Is there a need to write or learn how to write and adapt query letters in this day and age of
anyone can publish anything anytime?
Even if you’re planning to self-publish, a query letter, even to yourself, helps you focus and should contribute to your marketing plan. Those authors who desire to become established with an agent who can net you good contracts with larger publishers, or a publisher you meet at a conference, need to continue to write competitive short queries.
I spent three years teaching querying techniques at a week-long writer’s camp, Novel-In-Progress Bookcamp and Writer’s Retreat, Inc. I developed workshops in person and online before that. What qualifies me? Successful queries to both major and independent publishers—about eight, counting off the top of my head—and four agents. I’ve turned down a couple contract offers as well. I’ve also been rejected/denied/ignored by a very long list, with maybe half a dozen inviting me to query again.
The first time I taught, very seriously, at Bookcamp, I had just attended a Writer’s Digest day-long workshop on the subject, pitched to a large Chicago agent and received an invitation to submit my manuscript (which had already been optioned, but I didn’t share that). I put myself through this self-torture to get up to speed on the latest techniques to share with the writers at camp. Bottom line: Writer’s Digest is reputable. At NIP Bookcamp, we have literary agents attend our camp every year and offer a “slush pile” read to show the authors how their work is viewed when it crosses an agent’s desk. I thought our authors did a credible job in their practice queries and pitched. Then, on the night of the slush pile read, one of the agents made a disgusted face while reading them and proclaimed how the lessons and examples were all wrong and that Writer’s Digest didn’t know much. Of course I was mortified but I turned it into a teachable moment to show that EVERY AGENT AND PUBLISHER IS DIFFERENT. When I received a teary thank you note after the second year from one of those authors at camp who signed with a major New York literary agent a few months later, I felt justified. The author has since signed a multi-book deal with a large publisher—not a top five, but one that still pays advances and offers large scale promotion.
I share this with you because I recently sat in on a webinar by Reedsy, a website dedicated to helping writers succeed. This webinar featured a panel of five industry professionals with experience at the top five remaining international publishers who shared their preferences for acceptable queries. The webinar was not particularly well-done, but proved the point that each panelist had polar opposite preferences for successful queries. Scott Pack said, “It’s a relief when I find great writing.” Jim Thomas wanted a good hook and the reason the query was sent to him, along with an exceptional first line, but changed his tune later when the other four said a spectacular first line wasn’t as important to them. Katrina Diaz said she liked reading something that wasn’t “boring.” In general, the important point of a successful query is to stand out from the crowd. To some a typo wasn’t a deal breaker; others didn’t care if you only had a hundred Twitter followers.
So what makes a stand-out query? Do I start with my story or with my credentials? The agents all had different preferences. How do we win this game?
- Show your unique voice in a manner that convinces the specifically targeted agent/publisher why he or she should invest in you.
- Offer a compelling story in a way that proves you understand good writing.
- Start your story sample with a clear intense visual.
- But above all, study the market, become well acquainted with your target, and follow their submission RULES. If you can’t meet them face to face at a conference, meet them online and tailor a query to show that.
Find a conference or Twitter pitch fest, watch Manuscript Wishlist #mswl. Learn industry demands. Study what’s been sold recently. Be professional. To expect someone to invest thousands of dollars in you, be a worthy risk.
If you choose to publish yourself, follow those same standards. Show readers that you understand what you are offering them and prepare to invest in yourself.
I’m not teaching querying this year at Bookcamp. Another pro will take the heat for that. But there’s still room for two or three more writers at camp. I’m running a writing clinic and I’d love to see you.