Query Letters


I’ve been hearing a lot about query letters lately. Writers’ Digest had an article recently, and even had a contest of sorts to have your query letter read and critiqued. Is that really necessary?

I know writers who spend months on a query letter; I know some who spend a week, at least. I think I wrote mine in about 20 minutes and spent another ten or so checking it over. Of course, I didn’t get any agent nibbles, but neither did those who focused so intently for such a long period – actually, one or two did get requests for a few pages. I suppose I can’t compare mine to that because all the agents I queried asked for 10 pages or the first five chapters from the start.

So what’s in a query letter? Is it worth agonizing over?

The short answer is “no.”

A query letter’s purpose is to pique interest in your book, to pitch your story to an agent. It should, of course, include a brief synopsis of your book, a proper greeting and a signature, and a call to action, i.e., what you want the agent to do which, of course, is represent you.

Remember learning how to write letters, formal ones? Do that. Start with “Dear So-and-So:” and then close with “Yours Truly,” or something similar. Simple. The body of the letter should start with an introduction, be fleshed out with your synopsis, and end with a request. Beginning, middle, end, get it?

Many authors have trouble with the synopsis, but it’s not that difficult. To type it out. It can be very, very, very difficult to actually write it but hey – you just wrote an 80K+ word novel, come on, how hard can a synopsis be? Pretend you’re writing the blurb for the back of your novel. You’ll likely need one anyway, so just get it done now. Just a few paragraphs. YOU CAN DO IT!

Agents get a lot of mail. A lot. And sure, some read it all, some read until they reach a point where they know your book isn’t a good fit, some have others read queries for them. Sometimes they request a partial or a full ms. Usually they don’t – why? Because they don’t have to, they have plenty of authors from whom to choose to represent. If you’re unknown, you’re more likely to stay that way.

Guess my point is why spend so much time and angst on writing a letter asking someone to represent you and your book? Especially if that person is likely not even going to read the whole letter? Or read it and delete it, without a response at all.

In spite of the query letter, this agent doesn’t know you at all – so it’s not personal. It comes down to whether or not he likes the synopsis of your book; that, too, is not personal, but it IS subjective. Here’s one last thought: it’s also possible that your letter and (your synopsis suck), and it’s full of misspellings and grammatical errors or just plain boring. Delete.

You wrote a book. It took a long time. Sure, the query letter is important, but your book is MORE important. That query letter should NOT take as long to write as the novel itself. Put it in perspective: 300 words versus 80K+.

Now go write the darn thing.

Dear-Writers-Who-Want-To-Be-Published:


Dear-Writers-Who-Want-To-Be-Published:

This may not be possible.

I’ll say it again – this may not be possible. Sometimes, it’s not even advisable. For several reasons.

Traditional publishing, which is what you’re probably dreaming about, is a tough business but it’s not personal. First, you have to query an agent – that means pitch your book to him. Make him interested; make him want to read more. If he likes it, and thinks he can sell it, he may take you on as a client.

Sounds good so far, right?

Well, you might have to query several agents. Or hundreds. And…

…none of them may want to represent you.

But…but…why??

Your book might need a lot of work. Your book might have been already done…repeatedly. To death. Or the agent might not believe it’s “commercial” enough – and that means he doesn’t think it will sell. Because, well, if it doesn’t sell, he won’t make any money. And neither will you.

Then, too, there’s a possibility that your book sucks.

I know, I know – your mom read it, your husband read it, your best friend read it. Oh, and she’s the one who “edited” it too. Um, yeah. About that. Find a professional to do your editing – your friend might not be the best choice, unless you KNOW FOR SURE that she can spell, punctuate, and use proper grammar. And not because she told you that, but because you’ve actually SEEN some things she’s written. And if she hasn’t written anything, even a “note” on Facebook, find someone else.

Please – don’t do it yourself. You know how, sometimes, you’ll type a word and it looks funny after you’ve read it over and over? A lot of words, in a book you wrote, will start to do that; but eventually, even the wrong words look right. Then you’re in trouble.

At this point, you still have choices. You can take whatever the agent said, if he said anything to you at all besides “thanks, but no thanks,” and rework the book; you can Google “self-publishing” and find a company that will take a lot of your hard-earned dollars, i.e., make YOU pay THEM, to publish your book; or you can go the completely self-published route, the DIY path.

However, there is still the possibility that your book sucks.

I really can’t say this enough.

Self-publishing is big these days; it might even last, hard to say. But there’s a reason that the Big Six don’t publish every book that might make it through their hallowed doors. Some books are awful. Yes, I know even these giant behemoths publish crap sometimes – I’m always surprised but I really shouldn’t be shocked. Crap is everywhere.

So if you find a “publishing” company that wants big bucks to “publish” your book – be very, very careful. Very. Careful. Double-check, triple-check, sleep on it, ask anyone you can grab what they think about this company, frequent the message boards. And, while you’re at it, check Amazon – they might not be good for much, but they do list the publisher and you can do a search. See what kind of crap they’ve published (the company you’re checking out, not Amazon). If it’s bad, keep looking.

Probably – not always, but probably, you don’t want to deal with one of these places. THEY are supposed to pay YOU, not the other way around. And ESPECIALLY check out their website – if it’s crap, if there are a lot of grammatical errors, run away. Fast. They haven’t a clue. And, if the only books they’ve “published” are written by the PUBLISHER – run faster. Google him too; sometimes you can find more about the company by checking the so-called guru in charge.

If you want the “true” self-publishing route, go for it. One big advantage is that your book will be out much, much quicker than using traditional publishing and, usually, “those other” companies I just mentioned. But please, make sure that it doesn’t suck. And make sure you don’t get taken for a ride. It’s gonna be real tough to sell a bunch of bad books just to break even – it’s hard enough to sell a good book.

But whatever you do if you self-publish, be upfront with the bookstores and anyone else you come into contact with regarding your book: if you self-published, say so. Don’t tell us that “ABCXYZ” published your book – it’s really easy to check who “owns” that company. I’m not an attorney or a tax accountant but, by all means, if you want to use a DBA for publishing, feel free. Just don’t expect us to think it’s a “real” publishing company unless it is indeed one.