Writing the query letter
Despite what many of the how-to books and articles say, your letter should begin by introducing yourself and your accomplishments. The rationale is that it’s a mistake to try to pitch the pitchmen. You really can’t say anything in a few sentences that they haven’t read or heard before. The only unique thing about your book is you. Your most important job in a cover letter, then, is to tell the agent who you are and why he/she should believe that you can write the book you are pitching. Sum up your life experience briefly and connect it to the book you have written (or are proposing if it’s a nonfiction book). If you can’t draw any parallels between your life and your book, you’ll lose points. Writing experience, publishing credits, and any awards and honors related to writing should be mentioned here. Also mention your accomplishments in life. Publishing is no place for wimps. Show the agent that you’ve faced some tough challenges in life and overcome them and can therefore probably face the often daunting task of getting a book into print. Agents want to know that you’re a grownup and a professional and a player, that you understand the rules and the risks, and that you’ve got what it takes to play the publishing game and succeed. By taking you on, an agent knows that he/she is agreeing to a marriage of sorts, and, quite frankly, the agent doesn’t want to go to bed with a loser.
Second & Third Paragraphs
This is where you tell the agent what the book is and what it’s about, preferably in fifty words or less. Is it a novel or nonfiction? (Hint: For a novel, never say it is a “fictional novel”). If it’s a novel, then what kind of a novel is it? Commercial or literary? What’s the genre? Avoid the term mainstream, which is becoming increasingly depreciated. If it’s nonfiction, what kind of a nonfiction work? Narrative nonfiction (the story of an adventure or a memoir)? Self-help? How-to? History? Biography? Be specific and forthright. If it’s a book about improving your game of golf, a spiritual primer, a guide to successful selling on eBay, or a book about native Tasmanian basket-weaving, then say so. Agents want to know where to “shelve” your book, just as bookstores do. This is the place to mention a couple of contemporary books in print that are similar in approach or market appeal or tone or voice. These books should be in the same ball park as yours—or at least not light-years away. Tell them what your book resembles, then say why it’s different. You could also try describing your book in a nutshell by using publishing shorthand and including what the Hollywood types call a “log line”—something like “Bonnie and Clyde meets Men in Black” (that would be interesting!).
This paragraph says why you’re writing to this agent. You don’t want the agent to think that you’re taking the shotgun approach to marketing your book and that he or she is part of a mass mailing. Don’t say that you picked the agent’s name from one of those books of listings or from some site on the Internet just because mystery or romance or whatever was listed for that agency. And don’t make that tactic obvious in any way, as in beginning your letter with “Dear Agent.” (Your greeting should be formal and professional, as in “Dear Mr. X” or “Dear Ms. X,” with the name spelled correctly. You don’t want to sound overly familiar with a “Dear Sylvia.”) To target your letter, you could say, for instance, that you’re writing because you know that he/she has sold books that are similar to yours, being sure to name those books. Or say that you’re impressed with how the agent has built the career of writer X with a series of books—or sold sub rights or made movie deals or whatever. You want to show the agent that you’ve done your homework, which indicates that you are shrewd and sturdy enough to complete the challenging task of producing a sellable book and suffering the slings and arrows of getting it sold.
Your cover letter is essentially finished at this point. You may, however, thank the agent and say that your paperwork does not have to be returned. Don’t feel twitchy about copyright infringements or the theft of your ideas and plaster copyright notices all over your pages. A writer’s work is protected from the moment the first word is placed on a page, and reputable agents have better ways to make money than trying to rip you off.
And that’s it. The cover letter should fit on one page, if possible. Notice that a paragraph about the market for your book should not be included unless it’s nonfiction. You have already mentioned a couple of books that are similar to yours elsewhere in the letter. That’s enough. Your goal in the query letter and the précis of your book—the brief synopsis or abstract—is to show, not tell. If all your material shows that you’re a pro and a player and that you can write about your subject with skill and freshness and flair, the agent will know that your book has a market.
The second sheet of your query package should be a one-page précis of your book. If the work is fiction, this is a very short story of the story that describes the beginning, the middle, and the end in two or three paragraphs (if you’re clever, you won’t have to give away the whiz-bang climax). It is not a detailed, blow-by-blow synopsis of the plot that covers the content of every chapter. If your book is nonfiction, you can make things easy by writing a contents sheet. This is simply a list of the chapters, each one followed by a line or two saying what it contains.
Finally, include seven to nine pages from the opening of your book—or a little more (perhaps the first chapter) if you’re feeling lucky and like to spend money on photocopies. If an agent’s listing asks writers specifically to “send the first 50 pages,” then follow that guideline. Include some sample pages even though the agent probably won’t read them. But if the agent hasn’t rejected your book after scanning your first two pages, he/she will read a little more, hoping to find evidence of your writing skill—not whether or not you can write a sentence but whether your words, ideas, approach, and structure will attract readers who love books like this (a type of book that the agent enjoys and sells) and encourage them to read on.
If you are submitting your query the old-fashioned way, by snail-mail, you may also enclose an SASE—a stamped, self-addressed #10 envelope—although SASEs serve mostly as vehicles for standard rejection slips. If an agent is interested in your book, he/she will call you, e-mail you, or fire off a note asking for more chapters, the entire manuscript, or a proposal (for nonfiction works). Many agents today prefer to receive queries by e-mail. Read their website for submission guidelines, and follow their instructions exactly.
Is it a good idea to add some bells and whistles to gussy up your query package to make it stand out from the crowd? Short answer: Only if you’re an advertising or marketing genius and know how to go about such things. Otherwise, forget it. When you’re dealing with literary agents you have to sell the steak, not the sizzle. Or, as the man said, the medium is the message.
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