The Road to Publication: The Query Letter

how to write a query letterThis series began with the nonfiction book proposal and continues today with the next step – how the hell do you get someone to notice your stuff so you can get published? That’s where your query letter comes into play.

WTH is a Query Letter?

As a prospective author, it’s the cover letter for your resume. Your resume is your book (and your platform, which we’ll get into in a future post). And if you’re planning on traveling the path to traditional publication, you’re probably going to need one. Query letters are much the same across the board for both fiction and nonfiction submissions and should universally do a few things:

  • Grab the reader inside of 3 sentences so they don’t shred it/close it/go grab a taco instead of read it.
  • Tell the target agent/editor why they should care.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the market that will carry your book (genre fiction, health-related nonfiction)
  • State clearly why YOU are the person to write this book. (Being “really interested in the subject matter” won’t cut it. Dexter is really interested in anatomy. Get my drift?)
  • Explain how to request the proposal or manuscript from you.

Every Query Letter is Different, Yet the Same

Now isn’t the time to think that you’re all that and a bag of chips and able to break the rules of the publishing world. Agents and editors receive hundreds (and more) query letters each week. And here’s the bottom line, without fail: they’re looking for great material. They’re not looking to fuck you over, steal your manuscript, or shaft you. Agents and editors make money a few ways:

  • Agents: when they sell your work to a publisher (10-15% of sale price and future royalties)
  • Editors: when they successfully acquire your title and ongoing payments on royalties

So here’s the thing: if your book or book idea is any good, your query letter has to be even better because it’s what’s going to get you in the door and give you a chance to compete for The Gig. The Gig in this case is getting your book published. Don’t get cutesy or decide that you’re going to deliver a pizza to someone’s office to pitch your mystery thriller about a rogue Domino’s Pizza delivery boy.

Write. A fucking. Query letter. Other efforts? Yup. They land in the trash.

How Do I Write a F^&(*)ing Query Letter?

For some, it’s easier than others. Following is the electronic (via email) query letter that I sent out to a short list of 12 agents in September of last year (2010) around 11pm at night for the book The Insider’s Guide to Egg Donation (DEMOS Health, May 2012).

Ms. Stephany Evans

Fine Print Literary Management

Dear Ms. Evans:

Eggs: they’re not necessarily what’s for breakfast and don’t always come in those cardboard crates you see at the grocery store.

They come in blonde with pug noses and doctorate degrees, brunette with emerald eyes and parents who are schoolteachers and shades of mocha with chocolate eyes, towering over six feet tall with a girlish giggle and sly smile.

These eggs are different – and the customer isn’t shopping in the dairy section.

Each year, over 7.3 million Americans (and 3.5 million of their UK counterparts) face the heartbreak of infertility. In their search for answers, absolution and alternative means for building a family, they turn to the nearly 500 reproductive specialty clinics across the United States. But unlike those who are fortunate enough to build a nest the old-fashioned way, many ultimately seek out a different kind of stork to deliver their bundle of joy: the egg donor.

Cracking the Egg: an Insider’s Guide to Egg Donation is the much-needed “What to Expect When You Weren’t Expecting This.” It’s the first how-to handbook that helps navigate the less talked about but widely practiced ovum (egg) donor landscape with a friendly and oftentimes humorous tone, giving 10.8 million and counting “family-challenged” folks the answers to their most-asked (and most afraid to ask) questions:

·      Is there anything icky about ICSI?

·      How will acknowledging my family’s crazy uncle help me choose an egg donor?

·      We’re gay – hooray! Who will talk to us about starting a family?

·      I’m a dude. Can someone explain my wife’s ovaries to me?

·      Can someone explain my ovaries to my husband?

In an easy-to-read travel guide-like format, we provide checklists and anecdotes, tales of lobster-induced crying fits and words of joy from a new mother of triplets after nine years of gut-wrenching failure. It’s a tale previously told, but never with the breadth, depth and heart of two voices better suited than any to share the story:

A ten-year veteran who’s coordinated over 2,000 egg donation cycles and a multi-time egg donor whose efforts have made the dream of family a reality sixteen times over.

With a forward by Daniel A. Potter, MD, FACOG, author of What to Do When You Can’t Get Pregnant (Da Capo Press, 2005) and endorsements from numerous thought leaders in the reproductive and fertility industry, we felt Cracking the Egg would be a complementary title in both tone and expertise to those that FinePrint has enjoyed previous success with, such as the Ina May Gaskin series on pregnancy/post-pregnancy and Confronting Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer.

Our platform is extensive, as Erika (the ten-time egg donor) is a prominent blogger and online strategies consultant, charged daily with promoting brands online. Her brazen blog is widely read and Facebook fan page well-attended. Wendie (the ten-year industry veteran) is the founder of Gifted Journeys Egg Donation and a prominent voice in the assisted reproduction industry. Recently featured in the New York Times, she’s garnered endorsements for Cracking the Egg from the leading advocacy groups in reproductive medicine and the support of many of the nation’s leading medical specialists who anxiously await the book to share with their patients. Her agency was also featured by ABC News as a source for reputable information on egg donation. (See resources at end of article.)

We thank you for taking the time to consider our query and look forward to sharing the completed proposal with you at your request.


