Contacting Literary Agents: How to Write a Query Letter

I speak a lot about self-publishing because that’s the route I decided to take for my own writing. However, while I found to be self-publishing to be much easier and better suited for my tastes, I don’t think you should count out traditional publishing for your own work. After all, traditional publishing is the big leagues. 99% of the books you find on bookstore shelves are from established publishing houses. Why not take that leap and see if you can make it? Do you think you have what it takes to get published?

But before you can get published, you need to find a literary agent. And how do you go about getting an agent? You need a query letter.

Imagine you’re looking for a job. You have years and years of experience and you just know that you’d be a major asset to a company. But how are recruiters supposed to know you’re out there unless you submit a cover letter and resume? And if you don’t have a great cover letter and resume, you can’t expect them to start knocking down your door to get you to work for them.

Finding a literary agent and publisher is a lot like looking for a job. A query letter is little more than a glorified cover letter. It’s what gets your foot in the door. Without a decent query letter, you’re going to have a hard time getting agents to read your work. It might seem intimidating trying to sell yourself and your book to a complete stranger in just a few words, but it’s necessary if you want to be published. Luckily, writing a convincing query letter isn’t that difficult.

Most literary agents describe what they want in a query letter right on their website. They usually ask for two main details: your writing history and a basic overview of your synopsis. Every agent is different, and you’re bound to encounter the occasional agent who will ask you a curveball. In some instances, I’ve seen agents ask submitters to explain why they think their manuscript would be a good fit for the agent. I even had one agent ask me to list my influences and whose writing I emulated in my manuscript.

No matter what I tell you in the rest of the blog post, you must always consider the agent’s submission rules above all else. There are agents who will immediately trash your manuscript if they see that you didn’t listen to their rules, and they have every right to do so. They read hundreds of letters each day; they don’t have time to waste on people who won’t bother reading their submission requirements. That is why I advise you to ALWAYS adhere the submission guidelines on an agent’s site thoroughly. If you fail to do that, not only do you risk them tossing your manuscript without a second glance, but you might also tarnish your own name with that agent and any of their partners. Don’t create a negative reputation for yourself because you didn’t take a couple minutes to read the rules.

In the case where an agent doesn’t specify what exactly they want in the query letter, there is an easy-to-follow formula to help you along the way.

At the top of the letter, you should list your full name, phone number, email, and address. This is a no-brainer. How do you expect the agent to get in touch with you without any contact information?

Some authors (including myself) have social media profiles based around their writing. Personally, I don’t recommend adding them to your query letter. Your letter needs to stay within one page, and adding small details like social media handles can eat away at your space. Only add social media links if the agent specifically asks for it.

Now onto the actual letter itself. First off, you should thank the agent for taking the time to read your query. Like I mentioned earlier, they can get hundreds of letters a day. They’re taking the time to open your email or letter, so the least you can do is thank them for their time. Those few words can make a world of difference.

In that same first paragraph, let them know that you are asking for their representation for your manuscript. Tell them your title, the genre, and the approximate word count. For example, a good opening line for a query letter would be:

Dear Ms. Jane Doe

Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I hope you will consider representing my novel, John Smith Goes to Space, a 60,000-word science-fiction novel about a man who travels to space on an epic adventure.

Right away, the agent can get an idea of whether they want to consider the book or not. Is it within their preferred genre? Does the title sound appealing?

After the introduction, you will want to give a basic synopsis of the story. This is where you REALLY have to sell your manuscript. You want the reader to see the synopsis and think, “Wow! I need to know what’s going to happen!” It’s like when you watch a teaser trailer for a movie. After it’s over, do you want to know more? Or did the trailer give away too much? Or even too little?

Here’s an example of giving away too little:

John Smith was the first man to travel to the deepest recesses of space. Little did he know, he wasn’t alone.

Here’s an example of giving too much:

John Smith is a 42-year-old insurance salesman who loved his wife, Margaret, and his two daughters, Lana and Janet. While he was content with his life, he still felt like he needed some excitement to spice things up. How could he get over his mid-life crisis?

