Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Query letters that work

Book Ends is reviewing query letters that worked.
Check it out!


Leon Basin said...

That was real helpful! Thank You for sharing.

Ann Victor said...

I've been following the series. It really is very useful.

Marjorie said...

re: query letters that work

And what if a query letter doesn't work and the book being submitted for consideration is phenomenal?

I posted this at other blogs, and I will put it here as well:
I don't get this whole bit with "query letters that work." It seems such an absurd way for a literary agent to determine which projects to pursue further.
A phenomenally crafted query can arrive and upon investigation... the book can be not very good. And a poor query letter can be written by an author whose book can actually be amazing.
Of course, a query has been the barometer by which an agent decides which projects to pursue... but it seems ridiculous to me. A literary agent should just read the description of a book's content and all the rest is just seduction and frills.
I cannot stand the expression "query me" because it demands the author design a unique sales pitch to woo an agent. It just seems to enable a lofty power trip with "rejected" being an almost knee-jerk response for as foolish a reason as one misspelled word. How absurd.
I was a teacher for 34 years (1968-2002) and I am now retired. It's amazing how this retirement allows me the breathing space to let honesty rip with no fear of how it can backfire.

Janet Reid said...

Hey Marjorie,

If you don't like it, don't do it.

And if you have never worked in a literary agency, your opinion about what works and what doesn't is not only ill-informed it smacks of hubris.

How about I don't teach Silas Marner, and you don't tell me how to organize the mail here.

Julie Weathers said...

"I don't get this whole bit with "query letters that work." It seems such an absurd way for a literary agent to determine which projects to pursue further."

When models apply for jobs, they send portfolios. Actors do screen tests. Singers audition.

Personally, as much as I hate writing query letters, I welcome the process. I can hone a query letter. If agents were to read say, the first fifty pages of every submission, it would mean far less authors get to "audition."

Most agents will at least accept the first five pages, if not request them, with the query. If you can't catch their attention in the first five pages, a stellar query is going to be dubious anyway.

I generally find if something isn't successful, it's time for me to make changes, not rail against a system that does work.

BJ said...

A query letter is like an application letter for a job: it introduces the author to the agent, tells them what they're selling, and entices them to read the meat - the resume or novel. A sales pitch? Of course. If you can't sell yourself to an agent, how is the agent going to sell you to an editor.

I wonder how many job applications are tossed because of a spelling mistake? Especially in the communications industry, which is what this is.

Marjorie said...

I never taught "Silas Marner!" I used an old basal reader to teach reading. Think: Dick and Jane. Of course, now teachers have classrooms filled with leveled libraries and books grouped by genre. Dick and Jane took a hike.

Your philosophy can be applied to the schools regarding never having worked in the field about which one is crtiicizing. If a person never worked in the schools can he have an opinion about education (regarding teacher accountability, learning models, phonemic awareness, whole language etc.)?

When the NY Sun was still around in NYC, I wrote many pieces on education that were published in that newspaper. Much of my writing was a response to the opinions of the general public. Everybody had something to say about teacher accountability. They wanted teachers to be evaluated by the test scores of their students and they omitted huge pieces of that learning equation: paying attention in class, studying to learn the material, and a seriousness of purpose reflected in excellent homework.

I was not telling you how to organize the blog mail. I was making a general comment about the submission process at that blog entry. Is the process so rigid and perfect it leaves no room for change or for things to be done differently outside of the box? I am surprised my opinion got you so angry.

I am not just a retired teacher. I am a stand-up comic and I perform at The Comic Strip in Manhattan and other comedy clubs in NYC. I tell you this because layered along with my "hubris" is a huge sense of humor.

Julie Weathers said...

"I don't get this whole bit with "query letters that work." It seems such an absurd way for a literary agent to determine which projects to pursue further."

Marjorie, in your stand up comic routine, did your employer just call you up from the audience and turn the mic over to you for two hours?

Each profession has its sifting criteria. Most professions have some sort of prerequisites such as college degrees or specialized training.

The arts, mostly, simply depend on talent. So, sans a degree or specialized training, how are these agents supposed to determine if a person can write a marketable novel? Do you have time to read two hundred novels a week, plus handle contracts, sell represented authors, attend professional functions, work out edit problems, smooth ruffled feathers over covers and all the other myriad duties that go with the job?

There is no excuse for a person to not be able to write a decent query letter. There is more than enough help offered to do so. The first five pages doesn't hold anyone's interest? If you can't hold an agent's attention for five pages, how will you hold a reader's attention?

I went to the Surrey Writer's Conference and had two agents ask me to submit to them. I also had an editor request the first fifty pages, a synopsis and a cover letter even though the length was over what is "acceptable."

The editor requested it based on three sentences about the book and a brief conversation about the research behind it. He glanced at the first five pages and handed me his card. We spent the remainder of the fifteen minutes discussing marketing.

A query letter is all you need. Pages are your line to reel them in with.

Marjorie said...

Hi, Julie and thanks for replying. I began stand-up in about 1986 when I entered a contest to "find the funniest teacher" at Stand-up NY comedy club in Manhattan. I did not win, but I entered again in 1991, and that year I won.

