What’s in a Query letter?

Over a year ago, I discussed query letters and mentioned that I’d share mine, which could be used as an example.

My goal was to post it and then say, “Thanks to this letter, I now have an agent who is shopping around my manuscript.”

Well, that hasn’t happened (yet).

Admittedly, I tend to send out a bunch and then wait, instead of making this a regular process. I have a friend who sent out over a hundred before finding an agent, and there are plenty of stories of very successful authors — such as J.K. Rowling — who had similar experiences. I haven’t sent out that many yet, so maybe there’s still hope for me.

(an example of a bad query letter)

A query letter, however, is not like bait on a fish hook. An agent may really like your work but is not sure how to sell it, or thinks the market won’t be interested, or just doesn’t handle that kind of literature. (After all, if you are a heavy metal band, you don’t want to approach an agent who only represents bluegrass bands.)

I’ve shown my query letter to a number of professionals in the business who think it’s pretty good, so at least I am presenting myself properly. Let’s go over it, so you can use it as a guideline. (Note: Your query letter should not look exactly like mine. You are a writer; be yourself. Just make sure you include the important parts the agents look for.)

I start my query letter off with a personal note to the agent explaining why I am sending the letter to him or her. This is important. You’re not just randomly picking agent names off a list, after all — you’re doing your research (right?). You are looking for agents that handle your genre and who represent writers whose style may be similar to yours.

And of course, make sure you have their name spelled right! (These are all fake names below, by the way.)

Dear Ms. Dent,

Given your representation of Edward Pendleton and your recent Penguin deal for Louise Franks, I believe my latest manuscript may interest you.

With these few comments, I have shown that (a) I am professional enough to use Publisher’s Marketplace and (b) I have done my research as to which agents may be right for my work.

Next, I give a short description of the book, listing the word count and the genre. SPOILER ALERT.

“Bloodsuckers” is an 77,000 word political thriller punctuated by character-driven humor. It’s where The West Wing meets the bat wing.

In “Bloodsuckers,” disgraced journalist Steven Edwards considers the “Batties”—the loonies who believe that vampires are real and that Presidential candidate Norman Mark is one—just another crazy tin-foil extremist group. Then someone shoots at Mark, changes into a bat, and flies away before Steve’s eyes, leaving him as the prime suspect. With the help of the Batties, Steve goes underground. The only way he can establish his innocence is by proving vampires exist—not an easy task while on the run from both the FBI and the bloodsuckers.

The novel explores the choices we make in politics, as the protagonist is slowly seduced into abandoning his ethics for a greater goal—which becomes a delicious irony when the vampire candidate is ultimately revealed to be Niccolo Machiavelli himself.

This description has worked a few times. I’ve had three agents like the idea and ask to see the manuscript. Unfortunately, two decided not to go forward, and one has yet to get back to me.

Note that the description does contain a spoiler. Agents want to know that you can end the story well. If the agent has requested a synopsis, it should not be a teaser.

Next, I give a short biography. First, I mention my experience in the area to show that I am “writing what I know.” For instance, if your novel takes place in Australia and you are an Australian resident, mention that. If it’s a novel about bowling and you are a professional bowler, that’s something that’s important.

I then mention previous publications, to show that I have been edited and published before. This helps a lot, even if all you have are short stories. Self-published works aren’t as impressive unless you can add “and have sold 10,000 copies” or something similar.

I then mention social media and promotional appearances to show that I am willing to help sell the book. Finally, I point out that my books have been reviewed by published authors, which hopefully will encourage the agent to check out my web page.

Note that this is all really basic and short. I could easily spend three paragraphs on all this, but the agent doesn’t need all that just yet.

I am an attorney with a Political Science degree who has managed many campaigns over the years. Double Dragon has published my two novels and two short story collections I have edited, and other short stories have appeared in various anthologies. I have been actively promoting my work through my blog, Facebook and Twitter, and by being a guest panelist at science fiction conventions and writing seminars. My web page (www.MichaelAVentrella.com) lists reviews and endorsements by bestselling authors.

Next, you need to follow the agent’s guidelines. Do they want a short synopsis? The first ten pages? Do they want it inserted in the email or as an attachment? If you can’t follow the simple instructions the agent provides, you won’t seem very professional to them. After all, they want to represent someone who won’t need to have their hand held through the process.

Below are the first ten pages. A synopsis and the complete manuscript are ready.

Thank you for your interest and I look forward to hearing from you.

I’ve been told that is a good query letter. Now it’s just a matter of finding the right agent!

Please note that in the year or so I’ve been sending these out, I have not stopped writing. I am finishing up a middle-grade pirate novel now, have published three short stories and edited an anthology. I’ve also revised BLOODSUCKERS a few times (and have blogged about it) but don’t want to just keep polishing the same story over and over again. I believe BLOODSUCKERS is better than anything I’ve written before, and I expect the next one will be better yet. You’re supposed to improve over time, after all!

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