The Effective Query Letter (Part 1)

You’re ready to send your manuscript out to a literary agent. You go up on the agency’s website and learn how they like to receive submissions. Yet your confidence starts to drain away when you read the unfamiliar terms: query letter, synopsis. What, exactly, are they?

Let’s consider only the query letter. The first idea you need to stick in your brain is: marketing. You need to think: where would this go in the bookstore? If you look at the back cover of a published book, the category is listed right there. A book on writing advice will say “Writing Reference.” If yours belongs to a genre in fiction, it will say “Romance,” “Mystery,” “Fantasy,” etc. That category needs to go in your query letter: “my 50,000-word book on parenting.” Right away you’ve told the prospective agent and/or editor that you understand their language. They want to know that.

The word count is also important information. These days many agents and publishers are loath to consider a novel that runs more than 100,000 words. On the other end of the spectrum, a 20,000-word business book will be dismissed because it is too short (unless it is going to be loaded with charts or photos). But you have to tell them the length, because if you don’t, they’ll think you’re trying to hide it.

Another initial factor to include is your competition. After all, your book is going to be competing for a bookstore browser’s attention with all the heavyweights you admire. If you can tell an agent, “my book is a cross between X author and Y author,” she may very well pitch the book to an editor in just those terms. It happens all the time. I read Publishers Marketplace.com every day, and under its Deals section, the comparisons appear in the descriptions of the books being sold. So if you think your book is like Nelson DeMille’s, write that in the query letter: “In the spirit of Nelson DeMille . . .” Again, you’re speaking a book professional’s language. Even with a literary book, a publisher is thinking: how can I sell this?

 Last, can you state the book’s concept in 25 words or less? Now that we’ve covered a few book marketing principles, you have a better idea how to condense your concept. You need category, hopefully the type of book within that category, and an awareness that your concept needs to stand out from other books that have already been published. What is fresh and engaging about your book? Why is this a valuable addition to the world of books?

 I’m afraid that I don’t have the space in an individual post to cover all of the elements of a query letter, so I’ll break here. In the next post I’d like to cover how to summarize the book in a paragraph. Just remember: you’re in the business of selling now.

 “Literature is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.” — Jules Renard

 Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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