Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Notes on Writing Query Letters

*This was originally posted to my private website, but moved here after I started this blog.

By Haley Hughes

I’m a novice at writing query letters. This is the first one I’ve ever written, and it’s only been submitted to one agent. I can’t say that it resulted in a request for submission, because it didn’t. Instead, I received a form rejection letter saying that the agent was too busy to read submissions at this time. To me, that’s not a reflection on my writing abilities or talents – it’s a reflection on how busy that agent is.

When researching how to write a query letter, I turned to the Internet. A quick Google search will come back with many good resources on the topic and give you a basic structure to follow when composing your letter. At about the same time I was doing my Internet search, my local writing chapter hosted a panel discussion on query letters. I was able to hear about the experiences of other writers in my chapter, and read examples of their query letters. I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to belong to a writers group.

Over the past weekend, my writers group presented a retreat and invited Dorchester editor Kate Seaver to attend. She presented a workshop on “Reviewing Query Letters – Nurturing Your Chances For Success.”

She said that as an editor, she receives thousands of query letters. Because of that quantity, she doesn’t have a lot of time to spend on them. So they need to short and sweet, and efficiently present the project that you are marketing.

A query letter needs to include:
-- Author contact information
-- The genre you are writing
-- The title of the project
-- The word count of the project (she prefers this over a page count)
-- A short plot summary
-- Brief author information

She said a letter should be NO LONGER than one page, and it is a good idea to list the enclosures at the end of the letter. She said that, unfortunately, things do get separated or lost, so listing the enclosures is a convenient reference tool for the editor to know what was submitted.

Examples of bad query letters are those that:
-- Threaten her if she doesn’t buy the project
-- Tell her HOW to market the project
-- Propose projects that her company doesn't publish
-- Don't follow the publisher’s submission guidelines
-- Are longer than one page

For her workshop, conference-goers submitted query letters ahead of time for the editor to review in front of the group. She said that all the letters that were sent in were excellent.

Specifically, related to my query letter, her comments were:
-- She said my letterhead was very eye-catching. Anything more would have been too much. Audience reaction was also very good to the letterhead. (I was the only person to submit a query that day to have thought of using something like this.)
-- She liked my introductory paragraph.
-- The plot summary was set off from the rest of the letter and was short, which was good. I could work on making it even shorter.
-- The author background information was good.
-- Overall, her comments were very positive.

With all this talk about my query letter, I guess it’s only fair that I make it available for viewing. Click here to download a copy of it in pdf format, which requires Adobe Reader to view. As I said earlier, this query letter hasn’t resulted in a request for submission yet. But I do know how useful it is to have a letter to look at when trying to write your own.

Also during the writers retreat this past weekend, agent Michelle Grajkowski of the 3 Seas Literary Agency presented a workshop on “Ask an Agent – Nurturing Your Business Savvy.” She talked about query letters, but in a much more limited sense.

She said that query letters are a sales and marketing tool, and the letter should be used to pitch both your book and yourself as a writer.

She emphasized that writers need to be professional.
-- Follow the submission guidelines.
-- If you are querying by email, then treat that email like a professional business letter.
-- If you haven’t heard back after a reasonable amount of time, then follow up on the letter and be courteous about it.
-- Remain positive in your tone and demeanor.

As an agent, she said she receives about 250 query letters a month, and agreed that writers need to be efficient in their messages.

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