What Is a Query Letter?
If you’ve been looking to traditionally publish a novel, chances are you have heard the terms “query letter,” and/or “cover letter.” In case you haven’t, though, a query letter is what you will typically send to either an agent or publisher to describe your novel. You may ask yourself, “Why send a letter talking about my novel when I can just send the whole manuscript?” Well, imagine your job is to read manuscripts and judge whether or not your company is going to publish said manuscripts. Which is more efficient:
Receive thousands of manuscripts and read them to completion.
Get thousands of short, one page synopses and judge from those.
If it were my job, I definitely would go with the one page synopsis, and that is what a query or cover letter is. A succinct, exciting query letter helps tell the agent that your writing is succinct and exciting, as well. This is your one chance to sell your novel. To help you on your querying journey, here are six tips on writing query letters:
How to address people in your letter
The standard cover letter typically starts with, “Dear Editors of Really Cool Books Publishing Company, LLC;” and that is fairly acceptable as an opening. However, it doesn’t show any additional effort went in to the the query. I highly recommend you do some research, and see if there are specific editors/agents/people you can reference in the letter. Of course, sometimes this information isn’t readily available, but if it is, make sure you take a moment to seek it out. It will show that you are making an effort in your cover letter, and that probably means you made the extra effort in your novel, too.
However, if they have specific guidelines that say you should address your query in a specific way, that trumps any research you might have done. If you do have some contacts at the agency or publication, put that somewhere in your query as opposed to in the addressing line. It’s also important to ask your contacts for permission first before you name drop them in a query. One final thing on name dropping, be aware of who you are name dropping. An editor at the publication might be useful, but the janitor might not earn you any points no matter how highly they are regarded there.
Don’t go overboard with the creativity
Yes, you’re an artist. Yes, you’re probably up against a ton of stiff competition. Even so, you don’t want to stand out in a bad way. There are some standards when it comes to query letter formatting: 12-point font, Arial or Times New Roman, black text color, your contact information, single-spaced at the top of the page, agent/publisher contact information under that, also single-spaced, left justified text overall, one page, boom. That’s pretty standard, and there are reasons this is the standard. The font choices tend to be the easiest to read, black text is easier to read on white paper, etc. Your creativity should be focused on the content of your query letter, not on the format. Also:
Always read their guidelines first
Don’t ever assume a publisher is going to follow the same standard as the last fifty you queried. There are standard formats, but there will always be someone who has a preference. Don’t get tossed out because of something as insignificant as font size or style. Always assume this new publisher/agent is going to want something different. Even if all fifty want the same thing, don’t assume that until you’ve read their guidelines. I cannot emphasize this enough.
Read them. There is a reason they have them, and while you may think it is silly or insignificant, you will only be hurting yourself in the long run if you don’t follow them. Of course, if something seems unclear, contact the person/group you are querying. Most places do provide some kind of email/phone number for inquiries other than publication. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so call, email, tweet, whatever. Make sure you are meeting all of their requirements. It can only help your chances.
Have a pre-written cover letter ready
It’s one thing to have a template, it’s another to have something you just copy and paste and send out to every single publisher you come across. I highly recommend creating a template for yourself, so you have something to go off of when you write your cover letters. They say the hardest part is starting, so if you have something you have already started on, it should be much easier to get done, and get it done right. This piece of advice actually came from one of my professors who was teaching us how to write personal statements. I actually feel personal statements are a lot like query letters. Don’t know what a personal statement is? I got you:
Write it like a personal statement
What is a personal statement? It’s a statement about you. Your who, what, when, where, and how, in a paragraph or a page. It’s like your elevator pitch, but longer. What is an elevator pitch? For the sake of publishing, it’s like seeing your dream agent in an elevator, and you only have until the next floor to let them know why they should take you on and help publish your novel. You want to show them you’re a competent author and that you can tell a story with skill and creativity.
Most personal statements are actually narrative-based, which fits right in with what a query letter is. You want to think of this as your personal statement into the publishing world. However, instead of being all about you, this is all about your novel. If you have a personal statement that you used to get into a job or an education program, pull it out and have a look. If you don’t have one, there is someone out there who does. Get one from a friend, read some online that were successful, and pretend that statement is about your book, as opposed to yourself.
Read other query letters, or read the back cover of some books
There are loads of blogs out there from agents and publishers with successful and unsuccessful query letters (one of my faves is Query Shark). Check them out. Read what worked and what didn’t work. I would also recommend going to a book store, find whatever genre your novel fits in, and read some of the back covers or the inner-sleeves. You know those book descriptions on Goodreads? Read some of those, too.
Those were written to sell the book to consumers. Your agent/publisher is your first consumer. You want them to think they can sell this book, so read some book descriptions in books that you love or that are successful in your genre. Take notes on what they are doing, and take that back to your own query letter. Sell your book.
There you have it, my six tips and tricks on writing query letters. What do you think? Was this useful? Have you written any query letters? Please feel free to share your own tips, tricks, and experiences. Comment below, and let me know.
Thanks for reading.