Erika Napoletano & Wendie Wilson

***Note: Simultaneous submission. Thank you.

Breaking Down the Query Letter: The Who

First, I’ll tell you that research always trumps luck. The version you see above is the one addressed to my current, fabulous, I would throw myself in front of a bus for her literary Agent Stephany Evans. She was our first choice to represent this book. Why? Because I did my research. You can’t write a great cover letter without knowing whom it’s going to. I’m a member of Writer’s Market which is an inexpensive subscription-based service that lets you research pretty much every bonafide agent/manager in the literary world – and based on niche. We identified Stephany as a leading target for representation based on other authors she currently represents (which is why we mentioned Ina May Gaskin) and her expressed interest in women’s issues on the agency’s website.

This is why I hate it when people think that one cover letter and one resume will get them where they want to go in a job search. Smart authors (and job seekers) understand that every target has a value proposition he or she will find interesting. Agents can sniff a generic query letter immediately and appreciate the fact that you’ve (1) researched who (authors) and what (types of books) they represent, and (2) have thought about how your book is worth their time.

The Hook

It’s the opening. Whaddaya mean eggs aren’t just for breakfast? Grab your audience in 3 sentences or less or your letter ends up in the Circular File. And keep in mind that in many cases, it’s an editorial or agent’s assistant who will be screening your query letter first and passing on the most compelling to their boss. Catch THEIR attention and think about how you’ll make them look like a rock star for bringing your project to the boss.

The Meat

In nonfiction, The Meat is all about establishing how big the audience is for your project. With over 11 million people in the US and UK alone facing infertility challenges each year, we weren’t screwing around with the audience size for this book. Don’t overstate. Don’t lie. Even if your audience is super-niche, there are niche publishers happy to take on solid projects. This is why it’s even more important to have nailed-down The Who for your cover letter. Agents build relationships with editors at publishing houses and it’s those relationships that get projects looked at. In our case, we wanted an agent with a history of representing women’s health pieces as his or her relationship with those specialty acquiring editors would be key to getting our project sold.

The Why

My writing partner is now an 11-year veteran of the egg donation industry as well as a multi-time donor. I’m a ten-time egg donor whose recipient parents nearly all went on to have multiples. We also speak to our individual career credentials (I’m the writer, she’s the expert and yes, it’s acceptable to brag a little bit here). The Why is your chance to let an agent or editor know how you’re going to make their job selling this book an easier one — because there’s no one better to write this book than you.

The Close

You’ve hooked ’em, you’ve stated your case, you’ve introduced yourself. Now shut up. You should never send your manuscript or book proposal as an attachment or included with your query letter. Ever. Tell them that you look forward to sending it along should they request it (and in Stephany’s case, she provided us a specific email address and subject line so that it wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle). Sign it, include your contact information, (PROOFREAD! SPELLCHECK!) and hit send. Also, it’s imperative to note on your letter if you’re querying multiple agents/editors at one. You’ll see that we included “simultaneous submission” at the end. This means that we’re being honest — we’re contacting other agents/editors at the same time. Some agents accepts simultaneous submissions, some do not. Know before you mail/hit send. You can find this information on agency websites and in Writer’s Market.

The Net Net?

I sent twelve of these individually-crafted query letters out at roughly 11pm and by 6am the following day, I’d received two approvals to send along the manuscript (Stephany was the first — YAY!) along with 4 additional approvals in the next 24 hours. Good query letters WORK. We were able to grant Stephany a partial exclusive (shared by one other agent) for the weekend and she got right back to us on Monday that she’s like to help us develop the project (and boy, has it come a long way from there!). My other project, The Power of Unpopular (available for pre-sale *shameless plug*), didn’t involve a query letter as I developed it directly with the publisher.

Additional Resources

So don’t just take my word for it – an author with two books coming out with traditional publishers in the first half of 2012. Let’s see what agents have to say about good query letters.

AgentQuery – the basics of a query letter and links at the bottom to successful queries from their writer’s community.

Writing World – they break the query letter process down Barney Style for you.

Janet Reid – the woman with the best career-specific avatar on Twitter weighs in about nonfiction queries (she is also a part of FinePrint Literary, the agency that reps me)

The Nelson Agency – These guys even link to query letters they received from some of their clients so you can really see, from an agent’s perspective, what reels them in.

So What’s Next?

The next installment of The Road to Publication is What to Expect When You’re Expecting The Moon, also know as The No Bullshit Guide to What Happens After Someone Says They Wanna Buy Your Book. I’d dreamed of being a published writer since I spent my nights in a white four-poster bed with a lavender canopy, and I gotta tell you – the reality is nothing like the dreams. And it’s not bad. It’s just a mater of learning a new business (and f&@#$ing fast) and understanding what all of the moving parts are so you know what questions to ask before you sign on the bottom line.

Until then, happy holidays. Smart writers know that a house without liquor is the surest path to career ruin, so pour the rum punch, give grandpa a high five, and tell Aunt Marlene that nooooooo, the french fried onions atop the green bean casserole don’t taste burnt at all even though Smoky the Bear would have condemned the dish about three hours ago.

Annie Sisk
Annie Sisk

Erika, that is a fucking brilliantly-written query. I'd echo the recommendation to follow Janet Reid, and also to look for other agents on Twitter to follow if you're gonna start with an agent. They are incredibly generous with their time and advice, and you gotta give them exactly what they want. Look at their websites, look at their submission requirements, and follow them to the letter - same goes if you're sending queries directly to publishers, too.

Beren Goguen
Beren Goguen

Great advice and great post. Question: Do you think there is any advantage to querying agents/publishers in your home state before sending out letters to the bazillion agents based in NYC? I'm from CO, and I've noticed there are only a handful of CO-based agents listed in Writer's Market. As someone who likes to shop local whenever possible, I find it disappointing that there aren't more peeps in the publishing industry here...