Queries: Really Not That Complicated

In the comments to Friday’s post, February Grace said: “I wish that there was a standard query procedure to follow. That’s all. A uniform cover letter plus a sample from the work or synopsis or both.”

First, I want to apologize on behalf of all agents, because apparently we’ve made it seem way too hard. It’s not. It’s the ultimate in simple. We all DO want basically the same things, with the only major difference being that some agents want sample pages in the query, and some don’t.

Other than that, here’s what we want:

A reasonably intelligent letter, addressed to us personally, that pitches the book in a way that makes it sound interesting and makes us want to read it.

If the book is non-fiction, then a bit about the author and the platform is also necessary.

That’s it.

Most of the problems with queries are in the writing itself, and this has nothing to do with differing agent guidelines. You’ve got to learn to write a strong letter, as well as a strong pitch for your book.

Sure, every agent has their little preferences and pet peeves. And we DO want you to read our guidelines because the biggest time waster is reading queries for genres we don’t even rep. But basically, if you have a well-written letter that is free of grammatical errors and typos, avoids grandiosity and ridiculous claims, and makes your book sound intriguing, you will get fair consideration.

Stay educated about industry basics such as genres and acceptable word counts, read agent guidelines so you’ll know what they rep – and stop worrying so much.

For more info, click on “Query Letters” in the sidebar under “Find Posts on This Blog.” You can also read my list of Top Ten Query Mistakes, or take a look at six queries I’ve critiqued.

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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  • Anonymous

    >What if you do all of the right things, but agents still fail to respond? It's frustrating when they won't even give you the courtesy of a reply, even if it is a rejection.
    Even more irritating is when you do get requests, then they don't bother to reply after a few weeks or months of polite status requests. (Once a month, according to Nathan)

    What about AGENTS following a standard polite protocol? Agents, if you're too busy to respond, then maybe you shouldn't hang out your shingle until you catch up on all your work!

  • Kim Kasch

    >I just LOVE the photo that goes with this post :)

  • Nicole MacDonald

    >…anon sounds titchy.. maybe you should hunt out their query letter *grin*

  • February Grace

    >Oh my goodness. Thank you Ms. Gardner, your clear direction is truly appreciated. Especially the advice not to worry so much because some of us (okay, maybe it's just me) can get rather Piglet like in our nervousness over these things.

    Though the picture on that post is a little scary reminiscent of my actual real-life glasses…and bangs…um…*looks around room for hidden cameras*…yes, that is a tad bit frightening.

    "A reasonably intelligent letter, addressed to us personally, that pitches the book in a way that makes it sound interesting and makes us want to read it."

    That, I can absolutely do, or at least make an intelligent attempt at (if I can just convince myself to stop claiming to be the next Nicholas Sparks, Stephanie Meyer and JK Rowling all rolled into one…well there goes my whole query letter looks like I'm starting from scratch!)

    Thank you again for addressing my comment- I am amazed and really appreciate it. You've given me a lot of hope tonight.

    ~February

  • Meagan Spooner

    >I think it's easier, as a writer, to assume that you're missing some top secret information about How To Query, than it is to accept that the proposal itself, or even the manuscript in question, is not quite up there yet. And no one wants to feel like they're excluded from the club, even if it is all in their head.

    After all, it's a lot less daunting to revise a one-page query letter to include that top secret code language that everyone else seems to know about, than it is to revise a 100,000-word (give or take) manuscript.

    Speaking as a writer, it's certainly comforting to think that all you need to do is find the right way to query. It may well be that this is a much-needed cushion for our confidence when we do fail. It just becomes problematic when we stop looking at other factors.

  • February Grace

    >@Meagan

    I just have to answer this since it was my comment that the original post referred to:

    For the record, to date I have sent a grand total of three queries.

    Two of those resulted in requests for fulls even if they were ultimately rejections (one rejection each on two different manuscripts) So it's not like I'm looking for any excuse to explain away a ton of rejections or am in denial at this stage. I'm just starting at this.

    Believe it or not, some people really can be that intimidated by what seems to be conflicting information about what will get you an auto-rejection in a query letter.

