Thursday, April 23, 2009

Query Letters

I’ve been thinking a lot about query letters lately. I’ve been talking about them in my class at NYU, at conferences and of course on the blog, and you know what I’ve decided? I’ve decided that if you can’t get at least one request (because you’ve researched the agents you’re submitting to) out of every 20 to 25 queries you send, you need to stop, sit back and reevaluate.

Let’s cut off the excuses now (this is the year of no excuses if you remember), you can whine and complain all you want about how hard a query is to write and how you are not a salesperson, or you can decide that you’re a writer and as a writer your job is to learn and grow and that might mean learning how to really sell your book. Do you love your book? Do you feel passion for it? Do you know that you have an amazing idea that should sell? Well then, you need to learn how to convey that because it doesn’t end with the query. How do you think you’re going to pitch or sell your book to readers if you can’t even sell it to agents? Because I’ll tell you right now, readers make agents look easy.

In this year of no excuses I’m going to give you only two reasons why your query is being rejected. You can choose to listen or you can complain. That’s up to you.

Reason #1: Your query is weak. Listen carefully, because here we go, every single book, no matter how crappy or how brilliant, should get a request from your query because here’s the deal, if you can write a 400 page book you can learn to sell that book in one paragraph. Newsflash for you, querying doesn’t always come naturally to agents either, it’s something we’ve been required to learn because we want editors to at least read the material we have. Do you want agents to read your book? Learn to write a query. And sure, we could all request you send along five pages or so, but if we don’t have the time to keep up with the queries, how are we going to find the time to add five pages to our piles. You can complain about the system or you can learn to beat it. You choose.

Right now, every single one of you, whether you’re querying or thinking of querying, needs to pull back and take a close look at your letter. Have you received any requests at all? If the answer is no then you need to stop querying, find a group of writers who have NOT read your book, start a query critique group and rewrite your letter. The best thing you can do is see if other writers are intrigued enough by your letter to ask to read more of your book. Be brutally honest with each other, make it a big group—50 or so people. The more you sit and feel like agents reading query after query, the tougher you’re going to be on yourselves and on each other, and the more successful you’ll all be.

I’m going to repeat this, there is no reason, absolutely no reason at all, that you shouldn’t be getting requests from your query. Unless . . .

Reason #2: Okay, maybe there is one other reason and this one is a much bigger issue and the one authors so frequently refuse to see, but the truth is that if you can’t tell your story in one paragraph or if you’ve written the strongest query you can possibly write and you still aren’t getting bites, the problem isn’t your query, it’s your book. You don’t have a book, at least not one that’s ready to query. Selling a book to agents, to editors and to readers is more than just good writing. You have to have a story that distinguishes itself from other stories. You have to have something that will convince readers that they need to spend their hard-earned cash on someone who is unproven (at least on their bookshelves), and at this point you’re unproven. Readers base buying decisions on little more than a query (except it’s called back-cover copy). When thinking about what distinguishes your book from others, do some research. Head out to the bookstore and make the decision to find a new book from an author you’ve never heard of in the genre you’re writing. What finally makes you pick up that book? Not what makes you buy it, because to do that you might have read some of the pages, but what makes you actually open the front cover and decide to read a little more? That’s an agent looking at your query.

Put the time and energy into your query because doing so will save you a lot of time and energy later on.

Jessica

61 comments:

Kimber An said...

Oh, it drives me crazy when a fellow writer says, "But, I can't write a Query."

YOU CAN LEARN!!!

There are tons of resources all over the Web. It takes time and practice. That's all.
;)

Jayden Vasara said...

Hi Jessica,
So what if you've queried a few agents, realized the letter didn't work, completely re-worked it, and now you'd love for those same agents to see a letter that's COMPLETELY different. Is it ever acceptable to query an agent again (about the same book)?

Scott said...

I seriously hate writing query letters, but I write them because they are necessity.

I only just started the query process last summer - one agent at a time, wait, wait, wait, and then on to the next. Yeah, I know I can multiple submit, but I just haven't reached 'that' point yet. One day . . . I have also, after the polite rejections or no-responses, relooked at my query letter and done some major/minor edits. I have refined the letter. It's all a process. Yeah, I might gripe a bit, but that's humann nature. We have to vent our frustrations in some way or, like Mt Vesuvius, we'll explode.

