The Query Letter

by Joanne Rock and Catherine Mann

If you had ten minutes to impress a prospective employer, would you show up dressed in flannels and a T-shirt? Even if your ideal career involved work at a flannel factory, we’re willing to bet you would still reach for a suit, or at least something sharp and professional looking. So it goes in the world of manuscript submissions. When you’re ready to query editors and agents about the story you slaved over, you don’t want it to arrive on an editor’s desk attired in anything less than your professional best for that all important first impression.

Do Your Homework

When sending a simple query letter, the submission process requires research, time well spent on your one shot. Comprehensive guidelines for all RWA-recognized publishers are available in the January and May issues of the RWR in a feature called “Market Update.” Market updates can also be located online twenty-four hours a day in the member’s only section of RWA’s website. Other resources include cruising publisher websites such as to listen in with editors chatting on the community boards, discussing their preferences.

Yet even with all the information available to writers on the Internet, there are still other ways to make contact with editors and discover their individual submission preferences. For further insights about who’s looking for what, attend writers’ conferences or order conference workshop tapes for tips on editorial preferences. Network with other RWA members.

In writer’s guides such as Writer’s Market, many publishing houses claim to purchase less than one percent of what they receive; yet according to a recent statement on chaplink from RWA’s Executive Director Allison Kelley, approximately thirty percent of RWA members are published. Our odds seem better, and with good reason. Our professional network offers access to countless resources to help snag an editor’s attention by honing your craft and your submission skills.

Query Must Haves

Logistics of names and addresses aside, the content of a query letter breaks down into three main parts: overview information on your manuscript, a blurb or hook line about the story, and your writing credentials. Some authors prefer to place the blurb up front or start with a teaser line. Others take a more all-business approach and begin with the facts-word count, genre, etc. Choose whichever method feels comfortable for you as they are both effective. For the purposes of our sample letter, we’ve opted for the overview, followed by the blurb, ending with the writing credentials and closing information.

Overview Information

When introducing your story, give the editor a sense of how your book could fit into their publishing program by conveying the genre, sub-genre, and – if applicable-its targeted line. Describing genre calls upon phrases such as contemporary, historical, romantic-suspense, paranormal, futuristic, women’s fiction, chick-lit and so on. Sub-genre helps fine-tune the targeting information. A historical might be a western, medieval or an Americana, while a paranormal could be a time-travel or ghost story.

If the story is a sexy short contemporary, take this identification process a step further and explain you’re targeting the work specifically for Harlequin Temptation or Silhouette Desire. Some writers submitting to single title houses find it helpful to compare their voices to another author’s. For example in comparing to Lori Foster (Bad Boys to Go, Kensington 11/03) you might note, “My warm-hearted, sexy contemporary is reminiscent of a Lori Foster story.” If you opt to draw a comparison to one writer or a few writers, be sure to include at least one author from your targeted publishing house to demonstrate an awareness of the publisher’s list.

Other elements within the overview paragraph of the query include the manuscript word count, which according to most editors is different from the computer-generated word count. Publishers have various ways of calculating this, but many use the 250 word per page system, which lends itself easily to the old standby of Courier New 12 point font, 25 lines per page with margins no smaller than 1 inch but no larger than 1.25 inches. Again, check publisher guidelines for word counts on their lines. There’s no faster way to show a lack of research and have the work rejected than to send a 100,000-word manuscript to a short contemporary line. (Editors indicate this happens surprisingly often.) Also note whether or not the book is complete. If not, you may offer a realistic date when the full manuscript will be available for consideration.

Blurb and Hook Line

The second portion of our sample query letter is the blurb. Senior Editor Melissa Jeglinski (Silhouette Desire) states that a “snappy one liner opening encompassing the plot of the book” is sure to snag her attention. Editor Wanda Ottewell (Harlequin Flipside) said she also looks for a query that relays the uniqueness of a given story, a blurb that can convey something special about an author’s story and voice.