    I am just grateful (and still shocked that out of all the comments from Friday she answered mine) that Ms. Gardner took time out of her busy schedule to respond to me so now I can look at it all more objectively.

    Sometimes you just need a clear voice of reason rising above the din and that's what she's given us today.

    ~February

  • Amie McCracken

    >Thank you for being so straight forward. It's like oxygen to starved lungs.

  • Teresa Stenson

    >Thanks for this, Rachelle. I'm not at the querying stage yet but your advice de-mystifies the whole thing enough for me to feel level headed about the prospect of it.

  • scarlettprose

    >When I first began the process, my query letter sucked worse than a clogged up Kirby. It screamed, "Hey, look how long-winded my query is, can you imagine reading my book???" Unfortunately, I sent it out way too many times before I realized it was horrible, and closed a lot of doors I think that might have opened with a better query. Even now, I read it and get embarrassed. But I've learned that brevity is the key. I keep the whole thing under three hundred words. When you do that, you have to write smarter anyway, and your query becomes snappy, interesting. And I get requests from it. Lesson learned.

  • Kathleen@so much to say, so little time

    >My question is this: when you say "addressed to us personally"–this is supposed to be where we say why we picked YOU instead of Agent Next Door, right? My frustration is writing such a thing without sounding like I'm pandering. :/

  • Meagan Spooner

    >@February:

    Ack, I did not mean my comment to sound critical, though reading back over it I can completely see where I went astray. I wasn't actually responding to your post specifically, just musing about how it can end up so difficult for us as writers. I'm at that stage too where I'm trying to figure out how to do this whole querying thing, and fighting my own denial demons. Nothing but admiration for you having the guts to ask questions, trust me! :)

  • Lisa Jordan

    >Reading an agent's or editor's guidelines is the first step in writing a query because you learn their contact information and what they are looking for. Writers cry that they aren't given respect, but when they send out queries not even addressed to the right agent or editor, they're not giving the respect they're demanding in return.

    There are all kinds of websites that walk writers through the steps of writing a query. A little research goes a long way. As writers continue to hone their craft, their submission abilities improve too.

    Cute picture.

  • Adventures in Children’s Publishing

    >Your bolded comment is spot-on. I think many writers struggle to pull together a concise, compelling pitch regarding their work. Thanks for breaking it down for us.

    Marissa

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >You do a great job of finding pictures that fit your posts for the day.

    I enjoyed this one.

  • Heidiopia

    >I haven't reached the query stage yet, but I so appreciate your clear, concise advice! Have a great day.

  • Timothy Fish

    >Submission guidelines don’t seem that different to me. They’re close enough that the author can create a form query that includes everything and then for each agent delete the stuff the agent doesn’t want, plaster the agent’s name at the top and send it on its way.

  • Sarah N Fisk

    >I try to tell people in my crit group this all the time. Sure, one agent may prefer that you put the title in the first paragraph, while another prefers it goes in the last paragraph – but they're not going to reject you for that.

    And I agree whole-heartedly with Meagan's first comment. It's so much easier to blame someone else.

  • salarsenッ

    >I don't believe agents have made it too hard. In my opinion and for myself, I'm the one who does that. I've only queried once–and way too soon, being a newbie–but we won't talk about that.

    I'm currently in the final edits of my manuscript and attempting to write a concise query letter. I search the internet and chat with other writers on how to 'wow' in a query. Basically, as I find queries that work and see how amazing they are I stress myself out. Lack of confidence. That's all it is. A good query letter shows the work but also shows the confidence the writer has in him or herself, and that body of work.

    Simply writing a cordial letter presenting my work in an enticing manner is all I need to do.

    Hmm…I'll have to keep repeating that in my head, and I won't stop until I get it done.

    Thanks for another great post.

  • Tessa Quin

    >I have three versions of my query letter and I have a trouble deciding which to use. 1) There is the sedate, informative, "professional" one that lists what happens, 2) there's the snazzy, hip, fun query that kind of sounds more like MG than YA, and 3) a chancy one that is really good, but starts with a kind of a joke.

    Personally I think that the 3rd one is the best, but as I said, it's a bit chancy.

