by Midge Raymond
– Do have a hook. You’ll need to be able to describe your book in one or two sentences, which can be as challenging as writing the book itself. Yet this is essential for selling your book to an agent or editor — and for your publisher to sell your book to the rest of the world. For example, Ashland Creek Press author Blair Richmond’s book “Out of Breath” was described as “a vampire novel with an environmental twist,” which sums it up very succinctly and lets readers know what to expect.
– Do be polite and professional. This should go without saying, but we’re always surprised by how many letters we get that aren’t. Check your spelling and punctuation, of course, and know that your query letter gives agents and editors that all-important first impression — if your tone is cranky, unprofessional, or entitled, it could affect how your proposal gets viewed.
– Do use an agent’s or editor’s name rather than “Dear Agent/Editor.” It’s more personal and shows that you’ve spent at least a little time researching before querying.
– Do make sure there are no pages missing in your manuscript, particularly those very important pages at the beginning or end.
– Do include word count, but recognize that anything over 100,000 words is often viewed as too long; while there are exceptions to every rule, most editors/agents prefer a word count between 70,000 and 90,000 for novels.
– Do keep your query short and to the point. You want to include a greeting that shows why you’re targeting this particular agency or publisher, a brief synopsis of the work, a brief bio, and anything else the guidelines might require. Otherwise, no other info is needed; let the writing speak for itself.
These DON’Ts are all based on things that have actually happened to me as an editor. And while we do read every query and submission that comes our way, it’s often all-too-clear from the query letter whether a submission is worth serious consideration or not. A poorly written, unprofessional query makes it very hard for editors to take your writing seriously.
– Don’t greet an editor with “yo.” (Yes, this actually happened to us.) Be professional, and use the editor’s/agent’s name, even if it takes a few extra moments to find it.
– Don’t send poetry if the publisher does not publish poetry; don’t send short stories if an agent doesn’t accept short stories, etc.
– Don’t bad-mouth your previous editor/publisher/agent. The recipient of your letter might think you’re not very friendly.
– Don’t threaten to self-publish your novel if the agent/editor doesn’t take it on. It doesn’t really help your case.
– Don’t tell agents/editors that you are a perfect match, and/or that you “expect” them to take on your work, and/or list what rights you are willing to offer.
– While most agents and editors appreciate knowing whether yours is a simultaneous submission, it is not necessary to list every single editor/agent/publisher to which you have simultaneously submitted your project.
– While comparing your book to a similar title or two is helpful, you don’t need to list a dozen famous authors whose books all resemble the one you’re submitting. And if you’re referring to a famous author with whom you’ve studied or worked with, be sure to spell that author’s name correctly.
Midge Raymond is a co-founder and editor at Ashland Creek Press, a boutique publisher focusing on eco-literature. She is the author of “Forgetting English,” which received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, as well as stories and articles appearing in such journals as TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Bellevue Review, The Writer, and the Los Angeles Times magazine.