The True Purpose of the Query Letter

Twitter is a far more interesting and entertaining form of social media than I expected.  I am constantly discovering great articles and interesting insights about issues centered around writing and publishing. 

One such insight came after I read a tweet from a respected agent asserting that a not only does a strong query letter herald a strong manuscript, but that in almost every case a weak query letter indicates a weak manuscript.

What Is Query Letter?

A query letter it perhaps the most misnamed item I’ve ever come across.  The author doesn’t ask questions of those they send the letter to.  Instead the author sells themselves and their work.  The purpose, from the author’s perspective, is to convince an agent to invest time and effort in promoting their manuscript.

The heart and soul of a query letter is a (very) short summary of the completed manuscript.  This summary is like the blurb on the back covers of books; a snapshot of the novel’s contents designed to make prospective buyers flip to the first page and begin reading.

Why Do Agents Use Query Letters?

Busy agents can receive hundreds of submissions every day, more manuscripts than they can possibly read.  A streamlined process is required to process those submissions in an efficient manner.  When put into this context the need for query letters becomes clear.

The Faulty Inference

When an agent rejects a manuscript because of a weak query letter they never read the manuscript.  Its entirely possible the author wrote something good or even great, but the agent will not know because they never even looked at the manuscript.

Ergo the assertion that a weak query letter indicates a weak manuscript is not based on objective study, but a rather a belief unsupported by evidence. 

The Underlying Truth

What the query letter does demonstrate is the author’s ability to market themselves and their work. It reveals how good the author is at self-promotion. 

Self-promotion is a crucial skill modern authors must master.  A great manuscript is not enough.  The author must market their work in order for their books to sell.  A book which fails to sell well can cost a publishing house vast sums of money.  The agent who chose to promote that book might lose their job, and the author might never sell another book. 

A weak query letter indicates a weak self-promoter, someone who cannot market themselves or their work successfully.  This is someone agents can’t, and shouldn’t, take a risk on.  An agent who spends significant amounts of time helping an author overcome a marketing deficiency is doing a grave disservice to themselves and the other authors they represent.

I don’t like query letters and I don’t think you can say much about a manuscript based on a query letter, but they are an essential tool in the business of of publishing. In particular, they force writers, such as myself, to realize that literary success requires treating beloved creations as products to be branded and sold.  A sad, true fact.

The True Purpose of the Query Letter

Twitter is a far more interesting and entertaining form of social media than I expected.  I am constantly discovering great articles and interesting insights about issues centered around writing and publishing. 

One such insight came after I read a tweet from a respected agent asserting that a not only does a strong query letter herald a strong manuscript, but that in almost every case a weak query letter indicates a weak manuscript.

What Is Query Letter?

A query letter it perhaps the most misnamed item I’ve ever come across.  The author doesn’t ask questions of those they send the letter to.  Instead the author sells themselves and their work.  The purpose, from the author’s perspective, is to convince an agent to invest time and effort in promoting their manuscript.

The heart and soul of a query letter is a (very) short summary of the completed manuscript.  This summary is like the blurb on the back covers of books; a snapshot of the novel’s contents designed to make prospective buyers flip to the first page and begin reading.

Why Do Agents Use Query Letters?

Busy agents can receive hundreds of submissions every day, more manuscripts than they can possibly read.  A streamlined process is required to process those submissions in an efficient manner.  When put into this context the need for query letters becomes clear.

The Faulty Inference

When an agent rejects a manuscript because of a weak query letter they never read the manuscript.  Its entirely possible the author wrote something good or even great, but the agent will not know because they never even looked at the manuscript.

Ergo the assertion that a weak query letter indicates a weak manuscript is not based on objective study, but a rather a belief unsupported by evidence. 

The Underlying Truth

What the query letter does demonstrate is the author’s ability to market themselves and their work. It reveals how good the author is at self-promotion. 

Self-promotion is a crucial skill modern authors must master.  A great manuscript is not enough.  The author must market their work in order for their books to sell.  A book which fails to sell well can cost a publishing house vast sums of money.  The agent who chose to promote that book might lose their job, and the author might never sell another book. 

