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Codeswitching for Queries

Codeswitching for Queries

This is not a post about writing computer code or database queries, for the record. It’s about talking to literary agents.

I was reviewing a query letter this morning, as a favor to someone important to me, not because I’m some kind of expert in writing query letters to agents. The letter was fine in some ways. It was personally directed at the agent and demonstrated that the writer had researched the agent’s specific interests. Good. It connected the dots between the agent’s interests and the book in question. Good. It described the gist of the book coherently. Good. And finally, it explained the writer’s relevant credentials. All good.

The thing is: when I got to the end of the letter, I wasn’t sold. I had to spend some time pondering what wasn’t working for me to realize how on point that description of my reaction was: I WAS NOT SOLD.

The writer had taken the approach of trying to use the letter to demonstrate their narrative style…which happens to be lyrical and indirect in that Jane Austen sort of way that sneaks up on you from behind and smacks you in the back of the funny bone with a killer punchline you weren’t expecting. The style is brilliant for delivering gentle-yet-sharp observations on society, and it’s a gem of a choice for the book in question. A query letter, however, offers neither the space nor the communication objectives for this style to do its best work. The result? The letter was passive and confusing.

The fundamental problem in the way the author was thinking about the letter was that they weren’t focused on the question of selling. I want to reiterate here that I’m not any kind of expert on talking to agents…I’ve been intentionally exploring the indie thing and have literally never queried an agent in my life. I’m a writer, though, with a lot of writer friends and a few agents I pay attention to peripherally, and what has stood out to me from watching the ones who actually make money at it (unlike me) is that the point of a relationship between writers, agents, and publishers is TO SELL BOOKS.

Agents might take on the odd risky passion project when they’ve got time and money to burn, but by and large, when they take on a new client, it’s because they see in that person and their work an opportunity to make money. This is not because they are cynical or hardened or sellouts: making money at selling books is what allows them to continue being employed in their much-loved and extremely competitive field.

What this means to me is that the primary job of a query letter is to make it crystal clear to a prospective agent that your book will be easy to sell. They read huge numbers of these letters: if they have to do the work of extrapolating the quality of your writing style in its best context and then imagine for themselves how they can turn that work into a consumer-friendly pitch, they might just move on. A query letter has to do that work for them.

The other thing I’ve observed is that agents want to see that a new client is going to be a good partner for the time-intensive work of bringing a book to publication and selling it. If a query letter requires an agent to wander a garden maze of misdirection to hunt down the point, it suggests that professional communication with the given writer is going to be time-consuming, exhausting, and full of misunderstandings. In short: it would be a pain in the ass. Your query letter needs to you as a business partner as much as it sells your work.

We must be able to codeswitch with our writing, to use the right words for the right context. If you’re writing poetry, write the best poetry you can. If you’re writing a query letter, get out the scalpel and write a business letter.

Query Letter Do’s and Do Not’s

Query Letter Do’s and Do Not’s

Query Letter Do’s and Do Not’s
(Because You Actually Want To Publish that Piece, Right?)

So you’ve completed that piece, be it an article, short story, or the Great American Novel, and you’re ready to send it off to potential publishers. Great! Assuming you’ve done your due diligence you’ve assembled a list of possible homes for your work (if you want extra credit, make a multi-tiered list including dream publishers, second choice markets, etc.) and made sure your work matches their submission guidelines. You’ve done all that? Awesome! Your next step is a biggie, because you need to write a query letter.

Ugh.

Query letter research and writing are among writers’ least favorite activities, right up there with crafting a synopsis and reading your work aloud to a roomful of people who haven’t read a book since college. As tedious and frustrating as the submission process may be, query letters are a necessity. I’ve also got a few pro tips to help you stack the deck in your favor.

  1. Read the submission guidelines, then read them again. Print them out if you have to, highlight important words and make some notes. Submission guidelines are there for a reason, and if you don’t follow them to the letter you’re practically asking for a rejection.
  2. FOLLOW the submission guidelines. You would be shocked at how many query letters I’ve read over the years where the submitter mentions having read the submission guidelines, and then proceeds to do the complete opposite. For instance, the publisher I worked for would ask for the first ten pages pasted into the body of an email as part of the query. I opened hundreds of emails that had no part of the work copy/pasted, or the writer would include the third chapter, pages fifty to one hundred twelve, or something else that was not what we asked for. If you can’t follow a simple guideline, how will you manage an editorial letter? Publishers want writers who are willing to work with them, not ones who ignore directions.
  3. But if you have a question, ASK. Yes, following the submission guidelines is your best bet to get your query letter read, but if something is unclear your best bet is to send an email asking for clarification. We would get questions about submissions all the time, and many of the writers who’d begun that way ended up with contracts. Not only is there no harm in asking, but you should also be wary of the publisher’s response. If they are unwilling to make a reasonable accommodation, perhaps that is not a company you want to work with. (Remember, you’re interviewing them, too!)
  4. As for the query itself, short and sweet is best. A query letter does not need to be more than one page long. You need to include your project’s title, genre, and word count, followed by a paragraph or two of what your work is about. Those paragraphs should be similar to the back cover matter of a book, making the reader want more while not giving anything away. And, that’s it. You don’t even need to include an author bio, unless you’ve got something related to your project that will increase your odds of publication, such as a prestigious award or (in the case of nonfiction) if you’re an expert in the field you’ve written about. Say it with me, folks: short and sweet.
  5. Don’t forget contact information! Yes, the publisher could just reply to your email. But what if they love your project so much they want to call you? How can they mail you a contract without knowing your mailing address? Make it easy for them to open a conversation with you.

Make no mistake, following these tips does not guarantee that you will be published. But your initial submission to a publisher is the first impression they’ll get of you, and you want that impression to be good. Remember, even if they don’t pick up the first project you send them, they may be the ideal home for something else you’ve written.


Jennifer Allis Provost writes books about faeries, orcs and elves. Zombies too. She grew up in the wilds of Western Massachusetts and had read every book in the local library by age twelve. (It was a small library). An early love of mythology and folklore led to her epic fantasy series, The Chronicles of Parthalan, and her day job as a cubicle monkey helped shape her urban fantasy, Copper Girl. When she’s not writing about things that go bump in the night (and sometimes during the day) she’s working on her MFA in Creative Nonfiction.

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