Thinking about Query Letters. Part II: Query Do’s

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Following up on yesterday’s post about Query Don’ts, here’s some Query Do’s. I think these are probably common sense for most of you, but just in case!

Do

1. Read the submission guidelines

Just like I said as the last one of the query don’ts: friends don’t let friends send queries without first reading the submission guidelines. You wouldn’t go to a business interview without looking up the address, don’t query without looking up the guidelines. The person you’re querying has tried to give you the tools to do your job with those guidelines! Think of writing as your business (even if it’s just your hobby, it’s OUR business so treat it as yours too) and querying as your job interview.

2. Spell check

Let’s talk about spell check. I know it doesn’t catch every typo or misused word, but that’s no reason NOT to use it at all. In fact, most email programs have a setting that automatically spell checks your email before it goes out. You should use this setting, not just for query letters, but for all correspondence. Think of it as an “appearance” thing. We can’t see if you’ve got on your best business suit so instead, our first impression comes from the query letter and even more immediate? The subject line. You would be utterly shocked, I think, at how many queries come through with typos in the subject line. Yeah, we notice.

3. Include the important information

Make sure you tell us what we need to know: Your name (pen name and real name), title, genre, word count, is it complete and a short bit of info about the book. Then consider your published writing credits, major contest wins, major bestseller lists, membership to writer’s organizations or, if you’re writing non-fiction, your platform and relationship to the material.If you’ve been building an audience pre-publication with a website, blog, Twitter, Facebook or other social media site, you can mention that as well (though MySpace is considered old news now, so you might not want to hang that out as your only means of social media platform!)

Include whether the query has been previously published (or available for free giveaway even) and if it is a simultaneous submission (have you submitted it to other agents and publishers in the meantime), keeping in mind that some submissions guidelines at some publishers prohibit simultaneous submissions.

And hey! Don’t forget to include your phone number and address so we can get back to you. Kind of important and people DO miss this step!

4. Let the recipient know you’re paying attention

It’s one thing to say: I read your submission guidelines and here’s my submission. That’s good, we’re glad you’re paying attention. But what’s one of the rules of writing? Show, don’t tell. If you read our submission guidelines, show us by actually following them now that you’ve told us. You can also let the recipient know you’re paying attention by mentioning you read their blog, Twitter, etc.

As an example: we’ve had some queries come into the submissions box in the past few weeks addressed to a specific editor and mentioning that they saw that particular editor was interested in XYZ genre, after this post we did. Now we know that author has been paying attention!

5. Let the recipient know they’re special

This goes with #4, but it’s a little different. Yesterday I talked about not just copying and pasting your query letter, and this is one way in which you can let the editor/agent know it’s being written just for them. Not only do you let them know you’re paying attention, as in #4, but you can take it a step further. You can mention that you saw the editor/agent talk at a particular conference. If you met, maybe you can reference something unique about your conversation (we meet a lot of people, so help jog our memory!) But you can also reference that you’ve read one of the books they publish/represent and why it attracted you to that publisher/agent, or what you particularly enjoy about their blog or Twitter. Of course, there can be a fine line between sucking up and making the recipient feel special, so don’t go overboard.

Example: I occasionally get query letters that reference the author reads my personal blog or personal Twitter stream, and they go on to say what particularly they like about it (for instance, they like that I share recipes, talk about my daughter–and they’ll name her by name–or that they’re also interested in sewing).

6. Be gracious

This is twofold. First, be gracious in your query letter. Don’t talk about all the “crap that’s being published” or even worse, target books or authors specifically saying, “I know I can write better than them.” While we don’t expect you think everything that’s published is a special snowflake, we also don’t really expect you to introduce yourself and your book to us by putting down and insulting others. And, you know, since we’re part of the publishing industry, you’re basically telling us we’re responsible for putting out crap. That’s not the best way to start a potential working relationship!

The second part of this is if you get a rejection. Be gracious. Send a thank you or don’t (that’s a whole other debate) but don’t send a response telling the editor/agent that they obviously have terrible taste, a terrible eye for talent and don’t know how to do their job. Oh rly? In that case, why did you submit to us? I mean, you DID do research before submitting to us, right, so you know what our list looks like and how we operate?Anyway, why is this a bad idea? Because one rejection doesn’t mean you’ll never work with that person, there are a lot of authors who get rejected on one, two or even five projects from one editor/agent but end up hitting it just right with the sixth. And even if you decide you don’t want to work with us now, publishing is an ever changing business, six months from now that editor you insulted in a response and told you’d never write for them or their company? Might be the lead editor at your dream publisher. It’s a cliche but it’s true: don’t burn any bridges.

