Write a killer query letter

The most important thing I learned from writing coach David Hazard at a recent free workshop was that you’re not the only one invested in your book. You might have addressed your query letter to an editor, but the description you give of your book actually needs to appeal to a room full of publishing professionals who will weigh in on the odds of your book being worth their time and money.

The publisher, marketing director, and sales director are just as important as the editor, and your tiny one-page, four-paragraph query letter has to woo them all.

The publisher

Hazard calls this person the captain of the ship, the CEO whose choices will secure or unravel the future of the company. When he reads your query letter, he’s wondering if your book will add to the company’s stock. Will it help grow a trend or even start a trend? Does it in any way fit in with what today’s readers want, and if so will it be only a pebble on a beach of a market already too saturated with books just like yours? What can your book do that others’ can’t? What would you say to convince him/her that the company needs what you have to offer?

The marketing director

Her main concern is where to sell your book, and who will buy it. Authors today already have to be their own mini marketing machines, advertising themselves through social media formats. Will you be able to bring a fan base with you when the publisher sells your book? Do you have a whole network of Facebook friends and Twitter followers salivating over getting their virtual or literal hands on your book? If so, you might be a good investment for a marketing director. Still, you have to know your audience. Just because your high school graduation class will buy your book doesn’t mean anyone else will, and the prospect of selling 250 books is not going to impress the marketing director. Knowing your audience will help you sell your book. Will it appeal to historians? To knitters? To mystery buffs? And if so, what age group? A sleuth story that intrigues teens might not appeal to their parents, nor would a writing style that would exclude a large portion of the population.

How you package your book also matters. Study the publishing house. Does the publishing company require a minimum number of words from its novelists? If the publisher is going to invest money in your book, s/he’ll wonder how much it will cost to produce it. A 200-page book will cost significantly less than an 800-page tome will to produce. Is your book really worth the expense? Will the publishing house even recoup its expenses, much less make a profit? Can it even project a possible second printing, or will interest in your book fizzle out before it sells half of what it prints?

Be able to compare your book to others the company has produced. Your book should fit into a mold, but it should also be unique. Also be ready to divulge if you’re submitting your book to other places.

“If they’re interested, they want to publish your book if it’s good business for everyone,” Hazard said.

The sales director

Imagine you step into an elevator and bump into an old acquaintence, who now works at Random House, and you have only seconds to make him understand how great your book is. This is the elevator speech. What could you say in two or three sentences that sums up your book and also leaves the listener wanting more? This guy needs to know your book’s plot and how it builds intention toward a resolution. Does the character in your novel react realistically to situations or events, and is the plot realistic? Can the reader connect to the character, and will the reader care about the outcome of the novel?

“Writing isn’t about getting the words really, it’s about communicating and connecting,” Hazard said.

If your book is nonfiction, explain how you’re an authority on this topic. How do you know what you’re talking about and why is your book preferable to someone else’s? Do you have a story that no one else has, something you alone experienced?

Your query letter must say what your book is about, but it also should say which other books are like yours. Books fit into catgories. Where will yours fit?

The editors

Your query letter is almost like a miniature book. How you write it will tell editors how you might have written your book. A friend of mine who wrote a humorous how-to book modeled her query letter on the style of her book, which helped her gain the attention of an agent who realized that if the query letter was this funny, then the book must be even better.

A well-written query letter tells editors that the author cares about his or her wordcraft, Hazard said. “The A-1 author is the one who really works on their craft … so work on your craft whatever you have to do,” he said. Also, don’t be afraid to hire a writing coach.

The letter

So you’ve written your letter, keeping all of the above-mentioned readers in mind as you wrote. Read it over, and imagine that round table of professionals discussing your letter and your proposed book. They look around and ask one another if they should take the risk. What would you say? If someone else had written your book, would you take the risk?

Show why this book matters to you. The more excited you are about the plot, the characters, the book’s message, the more excited others will be to read your book.

The agent

Once you have your query letter finished, send it to agents whose job it is to fight your cause. Many publishers don’t accept submissions from un-agented writers anyway, and your agent will be your first line of offense. Then, keep in touch. Ask your agent when you should follow up to check on the status of your queries with publishing companies.

Self-publishing

“It works if you know how to work the system,” Hazard said. If you’re thinking about self-publishing, get a publicist, he said — someone who can get your book out there where people will see it.

David Hazard is an author, publishing consultant, and writing coach in Loudoun County, Virginia. He’ll offer a free program, “Secrets of Narrative Writing — That Sells,” at the Purcellville Library at 7 p.m. on April 17. Contact him at ascent@itsyourlifebethere.com.

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