Query Letters (Part 2)

So, today I finish (hopefully) imparting the advice I heard at the conference related to query letters.  (Hmm…that’s a terrible sentence.  Don’t write like that in your query.)

Ok, a few sobering stats from one of the agencies:

-25,000 queries received per year
-950 sample pages requested (3.8%)
-85 fulls requested (.34% of all queries received and 9% of sample pages)
-10 to 15 new clients signed (.05% of all queries, 1.3% of all partials, and 14.7% of all fulls)

Take heart.  Some of those 25,000?  Don’t have a shot.

This should go without saying, but I’ll say it because I’ve seen too many agents mention it.  Don’t query an agent for something they don’t represent.  The obvious ones are when you query a fiction agent for your non-fiction project.  (And if you’re confused about the difference between those two, do some research.  Know your industry.)

Now, I’ll admit.  I was once this person.  When I was in college and applying for jobs, I managed to interview for positions I had no business interviewing for.  I had an economics degree, therefore I thought I should apply for i-banking jobs because they would help me pay off my student loans.  It would’ve helped to know something about i-banking.  Or to care anything about the companies I interviewed with.

I had one interview and the company had just closed on the biggest something or other deal in the history of the industry.  The interviewer asked if I knew about it.  Didn’t have a clue.  Didn’t get the job.  Didn’t deserve to.

All these people who write poor queries or query the wrong thing are like me when I was applying for i-banking jobs in college.  They don’t care enough to learn what they need to know to reach that goal.  So, set yourself apart by doing your homework on the agents you query.  Show up to your “job interview” well-prepared.

Find out as much specific information on each agent as you can.  As anyone who reads SFF knows, there is a wide, wide range of SFF.  And an agent probably isn’t going to rep all of it even if that’s what’s listed for them.  (I was going to give an example, but I’m too lazy to go track down the agents for the authors I was going to mention to make sure they aren’t actually repped by the same agent.)

Whatever genre you write in, think of it the same way.  Who writes your type of book in that genre?

Enough digression.  400 words in and we haven’t even started on the structure of the query.  So let’s do that.

1. If you’re sending an e-query, start with a good subject line.

    1. Keep it simple.  “Query: Title of Book”
    2. Don’t include the hook in the subject line.  (See A)
    3. Your subject line makes sure the e-mail gets put in the right location.  That’s it.

2. Address the query properly.

    1. If it’s an e-query, you can leave off the date and address information from the top.  Just start with Dear Agent:
    2. As stated in Query Letters (Part 1) – personalize the salutation line.  Know who you’re querying.  (Pick an agent.  Even if you think everyone at the agency is just super duper awesome amazing – Pick one.)
    3. Spell the agent’s name right and get their gender right.  No Mr. Jane Doe or Ms. John Doe.

3. Lead with your strength.

    1. Start the body of your query with your strongest information.  (The elevator doors are closing, you need to catch this person’s attention – NOW)
    2. For most this will be your hook.  A few sentences that are interesting enough to keep reading.  (Think back of the book jacket.)
    3. It is not “Hi, my name is Joe Smith.”  (If you’re important enough for that to matter, chances are an unsolicited query letter is not how you’re going to get published.)
    4. If you have a major contest win or publishing credits you may want to lead with this.*

* This is me not the agent saying this.  Not all contest wins or publishing credits are equal.  So, if you’re going to do this, if you’re going to start your query with a contest win or publishing credit, make sure it’s really your strength.  Including a weak publishing credit here could do more harm than good, because it shows you haven’t done your research.

4. Describe your story

    1. This should be one to two paragraphs that describe your book.
      1. It doesn’t have to be the entire plot of the book.
      2. It should be concise.  Show how tight your writing is.
      3. Again, think back cover copy or movie trailer.
      4. Show your voice.
      5. As one agent said, “intrigue, amuse, or shock the reader.”
      6. Focus on people not things or themes or events.  (Unless, you know, you wrote about an event without filtering it through the lens of someone’s personal experience.  You could pull that off.  I couldn’t.  And if you can pull that off, then you certainly don’t need my advice on how to present it in a query.)

