Traditional Publishing — Step 1: Write a Great Query

You’ve decided to publish traditionally. That’s terrific! Traditional publishing isn’t as simple as choosing the publisher you want to work with and submitting your manuscript. Most publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. In fact, most publishers don’t deal directly with writers at all. Instead you’ll need to get an agent first, and then the agent will submit your manuscript to publishers.

Note: As I said in my last post, you could submit directly to indie publishers in lieu of querying agents. I really don't recommend that in most cases, so I'm focusing my posts on how to query an agent.

Your initial contact  with an agent is usually made via a query package. Each agent lists on their website EXACTLY what they want to receive. It will generally be some combination of cover letter (UK), query letter (US, sometimes UK), synopsis, and opening pages from the manuscript.

NOTE: The US and UK have different expectations for query letters. In the past, the UK query pitch was significantly shorter and excluded details like character names. Although I've heard the UK query is becoming more like the US query, I don't know enough about them to recommend relying on the guidelines below. These guidelines are specifically for queries to agents and publishers in the US.

Query letter guidelines

  • 300 words or fewer
  • Purpose: To entice the agent or publisher to read your manuscript.
  • Subject line for e-queries: Query: NOVEL TITLE / Last name
  • Address the query to a specific person by name: “Dear Ms. Jones.” Not “Dear Agent” or “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To whom it may concern.” Spell the name right. (I shouldn’t have to say that.)
  • The body has four parts: a personalized explanation of why you’re querying this publisher or agent, the query pitch, the novel’s metadata, and a paragraph describing your pertinent writing credits.
  • Don’t stress if you don’t have a special reason for querying this person or if you don’t have pertinent writing credits. The important thing is your query pitch and the metadata. 
  • Metadata is the manuscript’s title, genre, word count, and comp titles. Comp titles are other current books or movies similar to yours.
  • Do NOT mention your age. It’s irrelevant.
  • Do not say this is your first novel. That’s…not a selling point. If you’ve never published, you can say this is your debut novel.
  • If your story is the first in a series, state that it is a standalone book with series potential. If the book does not stand alone you are severely limiting your chances of traditionally publishing.
  • Make it perfect before you send it. Not a single grammatical or spelling mistake. Stand out from the crowd by being professional.

Writing the query pitch

The goal of the query pitch is to entice the publisher or agent to your manuscript. In that way it’s similar to the blurb on the back of a novel, whose goal is to entice readers to buy the book.

There are different ways to write a query pitch. Some people start with a hook, and then move to the more detailed pitch. Others skip the hook and jump right into the detailed pitch. There’s no perfect formula. Experiment until you find a combination that works for your book.

To write the query pitch, I recommend starting with the following information:

  1. Who is the protagonist, how did he get into this situation, and what is he trying to achieve?
  2. Who is the antagonist, and how/why is he trying to stop the protagonist from reaching his goal? The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person. For example, if your protagonist is trying to climb a mountain, the mountain and the weather and his own physical short-comings could be the antagonist.
  3. What horrible thing will happen if the protagonist fails? (This is where most beginning novelists trip up. They fail to have significant stakes.)

When you write the query pitch be specific about what happens. Skip nebulous descriptions and cliches. If you’ve heard a phrase before, it doesn’t belong in your query pitch!

General tips

  • Write the query in third person, even if the book is written in first person. You do want the query to reflect the voice and style of the book, but not to the degree that you’re writing as the character. If the book is funny, the query should be funny. If it’s a tightly-written thriller, the query should be equally tight and exciting.
  • Research the individual agent or publisher to find out EXACTLY what they want, and send them EXACTLY that. It may seem like a frivolous hoop for you to jump through to send a slightly different query package to different agents, but each agent is doing you a favor by telling you what they need to make their decision.
  • Workshop your query extensively. Expect to do a LOT of different versions before you get it right. Writing a killer query is hard.
  • Don’t be surprised if, when writing your query, you find out that your story needs work. It’s better to find this out before you query than after you get a bunch of rejections.
  • Read the QueryShark blog from April 2008 to the present. Seriously. It is a masterclass in query writing.
  • Don’t rush. You get ONE chance to submit to an individual agent. If you send a poor query, you may blow your chance with that agent — they may not even glance at your pages. Take your time, and get it right.
Write a great query

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