Query Letters: The “Other” How-To Tip

The query letter. It’s one of those necessary evils most of us will have to master on the road to getting published. If you’ve done your homework, then you know there’s lots of advice out there on how to write a query letter. There’s also lots of advice out there on how not to write a query letter, come to that.

I can tell you, the first time I queried a manuscript, I did my research before I sent my letter out … which I sent over a hundred times to a hundred different literary agencies.

Sadly, that is not an exaggerated number.

My problem was that all these blog posts, magazine articles, and how-to pages on how to write that exemplary, sure-fire, get-em-hooked query letter neglected to stress one point above all else. They did not make it crystal clear that when you implement all these “must-haves” into your query letter, you must do so with a crucial filter firmly in place:

You are selling your book. Not yourself.

You’re probably looking at that and thinking, “Well, duh!” And I’ll concede that more than 50% of you reading this post were not misled like I was—which, maybe, puts the blame for my failure squarely on my own shoulders. But I’m willing to bet that there are at least a handful of writers out there who are like me, and who, in taking this advice to heart, over-implemented it like I did.

I know you’re familiar with the advice, so I don’t have to go into detail. Let it suffice to say that here are the most oft repeated points in condensed form:

  • Address the agent by name, and tell that agent why you’ve chosen to query them
  • Talk about your manuscript right away, and include the word count and genre
  • Mention any relevant writing credits and/or talk about your platform
  • Don’t be arrogant, don’t talk about past rejections, don’t waste time on unimportant “filler” (for example, “I value your time”).

It’s great advice, and like I said, I followed it all … to my detriment, I followed it ALL. As if each point were the most important point in my query letter.

What happened? Well, because I had no platform at the time, I added writing credits that I thought would make me seem like a serious writer, because I knew that agents would want to see that I was willing to work at my career and craft … they didn’t. I spent time trying to tell each agent why I chose them, to make myself seem more dedicated to their agency … it didn’t. I took ‘Don’t be arrogant’ in the opposite direction, and came across as apologetic and self-conscious instead.

I wish someone had said to me then, “Sell your book, not yourself.”

Here is an example of a successful query letter that got the author her agent:

Dear [Agent’s Name],

[Personalization here]. I’d like to offer my 54,000 upper MG novel, CAN’T BUY ME LOVE for your consideration.

Thirteen-year-old Marnie Mercer thinks middle school would be perfect if she could just address a few critical issues. The lack of cell phone thing, for one. Her yawn-inducing social status, for another. And would it be too much to ask for a first kiss to knock her (discount store) shoes off? But when she inherits a fortune from an unknown great-aunt, she discovers a brand new set of complications.

Now, her best friend is convinced money corrupts, her parents need a loan, and a group of popular girls offer Marnie access to the top of the social pyramid, but first she’ll have to complete their zany pledging checklist. Soon she’s sneaking locks of her principal’s hair, stealing her teacher’s beloved laser pointer, and throwing a sure-to-get-her-grounded-for-LIFE party.

To make matters worse, she’s finally met a guy worth his weight in gold—only he might not be so interested if he finds out how many commas separate their allowances. Marnie needs to find a way to manage her money and her life while staying true to herself. Otherwise, she can say goodbye to her best friend’s respect, her parents’ trust, and any chance of getting her first kiss from a boy who makes her feel priceless.

Life as a teenage heiress is one mixed bag of crazy.

CAN’T BUY ME LOVE will appeal to fans of Lauren Barnholdt, Wendy Mass’ FINALLY and Lauren Myracle’s The Winnie Years series.

I am a member of SCBWI and two critique groups. In addition, I have a strong background in promotion as the former regional Head of Publicity and Promotion for 20th Century Fox and Miramax Films.

Thank you so much for your time and attention.

You can see that most of those bullet points on how to write a good query letter were in there. The author mentioned her writing credits. She said the agent’s name (though she didn’t add why she’d chosen that particular agent). She wasn’t arrogant. But the overarching focus was her book.

a young mixed race boy shouts with delight whilst using a laptop computer

That’s what I had been missing, and that’s what I wish I’d known then. All that advice is good to keep in your mind, but when you’re trying to incorporate it all into your manuscript, it shouldn’t be the focus. Your book should. Gloss over the rest of it. Make it brief. By all means, leave some of it out. A good tip is to start your query letter off by writing the blurb on the back of your book. Then add all the other little bits in and around it, as short and sweet as possible.

Sell your book. Not yourself.

When I finally realized this, I wrote a query letter of a much different sort, and I got my publishing contract.

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