Tips for Query Letters That Sell

writing query letters - suzannesherman.comAt the Story Circle Network Women’s Memoir Conference in Austin this month I coached several women about query letters to agents and heard their frustrations with repeated rejections. One that stood out to me was a writer who had sent out as many as 60 queries and had no bites. What could the problem be? she wanted to know.

I read her query letter and saw the issues right away.

If you’re getting repeated rejections on a query letter now or at any future point, consider these suggestions.

1. Congratulate yourself first. You really are on your way. Some people give up after a handful of rejections. The only way to success is to keep trying, but make those efforts count. You can’t query the same agent twice (at least not with the same letter for the same book in a 1-year period).

2. Tweak your approach. It’s key in sales, and a query letter is a sales pitch. Take your query letter with all of its necessary ingredients and mix up those ingredients in new ways. Adjust the spices, skim the fat, and get ready to serve it to some hungry diners ready for a book they can believe in.

3. The query is an invitation to read the book proposal and/or sample of the book. It has to be concise. Make sure you’ve done that work even if you’re doing it for the twentieth time.

4. Stay confident, and sound that way in your letter. Tell the agent why you chose them (show you did your homework researching them and books like yours they’ve represented or published). Thank them for their time and tell them you look forward to hearing from them.

5. Rewrite your lead paragraph: that opening has to engage a reader with what it reveals about your book, and that should include a flavor of the book (its tone).

If you’ve given the proposed book title in the first line, take it out of there. Move it down, possibly to start the second paragraph, to avoid distracting the reader who wants the heart of the story — what your book will do — not the prospective title of the book or the word count it is now. Both belong in the letter, but not in the first paragraph: this is precious real estate. That real estate, too, should not lose value with an entire paragraph on researched facts and numbers of potential readers. Say it in a sentence or two.

If you haven’t already, use reputable resources on query letter writing to learn what to do and not to do. WRITER’S MARKET is an industry standard. It’s revised annually and is also available by online subscription. I always recommend a book by this literary agent, Jeffrey Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents.

If the query doesn’t appeal to any agents once you’ve reached your max (say, 30 to 50 or so), chances are you’ve fairly tested that field and your book is more appropriate for a small press that doesn’t require an agent’s representation. Or investigate e-book publishing or POD (print on demand) self-publishing. These are no longer a second-best option as long as you hire a good editor and do your part to produce and promote a stellar book.

And remember: you’re not alone in facing the frustrations of rejection letters. These are excerpts from famous author rejections. I’ll add the by now well-known fact that the creators of Chicken Soup for the Soul were rejected by 60 agents and publishers before one agreed to take a chance.

Read on and have a laugh!  Getting published the first time out requires courage and determination. Take a deep breath, try a new approach, and don’t give up.
1.    Sylvia Plath: There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.
2.    Rudyard Kipling: I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.
3.    J. G. Ballard: The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.
4.    Emily Dickinson: [Your poems] are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.
5.    Ernest Hemingway (regarding “The Torrents of Spring”): It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.