Since I announced that my novella has been picked up by NineStar Press, several people have asked me for advice on querying. Which is totally fair… because frankly, querying sucks.
When I tell you that I sweated for hours over my query letter, I’m not joking. I read it out loud to my ever-so-patient partner no less than four times. It sounds ridiculous that writing an entire novella would go so smoothly only to be brought to my knees by a simple one-pager, but query letters are critical. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say the query letter is as important as the manuscript itself. Yes, really.
Apparently my perfectionism served me well in this case. Even in rejections, I received a ton of positive feedback from industry professionals on the quality and professionalism of my queries. That’s why it’s so important to be patient and take that extra time to make sure your query letter is at the level it needs to be before sending it out.
Eventually you’ll get a bite, and all the frustration and hard work will be worth it – I promise!
What is Querying?
I’ve had a couple people ask me what querying is and why we do it. Writers who choose not to take the self-publishing route query their books to editors, agents and publishers in the hopes that it will get picked up and published.
In journalism, querying is the equivalent of ‘pitching’ an article to a news publication or magazine. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that querying a full manuscript is a lot more of a process than pitching in journalism.
For one thing, when you pitch a journalistic article to an editor, oftentimes it hasn’t been written yet. What you’re pitching is the idea, and you and the editor will work together throughout the writing and editing process to create a product that works. However, when you write a book (unless you’re a well-established author) most times you will require a complete and polished manuscript before you can begin querying.
Once your manuscript is ready to go out, that’s when you start crafting your query letter.
Writing the Query Letter
Your query letter will be your first impression to the world of editors, agents and publishers, so it’s absolutely crucial to get it right. It needs to be descriptive but concise, and confident without sounding conceited. Not only do you need to sell your manuscript, but you also need to sell yourself as a writer.
Here are some of the most important elements I included in my query letter:
- An introductory statement which includes the project’s title, word count, genre and the reason why you think it would be a good fit. Try saying something like “given your interest in (TOPIC/GENRE), I thought this may be a worthwhile addition to your catalogue.” This shows you’ve done your research and that you’re not just blindly mass-querying.
- A brief synopsis of the project, like you’d see on the back of a book. Keep this to a single paragraph and try to be as concise as possible. In journalism we call this an “elevator pitch.” A good rule of thumb would be to make this section no longer than three sentences.
- Comp titles, AKA examples of other works that are comparable to yours. I try to work this into my synopsis for better flow. For example, you could try saying something like this: “(YOUR TITLE) combines the (ADJECTIVE/THEME) of (COMP TITLE 1) with the (ADJECTIVE/THEME) of (COMP TITLE 2).”
- A mini-profile on yourself. Tell the recipient a little bit about who you are, where you’re coming from and convince them why they should work with you. It’s important to tread the line between being confident and coming off like a self-absorbed jerk. Keep things short and relevant. It’s also a good idea to include a sentence here on why you’re the right person to tell this story. This is especially true for Own Voices projects.
- A concluding statement. Here you should also work in the best way to contact you, as well as any other important information regarding the attached sample (if required). You should also specify here whether your manuscript has been professionally edited and revised. For example, here is the concluding statement from one of my most recent queries: “Per your submission guidelines, please find attached a 10-page sample of my professionally edited and polished manuscript. Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to getting to know one another better.”
More Tips & Tricks
Some other useful tips I’ve learned about successful querying include the following:
- Carefully read the submission guidelines. These will likely include whether you should address your query letter to a specific person, how to format your manuscript sample (or whether to include one at all) and much more. Some firms will ask for a sample right off the bat (if this is the case, they will also provide formatting specifications) and others will prefer that you hold off until they request one. If you don’t follow the guidelines, your query will likely end up in the trash before anyone has even seen it. Think of it this way: if you were in their shoes, would you want to work with a writer who can’t even follow basic instructions?
- Personalize each query. If you’re copying and pasting from a query letter template, they’ll know. As someone who works in publishing, trust me on that one. Let the recipient know why you want to work with them specifically. Prove to them that you care enough to have done your research. Some firms will ask that you address your query to a specific person, and others will require a more generalized approach. This is an important part of selling yourself – it’s the difference between a successful query and coming off as lazy.
- Keep track of your queries. As tempting as it can be to send off a million queries at once, make sure you’re keeping track of who you’re querying, the date you queried them and whether they’ve responded. A firm can take up to 16 weeks (or more!) to get back to you, so it can be too easy to lose track as time goes by. Most firms will ask you to notify them if your manuscript gets picked up by someone else before they have a chance to respond to your query, and forgetting to do so is a waste of everyone’s time. Besides, you wouldn’t want to risk burning an unnecessary bridge. Even if your project does get picked up by someone else, it’s good to have a positive rapport with as many industry professionals as possible, especially if you’re still getting established.
- Don’t let rejections get you down (too much). I received quite a few rejections before Elaine’s Gift was finally picked up… and so will you. It happens, but it’s so important to keep going. I won’t tell you not to take rejections personally, because that’s a lot easier said than done. As the self-professed Queen of Taking Things Personally, I understand that better than anyone. But I mean it when I say perseverance and patience are a MUST in this industry.
- Shut up and listen. Sometimes, firms will include personalized feedback with their rejections. I strongly recommend taking advantage of this and thanking them for their feedback, even if you’re feeling hurt. Remember what I said about burning bridges? This is one of those times. Plus, who knows? Maybe making those edits will make all the difference.
I’m here to help!
If you’re still here, thanks for sticking with me! I hope you found this advice helpful. Now that you have the tools to create a solid query letter and get it out into the wild, all that’s left is to sit there staring at your inbox with baited breath, madly smashing the refresh button over and over while you wait for a response. That’s one experience every writer who has been through the querying process can relate to, I’m sure.
If you need someone to look over your query letter, suggest edits and/or offer some personalized advice before you send it out, I’d be happy to do so for a small consulting fee. Send me a DM on Twitter, or reach out through the Contact Page on my website and I’ll be happy to help in any way that I can! Even if you just need some reassurance that you’re on the right track, I’m your girl.
Good luck, and may the force be with you.