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Query & Cover Letters:
How to Get 'Em Right
"Musings" for March 2006

by Margot Finke

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Every aspiring writer needs to master the art of the query letter, and know the difference between it and the easier-to-write cover letter.

Cover Letters Are a Breeze

A cover letter is what you write after an editor has read your query letter, sample chapters and synopsis. Your query did it: they want to read the whole darn thing!

Sample Cover Letter (No Blood, Sweat, and Tears Involved):

Dear Editor,

[make sure the name, title, and address are all correct]

As requested in your letter of Jan 22nd 2046, I am enclosing the completed manuscript of my 30,000 word mid grade novel, This Is a Great Book.

Thanks for your valuable time, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Signature here


MS and SASE enclosed

The Dreaded Query Letter

You have lavished time, plus countless rewrites and critique sessions on your book. It incorporates every scrap of writing craft and imagination at your fingertips. You know that it is a wonderful story, imaginatively told, and tightly written.

Why the dread? Because a query is your only path to an editor's wish list. Mere writers can only guess what lurks on that list. Your query must sell the editor on you and your story. A publisher's current list offers clues, but who knows when that wish list will mutate and change. Woe is you! Therefore, the query letter, your sole selling device, editor hook, and front man, looms large. You have one scant page in which to hook them on your plot and characters, sell them on your ability to write, and show that you know something about their publishing house.

Ways to Make the Writing of Your Query Less Daunting:

Meet an Agent or Editor Personally

This is a major benefit offered to those who attend conferences and retreats -- chatting one-on-one with editors and agents. You develop a feel for this person and what they are looking for. Make notes when they talk about queries. Send them the kind of query letter they look for.

You Have Never Met an Agent or an Editor

Will this make writing your query letter harder? Is the editor/agent the chatty type who likes a pinch of personal info? Or, is she an all business and no frills, sort of gal? Does she want to know about similar books, and how they sold? Should you add a dramatic excerpt from your book, or keep it short and to the point? Trying to decide between all of the above, when you have no idea about the likes and dislikes of an editor or agent, will give you wrinkles an elephant would envy. Stop!

So what? If you didn't meet and chat with them first, face the fact that whatever query you send will be hit or miss. Be prepared for rejection — lots of it. However, if you keep sending those queries out, and your writing is terrific, one day your query will land on the desk of some agent/editor who will say, "WOW! I want to read that book."

The Query -- To Begin With, Put Yourself in Their Place

What would you want to know about an unknown writer, begging you to publish or represent her work? Keep in mind that most agents and editors love books, and have a solid background in various areas of publishing and even writing books. However, practical matters tend to intrude. Agents read queries looking for The Book: something special that publishers will snap up, making them a nifty commission, plus a share of the royalties. Prolific writers of fast selling books enable them to pay the rent and take glamorous vacations.

Editors are also looking for The Book. However, many submissions are first read by lowly interns. If the first page or two grabs their interest, they keep reading. If your manuscript hooks the intern, she takes it to the editor. The first hurdle is over. With the publisher's current needs in mind, the editor will now evaluate everything in your manuscript. What she wants is a well written and fresh story that sells well, and wins lots of accolades. This will help her move up to become Editor-In-Chief: a Newberry wouldn't hurt, either! Hmmmmm? Get the idea? Some suggestions follow:

  • First, research publishers to discover which ones best fit your book.
  • Send only what the publisher or agent's guidelines request.
  • Tell them if you are sending simultaneous submissions — they are the norm today.
  • Write down what you want to say about yourself, and your book. Then, prune out everything that is not absolutely relevant.
  • State the title and word count, plus any relevant information about unusual settings or characters -- one small paragraph.
  • Feature a slice of your story that is gripping, funny, or action packed. This should take no more than one paragraph.
  • If you have previous credits that are relevant, put them in a paragraph with any specific qualifications you have for writing the book. Add why you think it would fit well with their current list.
  • Conclude by thanking them for their time, and mention the fact that you are including a SASE. Don't forget the SASE. Without it, you will never hear back from that editor or agent. Also, mention that the manuscript is complete, and ready for their review.
  • If asked for, include a killer one-page synopsis. Hit only the high points. This goes on a separate piece of paper, with the title, your name, and the word Synopsis at the top. Many agents and editors request one or two chapters, plus a synopsis.
  • Go to individual publisher's and agent's websites. Check their current list of books and their submission guidelines.
  • HINT: If page space becomes tight, lower the bottom ruler line and raise the top line. Make your font Times Roman 11, instead of 12. This will give more page room without being noticeable. Please, no colors and no fancy fonts. Keep it professional and simple. Make sure that names and addresses are spelled correctly.

Ten Different Authors Write Ten Different Queries

It is up to you to tweak and mould the essence of your story into a one-of-a-kind query letter -- a query that allows an editor or agent to "feel" the potential of your book, and your unique way of writing. Editors and agents presume that if your query has style and substance, so will your manuscript.

Notes From a Slush Pile Reader

Jane Bedell, a nonfiction and historical fiction writer, worked as an intern for Beyond Words Publishing Inc. Her comments, based on her real-life experience reading through the slush pile, are eye opening:

I have been helping with acquisitions at Beyond Words, and the rule of thumb there is "get it done as quick as you can," Spending more than a couple of minutes on any manuscript is a waste of valuable time. And remember, at almost all publishing houses, the manuscripts are read by interns (like me) or someone other than the editor. For fiction, grab them in the first sentence or two, or forget it. I didn't have time to read more than a paragraph, and could pretty much make a determination with that.

The best thing that you can do is target your manuscript to the publishing house. In a query include: one paragraph about the story, one paragraph about you and your credentials; a market analysis showing other books like yours, potential markets and what you as the author are willing to do to push the book.

NOTE: Beyond Words no longer publishes children's books. They are now under the umbrella of Simon and Schuster and have sold off their kid's books to another house (not yet named).

Memorable Query Letters Are the Key to Agents and Editors

If you don't send out queries, your book is nothing but bytes on your hard drive. One third of the battle is in targeting the right agent or publisher. Another third is making sure your writing is as good as you can make it. The final third, is offering the right story, at the right time, to an editor who desperately needs it: call this LUCK! Long ago, in ancient times, when editors and agents actually allowed you to send complete manuscripts, your story and your writing was the important thing -- not your query letter. Today, query letters are the first choice of agents and editors. Your query must sell your story, display your writing style, and provide whatever else the publisher's guidelines dictate.

Great Places to Help You Target the Right Publishers and Agents

Rites of Submission: Cover Letters and Query Letters — as read in the Purple Crayon

Writing Chat for All Seasons has samples of Query Letters That Worked plus a selection of Lousy Rejection Letters you can read.

Query Letters Revisited / Sample Query Letters: My latest thoughts on query letters.

Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market (also known as CWIM) Hard copy market guide. Comes out yearly. Usually lists links to publishers and some information on their needs.

Publisher's Weekly : This lists books coming out in Spring, by publisher. Listed alphabetically.

Harold Underdown: Editorial staff changes at children's book publishers. It's always good to know the name of an editor you plan to target.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books - Harold Underdown's book contains everything you need to know about this field, and the appendix includes some sample letters.

Amazon Book/Publisher Search: Focused searches on individual authors, publishers, or book subjects.

CBC (Children's Book Council): A great site, full of information about writing, authors, books and publishing.

Happy Query Writing Mates.

Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.

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