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Writing a query letter to an editor or an agent can open the doors to publishing your work or shut it down firmly. It’s a task that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
GOLDEN RULE: make your research in advance and do NOT send an editor or an agent anything that he or she does NOT want.
If they say “no email queries,” do not send them an email query. If they say “send a one-page synopsis only” do not send them a one-page synopsis plus the first chapter of your book, etc.
Here are other rules to follow when writing a query letter:
1) Get into the issue as soon as possible. For example, a lot of good query letters open with the NAME of the work itself.
Here is a good first sentence:
“Dear Ms. Editor,
HUNTING IN APPALACHIANS is a man-against-nature mystery novel I’ve been working on for the last five years…”
And here is a bad first sentence:
“Dear Ms. Editor,
How are you? I hope life is treating you fair and square on this gorgeous September morning…”
2) Do not mention anything that is not relevant to your book or core message. You’re not writing to befriend the editor but to get published and paid. Also: editors are agents are very busy people. Respect their time by not forcing them to read anything that is not relevant to your query.
For example, mention the fact that you’ve been an avid hunter and the founding member of your local NRA chapter if your proposed work has anything to do with hunting, shooting, or firearms. However, if you are pitching a book on French foreign policy, skip that personal detail.
3) Establish a credible reason why you are writing to THIS editor or agent rather than another.
Here is a bad explanation that won’t create a positive impression:
“I’m writing to you because I stumbled upon your name as I was leafing through an old magazine on railroad cars…”
Here is a better one:
“My library research into active literary agents specializing in historic novels and my Writing Club contacts led me to believe that you’d be an excellent agent to represent my work…”
4) Don’t ever mention that your work is copyrighted (and hence cannot be stolen!). That’s the sure sign of a rank amateur and plus it demonstrates your distrust of the other as well. If you suspect that the other person may “steal” your work, why are you even bothering to write to him or her?
Editors and agents are not in the business of stealing intellectual property. They are in the business of CREATING quality and lasting intellectual property. That’s their joy, pride, livelihood, and also hopefully, legacy. Don’t insult them by reminding about your copyright.
5) Don’t make any statements that you cannot support by plausible evidence. For example, if you claim that “my TV Guide book will make millions for your publishing house” you’d better make a convincing case and provide the logical reasons why you say that. Otherwise, you lose the attention of a professional editor or agent right away.
6) Provide full contact information (Name, Address, Phone, Email, web URL) at the TOP of your letter for written letters sent by “snail mail” and after your name and at the BOTTOM of your letter if it is an email.
7) Stick to the particular work you’re querying for and resist the temptation to pitch more than one thing at a time.
For example, don’t write anything like this:
“Besides this article on environmentally sensitive recycling methods I’ve also finished a novel on Spanish Empire and two stories about life in medieval Japan. I’m ready to send them your way as well as soon as you green-light them…”
And lastly — good luck!