Book marketing 101: query nuts and bolts

I realized after I posted last night (it’s amazing how conducive to self-criticism a truly uncomfortable hotel room can be) that although I had just urged you to send out queries to agents to whom you did not pitch at a conference — sometimes, it’s just not practicable, and it would be a shame if the shy were not able to reap any marketing advantage from conference attendance, right — I haven’t actually written a blog on how to put together a query letter since…could it have been as long ago as February?

Yet here I was, blithely sending those of you who have never done it before out into the tiger-filled woods with no guidance.

So it seems like a dandy time to run through query basics again. Actually, I wish writers talked amongst themselves about the nuts and bolts of querying more

Why? Well, although I know that my readers are too savvy to fall into the pitfalls of the average writer, the vast majority of query letters agents receive are either uncommunicative, petulant in tone, or just poor marketing.

We can do better than that, I think.

For those of you absolutely new to the process, a query letter is a 1-page (single-spaced) polite, formal inquiry sent out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest.

It is not, contrary to popular practice, an occasion for either begging or boasting; you will want to come across as a friendly professional who has done her homework. (Or his, as the case may be.) A good query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

This should sound familiar to those of you who have stuck with me all the way through Book Marketing 101: this was the purpose of the Magic First Hundred Words, wasn’t it?

And, like the hallway pitch, your goal here is not to make the agent fall down on the floor, foaming at the mouth and crying, “I will die if I do not sign this author immediately!” but to prompt a request to submit pages.

That’s a much less formidable goal, isn’t it?

How does one pull that off? By being businesslike without using business format (long-time readers, chant it with me now: documents without indented paragraphs appear illiterate to folks in the publishing industry).

There are a zillion guides out there, each giving ostensibly foolproof guidelines for how to construct a positively stellar query letter, but in my experience, simple works better than gimmicky. (Possibly because the former is rarer.) Typically, a query letter consists of five basic elements:

1. The opening paragraph, which includes the following information:

* A brief statement about why the writer is approaching this particular agent (Hint: be specific. “I enjoyed hearing you speak at Conference X,” “Since you so ably represent Author Q,” and “Since you are interested in (book category), I hope you will be intrigued by my book” all work better than not mentioning how you picked the agent in the first place.)

*The book’s title

*The book’s category (i.e., where your book would sit in Barnes & Noble. Most queries leave this off, but it’s essential. If you don’t know what this is, or are not sure where your book will fall, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right).

*Word count. (Actually, I have never included this, because it makes many novels easier to reject right off the bat, but many agents to have it up front. Because, you see, it makes it easier to reject so many queries off the bat. If your work falls within the normal word count for your genre – for most works of fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words – go ahead and include it. And if you don’t know how to estimate word count — most of the industry does not operate on actual word count — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book.

3. A BRIEF paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book (that’s the target market, mind you, not a paraphrase of your dedication page) and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. If the demographic is not especially well-known (or even if it is; agents tend to underestimate the size of potential groups of readers), go ahead and include numbers.

Don’t make the very common mistake, though, of having your book sound like a carbon copy of a current bestseller: you want to show here that your work is unique. If you can compare your book to another within the same genre that has sold well within the last five years, this is the place to do it, but make sure to make clear how your book serves the target market differently and better.

4. An optional paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book — or, indeed, absolutely the only sentient being in the universe who could have. Actually, it’s not optional for NF, and it’s a good idea for everyone.

Include any past publications (paid or unpaid) in descending order of impressiveness, as well as any contest wins, places, shows, semi-finalist lists, etc., and academic degrees (yes, even if they are not relevant to your book).

If you have no credentials that may legitimately be listed here, omit this paragraph. However, give the matter some serious, creative thought first. If you have real-life experience that gives you a unique insight into your book’s topic, include it. (Again, it need not have been paid experience.) Or any public speaking experience – that’s actually a selling point for a writer, since so few have ever read in public before their first books have come out. Or ongoing membership in a writers’ group.

Anything can count, as long as it makes you look like a writer who is approaching the industry like a professional. Or like a person who would be interesting to know, read, and represent.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph, thanking the agent for her time, mentioning any enclosed materials (synopsis, first five pages, whatever the agent lists as desired elements), calling the agent’s attention to the fact that you’ve sent a SASE, and giving your contact information, if it is not already listed at the top of the letter. (If you can’t afford to have letterhead printed up, just include your contact information, centered, in the header.) Say you look forward to hearing from her soon, and sign off.

There, that’s not so impossible in a single page, is it?

Before you tense up at the prospect, here’s the good news: if you have been prepping your pitch, you’ve already constructed most of the constituent parts of a professional-looking query letter.

Don’t believe me? Look at how the building blocks just snap together to make a log cabin:

Dear Ms./Mr. agent’s last name (NEVER just “Dear Agent”),
I enjoyed hearing you speak at the Martian Writers’ Conference. Not many New York-based agents take the time to come to Mars to meet the local writers; we really appreciate the ones who do.

Since you so ably represented BLUE-EYED VENUSIAN, I hope you will be interested in my book, {TITLE}. It is a {BOOK CATEGORY} that will appeal to {TARGET MARKET} because {#1 SELLING POINT}.


I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, because {the rest of your SELLING POINTS, including any writing credentials}.

Thank you for your time in reviewing this, and I hope that the enclosed synopsis will pique your interest. I may be reached at the address and telephone number above, as well as via e-mail at {e-dress}. I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Aspiring Q. Author

You can do that without breaking a sweat, right?

Don’t worry; this structure isn’t my last word on the query, by any stretch of the imagination, but for today, I’m going to leave you to ponder the possibilities while I go and ponder this great big ocean that is casting buckets of light onto my typing hands. A big part of staying in this business for the long haul is knowing to pace oneself, after all.

Keep up the good work!

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