Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Scoop on Queries

Merritt Island photo taken before writing The Distant Shore
I recently received questions from several aspiring writers concerning book queries so I'd like to revisit that topic.

A query is a one-page, single-spaced (normally manuscripts and corresponding letters should be double spaced, but a query is an exception) pitch letter to an editor or agent. The goal is to receive a request for more material - either a book proposal (another whole can of worms covered in a previous post), or a partial or full manuscript.

So the goal of your query is to introduce your topic, describe your book, and pique interest for more by doing it in a unique and entertaining way.

In order to achieve this goal, you must put serious thought into your query. That means time and energy. You need to include a clever pitch for your book, a brief bio, and your marketing strategy (how you intend to help sell your book). Unless your name rhymes with bowling and you write books about boy wizards, you're expected to get out there and market your book. Do you do event speaking? Do you blog? Have you a website?

Mention these if you do and make sure they're updated and ready for visitors. You can bet if the agent or editor is interested in you, they'll be visiting your website or blog.

Research by way of Writer's Market or Christian Writers' Market Guide the name of the appropriate acquisitions editor (many publishing houses have a whole host of editors; make sure you're sending your precious baby to the correct one). NEVER write to Sir or Madam or To Whom It May Concern. This may seem silly or trite to you, but it's not to them. It shows you care enough and are professional enough to do your homework.

Don't risk the slush pile over something you can control.

Be aware that not all publishers deal directly with authors; some only deal with agents.Whether they do or not will be listed in their submission guidelines. Obtain and follow the submission guidelines exactly - it's a good idea to not only obtain info from the Market Guides, but also go to the publisher's website for the guidelines posted there as well.

Make a short list of publishers or agents who look like a good match for your book - publishers and agents both have specific topics/genres they're looking for. Don't send a cat query to a dog agent.

If you're a non-fiction writer, be sure to list your platform information in your query - why you're an expert on this topic and why people will buy your book. But resist tooting your own horn too much; editors dislike (hate seems too strong here, but it's pretty close to the truth) aspiring authors to make claims like, "My book is the next Gone With the Wind." or "I'm going to make you a fortune."

Keep your word count to 100,000 words or less - very few, and I do mean VERY few first time authors will get a second glance when they pitch an epic novel. If your book is too long, consider breaking it into two books and pitch a possible series.

Never use the term, "fictional novel" - a blatant beginners mistake and you've just branded yourself an amateur. It's either fictional or a novel. The terms are redundant and you only need to use one.

Do some research on the agent or publishing house and comment on some of their previous work that you've enjoyed, or better yet, compare your work to some of their previous work. (They obviously liked that book or they wouldn't have published it!).

It's always good to have one or more self-published books under your belt before you query traditional publishers, but be aware that they don't consider you a "previously published author" if you're self-published. Simply state that you're self-published and your titles, and if it's impressive, the number of copies sold. (Self-Published books average 75 copies sold, so if you can state 2000 or more, include it.)
Agents are awesome (I love mine: Greg Johnson of WordServe) because they open doors you can't as an author. Unfortunately, it's not easy to get a literary agent to represent a first book, but if you've self-published or used a small press for previous books, you have a leg to stand on when querying an agent. Research and query them the very same way you would a publishing house. Standard agent commission if 15% and it's well worth it for all the work they do on your behalf. They don't get paid a penny unless they sell your book, so they're highly motivated and often full of great ideas to help you improve your manuscript. 

Look for sample queries in the two market guides listed above and plan to spend as much time perfecting your query as you would a manuscript. You only have one shot. Don't miss.