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