Ask the Editor: DOs and DON’Ts for query letters

Q: What do you look for in a query letter?

A: A good query letter (in our case, that’s the cover letter that accompanies submissions) should be professional and to the point (“to the point” meaning it should be no more than one page long); it should tell us about your book and a little bit about yourself. It should also tell us why you chose to submit to Ashland Creek Press (i.e., it should reveal that you’ve done enough research to know what we publish, which takes about two minutes on our web site) and show passion for your work.

Easy, right?

Here are a few more general details, for writers looking for either an editor or an agent…

- Have a hook. You’ll need to be able to describe your book in one or two sentences, which can be as challenging as writing the book itself. Yet this is essential for selling your book to an agent or editor — and for your publisher to sell your book to the rest of the world. For example, Blair Richmond’s book Out of Breath was described as “a vampire novel with an environmental twist.”

Include a short bio. The key word here is short – two to three sentences at most. Include your best publishing credits (not all of them) and any awards you may have received. If you don’t yet have a publishing history, include something about your unique experience and/or qualifications for writing the book, i.e., “I am a park ranger at Yellowstone, where my novel is set.”

Note why you’re choosing a particular agent or editor. This helps a lot, as agents, editors, and publishers usually specialize; it’s not a one-size-fits-all industry. Even if you read that an agent accepts “general fiction,” take a look at what he or she represents (is it mostly mystery or mostly romance?) to get an idea of whether your book will be appropriate; it’ll save everyone’s time in the end.

Be polite and professional. This should go without saying, but we’re always surprised by how many letters we get that aren’t. Check your spelling and punctuation, of course, and know that your query letter gives agents and editors that all-important first impression — if your tone is cranky, unprofessional, or entitled, it could affect how your proposal gets viewed.

And, finally, here are some DOs and DON’Ts, which come from a long mental list I’ve kept of queries I’ve received over many years as an editor.

DOs

  • Use an agent’s or editor’s name rather than “Dear Agent/Editor.” It’s more personal and shows that you’ve spent at least a little time researching before querying. (We are always charmed when writers include our General Manager, Theo, in their query letters.)
  • Let a publisher know if your book has been self-published. Many publishers (including us) will gladly take a look, but they need to be aware of potential rights issues for authors using vanity presses.
  • If you mention a famous writer you claim to have studied with extensively, be sure to spell this author’s name correctly.
  • Make sure there are no pages missing in your manuscript, particularly those very important pages at the beginning or end.
  • Include word count, but recognize that anything over 100,000 words is often viewed as too long; while there are exceptions to every rule, most editors/agents prefer a word count between 70,000 and 90,000 for novels.

DON’Ts

  • Do not refer to an editor as “yo.” (Yes, this actually happened to us.)
  • Don’t send poetry if the publisher does not publish poetry; don’t send short stories if an agent doesn’t accept short stories, etc.
  • Don’t bad-mouth your previous editor/publisher/agent. We might think you’re not very friendly.
  • Don’t threaten to self-publish your novel if we don’t take it on. (We don’t need to know this, and it doesn’t really help your case.)
  • While we appreciate knowing whether yours is a simultaneous submission, it is not necessary to list every single editor/agent/publisher to which you have simultaneously submitted your book.
  • Don’t refer to your book a “fictional novel.”
  • While comparing your book to a similar title or two is helpful, you don’t need to list a dozen famous authors whose books all resemble the one you’re submitting.

For additional info, check out these tips from author, editor, and agent Betsy Lerner … agent Nathan Bransford has a comprehensive post on queries as well. And for helpful, hands-on tips, visit literary agent Kristin Nelson’s website for detailed notes on how to write a good query letter.

And in case any of the above sounds a little fussy — well, anyone who gets a lot of queries gets a little jaded after a while. But when we say “we look forward to reading your work,” we really mean it. No agent or editor or publisher can get by without authors — we all know this and embrace it. So…we look forward to reading your work. Truly.

This entry was posted in For authors, On publishing, On writing, The writing life. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ask the Editor: DOs and DON’Ts for query letters

  1. Writing a query letter is harder–or at least a lot less fun–than writing a book. It takes such intense concentration and hours of revision to write just one page that promotes your manuscript and yourself while not sounding like an idiot. Nothing worthwhile is easy, right?

  2. Midge says:

    Anita, so true — it’s almost a bigger challenge to write sum up an entire book in a one-page query. I also recommend writing a fake query even before beginning the writing process…for many writers, it helps focus the scope of the project — and then you have at least a first draft of a query when all the writing’s done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>