Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Querying Overview: What a Query Letter is (and isn’t)

Being new fairly to the whole ‘I want to try to publish a novel’ world, the querying process blows my mind. I’ve said it before — There aren’t a lot of other arenas in which someone with no background or credentials of any kind can fire an e-mail off to an insider in a multi-billion dollar industry and say, “check out my awesomeness.” I can’t hotlink a YouTube video of myself singing and dancing to a Broadway agent and have even a theoretical chance of playing Frank in the next revival of Rocky Horror. But in the world of literature, I can do just that.


Publishing was doing American Idol before American Idol was a thing. I’m not all roses and sunshine here; the numbers are daunting. I was unable to find any source that reliably estimated the number of queries sent out in a year, but I’m willing to bet its somewhere between a buttload and a shitpile. One established, successful agent kept track of his slushpile for a year. He received around 11,000 queries, one of which resulted in an offer of representation. He was what I will call an A (or at least high B) list agent, so the numbers aren’t always that bad, but nobody goes on Idol wanting to hear Paula say she sings nice before getting voted off.

As much as people want to bitch about the process, it’s still one of the most egalitarian processes imaginable. There’s just a whole lot of competition. Worse than the real competition, there’s a whole lot of noise. Which brings us to what a query is (or needs to be): First and foremost, it is something that cuts through the noise. I said “first,” so I should probably start numbering this shit:

1.     (big surprise here) A query needs to be something that cuts through the noise. This is not as hard or tricky as it sounds. It does not mean sending your query about brutal kidnappers in a box with a candy (or real) human finger enclosed. It’s not about being kitschy or clever (your ideas need to be clever, the way you present them needs to be straightforward). Cutting through the noise starts with being concise, clear, and direct. Your query should be grammatically pristine. The first person to read your query will not (as often as not, assuming you’re querying top-shelf agents) be the agent. It will be a reader, often an unpaid intern or, at best, an underpaid assistant. This person’s primary job is to weed out the garbage. I want to believe (and for purposes of this post, need to assume) that your actual manuscript is awesome and people are going to want to publish, buy, and read it. That’s not going to happen if your query about a serial killer is scrawled in pig blood on a sheet. There are enough queries that fail to directly and effectively give an indication how good the book is, you can stand out from the noise best by doing that.

2.     A query needs to follow the rules. Not the “rules of querying” because there are no such thing. But every agent has decided what he or she wants to consider when looking at an initial submission. Some want a query and three chapters. Some want fifty pages. Some want five pages, or a given number of words. Some want one or more of the above, plus a synopsis (and usually state a maximum number of pages for that piece). Next to pig blood and fingers, few things will kill your querying chances faster than not following the agent’s submission guidelines. I have yet to look at an agent who accepts unsolicited queries without finding a web page that has a tab with information about submissions. Read them. Follow them. There is no excuse for not doing this.

3.     A query needs to be directed to the right person. I don’t mean send it to an agent, not a butcher. I mean send it to an agent who reps the type of material you wrote. If you wrote a MG fantasy, don’t send it to an agent who exclusively reps athlete memoirs. If you sent it to a butcher, and she liked it, she may give you a couple of stakes – meaning you would, literally, be better off sending it to the butcher than an agent who doesn’t rep books in (or even near) your genre. [Note: I realize MG is not a genre, although fantasy is, but it’s easiest for purposes of this discussion to ignore the distinction between marketing categories and genres and just say genre.]

4.     A query has a specific job to do, and it isn’t to tell the agent all about your book. Or about you. Your query’s job is to get the agent to look at the first sentence of your manuscript. Period (as though the period at that sentence were not enough). That’s it (Because just saying period after typing a period was not enough). I’m not just filling space here. Understanding that’s the only job your query has to do is crucial. It’s also hard to do. We’ve poured our hearts and souls into 100,000 word masterpieces. The coolest thing in the story is the intricate way three plot lines converge in a brilliantly plotted twist. Our characters are amazing; the tribal rivalries between our gnomes and trolls or the flora and fauna of our intricate world are wonders. But the reader and/or agent aren’t going to give a shit about any of that. They look at a query with one question in mind: Is there a chance this person sent me an interesting, well written story. If the query makes one of them think there’s a decent chance the answer is yes, he or she will read your first sentence. At that point, it no longer matters how good your query was. All that matters is whether the first sentence is good enough for him or her to move on to the second. Because you’ve submitted an awesome story that people will want to buy, you’re golden. The query’s job is over when the agent reads that first sentence.

5.     A query is a business letter. And it’s not. It’s a combination business letter/sales pitch, but there need to be solid reasons for straying from the business letter courtesy and professionalism before you do. If you write erotica, and you’re querying a book about a bunch of people banging the shit out of each other on a cruise ship, your query is obviously not going to read like a quarterly report. But an agent who reps erotica (which is who you’re querying because you did your research) isn’t reading your query out of prurient interest. An efficient explanation of the plot and conflict coupled with the fact (which should both be stated and obvious from your explanation) that it’s erotic fiction will get you there. If you really want the agent to get a boner, throw in a demographic breakdown on the age of purchasers of erotic fiction and how it coincides with the demographic who book cruises in a way that makes it seem reasonable you could sell 100,000 copies. He’ll need to call his doctor in four hours.

