In response to a recent post intended to encourage writers not to give up and to keep writing, someone asked me if I might offer some thoughts to those who have done exactly that and ended up with a book manuscript looking for a publisher. I imagine there are plenty of people who know much more than I about how to query agents and editors, but I’m glad to offer what I’ve picked up over the years.
The query letter, or the pitch letter, as it’s sometimes called, is a courtesy, but more than that it’s an attempt to get a gatekeeper interested in seeing a part of your book, or, if you’re lucky, the entire manuscript.
A good query letter should be concise and particular. If you can keep it to a single-spaced page in conventional letter format, all the better. The reader of the letter will want to know the following: (1) What’s the book? (2) Who wrote it? (3) What other books is it like?
The letter should begin with a succinct description of the book. This shouldn’t be a synopsis but rather a brief introduction to the characters, the setting, and just enough of the narrative to make the reader of your letter curious to know more. Here’s how I might describe my newest novel, Yours, Jean:
Yours, Jean portrays the events of September 3, 1952, the day when one man’s actions reverberate through a number of families in the small towns of Vincennes, Indiana, and Lawrenceville, Illinois. On this day—the first day of school—Jean De Belle, the new librarian, is eager to begin the next phase of her young life after breaking off her engagement with her fiancé, Charlie Camplain. She has no way of knowing that in a few short hours, Charlie will arrive at the school, intent on convincing her to take back his ring. What happens next will challenge the bonds within the families whose lives intersect with those of Jean and Charlie on that fateful day. In the vein of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, Yours, Jean is a novel about small town manners and the loneliness and the desire for connection that drive people to do things they never could have imagined. “When she refused me,” Charlie says of Jean at his trial. “Well, I had that gun. When she said no, what else was I to do?”
The second section of the letter should offer some pertinent information about you, the author. If you’ve published before, give the reader of your letter some of your most eye-catching credentials. If you’ve not published but have attended an MFA program or gone to writers’ conferences, be sure to include that information. If you have any special connection to the subject matter of the book—if something about your biography notably qualifies you to write this book—don’t hesitate to say so. If you have no credentials to offer and if there’s nothing unique about your biography, don’t despair. Just be straight forward. Tell the reader of the letter who you are and how you came to write this book. The Jack Webb approach from the old TV series, Dragnet, is best: “Just the facts.”
Finally, there’s the custom of telling the reader of your letter which two books yours might be compared to. The “comps” have become, for better or worse, an important part of the query letter. I tend to resist this part of the letter because if your book is really good, it isn’t like any other book, but I understand this from a marketing viewpoint, so it’s probably best to play the game with enthusiasm. I suspect you’re money ahead if your comps are recently published books, which will give editors and agents a sense of how your book would fit into the current marketplace.
The conclusion of your letter should offer to send the first fifty pages of the book, or the entire manuscript if the reader would prefer. Remember to be courteous and professional throughout. Never whine. Never be angry or bitter. Never go off on tangents. Be specific and make your writing personable and energetic. Be confident, but not overly so. Remember, your objective is to make your book sound so interesting an editor or an agent won’t be able to refuse to read some of it. I wish you all the luck in the world.