While attending the Midwest Writers Workshop, I posted a summary of a talk given by Marcus Sakey and John Gilstrap. Sakey advised that query letters, if any good, would result in a 75% “send me something” response.
I had no idea what a bomb I was throwing by tweeting and blogging that principle. Thus, I asked Marcus to write a guest post further elaborating on it. Here he is!
About two weeks ago I pissed a lot of you off.
I was attending the Midwest Writers Workshop at the time, where along with my buddy John Gilstrap, I gave a presentation on “The Secrets of Getting Published.” One of the things I said was that a properly written query letter should result in at least 75% of agents requesting the manuscript.
My host, the delightful Jane Friedman, tweeted this, and many of you disagreed with me rather strongly.
To which I respond, respectfully: you’re wrong.
I know because I had that success rate. In fact, once I had my query in its proper form, about 80% of the agents I queried requested materials.
Some of you said that this isn’t realistic for today’s market. But this was late 2005. While the rise of e-books and a down economy have taken a toll, you’re going to be hard-pressed to convince me that agents have fundamentally changed their business model in the last five years.
Others pointed out that I’m an established author. However, when I was querying my only publication credit was a short story in a UK journal with 600 subscribers.
Still others said that there were too many variables in play. You raise a point, but remember, I didn’t say any query letter. I said a properly written one.
Here’s how to do it.
(By the way, all of this applies to fiction; nonfiction is different, and I don’t know beans about it. Sorry.)
1. First of all, finish the book.
And I don’t just mean type “THE END.” If it isn’t polished to a high gleam, if it hasn’t been read by a dozen friends and rewritten in response to their comments, then you aren’t ready to worry about Step Two. But let’s assume that it is.
2. The next thing you need to do is decide which agents to approach.
This is one of the ways you limit the number of variables in the equation. Only query agents who represent work like yours. My own agent, for example, specializes in crime fiction, thrillers, and some nonfiction. Sending him fantasy would be a waste of time. It’s not his market, and even if he did like it, you’d be better served by an agent who really knows your field. ??
How to do that? Go to your local bookstore or library, and bring a notebook. Find the section that matches your genre, and start pulling books down. In their acknowledgments, authors almost always thank their agent (if they don’t, you don’t want that agent anyway.) Focus on books that are somewhat similar to yours, but don’t obsess. Don’t try to pick a favorite in advance. ??After three or four deeply boring hours, you should have a sizable list.
Again, not fun, but necessary. Make a spreadsheet, and include the agency, the agent’s name, the authors they represent, the address and e-mail, and sections for dates to track who you’ve sent letters and when. ??
Okay, so you’ve got a targeted list.
3. Now it’s time to write the dreaded query.
It’s dreaded for a reason, which is that you already wrote the book. You slaved over every one of 350 pages. You know its intricacies, its subtleties, its moments of grace and its smelly underarms. Now you have to forget all that. ??
Here’s the key to writing queries: You’re not actually selling the book.
I want to repeat that: You are not selling the book. In fact, you could write a highly successful query for a book that does not exist.
All you’re doing is seducing the agent. You want to get them interested enough that they ask to see your manuscript. That’s it. ??It’s like online dating. If you can write a charming e-mail, you might get a date; if you get a date, who knows where it could lead. But try to put all your history and baggage in that first message and you won’t get any play. Instead, demonstrate that you’re worth someone’s time. That you are interesting, sincere, and respectful.
??How do you do that?
Well, for one, you’re polished. Your language is compelling and your presentation is perfect.
Also, you’re brief. Agents are busy. There are hundreds of other queries to read.
Finally, you are a storyteller. You know how to tease, how to intrigue, and you’re not afraid to put those wiles to work.
The Guts of the Query
??After a professional greeting (Mr. or Ms.), begin with a 1-2 line paragraph explaining that you are writing them because you know they represent X, and your book is similar. This shows that you have done your homework. It also begins to frame their expectations. By implication they know the genre and style of your work.
This is also a good place to put the word count, because if it’s appropriate (70,000-120,000, give or take), that’s a hurdle you’ve already cleared.