    Any idea which to use in general?

  • Leah Petersen

    >I have to agree that it really isn't that hard but it feels daunting out of proportion to how difficult it really is. Because it's so important and you're so personally invested in it. I don't think you could make it easy enough for it to actually feel easy.

  • Susan Bourgeois

    >I think it all comes down to capturing the agent's attention based on the pitch. Of course it matters that the letter is well written. I also feel it's extremely important to study the submission process well.

    The process is similar to sales. You have to have a great sales pitch. You have to believe in your product. You have to convince others to purchase your product. You have to present your product in the best light.

    The agent is the first step in presenting your product. If the agent likes it, he or she will begin to sell the product to the publishers in a similar manner.

    I think it's best to pretend you're the one receiving the query. I know that's hard to do because it's difficult to be objective about your own work. You have to ask yourself a couple of questions. Does the pitch grab you? Do you feel compelled to read on? Could your book be of interest to thousands or millions of people who may be interested or able to relate to what you've written?

    I also feel the pitch and query should reflect the personality of the writer. I think the agent can automatically tell whether the writer will be able to connect well with the masses.

    That picture is great! I love it! Too bad I can't use it in my sales pitch for my query; it would complement my opening paragraph perfectly!

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >My suggestion to Tessa Quin.

    Which query sounds the most like YOU? That is the one you should send.

  • MarissaV

    >I'm new to this whole process but something occurred to me as I read this post and the comments. Isn't a query letter just like a resume? Perhaps I was in the corporate world too long but I think of a query letter like I think of a resume. It's a one pager in which you have to sell yourself (or your book.) If you were to send out 100 resumes, you are not going to get feedback on any of them. No one is going to follow up to tell you the formatting is incorrect in your resume or your experience stinks, or perhaps your skills don’t match the job description. You would just get a phone call or email if the powers at be like what you said in your resume. Otherwise, we assume they don’t and go to plan b, which may be a rewrite to our query letter or looking for another agent to send to. I think we are lucky if we get feedback on query letters but we shouldn't expect it.

  • Teenage Bride

    >Great post. I think my problem is that I worry way too much. I usally end up changing so many thing that by the time I am finished writing my query, it is worse than when I started. Great advice. Thanks!!!

    I guess they are not that scary after all.

  • LilySea

    >I absolutely see what you mean, but it is in fact the case that some agents will say "give me a few writers that your work can be compared with" and others will blow you away with guffaws if you dare to do this. That kind of thing is annoying.
    It feels like you can't win. It still boils down to tailoring letters to individual agents re: their pet peeves, requests ("I want to know the word count in the first sentence!" "I want to know why your book is different in the first sentence!" etc.). And that is just exhausting given the numbers involved.
    But I also trust that a solid, compelling query that follows your general rules might well be a hit with any agent, irrespective of pet peeves.
    So much of the advice we get from agents on their websites etc. is "don't suck." We know that, but hearing it makes us anxious.

  • Susan Bourgeois

    >I don't think rejection is fun for anyone but it's a part of this process.

    I think we have to be true to ourselves. My opening pitch is a bit blunt. My book is a bit blunt at times. I strongly feel it has to be in order to get the reader to think and grasp the concept.

    I am a nice person but I am also blunt at times. My intention is to get through to the reader without unnecessary distractions. There is way too much conflicting information on the subject of my book.

    As I begin to send out queries I realize it would be detrimental for me to continually second guess my choices.

    I don't wish to do that, so I am using my own instincts based off of my own gut feelings. Should an agent offer a suggestion, I would greatly appreciate their opinion as an expert.

    I think that's what we all must do from the onset of this journey.

  • Starry

    >"A uniform cover letter"

    Then there's no sense whatsoever in writing the letter. In this case the agent can only expect the same meaningless compliance with the formal rules. No individuality, originality can shine through, there's no way to get one hooked.

  • Pia Veleno

    >I'm guilty. I've been known to sit there and stress over the little things that differ from agent to agent, like using **** instead of # as a paragraph break.