A weak query letter indicates a weak self-promoter, someone who cannot market themselves or their work successfully.  This is someone agents can’t, and shouldn’t, take a risk on.  An agent who spends significant amounts of time helping an author overcome a marketing deficiency is doing a grave disservice to themselves and the other authors they represent.

I don’t like query letters and I don’t think you can say much about a manuscript based on a query letter, but they are an essential tool in the business of of publishing. In particular, they force writers, such as myself, to realize that literary success requires treating beloved creations as products to be branded and sold.  A sad, true fact.

Where I’m At

I am sitting on my back porch, under an umbrella, consumed by a contemplative state of mind that has been circling me for some time. 

The chaos of the holidays gave a welcome relieve from the routine of writing.  I have a tendency to fixate on one idea and hound after it.  Just before the holidays, at the beginning of NaNoWriMo, I finished a major edit of the first book, At the Lady’s Behest Comes….  In the euphoria that comes from completing a major task, I rushed off a query letter to an agent.  My urge to act rashly sated, my calmer brain has had time to grind on the problem of going from author’s draft to published work. 

For the record, the agent never responded to my query letter.

Good Marketing Trumps Writing Skills

One thing made clear in conversations with published authors is that the decision of who gets published is made on business merits, not artistic ones.  To get noticed by agents and publishers, an author needs to show they understand that fact and are prepared to market their own work.

Time spent building a brand is time not spent writing.  But thanks to two years of NaNowriMo I have a reasonable working draft of most of the second book, and chunks of what will be in the third book.   It is a good time to broaden and bifurcate my focus,   especially if it helps me acquire a decent agent or publisher.

Creating An Online Presence

The first step to presenting a good image to agents and publishers is to have a professional looking website.  Boring is better than bad, but of course cool counts for something.  My current website is a glorified blog with links to sparse content.   Closer to bad than boring. 

I am by trade a computer programmer, but almost all my work has been on the Windows PCs, not the web.  Developing applications for Windows keeps a roof over my head, and so that is where I have focused my skill set.  I have recently took up the study of  HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript.   They are skills I must master anyway if I am ever to move over to web development, and doing a simple site that would better represent me and my work is good motivation.

But before you build a web site, or any application, you must have a concept of what it will contain, and how it will display that content.  For example, there should be a landing page with a nice graphic and clear options to take you what content is there. 

Uh…Graphic?  What graphic?  What precisely is this graphic and where the heck and I going to get it?  I know my artistic limits, and graphic design is not my strong suit.  Is this the point to talk with someone with professional experience?  How much money would that cost?    

Content Is King

An “about the author” page is needed, with a picture of me that isn’t blurry and which won’t frighten small children and farm animals.   A high standard. 

Putting my chapters online are a given; but what is the best way to get the user to the desired chapters with the fewest clicks and choices?  

Should I put up documents about the world?  Maps, explanations of the language the wizards speak, background mythology, and the like? 

Should I include information about the characters?  Is so, how much should I reveal about them, their history, their story arcs, etc….  Should I try to get pictures drawn of the characters and  display it next to their bio?

Should I do the chapter readings or not?  I enjoyed doing the first two, but they are time consuming.  The more I learn about how to manipulate the audio the more I play with edits and the longer it takes to complete.  Is it time well spent on something that will attract visitors/readers?  Or is it more spinning my wheels and creating obstacles  for myself?  Slowing me down when I should be speeding up? I’ve held up finishing the reading of the third chapter until I resolve this debate.

Kathryn has started creating music for my story.  Originally to put at the beginning of the chapter readings.  I like what she has done very much, and will certainly include MP3s of it on the  website eventually.

The Call of Writing

In addition to all of these thoughts, I am also preparing for the Magic City Writers edits to my eleventh chapter, …Cause All to Cry ‘Havoc’.   I do not doubt that there will be significant edits after their review, and I will likely use that as an opportunity to revisit chapters twelve and thirteen. 

And from there I might well lose myself in work on the second novel, …Demiurge, Unbound,….  Time spent writing is time not spent building a professional online presence or searching for an agent or publisher.  But it does move me closer to having a fully completed story, even if it is an imperfect draft like the first novel.  That might be the strongest selling point of them all.

