Query Letter Do’s and Do Not’s
(Because You Actually Want To Publish that Piece, Right?)
So you’ve completed that piece, be it an article, short story, or the Great American Novel, and you’re ready to send it off to potential publishers. Great! Assuming you’ve done your due diligence you’ve assembled a list of possible homes for your work (if you want extra credit, make a multi-tiered list including dream publishers, second choice markets, etc.) and made sure your work matches their submission guidelines. You’ve done all that? Awesome! Your next step is a biggie, because you need to write a query letter.
Query letter research and writing are among writers’ least favorite activities, right up there with crafting a synopsis and reading your work aloud to a roomful of people who haven’t read a book since college. As tedious and frustrating as the submission process may be, query letters are a necessity. I’ve also got a few pro tips to help you stack the deck in your favor.
- Read the submission guidelines, then read them again. Print them out if you have to, highlight important words and make some notes. Submission guidelines are there for a reason, and if you don’t follow them to the letter you’re practically asking for a rejection.
- FOLLOW the submission guidelines. You would be shocked at how many query letters I’ve read over the years where the submitter mentions having read the submission guidelines, and then proceeds to do the complete opposite. For instance, the publisher I worked for would ask for the first ten pages pasted into the body of an email as part of the query. I opened hundreds of emails that had no part of the work copy/pasted, or the writer would include the third chapter, pages fifty to one hundred twelve, or something else that was not what we asked for. If you can’t follow a simple guideline, how will you manage an editorial letter? Publishers want writers who are willing to work with them, not ones who ignore directions.
- But if you have a question, ASK. Yes, following the submission guidelines is your best bet to get your query letter read, but if something is unclear your best bet is to send an email asking for clarification. We would get questions about submissions all the time, and many of the writers who’d begun that way ended up with contracts. Not only is there no harm in asking, but you should also be wary of the publisher’s response. If they are unwilling to make a reasonable accommodation, perhaps that is not a company you want to work with. (Remember, you’re interviewing them, too!)
- As for the query itself, short and sweet is best. A query letter does not need to be more than one page long. You need to include your project’s title, genre, and word count, followed by a paragraph or two of what your work is about. Those paragraphs should be similar to the back cover matter of a book, making the reader want more while not giving anything away. And, that’s it. You don’t even need to include an author bio, unless you’ve got something related to your project that will increase your odds of publication, such as a prestigious award or (in the case of nonfiction) if you’re an expert in the field you’ve written about. Say it with me, folks: short and sweet.
- Don’t forget contact information! Yes, the publisher could just reply to your email. But what if they love your project so much they want to call you? How can they mail you a contract without knowing your mailing address? Make it easy for them to open a conversation with you.
Make no mistake, following these tips does not guarantee that you will be published. But your initial submission to a publisher is the first impression they’ll get of you, and you want that impression to be good. Remember, even if they don’t pick up the first project you send them, they may be the ideal home for something else you’ve written.
Jennifer Allis Provost writes books about faeries, orcs and elves. Zombies too. She grew up in the wilds of Western Massachusetts and had read every book in the local library by age twelve. (It was a small library). An early love of mythology and folklore led to her epic fantasy series, The Chronicles of Parthalan, and her day job as a cubicle monkey helped shape her urban fantasy, Copper Girl. When she’s not writing about things that go bump in the night (and sometimes during the day) she’s working on her MFA in Creative Nonfiction.