Writer, literary agent, publisher, Dede Cummings. Photo by Jeff Woodward.
Writing a novel or a non-fiction or poetry collection is one thing, but once the hard part of writing is done, do you want to know how to actually submit your work? Green Writers Press publisher and literary agent Dede Cummings runs workshops throughout the US on creating successful book proposals and query letters, with strategies on how to get your foot in the door with an agent or publishing house, how to follow up, and what to do if you have multiple offers (it does happen!).
1.) General Principles
3.) What I have found that works
4.) Specific examples to support general principles
1.) How to Write a Query Letter
Query letters help you land an agent “A query letter is a single page cover letter, introducing you and your book….[It] has three concise paragraphs: the hook, the mini-synopsis, and your writer’s biography. Don’t stray from this format. You won’t catch an agent’s attention by inventing a creative new query format. You’ll just alienate your chances of being taken seriously as a professional writer. A query letter is meant to elicit an invitation to send sample chapters or even the whole manuscript to the agent.” See the samples from Dede’s writers. Queries should include the following three elements:
- Something about the book — enough to make the agent want more (this can be “creative” if you are writing fiction, or a log-line that is perfect)
- Something about you — that is tailored as appropriate for your book
- Something to read — You can just send a query letter and at the end ask them to respond if they want to see the manuscript or full proposal (for non-fiction) with sample chapters; or, you can include the first 3 to 5 pages of the manuscript pasted right into the email — some agents’ websites have firewalls preventing attachments, so do not initially send attachments. Plus, think about how busy an agent is—imagine yourself swamped with queries in your inbox and no time to resounds or read: How would you like to receive material?
2. Tips for a great query:
It starts with a few sentences designed to make the agent want to read your book. To figure out how to do this, read the back-cover-copy or flap copy of your favorite books. The goal is to write something interesting and captivating, so they will want to read more. Author bio for non-fiction: Include some information about yourself, specifically why YOU are uniquely qualified to write this book. What are your qualifications? Are you a published author? What’s the most important thing to know about your platform? Remember Dede’s example of The Widow & The Hijacker on Salon.com Author bio for fiction: Don’t worry about platform and don’t stress about your bio. If you have traditionally published fiction before, tell them a bit about your publishing history (example, “I was a Glimmer Train finalist.”). If not, don’t worry about this part of the letter; just say you’re a first-time novelist. Be truthful! If you like, you can indicate that you’re a blogger and you’are active on Twitter and Facebook so the agent sees you’re aware of the importance of social networking for authors, which sometimes helps build your case. Poets and short fiction writers should join Poets & Writers and start getting work published! (Easy for me to say, having been writing poetry and trying to egg published for the last thirty years…but keep at it, and eventually you will find a zine or a print journal!) Note: A few questions arose about publishing excerpts from your work. Here is a quote from an interview with Linda Swanson-Davis, one of the editors of Glimmer Train:
There’s nothing inherently wrong with popping your stories up on Amazon or anywhere else. (It might be wise to read any fine print, make sure that you still hold the copyright and can, for instance, include the story in your own collection at a later date.)
Keep your query letter short: one type-written page, about 3 to 6 paragraphs (not including the sample pages). For non-fiction books, where platform is crucial, you may need to make it a little longer, include the marketing points, audience, any media. This is a LETTER—it’s best if the query is addressed to the recipient by name, and it should not only give your pitch and your personal information, it should be structured as a letter. MAKE THE LEAD PERSONAL.
Don’t say “Dear Agent.” Say, “Dear Ms. Cummings, I saw your write-up by Kathy Temean, and I congratulate you on your new agency.”
MOST DO NOT ACCEPT SNAIL MAIL QUERIES. Include the genre and word count. Do your research—how many words does a YA historical novel usually have? (80,000 is a good number.) Check the submission guidelines of each agent and/or publisher you’re querying. Note: some as for the first 3 to 5 pages of the manuscript pasted into the email; others don’t say, so use your best judgement. Let them know a full book proposal is ready to send should they want to see more. A completed manuscript is also ready and complete. An author bio (create your own One Sheet at Dede’s suggestion) is helpful to have, too.
NOTE: Upublished novelists must have a completed manuscript before querying. No attachments, unless specifically requested. Don’t ask them to click on a link, such as a link to your website or blog, but list it under your closing with your name/address/email.
3.) If you have a query letter you are ready to submit to an agent that is great, but here is a checklist:
- Is this manuscript in the best possible shape for fiction/poetry
- Is the full proposal (for non-fiction) edited and tight with a strong marketing analysis?
- Is my query letter perfect and proofed?
- Does your work fit the guidelines of the kinds of books the agent or agency represents?
If you can answer yes to all of the above, then please do the following: First choose which agent to whom you want to submit. Study the guidelines above as to what each one is looking for. Here is an example from an agent: http://booksandsuch.biz/blog/ Email a query letter and the first ten pages, along with a synopsis (3-5 paragraphs) and bio, in the body of an email to the agent of your choice. DO NOT submit to more than one agent in a specific agency. If your query is of interest, the agent to whom you submitted may choose to pass it on to another agent.
4.) An example to make you laugh and how one writer was able to “break the rules”…. I thought this query was attention-grabbing (!) and I am reading his ms. now. Some agents might not like this—remember, everyone is different… The book is simply called—HUT— and here is what he wrote in his email (which was longer!): My pitch is the recovery aisle: divorced guy moves into hut, practices yoga, blue collar, gets better. Writes his weather and land book. No sex. The end.” He attached his website: https://sites.google.com/site/anthonychasewriter/home?overridemobile=true
If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying! Someone out there might really respond, but if you get 24 agents passing, it might be time to rethink your novel or proposal, and try a new approach in your writing. If you are lucky, you may get a response and an agent will offer suggestions and want to see more, or future manuscripts. Dede’s mantra: “Don’t give up hope!”
Contact Dede at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like her to do a workshop. Here’s what a few participants had to say about the last one:
Wholly overwhelming for someone who is just scratching the surface into trying to get published, but oh so super informative and inspiring. Dede is a delight!
Once again, many kudos and hearty thanks to Dede! So much information and insight shared; so much to ponder. Terrific workshop.
Dede provided non-stop energy, a wealth of information, and encouragement!
Dede shares a wealth of information — a huge gift to the BWW community!
So grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this lovely, lively workshop discussion. Thank you Dede for your delightful guidance, insights, humor, and authenticity — what a joy!