I would greatly appreciate the thoughts anyone has on how best to address some of the choices I face.  I am a stranger in a strange land, and am uncertain how best to proceed.

My First Query Letter

I’ve been bouncing off the walls since “finishing” my first novel.

First I hired a professional editor, then canceled that.  I reformatted my manuscript into standard format, which was a bigger task than I expected.  (I had to replace all my italics with underlines.  I thought this strange until I saw how poorly italics show up in a courier font.) 

I sent off copies of the manuscript to the writers group and asked for feedback on whether they thought I needed to hire an editor or not.   Still bouncing off the walls, I switched to researching what a query letter to an agent should contain. 

Contrary to its name, a query letter is not about asking any questions.  It is a one page sales pitch designed to first interest an agent in your story, then in yourself.  You jump directly into summarizing in one or two short paragraphs a complex novel filled with characters you’ve spent possibly years crafting.

Last night I finished my first query letter.  And I was still ricocheting like a Racquet ball. 

I needed to focus on writing for NaNoWriMo, where I am already thousands of words behind.  Every time I tried to write I kept being distracted by the thought of the completed novel waiting for the next step.

One of my great strengths and weaknesses is my ability to act impulsively.  To leap, then look.  It is easy to see the disadvantages that such a trait brings with it, but there are advantages as well. 

It allows me to trust my gut.  To move forward into dark and unfamiliar terrain, guided by the confidence of a fool that I will somehow find my way through.  Sometimes this leads to terrible mistakes, but more often it lets me accomplish what dithering and planning would never begin.

So I sat looking at my finished query letter, which I am quite pleased with, and my stomach churned over the fact that I have a finished work ready for submission.  I realized I would have no ability to focus on my next writing task until I acted.  

So I sent my first query letter off to a literary agency, one that gets a “highly recommended” rating from the site Preditors & Editors.

I am calmer now, and I think I can focus again on writing.   The first novel is still in my thoughts, but no longer dominates my mind. I feel like I can now write for NaNoWriMo without the severe distractions that have hampered me so badly this time around.

I’ll post again if I hear something back from the agent, whether the news is good or bad.  Till then, have fun and party down.

My First Query Letter

I’ve been bouncing off the walls since “finishing” my first novel.

First I hired a professional editor, then canceled that.  I reformatted my manuscript into standard format, which was a bigger task than I expected.  (I had to replace all my italics with underlines.  I thought this strange until I saw how poorly italics show up in a courier font.) 

I sent off copies of the manuscript to the writers group and asked for feedback on whether they thought I needed to hire an editor or not.   Still bouncing off the walls, I switched to researching what a query letter to an agent should contain. 

Contrary to its name, a query letter is not about asking any questions.  It is a one page sales pitch designed to first interest an agent in your story, then in yourself.  You jump directly into summarizing in one or two short paragraphs a complex novel filled with characters you’ve spent possibly years crafting.

Last night I finished my first query letter.  And I was still ricocheting like a Racquet ball. 

I needed to focus on writing for NaNoWriMo, where I am already thousands of words behind.  Every time I tried to write I kept being distracted by the thought of the completed novel waiting for the next step.

One of my great strengths and weaknesses is my ability to act impulsively.  To leap, then look.  It is easy to see the disadvantages that such a trait brings with it, but there are advantages as well. 

It allows me to trust my gut.  To move forward into dark and unfamiliar terrain, guided by the confidence of a fool that I will somehow find my way through.  Sometimes this leads to terrible mistakes, but more often it lets me accomplish what dithering and planning would never begin.

So I sat looking at my finished query letter, which I am quite pleased with, and my stomach churned over the fact that I have a finished work ready for submission.  I realized I would have no ability to focus on my next writing task until I acted.  

So I sent my first query letter off to a literary agency, one that gets a “highly recommended” rating from the site Preditors & Editors.

I am calmer now, and I think I can focus again on writing.   The first novel is still in my thoughts, but no longer dominates my mind. I feel like I can now write for NaNoWriMo without the severe distractions that have hampered me so badly this time around.

I’ll post again if I hear something back from the agent, whether the news is good or bad.  Till then, have fun and party down.