It’s imperative that you put together a solid query letter if you wish to go the traditional publishing route — especially if you want a reputable publisher. Seldom are authors able to pitch directly to big (and desirable) publishers. A “middleman” is required — the literary agent. More about that below as you read along.
Query letters are “step three” in your journey toward a publishing house or imprint.
• Step one is writing the book.
• Step two is getting the manuscript edited.
• Step three is the query letter process.
Are you ready to query a literary agency?
Completing your book is one thing. Getting it into the hands of a literary agent is quite another! Here’s some free advice that may be able to help in your agent search (and save you from some pitfalls).
First, make sure your book has been edited. There are levels of editing, and you get what you pay for.
Copy editing (basically, proofreading) — don’t expect your copy editor to turn your manuscript into a masterpiece. You are paying the copy editor to attend to grammar and punctuation only.
Line editing (a deeper look at sentence and paragraph structure) — an editor who line edits is paid a higher rate and can help improve more than just grammar and punctuation. You’ll get feedback on flow, pacing, dialogue, characterization, etc.
Developmental editing (having parts of your book rewritten for flow, pacing, characterization, dialogue, etc.) — a developmental editor may restructure your book, and perhaps contribute to the writing. This type of substantive editing is the most expensive, but a good investment when your manuscript is lacking or you are “stuck” in the process.
Literary Agencies and the Query Letter
Once your book is edited, you can decide whether you want to self-publish or go the traditional publishing route. If you wish to be published by a top-tier publisher, you definitely need a literary agent.
Because the top-tier publishers do not accept unsolicited and unagented manuscripts. You can’t just directly email your manuscript and expect a preferred publisher to respond. Read their websites — they only consider manuscripts pitched by a literary agent.
This means you must query the agent and convince him or her to represent you, but caution — a “one-size fits all” method simply won’t do. Here’s how to avoid some of the pitfalls.
ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL
Is your genre a fit? — search for agents who represent your genre (fiction, nonfiction, biography, memoir, romance, cozy mysteries, YA, middle grade). It is a waste of time to approach agents who do not specialize in what you’ve written. Your query letter will likely get an automatic delete, so study their web pages.
Open to submissions — as you search for agents, pay attention, once again, to their web pages. Are they accepting new clients? If not, do not query them.
Calls for submissions — look to Twitter for calls for submissions. Many agents tweet calls for submissions, and it’s a good idea to follow literary agents who deal in your genre. Some agents have Facebook and Instagram pages as well. Follow along and get to know them.
Follow instructions precisely — believe me, agents are busy and each has his/her own submission criteria. Follow directions. Do exactly as they say. If they want just a query letter, great. If they want a query letter and the first three chapters, fine. If they want a query letter and the entire manuscript, send it! Do they accept electronic submissions? Most do, so do not sent a printed manuscript via snail mail if the agent prefers email — it’s a waste of paper and postage. Agents may have internal electronic submissions online, so pay attention.
Customize the query — I don’t recommend sending the same exact wording to each agent. Take the time to customize. Explain why you are approaching an agent, and know beforehand what books they have successfully represented. Personalize your query. After all, agents are human beings and appreciate that you’ve researched their work.
Don’t make your query overly long — trust me on this. Agents do not have the time or inclination to read a manifesto. Cut to the chase and put your best foot forward.
If you’re not sure how to write a query letter, ask! — some authors ask me to help with their query letters. If these authors happen to be my clients, I gladly give them links to guide them as they craft their queries. Some authors hire me to write the query letter (or plural, query letters) for them — which means I do the research on each potential agent, study their websites, and personalize the query.