For some writers, a blurb is a TV Guide style, one-line summary hook like Patricia Rice used for McCloud’s Woman, (Ivy 3/03) “What happens when the irresistible force called Mara Simon collides with the immovable object of TJ McCloud over the one beach in South Carolina that they both must have?” Or a bit longer such as Carly Phillips (Simply Sinful, Harlequin 11/03) used for one of her Blaze titles: “A hot steamy summer night in New York City. No better time for fantasies to come true. No better place to share the heat. But sometimes fantasy isn’t enough and only forever will do.”

Writing Credentials

The third main portion of the query letter consists of the writer’s credentials, your opportunity to sell yourself. Noteworthy items to include are writing-related associations, how many books you’ve completed, contest finals, other publications, and hobbies if they are relevant. For example, if you’re a lifelong bug collector, the information would be pertinent if your story revolves around a massive outbreak of bees. If your story is a medical thriller, it lends credibility to your book if you are a pharmacist. Carefully weigh what to include however. Literary agent Barbara Collins Rosenberg of The Rosenberg Group warns against “unnecessary information that dilutes the letter and wastes time. I don’t need to know you have four children unless you’re writing a book about childcare.”

Following this third section of information, include a closing line explaining whether you are offering the story as an exclusive submission or as part of a multiple submission. Perhaps note you are already at work on your next manuscript to show persistence and dedication. This last paragraph is also a good place for a phone number or email address if you haven’t included them in your letterhead. Also, don’t forget to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the editor’s reply.

Tales from the Trenches

Of course, the real experts on the submission process are the agents and editors who may read through a hundred queries in a month. As for turn offs in a query letter, no one had any trouble listing some of their pet peeves.

Topping agent Pam Hopkins’ (Hopkins Literary Associates) list was a query for projects in genres she doesn’t represent. “Of the thirty-five queries I received in my office last week, twenty two were for projects other than romance.” Barbara Collins Rosenberg mentioned typos and disorganized presentation along with “hearing it took fifteen years to complete a manuscript. Even if a book has Nicholas Sparks potential, I’m going to want more than one book every fifteen years from my authors.”

Editorial Assistant Selina McLemore (Avon) cautions authors not to “misrepresent a story by rewording your pitch just to fit something we say we want. Be true to the work.” Wanda Ottewell advised against marketing ploys that smack of “trying too hard” and come across as unprofessional, suggesting, “if the writer had to put so much thought into a gimmick, it may lead the reader to wonder if they were trying to make up for some lack in the writing.” The strength of the story concept should speak for itself.

No article on submitting would be complete without a few real-life gaffes from authors to help us take heart. Tanya Michaels (Who Needs Decaf? Harlequin Flipside 12/03) got all the way to the post office with a proposal for her editor when she just happened to glance at the synopsis. “Now, I’d read it at least ten times, run spell check, etc. The problem is that my mind self-corrected the sentence so it wasn’t until I was about to mail it that I realized instead of the intended line, ’the situation grows even more complicated when a new man enters Gina’s life.’ I’d typed ’the situation grows even more complicated when a new man enters Gina.’” Whoops. Perhaps the moral here is that no matter how much proofing you’ve done, it wouldn’t hurt for someone else to look at it, too.

Golden Heart winner Anna DeStefano, who recently signed with her dream agent, hasn’t always experienced smooth sailing in the submission process either. “Nothing’s blown my ego out of the water as fast as getting a whiplash, form, postcard rejection from one of the top agencies in the country. The agent I’d queried—the one I’d heard was hot for new authors-hadn’t worked there in months! I don’t care who recommends the agent to you—the most multi-published author in your chapter, your best writing friend, the writer who’s always in the know about who scored what deal for whom—always call an agency or double-check their website before querying.”

The Waiting Game

Most of the editors and agents we spoke with suggested they were able to respond to queries within a few weeks, however the wait can of course be longer. That having been said, put your manuscript in the mail and be prepared to wait. But remember, a writer doesn’t just sit around marking days off the calendar. Instead she’s busy with that next story!

Critique partners Catherine Mann and Joanne Rock enjoy analyzing every facet of the romance business as part of their continuing effort to write off astronomical long distance phone bills.