Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Hello. Please Buy My Book

By Andi Ward
2003, Andi Ward

Query letters. Few things inspire more fear in a writer's life. While creating a sales pitch for your book is a daunting challenge, it doesn't need to be a fearful one.

A query letter is a sales pitch to the editor. An editor's job require ten to twelve hours a day in meetings trying to buy books they love, negotiating deals both within the company and with authors and making certain bought projects are progressing on schedule. Most editors read queries, proposals and submitted manuscripts on their own time, not in the office. Into the lives of these busy people, you have to introduce yourself and make them love your book enough to want to buy it.

The query letter's job is to introduce you. The job of the synopsis is to introduce the book. While you do tease about the offered book in the query letter, you, the author, are the real focus. I've found it much easier knowing that I don't have to fit a ton of information about my book into a single paragraph of a letter. I have enough trouble cramming my book into a handful of pages, thank you.

Looking at the query letter I wrote to Silhouette for the collaboration June and I did, I followed the standard formula you will find in every Writer's Digest advice book: A paragraph summarizing the book, a note about our belief that it's perfect for this line, our qualifications in the publishing world and our belief that we'll be hearing something positive in the near future. The letter and synopsis are posted on the Forward Motion site at:
http://fmwriters.com/community/dc/dcboard.php?az=show_mesg&forum=105&topic_id=66&mesg_id=66&page= 

The thing I did that the manuals never told me to was that I bragged. With every word, every sentence, I said how great we were in a professional, business-like manner.

The first paragraph is about the book. In the one I wrote, I emphasized the points in my story that would appeal to this editor. That meant that I knew what that particular publishing house liked to print. This all bragged about the fact that I was professional enough to research them and their preferences. My capsulation of the story followed the guideline of "You have 10 seconds to pitch my story: Go." When you know the market you're shooting for, what you say to attract their attention should become easier to focus on. This is also the longest paragraph in the letter, if you look at it.

The second paragraph is about the author's suitability for publication. I boast about what we see as their publishing needs and how creatively we tried to meet them. I make a point in saying that the book is finished, meaning that we can send it within a week of any request. I don't know about all publishers, but I've heard that Harlequin/Silhouette does log how long that takes.  Another thing I noted was the authors they publish whose work we admire. I specifically avoided naming top-list authors. Anyone can find the top names by checking bookstore shelves. Listing lesser-known authors proves that I actually do read and pay attention to this market instead of just pulling the listing out of the Writer's Market or other such reference.

The third paragraph is for the author's professional writing credits. Here is where you list any professional organizations (such as RWA, SFWA, HWA, SIC, etc--and, no, Forward Motion doesn't count, unfortunately) you might belong to. You would mention any major contest wins (especially for this particular piece), any previous publishing credits (not of this work), or any experience that might bring more realism into your fiction (such as you're a cop and wrote a police thriller). Believe it or not, however, being a reader for ten, fifteen, twenty years may well qualify you as an expert in the genre.

If you have no memberships in pro organizations, no awards, no reviews publishing credits or any reason that you're better at this kind of novel than anyone else, don't do anything. Really. This is an opportunity to boast about what you have accomplished, not to outright lie.

The final paragraph is a thank you. However you word it, this is your last chance to say something flattering to the editor. It's the professional equivalent of "Love that dress." Something honest and heartfelt usually works best. Remember, these people deal with words more hours daily than most people are awake. They can spot a lie.

Format the letter like any business correspondence. Block paragraphs and the text centered in the middle of the pages is current, according to my corporate employer. This is, after all, business correspondence. You wish to enter a business arrangement. This query letter needs to show you as a competent, confident professional person with a worthwhile product to sell. If they like the tone of your query letter, meaning your level of professionalism, then they'll look kindly at your synopsis and that is where you sell your book. The query is merely the means of convincing them they're not in the hands of an amateur.

Lastly, understand what a query letter is meant to do. It is an introduction, an invitation to make a bigger pitch. When accompanied by a synopsis, as is standard, the best you can hope for is an invitation to send a partial or full manuscript. The query and synopsis I reference in this article received a request for a full manuscript. What I wrote was a very successful query. Query letters will not sell your book for you. It is only the first step, the knock upon the door. When you sit down to write yours, keep it in perspective and put on your best smile. Good luck to you.