If you’re hoping to get your writing published, sooner or later you’re going to need to write a query letter. This is basically a super professional letter written to a publisher or agent which gives your elevator pitch, what your manuscript is and why it would be perfect for this purpose, your writing credentials, and anything else the letter-reader needs to know.
Above all, treat whomever you’re submitting your novel to with the utmost respect. They are professionals doing their jobs, and if they choose to take on your work, that is a real risk for them. Read the submission guidelines, address it to them by name, and don’t tell them that your book is the next ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Hunger Games’.
Submitting Fiction vs. Submitting Nonfiction
Submitting novel-length fiction and nonfiction are totally different processes. When you submit fiction, generally the book has already been written. This doesn’t mean that the book won’t go through further edits during the publishing process, but you should have already written the thing. Generally, a publisher or agent’s submission guidelines for fiction will ask for a certain amount of pages or chapters, a synopsis and a query letter, though sometimes these requirements can vary. If they like what they see, they may ask for the full manuscript, and you want to be able to provide it as quickly as possible.
Nonfiction, on the other hand, is a totally different beast. Generally, while you will need to have a few chapters of sample writing, a synopsis and chapter outline, publishers like to pick up nonfiction books before they are written. This is a double-bonus for you; firstly, the publisher will tell you exactly what they want, lessening the amount of edits you’ll have to go through, and secondly (the holy grail), you’ll get paid while you write!
submitting to an agent vs. a publisher
When approaching an agent or publisher, keep in mind the approach you want to take. Generally speaking (though you don’t necessarily need an agent in Australia), it’s better to approach agents first, as a huge part of an agent’s role is to sell the book to a publisher. Remember that you’re not selling your book to your agent—you’re asking them to become your career partner. Agents usually represent authors for much of their career, so it’s important to make sure that you approach them with this in mind.
It is more like you’re selling your book to a publisher, but also keep in mind that the publisher or editor is someone you will have a relationship with. They aren’t a robot that sends out form rejection letters; they are a human with little time and lots of choice. Remember that if you haven’t found an agent and you receive an offer from a publisher, you can still contact an agent to help negotiate the deal. Just be careful not to accept any terms before the agent gets to the contract.
The Elevator Pitch
The Elevator Pitch is your one sentence, 30 second summary of your novel’s crux that will make your reader want to pick up your book immediately. Think of it as the first sentence of the blurb that will go on the back of your book. It’s good to get this one figured out early, partly because it’s useful for query letters, and partly because it will save you every time you’re at an event and someone asks what you write.
Try writing the blurb you would put on the back of your book if it were to sell. Then, cut as much stuff out as possible until you have one sentence. The trick here is to figure out what part of your plot is most intriguing (and the easiest to market), to give a hint of who your characters are, and to keep enough of the story mysterious that your readers will want to pick it up right away.
Examples (Taken From the Blurbs)
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman:
After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own.
Note: This one works because it is well-balanced. There are enough playful and light elements (toddler wandering, supernatural residents) are put next to the dark elements (grisly murder, ghosts).
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas:
After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is offered her freedom on one condition: she must act as the Prince’s champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.
Note: Notice how this shows that the story takes place in a different world, the main character is an aggressive female, and there will be some kind of dynamic between Celaena and the Prince, without having to specifically tell you these things.
If you’re having trouble, try writing the blurb you would put on the back of your book if it were to sell. Then, cut as much stuff out as possible until you have one sentence. The trick here is to figure out what part of your plot is most intriguing (and the easiest to market), to give a hint of who your characters are, and to keep enough of the story mysterious that your readers will want to pick it up right away. Remember, the universal piece of writing advice, show, not tell.
details about your manuscript
Think of this as selling your product to an educated buyer. Of course, you need to include the specifications, including the wordcount, genre and target audience, but you should also look at how your manuscript fits both into the marketplace, and into this particular agent or publisher’s list. It’s a good idea to include some comparison titles, to give the reader a sense of where your book sits (and how it differs), and also to show that you have been thinking about it. When picking comparison titles, however, be careful to make sure they are relevant, that the readers of their work would likely be interested in yours, and that you’re being realistic.
Generally, it’s best to avoid statements like ‘This is the next Harry Potter‘ or ‘This is like The Hunger Games but better’. It’s also best not to tell the editor that they are holding the next bestselling novel, or to ask if they are up to the challenge of publishing your book. No one (not even publishers) can tell whether a book is going to be a bestseller from the first draft, and you’re likely to just earn an eyeroll.
Take a look at the authors and titles that this publisher or agent has worked with. Is your work the genre that they normally publish? Why is your manuscript perfect for this person? Mention any similar titles, as well as what makes your manuscript different. A publisher or agent will notice if you look thoughtfully at their list, and can show why your work would complement it.
your writing credentials
This section is where you convince the letter reader that you are a fabulous writer, and you include any awards, opportunities, mentorships or publications you have received. It’s fine if you don’t have much to include here, but building a publication history before submitting can really set your manuscript apart.
If you’re writing nonfiction, this is the part where you need to outline exactly why you are the right person to write this book. What gives you authority on the topic? What makes your opinion or perspective different or fresh from what’s already been done? This is one of the most important parts of selling a nonfiction book, so take some time to put some thought in it.
It’s fine to think a little outside of the box. Even if you don’t have any experience in your current genre or form, have you received any relevant accolades, or spoken at an event, or do you have relationships with anyone in the industry? Do you have any life experience relevant to what your story is about?
query letters that work
The internet is full of examples of query letters that have worked.Websites like QueryShark and Slush Pile Hell, and the #tenqueries hashtag are full of great examples of why some pieces are rejected. In particular, QueryShark gives in-depth commentary on a lot of examples, and has lots of practical tips for writing an effective letter.
Take time to search for ones in your genre, to look at the publisher/agent’s list (and it’s not a bad idea to check out their personal social media accounts to make sure that what you’ve written will be up their alley). Take time to truly personalise each query letter, and fit it to the specific person you’re sending it to—they will notice and appreciate the effort.
Query letter Checklist
Finally, here is a checklist of all the things you need to include in your query letter. Of course, you may want to add other things, but you should at least think about including everything on this list.
- Address it personally to an agent or publisher. (Do some google-fu, or call if you’re not sure who to address it to. Calling may be of extra benefit, as you may get to chat to the publisher before submitting.)
- Your contact details, so they can get in touch (even if you’re digitally submitting the letter, as they may print it out).
- The title, wordcount, genre and target audience of the manuscript.
- An ‘elevator pitch’ for your manuscript.
- Where your manuscript fits in the marketplace, and in the publisher/agent’s list.
- Your writing history and credentials, including why you are the right person to write this book (especially if it is nonfiction).
- Make sure everything is formatted and submitted as according to their submission guidelines.