5. Author Bio

    1. This is optional.  Better to say nothing than the wrong thing.  But I generally think you can say something here.  Whatever you say, keep it relevant to the story.
    2. If this is your first novel and nothing you’ve done is relevant to the book you wrote and you have no pub credits, try something like, “This is my first novel.”
    3. You don’t need to apologize for a lack of experience.  Have enough confidence in your work to think “It doesn’t matter that I’ve never been published before, because this book is that good.”  DON’T ACTUALLY SAY THAT, THOUGH.
    4. If you do have pub credits, list the strong ones.  Think about a resume.  If you’re mid-career and applying to manage a division, you don’t list your management experience from Dairy Queen when you were sixteen.  You list the small team project you lead last year that increased revenues by $X million.
    5. Do not include a resume or include in this paragraph something that sounds like a resume.  As one agent said, “It’s not helpful to know where you went to high school or college.”

6. Polite closing

    1. Something like “Thank you for reading my query” or  “Sincerely”
    2. Again, this is a spot where you strike that balance between groveling and appreciating someone’s reading to this point.  I don’t know where I put it, but there’s a post out there from an agent who once said that no one should thank her.  The post explains what she really meant, which is that you shouldn’t thank her for deigning to acknowledge the existence of a piece of pond sludge like yourself.  Part of her job is to read queries and find new clients.  So thank her for her time, but don’t act as if you just had a personal audience with God.

7. Contact Information

    1. Include your name and contact information at the bottom.
    2. For a paper query, include an e-mail address if you have one.
    3. Personally, I would include snail mail, e-mail, and phone contact info.  Why wouldn’t I give this agent every possible opportunity to reach me if they like what I’ve written?

Random Other Considerations

8. Word Count

Both of the agents I saw recommended including word count.  (And do your homework and know what accepted word count is for the type of book you’re writing.  You can start here.)  I heard another agent recommended not including it, because it gives the agent one more opportunity to reject you.  Too long, too short, gone.

My personal opinion on this is don’t waste your or the agent’s time by hiding the word count from them in your original query.  Better to get fewer requests for partials but from people who are genuinely willing to work with you despite your word count than to get tons of requests for partials only to get rejected the minute they realize how long or short your book is.

If you have a word count problem, try to fix it before you query.  And if you can’t fix it?  And no one is requesting pages?  I don’t think a blind query is your path to publication.  (I’m a nobody, I am quite possibly wrong.)  Find a way to meet agents and let them know you as a person.  Or find a way to meet authors and let them know you as a person and then recommend you to their agent.  DON’T BE A CRAZY STALKER PERSON, THOUGH.

9. How to handle a series

Pitch the first book.  It has to stand on its own.  The agents I heard all agreed that they want you to have more material than just one book.  They want authors with careers.  But, you start with the first book.  And that’s what this query is about.

Go back to the elevator idea.  What if you had three businesses you want to start?  All are brilliant ideas.  Better to get that person’s attention with the strongest idea and save the other two for somewhere down the road.  If you try to pitch all three, chances are you’ll end up with a garbled mess that doesn’t do any of the three justice.  You need to focus.  You’re trying to forge a connection with a stranger in the space of thirty seconds.

10. Final bonus tip

Be sure to include the novel’s title in your query.  Prominently.  I know all caps works, but I think italics or underling might as well.  I thought I had it my notes somewhere which of those two it was, but I can’t find it right now.  Sorry…(Kinda makes that a crappy bonus tip, doesn’t it?)

Tomorrow I’ll post the query links I have, but I think this post is already long enough.  Still.  Learn it, love it.  Don’t take my word for it.  Do your homework.

And, ultimate, final tip.  ABOVE ALL ELSE FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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