Paperback Writer

By Joe Moore

“Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?”*

Paperback Writer, the 1966 hit by The Beatles, is a great example of a finely crafted query letter (in musical format) that lays out pretty much all the elements of a solid manuscript pitch. It covers a summary (. . . based on a novel by a man named Lear), conflict (. . . his clinging wife doesn’t understand), characterization (It’s a dirty story of a dirty man), motivation (it’s a steady job but he wants to be . . .), length (. . . a thousand pages give or take a few), author flexibility (I can make it longer if you like the style), the writer’s acceptance of reality (If you must return it you can send it here), and a heartfelt closing (But I need a break).

Chances are your query letter won’t become a smash hit on its own, although the hope is your book will. But there are some basic elements that all strong manuscript query letters must have.

It’s important to realize that the query letter is probably the most important letter a writer will ever compose. Unlike correspondence to a friend or family member, you must spend a great deal of time molding and shaping your query into the same caliber of perfection as your manuscript. So here are a few points to keep in mind before mailing it or click “send”.

Length. Agents and editors are busy professionals. They have little time to read long query letters. It’s important that you make your case in one or two pages, tops. If you can’t, the agent might assume you won’t be able to grab a reader in the first few pages of your book, either. So don’t ramble, just cut to the chase.

Attitude. Don’t come across as arrogant or condescending. Humility can go a long way to gaining respect. You should give the impression that you would be easy to work with. Listing your credentials and credits is part of the query process, but it should be done in a business-like manner and only the ones that contribute to your writing qualifications. In addition, if you have an established writer’s “platform”, include the info. A platform includes a website, Facebook, Twitter, blog, and other Internet and traditional lines of communication with significant numbers of potential readers.

Poor punctuation, grammar and spelling. Check, check and re-check your letter. Let someone else check it. Let 5 people check it. Bad grammar and misspelled words are not a sign of a professional writer. If your query contains mistakes, you’re just making it harder on yourself to gain the attention and respect of an agent.

Unprofessional presentation. There are countless reference guides and writing manuals on how to compose a proper business letter. Query letters are business letters. Showing a lack of knowledge on how professionals communicate will not score you any points.

Be brief. As stated earlier, the agent or editor has a few seconds to devote to your query letter or email before moving on to the other hundred she received that day. Get to the point, and do it fast. Identify yourself. What is your desired outcome of the letter? Why did you choose that particular agent? What is your book about? Why would someone want to read it? Why are you qualified to write it? Close with a thank-you and offer to send more. All of the above can be stated in one or two sentences each.

Be ready for the follow-up. Are you prepared to supply the agent whatever she requests; full manuscript or sample chapters, short synopsis or complete outline? If not, you may not be ready to start the query process. And assume that each agent will ask for something different, so have all variations ready to go.

Identify your genre. You must know what genre your book falls into. Know the difference between a thriller or mystery, cozy or procedural, hard boiled or medium or soft, or any of the other dozens of sub-genre. And please don’t refer to your work as a fiction novel. ALL novels are fiction. Using terms from the department of redundancy department screams amateur.

Billboard. Your query letter is a single-page billboard advertising your book. It very well could be the only shot you’ll get at SELLING yourself and your manuscript. It must be perfect. Every word has to count. You may not get a second chance. And just like that billboard on the highway you see as you speed by, the agent has just about the same amount of time to devote to your query letter. Give yourself a fighting chance and make it perfect the first time.

Now let’s take a listen to one of the best query letters ever written: Paperback Writer by The Beatles.

*Paperback Writer, © 1966 Lennon & McCartney

12 thoughts on “Paperback Writer

  1. One of my favorites. And by the way, did you say the query should be brief? I mean really, if you didn’t mention that…

    i.e. get to da point

  2. Hey Mark,
    I was wading through some youTube music videos the other day and came across PAPERBACK WRITER. It hit me that it’s a great pitch for a book. Hense my post today. Next time I promise that I’ll be more briefy.

  3. Joe, I especially liked the comparison between the query letter and the billboard. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Thanks!

  4. Excellent points, Joe. And anytime you can bring The Beatles into it, you’ve done well. Honestly, I was writing and listening to classic rock yesterday, and a Beatles song came on, and I thought, Dang, these guys still sound good.

    And since brevity is the soul of your post, I’ll stop now.

  5. Thanks, Sean. I think that even with the new crop of indie, self-published authors, it’s worth going through the exercise of creating a proposal or query, if for no other reason that to reafirm that they know their book, their qualifications and the market.

  6. Thanks, Joe. The billboard comparison does work well as a strong visual. You don’t have to drive down the highway very far to get the point.

  7. You’re right, Jim. Those Beatle guys were pretty darn good. Novelists, especially starting out, can learn a great deal on the economy of words by reading the lyrics of great song writers like L&M.

  8. Joe, I must admit that I never noticed the similarity between the song and a query letter. Good pick-up.

    You mention the importance of proof-reading, and I strongly second that. Watch out for auto-complete. It can be the writer’s worst enemy, completing the word but making it a different one than what you intended.

    As always, thanks for sharing.

  9. (grin). Actually, I didn’t think your thing was too long (hmmm, well, how the hell would I know?).

    I know that as an editor myself, I like communications from writers to be short and to the point.

  10. Just heard “Paperback Writer” performed last night by two local talents. Never thought of the song as a primer for a query letter. Clever, Joe!

    By the way, I’m late in commenting on this post, but today is your birthday, sir, soooooo, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JOE!!

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