Saturday, February 9, 2013

Query Letters

The query letter I'd love to receive.

Well, okay, High Hill really wouldn't expect to get a query letter like the old-fashion letter above, but we do want to receive them in a professional manner. There isn't anything we at High Hill can do to make writing a query any easier, but we can assure you we don't have to receive a query that is perfect. What we do want is for them to be professional in other ways. As an example, I received a query not long ago that simply said in two sentences. I have a novel? How do I get it to you? The letter was abrupt, didn't tell me anything about what the novel was about, nothing about the author, and at first I thought it rude. After a second read, I realized it probably wasn't as much rude, as it was just simply from someone who didn't know a thing about writing a query. They might not have even known there is such a beast as a query letter. So instead of rejecting this author, based on the absurd way in which they asked for information, I directed them to our website. It didn't take long, however, for them to write back with an entire manuscript included as an attachment, and still no information within the body of the e-mail about the book or why I should want it. On this second letter, they didn't even bother to put their name. So I then wrote back and told them we were sorry, we were going to have to pass, and I wished them luck in finding publication elsewhere. I didn't have to read any of their manuscript. I knew from the total lack of knowledge this author showed in the entire process, that their writing probably lacked a knowledge of craft. Then the obvious struck me. Writing is a process. It's not enough to know where to put a comma. It's not enough to have a story and characters. And it's not enough to finish a novel. You also have to learn a little etiquette in order to get noticed.

We deal with dozens of queries per week, on average, 100 a month. E-mail is convenient, and we truly believe it's better than snail mail, so there isn't a problem there. The problem begins when an e-mail query is too abrupt, written poorly, or just plain shows that the writer doesn't know the rules. After all, it's like an introduction. If you were to walk up to me at a conference, the first thing you'd do, I hope, is introduce yourself. I'm sure you wouldn't just blurt out that you've finished a novel and want to know how to get it to me. Or God forbid, hand me a manuscript. Would you? Think of the query letter as your first meeting, without a handshake or a smile. Let us know right off the bat you appreciate our time, then introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about your novel, and why you think it would sell. Then give a brief description of your writing credits. Thank us for our time, finish with your name, and hit send.

Don't expect an answer immediately, and when you don't get it, do not write again to ask for confirmation. I tell my friends that a rule of thumb with an inexperienced writer is 7 e-mails. They write, they write again, I answer, they write back, I answer back, they write again, I answer. That's 7. Think of it this way. If I spend an average of ten minutes reading and answering each of your e-mails, that's more than an hour on just one person. Multiply that by the two dozen people that contacted me that week and that's a great big bunch of time out of my work week. That's why I don't fall into the 7 e-mail trap. You write, we reply when we can and not before, so there is no use reminding us that you wrote two days before and didn't receive an answer.

If we answer and ask for three chapters, do not send the entire manuscript because you thought it would save time. Send only what we ask for. If we write back and let you know that we don't think your manuscript would be right for us, don't send off a rude and horrible letter telling anyone who'll listen that we don't know what we're talking about. We usually give a reason for a rejection. Take the reason we gave you, and go on. If at the end of this sometimes 3 or 4 month process, we find that we love your novel, someone will give you the long and windy phone call. Our business is small. We're certainly not doing it for the money, we do it because we love it. So part of our concern is that we not only love the story, we have to like the author well enough to want to work closely with them for the next year and a half to two years, which is how long the process usually is after we've accepted a manuscript.

We know this business is a hard one. It's not for the faint of heart, or the impatient. It's for people who love writing, and want to work hard at getting that writing to the public. Good luck with your writing, and now sit down and get a great query letter out to a publisher. We'd love to see your name on a best seller's list someday.

1 comment:

  1. Isn't that the truth! Over at Southeast's Press I've gotten submissions with magazine cutouts glued all over, no query letters, two-word query letters--you name it. It's amazing that no one bothers to write anything about the submission. It's the same as writing a cover letter for a job--you don't just send off your resume willy-nilly (at least, I hope not). I'm sure Susan has even more submission horror stories.