Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Foot in the Door

When I was a kid, I learned about the parts of a business letter (for a refresher click here). Today I'm taking it a step further. I'm going to share the parts of a business query letter.

This is an author's first chance to show the editor/agent that they can put together coherent sentences and follow the rules (an important consideration for starting a relationship based on the ability to deliver a polished product and willingness to discuss and implement revisions.) You've worked hard to finish the manuscript. Don't skimp on putting together a dynamite query letter.

I learn best from studying an example. Here's the query I'd send if I was shopping out STROKE OF GENIUS (coming May 25th to your local bookseller!)

My Real Name
Mailing address
City, State, zip (I'd add an email and phone number as well. Make it easy for the agent/editor to reach you.)

Agent/Editor's Name (Pick a specific target! Know who's buying/representing your type of fiction.)Company
Mailing Address
City, State, Zip


Dear Mr./Ms. Last Name; (You'll never go wrong with too much formality. Later you'll be on a first name basis. No need to be pushy here. Make sure you've got the gender right. If you send something to Ms. Chris Keeslar, he might be amused, but you'll feel pretty silly. If you are doing multiple submissions, make sure you match up the name with the right mailing address. Nothing will get you "File-13'ed" faster than sending a query to one person with the name of their competitor here.)

I enjoyed meeting you at the NECRWA conference last weekend. Here is the proposal for STROKE OF GENIUS you requested. (If you have pitched the project, this short opening is the place to remind them. It also allows you to go ahead and include the three chapters and synopsis or full manuscript they've already asked you for. If you haven't pitched, here's where you show you've done your homework. If they represent/buy books similar to yours, demonstrate that you are saavy enough to connect the dots. For example: I enjoyed your author Lisa Kleypas's latest release, Tempt me at Twilight. I hope you'll be interested in my light-hearted historical as well.)

STROKE OF GENIUS is a 90,000 word, sexy historical romance set in the heart of the Regency. It's Pygmalion meets Cyrano De Bergerac. (This is the "tell 'em whatcha got" portion of the query. It's essential to give them an approximate word count, sensuality level and romance subgenre. Don't say your work defies classification. They need to know where to shelve your story in order to sell it. Don't offer them a 150,000 word manuscript and tell them you wouldn't know where to cut it because it's all too beautiful. Be sure you've checked the submission guidelines on their website to make sure your offering fits their parameters. If you have a one sentence way to give them the gist of the story, insert it here. Then follow it up with a short--no more than three paragraphs--blurb style description of your story. Help the editor/agent envision the back cover of your book.)

Crispin Hawke is revered by the ton. His artistic creations are celebrated in every fashionable parlor, tales of his fiery bed skills whispered behind every fashionable fan.

Grace Makepeace is determined to wed a titled lord, but her Bostonian bluntness leaves her least likely to succeed. To be accepted by the ‘high-in-the-instep’ crowd, she has her hands ‘done’ in marble by the incomparable Crispin Hawke.

Crispin schools Grace in flirting and the delights of the flesh. But when she catches the eye of a marquess, Crispin regrets helping her. Can an artistic genius transform an American heiress into the most sought-after Original without falling for her himself?

A partial and synopsis of STROKE OF GENIUS is available upon request. (If you are a first time novelist, you must have a completed, polished and thoroughly sanded manuscript. Until you finish the book, you have nothing to sell. Once you're published, you may be able to sell on three chapters and a synopsis, but until then, only query completed works.)

(The next portion of your letter deals with your publishing credits. Contest wins go here. If you've had a non-fiction book published, share that info. If you earned an MFA or journalism degree, that doesn't hurt. If your day job relates to your fiction, be sure to point it out. Demonstrate that you have a platform--a group of people who will be interested enough in your work to buy it. Do not share how much your mother loves your work or what being published would mean to you. Keep it professional.)

My most recent release, A CHRISTMAS BALL (October 2009 Leisure Books) was listed in the top 100 romances on Bookscan for 8 weeks. I have a frequently visited website,, an active blog, and a vibrant web presence on the major social networks. I am represented by Natasha Kern. (A caveat here: Natasha wouldn't let me query my own stuff. She'll do it for me, but I help her pull together the same sort of material you see here. Other agents may want you to send editor queries.)

Thank you for your time and consideration. I hope to hear from you soon.


Your Real Name
w/a Your Pen Name

Then you wait.

And wait.

