The Marketing Perspective of Query Letters: Turning Your Query Into Agent Bait

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At some point in your writing life, you will have completed a manuscript and are ready to move forward on your path to become published.

First, acknowledge what you’ve accomplished! The how-to-write learning curve, for most writers, is extensive. It involves classes, attending writers’ conferences, and participation in critique groups. You’ve taken these steps and now your completed manuscript glows in the dark. Woohoo for you!

What now?

When your goal is to become traditionally published, you need the assistance of an industry professional (agent) to contact the most appropriate publisher and make a deal on your behalf.

Molli Nickell has been in the publishing business for over 30 years a a publisher, Time-Life editor, syndicated columnist, author, creative writing instructor, story doctor, marketing guru, and mentor to unpublished writers.

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The process of agent acquisition is not a slam dunk: It requires a second, and relatively brief, learning curve as you shift from “telling” your story to “selling” your story. Why is this necessary? Because your target audience has changed from a potential book purchaser to a potential business partner (agent) who seeks product (manuscripts) to sell to book manufacturers (publishers) to order to generate revenue.

You introduce yourself to agents via a marketing document: the query letter.

If the word “query” creates sweaty palms and drives you seek the comfort of chocolate, potato chips, or adult beverage of your choice ... relax. I’m about to introduce you to a fail-safe “core” marketing technique that has helped hundreds of writers create effective queries that grabbed and held agent interest from query to synopsis to sample manuscript pages.

Crafting a 350-word query is not rocket science. Millions of authors with books at Amazon and in bookstores nationwide, at some point, were clueless about how to write a query. But, they mastered the learning curve and landed agents to guide them from writer to author. So can you!

A bit of history: The publishing business has changed dramatically since the old days (ending in 2014) of snail mail. The submission process required effort and cost to print and mail manuscripts etc. Because of this, very few low-skilled author wannabees submitted their work to agents.

But then, whammo! Our world went digital. Emailed submissions replaced snail mail. Agents said “goodbye” to towering stacks of unopened query letters and manuscripts piled on desks, bookshelves, and floors.

However, an unintended consequence developed that impacts all writers: When the email submission flood gates opened wide, thousands of typing-enabled people who believed that since they possessed the tools of the writer (computers and keyboards) they were writers. They began to submit their work to agents. This created a non-ending tsunami of queries and manuscripts jamming agent inboxes.

The new challenge: competition for attention.

Agents or acquisition editors begin each day, latte in hand, as they scroll through inboxes. Enticing subject lines determine which emails are opened or deleted. Then, agents quick scan query first paragraphs, hoping to discover the next Clancy, Patterson, or Rowlings.

And yes, you read that correctly. The first paragraph. If this doesn’t reveal what agents need to know, “click” and the entire submission flies off to delete-ville. Yikes!

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What is that something agents want to know immediately? What motivates them to read your query first paragraph and then scroll down to read the second? An enticing story core, presented immediately, does the trick. Agents want to know (immediately) the following about your story:

  1. Who is your protagonist?
  2. What does your protagonist want?
  3. Why do they want this?
  4. What could prevent them from achieving their goal?
  5. What is the terrible “or else” that might occur if they don’t get what they want?

Be smart. Be crystal clear about these, as demonstrated in the following first paragraph of a fictional query for Little Red Riding Hood:

Little Red skips through the forest, picnic basket overflowing with broccoli pizza, fresh watermelon, and double-chocolate brownies to share with granny. A sly predator intercepts Little Red, determines her destination, and suggests she pick wildflowers to enhance the overall dining experience with her granny. Preoccupied with flower selection, Little Red doesn’t notice the wolf’s abrupt departure. When she arrives at granny’s cottage and discovers the old woman is not herself, how will Little Red escape becoming a lunch entrée?

The story core:

  1. Who is the protagonist? Little Red Riding Hood.
  2. What does she want? To share lunch to granny.
  3. Why does she want this? She cherishes time spent with her beloved grandmother.
  4. What could prevent Little Red from achieving her goal? A hungry predator.
  5. What is the terrible “or else” that could occur if Little Red doesn’t get what she wants? She might become the main entrée.

NOTE: It is undeniably true that a wolf could not swallow an old woman wearing sensible shoes, armed with knitting needles, or snooze through a granny-ectomy.

C’mon already. It’s a fairy tale. OK?

HINT: Share this query first-paragraph technique with your writing pals. Suggest a fairy-tale query practice session. Doesn’t matter if they’re ready to begin their agent quest or not. Stress-free practice not only makes perfect, but also reduces query anxiety.

Here’s a second query example for Hair of the Dog, an adult action/adventure:

Horace “Fish” Fishbein, a former repo man turned private detective, takes on what should be a simple, Hollywood-type case for a six-figure fee. He’s hired to recover a missing poodle belonging to a jeweler who studded the dog’s collar with $3 million in hot diamonds. But, before Fish can determine all nuances of the situation, bodies begin to drop like outtakes on a cutting room floor, and police finger him as a serial killer. Can Fish escape the law while he collars the dog, proves his innocence, and avoids an encounter with a cross-dressing hit man who wants the diamonds for himself?

The story core:

  1. Who is the protagonist? Fish.
  2. What does he want? To recover $3 million in hot diamonds.
  3. Why does he want this? To garner a hefty finder’s fee.
  4. What could prevent Fish from achieving his goal? Inability to locate the missing dog, and avoid encounters with the police and a greedy hit man.
  5. What is the terrible “or else” that might occur if Fish doesn’t get what he wants? He’ll end up in the slammer or the ground.

To summarize: Just like everything in life, learning to write an effective query that grabs agent attention isn’t difficult when you approach it step-by-step. Once you determine your story core and include these vital elements in your first paragraph, end it with a tantalizing “or else” tease written as a question.

This motivates the agent to wonder, Hmmm. What happens? They’ll continue to read. The second paragraph expands story core elements but does not reveal the ending. The agent remains curious about the resolution and will read your synopsis (if included) to discover how the story ends. Hopefully, this results in a read of your sample pages, followed by a request to submit your entire manuscript. Your goal all along.

So, what’s in your personal story core?

  1. Who is the protagonist in your get-published quest? You.
  2. What do you want? To land an agent.
  3. Why do you want this? To attract professional assistance to guide you from writer to published author.
  4. What could prevent you from achieving your goal? Not knowing how to craft an agent-friendly query that proves you’re the real deal: a skilled writer with a saleable story.
  5. What is the terrible “or else” that might occur if you don’t get what you want? You won’t land an agent and may give up writing in favor of sky diving.

Truth be told, this happens often. Writers, discouraged after initial attempts at agent acquisition, turn to another activity (not necessarily sky diving). But, when they return to storytelling, they’re more determined than ever to become published. They improve their query writing skills and write a second novel. They land agents and break into the business. Their first manuscripts are revised and becomes their second published works.

Regardless of where you are on your get-published path, write on!

May the words be with you!

If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at cris.freese@fwmedia.com.

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