So, in the periods of waiting, I explore the blogsphere and glean every possible bit of infromation I can glean about query letters and apply that knowledge to my own query letter. It's all a process.

Thanks, Jessica, for the post.

PurpleClover said...

Thanks for the useful info.

Last year I would have complained about how I can't write a query to save my life. Now I'm learning what it takes to finish one. It isn't perfect yet but I'm getting the gist.

Rick Daley said...

I started a query critique blog, The Public Query Slushpile at http://openquery.blogspot.com

There are over 70 people following the blog. I usually get submissions posted within 24 hours, and feedback comes fast.

I've queried successfully, but my partial was rejected (and for good reason, the writing was not as tight as it could be). Now I'm re-writing. I will find success if it doesn't find me first!

Kathleen Dante said...

When thinking about what distinguishes your book from others, do some research. Head out to the bookstore and make the decision to find a new book from an author you’ve never heard of in the genre you’re writing. What finally makes you pick up that book?I hate to sound shallow, but to answer your question, fabulous cover art comes before back-cover blurb.

Alan Orloff said...

Hi Jessica,

You are so right:

"you can whine and complain all you want about how hard a query is to write and how you are not a salesperson, or you can decide that you’re a writer and as a writer your job is to learn and grow and that might mean learning how to really sell your book."

The query is only the beginning. Then you've got the synopses (all different lengths), the author bios, the book jacket copy, the letters to possible blurbers, the blog posts, the Twitter tweets, the letters to booksellers, the marketing plan, etc, etc, etc.

All things a writer needs to learn in order to get the book into the hands of the readers.

BTW, I love the no-nonsense, no-excuses post. Yes, writing a query can be difficult. But I agree with Kimer an, it's a skill that can be learned. So get busy!

Alan Orloff said...

Sorry, that should be Kimber An!!!

DebraLSchubert said...

Once again, great post, Jessica. I'm lucky - I've gotten a fairly good response from my query so far. Like any form of writing, I've revised it many times. (We writers are never fully satisfied with our own work!) That would be my best advice to folks who haven't gotten requests for sample pages yet - rework it, baby! There are wonderful resources on-line where you can read queries that worked. It's just a matter of doing your homework. (God, I always hated doing homework!)

Kristan said...

Thanks for the reality check. I'm not in a place to need it yet, but it's good to keep in mind anyway. :)

Liana Brooks said...

I dread query writing, but I have a month blocked off for working on just my query. I figure I've spent over a year working on the novel. And I spent 3 months writing the 5,000 word short story that's my first fiction work published.

If I need 90 days to polish 5,000 words I need at least a month to do the 250-500 word query.

Anonymous said...

I just read an article in this month's Poets and Writers. One of the agents said he or she (I don't recall) got 75% of his clients through referrals. I just got my agent this way. (My query letter was NOT working, but an agented writer thought my manuscript might be a fit with her agent--now my agent.)

How many of your new clients come to you through referrals?

Anonymous said...

Think of a query letter as describing a good book (or a movie) to a friend--you hit on the highlights and summarize the plot, leaving out the filler.

Suzanne Rock said...

Thanks Jessica! Very timely post. I just started sending out queries on my book and have gotten a few requests for partials. I seem to do okay at this stage, but stall at the partial stage. It's been a while since you did a post on what you look for in (fiction) proposals and I was wondering if you would consider doing another post on the subject...since I think I might need help with this, lol.

Jael said...

This is as good a place as any to remind folks that one of the reasons many queries fail is that the author is trying to sum up the whole book. That's not the query's goal. The query's goal is to make the agent want to read more. You're going to leave out a lot more than you can put in. But focus on what makes your book unique, and write a clear, engaging letter about that unique book, and you will get requests.

You can do it!

Anonymous said...

Those were very strong words, Jessica, and thank you, as always, for everything you tell us. I got a request the other day from an agent you mentioned here, and I'm so grateful for that. I had changed one word in my pitch that a friend suggested over a year ago - and it worked. I actually enjoy the game of getting the query as perfect as I can, tailored to each individual agent. You're the best. Thanks again.

