After writing over 100 query letters for my crime/mystery novel, Salvation Station, I’ve learned quite a lot, about writing the perfect query. I’ve had success publishing short stories, and all the points I’ll review apply to every query letter. Here are 10 points to check off for every query.
1. Do your research. Let’s say you’re looking for an agent/publisher for you “cozy mystery” set in the rolling hills of the English countryside. If a prospect only accepts mysteries of the hard-boiled genre, keep looking. This process can be time-consuming, but it is also necessary. Sending a query to an agent/publisher that does not accept your genre is a waste of time, both for you and the recipient. Agents move around a great deal, so while researching, be sure the agent still resides at the agency you wish to contact.
2. Personalize each and every query. This includes addressing the agent/publisher by name (with publishers that can be more difficult, but DO NOT write, To Whom It May Concern. Ever.) In that first paragraph you may want to note that in your research you discovered that (agent/publisher) accepts the genre of your work.
3. If you’ve met the agent/publisher in person at a writer’s conference, retreat, etc. you will want to refresh their memory.
4. With personalization comes not only knowing the agent/publisher’s name, but spelling it CORRECTLY.
5. Proofread your query and proofread it again. It must be free of grammatical errors. This is true of any manuscript pages and synopsis you send as well.
6. Follow the submission instructions EXACTLY. Not doing so provides an excuse to dismiss your query and move on to the hundreds of others agents/publishers receive.
7. Be polite. I always end a query thanking agents/publishers for their time and consideration. This has led to some of the nicest rejections. An agent or publisher taking the time to offer feedback or other possible contacts is no small thing. While not a contract for publication, you’re building a relationship so you can return with future projects.
8. Be concise. A one-page query letter is the standard. The NY Times Book Review has excellent information on writing the best possible query with examples.
9. After you’ve proofed your query, have a professional editor review it as well. Editors often have feedback that will help you polish your query and get the positive response you’re hoping for.
10. Track all of your submissions. There are many ways to accomplish this through programs like Query Tracker, or doing it yourself. I’ve developed separate spreadsheets for agents and publishers, indicating materials sent, the date sent, date of response, and any special notes.
Think of each query letter in the same way you would write a cover letter seeking employment. The principles are the identical – in each instance you’re selling something, be it your skills or written work.