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Writing The Knockout Query Letter: How To Catch A Book Editor's Attention
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by Britt Gillette
You've done it. You've achieved a lifelong dream and penned a book certain to be lauded through the ages as a literary masterpiece. Yet one last obstacle stands between you and publishing success - attracting the attention of someone who can get your book into print.
In reality, catching an editor's attention is not difficult. All you have to do is follow the rules by sending what industry insiders refer to as a "query letter". A query letter is one or two pages written in the format of a formal business letter. It should be brief, and it should pique the interest of any publishing executive who reads it. After all, if you can't sell a single individual on the merits of your book, why should a publishing house believe you can sell to an audience of thousands or millions? If you want some inside secrets to crafting a perfect, attention-grabbing query letter, then you've come to the right place. Cover each of the following points, and I guarantee you'll have an editor calling within one week of sending your query letter.
Point #1: Approach The Right Publisher: This seems obvious, but you wouldn't believe the number of writers who make this mistake. Be certain that the publisher you choose to contact is in the business of publishing your genre. If you write fantasy novels, then don't send a query letter to the editor of a computer manual publisher. It will be thrown in the trash without a second look. The best way to find the right publisher is to find books similar to your own and open them. Who is the publisher of each book? Does one particular publisher's name keep turning up? If so, that's the one you want to contact.
Point #2: Selling To The Right Person: Never mail a query letter addressed to "Editor" or "To Whom It May Concern". Such a letter is destined for the "slush pile," and eventually, the trashcan. Once you've identified your ideal publisher, consult a book such as the latest edition of Jeff Herman's Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents (most libraries or large bookstores will have it). The book will provide a page or two of information on the publisher in question, including the name and contact information of the person to whom all queries should be directed. Usually, this is an executive or managing editor. Address the query letter to that specific person and make sure to use the correct gender and spelling when using their name.
Point #3: Your Opening (Especially the First Sentence): The first paragraph of your query letter should get right to the point. Tell the editor why you are contacting him/her. Did someone they know refer you? Has someone famous praised your work? Either one will capture instant attention. But the most important thing you can do in your opening is to define the audience and market for your book and state why your book is unique or has sales potential in the marketplace. Be specific. Don't say "all women will want to read my book". Say "five million women between the ages of 40 and 55 who watch The Oprah Winfrey Show will want to read my book". The editor will determine within the first sentence or two whether or not to continue reading the rest of your query, so it's extremely important to spend time crafting the best opening possible. If you have any media contacts or a way to position your book so that it will be irresistible for the media to cover, then say so in the first sentence. Media attention sells books, and that's what publishers are in business to do.
Point #4: Describe Your Product: In the second paragraph, provide a brief overview of your book. Give the editor a brief summary just as it might appear on the book's jacket. If possible, reference bestselling books within the same genre and point out why your book is different. Present facts about your work, not opinions. "The potential market is 5.8 million single women" is a fact. "This is the greatest book ever written" is an opinion. Tell the editor why your book will fill an unmet need in the marketplace. Keep it brief, and don't ramble. This is a case where less is more.
Point #5: About The Author: In the third paragraph, talk about yourself. Why are you writing this book? What are your credentials? Are you an expert in the field? Have you ever been published before? Do you have media experience or media contacts? If so, then let the editor know. If you have limited experience, say so. Be honest and straightforward. Experience helps, but lack of experience will not immediately disqualify you. Adding "fluff" to your resume will. Under no circumstances should you include information about your personal life unless such information is pertinent to selling the book.
Point #6: Leave Them Wanting More: Conclude your query letter by thanking the editor for his/her time and by offering to send your full book proposal (for non-fiction) or the first few chapters of your book (for fiction), and don't forget to provide your contact information. If your query letter sparks the interest of the editor, he/she will contact you and ask for more information. So don't send a book proposal or sample chapters without being asked. Also, if you're sending a query to more than one editor, let them know that you have sent simultaneous queries. Likewise, if you're offering the editor a two week period of exclusivity (the method I recommend), then say so. Finally, don't include a SASE with your query. A SASE is most often used to send a form rejection letter back to the author. Don't leave the impression that you expect rejection. If interested, an editor will contact you immediately by phone or email. They won't use snail mail.
Point #7: Proofread, Proofread, Proofread: A query letter is the first sample of a prospective author's writing that an editor will see. It should be perfect. If you can't produce a one-page letter professionally and free of error, why should anyone believe you can produce an entire book? Don't rely on spell check programs to find your mistakes, and remember that solid writing is produced by rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. Rework each individual sentence until it's the best it can be. You've spent countless hours perfecting your manuscript. You can certainly spend a few hours perfecting your query letter.
Point #8: Presentation: You've spent the necessary time to create a knockout query letter. Now you have to present it to the editor in the correct fashion or else risk being dismissed as an amateur. It's important to print your query letter in black ink on 8 1/2 x 11, high quality, plain white paper using a LaserJet printer (no dot-matrix). If you have a letterhead, use it. But don't get too fancy. Don't use border patterns. Anything that detracts from the substance of your letter could trigger a rejection. When it comes time to mail your letter, use FedEx. This serves two purposes. First, because of the expense involved, it signals that you are a professional who obviously isn't sending mass queries to publishers all over the globe. Second, and most importantly, it gets opened. A FedEx envelope simply doesn't get thrown into the "slush pile". Other than concise, professional writing, using FedEx is the #1 way to differentiate yourself from the thousands of authors who query a publisher in any given year. Finally, don't use "gimmicks" or send gifts along with your query letter. Bribery and clever stunts can not replace great writing or a unique product idea. If you compose your letter correctly, you should be confident it will merit the response it deserves.
Utilize each of the 8 points above while drafting your query letter, and I guarantee it will be better than 99.5% of the queries a publisher receives in any given year. In addition, if a market exists for your book, a query letter crafted to the specifications of this outline will almost always generate a request for a book proposal or sample chapters within one week. At that point, you've got an editor interested in your book, and you're already halfway toward seeing it in print. So start working on your knockout query letter today!
About the Author: Britt Gillette is the author of The Dittohead's Guide To Adult Beverages (Regnery 2005). He also runs The DVD Report (http://www.thedvdreport.com), a site showcasing his personal reviews of movies and TV shows currently released on DVD.