Dara said...

I admit, I dread the query process, but I know that it's necessary. I've been crafting a rough one just to practice (my book is still very far from submission).

Even though I'm still crafting the fine details of my book and constantly changing plot elements, I've found that practicing writing the query is helping me to mold my story into something people will want to read.

Lois Lane II said...

Thank you very much for the advice. My husband and I have been querying agents for a while and received no response. This can help us re-evaluate our letter.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:08 mentioned referrals and this reminded me of my experience last year. In 1 case, I did get a referral, but I still had to write a query. I was in the airport waiting for an international flight. The author who referred me indicated her agent wanted me to query pronto. Well, I had a 10-hr flight for a 2-week business trip. I figured I'd better do it right then because I might not have another opportunity for 2 weeks. Yes, I actually wrote & emailed the query in the airport. The reason I'm sharing this is because I suspect authors get so agonized over queries that it actually hampers their ability to write a good one. I didn't have tons of time to think about mine. And while it was a referral, I used that query very successfuly w/other agents. Relax, OK? If you're still having trouble, I'm w/Jessica. The book probably has major issues if you can't identify the premise (that is what you should focus on) and the protagonist's main conflict.

One more item. Take advantage of opportunities. A query letter is only one way to get a request. If an agent you're targeting is attending a conference near you, try your best to attend (& get an appt). Enter contests judged by agents you're interested in. If money is an issue, keep in mind there are free opportunities online all the time (such as free query critiques). Be bold. What have you got to lose? :-)

Yunaleska said...

Great advice here Jessica. I tremble at the thought of writing queries, but I accept its something I can grow into. Thankfully I've got a good group of writers to help me out with it, so I'm not too worried. Just ask me when I get round to writing the query and I'll be tearing my hair out. I don't enjoy writing summaries. But they are a necessary evil in this business.

Steena Holmes said...

Jessica thanks for the 'kick in the butt' post! The query is our responsibility and if we do a sloppy job on it we shouldn't be surprised when we receive no responses.

I find it funny how as writers we will sacrifice to write our book, give our 110% to every single sentence - yet when it comes to our query we are slaphappy with it.

Great post!

Juliana Stone said...

Jael is right....the query is not a synopsis...that is an entirely different monster to wrestle...but a good query snags the agents interest with a hook, and yes, it's akin to the back cover blurb.

Robena Grant said...

Thanks for your post. Great advice.

As a friend says, "Baby steps. Baby steps."

This game is about patience, persistence, and the willingness to look closely at your work. I've learned not to query too widely and use up all of my chances, but to do the query process in stages. Then with feedback I can withdraw, rewrite, refine, and try again.

jnantz said...

I love the analogy of the bookstore and a writer you've never heard of, except one problem. I've known a lot of people who say what usually does it for them, at least for an impulse buy, is the cover art and title. Many of them say they don't even read the back, they just liked the picture on the front because it gave them a visual for what the story would be about.

And I know you guys don't want us to start sending in potential covers with our query! :D

ryan field said...

The part about it doesn't end with the query is so true.

Anonymous said...

I agree writing a query can be learned, and it is important. I think a lot of people go into shock after spending a year on their book, and then they have to condense it into 1 page. I spent another 6 months figuring out my query. I think that is why everyone gets so uptight about it. They are ready to move on, and the time it takes to find an agent sabatoges their plan; especially when you have doggedly slow internet that disconnects while your sending off everything.

Amy said...

I couldn't agree with you more. My second book did not get any requests after 20 queries and I stopped. It wasn't the query, it was the concept for the book, and I knew it even though other people encouraged me to keep going.

Querying takes time. I really don't see why agent #57 would request a book no one else asked for. Rather than keep querying, I wrote a different book, and about 20% of the agents have been asking for it. So much better.

Heidi said...

I love the no-whining principle. One can sit around and complain, or one can get up and do something.

I try to write my "blurb" (pitch) before I even start the book. It gives me focus, and also helps me know if the book is going to be interesting enough.

There have been a few ideas I've kicked around, then after trying to write the blurb decided weren't different or engaging enough to keep going with.

