Having worked for several years as an acquisitions editor for a small press, I believe I have seen a few thousand, if not more, queries come into my e-mail inbox. That said, I am sure I have seen many examples of how not to write a query, as well as the rare few that inspired me to open the accompanying manuscript. If you are serious about submitting a book to a publisher or agent, and having said industry expert offer you a contract, you need the right hook that gets your book read and evaluated. It is not uncommon for editors and agents to pass on a project based upon a poorly structured query.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that your query letter must be the e-mail equivalent of a knock-down, glittering Broadway finale complete with jazz hands and confetti. The query letter is the very first glimpse an editor or agent will see of you, so it’s important to deliver one that is professional, simple to understand, and to the point. As you invest time in contacting multiple editors you may eventually catch on to certain quirks and red flags that help you determine what certain people like and dislike. I follow a number of agents on Twitter and pay attention when one vents his/her irritations regarding rhetorical questions in a query, among other peeves. This is a good way to tailor a letter to a specific person.
If you aren’t sure how your target will react, though, you should at least hone your “elevator pitch” as compelling reading. Imagine you’re in an elevator with the agent or publisher of your dreams. You have those precious seconds to convince that person to read and love your book. What do you say? This will serve as the heart of your letter.
What do publishers, editors, and agents look for in a solid query?
1) Your correct contact information. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received queries missing this pertinent info. If you attach a document to an e-mail, or if you compose in the body, you must include your legal name, your pen name where applicable, a phone number, and mailing address. Even in the Internet age, some in the industry still contact authors via the phone. It’s always safe to offer somebody more than one option for communication.
2) Information about your book. This will include the title, the word count, and the genre. As a personal preference I believe it’s important to present this data up front, because it allows the publisher/editor/agent to determine initially if the work does not fit the house’s guidelines. The time an acquiring editor invests in reading queries is precious, and if one has hundreds to read weekly he/she wants to sort through them as quickly as possible. Don’t waste somebody’s time with a pages-long query that ends with little to no information on word count and genre, especially if you query houses where those genres and lengths aren’t represented.
3) A synopsis of your book that is brief and best captures the story. You don’t have to recap play-by-play action or delve into the psyche of your characters, just the facts here. Introduce the conflict and briefly explain what happens to bring the story to conclusion. Remember the elevator pitch.
As a personal aside, you may wish to avoid cliches and guarantees. Claiming that your book is the next “Twilight” or that Oprah will want to add it to her book club isn’t likely to win you a request for a full manuscript. Sell the book on its own merits rather than compare it to something else. Show the publisher/editor/agent you are beyond compare.
4) A short biography. Focus on your writing history, particularly past credits and experiences. If you frequent writing conferences or are a member of an organization like RWA or SFWA, you may wish to note that as well. Show that you are active in the writing community and willing to sell yourself as a published author.
Before you do send off a query, have a fellow writer proof it for you. The last thing you want to send to somebody who may publish your book is a letter full of typos and grammatical errors. Good luck!
Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and freelance editor specializing in articles on self-publishing services and freelance editing services. She also specializes in social media writing for businesses.