Query Letters: Jody’s Seven Goals

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Don't Sweat the Query

Query letters.  Yet again.

Holy smokes there’s a lot of query letter advice out here on the World Wide Web.   

And like everything in information-overload-land, that’s good and bad–it’s terrific for writers to have easy access to models and thoughtful counsel, but at the same time I’m a little concerned about the stressing out I see–the agony over each detail in each query; and the stridency of the dogma.  As in, “All query letters must start with x, end with y, and never, never include Popsicles.” 

Query letters are crucial, don’t get me wrong.  And yes, each book pitch does have to include some standard elements, like, well, the title of the book. 

But ultimately each letter is as individual as the book that is being pitched and the author who is writing it.  So rather than trying to fit your query into someone else’s mold, I suggest you sit back, take a deep breath, scribble out a quick rough draft, and then ask yourself if you’ve achieved the following goals.  I’ll elaborate on each in future posts.

A Query Letter is a Pitch for an Investment

Most important thing to keep in mind in any query:  a query is a business proposition.  If you’re writing a company directly, you are asking it to invest in your product.  If you’re querying an agent; you’re asking her to apply for the job of selling your book (more on that in the next post.) If you forget everything else, remember to review your own query as if you are on the other side of the desk:  would you invest thousands of dollars in your book as described?

Seven Goals for Your Nonfiction Query Letter

1.)You’ve grabbed the interest and trust of the reader with your first sentence.

     “Interest” is grabbed through content; “Trust” is engaged through style.

2.) You’ve led with your strongest suit.

3.)  Each sentence encourages the reader to read the next.

4.)  You’ve answered all key questions:  WHO, WHAT, WHY, HOW, WHEN?

     WHO are you? WHAT is the book? WHY will readers buy it?  Read it?  HOW will you market it?  WHEN will you write it?

5.)  You’ve placed your book into the context of other books.

6.) You’ve demonstrated professionalism and ability in your field, and in writing.

7.)  You’ve anticipated and addressed any editorial objections.

And remember this:  publishers make money by publishing good books well.  Without you, they’ve got no product.  They–we–need you.  So write and self-edit your query letter with confidence.  Next:  That First Sentence

Comments

  1. Great list, Jody! You’re so right – there is A LOT of query-related info out there, and just like any other subject, there’s good info & there’s, well, crap, haha. You’ve provided a great checklist.

    Here’s a question: It seems like this list is geared mostly toward nonfiction books. Would you say these same seven points would work well with nonfiction article queries? Say, to magazines, etc.?

    • Thanks, Alicia! Yes, this list is specific to nonfiction books–I don’t have much experience in pitching magazines; my clients usually do that on their own. I found a terrific post on the subject here, though: http://freelance.stanford.edu/reports/pitch/ (other than the unfortunate white ink on black text, it’s really informative and reads authoritative).

  2. Alicia, Thanks for this series on queries. Great advice!
    I’d like to share it on our writers’ group blog. http://www.njcwg.blogspot.com

  3. Jody, great post and a great start to a series of posts about query letters. I do believe that we put so much stress on them that we begin to analyze the heck out of them to the point where we take out… well, you, the author. We make them almost a form letter, which, in turn, returns a form letter.

    I want to know what you think about the level of detail in a query letter. Should it be minimal, just a smidgeon to interest the agent or should you reveal every detail about your book. Should you hook the agent like you would a reader (which, of course, they are) or should you use a ‘open book’ policy where you reveal the whole plot of the book, ending included?

    Help me, Obi-One Jodi. You’re my only hope!

    • Thanks, Ray! In keeping with my “enough with the rules already” suggestions, I’ll give a global answer rather than a prescription. The goal of the query letter is to get the agent to ask for more material. I don’t think any agent reads a query and says, “But I’ve got to know every detail right here, right now!” Agents are looking for well-written fresh (yet proven) ideas from real pros (and by a pro I mean someone who has paid his literary dues). Yes, you need to “hook” the agent, but not necessarily with some amazingly witty opening. You can “hook” with professionalism and writing chops.

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