by Kit Ehrman
During my “Road to Publication” post on January 27th, I mentioned that I’d provide some specific pointers and ask some hard questions for those looking to get published.
What follows is a list I compiled and saved in an email draft because I receive so many queries from writers who want advice on how they can break in. One question (complaint, really) that I hear time and again is: “How can an agent or editor make a decision about my work based solely on a one-page query letter? They won’t know how well I can write unless they read the whole manuscript?”
Believe me; I understand this sentiment and sympathize with the writer’s frustration, but once you look at the other side of the equation—what it’s like to be the gatekeeper—you can see the validity of the “query only” limitation that is often part of the submission process.
A query letter serves the purpose of letting the agent or agent’s reader know if the project is something they’re interested in pursuing; therefore, it has to be extremely well written.
Editors and agents are swamped with submissions so, imagine if you will, the office receiving 200+ manuscripts a week instead of 200+ query letters. Query letters are a necessary evil of the publishing business because the competition is so fierce.
There are many things every writer can and should do to improve her odds. Ask yourself:
• Have you edited the manuscript many, many times?
• Have you studied the rules of grammar? (You need to understand them before you can break them for effect.)
• Have you learned the industry’s conventions such as proper manuscript format?
• Has your manuscript been through an objective critique group?
• Have you hired a professional freelance editor to give you input? (Get references if you go this route.)
• Have you had a lot of readers, who are familiar with the genre you’re writing in, read the manuscript and give you feedback?
• Is the manuscript as perfect as you can possibly make it?
The Query Letter
• Have you attempted to get writing credits to include in your query letter by entering contests or publishing short stories in genre-specific magazines?
• Have you studied what should go in a query letter?
• Have you polished your query letter ruthlessly?
• Have you shared different versions of your query letter with your critique group to see which one is most effective?
• Have you studied books on querying agents? (The Sell Your Novel Toolkit by Lyons is a good one. So is a book by Kathryn Sands about making the perfect pitch.)
Selecting An Agent
• Have you researched possible agents carefully?
• Do you know how to select the right agent for you?
• Have you looked through the acknowledgements pages of books similar to yours so you can determine agents who like the kind of thing your write? Oftentimes, an author will thank his or her agent in the acknowledgements.
• Have you gone to writing conferences where you can verbally pitch your book to agents?
• Check out a website called Predators and Editors that lists agents to avoid.
• Have you joined the organizations relevant to the genre you’re writing in so you can become familiar with the publishing industry?
• Have you attended conferences in order to network with other writers, authors, and industry professionals?
I highly recommend that you go to Miss Snark’s website. She’s a New York literary agent. This site is no longer active, but there’s a wealth of information here. Beginning with this link, you can see how she evaluates the hook in a query. What gets her interest, etc. This is very insightful for seeing what works and what doesn’t. Here’s the link where the hook evaluation begins: http://misssnark.blogspot.com/2006_12_10_archive.html. Also, search this website because you’ll find a lot of useful information about the industry in general.
It takes talent, luck, and perseverance to get published. The best way to deal with the query process is to start on the next book while you’re doing it so you don’t become obsessed or depressed by the process. And you’ll be glad you have another book that’s partly done when you do get published, because once you are, you’ll have to promote the first book while you’re writing the second.