    This is a great reminder. First and foremost, we need to have an irresistible and well-written pitch. Then, worry if the margins are one-inch and the font is Times New Roman. ;-)

  • Rachelle

    >Starry: Don't miss the point of this whole post. Individuality and originality CAN and DO shine through in the context of a brief letter – and in fact, they can only shine through if the letter is like I said, well-written.

    Also, you may be seriously underestimating people's creativity if you believe that individuality couldn't shine through in a "uniform cover letter." I assure you, even if I gave very specific instructions (i.e. word count, number of paragraphs, what information to include), every writer's personality and skill would still shine through very brightly, for better or worse.

  • Leah Petersen

    >"Then there's no sense whatsoever in writing the letter. In this case the agent can only expect the same meaningless compliance with the formal rules. No individuality, originality can shine through, there's no way to get one hooked. "

    I'd guess "uniform cover letter" means one that follows the proper format and includes everything uniformly asked for (word count, etc.) but that reflects your voice and individuality and most certainly allows for the creative expression necessary to hook the agent.

    But if uniform standards aren't followed, you could "originally" leave out important things the agent needs to know.

  • Anonymous

    >Simple, yet not. And I'm guessing people like Starry may be bristling under the notion of subjectivity rather than following the rules. "A reasonably intelligent letter that pitches the book in a way that makes it sound interesting and makes us want to read it.

    Yes. Simple, yet not. And something to think about. Thanks, Rachelle. :)

  • Talei

    >Hi Rachelle,

    Thank you for clearing the haze on query letters. When the day comes that I will be sending out my queries, I hope to remain calm and cool on the matter. I hope, I just can't promise though.

    PS: I love that photo!

  • Julie Lindsey

    >Thanks Rachelle. I needed a little chuckle to take the edge off.

  • lauradroege

    >I'm not intimidated by the query letter; I think mine is pretty good.

    What intimidates me is the book proposal: having to prove that I can find my audience and get in front of them and showing that I'm the right person to have written this book.

    Question: My book is ready to be submitted, I think. I'm still working on building a better platform, though. Should I go ahead and start querying agents, even if my platform isn't that great?

  • Julie Weathers

    >This was a great post as always. I wrote about this recently on my blog.

    http://tinyurl.com/Please-Don-t-Kill-Me

    The problem is, some preferences and pet peeves are so strong, the agent passes and the author has no idea why. Some agents will post comments while they go through queries.

    "I hate vampires. Pass."

    I often go to their site to see if this is mentioned in their guidelines and it isn't. If an agent feels so strongly about something that it earns an automatic pass, I think they should put it in their guidelines.

    Janet Reid posted about a writer she met at a conference. The woman mentioned two other agents had the fulls. Janet contacted them and they were indeed interested, but never received them. Janet asked if the writer followed up and she hadn't because she assumed no reply meant no interest.

    I'm getting ready to query. I've studied the agents and arranged them in order. I know what they want, but part of me still wonders if I missed something and it puts my guts in an uproar.

  • Kelly Freestone

    >I think I just heard the entire room sigh in relief, LOL
    Thanks, Rachelle.
    :D

  • Kristin T. (@kt_writes)

    >Thanks for this clarification! I particularly appreciate the "stop worrying so much" advice. When I stop worrying it's much easier to let my natural voice shine through. This is important to me, even in a somewhat formal query letter. If I can't make my initial contact with an agent reflect who I really am and how I really write, then it feels like little more than an exercise in formality.

  • Robert Michael

    >I know this is harsh, but writers who whine about ambiguous query letter expectations can probably be linked directly to a manuscript that is sub-par.

    To those who think agents are unfair, mentally challenged or downright evil: agents desire to be successful just as you do. The difference is that they need twenty to thirty successful authors (or one really Super Author)to provide them the same income you expect from your Great American Novel. The difficulty they face is that they must sift through tons of aspiring, talented writers to choose those which fit their services and hold some glimpse of a promise to have a story that they can represent.
    Publishing has been, for better or worse, distilled down to a marketing decision. Talent and art, imagination and creativity, story arc and theme are still sought after elements of a prospective novel, but the bottom line is going to be "can I sell this book to XYZ publisher?"
    Your query letter should fit this format: a good letter that sells the concept of your novel and reveals not only the skeleton of your plot and the major conflict but also your voice and talent. Sadly, this is the audition. If you have ever tried out for a sport, a position in a chorus or a play, you may be acquainted with the process. It is competitive, it can be unfair, it can be fraught with poor judgment and the errors that come with the mind-numbing task of sorting through thousands of vanilla letters. Agents (and editors) should be approached with the same compassion that the hard-working, committed author is deserved.

