The query letter has to be as good as the book. Maybe better.
Something I’ve learned while searching for an agent: writing the book may be the easy part. Here I thought all that time spent mumbling to myself, scratching notes on diner napkins, and otherwise trying to put together one really good sentence, then another, and stack them together into something worth paying to read was the heavy lifting. Editing, polishing, polishing again… that had to be the hard part. I didn’t expect finding an agent and selling a book to be easy, but I didn’t expect it to be the start of a secondary writing career, either.
I didn’t know how many documents have to march in front of an unpublished book, carrying the banner and blowing trumpets. Loglines. Synopses. And, oh God, Query Letters.
Looking back, my first query letter, as artist Berke Breathed put it, “wasn’t that bad, but Lord, it wasn’t good.” Each form of writing has its own sales style. I could, and had, write a successful pitch to land a freelance assignment, but writing a query letter for my novel that way left it as dry as a cracker.Plus, I’d gotten to the point where I was getting assignments through other editors or producers who had recommended me, so I wasn’t pitching often.
In Girl Scouts, I was the kid who towed the wagon full of cookie boxes if the other girl would ring the doorbell and talk to people. I’m a major introvert. My pitch skills were near zero.
So I did the research. If you’re trying this, seriously, do your homework. It’s fine to ask other people what they think, but also read articles on reputable writer sites (like Writer’s Digest, and literary agent blogs). I did, and here are some of the tips that come up repeatedly (in no particular order):
- Be brief. A query letter is supposed to be a single page.
- Include the name of your book, genre and approximate word count. Target audience, too (and do NOT, whatever you do, say, “This book would be popular with everyone!” Nothing is popular with everyone. Who, really, is probably going to enjoy this book?).
- Include qualifications (both to write this book, and as a professional writer), if you have them. Placed (or won) any writing competitions? Participated in writing workshops or taken classes? Been published (for example, if, like me, you’ve had articles, etc. published)? How do you know about this subject (especially important for nonfiction books)? If you haven’t had anything published, then you haven’t, but if you have, the bio paragraph is your chance to say so.
- Describe your book in a paragraph:
- Stakes (What does your protagonist need? What threatens him/her getting it?)
- Some idea of why this book would be interesting for a reader
- In your bio, if you belong to writing groups/associations, mention it.
- Address the letter to the agent by name AND DOUBLE-CHECK THE SPELLING
- Contact info
- Comparable books in your genre. People like something that is a twist on something familiar — the actually completely unfamiliar is something most people won’t risk their careers/income on, and you’re asking an agent to do just that. Show that you’ve given this some thought. Best if your comps are fairly recent and fairly successful. Comparing your car to a 1970s Gremlin isn’t likely to sell it
- Platform (social media) if you have one. Twitter handle, Facebook, etc. Keep in mind the agent, if interested, will likely check you out on social media, so watch the posts of half-naked pictures of you passed out, drunk. You don’t have to wear a muzzle, just, y’know, be aware that the most important word in “social media” is SOCIAL. All kinds of people see it.
Craft your query letter with as much attention as you spent to craft your book. It’s your sales rep, knocking on doors and pitching you and your book as something every good agent needs!
While crafting your query letter, logline and synopsis, craft a rejection strategy, because you are, at the start or at some point, going to get rejected. Comes with the territory. If Kathryn Stockett, Stephen King, JK Rowling and even Dr. Seuss got rejections, you and I probably will as well. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Some successful authors were rejected over a hundred times before getting a break. My personal routine is: 2 minutes to be disappointed, chocolate, exercise, pet my dogs, send out a query letter for each rejection. Sometimes more.
Good luck! Hope to meet you on the bestseller list some day!