Querying is hard and stressful. You’ve spent months, maybe even years, carefully writing and rewriting your story, pouring your heart out into your characters, prose, and plot. Finally you write “The End” and feel good about it, and you start to send queries out to publishers and agents, hoping and wishing that someone else will be touched by the words you’ve spent so long to write. And then you wait, and wait, and wait. And maybe wait some more. You might hear back from some with a polite rejection. You might not hear back at all. Or you might get that long-awaited, much-deserved “yes” from the agent or publisher of your dreams.
Querying is just part of the publishing game. It has to be done. Agents and publishers are inundated with queries every day. Currently, I have over a hundred of them that I need to review for Jolly Fish. Which makes it all the more important that your query is spot on, as best as it can be.
I’ve reviewed hundreds and hundreds of queries, and I’ve seen it all. And while no one can promise a secret trick guaranteed to get you an acceptance, I can let you know a few of the things that could help your query stand out above the rest.
5 Tips to Help Get Your Query Out of the Slush Pile
Follow submission guidelines. Always. End of story.
I’m always shocked at the amount of people who simply don’t follow submission guidelines. They’re usually there for a reason, and so don’t start out on the wrong foot by not complying with them. Your story is important, and you’ve spent so much of your time and energy into it—make sure your manuscript doesn’t get passed because of some simple guidelines.
Personalize in any way you can.
Further than taking the time to follow submission guidelines, it also makes a big difference when you take the time to personalize. It’s so obvious when you’re receiving a submission that’s been sent to many agencies/houses at once. Especially because people often literally write, “Dear Agent/Publisher.” Personalize the submission to the house or agency. It’d be even better if you could personalize to a specific editor or agent. This might take a little bit of time to research to try to find the right one, but use resources like Manuscript Wishlist to find people looking for manuscripts like yours. If you’re able to explain why you’re sending it to that publisher/agency and why you think a certain editor/agent would be a great fit…it truly does make a difference.
Think of your query letter as your sales pitch.
Your query letter needs to be short and sweet, giving us enough details to intrigue us but not inundating us with every little detail. Give us the big picture—the main characters, the conflict, the plot. You’ll have more time in the synopsis (if asked for one! See #1) to give us smaller details. That being said, I’ve seen a lot of queries that are too vague. Be specific and mindful in what you choose to write down. What’s going to make us want to read more?
Know your book and its market.
I read a query today that listed its manuscript as six different genres. Six. That’s too many. Try to understand that your book has one main genre, with maybe some smaller elements from other genres woven in. Narrow your niche and be specific so that we know what we’re looking at.
It’s also important to know the market for your book. Are you writing for middle grade readers? Young adult? Children? Adult? You need to know what makes a book young adult before you tell us that it’s young adult. Do some research.
Finally, know your word count, and know if that fits in the general word count for your market. For instance, on average YA is 50,000 to 75,000 words, with exceptions. So pitching a 250,000 YA debut novel is risky.
These are a few good things to know and list in your query: your genre, your audience, your word count.
You’re only submitting a small sample; make sure it’s engaging.
At this point, your book needs to be done. You need to be writing that email with a finished manuscript, and that’s important. While the entire manuscript needs to be well polished and engaging, your sample chapters need to be the best of the best. You’re only including a small sample, so make sure the little bit we see sucks us right in with great writing, characterization, and plot conflict—from the very beginning. Take some time to revisit your first few chapters and make sure they’re as good as you want them to be. Try to read with an outsider’s perspective and ask yourself if you would continue with the story from this point. And then perhaps give the sample to an actual outsider, someone who supports you but isn’t afraid to give you constructive criticism. Ask them the same question. And then rewrite, re-edit, rework until you feel it’s in a good place.
As I was writing this, I realized I have way more than just five tips for queries, so I’m going to be continuing this into a series. If you have anything you’d like to see me address, let me know in the comments or by shooting me an email! I hope these tips were helpful for you!