Whether you’re a freelance journalist trying to place an article, a novelist looking for literary representation, or an indie author seeking reviews and/or guest post gigs, every writer needs to learn to write a smart, short, compelling query letter. (And no, it can't be a Tweet or personal message on Facebook. Please.)
A query only needs three paragraphs:
1) A statement of why you’re contacting this particular editor/agent/blogger and what you’re offering.
2) A three-to-four sentence synopsis presenting the book, blogpost or article,
3) A quick mention of your most notable qualifications.
Then close with a nice thank you.
Sounds easy. But it’s way hard. Believe me, I know. It’s tearing-out-hair hard. Banging-head-on-desk hard. Especially writing the dreaded synopsis. If you need help in the daunting task of writing your pitch, we can offer some in our post on Hooks, Loglines and Pitches.
But you know what isn’t hard?
Visiting the agent/editor/blogger’s website before you write the query.
And yet this is the number one reason queries are rejected.
- Agents say their most common reason for rejecting a manuscript is that it’s not in a genre they represent. You can avoid this by reading the bio on their agency website and looking for key phrases like, "genres I represent."
- Book reviewers say their most common reason for not reviewing a book is it’s not in a genre they read. The genres they review will be stated on the blog.
- Magazine editors say the most common reasons for passing on an article or proposal are 1) the article is not compatible with the content of the magazine or 2) They ran a similar article recently. You used to have to buy issues of the magazine to see what kind of things they buy and find out about recent article topics. Now you can find sample articles and a table of contents—or maybe even the whole magazine—online.
- The major reason I personally turn down an author or publicist asking me to review a book on my blog is: I DON’T HAVE A BOOK REVIEW BLOG. Um, look around. How many book reviews do you see?
- I also don’t take on a prospective guest blogger who’s a beginning writer who offers to “write on the subject of your choice: free of charge.” Why? The answer is on our “Contact Us” page.
Seriously, it usually takes less than half a minute’s visit to a website or blog to find out if you should be querying or not.
Looking for a review of your inspirational YA romance? If all the book covers on the site have naked male chests on them, you're probably not going to get a review here. And you wouldn't like the review if they wrote one.
Looking for an agent to rep your occult horror novel? If there's a "Scripture quote of the day" in the sidebar and the agents' clients are all published by Christian publishers like Thomas A. Nelson and Zondervan, you're going to be wasting your time.
A few moments more and you can click on the “about me” or “submission guidelines” page and get exciting information like “what I’m looking for” from an agent and see that part where she says “If I ever see another vampire romance, I’m going to drive a stake through my own heart.”
See how much heartbreak an author can save herself with a couple of clicks?
Querying somebody in business isn’t that different from asking somebody on a date (in principle—not in style, please. Always remember a query is a business letter. Candy and flowers may get you noticed, but not in the way you want.)
Most important: the letter needs to be about what you can offer THE OTHER PERSON, not about your own needs.
Which of the following emails do you think would be more likely to land this guy a date?
“Hey there, human being with lady parts (cc half the human race) —
I’m a five foot ten inch hetero male with brown eyes and hair. I have a degree in English lit from State. Well, almost. I didn’t finish because of the expulsion thing, but the hazing accident at DKE house totally wasn’t my fault.
I really need a girlfriend. I haven’t got laid in almost a year, because most women are such bitches they won’t give you the time of day. I don't have a car, but I keep very fit riding my bicycle every day, so NO FATTIES!
But you probably don’t want to go out with me because I live in my mom’s basement and I only work part time as a bike messenger. But I have a much tighter butt than George Clooney, who is just an old guy and totally overrated.
Please write back by midnight tonight or I’ll kill myself.
Very Truly Yours,
Or this one?
Fun talking to you in the line at Starbucks yesterday. (I’m Dan, the guy with the dorky bike helmet.) You sure know a lot about bike trails in the Bay Area. Just as you were rushing to get back to work, you mentioned you did a bike tour of Canada last summer. I’m planning one myself and sure would like to talk with you about your trip.
Would you like to meet up at Starbucks again next week? I’ll buy your Venti half-caf soy latte!
Hope to see you soon—
The first one is all about Dan and his needs. The second one pays attention to Marci—it mentions her interests (and even her coffee order) and why she is a person he wants to get to know. Notice he didn’t shower her with meaningless over-the-top compliments. He asks to meet her for coffee because of what she has to say, not just because he so desperately wants to get
Like Marci, agents, editors and bloggers usually on the run and wildly busy—and fulfilling your needs isn’t in their job description.
If you want a relationship with somebody—whether it's personal or business—you have to show you're a person who's pleasant to be around and respects others. No matter how fantastic your book, content or gluteus maximus, if you treat everybody as interchangeable ciphers, they’re not going to want to work with you.
And you know what? You don’t have to stand in the same line at Starbucks to get to know agents, editors and bloggers these days.
Back in the olden days when I started querying, you had to go to conferences and buy big expensive books like Writers’ Market or Jeff Herman’s Guide every year just to get a few agents' names—and the books were always out of date by the time they went to print.
Now, through the magic of the Interwebz, all that info is available to you—up-to-date and absolutely free—at the proverbial click of a mouse.
So why do so many people fail to use it?
I think some writers are using publicity agencies. A lot of the generic queries I get sound the same, so one place may be churning out a lot of similar generic crapola.