7. Respect the editor’s or agent’s time

We know that you’re special and your book is special, but please remember that while we recognize that, we deal with thousands of special authors and books via queries each year. So despite your specialness, we can only allot so much time to each query in order to be fair to other thousands of queries we get. So this is a bit repetitive of some of the earlier ones but in order to respect their time, make sure you follow the submissions guidelines, include what’s requested in those guidelines (and nothing extra), and write the best query letter you can in no more than 4 or 5 short paragraphs (if you even need that much).

The other way you can respect the editor/agent’s time is by following up only after they’ve had the submission for their allotted amount of time. For example, Carina’s auto response and website say response in 8-10 weeks (this is going to be increasing to 10-12 by the way) so please wait until after 10 weeks have elapsed before following up. Please don’t follow up after four weeks or six. Give them the entire amount of time. And during that time, don’t send a bunch of emails with updates about your career, your book or your cat (kidding! I don’t think anyone has ever done that) because you need to trust in your query to sell the book, frequent emails will probably only serve to make the editor/agent believe you don’t respect their time now and wouldn’t respect it if they decided to work with you.

8. Keep the editor/agent updated

Now you’re confused after my last point, right? Don’t be! This is a bit different. Earlier I stated you should mention if your submission is a simultaneous submission. If that submission should happen to be offered a contract or representation, you need to let the people you’ve queried know immediately. So that means do keep track of who you’ve queried and when (spreadsheets are good for this!) and whether you’ve received a response. If you are going to place the book elsewhere, please respect the agent/editor’s time (see how these all tie together?) and send an email pulling the submission. Remember how I said there’s thousands of queries? It’s helpful if we don’t read queries (and manuscripts) that aren’t actually available because we can’t make any money doing that and this is, after all, a business.

However, one caveat to this is if you have a query with multiple editors/agents and you’ve been offered a contract/representation, but you’d like to see if another editor/agent is still interested. It’s permissible to let us know you’ve been offered elsewhere but you’re still interested in working with us, would we be able to or interested in reviewing your query within x number of days/weeks? As one editor said: this can result in a bidding war for your book. Or it can help you land your dream agent. Hey, think positively!

9. Make sure you’re ready to query
But here’s something that might seem to conflict with what I just said (it really doesn’t, though); Please make sure you’re both serious about the person/place you’re querying to, and that you (and your book) are ready to query. Reading each query (and submission) takes both time and money. Each submission to Carina Press costs a minimum of $7.50 (yes, I know the exact minimum cost amount) and that’s just a minimum, the closer it gets to acquisition, the more it costs. Every agency and publisher has their own time and money costs associated with reading submissions and queries, so please make sure you’re serious about wanting to work with whoever you’re querying and not just using it as a lark, to get experience or to throw it out there and see what sticks. Also, don’t send queries for books that aren’t ready. For instance, we’re only interested in complete, fully polished manuscripts. If you’re only 2/3 done writing or haven’t thoroughly edited, don’t send it to an editor or agent unless you know they’re willing to work with new authors on proposal.

10. Use a legible font type and size (and black only please).

For the love of all things holy, please don’t get fancy with your fonts in query letters (and don’t write them in ALL CAPS). First off, realize how much time most editors and agents spend in front of a computer and/or reading manuscripts. 12 hours a day is not an overestimate, more like an underestimate. So please, please, please don’t send us queries done in blue Curlz MT font (my most recent example) because they’re killer on our already strained eyes. And if you’re querying someone who has a page count limit, don’t use 8 pt font to cram as much as possible in. Please (do you see how much I’m pleading here, this is serious stuff, folks!) choose a nice, plain font, in black, with a legible size. Sure, if it’s a digital submission we can change the font/color/size but that means going through extra work and adds time to each query. Even adding an extra two minutes for that type of thing means adding an extra hour of time spent on submissions for every 30 queries. Yeah, funny how quickly it adds up, no? And that means less queries responded to in that hour and the longer you have to wait, especially if we only have an hour per day to look at queries. And realistically, if you make the query hard to read? The editor or agent is going to pass because it’s easier.

