25 DOs & DON'Ts of a Query Letter

Hi Fierce Friends!

Today I thought I would share a little from my In A Nutshell Workshop. I get a lot of questions about writing through email and myspace, and one that crops up a lot is "How do I write a query letter?" First, what IS a Query Letter?

A Query Letter is a letter written to an editor telling him/her briefly about a completed manuscript in such a way that he or she will be enticed into asking the author for the rest of the manuscript. This ensures that the author's manuscript doesn't end up in the notorious land deadly Slush Pile and into the lovely and amazing Requested Pile. A Query Letter is essentially a sales letter. It isn't easy to write. It takes practice and it takes a deft hand. So for all you aspiring writers out there, here's my 25 DOs and DON'Ts of a Good Query Letter. I hope it helps!

25 DOs and DON'Ts of a Good Query Letter
by Tess Mallory Copyright 2008

1. DO Always present the idea in a professional way---clean, good quality paper, good printing, no typos or spelling errors, correct spelling of editor's name, the RIGHT editor's name. (Always CALL the publisher and ask the receptionist who to direct the query letter to, or do research and make that decision)
2. DO keep the query letter to 1 or 1 and 1/2 pages MAXIMUM.
3. DO Always enclose an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope).
4. DO Always write the letter in the correct business format, including your address, your phone number, the date, etc.
5. DO send out ten queries at a time.
6. DO realize when sending out multiple queries, that if an editor requests the next three chapters of the book, that once you have responded to their request, if other requests from other publishers are received, they will be considered simultaneous submissions. DO call the publishing houses who request the manuscript at this point, and ask if they accept simultaneous submissions. Most do not. The first publisher who requests the manuscript will likely assume they will have an exclusive look at the MS before releasing it for submission elsewhere. An unhappy fact in publishing, but it makes sense. An editor doesn’t want to put the time and energy into championing a book, only to find out once it has been approved and she informs the author that she wants to buy it, the author is already in negotiations with another publisher.
7. DO introduce the project being offered in the first sentence or two, give the approximate word count, and the publisher’s line that it is most suited for. (i.e., "I have just completed a 100,000 word romance novel, LOVE’S LOVELY LOVE for consideration for Leisure’s Lovespell line of romances".)
8. DO Hook the editor with a brief, provocative synopsis of the book--similar to a cover blurb on the back of a book.
9. DO present publishing credits in a professional way without hype or conceit.
10. DO mention if you have publishing credits, but if you don’t, DON’T say, "I've never been published, but--" And something hard to face – editors really don’t care if you had a poem published. Period.
11. DO mention anything relevant. For example, if the central character in the proposed book works for the FBI, and you happen to work for the FBI, do include this info by all means!
12. DO have some humility. Being cocky or sounding egotistical in a query is not a good idea. Remember, the writer needs the editor much more than he/she needs the writer. Sad, but true.
13. DO wait a while to call and check on the query. Wait at least two months. Publishers are notoriously slow. The name of the game in publishing is hurry up and wait, so might as well get used to it now! If there is no response within two months, wait another two weeks, then write and politely inquire if the query was received and include a postcard for them to send back that indicates Yes, they received it or No, they didn’t. Editors don’t like to be bugged. However, if there’s no response within three months, then call. Be polite, ask for the editor, sound professional. If you get to talk to her/him, say “I just wanted to check on the status of the query letter I sent to you in December, 2007.” If this is too intimidating, write a letter to the editor and ask the same question.
14. DO Always be polite. Never antagonize an editor, and NEVER antagonize whoever answers the phone at a publishing house. The ASSISTANT today may be the SENIOR EDITOR in a couple of years. And she might remember the writer who was rude to her on the phone. Also, editors in New York hang out together and TALK to each other about submissions. They also change houses pretty frequently.
15. In the query letter, DO offer to send more of the book being proposed if the editor requests it-- ("I would be happy to send you three chapters and a detailed synopsis of Nora's Nibbling Neanderthal at your request.")
16. DO Avoid sounding negative in any way.
17. DON’T presume to tell an editor what he/she will or will not like. In other words, don’t say things like, “When you read this book, I’m sure you’ll agree that it is the next Harry Potter”.
18. A query letter is a sales pitch, but that doesn’t mean to brag or hype or go for a hard sell. NEVER say something like: “This is the most incredible book ever written! If you don’t buy it you’ll be missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime!” Believe it or not, people really try this one.
19. DON’T try to get an editor's notice with tricks like pink paper or colored ink. Very occasionally, clever ruses have been known to catch an editor's attention, but there had better be an awesome query to back it up.
20. DON’T send candy in the mail. It melts.
21. DO tell the editor WHY this book will sell well. Back up claims with real facts. For instance: “The February 22 issue of Publishers Weekly states that Young Adult Fantasy novels account for 72% of all books purchased in the Young Adult genre in the last year.” Then tell how your book fits that category. (by the way, I made up that statistic)
22. DO believe in yourself and your story.
23. DO remain positive if the query is rejected. Send it to other publishers.
24. DO rework the query from time to tim, if it has been sent to several publishers and rejected. Maybe there’s a better way to present the book you want to sell.
25. DO start another project after sending out the query. NEVER sit and wait to begin another book. By the time the publisher asks for three chapters, or if you’re lucky, the entire book, you could have the synopsis of the next book written. And by the time you get an answer on the completed manuscript, you could have another book halfway finished!

Bonus Tip: DO write REQUESTED on the outside of your package when the editor asks to see the rest of the book! It moves you OUT of the Slush Pile on onto the top of her desk! KEEP WRITING!!



Carol Ericson said...

Hi Tess, good, sound advice. I disagree with you on the multiple submissions though. Sometimes publishers can take a year to respond to you and more often than not, that response is a rejection. I don't think a writer should wait and waste time with a slow, disorganized publisher. Get your stuff out there! If I publihser requests a partial after 8 months and you've already sold the MS, then good for you! These industry "professionals" can't expect us to wait around for a year for a response from them. That's why I like email queries so much. The response time seems to be much faster. Just my 2 cents!

ShawnaMoore said...

Hi, Tess!

Your post contains lots of excellent advice :) Thanks for sharing your tips!

Happy weekend wishes,


Tess said...

Multiple submissions has always been a difficult decision for me, so I understand where you're coming from. It's definitely not fair for the publshers to expect a writer to send to one place and wait, when return time is so slow. I've just been cautioned about this over and over both by editors and my agent.

Vonda Sinclair said...

Great tips, Tess!