting and valuable advice from those who have gone before me. I’ll do my best and see what is around the next corner.
    But I remind myself that my worth is not wrapped in a publishing contract. Or the approval of anyone else. My worth is found in the hands of God, and there it stays.

  8. Aren’t Middle Grade books for kids?

  9. Michelle Lim says:

    Thanks for the great ideas, Michelle! That first impression is so important and your ideas are a great reminder to all of us to make that first impression count.

  10. Thank you ~ again a timely post exactly when I needed it. I enjoy this informative blog and all the things I learn.

  11. Thank you, Michelle, for this straight-forward advice. I am preparing to send out my first query. Although I love to write, the idea of writing query letters has scared me to pieces. Your post is quite helpful.

    Would you please give me guidance about the structure of the query? Would it be: salutation, brief introductory paragraph, the pitch, market research / uniqueness of idea, author qualifications / background, thank you?
    My query will be for a adult fiction. Also, where should genre and word count be noted?

    Thank you so much for your help. I am looking forward to tomorrow’s post.

    Blessings!

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Christine Dorman ยป Sorry, I missed this earlier.

      Your concept of how to put together your query looks good. Your introductory paragraph could say, I’ve just written a 95,000 word inspirational romance set in the Civil War about ___________ and then further describe your project.

      Second paragraph would be the meaty pitch–where using the same lyrical descriptive language in which you wrote your manuscript, you tell me the general story in five or so sentences. That paragraph will be key–after your basic hook/story idea– demonstrating if you write well enough to make us want to look at your project.

      Finish off the one page query letter with the rest and we’ll be happy to read it! Best wishes.

      • Thank you for responding to me, Michelle. Your confirmation of the correct structure helps me to stop procrastinating, let go of my fear, write the query and send it out.

        Blessings ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Michelle, thanks for the informative post. As others have stated, it is so easy to hit send after completing a manuscript. At one workshop, I was advised to wait until I fell out of love with the manuscript before even beginning the editing process.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Joanne Guidoccio ยป Funny! I suppose that means its easier to kill your darlings when you don’t love them anymore!

  13. I have a question, related to word count. My MS is a historical romance that spans 30 years in the lives of 2 families, all of which brings our hero and heroine together to a satifying and “awww, I wanna cry!” conclusion. What is an acceptable word count for a novel such as this? I have gone through the MS and have been surgical about un-necessary word and scene pollution, but what debut novel with 119,000 words has a hope of getting picked up?
    Or if it’s perceived to be worthy, is there a chance an editor is going to want to cut chunks of it?

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Jennifer Major ยป I’m neither an agent nor an editor, Jennifer, but my guess is if you don’t feel you can cut any more, you might consider making your manuscript two books. Historical novels are longer than standard romances, and easily hit the 95 to 100K word count. More than that, however, not as likely to get considered.

      But that’s my opinion. I’d check with a critique group or perhaps get the opinion of some critiquers at a writer’s conference.

  14. Thanks for a wonderful post, Michelle. I was at the reverse end of the spectrum: I stressed over whether the manuscript was ready until I decided I had to send out a query to find out.

  15. Susan Kinney says:

    Thank you for this blog post Michelle Ule!