In the way that having a solid aesthetics statement can open doors to so many opportunities, the same is true of the query letter. It’s a document that you should have on hand and ready to go—like a short and medium length bio, a creative resume, a curriculum vitae, and a cover letter. Even though these documents will transform as you grow and transform, even though you will tailor them for every opportunity, if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready!
If you need cover letter help, check out our article on that!
The query letter is the key to help you get a first look from a traditional publisher or agent. You have one page to pitch your book. It’s about 300 words of marketing that must move them to ask to read the manuscript. It’s like a dating profile: You don’t want to oversell it. You don’t want to be sleazy. Just make a solid pitch and get to the first date.
As with everything, there is a convention. Follow it and let the content speak for itself. Don’t get cute with form. Single-spaced, 12 point, Times New Roman, one-inch margins, one page (front only), Business Letter format are standard. It’s the Bible. Period. For this about-300-word letter, there is no need to change any of this. When it’s your job to look at papers all day, trust me, any small deviation will stand out and look just like *scoff* Comic Sans! It seems unprofessional.
However, always follow the guidelines of each individual press and agent. If they ask for Comic Sans, give it to them. Tailoring is key. Otherwise, follow conventions.
Your first paragraph should hook the agent/editor. If you met them somewhere in real life, include that here (and in the body of the e-mail). If you saw an interview where they said they were looking for vampire poems, mention that here. Then get into what you/your work have in common with them/their press/their literary interest. Of all the amazing agents/presses in the world, why are you sending this to them and why should they be interested in you? You need a “fit statement.” How does your work fit what they do? Right away, you’re telling them why they should even be interested in reading further. Be specific and unique. If you’ve noticed the press moving toward vampire poetry collections in recent years, talk about the trends you’re seeing in their work and how your book adds to/shifts/pivots (not duplicates) the conversation.
Your second paragraph should get into the meat of your work. Be specific. This will be yet another opportunity to pull from your already written aesthetics statement and tailor it to this occasion. If there is a narrative arc, give away most of the plot, but not all of it. If there is a suspenseful climax, explain it fully and in detail without resolving it. If your book has a humorous tone, make them laugh. If it’s sad, make them cry. As you’re describing elements of the book, make them feel what the book would make them feel.
In the third paragraph, further the argument of the previous if you have more to say. If not, just move on to adding a couple of lines of relevant and/or impressive bio information. Again, this is another opportunity to pull from a document that you already have and tailor it for what would be relevant and/or important to this press/agent.
No exaggerations for the good or bad. Don’t say the book will save lives or hit the NY Times Best Seller list. Don’t say anything like, “If you happen to have time to read this letter…” Shit! Who would want to read it now?!? Let the facts be your friend and let the content of your book speak for itself.
Try out this outline for your first draft.
[Your Full Name]
[Your Street Addy]
[Your Town, State, Zip]
[Your E-mail Addy]
[Your Phone Number]
[Your website if you have one]
April 1, 2018 —This should be the date that you send the submission
[Full Name of Agent/Editor] <—-For TWH, use Candace Wiley, Executive Director
[Press or Company]
[Their Street Addy]
[Their Town, State, Zip]
[Their Country if outside of the U.S.]
Dear [Full Name of Agent/Editor]:
Statement saying something about what the press values/priorities or publishes. Statement saying how this relates to your manuscript and how your manuscript aligns with their values/priorities or fits what they publish. Statement saying something along the lines of, “I am submitting poems from my manuscript, [Insert Title Here], for consideration in [Insert open reading, contest, etc. here].
This paragraph can be used to explain the impulse of the manuscript. What are you trying to achieve overall? What theory, events, themes, etc. are foundational for the work? You might end this paragraph by mentioning a poem in your writing sample and explaining its relationship to that foundation. This is another chance to pitch. Be as specific as possible.
This paragraph can be used to further the first. If you started with theory, you might move to theme here or you might continue the previous points. This is where you go in depth. If you mention comparable books, make sure they are recent publications: no one your grandma read in school. This shows you know what’s going on in this current market and that you probably write like it, too.
This paragraph could be used for short relevant biographical information. Pick the 3 to 5 most head-turning awards, publications, and/or achievements.
End saying something along the lines of, “I would be happy to send you a complete copy of the manuscript for your review upon request. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.”
[Your Full Name]
[Your Title if applicable]
[1-3 affiliated organizations or universities]
Now, that you’ve finished your draft, go have a drink! Take a walk! Come back tomorrow with fresh eyes. Assume you’ve been too general and get further into the specifics at every turn. Agents and presses see hundreds of these a week. What makes your work unique? What is the thing only you (and no other author) can say? Show why your book is different from the other hundred query letters on their screen. Show why. Don’t tell why. You can’t and shouldn’t summarize an entire book in a few sentences. Your job in a query letter is not to summarize it: it’s to sell it! What’s unique? Name it? What’s interesting? Name it. What’s new? Name it. If you say you’re a fan of their work, name the books. If you met them at a conference, name the conference and place. If you saw them in an interview, name the interview.
If the book you’re pitching is already self published, make absolutely sure that the agent/press is accepting queries for self published books, mention this in your query, and definitely craft a persuasive argument as to why the book should get a second life.
When you get to the point where you’re sending out your first query letters (after your friends have helped you revise), send them out a few at a time. If you get crickets from the first batch, revise the query letter and send the new version to a few different people. If you get crickets again, revise it again. Don’t blast 100 presses and agents on the first go round with a letter that needs improvement. Besides, this gives you time to tailor and really make that human connection in your first paragraph.
Finally, if they accept e-mailed query letters, the subject line is a great place for a catchy 3-6 word hook.
Ex. Query – Wiley – Vampire Mermaids Take NYC