(Originally posted on Savvy Author’s Blog 2013)
So, you’re an author. You’ve written your fiction novel and you’ve edited and refined it to shiny perfection. What? You’re not finished with your novel? It’s still in draft form and you haven’t had someone else proof it? Stop! You aren’t ready to go shopping for an agent or publisher, go back to your manuscript, finish and polish it before going any further.
The Query Letter
If you have indeed finished your novel and polished it, then you are at the beginning of an exciting and sometimes devastating road. However, there are still a few documents you’ll need to prepare before beginning your search. Chief among them is the dreaded Query Letter. First and foremost, the query letter should be a professional document in a readable font. This isn’t the time for a fancy princess script font. Agents looking for new authors receive hundreds of query letters a week, and they don’t want a cutesy letter you’d send to Grandma, or you’re life’s story. The letter should be one page and generally contains four paragraphs – The Hook, A Mini-synopsis, Manuscript Info, and a Short Bio.
The Hook – Writing a hook can be a tricky business. The hook is basically an enticing 1-2 sentence attention grabber. That’s it. It shouldn’t sound like an intro to a textbook. Run your hook by a critique partner. They’ll see it from a different perspective and may hit on the key to making you’re hook stand out.
The Mini-synopsis – This is where the manuscript needs to shine. Use this paragraph to show an agent why you’re book is special and different from others. Provide quick, attention-grabbing sentences about your characters and the turmoil you create in their life. Think back of the book blurb. Leave the agent wanting to hear more about your fabulous novel. Make sure to provide the title of your book in this paragraph. Italicize the title.
Manuscript Info – This should be a brief paragraph and contain the following: word count, genre, target audience, and comparable writers. Don’t forget to research the genre you’re claiming to write. If you write romance, your word count should be between 60-80K. An agent will pass on a romance novel that’s coming in at 130K words. You’ve either written too much and need to cut, cut, cut, or it should be broken up into a series.
Short Bio – The bio paragraph should be easy because it’s about you. If you have any writing experience, articles for magazines or journals, short stories, a popular blog, etc., put that information here. If your story is about a lawyer and you are one, write that here. If you’re new and unpublished, but have joined some writing organizations, put that down. If you are a new writer and have little to say, that’s fine too. It gives you more space to for your all-important mini-synopsis.
Finally, provide a closer sentence or two thanking the agent for their time, and to tell them what you’ve attached to the e-mail or included in the envelope – e.g. synopsis, first three chapters, blurb, etc.
If you met the agent or publisher at a conference or local workshop, be sure to add that to your query letter to jog their memory. To find out more about preparing each of these paragraphs, I suggest searching the web. There are dozens of query letter samples to get you started.
Agents or Publishers may request other documents beyond the query letter, such as; synopsis, one page summary, and first three chapters. Be sure to carefully read each agent/publisher’s website and query submission guidelines. If you don’t follow the guidelines, it can lead to an automatic rejection. Don’t submit a 5 page synopsis when only a twofer was requested. Don’t query an agent with your children’s book if she only represents crime and mystery fiction. Not only are you wasting their time, you’re wasting yours.
Synopsis – Many agents/publishers will request a synopsis to go along with the query letter. If the agent doesn’t define how long the synopsis should be, keep it to 2-3 single-spaced pages. Make sure to number the pages and have the title of the book and your name in the header. The entire synopsis should only include the names of 3-5 characters. When naming the characters, use all caps. Do this throughout the synopsis. A synopsis should be written in third person, even if your novel is written in first person. It should be in present tense. Do not introduce too many characters in the synopsis. You can refer to side characters by their jobs or role in the book to keep the synopsis concise. Always, always, ALWAYS include the ending of the book. If the main character dies, say that. If your heroine marries the hero and they live happily ever after, write it down. An agent is looking for the ending. If you leave a cliffhanger, she may cliff hang your synopsis in the trash.
One page blurb/summary – I have seen some agents ask for a one-page blurb or summary. Unless they define it differently, assume a summary could be akin to a long blurb, similar to something you’d find on the inside of a book jacket. Make it exciting. Write in third person. Write character names in all caps. Be sure your name, book title, contact information, and word count is at the top of the summary page.
First Three Chapters – This is self-explanatory. Your manuscript should be typed in a readable 12 pt. font and double spaced. Times New Roman is generally the preferred font. Create a Title Page. This should include your name, contact info, total word count and genre in the upper left or right hand corner. In the middle of the page, center the title. Be sure to number your pages. Do not number the Title Page. In the header of each page, not the title page, list the title and your name.
Search the web for examples of all these documents to help set you on your way. Don’t forget to proof, proof, proof your query letter and all the accompanying documents, just as you would a resume. Additionally, proof the e-mail. A careless typo in the subject line may have an agent automatically deleting or sending a form rejection.
Finding Agents to Query
Now that you’ve polished your documentation, where do you find an agent/publisher? If you’ve met one at a conference or writer’s workshop, and they showed any interest, be sure to follow up with a query promptly. Otherwise, if you’re heading out into the harsh world of cold-querying, I recommend starting with the website Preditors & Editors. It’s a comprehensive website for finding all things publishing. You’ll find information about agents, publishers, contests, conventions, and more. Preditors & Editors also provides information about sketchy agents you should avoid. I also suggest searching for an article called Thumbs Down Agency List, to find out about poor agency practices and what to watch out for.
Researching and querying agents is a time-consuming business. Be sure to tailor your query letter to each agent and format your documents to their exact specifications. Some agents prefer everything in the body of the e-mail, whereas others will accept attachments. Also be sure to save attachments in the proper formats. For instance, some agents prefer Rich Text Format rather than Word documents.
An agent may not be for everyone. If you’ve successfully launched your self-published books, or you’re working with a small e-publisher and your sales have done well, more power to you. However, if you’re dying to get a physical book on the Barnes and Noble shelf or wish to be published with one of the major book publishers, such as Random House, you’ll need an agent. Major publishers, and even some medium-sized publishers, won’t accept submissions from unagented authors. Remember, agents make contacts with all sorts of editors in the publishing business. An editor may review your manuscript if it’s submitted by an agent they know and trust, but circular file a manuscript submitted by an unknown writer.
Finally, a word to the wise, rejection comes with the territory. As a writer, you will face rejection from agents, publishers, and readers. It’s not pretty and it never feels good. The publishing industry is a dog-eat-dog world, and writers are a dime a dozen. If you can’t handle the rejection, find another career.