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A Query Letter? What Can and Should It Be?

After someone finds out you’re a publisher, (the first question, “What do you do?” comes the next question–“What do you publish?” This second question, as is the third question to come soon, is oftentimes a thinly veiled trick question. The third question, as you may have guess, almost 95% of the time takes the form of a living enactment of the query letter. “Oh, well, since so you’re a publisher?”… pause, or not pause,… “You’d probably be interested to know that I’ve been working on a collection of _________ (insert poetry, novel, biography, or short stories) for years now. Is that something you’d be interested in?” Thus, the game begins.

No publisher worth anything ignores queries, no publisher in the universe accepts every idea presented to them. So, the extremes are fairly obvious (the range between the Yes and the No). It is always confounding to authors, I know from being an author, to hear that publishers are seeking, looking, longing for good books. Authors seem surprised that it’s hard for publishers to find good books. Afterall, from an author’s point of view they believe that what they have written is “good” so the publisher’s problem ought to be fixed. However, it’s not that easy and this is where the query letter (or pitch) comes into play. You have to convince a publisher that your writing is unique, creative, informative, high quality and all these superior things.

The problem comes when a query letters ends up in my inbox, or mailbox and the first sentence is wrong. Or the author hasn’t read my submission policy on my webpage. The query in my opinion is similar to a job interview, the letter you send me is your chance to get me to read something else you’ve written. If I like the first sentence of your query, I’ll read the next. If your speciality is fiction, why not WOW me with a clever bit of fiction to start out with. If you’ve won any awards, mention them, I’d like to know why you think you’re the best person I could find to share what you know.

Beware about showing off though, if I can’t find your award(s) listed in Google for instance, I’ll either assume the award is made up, or of such little significance that it can’t be found. The query, any details you provide that I do checks on tell me something about you and your writing. It won’t hurt to let me know who you believe will enjoy your book, as long as it’s not the “general public”. Your attention to details, to audience, to sales will increase your chances. If you say something broad and nonspecific like you can probably sell 1,000 copies in your hometown, I’m going to immediately interpret that to mean about 50-75 copies will sell in your hometown.

The query letter is the trickiest of all writing in some ways, you have to honest and showcase your writing. It may very likely be the only a publisher actually looks at. Think of it this way and not as a “formality” and you’ll improve your chances of getting a response.