So you’ve decided not to venture into the world of self-publishing yet. That brings you back to the process of wooing publishers or literary agents to represent you. If you are aiming for the traditional publishers, chances are they would want you to get a literary agency to review your manuscript first and then forward it to them. You know the reasons why – too many requests, paucity of time and effort (for the publishers), quality issues with the slush pile, yada yada.
What is a query letter?
A query letter is a sales tool that you send to literary agencies and publishers to get them to get interested in you and your work. It’s the most important (well, second most, if you reserve that crown for your manuscript) written piece of work that will decide if, when and how successful you will be in getting published.
Can I not skip the query letter phase?
Sure, if you know the publisher, if you are a famous celebrity (and the publisher/agent approaches you), if you are published author with an enviable sales record or if you own the publishing house…plus a whole lot of exceptional conditions where your credibility as an author whose books WILL sell overrides all other concerns that the publisher might have. If you are like everyone else struggling and wondering how to break into the publishing industry, you are better off spending your time thinking of ways to make your query letter more effective than looking for shortcuts.
How to write a query letter? Is there a standard template or format?
As in a regular letter, your query will also have a structure and format. Start off with a greeting, use a good hook to grab the agents attention, follow it up with synopsis of your work, share a little bit about yourself, thank the agent for considering your query, and finally end the letter politely. Simple, huh?
Well, the query letter template might appear ridiculously simple, but the devil lies in the detail. Each project is unique, each author is different and each agent is looking for something special. Combine the three together, add some flavouring and the whole thing starts looking ominous. So practice till you get your query letter template perfect and then customise it for each recipient.
What a query letter is NOT
– It is not an informal conversation. It is a formal business letter (yup, even if your genre is humour). Focus on the content, tone and voice that you use in the letter.
– It is not a chance to talk about all the projects that you are working on or have completed. Talk about 1 project at a time.
– It is not a vehicle to attach your entire book. Let the literary agency read what they want and then ask you for more.
– It is not an opportunity to try out cute and gimmicky stunts just for the sake of getting some attention and standing out of the pile.
How will literary agents evaluate your query letter?
Literary agents will look at the genre, your credentials, your platform and the other aspects that they think are relevant from their own perspective as well as the publisher’s viewpoint.
Sometimes publishers are looking for authors for specific genres and they communicate these requirements to the literary agencies. Sometimes, for agents, it is just a matter of pitching an idea that they think publishers might be interested in, based on their past interactions with these teams.
As an author there’s no way for you to know beforehand (unless the publishers have publicly announced it on their websites, maybe in the form of a competition to discover new authors). But you can increase your ‘hit-rate’ by trying to find out what individual agencies are looking for and querying them. In most cases, the right place / right time / right agency combination will decide if you get the offer for representation from a good literary agency.
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