Querying is hard. Let’s get that out of the way up front. You can be a brilliant novelist who writes stunning sentences and gripping plot twists and still suck at queries. It’s a completely different skill set than fiction writing.
Now, to be honest, I don’t think I suck at writing queries. For my first book, I’m fairly certain the query was better than the book itself. I got a lot of full requests, followed by form rejections and silence, because the query wrote a check the manuscript couldn’t cash. I wasn’t totally misrepresenting the book or anything, I was just…overselling it a bit. Making it sound better than it was (and readers: it was Not Good). I had better luck with the query for Temper, not because the query was so much better, but because I had a solid manuscript to back up my pitch. (If anyone is interested in the query that got me my agent, it’s at the bottom of this interview on QueryTracker.)
For most writers, querying is the first time you have to really step back from your novel and look at it as a commodity instead of a pure expression of your creativity. You’ve written your book, and now you have to sell it to an agent, so they can sell it to a publisher. You might feel weird about this, like you’re selling out somehow. But don’t. Regardless of whether you query or get an agent / book deal through some other means, if you want to be published, you’re going to have to get some psychological distance from your work and learn to see it as a product that can be pitched and packaged and sold.
So here are my top querying tips:
1. Read a lot of examples. If you’re a querying or about-to-be-querying writer and not already following Query Shark, please abandon this post immediately and head over there. Janet Reid will teach you everything you need to know about querying and then some. That said, while reading examples of good and not-so-good queries is valuable, reading marketing copy for books in your genre can be instructive as well. Ask yourself: which ones caught my attention and made me want to keep reading? Then steal whatever you can from them.
2. Remember: your query has one job. That job is to get the agent to want to read more. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to hook their interest. And a query that grabs one agent’s attention may not work on another agent. That’s okay – if you’ve represented your book in an accurate and engaging way in the query, an agent’s lack of interest just means they’re probably not the best match for your work. I don’t believe in any of those “your query should get a request rate of X%” rules. Yeah, if your query is getting nothing but form rejections, then maybe reevaluate it. But there’s no magic number that = success.
3. Be confident. Not, like, obnoxious my-book-is-obviously-the-next-Harry-Potter confident. But don’t kowtow in your query. Don’t phrase it like you’re begging the agent to do you a favor and pretty-please read your work. Queries are business letters. You are reaching out to a fellow publishing professional and inquiring about whether they’d like to enter into a business partnership with you. When you’re just starting out, it may feel like agents have all the power, but keep in mind that without authors their jobs wouldn’t even exist in the first place.
4. Follow the damn rules. Most agents post guidelines for querying them – where to send the query, the number of sample pages they want, maybe an email subject line format you should use. These guidelines may seem arbitrary, but they are not. Find them, study them, FOLLOW THEM. This will already set you apart from an upsettingly substantial percentage of the other writers flooding their inboxes. If you don’t follow the rules, you’re signaling that you’re at best careless, and at worse a total asshole who thinks they’re above the rules. Not the ideal first impression to make on someone with whom you’re hoping to enter into a business relationship, right?
5. And finally: don’t be scared. Put your work out there. You will get rejected, but it’s good for you. Learn from it. Keep writing.