Sunday, April 5, 2009

Query Letters-Part I -Finding Your Market

There has been a lot of talk lately about query letters. How to write a good one, who to send it to, how can I make my query letter stand out? There has also been a lot of snarky blogs about poorly written queries, which would make anyone cringe who is uncertain of what they are doing-Will someone read my letter and snark about it on their blog, twitter, etc?

In the spirit of good faith I have decided to take the month of April to do a four part series on how to write a query letter what works, what doesn't work, what could be better.

Let's begin at the beginning.

Know What Your Book is All About.

1) What are you writing? That's easy, you think-it's a (insert genre here) romance, sff, mystery, thriller, women's fiction, graphic novel. Good. But, you ask...what if you are writing a women's fiction with some romance and a murderous twist? Or a thriller with a sff/paranormal element? Or what if the story could be a romance, sff, mystery, thriller, women's fiction, graphic novel?

TIP: In these tough times-cross genre is harder to sell then simple genre. Remember, you need to make it easy for an agent/editor to sell you work to a publisher/marketing/book seller. If they don't know how to shelf a book, they won't order it. Don't pull out your hair if you have a cross genre book done- For the purposes of a query letter-Pick One Genre. Think about your book-what genre is is most like? Where in the bookstore would it be shelved? (Beside the dream of right up front in it's own kiosk like all the best sellers...)

2) How many words is it? If you don't know how to figure the word count-check you word processing program. Most have word count in the tools. Or you can do it the old fashioned way and set your pages up for exactly 26 lines per page-at 26 lines per page, 12 pt. type in courier new- you average 250 words per pages. 250 pages equals roughly 50,000 words-yes, ugh...math.
Knowing the word count is important to the market place. Some publishers only want books that are 50,000-60,000 words while others may want 90,000 words. Rarely will a publisher look at a book over 125,000 words.

3) Now- this is very important-What publisher is most likely to publish your story? (Yes-even if you are querying agents alone you need to know this information. A strong query letter will tell the agent who you are and what your market is.) So-how do you know? Research. Go to the library and your local bookstore. Look for who is publishing books in your genre. Who has recently published an author who writes similar to you?

Example: If your friend or critique partner says you write like Stephen King. Go to your local bookstore. Find out where Stephen King is shelved. Now- here's the interesting part- don't look at Stephen King's books. (He is a well known bestseller and doesn't have the same restrictions as a new author.) Find several books that a similar to Stephen King but relatively new authors-look at the spine and write down the publisher. Tip: Open the book and look at the copy right page. Ensure that the book was published in the last month or two. This will give you an idea of who is publishing your type of story right now. Keep in mind that books released today were bought two years ago. Trends change. But this will give you the most current idea.

4) Target your editor/agent. There are several ways to do this.
a) go to the library resource center and ask to read a copy of the Literary Market Place. This book is an annual listing of all agents and editors-their addresses, websites, what they are looking for, what they are buying and if they charge a fee. NEVER PAY A FEE FOR SOMEONE TO READ YOUR WORK.
b) go on-line to the websites of the publishers you targeted- look for the link to author guidelines. Make sure your book-word count and genre-fit the publisher's author guidelines. Example: If you have a book you believe is a techno thriller, but the author guidelines of a publisher says techno thrillers happen overseas or on submarines. Then you better ensure you have overseas or sub elements- OR- you will sell your book as a straight up thriller. TIP: Make the story what they are asking for.
c) Go to great websites like Editors and Preditors and Romance Writer's of America that rate agents based on word of mouth from others who have worked with them.
d) Go to the agent/publisher websites- look at what they want to see in a query letter- do they want an e-mail letter? or snail mail? Do they want pages? Are they taking submissions? Know and follow their rules.

5) Create a list of who you are contacting.

TIP: Choose if you are going to query agents or editors. No- you don't NEED an agent to sell. Again- do some research-publishers like Harlequin/Silhouette and Sourcebooks take unagented work. While other publishers like Pocket or Grand Central do not take unagented work. Who is your target? Know and follow their rules. Most agents don't want to look at a manuscript that has already been rejected by publishing houses-so if your target is a house that wants agented work-START with agents.

a) You can write your list on a piece of paper. Or you can fill out a spreadsheet program like Excel. Or you can use on-line programs. I put my list in a Word table.
b) Order your list as to priority. Pick the top five agents-then the next, then the next.
c) Write down the editor/agent name, the address. Then write down the type of submission required. Then the date you submitted and leave two columns for when you hear-accept or reject and further action taken.

Example: column one: Editor name,Harlequin Intrigue, address. Column two: sent Query letter with first three chapters and synopsis on X date. Column three: received request for full. Column four: Full sent on X date. Column Five: sold or reject.

Now that you know what you write-how long it is-what market and publishers you are targeting-if your work fits their guidelines-if you are querying agents or editors-names of who you are querying-what their submission requests are- and created a file to track your work, you are now ready to write your query letter.

Oh, I need to add a disclaimer- that as Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean said, "These aren't rules, exactly, more like guidelines."

Next week: The Letter Itself.


Morgan Mandel said...

Sounds like a great plan of attack. I'll have to remember to follow it after Killer Career, my current novel is published and I finish my wip, which is languishing, until my edits on this one are done.

Morgan Mandel

Marin Thomas said...


Great advice on query letters. I can't tell you how important it is to know which market or genre your project fits into.

A Cowboy's Promise (April 09)

Justus M. Bowman said...

That's a lot of information. Hooray for those fortunate enough to read it and need it. Personally I'm more interested in improving the overall quality of my writing than crafting the perfect query.

Nancy, why is writing so mean to me?

Nancy J. Parra said...

LOL- Justus, writing is mean to everyone! I swear-only the strong survive.

(I say that not to discourage anyone, but to let ya'll know that you are not alone!)

Cindy said...

Those were great tips for a query letter, especially for new writers. Those who don't know where to begin after they finish their manuscript can definitely benefit from a step by step process of writing a query letter. And I think it doesn't hurt to stress what you said about making sure your query follows the guidelines for agents or publishers. A huge amount of queries are immediately discarded by agents simply because they don't follow guidelines. Thanks for the post!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Great post Nancy! Nice logical step by step procedure. All the things you should have at your fingertips before even starting a query letter.

I know when I first started the query process, it used to throw me for a loop when the publisher would ask: What's your Target audience. "My, WHAT?" But unless you can answer that how can you sell it? How can and agent or a publisher sell it? Ditto on genre. The ones I'm currently querying are contemporary romance with an element of suspense. I can't call them suspence because it's not the suspense that's driving the story, its the romance. You live and learn, lol!

I'm looking forward to reading your series!

Have a great week!

Jessica said...

Great tips Nancy! The one about targeting a publisher is going to throw me for a loop. I've been targeting Steeple Hill, but one of the manuscripts they rejected I want to turn into a single title, which means researching which publisher will best fit it. Grrrr...
Maybe I'll query agents first. :-)
Looking forward to the rest of this series.

Pamala Knight said...

Thank you for the wonderful advice Nancy. You've laid things out so that a quest for an agent or publisher would be well-organized and not quite so terrifying. I'm very excited to get all four sessions of this series. Excellent post!

Marilyn Brant said...

What wonderful advice you're offering to writers new to querying! I will have to direct a few people here to read your series--you're providing a really helpful service :).