One night, two mysterious agents in black suits, Bob and Steve, come to his door and tell him that he’s been “randomly selected”. John has no idea what they mean until they drive him to a top-secret research laboratory in the middle of the desert and tell him that he’s going to be traveling to the furthest ends of space. His mission is to collect data on a species of aliens that have been discovered on a planet similar to Earth.

Weeks later, John is sent off in a prototype rocket with the power to travel hundreds of lightyears in mere hours. He arrives at the planet and makes first contact with the aliens. While they initially seem friendly and accommodating, he soon discovers that they’re actually carnivorous beasts with a taste for humans.

John escapes their clutches, but he’s miles away from his ship. He has to navigate his way through a perilous jungle, across a raging ocean, and over miles of scorching desert, all filled with flora and fauna that shares the aliens’ appetite for human flesh. John Smith may have started out as an Average Joe with an encyclopedic knowledge of every insurance policy known to man, but he eventually becomes a survivalist who will do anything to survive.

Here’s an example of a great summary:

John Smith was your average guy. He worked in an office, he had a wife and kids, and he hated rush hour traffic. He wanted to do something more with his life. Luckily, things were about to change.

One night, two mysterious agents come to John’s door and tell him that he’s been randomly selected for a top-secret mission: a trip to the edge of space.

The next thing he knows, John is being blasted off in a prototype rocket into the deepest parts of the known universe. He soon lands on a strange planet, where he discovers a whole race of an unusual alien species; a species with a taste for human flesh . John forgets his mission objective as he desperately tries to survive in an unknown alien world where literally everything is trying to eat him.

Will John Smith ever make it home?

The first summary is just too short for a query letter. It’s a logline. It’s the type of line you give when you want to pitch your book to a random person you met on an elevator. You might encounter an agent who wants a very, very brief summary of your work, in which case a logline works, but for the most part, a one-sentence summary is not right for a query.

The second summary adds a lot of unnecessary detail. We don’t need to know individual names except for the main protagonist. We don’t need a play-by-play of certain scenes. The second summary definitely lets the reader know what the story will entail, but it’s got a lot of excess fat.

The third summary has it all. You’ve got your protagonist, you’ve got a conflict, and you’ve got a hook. It tells you what you need to know. That’s what agents usually want to see in a query letter. Keep in mind, though, that there will be agents who will ask for a one- to two-page synopsis of your story. At that point, you can go crazy with the summarizing, but know which details deserve to be in your synopsis and which don’t.

Next, you’ll want to add a little author bio. You don’t need to explain every single essay or short story you’ve ever written. You should talk about the writing that has shaped you into the author you are today. When did you start writing? Where did this interest come from? What made you want to write this particular manuscript? Who are your favorite authors, and who have you tried to emulate? You were selling your story in the previous paragraphs; now it’s time to sell yourself.

In the next paragraph, you can brag a little. Talk about any awards or accommodations you’ve won. This is also the place where you should talk about whether you’ve been published before.

When I submitted Dodger’s Doorway to several agents, I made sure to notify them that I previously self-published. This is a very important detail since many agents do not accept previously published (self and traditional) work. DO NOT LIE about whether you’ve been previously published! The agent will find out, and you do not want to get yourself into that situation.

The closing paragraph of the query letter is the easiest. Thank the agent once again for taking the time to read your letter, and let them know that they can contact you if any additional information is needed.

Before you go and hit that submit button, you must proofread, proofread, proofread! Do not let one spelling or grammar mistake slip through the cracks. Do you think an agent will want to read your manuscript if you don’t even bother editing your own query letter? It takes an extra minute or two to proofread; don’t be lazy.

Once you submit the query letter, it’s a waiting game. You’ll get the agents who respond months later, and then you’ll get the ones who don’t respond at all. Don’t take it personally. You’re just one of thousands of applicants. That may seem daunting, but you have nothing to lose by submitting your manuscript. For all you know, you might get lucky and actually impress an agent enough to spark some interest. Once you get that foot in the door, the real work begins!

Is there a particular topic you’d like me to cover in a future post? Leave a comment, or head on over to my Facebook page and share your thoughts!

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Releasing a Second Edition of Your Book

As per usual, I’m going to start off this blog post by drawing from personal experience and recounting a short anecdote about my writing adventures.

