Last time, after doing my best to convince you that it’s worth the work to master the query letter, I went through the most important part of said query letter: the pitch. If you’re already set up with an agent and editor and/or are publishing on your own, that’s pretty much all you need. But if you’re actually querying, what else should go in your query letter?
Enter: the extras. I say ‘extras’ because, yes, at its heart the most important part of any query letter is the pitch. Without a good, intriguing pitch of your book, no one will ask to see more. But don’t let that word choice fool you into thinking these other components don’t matter, because they absolutely do. They can, if done well, even push a ‘maybe’ into a ‘request.’ If a pitch comes across as so-so, intriguing comp titles, a killer bio, or even a perfectly-worded intro paragraph may well urge an agent to ask to see more.[Note that the goal of a query letter is not to sell your book or even to land an agent; the goal of a query letter is to get an agent interested enough to read your manuscript, which must do the rest. :)]
So let’s break down the extras that can go into your query letter, with some things I’ve learned about each. I say “can go” because most of these things are at least arguably optional, and could be left out or minimized on a case-by-case basis. Still, we’ll cover each.
I’m starting with this one, which I personally think is the least important, because it usually goes first. The idea is to include a brief (brief!) introductory paragraph that’s personalized to each specific agent that you’re querying, either letting them know why you chose them or reminding them how you’ve met, interacted, etc.
Now, I didn’t always do this, and you’ll hear a lot of conflicting information about whether or not you should – even from agents themselves. If you know that an agent you’re querying prefers them, go ahead and do it. If you know he/she hates them, leave it out. And if you don’t know, my rule of thumb is to only include something if it feels genuinely personal and genuinely relevant. In other words, don’t force a faux-personalized intro. “I saw from your list that you’re looking for (insert your genre here)” isn’t likely to impress. You having done your research is presumed.
But if you loved their talk about your genre at a conference, are critique partners with one of their clients, or pal around all the time on Twitter, go ahead and use that to connect them with who you are. This is also the place to mention referrals, previous requests, pitch contests, etc. Don’t have any of those things? (Disclaimer: never make them up.) I lean towards skipping it; save your space for your amazing pitch and bio.
This is what I think of as the second most important section of your letter, after the pitch. The stats. The goods. The hard facts. A stats paragraph can appear anywhere in the letter (but is typically seen either as the opener or right before the closer; fine arguments can be made for either) and should include: 1) title 2) age level, 3) genre, 4) word count, and 5) comps.
Hopefully your book’s title is self-explanatory.
Age level is that of your intended audience, not you. (More on that below.) Generally, adult is assumed unless you state otherwise, in which case you should specify new adult, young adult, middle grade, early reader, etc.
Your genre shouldn’t be more than a few words. I know sometimes it’s difficult to capture the feel of your book in a simple description, but that’s why you get so much space to describe your actual project. When stating your genre, stick to something accurate and easily recognizable, such as “cozy mystery,” “urban fantasy,” “literary fiction,” or “erotic romance.” Invent new labels at your own risk.
Your word count should be included. If your manuscript is so short or so long that you’re tempted to leave it out, you probably need to revise. (Here’s a nice reference on word counts by genre at Writer’s Digest.)
And finally, you should choose two-three comparable titles, or “comps.” I could write (and actually have written) an entire post about comps alone; I think they’re the most under-utilized part of a writer’s query arsenal. But to save space, I’ll give you the down and dirty: choose more books than movies – preferably all books – choose works with an obvious overall connection, favor titles published in the past ten years, and try to pick books that were commercially successful, but don’t choose 3 major bestsellers. (No one’s going to believe you have the next Twilight meets Harry Potter meets Hunger Games, which is confusing anyway because those are three vastly different comps.) Well-chosen comps quickly and quietly do three things: 1) show that you’re a smart writer who’s well-read in your own genre, 2) tell the agent what to expect, and proper expectations are worth a lot, and, 3) even though your manuscript is a special flower, they prove that there’s a place in the market for it (which is why I believe you should never, ever, leave out your comps).
Don’t panic. Why do so many writers panic when we hear the word “bio”? If what you’re worried about is not having enough to flesh out a meaty paragraph, put your mind at ease. This doesn’t have to be long. If all you have is charm and will, that’s all you need. Don’t even have that? Leave it out. A silly or useless bio is worse than a missing bio, and, like the personalization, can be omitted if you can use the space better elsewhere.
The key to a strong bio is actually honing, not stretching. Focus on relevant credits, such as previous publications, a relevant career/expertise, your professional organization, relevant degrees, or writing awards. Did you notice that I used ‘relevant’ three times? Don’t bother boasting your master’s degree if it’s in biology (unless that somehow positions you as the right person to write your book). Don’t bother talking about how much your mom, kid, teacher, critique group, or editor liked your book. Don’t bother mentioning your social media stats unless they are absolutely blow-you-on-your-ass awesome – and if you have to ask if yours are, they aren’t. And definitely don’t volunteer irrelevant personal information such as age, marriage status, or favorite sports team – again, unless there’s some reason you believe it would actually be beneficial for the agent to know this.
A trick for an impressive bio? Focus on your strengths. I know it sounds obvious, but writers forget to do this all the time. Don’t have a degree? Don’t mention that; just name a few of your most impressive publications instead. Don’t have any publications yet? Maybe mention that contest you won, conference you attended, or workshop you completed. Be confident, professional, and concise in your presentation of your best credentials. And if you can put a little personality into it too? All the better. Just… be charming, not weird. Or charmingly weird, maybe, but not weird weird.
And last and probably actually least (for once), we have our closing bits. This is a business letter, and should close out like one. A simple, “Thank you for your consideration. Sincerely,” is always good. Make sure you include your contact information below your name, and call it a day.
What Not To Include
But alas, I would be remiss not to mention the things that shouldn’t go into your query letter. This isn’t exhaustive, but is hopefully a good start. Don’t include:
- unsolicited attachments (check their guidelines)
- photographs (no headshot, no mock book cover, nothing)
- mentions of the agent’s physical appearance, no matter how benign
- overly personal information about yourself or the agent
- disclaimers such as ‘I know it’s not good enough’
- lists or even mentions of past rejections
- who else you’re querying; simultaneous querying is assumed
- any praise of your own manuscript; let them decide it’s great
I’d like to reiterate, one more time, that the most important part of your query letter is the pitch. Work on that first, polish like crazy, and then move on to these ‘extras’ to finish off your letter.
Querying or soon-to-be-querying writers: Do you have any questions about these extra parts of the query? Want to know about something I haven’t covered? Feel free to ask below and I’ll do my best to answer. (Maybe some of WU’s other contributors can help cover questions as well; all together we have such a wonderful array of experience from all sides of the letter.) And writers with experience and success at querying, feel free to add in your own tips or additions, too!
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