The stages in comedy clubs are open to almost anybody in several different ways. A comic or wannabe can do "open mics" or a comic can do "bringers." "Bringers" are in place to make money for the club owners. The concept is simple. Bring in five audience members and a comic gets the stage for seven minutes. Anybody with friends can do a bringer and I do mean anybody. The clubs have different names for it and sometimes it is called "New Talent Night." Some comics hate it and some love it. Some comics hate it because it lowers the bar and people who have no experience book themselves into clubs and do sets for fun. I like it because it gives everybody a chance to have fun. I suppose it is similar to self-publishing for an author. It's just another option, but how many poorly written books are self-published, but it allows an author the experience.

In stand-up, once the comic takes the stage... he "kills" or "bombs." And that is the determining factor that will get him booked in regular shows.
I hate this "query letter" concept because it is the content of the book, not the query letter, that should be the determining factor for publication or snagging an agent.

I saw a literary agent's blog in which she said she liked a query letter that included "flattery." Why should "flattery" enter the equation? Of course, I am not a literary agent. But, if I was... I would say forget the query letter because it shows me nothing. Send ten pages of your book and if I am not grabbed in the first ten pages... we are not a match. I would streamline the process. I would be to afraid that I would lose a good book based on a decision I made from just a letter.

Anyway, if you go to my blog (marjorie-palimpsests) you can see some photos from the holiday party at The Comic Strip. I am the redhead standing next to Alan Colmes. You can also see me at that blog (in photos) at an event at the Drama Book Shop. I am with Brian Gari, the grandson of Eddie Cantor. I am holding his book.

Gary Corby said...


Let me see if I can address your point. Not that I'm an expert, but I do have some small experience to form a view.

When you query an agent, you are proposing a business partnership. Nothing more, nothing less. The agent brings sales and marketing expertise to the table, you are bringing the product.

If you were proposing a joint venture in a toothbrush factory, you wouldn't get emotional about it, but because the one querying is offering months or years of effort on something close to their heart, they very reasonably invest a lot of emotion. You need to tuck this emotion away somewhere inside you throughout the query process, and do your best to remain calm. I know it's hard, believe me.

If you have ever sent a business proposal, you will know that it always goes with a cover letter. The cover letter is a bottom line summary of your proposal. This is what your query letter is.

I sent well over a hundred business proposals in the field of software development before ever I queried a literary agent, and in hindsight that was great practise, because it meant I didn't freak out about this query thing. I just wrote a cover letter.

The cover letter is a simple, straightforward, business summary of what you are offering. If we were talking about software development, you would hit the high points of what the software was supposed to do, the price, the resources required, the timeline to deliver, and any past experience building the same sort of system. Then stop. That's all a summary needs.

If the price you propose is too high, the resource demands unreasonable, the timeline too long, then of course the recipient is going to say no thanks and probably won't read your detailed proposal. Why would they, when they already know the bottom line doesn't work for them?

In the case of a query, you are doing the same thing, but you name the title, the genre, the word count, a one paragraph summary of the story, and any relevant past writing experience. This is identical to any other business proposal, the only difference being you feel like you'll die if no one takes up your offer.

Your cover letter (query) needs to be literate. No surprise there. Try delivering an illiterate proposal in any business and see how far you get.

The one paragraph summary is the tough bit. Everyone sweats over that. But since what you're bringing to the table is your ability to write, it's not unreasonable to expect two or three tight sentences. If all goes well, you're going to be writing a blurb; you may as well start now.

When you send the cover letter (query), you also send along the detailed business proposal. For writing, that means the writing sample. I believe almost every agent asks for a sample. There may be a few agents out there that want only the query letter, but you can handle that problem by not querying them.

So, the agent reads the cover letter, and if the bottom line fails, that's it. No amount of reading the ms is going to change the basic facts of the bottom line summary. If the bottom line suits, then the agent goes into more detail in the writing sample.

In any other line of work this would be called efficient, unremarkable business practice.

Julie Weathers said...


By your own description of the process there is an audition. This is what the query concept it. It's your chance to show an agent what you have.

I read the blog about the flattery and I think it was more tongue-in-cheek than anything. Her reference was to someone writing in and saying why they are approaching someone. This is simply good business in my opinion.

It would be similar to you applying for a show at a certain club because they specialize in xyz humor and that's your forte.

In my former life as a writer, I sent out some queries for DANCING HORSES, my suspense, that were pretty bad. I have these posted on my blog somewhere under the agent angst label.

Even with all the mistakes, and they were legion, I got several requests for partials and I got an agent even though the book wasn't finished. Didn't know you weren't supposed to query until it's done.

My point is, agents aren't as clueless as some people think. I believe they can pick up on that spark. When the spark combines with an intriguing concept, their ears perk up like Meerkats in a maze.

I still contend a good query letter and five quality pages will get you noticed. That doesn't mean everyone will accept you for a variety of reasons. However, I do believe the right agent for your work will recognize it.

I suppose we'll see when I start sending this out next month.