It should be obvious how counter-productive it is to hire somebody to alienate bloggers for you. Blogging is a social medium. Be social. Read book bloggers in your genre regularly. You get big pluses if they recognize you as a regular commenter.
Even though this blog usually has well-known authors and industry professionals as guests, and we've hosted literary icons and movie stars, we'll consider a guest post from a newbie if 1) the topic is unique and useful to our readers and 2) the query comes from a regular commenter. But I have to reject 90% of queries I get. Why? 90% of queriers haven't read this blog. All they know is we have great stats and lots of eyeballs looking in, so WE can do a lot for THEM. But they don't think about what they can do for us or our readers.
Agent-querying services are even worse. Any agent's assistant will pass on a mass query without reading it. When they see that “Dear Mr. or Ms. Esteemed Agent-Person” salutation, they can’t hit the delete button fast enough. Your money has been wasted.
But your book is brilliant! Exquisitely written!! You’re the next Dan Brown/JK Rowling/Hugh Howey rolled into one!!! Plus you have an MFA!!!!
Thing is: the quality of your book doesn’t matter—any more than Desperate Dan’s tight butt—if nobody sees it. If you turn people off from the get-go, nobody sees your fabulous qualities or reads that brilliant, heart-stopping synopsis you’ve been honing for months.
And for those of you who are looking for reviews from book bloggers, I’ll repeat below the wonderful tips we got last year from book review blogger Danielle Smith of There’s a Book.
I need to add that Danielle is no longer a just a book reviewer. As of this week, she has become a literary agent! Yes, Danielle is now an agent repping children's books at the powerhouse new agency Foreword Literary. She’s zoomed from book blogger to assistant to agent in a matter of months—Yes, book bloggers ARE the new gatekeepers. So treat them right!
Congrats to Danielle, Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, Gordon Wornock, and Foreword Literary Agency founder Laurie McLean on their exciting new venture.
You can read Laurie McLean's predictions for the world of publishing in 2013 in our archives. She didn’t tell us then that future would include an exciting new agency with a cutting-edge outlook and traditional publishing deal-making skills, but this development does fit into her forward-looking predictions.
Some tips on Approaching Book Review Bloggers
Yes, there are lists of reviewers out there. I’m suggesting this instead of relying on lists because reviewers get their calendars filled up fast and change policies often. Using a prepared list can lure you into mass querying. So if you do use a list, remember you still need to visit each blog before querying. You’ll get better results and make fewer enemies.
- Keep queries short and intriguing.
- Don’t take it personally if they turn you down. Reading takes a lot of time and most of them are swamped.
- Understand the review is for the READER, not the writer, so negative reviews happen.
- If you get a less than stellar review, mourn in private and move on. NEVER respond to a negative review.
Danielle Smith's Guidelines for Authors Seeking Reviews
- Make sure you address the blogger by name
- Include a two to four sentence synopsis—no longer
- Keep personal information to a minimum. And don’t guilt-trip.
- Attach an image of the book cover
- For children's books, give the age range of the intended audience
- Include the page count (for print books)
- Provide the publication date
- Don’t ask for a review outside the blogger’s genre
- Don’t query if you don’t have a website or a blog. (That screams “unprofessional” to a blogger.)
In other words, treat the book blogger like a professional and she will reciprocate. And for goodness sake: VISIT THE BLOG!!
What about you, scriveners? Have you made this mistake in your query history? (I’m not going to pretend I’m innocent. I cringe at my old queries. I finally burned them all in a big bonfire last year.) What’s the dumbest query mistake you ever made?
BLOG NEWS: Next week's guest post is from Boomer Lit author Michael Murphy. "So You Want to Use Song Lyrics in Your Novel? 5 Steps to Getting Rights to Lyrics." This is essential information Michael learned when writing his Woodstock novel, Goodbye Emily. Do NOT publish a book using song lyrics without reading this. You can end up owing thousands to the copyright owners.
1) BiblioPublishing is looking for submissions of out-of-print or new books for publication through their small press. This 25-year-old press (formerly called The Educational Publisher) is branching out from educational books to other nonfiction and selected fiction. They're especially looking for self-help and sci-fi. They provide cover design, formatting and distribution, but ask your ms. be pre-edited. They publish in print as well as all ebook formats
2) Interested in having your short fiction recorded for a weekly podcast?There’s no pay, but it’s fantastic publicity if your story is accepted by SMOKE AND MIRRORS. They broadcast about three stories a week. Spooky, dark tales preferred. No previous publication necessary. They judge on the story alone.
3) Cash prizes for flash fiction. The San Luis Obispo NIGHTWRITERS are holding their annual 500-word story contest. Anybody from anywhere in the world is welcome to enter. Prizes are $200, $150 and $75. This is a fantastic organization that boasts a number of bestselling authors among their members, including Jay Asher, Jeff Carlson, and moi. (Well, some sell better than others :-) ) Deadline is March 31st.
4) Ploughshares Emerging Writers Contest. The prestigious literary journal Ploughshares runs a number of contests during the year. Winning or placing looks really good in a query. Plus there's a cash prize of $1000 in each category. This one is limited to writers who have not yet published. They're looking for poems and literary stories of up to 6000 words. Deadline is April 2.
5) FREE BOOK: Sherwood, Ltd, Anne's hilarious Camilla Randall mystery set in Merrie Olde England, is FREE for your Kindle, Nook, iPad or any other e-reading device for a few more weeks. You can pick it up here.