Maybe someday I'll find the spark needed to make them work. For now, I just keep moving forward to the next idea.

jimnduncan said...

Good advice. Query writing can be daunting. I'm not even sure how many times I've rewritten mine. I think too many writers think they have to distill the entire novel down to a few sentences, but that isn't really what you need/want to do. The point is to attract the attention of the agent enough to make them want to request more. You aren't trying to 'sell' the entire book. You just want that agent to reply with a 'send me more.' Kristen Nelson has done some excellent posts about querying, and she bases her thoughts on just the first 50 pages of the story. There's leeway here of course, but the idea is to situate the main character(s) and what the conflict is, whether it's a villain, the world blowing up or whatever. The trick I think, and this is my own personal opinion, is getting your 'voice' down in those couple hundred words.

Agents don't need perfectly written queries. I'd bet the vast majority are not. They want something that will make them believe the book could be good. How you write the blurb can say as much as what is in it. Lots of info out there about what shouldn't go into a query. Do some research and find out what those things are. It's not very hard to find. You'll go a long way toward getting requests based on just constructing a decent query, because we know they get tons of queries that aren't.

There's no magic to it. It's a craft like any other form of writing. Practice and research what makes them good or bad. Try to work you own writerly voice into the wording. Test it out on other people. You do have have a well written book. No amount of query brilliance is going to help you if your book isn't up to par. But queries are as subjective as reading novels. What works for some doesn't work for other agents. But Jessica is certainly right about response rate. If you aren't getting any, then something is off, and you need to work on the craft some more.

LorelieLong said...

But how do you know if your problem is the query or your book?

I've gotten no bites. I've run my query, synopsis and book through a couple different crit groups, and gotten very positive feedback with only few tweaks.

I started with agents who take equeries, because I'm a techie kind of girl. And it seems like a larger percentage of the equery friendly agents also request a synopsis and sample pages included in the email. Heck, it could even be my concept (historical romance set in the 20s) because I know I'm treading a fine line with it.

So how does one determine where the real problem is?

Weronika said...

Jessica, thank you for the comments. They are, like many of your posts, complete truth.

I tend to say it often enough: I will wait patiently for the moment that I get picked up by an agent because then I will have "proof" that I am truly ready. I don't want to go into the process unprepared, and I completely respect agents for upholding standards, however stringent they may be.

Nathan Bransford said...

Oh wow -- I was planning on writing an identical post next week.

Problem 1: it's the query
Problem 2: it's the book

It's really one or the other.

Beat me to it!!

Solvang Sherrie said...

So well said! Querying can be painful, but so rewarding, too! I learned a lot about querying from the web. Then as I made writer friends, I learned from them. My query has come so far in the past six months. I cringe at what I originally sent out! But I know I'm learning and getting better at it because I'm getting requests. And that makes the pain of learning worthwhile.

Janet said...

Very good points. As writers, after all, we're supposed to be able to use language to intrigue and move our readers. On the other hand, we're so close to our own work it can be very hard. You are so right about needing extra eyes. I put my query up for critique and most of the comments really bugged me. But I listened to most of them anyway.

It took only three responses to get a request for the full, and an agent. I don't know if it would have gone that well if others hadn't helped me by showing me what I was not communicating effectively.

Maybe I'm an oddball, but I don't read the back copy at all anymore. It usually stinks of a marketing department, full of breathless adjectives and vague generalities, and often doesn't seem to even correspond much to the story. When it does, it often contains important spoilers. So I base my decision to buy an unknown on the cover (sorry, but if it's got a pulp fiction vibe or a chick lit vibe, it's dead in the water) and by reading a few pages.

Better yet is a recommendation.

If I buy a book from an unknown online, it's usually on the basis of sample chapters.

folksinmt said...

Great post. I have the same question as Jayden did and 8:15. Can you send an entirely new (and hopefully improved) query to the same agent?

Kristin Laughtin said...

If I was extremely confident in my book (and thus didn't think Reason #2 was my problem), I'd immediately reevaluate my query. No matter how good I might think it is, obviously something wouldn't be working for all the agents. I doubt they have any reason to engage in a vast conspiracy to keep me down, anyway.

ash-krafton said...

www.querytracker.net has forums populated by a fun and helpful group of writers--many already agented. If you don't have access to a critique group (and even if you do) this website is a must see.