I wrote and self-published my book in 2011, but after a few years on the market, I decided to take it out of circulation. Why? Frankly, it was a poorly written mess. It wasn’t the book I wanted to be known for. The writing, the structure, the overall execution – just bad. My readers deserved much better. Therefore, I went back and re-wrote it, then re-wrote it again, and then one more time. Then I personally edited it twice, sent it to a professional editor, and had a close friend edit it as well. I ended up re-publishing the story as a second edition a few months ago. Now, if you were to purchase a copy of “Dodger’s Doorway“, you’d be grabbing that second, more “complete” edition, instead of that mess of a first edition. You want a first edition anyway? Sorry, Charlie – you’re out of luck.

When I talk about book editions, I guess I should be more specific. Remember in school when your textbooks would constantly have to be revised year after year to include corrections and updates? In college, I remember taking a psychology course that required the 10th edition of a specific textbook. My friend was going to let me borrow his, but apparently it was only the 9th edition. According to the class syllabus, mine HAD to be 10th edition since the page numbers and chapter orders were changed around or something. Needless to say, it was frustrating. But I digress…

With novels and such, the editions scenario work on a similar principal. To my knowledge, if you’re going to make a significant change to your book, you will need to re-release it as a whole new edition with a new ISBN. Of course, this may entirely depend on the publisher. With Createspace’s self-publishing platform, if you change the title or author name on a book, or if you change the page count or trim size by more than 10%, you’re going to have to get a new ISBN, and thus release a new edition.

So if you’re going back and fixing a typo or two in your manuscript, you most likely don’t have to worry about the new edition. But if you decide to completely overhaul the manuscript and lengthen or shorten the page count by a significant margin, then you’re in for a ride.

In my case, I knew I was going to be needing a new edition. The original copy of my book was about 200-odd pages. The second edition is 280 pages. There is definitely a major difference between the two editions, not only in size, but in writing quality and storytelling. For me, the second edition was worth it. The question is: is it right for you?

First, you’ll want to look back at your work and decide if you’re happy with it. Is it really the best it can be? Do you think you’ve become a better writer since the time it was published? In the several years between my two editions being published, I noticed that I had become a much better writer, so I knew that my book could be better. Remember, your writing talents are like a muscle – the more you work out, the stronger you become. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if you notice a major change in your writing abilities over the course of a few years if you’re writing frequently. In this case, you may want to go back and consider doing a second edition for your previous work.

It may not even be an issue of writing quality when you decide to make a new edition. Did you know that J.R.R. Tolkien made major revisions to “The Hobbit” after he had written “The Lord of the Rings”? It’s true. He had to essentially re-write some dialogue and re-characterize Gollum to better fit with the overall lore of the rest of the saga. I won’t lie – I did the same thing with my book. I had to revisit (and fix) certain elements because of how they impacted the overall story as well as the future tales. It’s okay to make these kinds of changes if you think it has an overall benefit on how the story is told, but I’d be very wary about making HUGE changes to the entire plot. You have to be considerate of the people who already own the first edition.

Let’s put it this way: let’s say you own an original copy of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone”, but then J.K. Rowling comes out and announces she’s releasing an entirely new canon edition of the book that completely eliminates a key character, like Hagrid or Professor Quirrell. At that point, it almost becomes a whole new story because the plot changes to accommodate these characters’ absences. You want to avoid pulling such a stunt with your own book if you’ve sold a lot of copies. It can be frustrating for the readers who bought that old edition and then have no idea what’s the canon story anymore. I mean, you’re absolutely allowed to do whatever you want since it’s your book, but you might want to be considerate of your initial readers and how they might handle the situation.

If you’re lucky, you may not have sold a lot of copies of your first edition (ironic, isn’t it?), because this means that you can pretty much change whatever you want and not have to worry about confusing a bunch of your readers. If you’ve sold a few copies here and there to family and friends, then go nuts with the changes. Tell them that this is the updated copy with better writing or new plot points. They can either toss the first edition away, return it back to you, or keep it as memorabilia. For all you know, if you become famous down the road, that first edition copy could end up being worth a lot of money!

