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How to See Your Work Through an Agent or Publisher’s Eyes

Query letter writing is no doubt one of the hardest forms of writing to master. Here's what agents and publishers need to see from you when you pitch your work.

You’ve just finished your umpteenth revision of your first novel and you’re riding high on endorphins. The passion and dedication that brought you to this feeling of achievement is palpable. If only you could crystallize this moment and remember the sensation forever. For a lot of writers, the achievement of finishing their manuscript is enough. Some will put their baby in a drawer. Others will self-publish and take their chances in an oversaturated self-publishing market. But for those who still dream of a traditional publishing contract—their passion and dedication will need to carry them that much farther long after the endorphins dissipate.

The traditional publishing route today is an endurance run. It requires patience, persistence and professionalism. A lot of writers who have embarked on the traditional path to publishing—querying agents and acquisition editors—become impatient after six months or a year of trying to secure a literary agent or publishing contract. They see the allure of self-publishing and figure they can do all of the platform, marketing and promotion themselves. Who needs an agent these days, after all? For these writers, self-publishing is a viable short-cut to getting back to the rush of endorphins. But are they selling themselves and their work, short? And are they missing a crucial learning moment in their writing careers?

Query letter writing is no doubt one of the hardest forms of writing to master. There are several formats to emulate but the most straightforward—3 paragraphs incorporating the hook, the story and the author’s bio—seems to be the way most writers go. Usually, no endorphins are involved in writing a good query letter, or even a story synopsis for that matter. For many writers, these forms of writing are a necessary evil in order to attract an agent or acquisition editor. But for agents and editors, query letters very often tell a different story than the one the author wants them to read. Most query letters tell agents and publishers that the writer isn’t ready to be published, or, doesn’t really want a writing career but simply the rush of getting their first book published.

The publishing industry is in tremendous transition, but it is and always will be relationship-based. Self-publishing has made huge in-roads and has forever changed the landscape. But what many writers with writing career aspirations don’t realize is that industry professionals will always know the business of publishing better than the writer ever could. Many agents and acquisition editors have been in the business for several decades and not only know how to grow a writer and their career, but how to avoid some of the less-obvious pitfalls of their industry. Many aspiring authors would be wise to realize that agents and publishers are, in fact, people who love to read and are passionate about writing. They are huge fans of their client’s work and can still advocate for a writer in ways a self-published author can’t.

What does all this relationship-stuff have to do with writing a query-letter? A query letter and writing sample is the all-important first-impression of a writer for an agent and/or publisher. It is the vehicle for the initial attraction between an agent and a writer’s work, and can set the tone for a working relationship that could last for many years. Charlotte Robin Cook, former President of Komenar Publishing, Inc. (and now a story-editor and writing consultant), explains the process every acquisition editor or agent goes through:

“We look at many pages of submissions and make our first decision quickly. Proceed or skip, a firm “no” or a curious “maybe.” Then the real work begins: Does the author need to develop more or is the work close enough to be further considered now. Next: How close is the manuscript to preproduction and can we work with the author? We employ a decision making tree much like anyone else would in business and personal life where large amounts of money are involved.”

Publishing is a business. That’s what many writers don’t consider when they follow their passion and dream of having a writing career. The publishing industry, like any other business, relies upon a team of professionals to meet its goals and succeed. Serious writers know that completing their novel or book is the first step in a process to being published. A writer’s decision making tree, whether self-publishing or traditional, relies upon them nurturing relationships with busy professionals, albeit professionals who have a common passion: A great story that they can sell. And a great writer they can partner and work with to everyone’s ultimate enrichment.

Now that you know what an agent or publisher wants, how do you make that all-important good first-impression? The most important step to catching an industry professional’s attention is to read and follow their guidelines—to the letter. If they don’t handle the genre or market (i.e. fiction or non-fiction) that your manuscript is in, then it doesn’t matter how well-written your query letter is because you’ve shown to them you’re not a professional. And your work will never get read as a result. The next step is not getting in the way of your story with flowery descriptions or grandiose predictions. But the worst mistake a lot of first-time writers make is forced intimacy with an agent or acquisition editor:

“People called, asking for me by my first name, as if they were old friends,” Charlotte Cook explains. “E-mailers declared our 'oneness' with their own ambitions. Submissions included 'at long last' cover letters telling of the relief writers felt in finding publishers they were confident were as passionate as they. Everyone shared hearty support along with hopeful expectations that we (Komenar Publishing, Inc.) would be their salvation.”

Agents and acquisition editors are people who want to be respected like everyone else. They don’t like to be harassed at writers conferences, their personal space invaded in restrooms by desperate and anxious authors pitching them the “next great American novel” that promises to sell a “million” copies. They do, however, want to hear from you and will, by and large, give you honest feedback. They know better than anyone how difficult the publishing business is today. But they also know what it takes to be successful in the business. This knowledge and experience is what a writer needs and wants to guide their career. And it all starts by a writer putting themselves in the agent's and publisher's shoes.

No one likes to feel manipulated, patronized or condescended to. This is why common courtesy and professionalism are just as important as a great story to publishing professionals. Because they know that if they don’t want to work with you, then no one else in the business will either. Being respectful, passionate and pleasantly persistent are all great signs that they’ve found someone who, aside from being talented and having written a great story, is someone they want to conceivably be in business with for the next 10 or 20 years. A successful business relationship and possible friendship that both of you can look back on someday and reminisce started with a concise, engaging query letter that made them fall in love with a brilliant piece of writing at first sight.

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