Query Letter Workshop by Jeff Kleinman
A “Query Letter” is the letter you write to an agent, editor, or publisher, asking him if he’s interested in reading more of your material. Sending all of your material without being requested to do so is called “unsolicited,” and it’s frowned upon in the publishing industry. When sending by snail mail, always include a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE).
Start off by figuring out how agents want to see your materials – electronically (via email) or hardcopy (via USPS). We at Folio only accept electronic submissions, and that’s becoming more the norm, so be sure that your sources are up to date.
So for our purposes here, I’ll assume you’re doing a digital submission. If there’s something special that applies to print submissions, I’ll try to flag it..
Above All Else, Proofread Everything .
The [Single Page*] Letter:
*What’s a “single page” in a digital submission? Print it out in Times Roman 12 and see for yourself.
Here are the bones of your letter:
Catchy but professional introduction (how you heard of agent, great plot idea, etc.)
Your experience (credentials for writing the book – can be professional and/or personal experience). Your credentials are crucial for nonfiction, and may be less important for fiction, but sell yourself. Nobody thinks it’s bragging.
Details about the project in a short paragraph. If fiction, one- or two-line “log line”, plus word count; if nonfiction, a brief description of the project, plus finish this sentence: “My book is the first book that …”.
INCLUDE WITH YOUR LETTER:
Your contact information (email, address, phone number(s))
Press clippings or quotes from reputable sources (not your mom or your priest, unless your mom is Michelle Obama or your priest is the Pope) about you or other books you’ve written.
Synopsis/Outline: try to find out what the agent wants ahead of time. 2-3 pages maximum.
First sample pages (or chapters) if fiction; sample pages (or chapters) if nonfiction.
If hardcopy, include your email address anyway, but of course include a SASE: this can be a postcard or business envelope; or, if you want your materials returned to you, an envelope large enough to do so, with sufficient postage attached. Do not send checks, cash, money orders, or food stamps.
Make the cover letter longer than one (1) page.
Include quotes from friends, relatives, or religious mentors who think the book is great.
Mention other manuscripts sitting in your drawer, asking the agent to choose which one to see. Discuss only the best, strongest, most saleable manuscript you have.
Send it until it’s the best-written, tightest prose you can possibly write.
If this is an email query, don’t include attachments or force the editor to link to your Website to read sample materials – make it as easy for them as possible.
Above All Else, Proofread Everything
When you send a query letter, agents (and editors) often like to see samples of your writing beyond what you’ve given them in your cover letter.
Check the agent’s preferences – all of the guides to agents and publishers will tell you, explicitly, what they want to see.
If you don’t know, or don’t want to bother checking, what each agent wants, at a minimum send the first page or so of the novel. At a maximum, they’ll want to see the first three consecutive chapters, or around fifty (50) pages, to get an idea of your writing style or competence. Always send the first pages – never chunks from the middle.
Don’t send the entire manuscript on the first go-round, unless the agent or editor has specifically asked to see the entire manuscript.
Checklist (the following are often the downfalls of first novels)
Word count: is the word count applicable for the genre? Most novels are between 75,000 and 120,000 words.
Genre: can the book be defined by a single genre? If not, it may get lost on the shelf, and publishers may be wary of taking it on.
Clarity of Writing: Making the opening pages into grabbers: great writing doesn’t mean anything if you can’t hook your reader from the first sentence on. Make the opening pages the crispest, best pages you can — otherwise you may not be able to hold your reader’s interest.
Dialogue: do you have an ear for it? Do you overcompensate by using too many dialogue tags? (she shrieked loudly, he called, she whispered, etc.) or use too many proper names? (“Yes, Mary?” “John, I love you.” “I love you, Mary.”)
Modifiers: Did you forget the lesson that your English teacher told you? Modifiers are wonderful things, but they may add a stilted quality to your writing.
Punctuation: do you use it correctly? Use exclamation points (!) and ellipses (…) as sparingly as possible; be sure you use semi-colons (;), commas (,), and colons (:) correctly.
Above All Else, Proofread Everything.
“Regular” (or “Prescriptive”) Nonfiction:
1. Sold via a “proposal,” not a complete manuscript. Proposals are generally 15 to 40 pages long, not including sample chapter(s).
2. A nonfiction proposal is a business proposal. You’re asking the publisher to advance you a sum of money so you can afford to write the proposed book.