On the other hand, if you’ve sold hundreds of copies around the world, you’re going to have some issues with ensuring that everyone gets a second edition.

I lost track of how many copies I sold of my first edition, but I know that a majority went to family and friends. You know what I did when I re-published it? I literally contacted every single person to let them know of the update. I promised everyone a free copy of that second edition. It took a huge chunk of money out of my own pocket, but it was so worth it to ensure that everyone got the book that they deserved. My only regret is that there are some copies of the first edition out there and those readers aren’t aware of the second’s existence. I know one belongs to a former friend of mine who disappeared off the face of the Earth when she moved to Australia. Another copy belongs to an ex-girlfriend… you can guess where this is going. All I can hope is that one day they manage to get their hands on the second edition.

A good idea to spread the word about your new edition is to use the power of social media. Post to Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, even YouTube. Tell people what the deal is and how they can get their hands on a copy.

I cannot stress this enough: let them know the difference between a second edition and a sequel. You’re bound to have people asking “So, is this a sequel?”, and you’ll have to break the news and tell them that it is merely just a refined edition of the first book. Same story, different execution. In this case, they might not even care about getting a new copy. Or they might be enthusiastic and proudly ask for a refined edition to add to their collection. Honestly, the worst that can happen is they say “No thanks” to the new edition.

As you can see, it can get very complicated dealing with the second edition of your book. If you are willing to put the time and effort into re-writing and re-distributing it, then go for it. My advice is to avoid this entire scenario by editing, editing, and EDITING your work before even thinking of publishing the first time. However, if you find yourself pin-holed into absolutely having to release the second edition, make sure you cover all your bases.

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Self-Publishing vs. “Traditional” Publishing

For most writers, the ultimate goal is to get published. One of the greatest feelings in the world is holding that first hard copy of your work in your hands. You think to yourself, “Wow, this is the result of my hard work. I’ve accomplished something!” If you’ve had your work published, congratulations! You deserve every bit of success that comes your way! If you’ve self-published, congratulations! You deserve every bit of success that comes your way!

Yes, I did intentionally repeat myself. In my eyes, whether you publish traditionally or independently, you deserve credit. Some people don’t see much of a difference between the two, but in certain circles, there seems to be this weird notion that, if you self-publish, you’re not a real writer.

Excuse my language, but that’s bull****.

I could go on and on about how independent and self-published books deserve just as much appreciation as their traditionally published counterparts, but I think it’s more important rather to discuss the main differences between the two. I think the negativity towards self-publishing stems mostly from lack of knowledge (isn’t that usually the case?). So in case you’re curious about the differences, or you’re wondering which route to go with when you decide to publish, here’s a handy little rundown.

Traditional publishing

Getting published through a major company like Scholastic, HarperCollins, or Penguin Random House is almost like applying for college. You have to prove your merit. Not any book can make it through the process. In fact, it’s safe to say that a majority of manuscripts that are submitted each year are rejected. Simply put, publishers want something that sells. If they don’t think one story will sell, then they move onto the next. They have literally thousands of options to choose from.

You don’t necessarily submit your manuscript to a publishing company unless you first have a literary agent. In order to get an agent to represent you, you need one outstanding manuscript and one enticing query letter (think of this being like a cover letter that you send for a prospective job). I’ll explain the process of sending out to literary agents in the future, but for now, I’ll just say that it’s a lengthy process for those who want to get published the traditional way.

When you publish through an agent/company, you relinquish some creative control over your manuscript. You may think, “This story is my baby, and I won’t let anyone change a thing!” Well, depending on your publisher, you might be making some pretty drastic modifications. You have to decide if you’re willing to adapt to the publisher’s needs, or if you simply cannot bend to someone else’s whims. Don’t think you can get away with putting your foot down and saying “No changes!” either. Like I mentioned earlier, there are countless other prospective writers who will not only make whatever changes to the manuscript that a publisher desires, but they’d probably do so while stripping down naked and dancing around a headless chicken.

