3.4 The Query Letter

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As I mentioned before, there’s one golden ticket that gets you through the doors of a literary agency. And that is the Query Letter.

It’s so important, in fact, that I’ve dedicated an entire chapter to it.

This query letter is, once again, your proof to all those other people that the concept is sellable. Because if you, the author, the person who wrote the book, can’t make it sound like the most amazing book in the world, how do you expect all those other people to? On the other hand, if you can sell your novel to an agent in one query letter, then that agent knows she’ll be able to sell it to an editor, who knows she’ll be able to sell it to her boss, and so on and so forth…all the way to the hands of the reader.

Although every literary agency has their own set of “submission guidelines,” that is, instructions on how they’d like to be approached with new submissions, the majority of agencies will require that you first send a query letter. So I’m going to discuss the query letter in detail here and then in the next chapter, we’ll get into more detail about agencies’ specific submission guidelines.

There’s good news and bad news about the process of submitting your book to literary agents. I’ll give you the bad news first. Agents receive hundreds of submissions a day. Piles and piles of them. So many, in fact, that they often hire interns or assistants to go through them all.

But here’s the good news. They do go through them all. Unlike the world of screenwriting. If you have any experience with this world as I do, you’ll know that with screenwriting your success is oftentimes determined by who you know, or how well connected you are.

This is what I love about the publishing industry. For the most part, it’s not about who you know, it’s about how well you can write. Imagine that!

If you send a query letter to a screenwriting agent, chances are, they’ll never see it. On the other hand, if you send a query letter to a literary agent, chances are they will see it. They will read it and they will consider it.

I tend to talk about the screenwriting industry because it’s an industry I’m somewhat familiar with. And here’s the problem with it: If you write the best screenplay in the world, there’s no guarantee it will ever get made into a movie. Because there are so many other factors that contribute. You need to get it into the right hands, attach the right director, the right studio, the right producer, the right actors. Because book writing is a direct to consumer medium, there are no other factors standing between your book and your readers. What you write and what an agent or editor reads is almost exactly what the book buyer will read (well, after more revisions of course!)

This makes publishing an extremely accessible industry. And, in my experience, much easier to break into than the world of screenwriting. You don’t have to live in Hollywood or New York to write novels, you don’t have to know anyone in the industry to get started, you don’t have to wear the right clothes, schmooze with the right people, or drive the right car. I didn’t know a single soul in the publishing industry when I started out and look where I got. The best part about the publishing industry is….if you write a brilliant novel, chances are, it will be published.

But of course, there’s a catch. Isn’t there always?

And here it is…

Agents don’t read brilliant novels. At least not in their entirety. And at least not right away.

First they read what’s referred to as a Query Letter.

Or what I like to call, “How to sell your novel to an agent in five hundred words or less.”

Then, if they like the query letter, they’ll ask to read more, usually the first three chapters—or an equivalent amount of pages—plus a full synopsis. Then, if they like that, they’ll usually ask to read the full manuscript. If they like the full manuscript, only then will they consider signing you.

Although all agents are different, this is normally how the querying process works. In the next chapter we’ll discuss researching how each individual agency functions, but first and foremost, the query letter. Because almost every legitimate agency out there will require you send this first if you want to be considered for representation.

The query letter is often difficult for an author to write. Essentially because it’s a marketing piece. Picture it as a written commercial for your novel. This kind of writing is very challenging for most writers because most writers are very bad at promoting themselves. It’s not in our nature. We traditionally tend to be more modest, reserved, and harshly self-critical. Basically we’re hermits who stay locked up in our offices for hours at a time and squint at the light of day and cringe at the sound of people being overly social. We’re generally not the types of people that run around shouting our own praises. So it’s often difficult for us to write a letter that essentially says, “Hey look at me! Look how awesome I am! Read my novel! It’s the most amazing thing you’ll ever read!”

I personally think this is the biggest inherent flaw in the publishing process. It’s why, I believe, so many amazing books never get published. Because writing an amazing book is not the same skill as writing an amazing query letter. The two are very different talents. If you happen to have both, then you’re lucky and one step ahead of the game. If you don’t happen to have both, then you’re going to have to put some extra effort into it.

But regardless of my criticism of this part of the process, it is what it is and we have to make the most of it. And over the years, I’ve come to realize that the process works this way for the very reason I outlined previously about writing a good pitch. You are the first link in the “Chain of Amazing,” a long line of people who will have to sell your novel. So if you, the author and creator of this story, can’t sell your own novel, then it makes it difficult for everyone else to.

You think your book has what it takes to be a phenomenal bestseller and make everyone millions of dollars? Well, an awesome query letter is your proof.

So let’s talk about how to write one.

Just like there is no one right way to get published, there is no one right way to write a query letter. But I’m here to share with you my method of writing query letters which has worked for me in the past and has worked for other authors who have adapted my techniques.

I like to break my query letters into four sections. I’ll give you an overview of all of them now and then I’ll break down each section in more detail.

The first section is designed to immediately grab the agent’s attention with an intriguing opening that hooks them and reels them in.

The second section is where you’ll tell the agent what your book is about and how amazing it is.

The third section is where you’ll tell the agent why they are the perfect agent to represent your book. 

And the fourth section is where you’ll tell the agent about you, the author of this amazing book, and how they can contact you to read it.

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