Author Scott M. Baker concludes his series on writing...
How difficult is it to draft a query letter? And how do I find a publisher or agent to send it to?
First things first. It’s not that difficult to write a query letter. Which is fortunate, because drafting a good query is the most important aspect (next to actually writing the book) of getting published. You may have written the next bestseller, but if you can’t garner enough interest from publishers or literary agents to look at it, your novel/story is just taking up space on your hard drive.
Let me preface this section by stating that there are numerous ways to write a query. Use the format that best works for your work or that you feel most comfortable with. What I’m offering are tips on how I draft mine, and they’ve been successful for me. Also, this format should be used only for fiction. Non-fiction guidelines are much different.
Start out with a brief introduction on how you discovered the publisher/agent. If a published author referred you to them, or if you met this person at a convention and he/she asked you to forward a submission, state that up front. It gives you a foot up to climb out of the slush pile. Otherwise, just say that you discovered them while researching potential publishers/agents, and you wanted to give them the opportunity to review your manuscript.
Next include a brief description of your novel/story. Keep it to one small paragraph, two at most. Make it just long enough to provide a general idea what the work is about and entice the publisher/agent to want to read more. How do you do this? Read a few examples from jacket covers or the back of paperbacks to get an idea. This is the make or break paragraph of the entire query. If you do not immediately snag the interest of a publisher/agent, they’ll throw your letter aside and move on to the next one. You need to get a hook into them so they’ll continue reading.
Your next paragraph has to sell the concept. The publisher/agent will receive hundreds of submissions for romances, murder mysteries, thrillers, animal books, or whatever genre you write in. Your work must stand out. Saying your mother or spouse thought it was terrific will not get you published. Nor will telling them that you’re the next Stephen King or Dan Brown. Publishing is a business, and your work will never make it into print unless you can convince the publisher/agent that it’s perfectly poised to take advantage of a new trend in the market, or brings a new and exciting twist to the genre that has not been seen before.
Follow with a brief paragraph noting what is attached to your e-mail (sample chapters or the entire manuscript), the final word count, and whether the novel/story is available for immediate submission. [NOTE: Don’t query publishers/agents with unfinished stories/novels. Usually they’re only interested in works that are ready for publication.] If your novel is part of a series, state that and, if known, offer an idea when the next book(s) in the series will be available.
Your penultimate paragraph should be about you. What makes you qualified to write this novel/story? Are you a police detective writing about a homicide unit in New York? Were you the victim of an abusive relationship, or a recovering addict, who has fictionalized your life? If you have no specific experiences you can relate to (I’ve never hunted vampires for a living, though I would like to), find a way to make yourself interesting. You’re selling yourself as well as your book.
This is also the paragraph to list your previous writing credits. Don’t list more than three otherwise you’ll look like you’re being pompous. List the most recent works, or those that are most relevant to your query. [NOTE: If you’re writing in a genre in which you don’t have relevant experience, I recommend trying to get several short stories published before you attempt to query on a book. Being able to say that you’ve been previously published bolsters your credentials. I noticed that publishers/agents showed more interest in looking at my novel after I had a few short stories in my bibliography.]
Finally, end with a closing sentence thanking them for their consideration and noting that you look forward to hearing from them.
NEXT: Finding a Publisher or Literary Agent, Part II (some useful tips on writing queries and a sample query letter).
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