When querying a publisher or agent, how does a writer include all the necessary data and still keep it short?
I’m beginning the query process for my recently completed travel memoir. Fellow non-fiction writers with published books under their belts have suggested I query publishing houses directly.
Standard advice almost always includes the exhortation to keep query letters short, just one page if possible. However, most advice also says a good letter should contain: a brief description of the book; word count and genre; reasons for approaching a specific publisher (such as similar books in their catalogue); a bio and publication credits; some indication that the author is market savvy and will be a good promoter of the book. Some agents and publishers even ask that the querying author include names of recently published or forthcoming books that would likely be competition, and some thoughts on how the author’s work would stand out from these.
How does a writer fit all of this, and contact info too, on just one page?
–Puzzled, Montreal QC Dear Puzzled,
Indeed, your note to us describes a great query letter to send to publishers, agents or both. Many writers have said that this diabolical boiling-down task is harder than writing a book, but it’s worth the anguish. Not only will it tell the publisher (or agent) about your book in a very short time, but also it shows that you understand the book business, your audience and where your work fits in the marketplace. And a bonus: the act of writing a good query will give you a clearer idea of what you’re up to. For examples of queries that have worked, search Successful Queries (or Query Letters). Meanwhile, here is an economical query, compiled for instruction purposes, that covers the bases:
Dear Mr. Madore,
Would you like to take a look at my 71,000-word memoir, “Three Days in the Everglades”? I think it’s right up your alley.
It is the story of a weekend camping trip I took alone, in 2013, in the Florida Everglades. That weekend turned me—a sensible, somewhat skeptical 32-year-old woman—into a person who believes in magic.
I had camped in the Everglades many times, alone and with my colleagues in International Nature Watch, but not for about eight years. During that time a lot of restoration work had been done in the area, desperately needed after 150 years of attempts to drain and otherwise control a million acres of natural wetland. As I headed for one of my old favourite secluded spots, far from the official campground, I marvelled at the changes—lush grasses, sparkling marshes, abundant birds and frogs. On Friday night I slept under the stars. On Saturday I explored the wonders of the Glades, randomly following rough trails and occasionally encountering other visitors. On Sunday morning, as I prepared to head home, I realized that I had no idea where I was. The terrain had changed so much that I just couldn’t remember which twisty trails went where. My small compass was no use because I didn’t know which way was out, and there was no reception for my mobile phone. I shouted for help a few times and got no answer. I knew this place and its history –so wild that the Seminoles, who retreated here in the 19th century, were the only Native American group that was never conquered. Finally I sat down and burst into tears. And then here came a cat, a scraggly old ginger house cat, who stopped a few feet away. Then a tatty part-Siamese from another direction, then a calico with half a tail, then two others. At first I thought it was a hallucinatory product of confusion, fear, and the 10 years I have worked as a veterinary technician. But then I realized they were Everglades cats, feral ex-pets released into the wild. These cats then began skulking through the bush, all doing their own thing, but all in one direction. I followed—what did I have to lose? Long (and great) story short, those cats led me right out of the deep Glades to a well-travelled gravel road. In my work with vets I have seen a lot of astonishing animal behaviour, but nothing like that.
The book is a sort of Wild meets The Cat Came Back, an unexpected adventure in a lush, beautiful, mysterious wetland, by turns harrowing and funny, with a touch of the supernatural. The Everglades itself becomes an unforgettable character in the story, with its “river of grass” hovering over porous limestone, its mangrove forests and cypress swamps, and its indigenous alligators, frogs, turtles, birds, and other wildlife cohabiting with chaotic invasive species. “Three Days in the Everglades” is truly a satisfying page-turner for fans of your recent titles Harsh Marsh, River Light, and Way Off the Grid.
Please see a brief biographical summary enclosed. I look forward to hearing from you!
Email: xxxxx Phone: xxxxx Facebook: xxxxx Twitter: xxxxx Tumblr: xxxxx
This query does everything it’s supposed to:
Salutation: Greets an appropriate person, with a name; not “Acquiring Editor” or other title.
Paragraph 1: Shows length, genre and working title.
Para 2: Delivers relevant info on the writer, also quick summary of basic setting, plot and arc of story.
Para 3: Fleshes out story and details of suspense and resolution. (Note: Spoilers required for people you are selling the book to. They have to assess the full shape of the work, including the ending.) Establishes author’s unique qualifications to tell the story: her decade of work with animals, and her knowledge of and passion for the mystical setting. Supplies a specific marketing channel: International Nature Watch and like-minded groups, with which author clearly has strong connections. Gives a good sense of the author’s writing voice.
Para 4: Expands writer’s credibility as a lay expert on the Everglades and her habit of choosing interesting details. Shows that writer has chosen this publisher because of compatible and successful titles recently published. Gives two marketing handles: comparable/competing titles to show position in market, and potential audience – people who bought three similar books.
Para 5: Directs publisher to a more detailed author biography. She has included her most relevant experience in the context of describing the book; if the publisher wants to know more, it is available – on one side of one page (or digital equivalent), condensed and in point form for quick scanning.
Signoff: Includes all contact and social media data for easy reply. Also shows that the writer has a “platform”; i.e., a public presence, important for marketing. (The biog page should have all of this contact data too, in an obvious spot whether on paper or screen.)