You have written a great novel. Proudly, you shared it with others to get their feedback, and they feel it is brilliant. Now you have visions of being on television news shows, talking about your book.
Then you sat down and weighed the options for getting it published. Do you want to self-publish? Pay to have it published through a pay-to-publish company? Post it online in its entirety and ask for donations for reading it? No, you’ve weighed all of those options, and you want a publisher to put it out in the world for you. You know it is so good, publishers and agents should line up to represent it or publish it. So what do you do now? Now you write the dreaded query letters…
For any professional or aspiring writer, query letters can be daunting. There is a lot to learn about writing them, and even more to learn about writing successful ones that catch the interest of publishers or agents.
Before we jump into the letters, let’s understand the difference between publishers and agents. If an agent represents you, at least until you get a proven track record as an author, they are representing just your book. The job of an agent is to convince a publisher to publish the book for you. They do the hard work of contacting publishers, sending submissions and following up, but that representation comes at a financial price. Reputable agents won’t charge you anything until they secure a contract for your book with a publisher, but once they do, a portion of your earnings goes to the agent.
If you are submitting to a publisher directly, you are asking them to publish your book. The upside to this is that if they offer you a contract on your book, all the proceeds come directly to you, you don’t have to share them with an agent. The negative is that you as a writer are less likely to get the best price for your book as you don’t have the industry knowledge of a reputable agent. Many publishers won’t consider submissions unless an agent represents the writer, so read all the submission requirements before you submit to a publisher.
Now that you have decided if you are submitting to agents or publishers, now you need to get your submission packages together. Foremost, you need to first understand the expectations for query letters for fiction and non-fiction. In this article, we are focusing on query letters for books, but many of the same rules apply when writing query letters for short stories, articles, or blog posts.
The major difference between querying fiction and non-fiction? You need to have your book completely written and edited if you will submit a query for fiction. For non-fiction, you don’t have to have your book completed, but you need to have at least several chapters fully written and professionally edited. Then you must have a detailed book proposal, and most of the time, a detailed marketing plan to submit with your proposal.
But wait? One needs it done and one doesn’t? Why? The answer is simple. In fiction, the person you are querying needs to be sold on the merits and marketability of the story itself. In non-fiction, it is looking to see if you have a detailed plan for writing the book, and that the book has marketing potential. Once that has been determined the publisher or agent will help you target your writing to make it the most marketable it can be. Frankly, with your non-fiction book, you may lose some autonomy about the books, as your agent or publisher may insist upon you changing the book as they wish based upon their knowledge of how it will best sell.
Before you send queries out randomly, get yourself organized. Here is a step-by-step guide to how to set up your system.
Step 1: decide if you are querying agents or publishers or both.
Step 2: create an online or computer-based spreadsheet to track your queries. Yes, it can be tracked in a notebook and by hand, but you will add to it over time, and having it computer-based makes those changes easier, and you can track your progress more easily.
Step 3: if you are querying both agents and publishers, divide your spreadsheet into pages, dividing the two categories.
Step 4: develop your list of people/companies to query. Don’t just list one. You will probably need to send many queries before you get a contract.
Step 5: determine a direct contact name if possible. Check preferred gender pronouns and make sure you have the name spelled correctly.
Step 6: determine the rules of querying that person or company. For example, what do they want to see, or what will kick you out of contention?
Step 7: start developing your submission packets.
Step 8: start querying.
These steps are the same for both fiction and nonfiction.
For your spreadsheet, have the following fields:
• Response: note when you have heard back from the recipient.
• Agent/Publisher: the name of the company.
• Contact Name and Information: get a specific name and email address.
• Requirements: list exactly what they are requesting in your submission.
• Notes: any other pertinent information.
How do you use it? The response field stays empty until you hear from them. Fill in the company’s name in the second field. Try to find a person you can contact directly. If you find out interesting information about the person, such as a college the person attended, add that in your notes field so you note it in your letter. Personal connections, such as a shared alma mater or shared travel destinations, can help make you stand out from the crowd.
Once you have decided who to query, you need to write the letters. Let’s look at each type of book separately…
For fiction books, here is your guide to writing your query letter, whether you are querying publishers or agents. You want to draft a letter specific to the person to whom you are sending it. First paragraph is an engaging hook that pulls them in to read the rest of your letter. Second paragraph is a synopsis of the book. Third paragraph is a short biography of yourself as a writer. Fourth paragraph has information about the length of the book, status of the project, whether this is a simultaneous submission, and your dedication to your craft. Your final paragraph will depend on their specific requirements for submissions. Tell them what you have attached or pasted into your packet and offer to send any additional information they would like to receive.
This last paragraph is very important. Nothing will get your work thrown in the garbage can faster than not following their instructions. They said not to send attachments? It is likely their email system will automatically exclude your submission if there is an attachment. They say 10,000 word sample and you send three chapters totaling 12,000 words? That submission is likely to be ignored. Part of the submission game, and it is a game or at least a complicated dance, is that you need to prove that you can read guidelines and follow them. No publisher or agent wants a rogue writer, it would waste too much of their precious time. Yes, when you have produced several New York Times’ bestselling novels, you will have more freedom to break the rules, but until then, play their game exactly as requested.
Now for non-fiction books, some rules are the same, and some are different. Again, target your submissions. Personalize your letters. First paragraph, a brief explanation of the ‘why’ of your book. Is it a cookbook about helping control diabetes? Then your first paragraph should have a few sentences about the statistics of how many Americans have diabetes. Second paragraph, an overview of what you plan to do or teach in your book. Third paragraph, your biography and why you are an expert on this topic. Fourth paragraph, how much you have done in the book, and a simple explanation of how you see the rest of it developing. Fifth paragraph, any information they have requested in terms of titles like this one, and then an overview of the submission package you have prepared. It is likely that they will have requested a full book proposal including a marketing plan, so make sure you have created one that shines. Again, follow their expectations exactly.
Once your letter is done, and you think your submission package is ready, regardless of whether it is for a novel or non-fiction book, have someone else proofread your work. Because of the number of publishers and agents now accepting online or email submissions, it is very easy to do a ‘copy and paste’ version of submissions, and you need to make sure you have no typos, incorrect names, or errors in listing what you are sending to the recipient. If querying by email, always send it to yourself, so you have an easy way to look back and see your submission.
Then, hit ‘send’ and record your submission on your spreadsheet. If their submission guidelines say that you can check in after a certain amount of time, note that and do so.
Now that you have learned about querying publishers and agents, some quick reminders:
● Be organized. This is not the time to have post-it notes scattered around with your submission information. Make and use a system for tracking your submissions.
● Be ruthless in your attention to the requirements listed. If they say your submission should include a story excerpt of 7,500 words, don’t go even one word over or under that.
● Have other qualified eyes look at your submissions for typos or errors. Check every single letter or email, and every sample or proposal.
There is no greater joy as a writer than receiving your first publishing contract. If you have written a great book and you follow the guidelines for querying, you will receive that contract one day.