6.     A query is a business plan – a short, incomplete, and overly generalized one, but a business plan nonetheless. Agents love books, or they wouldn’t be in that business. But it’s also how they pay for their kids’ braces and their cats’ food (don’t ask me, agents really seem to dig cats). There’s a two-part inquiry, and the parts overlap: (a) is this a great book; and (b) can I sell it. If you were to send an agent a beautifully written book about a subject she and seven other people in the world hold dear, you will probably get the nicest rejection letter imaginable. Because there is no market for your book, there’s no way she’ll be able to sell it to a publisher. A critical part of writing an effective query is accurately determining what your market is. This does not mean, “I think I write just like Harper Lee, and To Kill a Mockingbird has sold a billion copies in hardback.” It means doing some honest-to-goodness analysis of who your target market is. You can do this with similar author comparisons, but – since that’s what everyone just throws out – if you can find a better market basis, it will strengthen your query enormously. Using the above-example, which do you think makes an agent see dollar signs more concretely:

“This book will appeal to readers of Danielle Steel.”

“The largest and fastest growing segment of the destination cruise industry is thirty to fifty-five year-old women, who also happen to be the purchasers of over eighty percent of all romance and erotic fiction.

[Note: I made up every statistic in that sentence, and you need real numbers, not made up numbers for this to actually work.]

Because I come into writing and querying after decades in business, the standard comparables query makes little sense to me. It strikes me as saying, “I have an unknown, untested, and unproven product that offers the same thing as an established brand does, at the same price.” I think you are more likely to be noticed if you can: (a) identify a clear market segment who would be interested in buying your book; and (b) stating how your book fills an unmet need in that market. You don’t want to be the 30th person that day who tells Mr. Erotic Romance Agent: I’m going to be the next [whoever]. You want to be the 1st person this month the agent thinks may someday be showing up in queries from people claiming they will be the next her.

7.     A query needs accurately represent your manuscript. This is where a query that does its job (gets the agent to read the first sentence) can still be a fail. There are a number of reasons the disconnect between query and manuscript can occur, and all of them are on us. There have been times I’ve read or seen interviews with agents and thought, “That’s someone I’d love to work with,” only to discover she only represents MG and YA authors. I’m not doing either of us a favor retooling my query to make it sound more YAish than it really is. I’ve also seen this happen through well-intentioned collaborations. If a query is, well, bad, there’s still hope. Most writers’ websites have a query critique section, and a lot of extremely helpful advice is available. With enough people helping critique and polish a query, a bad query can become great. The problem is, when all people know about the manuscript comes from the query they are critiquing, they may be suggesting changes that make the query look better on its own, but take the query a few steps away from accurately representing the manuscript. Once that happens a few (or a few dozen) times, it can be like a bad game of telephone. What comes out on the end bears little resemblance to what started. Even if the agent likes the query and reads your first sentence (and your first sentence is excellent, by the way), you can still end up with a fail just because you’ve set the wrong expectations before the agent started reading. It’s like taking a sip of tea, only to discover that it’s chicken broth. You don’t stop to think about how good the broth is – it tastes disgusting because it isn’t tea. And you were expecting tea. So you spit it out, not realizing it’s probably the best chicken broth you’ve ever tasted.

8.     A query is not an ass-kissing festival. This goes back to the business letter concept. On the one hand, I didn’t query agents at random. I targeted specific agents for specific reasons, and I am perfectly happy articulating those reasons (if it works into the flow of the query I’ve tailored for that agent). For example, my manuscript is a satire that directly addresses a hugely controversial subject. One of my target agents said in an interview, “I am happiest when I’m representing books that take on controversial subject matter.” Of course I’m going to tell him I’m querying him, in part, because that’s what I’m looking for in an agent. But I’m not going to fawn on him about his bravery or his brilliant work or how much I admire the authors he represents or how hot he looks since he got that new haircut or how I friended his ex-wife on Facebook just so I could tell her off about that shitty thing she did with the kids custody in their recent divorce. Instead, I recommend approaching it from the perspective that this is a mutual selection process. The agent has to want to represent me, but I also have to want to be represented by that person. Hopefully, my criteria include something more than a pulse in that regard. Articulating the objective reason in a professional manner enhances your credibility lets the agent know this isn’t a spammy, one of 4,000 queries I sent today query. And, that is abusiness plan (between you and the agent) in a business letter, that cuts through the noise, and lets everyone know you’ve directed it to the right person.

There are many moving parts to a query, some of which I touched on in this post. I’ll get to the nuts and bolts elements of constructing a query later this week. I wrote out what is, essentially, a 2,000-word description of what a query is first, because the right query for each manuscript is going to be different. Sometimes, the right query for a particular agent on a particular manuscript is different from the right query for another agent. I wanted to start with the general concept, which boils down to this: A good query is a professional and concise sales tool that accurately describes the basic concept behind your manuscript to the right person in a way that makes her want to read the first sentence of that manuscript.



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6 thoughts on “Querying Overview: What a Query Letter is (and isn’t)

  1. leandrajwallace on said:

    Great breakdown! And are you really sure about #8? I think if I write I LOVE YOU !!! at the bottom of all my queries and send a box of chocolates that my chances might go up 1% at least… =)

  2. OMG, #7! #7, #7. It’s the one that trips me up, and at the same time seems most important (assuming the querier has the basics of grammar and common sense down, which can be a big assumption, I know).

  3. Thanks for commenting. I catch myself doing it to my nonquery writing, too. Enough edits to make sure you’re writing “well” and you can find yourself not writing “good” anymore.

  4. Pingback: On querying | Suddenly they all died. The end.

  5. Pingback: It Should be Called a Quarry Letter not a Query Letter (we’re hunting, not asking questions) | Michael J. McDonagh

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