The query tracking part is an added bonus ;^) and it's free to join. The blog is fantabulous as well.

This is, by far, my favorite web resource for querying.

Elyssa Papa said...

I totally agree with everything you said in this blog. Anyone can write a query and your CPs can help you make a good query into an awesome one with a few word shifts.

And yes, it's either because your query isn't that good or your book is problematic.

Ruth said...

I'm more than happy to write queries. More than happy. My problem is that there aren't 20-25 agents in the whole of New Zealand (where I live), let alone 20 agents who would be a good "fit". Websites like Query Tracker and Publisher's Marketplace are great for those in the States, but there are really few options for those outside the USA, Canada and the UK.

I've considered querying British or American agents, and I notice some agents say "Queries from American residents only" (which is fine). My question is, for the agents who don't specify US-only, would they be happy with someone from somewhere as far away as New Zealand? Or would they just assume that only Americans should apply?

Do you get many/any queries from overseas authors, and would this change your likelihood of representing them?

Anonymous said...

Q's are so easy and fun that I use them to turn the agent community into my own personal focus group!

I write out 10 blurbs (ie 'hooks')for novel ideas. Then, I'll write a Q for each one, without having written any of the book. Just a finely hewn pitch. In the Q, of course, I use a fake title, name, and I say the book is complete with an estimated word count.

Then I send them off, and, after 2 months, whichever has garnered the most requests--that's the one I write.

I simply ignore the responses to the agent, or sometimes, if they put some time into the response, I send a "Thanks for your interest but I have decided to remove XYZ from themarket at this time) kind of reply.

In this way, I have become the king of Q's and know how to craft one that gets 75% response rate every time.

Now, if I could only write all those books!

Juliana Stone said...

@ Ruth....I'm Canadian and had no problem whatsoever querying agents. I only queried US agents actually. My agent currently has more than on Canuk on her roster! I think if the book you're writing is targeted to the north american market then by all means you should query an american agent. I know of several authors overseas who have agents in New York or on the west coast.
good luck on the search!

CNU said...

http://christianusera.blogspot.com/2009/04/query-letters-lol.html


Oh query letters. Must love the formality.


(Yeah it's probably the first problem most people are having. There is a lot of bad writing out there, but I think there are more bad queries in the mix. (*If it doesn't work try a different style.*) I don't really want to sit and pontificate on my work is the problem, but now I'm seeing that's the only way these things function. It makes people sound pompous more than anything else. It's better to send one page or a striking paragraph with it. That little bit of writing is what should sell the book. Not someone saying "I'm the next *Insert famous person here.* or "I know this will be on the next bestseller list." *)

I went for the sarcastic angle. Some might find the irony a bit funny. Some might hate it. Either way I tried. We shall see.

(*BTW If anyone is going to send hate mail, please don't bother. I have a glut of it already. Thanks.*)

-C

Sandra said...

In theory at least, if you can write an 80,000 word novel, you can write a 250 word query. Indeed, the query ought to be 320 times easier. (I appreciate it's not, in practice, but you could try and kid your inner critic with figures.)

Anonymous said...

You've got to master the art of summarizing your books in various short forms. If you can't do this, you will be handicapped in the marketplace.

Blurb, pitch, query, synopsis, outline, storyboard, logline, video trailer, jacket copy, social networking profiles, reviews of other author's works, verbal pitches...my god, these short forms are how the majority of people will hear about your book! To dismiss it and say, I on'y write books...you'll always be behind those true writers who bothered to master the art of the short form and the book itself.

That's why the query is such as good litmus test of a writer. OK, maybe it's possible you did write a great book even though you suck at writing queries. But if so, you're going to suck at marketing your book, and given 2 authors--both with great, promising books--one of whom is a master of the short form and one who is not, there's no contest.

AstonWest said...

I'm with Suzanne...I can get requests for partials from agents, but not much farther...

Anonymous said...

