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The Perfect Query Letter
March 10, 2014
You’ve spent hours, months and even years writing your book or short story. The hard part of getting it published is finished, right? Not even close. Unless you are friends with an agent or publisher, the true work now begins. The single most important step in getting your manuscript accepted for publication is your query letter. Agents and publishers receive hundreds of query letters monthly. How do you make yours stand out among thousands of other aspiring writers? After writing four novels and receiving zero interest in any of them, I completely re-did my approach to query letters. I resubmitted my fourth novel to the same agents and publishers that originally rejected me. This time around, I received multiple requests for my complete manuscript and ended up with a publishing contract. After going through the steps of how to write the perfect query letter, I’ll show you two examples of my query letters.

Three Ways to Publish
Before getting started, let’s quickly distinguish the three ways to publish a book. If you’re fully aware of these already or only interested in doing short stories, please skip to the next paragraph. The most traditional method is to acquire the services of an agent who will approach publishers for you. This person will take a cut of your profits, but you cannot approach major publishers without one. Securing an agent is the best assurance for long-term success as a writer. The second method is to directly approach smaller publishing houses that accept unsolicited queries – meaning they do not require their writers to have an agent. The third method is of course to self-publish. While a viable alternative for many authors, query letters are obviously not needed so self-publishing will not be included in this post.

Sending Query Letters to Agents/Publishers
In terms of approaching agents/publishers, all of the writing resources advise sending your query letter and manuscript to as many as possible. I took this advice my first four attempts at getting published by mass mailing every agent/publisher that might be remotely interested. This was a huge mistake. The absolute best approach is to only contact a few at a time. This greatly increases the amount of time it takes to find a publisher, but it will also greatly increase your chances of success.

Start by dividing the agents/publishers into three categories: most likely, likely and not likely. Choose the three that you believe are the best match for your work and set them aside. Out of the remaining most likely agents/publishers select three that ideally only ask for query letters. This way if all three reject you, you know it is not because of the quality of your manuscript. They either simply are not interested in your proposal, or there are some serious flaws with your query letter. If you are rejected by all three, go back to your query letter and revise it before submitting to the next three agents/publishers.

After receiving your query letter and maybe some sample pages, if an agent/publisher asks to see your entire manuscript you know you have successfully written your query letter. If you are subsequently rejected, you then know that your rejection was based on your manuscript and not your query letter.

On a personal note, for my fourth novel, Betraying the God of Light, after receiving my query letter, an agent that I thought would be the perfect match for my work asked to see my entire manuscript. He then decided not to represent me. I took this rejection as an indication that there was a serious flaw with my novel. I greatly revised it, after which, I found my publisher. From the time I started writing the novel until my publisher accepted it was six years.

Every time you receive a rejection, seriously consider revising your manuscript. It’s true that some famous authors were overlooked before being accepted. But, no agent/publisher wants to miss out on quality work in their genre. Assume there is something wrong with your work and fix it before sending it to three new agents/publishers. If an agent/publisher asks to read your manuscript after receiving your query letter and subsequently rejects you, send them a letter asking for specific reasons why. I tried this and while many ignored me, I received several responses with critiques which helped tremendously in the revising process. Once your query letter has generated interest and you have revised your manuscript, it’s time to go back and approach the three best matches that you set aside.

How to Write a Query Letter
In terms of what to include in the query letter, personalize every single letter. If you use a resource book/website (highly recommended) to find the contact information for agents/publishers, visit their websites before submitting. Read through their entire site and get a real feel for the kinds of books they produce. Find one or two of their authors whose work is most similar to yours. Or, better yet, find an author of theirs that you really enjoy reading. If an agent/publisher does not have a website, see if you can find any reviews about them to make sure they are legit. In this day and age, if they’re not online, they are either way behind the times or sketchy. Either way, I recommend crossing them off your list.