After a couple months, you may drop a quick email just to make sure your package was received. Do not press them for a decision or I promise you it will be "no." If you are submitting to multiple parties and receive a request from one of them, as a courtesy to the others, you may wish to let them know you've granted an exclusive to X for a certain length of time. This is a gray area since most agent/editors hate multiple submissions, but the wheels of publishing grind with such glacial slowness, it's a fact of life.

If someone has asked for a partial or full manuscript based on a face-to-face pitch, it's good manners not to submit elsewhere till they've had time to review your work. If you're a newbie, after six months with no response, I'd think it would be logical for you to send the party a note letting them know you're ready to start submitting elsewhere. This may move your work up the TBR pile, but maybe not. Be prepared to move on.

And of course, while you're waiting you're busy writing the next Great American Novel, because once they buy the one you've queried their first question will be: "What else have you got?"

Remember what you're looking for is not just the sale of one book. You are looking for an agent or a publishing home that will help you grow a career. Good things take time. And finding the right agent and publishing house are both good things.

Ok, now it's your turn to ask questions, correct my mistakes or offer your own advice! I look forward to hearing from YOU!


Kat Duncan said...

Thanks for this very thorough outline of the query. I find it helps to keep queries professional. I've gotten the most responses from those that are as carefully done as you say. Oh, and I'm glad you mentioned A Christmas Ball, I never got around to telling you how much I enjoyed reading it! I ended up reading it on Christmas Day in the evening when everything was quiet. What a great story. All of the characters had such great personality! You even had me feeling sorry for Viscount Eddleton - almost...! :)

EmilyBryan said...

Thanks, Kat! Ah, Eddleton! Will he ever learn? I seriously doubt it!

Judith Leger said...

This is a great step by step explanation/example of a query letter. It's amazing how many authors aren't aware of the steps before they submit! Thanks for sharing this with us, Emily. You're a jewel!

Abe F. March said...

Good advice, Emily.
As a submissions editor, the query is the first impression I get of the author. The second impression, and a critical one, is when I receive the first three-chapter submission. Not following submission guidelines can result in an immediate rejection.

Barb H said...

Hi Emily,

This is a great explanation of a query letter. I wish I'd had something like this when I first starting writing queries.

I hope it's ok to also mention contest finals as well as wins, since I don't have any of the latter.

Thanks for sharing your experience!

Gillian Layne said...

This is an excellent, concise example, and definitely a keeper post. Would you suggest listing professional writing organizations if you have no contest wins, or just keeping the ending short and sweet?

EmilyBryan said...

Judith--I pass on only what's been given to me by other generous authors. I'm sure there are other ways to do a query. This is just what I've been taught.

EmilyBryan said...

Abe--Thanks for the view from the other side of the desk! It's so important for authors to make sure of the submission guidelines before they submit. Editors and agents are deluged with queries. It would be interesting to learn how many were instantly rejected because the author didn't bother to check whether or not the editor/agent even handled their type of material.

EmilyBryan said...

Barbara--Yes! Mention your contest finals, but I don't think I'd be specific about your placing. Just say your work finaled in WYZ contest. Romance is a small world. If you've won or finaled in an RWA chapter contest, your name has appeared in RWR. Mentioning the final should be enough to jog their memory of seeing your name.

EmilyBryan said...

Gillian--You could, but lots of writers can list off the same groups. You want to stand out. I would only list the writer's organization if I was the chapter president. If you've presented workshops to writer's groups, put that in there. The point of this section is to demonstrate your professional platform--the body of people who are interested in your work and will support it.

Glynis Peters said...

Thank you for an informative post Emily. I have filed it for future reference. I did smile about finding the correct genre, I mentioned mine in today's post. I am going around in circles on that one.

I think I will struggle with the query letter for a while, and then it will click into place.

I am 90% certain my synopsis is okay, so things are coming together.

I do so appreciate the effort published authors put into informative lessons. You help this aspiring novelist so much. You always inspire me with your positive blog, thanks again Emily.

EmilyBryan said...

Glynis--Let me know when you blog about writing a synopsis. I'm still trying to figure that one out. After much trial and error, I've realized I'm a "pantser." I discover the story as I write it, so writing a synopsis before I've written the manuscript is like chewing tacks. But I want to be able to write my story knowing it's already sold, so I have to master this skill.

Glynis Peters said...

Emily, thanks for the compliment...the one where you think I could teach you something!

I will let you know when I blog about how I wrote it.