Query Letters: The Basics

A query letter should:

  • Place your work within the market,
  • Provide a brief, compelling description of the manuscript, and
  • Share relevant information about you as an author.

Each of these essential functions corresponds to one paragraph. All three paragraphs are assembled to craft the full letter. Taken together, the entire letter should fit on a standard letter page (8.5″ x 11″, single-spaced, 12 point font). Of course, almost all queries are submitted electronically these days, but the author is still expected to keep within these limits.

I’ve sent out a number of queries over the years. For some manuscripts, I’ve landed a publisher; for others I did not. My long-term goal of securing an agent has yet to be realized, but I keep trying. Have I been successful or unsuccessful at querying? It all depends on your perspective, and how you define success.

By most definitions, I had clear success when I landed my first contract with Hadley Rille Books. However, even cases that did not end in publication could be viewed as success. As mentioned in my previous post (To Query or Not To Query), hindsight has shown those manuscripts were not ready for publication. An accurate query letter helps agents determine whether a manuscript is marketable and ready for publication. Nothing hurts an author more than a sloppy manuscript on the market, so a decision not to publish can be in your best interests. If I honestly represent my work to the best of my ability, the outcome of the query process should always be successful, even if success means not landing a publication and going back to the drawing board.

Each paragraph of the query carries a distinct set of challenges. Also, different agents have different preferences with respect to what they want to see first. Some emphasize market placement; others want to know about the story up front. There is also a lot of variation in how formal or chatty they expect you to be. No matter the tone of the letter, most agents do not want to hear about you, the author, until the third paragraph. So save that bio, no matter how impressive, for last. Agents who use Query Manager may also request the author bio as separate from the letter itself.

Because of these different preferences, it’s important to review submission guidelines for the agent in question. Many agents have their own websites with tips for letter writing, including examples of queries that worked for them. In some cases, I’ve discovered guidelines for a particular agent are distinct from those provided by the agency. It’s not always possible to dig this deep, so when in doubt, follow the agency guidelines. But do collect as much information as you can about the individual agent, keeping in mind that your time is valuable, too. In other words, be diligent in your background research, but don’t obsess. Sooner or later, you should just send the letter!

My first editor, Eric T. Reynolds at Hadley Rille Books, told me most rejections that he sent out resulted from a mismatch between the manuscript and the interests of his press. This is another reason why you need to do background research on editors and agents. As great as your manuscript might be, you won’t get anywhere – and you may waste a lot of time – sending it to people who aren’t interested in the kind of story you write.

Of course, it’s not always easy to make that judgement. I have queried places I thought would be a perfect match, only to be told the manuscript, while well-written, isn’t what they represent or publish. On the other hand, places that don’t seem a perfect match might be interested in what you have to offer. For those of us whose work tends to blend genres or push the envelope on classic tropes, deciding our best prospects for those first queries can be tricky.

In the past, I’ve divided my agent wish list into tiers. The “top tier” includes agents whose interests seem a very close match my manuscript. Subsequent tiers include reasonably close matches, as well as agents and publishers who don’t seem a close match but that might work anyway. That “might work” category tends to pop up in places where my stories carry a specific quality (or two) that is high on their wish list. Try to make the best match possible with the information you have. When in doubt, send the letter!

Above all, querying requires patience – and a thick skin. Patience is a rare commodity in today’s world. We have not been trained well to wait, or to accept “no” for an answer. Querying often involves long waits through a seemingly endless string of “no’s.” In my case, it helps to keep in mind querying is as much – or even more – about the journey than it is about the destination. I have learned a lot about myself as an author through querying. Those lessons haven’t always been easy, but I would not wish them away now.

In upcoming posts, I’ll come back to the nuts and bolts of the query letter. I’d like to tackle each function, or paragraph, separately. We’ll revisit the rationale behind the paragraph, as well as my personal strategies for crafting a response to the questions posed. If you’d like to learn more about writing a query, please follow me and come back! Also, remember there are a lot of great resources out there for writing query letters, including agent web sites.

I’d welcome any questions or comments you have below.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a great week!

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