Many times I have read rants and stories regarding writing query letters to agents about one’s novel. Inevitably there are some folks who cannot believe one business letter is worth the agony, frustration, and hard work that authors put into them. They speculate that the prize of getting an agent is locked in a secret vault and the many applicants spend too much time trying to charm the guard and not enough writing the books themselves. They don’t see the point in ‘wasting time’ trying to write that perfect query and chastise writers for spending as much time writing the query as they do writing the book.
That’s a gross exaggeration. The most well-written query did not take as long to create as the book itself. However, I would go so far as to say that the most well-written query was written with the same care and attention as the book was.
Is it that important?
Of course it is. A good query won’t get a bad book published. A good query might get attention for a good book. Why is that letter so important? A query could be a simple business letter that says “Here’s the first few pages of my book.” It isn’t, and here are three reasons why:
1- The Agent Needs to Know the Entire Story.
The first few pages of a manuscript are not enough for an agent to make a judgment call. They need to know the entire story in order to decide if they can sell it. Even if the first few pages shine, what if the rest of the plot is too similar to a project they are already submitting? What if the books plot starts out awesomely but then takes a strange turn to Weirdsville? A simple business letter and a few pages tacked on isn’t going to cut it. Agents need a description of the entire novel.
2- You’re a Writer. You Will Be Judged On All Your Writing.
If you want to call yourself a writer, then get used to the fact that you will be judged on everything you write. Your webpage. Your blog. Your query letter. Of course you will. Why wouldn’t you be?
Imagine, if you will, that you are a costumer trying to get a fantastic job at a top rate theatre. The theatre is having a costume party to greet all the applicants. Do you think the costumer with the thrown together at the last minute costume, or the one with the uneven hem and badly sewn zipper is going to get that job?
Do you think the fashion designer wearing the out-dated and badly fitting suit to a job interview is going to be the next big thing in fashion?
Do you think the hairdresser with the bad haircut is going to get that spot in the fancy salon? Or the tattoo artist with the bad tattoo will be hired by anyone in the tattoo business?
If your artistic medium is writing, and you are writing a query letter to an agent, of course you have to put as much effort into that writing as you did your book. It is your medium and you will be judged on it. Why wouldn’t you? Would you hire an editor that had typos all over their webpage? Of course you wouldn’t
3- A Good Query Letter Shows You Are Willing to Do the Work.
While most agents are interested in new writers and fresh work, they might not be interested in working with a green and naïve writer. I’m not judging them. They have multiple clients and have limited time to work with each.
Let’s go back to our costume shop analogy. A theatre costume shop needs a new stitcher for the upcoming season of plays. The season is going to be a busy one with many large productions. They have two applicants they like. One is a person who has never done costumes, but has sewn all their life. One is a fresh-faced theatre major with great attitude and a willingness to learn, but little practical experience. While the shop is attracted to the theatre major with good attitude, the person with sewing experience is going to get the job. The shop is going to be up to their ears in sewing projects and they don’t have the time to teach the theatre major how to sew.
Having a professional query letter shows an agent that you have done the research. You may never have been published, but you have done some homework on how publishing works. Working with a new writer who has at least some idea of what to expect is going to be much easier than working with the naïve but enthusiastic writer who becomes shocked and disappointed when their publishing deal isn’t for $200k or their book isn’t going to be made into a movie.
Do your homework. Read about how the agent and publishing world work. Find out how to make a query professional and engaging. it’s worth the time, I promise you.