Same here, Aston. Although, the blow was softened for me when I sold my ms. directly to a small press. Still, I want an agent at some point because I'm in this for the long haul.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Jessica. As someone with 25 plus rejections on queries that I worked to death, your post hits close to home and I couldn't agree with you more. Instead of excuses I will work on the next book, have a better premise and write a great query.

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:04--if you want to post the Q here, I'll give you my opiniion, if you want.

Anonymous said...

Very instructive as usual. I have to say, I get so much out of your blog if I had any money I would pay for the privilege of reading it. I am sending this anonymously so you’ll know I am sincere and not sucking up. Yours is possibly the best agent blog I have found.

As for queries, when I look at books in the supermarket I am just not that impressed. The cover blurbs don’t seem that compelling, and there is nothing special about the writing that I can see. I get books from the library based on the name of the author (branding) and suspect others do the same. You know what you’re going to get if Stephen King or John Grisham is on the cover. Unknown authors probably sink or drown (take your pick) based on buzz created by the few who take chances on no-name books. I got a book by a major writer recently from the library because I was impressed by the movie and wanted to study his style and I can’t figure out how the thing sold. So queries are still a bit of a mystery here.

As for my own, I stopped after fifteen because it is clear I am doing something wrong. But I did want to mention one fellow, a well known superagent, who sent a rejection with my name typed on it and the title of my manuscript and his signature at the bottom. I am computer savvy enough to know he has a template set up so his secretary can personalize a form letter in two seconds, but I have to say, that is a classy thing to do. Much more so than “no response means GFY” or even a standard printed postcard saying “this is not anything I want to see or even hear about.” (Yes, that is a direct quote.) I wish all the agents who rejected me the very best, but that fellow gets an especial wish for a long and prosperous career. Ditto with Janet Reid. It won’t do you two any good, but, wherever you are, I’m cheering for you.

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:01 here to Anon 7:20, I'm anonymous so can't post my query here. I'm sure you understand Thanks for the offer though.

Anonymous said...

Anon,

You could still post it, just leave out the real title and author name. Up to you.

Lucy said...

@Jayden

If your query is really that different, it might not even look like the same book.

I don't think it would hurt you to wait a few months and query again. What can they do except say "no" a second time? Although, if you don't want to become one of those repeat offenders who drive agents crazy, I'd stop at two tries for any given project.

word ver: lumpered

Is that a clumsy way to walk?

Aaralyn Montgomery said...

Thanks so much for the post. I, like another author here, started writing my query before my novel. I wanted to make sure I knew the core idea of it before I started writing. It's working well so far.

Angie Ledbetter said...

Bra.vo!

catie said...

Just an idea but maybe writers having trouble writing queries should try their hand at a few book reviews? Boiling down your own story into a succinct paragraph or two might become easier after a little practice with four hundreds pages to which they're not so closely entwined.

I absolutely agree with your assessment Jessica. If it's not the query, it's the work itself; sometimes we writers either need to return to the keyboard with our manuscripts, or retire that particular novel to "the trunk" and move on.

Kimber An said...

Catie, this is a good idea. I think reviewing books has helped me a lot in this area.

I start writing my query during the 'Research & Flesh Out' stage of revision and tweek it over the following weeks until the Final Polish is complete. Seems to work. Each book I polish up receives more requests for partials and fulls than the one before.

Jayden Vasara said...

@ Lucy

thank you! :)

rationalpsychic said...

I am new to this approach of taking the irrational (fear) and using a rational approach (knowledge and effort) to overcome.

Henri said...

Wow, I think your post and some of the excellent comments have hit the nail on the head, as far as i am concerned. Just finished my novel, which took several years, got a good read on it by a professional editor and screenplay agent, but my queries seem about as successful as a lead balloon. I have sought advice online in places like this, but looks like I still got a ways to go for a fluid query. Your post has been most helpful.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Thank you for this "kick in the pants" post! It's taught me so much that I'm saving it and will come back to it repeatedly in the future.

lauramanivong said...

This query worked for me: http://tinyurl.com/rcbzg4

My agent ended up selling a different novel first (yep, I'm revising the one in query), but the letter caught her attention, or more likely her assistant's. I still have nightmares about writing query letters!