Thursday, February 7, 2013

8 Query Letter Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

8 Query Letter Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

Along with writing my own books, I work with a publishing house that publishes novels of experienced, award-winning authors along with emerging authors. Part of being a small publisher is helping new writers sharpen the craft of writing and allowing them to experience the art of storytelling.

To get to that point, a writer has to introduce the manuscript to an agent or publisher with a query letter. This is one area where most writers struggle – the query letter is a business sales letter.

Writers use it to introduce their work to an agent or publisher, and hopefully, to get a commitment to send more of the manuscript for evaluation.  Both experienced and novice writers struggle with this. Like any good business letter, there are aspects that should be avoided.

Here are eight mistakes that I’ve seen in just the past three months (along with some real-life examples).

1.    Don’t start with what you want.

You are offering something that the publisher/agent will discover that they want.

NO: “I am interested in having my recently completed a 74,000-word mystery titled Deathly Deadbeats published by Cherokee McGhee Press.”

YES: “My recently completed a 74,000-word mystery Deathly Deadbeats features an off-beat amateur sleuth who tracks down men behind on their child support payments, but…”

2.    Don’t query your first novel outside your country. 

I have received several queries from South Africa, Israel, India and the United Kingdom.  Small publishers, who usually take first novels, have so many queries that the added complexities of working with foreign authors make them an easy rejection. Not fair, I know – but it’s a business.

3.    If you receive a rejection from a publisher, don’t turn around and send a query for another manuscript. 

This makes it look like you have a computer full of old manuscripts – even if you do, always query with the one that best fits the publisher/agent’s list.

4.    Don’t re-query a year later thinking the agent/publisher won’t remember and maybe accept the exact same manuscript this time around. 

I read all the queries. I have a process of tracking what comes through the mail. This shows that the author is not working on his craft and a new manuscript; he just keeps shotgunning the same manuscript to every e-mail address he can find.

As in dating, the same in publishing: “No means no.”

5.    Watch for wishy-washy lead sentences. Start the query with confidence.

“I’m seeking a publisher who is willing to consider publishing my first novel, Dancing Trees.” A publisher “willing to consider” would be the first logical step, but don’t put that as the focus. If the publisher is taking query letters, it is willing to consider manuscripts.

6.   Don’t query a manuscript that’s not appropriate for the list. Know the agent/publisher’s genres.

I receive queries for books on business or textbooks or poetry – we publish fiction. That’s not hard to decipher; it’s in the submission guidelines.

7.   Don’t describe yourself. It’s the manuscript that is being evaluated.

“I am a Paul Newman/Kirk Douglas looking Jew with long hair and beard that is observant and has done serious time.”  Am I supposed to be impressed, afraid, cautious, or introduce him to my sister?

8.   Do not query a self-published book (that includes a book that has been an eBook)

Self-publishing or subsidy publishing a manuscript in paper or eBook format is considered a published book. The “First” Worldwide, North American, or whatever print rights have been used. We have found a book’s original publication usually taps out its initial sales potential, and that first period of sales is when the book recoups the publisher’s investment.  Most paper and/or eBook publishers only consider unpublished works.

So, if you decide to self-publish, that book is technically published. Most publishing houses will not consider it.

That last one is a big one as aspiring authors have more opportunities to self-publish.  Even something like SmashWords makes your manuscript “published” and not eligible to be considered for original publication by another publisher.  This is usually in the contract and could become a legal issue if you try to conceal the fact.

These are just a few of the things to watch. More information on creating the perfect query letter to snag a publisher is in my new “field guide to the Writer’s Life” – SUNSETS & SEMICOLONS.