  • February Grace

    >@ Meagan: No worries, thank you for the clarification. Was kind of you.

    @ Robert: Ouch. Unless you've read someone's manuscript I really don't think automatically blaming their confusion with the process, especially at first, is fair at all.

    @ Everyone- yes, the picture would be funny- honestly- but it is an unhappy coincidence that I have to wear disfiguring glasses in real life (plus 15 correction for aphakia)or I can't see. The picture in my blogger profile is glasses I can't wear anymore that were paired with contacts that are no longer an option for me. I also happen to have as anyone can see, blue eyes and dark hair. Still you've got to have a sense of humor when these things happen…

    @Ms. Gardener

    Thank you again for the post- it may have made me look like a whiner and opened me up to insult by people who haven't even read my work, but if it helped one other writer in that you responded to it, it was worth having made the original comment. Now I don't ever have to question the process again because someone in the know gave a straight answer.

    Thank you.

  • Julie Weathers

    >Robert–I know this is harsh, but writers who whine about ambiguous query letter expectations can probably be linked directly to a manuscript that is sub-par.

    Yes, it is harsh. I don't mind studying agents. Following them on their social media and going over their submissions guidelines with a fine-tooth comb. It doesn't do a bit of good if they don't say specifically what they want.

    If putting your word count at the end of the query makes an agent want to delete the query on sight if it isn't done that way, then just note that in the submission guidelines.

    I will be happy to jump through hoop d, a, c, e, b in exactly that order if that's what the agent wants. Just put it somewhere so I know.

    It has nothing to do with my ability as a writer, the quality of my manuscript or my personal level of insanity.

    Just plainly state what you want as an agent and I will send you exactly that. Nothing more and nothing less.

  • dining table

    >You have a very interesting topic. Reading your post is so much fun. The comments are all so good. Reading it will definitely going the topic clearer.

  • kathy taylor

    >Yes, it seems the more I read about it the more confused I become. But! I am finding my way out of it.

  • Susan Bourgeois

    >Rachelle,

    Lauradroege brought up some excellent points in her post regarding a platform for non-fiction.

    I'm sure many of us would be interested in your reply to some of her concerns.

    It would be great if you could elaborate about the importance of when a platform should come into the picture.

    Most of us realize that there's a great advantage for the writer who has an established platform.

    What about the writer who has the confidence in their ability to establish a platform based on their past performances in sales and marketing?

    Could this also be considered as an asset?

  • Lucy

    >@ Kathleen-so much to say…

    "My question is this: when you say 'addressed to us personally'–this is supposed to be where we say why we picked YOU instead of Agent Next Door, right? My frustration is writing such a thing without sounding like I'm pandering."

    Kathleen, there's a difference between "addressed personally" and personalization. For the first, the agent's name, spelled correctly, i.e. "Dear Ms. Gardner" is all you need. "Dear Agent," "Dear Bob," and "To whom it may concern" are neither personal nor appropriate.

    For the second, it's not a question of why you think this agent is better than other agents, but why you think your project will be a good fit. Why do you want this agent to rep your book? If the answer is "because they're an agent," you clearly haven't done your homework. But no matter the case, there's no need to pander. Honestly, if it bothers you, there's no need to personalize beyond "Dear [insert correct name]." A nicely personalized letter can help the overall impression, but it's not the most critical aspect.

    Hope this helps! :-)

    Lucy

  • Lucy

    >P.S. For a truly hilarious post on "addressed personally to" see Nathan Bransford's blog here:

    http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/06/query-stats-salutations.html

    We're still trying to figure out how one of the unfortunate queriers came up with "Martha Bransford."

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