3. Topics to cover include:
Summary of the Project: 10%. Helps to have a one-sentence hook that explains what the book is about. 1-3 pages.
Your Credentials: 20%. 1-2 pages (or more) about you: who you are, why you are the best person in the world to write this book, what your educational background is, and so forth.
Competing works: 15% (or more). Fill in the blank: “My book is the first book that ___________.” What other books will compete with yours, and how yours is better or different. Don’t destroy the other books – differentiate yours from theirs, but make it clear that your book will fill a necessary gap on the shelf. 1-2 pages.
Marketing venues: 15% (or more). The publisher may know better than you what markets to pursue, but s/he may not. Who is your audience, and how will you reach them? Be sure to mention any specialty markets that the publisher may not be aware of.
Outline: 20%. One page (approximately) per chapter, chapter-by-chapter outline of the entire book. Make it as concrete and clear as possible, so a publisher will get a clear idea of how the book will be laid out, and what will go into each section of it.
Sample chapter(s) (20%). 1-3 sample chapters, the best and tightest you can write. 10-25 pages each.
Assume that you’re writing for the Internet generation. Use sidebars graphics, tests, charts: whatever you can to make the proposal visually interesting, but not overwhelming.
Teach an editor/agent something new on the first page, and try to scatter other useful tidbits throughout the proposal.
“Narrative” (“Creative”) Nonfiction (including Memoirs and Essays):
Authors must have excellent credentials.
Narrative must be extremely well written.
Events narrated should somehow have bigger, more universal implications.
A manuscript should always look professional.
It is typed.
It is proofread.
Here are some suggestions on what a “professional” manuscript looks like:
Print on 8½” x 11″ white paper.
Double-space the text.
Do NOT add an extra space between paragraphs. Doing so actually slows down the reading.
Use an easy-to-read font – Times Roman 12 or Courier 12 are the most recommended.
1-inch margins minimum; maximum 1.5-inch margins.
On the title page, at the top, include your name, address, and telephone number.
On all successive pages, at the top right, include your last name, title of the manuscript, and page number.
Format the manuscript thinking about your ease of reading it – for example, editors are used to seeing italics where necessary – so it’s not necessary to underline multiple lines of text.
[SAMPLE QUERY LETTER]
13 August 2012
Re: My Dog Eliot
Dear Ms. Agent:
[The hook] You may remember that we met yesterday at the water cooler. [or, next best] I recently completed a novel that is similar to The Art of Racing in the Rain, which I know your agency represents, and I thought you might want to take a look at it. [or, next best] I read your listing in Literary Marketplace, and thought that you might be interested in taking a look at a novel I just completed.
[Professional, or interesting personal, background of the author that make it clear why the author is the best person to tell this tale] I have been writing for the past twenty-seven years. My short stories have appeared in Playboy, GQ, and Martha Stewart Living. [or] I am an avid dogowner, and have owned the same dog for the past twelve years.
[Information about the novel] My Dog Eliot, a novel of 97,000 words, tells of these experiences. [possible comparison to another novel] It is similar to The Great Gatsby only in that both novels are written in English.
[Email version] Since I know you are an avid dog fan, I am writing to ask if you would be interested in representing me. I am pasting below my signature the first page of the manuscript.
[Hardcopy enclosures] Since I know you are an avid dog fan, I am writing to ask if you would be interested in representing me. I am enclosing an outline, synopsis, sample chapter(s), press clippings about my other published works, and, of course, a self-addressed stamped envelope with sufficient postage if I want all of my materials returned to me.
[submission information] This is on a multiple submission. If you are interested in reading the entire manuscript, however, I will be happy to give you exclusivity for six weeks.
Genre (and word count, if a novel)
Jeff Kleinman is a literary agent, intellectual property attorney, and founding partner of Folio Literary Management, LLC, a literary agency in New York City, which works with all of the major U.S. publishers (and, through subagents, with most international publishers). He’s a graduate of Case Western Reserve University (J.D.), the University of Chicago (M.A., Italian), and the University of Virginia (B.A. with High Distinction in English).
As an agent, Jeff feels privileged to have the chance to learn an incredible variety of new subjects, meet an extraordinary range of people, and feel, at the end of the day, that he’s helped to build something—a wonderful book, perhaps, or an author’s career. His authors include Garth Stein, Elizabeth Letts, Eowyn Ivey, Neil Abramson, Robert Hicks, Charles Shields, Bruce Watson, and Philip Gerard.