Book marketing 101: the query that jumps out of the pile, in a bad way

After my last post, was it my imagination, or did I hear those of you new to the querying process rolling on the floor and moaning? “My God,” the little voice in the back of my head that I choose to attribute to you cried, “this structure is the SIMPLIFIED form of the query letter? It’s as though I need to cram an entire 2-minute pitch onto a single page!”

No, no, it’s not like that: you need to cram an entire hallway pitch into a single page.

Does that make you feel any better?

I’m not going to lie to you: even using the limited structure I mentioned a few days ago, rather than essentially using the query letter as a 1-page synopsis (a popular choice that tends not to work well), it IS difficult to write a really good query letter.

Especially if you play fair: 1-inch margins, indented paragraphs, full address and salutation at the top of the letter, 12-point type.

They WILL notice if you shrink the type, by the way; when I was teaching in a university, I couldn’t believe how often students used to reduce the font to 95% or even 90% to make term papers come out within required limits. I used to wonder what they were thinking: grading a hundred pages at a time, how could I possibly not notice if Student A and C’s 12-point was one size, and Student B’s another?

Believe me, our old pall Millicent the agency screener shouts a similar question at the unheeding publishing gods on an hourly basis. Given how many queries she reads per week (and often at a single sitting), roughly how many words should be on a maximally-utilized single page is pretty much emblazoned upon Millicent’s brainpan.

As with a submission, bright white paper — 20-lb or better, please — tends to make the best impression, as does using the preferred typefaces of the industry in query letter and submission alike: Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New. It’s stylish to use the same typeface for the query letter, the synopsis, and the manuscript, to maximize how good they look together on an agent’s desk. Even if standardization is not your style, avoid flashy paper and typeface choices that might make your query stand out from the crowd.

In a bad way, that is. Yes, Virginia, printing your query letter on Day-Glo orange paper and stuffing it into a Copen blue envelope probably will make your letter acutely visible in the midst of a great big stack, but not in a way that it going to help you.

Why not? Well, this is an industry where standardization is regarded as a sign of professionalism. (Remember all of my yammering about the rigors of standard format for manuscripts? I was serious about that.) A query letter that does not conform to their expectations of what one should look like lands on Millicent’s desk with at least two strikes against it: one, it makes the querier look as if s/he had not done any research about how the industry works, and two, why would a good book have to resort to neon signs to catch an agent’s attention?

Don’t answer that last question; it’s rhetorical.

Yes, I know it’s silly to be judged so purely on presentation, but trust me on this one: 99% of the time, a query letter in Times New Roman printed on nice white paper will be taken more seriously than EXACTLY the same set of words typed in Helvetica on floppy copy paper. Or on even on classy off-white stationary.

Go figure. And wouldn’t you have given your pinkie toes to have known about this prejudice before the first time you queried?

I’m hearing those moans again. “But Anne,” they wail, “if I follow all of the rules, my query will look like everyone else’s. Doesn’t that put more pressure on me to pick precisely the right words in my single-page missive? How can I cram all I need to say to grab their attention in that little space?”

Um, are you sitting down? If you are new to this process, please take a few deep breaths before reading on. And if you’ve been querying for a while, you might want to engage in a few minutes of meditation upon subjects tranquil and soothing first, or at any rate have your blood pressure medication handy. Because:

You actually don’t have the entire page to catch their attention; on average, you have about five lines.

Yes, you read that correctly: most query letters are not even read to their ends by Millicent and her ilk. Even e-mail queries, which tend to be shorter.

Why? I hate to be the one to tell you this, but most queries disqualify themselves from serious consideration before the end of the opening paragraph.

Hey, I told you to sit down first. May I fetch you a glass of water? You’re looking kind of pale.

Let me walk you through some of the most common rejection triggers, so you may avoid them. The most common, as I mentioned a few days ago, is boasting.

Unfortunately, Americans are so heavily exposed to hard-sell techniques that many aspiring writers make the mistake of using their query letters to batter the agent with predictions of future greatness so over-inflated (and, from the agent’s point of view, so apparently groundless, coming from a previously unpublished writer) that they may be dismissed out of hand. Some popular favorites include:

This is a terrific book!

This is the next (fill in name of bestseller here)!

You’ll be sorry if you let this one pass by!

Everyone in the country will want to read this book!

It’s a natural for Oprah!

To professional eyes, these are all absurd statements to find in a query letter — yes, even if the book in question IS the next DA VINCI CODE. Usually, Millicent will simply stop reading if a query letter opens this way, because to her, including such statements is like a writer’s scrawling on the query in great big red letters, “I have absolutely no idea how the industry works.”

Which, while an interesting tactic, is unlikely to get Millicent to invest an additional ten seconds in reading on to your next paragraph.

That’s right, I said ten seconds: as much as writers like to picture agents and their screeners agonizing over their missives, trying to decide if such a book is marketable or not, the average query remains under a decision-maker’s eyes for less than 30 seconds.

Okay, I’m hearing those ambient groans again; we’re going over a lot of depressing home truths today, aren’t we? Query screening is actually – wait for it – MORE knee-jerk than submission screening, for one very simple reason. Which is?

Give yourself a great big gold star if you said time.

The average agency receives 800+ queries per week (that’s not counting the New Year’s Resolution Rush, or the Post-Conference Flurries, when it’s higher), so agents and screeners have a very strong incentive to weed out as many of them as possible as quickly as possible.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, that agents will happily tell you that any query that begins “Dear Agent” (rather than addressing a specific agent by name) automatically goes into the rejection pile. So does any query that addresses the agent by the wrong gender in the salutation. (If you’re unsure about a Chris or an Alex, call the agency and ask; no need to identify yourself as anything but a potential querier.)

So does any query that is pitching a book in a category the agent is not looking to represent. Yes, even if the very latest agents’ guide AND the agency’s website says otherwise.

And you know what? These automatic rejections will, in all probability, generate exactly the same form rejection letter as queries that were carefully considered, but ultimately passed upon.

Which begs our recurring question: how precisely is an aspiring writer to learn what does and doesn’t work in a query?

Over the next few days, I’m going to address precisely that issue. But before I sign off for today, I’m going to ask you to engage in a little practical demonstration: find a clock with a second hand and watch it for that half-minute that Millicent devotes to the GOOD queries.

That may have seem cruel of me, and perhaps it is, but I assure you my intentions are pure: 30 seconds is longer than it might seem at first blush. It’s actually enough time to consider an idea; it’s not so short that it’s impossible to make a positive impression. It’s enough time, as those of you who have been pitching at conferences this summer already know, to give an elevator speech.

Coincidence? I think not. As I have been saying all summer — and in case you hadn’t noticed, this summer’s blogs have collectively been a crash course in marketing, to get you ready for the post-Labor Day querying season — whether your queries and pitches get taken seriously is not entirely a matter of luck, Millicent’s propensity to gulp her lattes before they cool aside. If you present yourself and your work professionally, you are quite a bit more likely to garner a positive response.

You can do this; I have faith in you. Keep up the good work!

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