Query the Book, Not the Author

[by Billi Joy Carson, Senior Editor/ Editing Addict]

Editor Tip: Query Dos & Don’ts

Many inexperienced authors (and a few experienced) make fatal errors with their query letters. The letters are not fan mail, and aren’t notes to a friend. A query letter is a business letter. Though all query letters are not created equal, they are all formal, professional, and to the point. The goal of a query letter is to set yourself apart from the rest, and make your product the next big thing that the agent, editor, or publisher wants.

Definition of a query letter: a formal letter written by an author, proposing writing concepts; it is sent to magazine editors, literary agents, and publishing houses or companies.

What should you include in your query letter?

A business letter is very formal, and can take a few shapes—while remaining a constant format. Purdue Owl shows the anatomy of a business letter, with great advice on the structure and format.

Once you have the format down, proceed with building your query letter. Here is the basic composition of a query letter:

Date (format: August 7, 2014)
The agent or editor’s name, title, company, and address
Greeting: “Dear Ms./Mr. Surname:
Introduction: Keep this within two-three sentences about why you are writing to them (agent, editor, publisher).
Pitch A: Keep this within two paragraphs (or several tiny paragraphs) about your BOOK [note: this is not about YOU]. This should be written in the style of a book jacket.
Pitch B: Add a little more information regarding your book—it should be beyond your book jacket’s plot and characters. If there is a surprising mystery as a secondary storyline, mention it here. Also, if you have a series, this is the place to mention the upcoming books, and how they link together. Keep it precise, short, and within one paragraph if at all possible.
Bio: Now is the time to talk about YOU. Keep it as brief as possible—no more than three short sentences. The less, the better. Remember, in their eyes, it doesn’t matter if you have worked with flowers all your life, unless the book is on botany. And even then, they really don’t care. The focus of the query letter should be the BOOK, and not the author.
Conclusion: This should include short “thank you for your time” notes, and any information the agent/editor/publisher would need to know. Tell them here whether this is a simultaneous submission, or not.
Sign-off: Sincerely, Your Name
Enclosures: List all the items you are including in your submission along with the query letter.

What are the most popular mistakes on query letters?

  • Mentioning self-published books as previously published works
    • It is a great accomplishment to have a self-published book, but it harms you to mention it in the query letter (unless you have had success as great as Fifty Shades of Grey).
    • If you have a series, then you need to query the first book, with notes to all the future books in the series (place that info in Pitch B’s paragraph).
  • Talking about the author instead of the book
    • The point of the query letter is to sell your BOOK; too many authors try to sell themselves instead.
      • A maintenance man can write a children’s book, therefore it is irrelevant to the agent/editor/publisher where he has worked for the last thirty-five years.
      • If he is writing a how-to manual on janitorial services, then this information would be beneficial in the Bio paragraph. If not, then leave it out.
  • Getting too informal with the writing, like you’re writing a friend
    • This is a business letter. Your writing should reflect a business mindset. Avoid slang, texting talk, conversational words, or anything else informal.
  • Underselling the author as a newbie (even if they are)
    • Don’t tell the agent/editor/publisher that you are a new author, or that you’re just starting out.
      • They don’t need to know that.
      • If you tell them you are “an aspiring author,” you have taken ALL the focus off the book, and placed it squarely on your inexperience. Keep the focus on the BOOK.
  • Begging for your book to be read, because you know it is worth it
    • The goal of the query letter is to make your book DESIRABLE.
      • You want the agent/editor/publisher wanting to read it—not coerced by force, or guilted into reading it (because guaranteed, that won’t work).
    • Don’t ask the agent/editor/publisher to “just give it a chance” or “if you only read it…”
      • This will diminish the effectiveness of your query letter.
      • If you have to beg for the book, instead of letting it stand on its own, then you are not confident in it.
      • If you are not confident in your book, why should they be?
    • Imagine that your query letter is a commercial for a car
      • The commercials don’t focus on the car manufacturer, they focus on the luxurious car—the feel, beauty, details, handling,  shine…
      • People are filled with desire for the car, and want to find out more about the CAR, but they don’t care about the manufacturer.
      • Your book is that car. You are the manufacturer. Advertise your BOOK; let it stand on its own.
  • Sending a query letter to an agent/editor/publisher without researching what they accept
    • Every agent/editor/publisher has different rules for their query letters as well as their submission requirements.
      • Some require a summary of all your chapters
      • Some require a summary of the whole book
      • Some don’t ever want to see a summary
    • They will have clear guidelines listed on their websites. It takes research, time, effort, and discipline. No two are the same.
    • If you submit a query letter that does not have EXACTLY what they have asked for, they will (almost always) automatically reject it.
      • If you can’t follow simple instructions, they know your book is probably a fall-apart mess too. They don’t want to deal with it.
      • Remember, if they set up limitations in genre/audience, it is because they have STRICT limitations on what they can publish.
        • If they have asked for Young Adult Sci-Fi, and you send them a nonfiction book, they have nowhere to publish it. Therefore, guess what? You just got rejected, and you didn’t have to.

Query letters are about the confidence authors have in their masterpieces—their books. Once you have your confidence in the right place, and you have done your research (while avoiding the pitfalls mentioned above) you will have an unstoppable query letter. Rejections happen, but don’t give up. Every rejection is one more no on the way to getting your yes!

[by Billi Joy Carson, Senior Editor / Editing Addict]





Questions for our editor, Billi Joy Carson, to answer next time:

4 thoughts on “Query the Book, Not the Author

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