11. Realize we want to say yes. But saying no is easier.

I wish I could attribute this to the agent I heard say this at a conference we attended together, but I can’t remember who it was. Essentially, she said that saying “yes” means a lot more work for the editor or agent. If you say yes to the query, you’re then committing to read a partial or a full. And those take a lot of time. So while we hope that every query is amazing, if it’s not amazing in the first few pages, it’s much easier to say no, because your commitment is at an end and it’s one more marked off your list. I think this could be discouraging for authors except for the fact that we really want to say “yes” and if your query is solid, you have a good hook, a unique twist, fantastic writing then you’ve made it impossible for us to say “no” and we’re going to keep going. It’s your job to make it impossible for us to say “no” by sending us the best possible package you can. Easy, right?

12. Do keep in mind that everyone is different (so do do your research!)

So now that I’ve given you this list of do’s and don’ts, which I tried to keep mostly universal and not specific to me, to Carina, or to editors/publishers but to publishing as a whole, I should remind you that each editor and agent are different, we all have different quirks (boy howdy, do we ever) and we realize that can make navigating the submissions process tricky and sometimes frustrating. So do your research, know who you’re submitting to and what they’re looking for, and once you’ve submitted the very best package possible, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve got a leg up on 90% of the authors out there because you’re researching, learning and worrying about these things.

Good luck!

Tomorrow, a wrap-up on queries, I’ll answer some of the questions you’ve been posing in the comments (if you haven’t asked and still have a question, please do ask!), and I’ll link to some of the other posts on queries that have been written in the past few weeks. I’ll also provide a query letter checklist that you can use as a tool when you’re ready to start querying.

12 thoughts on “Thinking about Query Letters. Part II: Query Do’s”

  1. Thank you, Angela, both of these posts on the do’s and don’ts are excellent. I’ve printed them out and intend to use them often. Thanks again!

  2. Vonna Harper says:

    One question, do you ever sleep? Even writers not interested in working for Carina will learn tons reading your posts. Great job.

  3. Leanne Dyck says:

    Thank you so much, Angela. I really appreciate the work you have put into writing these posts. They are full of valuable information and written in a friendly, very-readable style.
    Now excuse me while I take more notes.

  4. I had a guilty ping about #8, about following up with simultaneous submissions. If six months (or more) have passed with no response, is it still considered simultaneous?

    I sent my manuscript to one large publisher, waites six months, no answer. Sent to a second large publisher, waited six months, no answer. Decided e-pub or smaller house was for me; submitted and was accepted, contracted, editing…one year to the day after querying the second large publisher, I received a general rejection notice from them. After the first six months of no answer, I figured the answer was no. Never occurred to me to write them and withdraw. Should I have?

  5. Ju Dimello says:

    Thanks so much for such valuable information !

    One doubt I had was : In case I had forgotten to send an important information – say my phone number / address, but mentioned my email address to “dear editor” (ie not sure who is looking at my story), then can I email the same submission address with such information?

    Or is it better to leave as is and wait for some positive response via email before I send them those details?

  6. Merlyssa Cormack says:

    Thank you so much for these invaluable tools. I can’t wait till I put them to use, crossing my fingers next month :).

    Looking forward to that checklist tomorrow!

  7. Leanne Dyck says:

    Question: if you believe more than one editor may be interested in your query, what should you do. Address all editors you think may be interested? Target one? Or simply send a query not addressed to anyone in particular?

  8. With the click of your shiner, you can fumble her and lift her skirt. Then you john follow her aboard the check, assaulting her sister and her mother.

  9. Nora Weston says:

    Angela:

    Hello! Thanks for the wonderful do’s and don’ts about query letters.

    Carina Press has a website that is easy to navigate, super fun to explore, and is loaded with valuable information for writers. I’ll be sure to spread the word!

  10. These Dos are of immense help to me as I sit down to send a query about my MSS titled, ‘the tears beneath her veil’

  11. Angela,
    Thank you for the posts on both query do’s and dont’s. I appreciate any advice given. Now, time to go rewrite the query.

  12. Allan R. LaViers says:

    Angela,

    Thank you for your time. I do appreciate the effort that went into the “do” and “don’t” of queries.

    One of your authors recently talked me into getting back into writing and she recommended that I check out your website. I’m glad that I did. I will be revisiting my manuscript, and will keep your words in mind when I start sending it out for review.

    Thanks so much,
    Allan

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