With all this hard work going into the process, you may think, “Why would I even bother going through a publishing company?” It usually pays off. The publisher worries about most of the actual publishing process. All you need to do is provide them with the manuscript, and they’ll handle the marketing, the cover designs, and the hassle of putting the book on the store shelves. All this usually comes free-of-charge, and you get to sit back and accept a nice paycheck every now and then.

That’s traditional publishing in a nutshell. People like J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Dan Brown, and James Patterson have had to go through it, and you may be lucky enough to do the same eventually. But what about the other path? What’s self-publishing like? Why would anyone bother choosing that way when they can instead work on perfecting their manuscript and query letter for a literary agent?

Self-Publishing

In essence, self-publishing gives you the most control. You have a handle on virtually everything that happens with your book. You write it, you edit it, you format it, you pick a cover, you sell it, and you market it. The only things you don’t do are print the actual book and distribute it. Nowadays, self-publishing platforms have even made it so you can pay them to format and edit it. It’s slowly becoming a very streamlined and easy-to-follow (albeit expensive) process.

Here’s how self-publishing worked for me: I had my manuscript all ready to go, and I submitted it to CreateSpace (an affiliate of Amazon). I paid them to format the interior so that the chapters looked all nice and fancy and the chapters were listed in a table of contents at the beginning. I also paid them to design a cover for me. While it was pricy, it was definitely worth it since my book came out looking fantastic.

I ordered a physical proof of my book and gave it a quick look-through to see if it fit my vision. Once it was all good to go, I approved the proof and my book went on sale! With CreateSpace, any time someone ordered a copy of my book, it would be printed and shipped to them. A portion of the sale would go to the platform, and the rest would go to me as monthly royalty checks. My customers had the option to purchase it through several outlets such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads’ websites, but I also purchased a bunch of copies and sold them myself (mostly to friends and family).

It seems easy, right? It’s very simple on paper, but the process can be a headache when you realize you have to be an excellent salesperson. I’ve had to contact numerous bookstores, cafes, and libraries to see if they would stock my book (I’m currently waiting to hear back from Barnes & Noble to see if they’ll add it to their inventory – they have an extremely lengthy process to stock self-published books). The biggest sales move in my author career was when I opened a booth and sold copies of my book at a local comic convention last month. It was a great experience, and it taught me A LOT about preparation, marketing, and salesmanship, but it was such a pain in the ass because of one major aspect: taxes.

At the end of the year, if you’ve sold copies of your self-published book, you may get a tax form that states how much you owe the IRS. Yeah, even if you sell just one copy, you may have to pay taxes on it. When I wanted to sell my book at comic con, I actually had to create a business entity for my authorship due to tax reasons. This was easily the most frustrating and tedious aspect of my author “career”, and I caution all writers to consider this before self-publishing.

On the bright side, you get to write off a lot of stuff when you create a business as a self-published author. My comic con booth was a write-off. So was all the merchandise I purchased. You’d be surprised at what kind of tax breaks businesses get. However, I’m not a tax professional, so I can’t say that you’ll be just as lucky as I am. I highly recommend self-published authors to speak with their tax advisor to see if there’s a way to turn their writing into a business to benefit themselves.

When you look at both sides of the coin, you see that both traditional and self-publishing come with their pros and cons. You should decide which road to take based on your own preferences. I advise you to consider two things when choosing how to publish:

  • DO NOT pick one over the other because you think one will make you richer/more successful. There have been successful self-published authors and unsuccessful traditionally published authors, and vice versa.
  • DO NOT let the stigma of self-publishing make you avoid this route. As I said earlier in this article, independent and self-published books deserve just as much appreciation as their traditionally published counterparts. Just because some people turn their nose up against self-publishing does not negate the fact that self-published authors have still achieved their dreams and created a work of art.

The last thing I’ll say is don’t be afraid of rejection or failure. Publishing won’t guarantee monetary success, but you should at least try. If you send your manuscript to a publisher and they reject it, the most that will happen is they send you a letter telling you that they’re passing on representing you. If you self-publish a story and it doesn’t sell well, you just didn’t make a ton of money. Either way, you can at least relish in the fact that you created something. Not many people can say they’ve done the same. Give yourself a pat on the back. You earned it.

 

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