?Next, in 3-5 lines, sum up your story. This is the hard part, but it’s easier than most people make it. In essence, what you want to do is leave out the tangents, complications, minor characters, and themes. Remember, this is seduction. Focus on drama and stakes. Here’s mine:
For Danny Carter, retired thief turned respectable businessman, a normal life sharing a Lincoln Park condo with his loving girlfriend seems like the ultimate score—until his former partner comes looking for him. A hardened killer fresh out of Stateville, his partner wants to kidnap the son of Danny’s millionaire boss, and he needs help to pull it off. Doing the job could cost Danny his career, his relationship, and his freedom. ??Refusing could cost him his life.
Did I leave out a lot? About 86,974 words. And man oh man did it hurt at first. But look at what it accomplished. By keeping the pitch brief, using only one name, and including significant stakes, I demonstrated that I know how to tell a story.
And that, my friends, is the point of the query letter.
Think about it. Agents get hundreds of these a week. Do you really think they remember them? Hell, I bet they forget the beginning of most by the time they reach the middle. You try and read 300 queries, see how fast your eyes glaze over.
So instead of trying to convey the beautiful bleeding soul that is your novel, just show an agent you know how to tell a story. That’s what makes them willing to read your manuscript.
Okay, next paragraph. This is the place for awards, previous publications, and nepotistic hookups. Will Stephen King blurb you? Is Oprah your aunt? Do you run a wildly successful blog? Put it in there.
Also, if you have some experience that informed the book, consider including it. Be judicious: if you’re hawking a mystery novel, by all means mention that you’re a cop. If your character likes to cook and so do you, leave it out. In fact, if you have nothing to mention here, le
ave the whole damn ‘graph out. Never write just to fill space.
Finally, end with what in advertising is known as a call to action: “May I send you the finished manuscript?” ??If you’re writing a conventional query, you’re done.
However, when possible, I recommend you query via e-mail.
There are a couple of reasons. First, e-queries are cheaper and faster and better for the environment. Second, you can include a little taste of your novel. Do it like this:
Page one of <insert compelling title here> follows. May I send you the finished manuscript?
Then, after your name and contact info, paste in the first page or so of the novel. Do not attach it, as that will freak people out about viruses. Also, be sure to check your formatting, since e-mail can screw that up.
Finally, make sure that you end on a minor cliffhanger, something interesting.
The idea is simple. The agent has just read your brief and compelling query letter. They’re intrigued. It’s the easiest thing in the world to scroll down and read a little more. And then, because your first page is dynamite (right?), hopefully intrigued upshifts to excited. Simple as that.
??A good query letter is not written in a day. Write it and rewrite it. Have friends and critique partners read it. Buff the hell out of it. Once you feel like it’s ready, start sending out waves, say 5-10 a week.
Doing it in waves is crucial, because it will tell you how effective your query letter is. (Note: I didn’t say how interesting your book is. Query letters and novels are separate things.)
Remember, your query letter isn’t finished until you’re seeing about a 75% request rate.
When you do get a bite, remember to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in big letters on the envelope so that your manuscript hits the top of the pile. Then do a little happy dance and go send out another couple of queries. ?
Of course, the painful part is that for all the requests, you’ll get plenty of rejections. I did. This is a subjective business, and some very big names told me they didn’t like the book, that it lacked tension, that they didn’t think it had a market. Which made it all the sweeter when CBS Sunday Morning called The Blade Itself “how immortality gets started,” or when we sold the film rights to Ben Affleck.
Don’t sweat the rejections. Have a beer, then send another query. And great good luck!
Marcus Sakey is the bestselling author of four novels. His latest, The Amateurs, was called “genius” by the Chicago Tribune. He attended the University of Michigan, earned two majors, both promptly ignored; collected single terms at grad schools in several states; and spent ten years in advertising and marketing, which gave him the perfect experience to write about thieves and killers.
His first novel, The Blade Itself, was featured on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR, and chosen as both a New York Times Editor’s Pick and as one of Esquire Magazine’s “Top 5 Reads of 2007.” The Chicago Tribune called his second novel, At the City’s Edge, “nothing short of brilliant.” His third, Good People, came out to wide critical acclaim, with movie rights selling to Tobey Maguire.