Last month, we looked at how to write a nonfiction book proposal. Once that’s done, what’s next?
First, congratulations! You’ve completed the “final” draft for your fiction manuscript, or polished your nonfiction proposal to perfection. Now you’re ready to submit to literary agents, or directly to editors. It’s time to craft a “fetching” cover letter or query.
Cover Letter vs Query Letter: What’s the difference?
A cover letter accompanies your full novel submission to a publisher. A query letter is used to pitch to literary agents, asking for an invitation to submit your material. Both contain your author bio and basic information about what is being submitted. The difference is that, while query letters include a brief synopsis of the project (in order to entice an agent to read more), cover letters do not.
When composing a query or a cover letter, agents and editors want concise, clear information without gimmicks or long-winded explanations. Both are single spaced and must be only one page in length. As it is very difficult to find quality publishers without an agent, we’ll focus here on the query.
Parts of a Query Letter
Opening lines: Clarify your project – who is your audience, genre, word count, title. My book is a science fiction novel based on my experience in DNA research and is complete at 150,000 words.
At this stage, an agent will likely make the decision to read further just based on book genre and marketable word count alone. Google word count information for your specific book. Information may vary, but you’ll get a good idea.
Brief Overview: Present a one- or two-paragraph description of your book (mini synopsis). Describe the plot of your story, or the concept of your nonfiction book. Provide just enough information to describe the general plot, the setting, central characters, the conflict, and the resolution. Be specific. Include the time frame as well as the location or setting.
Credentials: Keep it brief and relevant, and include current talks or presentations, workshops, seminars, recent publishing successes, classes and relevant association memberships. Make sure you come across as confident (but not arrogant).
Remember: If your query letter is good, your lack of experience won’t count against you.
Finding an Agent
Do your research and send your queries only to agents, or editors, that list your genre as an area of interest. Don’t send a fictional work to an agent who only represents non-fiction or a picture book to someone who states they do not wish to see them. They won’t make an exception, and you want an agent who specializes in the type of work you produce.
Query in small batches and listen to the comments of agents (if you’re fortunate to get rare feedback). Don’t do an obvious “Mass Mailing” or use “Dear Agent”. Don’t query more than one agent at a time within an agency. The responses to your queries will range from being completely ignored, a reciept of a form rejection, a personalized rejection that may contain some good suggestions to improve your work or, an offer to review more material. Ultimately, you want that special offer of representation. When that happens, take a moment to celebrate this very exciting time, fraught with possibility. You’ve snagged an elusive and rare butterfly known as a motivated literary agent.
Resources for Finding Literary Agents
Fortunately, there are several resources available to guide you in your search for a literary agent. Here are a few I like:
- Manuscript Wish List
- Agent Query
- Publishers Marketplace (It’s free, but you can upgrade to a Premium Membership to research the most recent deals made by the agent you are querying.)
- Literary Rambles
- Query Tracker
- AAR Online Directory
- Conferences (For example, for children’s writers, join the SCWBI.)
- Writer’s Digest
- Writers’ groups on Facebook or social media accounts specializing in your genre
If you get an offer of representation, alert those agents who’ve requested material. Don’t call an agent or contact an editor directly to inquire about the status of your project. Be patient – it can take up to eight weeks for an agent to get back to you and some never will. You can “nudge” after three months.
Most agents are editorial. If they offer you representation, you’ll most likely be doing a lot of revision before your project is even pitched to editors. Some will request alterations to your proposal to suit their specific style. Your agent will research the best imprints and send out their own version of query letters. Many also do this in small batches to get early feedback from acquisition editors to make adjustments. An agent should account for all the pitches they’ve made on your behalf and the feedback received. Sadly, agents get ignored, too!
Unfortunately, even if you’ve followed all the rules and written something great, rejection is prevalent in the publishing business. If you’re fortunate to get some useful feedback from an agent, listen carefully. Always remain fluid and flexible, and be willing to adapt your project if it makes sense. (I’m currently doing that right now after receiving some incredibly rare insights from an agent who loved my book’s premise, but suggested it needed a new character!)
Finally, despite modern technology, the publishing industry still moves at a glacial pace. Pitch your project and then start another to sharpen your skills and increase your chance of becoming traditionally published.
Remember: Success happens with hard work and enlightened persistence, and yes, a measure of good fortune. In an instant you can go from weary to cheery, if your well-polished submission falls on the desk of an agent or editor at just the right time, and you are ready for the editorial revision that just might make your book a bestseller. Good luck!
According to Chinese star-gazers, Lisa Begin-Kruysman was born during the Hours and the Year of the Dog. It’s no surprise then that she’s made canines the focus of her award-winning works of Fiction and Non-Fiction, and social media platform. She is the recipient of the DWAA’s Maxwell Medallion and the North Shore Animal League America Award and the author of Dog’s Best Friend: Will Judy, Founder of National Dog Week and Dog World Publisher (McFarland & Co. – 2014). She will be seeking proposals from those in the dog writing industry who wish to participate in a new series of educational webinars to be offered by the DWAA later this year.