At this point, you’re ready to write your query letter. Every agent/publisher has different guidelines, so you may need to change your query letter accordingly. Always follow their guidelines precisely. Not doing so will most likely lead to an automatic rejection. The query letter should include four or five points:

1) an introduction
2) a short blurb about the manuscript
3) a brief bio
4) some kind of evidence of your visibility/marketablitiy (this can be included in the bio)
5) a closing statement

The Introduction
Before you even start the introduction paragraph you can receive a rejection because of your salutation. Never address your query letter: “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern”. These are formal ways to write when the addressee is unknown, but make you appear to not be seriously interested in this particular agent/publisher. If you cannot locate a specific contact in your writing resource or online, use the company name. For example: “Dear Del Rey Books Editors”. Second, writing resources often advise starting your letter like this: I found your listing in Writing Resource Name. Forget this. They do this because they want to convince agents/publishers that their resource is sending them possible clients. All it does for you is lump you together with a hundred other people doing the same thing. Always mention that your interest in their services is linked to a current author(s) of theirs. This doesn’t have to be in the first sentence, but should be in the first paragraph. The ideal sentence: I am a big fan of Mark Twain and followed him to you in the belief that my work will complement his. Another really good approach if you are unfamiliar with any of their authors is to choose one that appears to be most similar to yours. Example sentence: Readers will find my story as delightful as Mark Twain’s. The other information to include in the introduction is the manuscript length and genre. If your genre is difficult to place into one category, make sure you indicate it fits the agent/publisher’s genre requirements. Please see the two examples.
Blurb about the Manuscript
Keep in mind that agents/publishers are conservative in that they need to make money to survive. They’re not going to take a chance on a new author that is trying something completely new or unorthodox. However, they still want to find original work. You have to convince them that your work is unique, yet not revolutionary in style. Do not over-explain your manuscript. Many agents/publishers request a synopsis; save the lengthier explanations for this. Also, never write in a dramatic fashion for your query letter. Keep it direct and concise. You must include how the manuscript ends; do not leave it mysterious like on jacket covers. I broke my blurb into two paragraphs with subtitles, Unique Appeal and Original Character. In the Unique Appeal paragraph I described my novel in three sentences, the last sentence giving away the ending. In the Original Character paragraph I described the trials faced by the main character in four sentences, the last sentence explaining what happens to her in the end. See the examples.
Brief Bio
While this section should be kept as short as possible, it is actually more important than it appears. You should link your bio directly to your writing. What about your past has given you the ability to write your manuscript? In many cases, it’s quite obvious – you’re a history scholar writing a novel based in medieval times. When it is not obvious, find a link! If you are writing a novel about Saskatchewan farmers, it actually hurts your chances to include the ten years you spent teaching English in Japan. However, if you met a Saskatchewan farmer while in Japan, you should include it. See the examples for how I linked my research background to fantasy writing.
Agents and especially small-scale publishers want to see that you are as marketable as your manuscript. This doesn’t mean they expect you to have marketing experience, but they need to be convinced that you are going to work hard at publicizing your work. How are you connected to the community? How are you going to do outreach for your work? In my query letter, I subtitled this paragraph Sales Point. See the examples. (Again, this section can be included in your brief bio.)
Closing Statement
Keep this succinct and personalize it for every agent/publisher you contact. If possible, mention something about a point they make on their website or in their guidelines. If you have included anything along with the query, state it here or below your signature. Do not be overly obsequious and be sure to thank them for their time.
Finally, we can take a look at the examples. After personalizing my query letter and only approaching three agents/publishers at a time, I received interest from eight out of twenty agents/publishers contacted. When my publisher accepted my manuscript, one other publisher and one agent were still considering it!
Good Luck
After pouring our hearts into writing a manuscript, receiving rejections hurt and can be demoralizing. Unfortunately our query letters are often the reason why we receive these rejections. Make sure yours is top-notch so you can be certain that you are at least receiving the consideration you deserve. Feel free to copy my formatting for your query letters. It really worked for me and I hope it does for you, too. Please send along any comments or questions.
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