If you’ve been keeping up with me on Twitter, you might have seen that I’m nearing the point of diving into the querying trenches.
Querying refers to the process of reaching out to literary agents.
A query letter is a one-page version of the elevator pitch, introducing yourself and your manuscript.
Think of it like a cover letter on a resume.
Along with the query letter, agents might ask for a synopsis of the work and a limited number of pages. This helps them gauge the manuscript’s potential and determine if it is a good fit for them as well as prospective publishers.
The requirements will vary from one agent to the next so always be sure to check their submission guidelines. Failure to adhere to their rules will pretty much guarantee rejection.
I am still in the early phases of researching agents and compiling a list of those I am intending to contact. As is the case with a lot of my writing-related activities, I’ve been tinkering away with my query letters and other necessary materials while jamming out to my writing playlist.
I’m not a huge fan of The Beatles, but I admittedly did go through a slight phase in high school and did stop by Abbey Road while I was visiting London. As you might expect, I have a soft spot for “Paperback Writer.” It’s among the tracks I like to play when I need some inspiration and psyching myself up about what’s to come (because, speaking honestly, this is incredibly daunting).
If you’re unfamiliar with the song or haven’t heard it in a while, you can give it a listen below.
What I hadn’t picked up on at first was that the lyrics very much resemble a query letter, and I find that I’m listening to it more now that I’m gearing up to send out my own.
However, it may not be the best examples of how to write a query letter.
So. in the interest of having a little fun and sharing some of the advice and tips I find helpful to keep in mind, it’s time to break down the lyrics of “Paperback Writer” and see how it would perform as an actual query letter being sent out to literary agents.
Disclaimer | This is not necessarily a how-to post. Bear in mind that I have not yet sent out any queries so I cannot speak from the perspective of someone who has written a successful query letter that received either a partial or full request, nor an offer of representation. I do hope to cover this in a broader sense in the future. This is derived from the research I have done in preparation for querying.
Dear Sir or Madam…
Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
It took me years to write, will you take a look?
The first thing we get is a salutation. While this is a right step, it’s not necessarily in the best direction.
When writing the cover letter for a resume, you might be advised to seek out the name of the person interviewing you for the job. Something along the lines of Dear Sir or Madam or To Whom It May Concern are solid alternatives if this information cannot be ascertained.
With a query letter, you’re not sending it out to just anyone. You’ve (ideally) done your research, making sure you’re not sending your sci-fi novel to an agent who only represents fantasy, and have looked into your prospective agent as well as the agency they work for to make sure they would be a good fit for you.
Especially in the modern age where many writers connect with agents through websites and social media platforms, and querying materials are submitted via email addresses, there is no excuse for using a generic greeting and not addressing the agent directly because you know who you are querying.
Another piece of advice I’ve noticed floating around is to include a personal note in the opening of your query. If you met with this agent at a conference or have seen them interact with a WIP-related in a way that indicates an interest in your work. It’s about building that relationship rather than giving the impression you’re just submitting to any available inbox.
Circling back to the cover letter example, this is similar to referencing the company’s recent accomplishments or something from their website.
Saying “I am enjoy giving back to the community and was impressed by your annual fundraiser for the local elementary school’s music department” is more likely to get your foot in the door, and something like “I noticed you liked my PitMad tweet and wanted to reach out” could make an agent more inclined to read your materials.
It’s Based On A Novel By A Man Named Lear
This, to me, indicates a comp title, or comparative title, which gives an indication of how your book may perform or what the likely audience might be.
However, this doesn’t give a lot of information. Additionally, there is no mention of the book’s genre.
It’s A Dirty Story…
It’s a dirty story of a dirty man
And his clinging wife doesn’t understand
His son is working for the Daily Mail
It’s a steady job
But he wants to be a paperback writer
Here we get a little information about the plot and protagonist, which are essential. Typically, you ought to avoid going into too much detail (as that’s the job of the synopsis), but this snippet doesn’t provide much information to go on. What is this “dirty story”? Why does his son’s job at the Daily Mail matter to the plot?
The general rule seems to be giving enough information to garner an agent’s interest without spilling the entirety of the plot in the query letter.
It’s A Thousand Pages…
It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few
I’ll be writing more in a week or two
I could make it longer if you like the style
I can change it ’round
And I wanna be a paperback writer
Ignoring the fact that a thousand pages is a lot of book and almost a guaranteed rejection for a debut novel (among the reasons I’m holding off on endeavoring to publish Guises to Keep), page counts are typically not the preferred format for judging length. Instead, agents want word counts more often than not.
So while mentioning the length is a requirement, there’s a chance this author will run into some problems while querying.
It Can Make A Million For You Overnight
If you really like it you can have the rights
It could make a million for you overnight
If you must return it you can send it here
But I need a break
And I wanna be a paperback writer
This is where the song goes from cute resemblance to a What-Not-To-Do guide.
Perhaps the number-one thing I’ve seen posts warn against is making projections or claims about profits. Don’t talk about how much potential your manuscript has for a silver-screen treatment and how you just know this book will be a bestseller.
Comp titles are really the only place where an author needs to consider their potential in the market but, as mentioned above, this is to give the agent a sense of your probably audience.
If You Must Return It…
Also in the above lines is a mention of a return address.
“Paperback” Writer was released in 1966, so I cannot reasonably hold it to the modern-day email practices in the industry.
However, I do want to note that you cannot go in necessarily expecting a reply. While you might receive a partial or full request from an agent and ideally an eventual offer of representation, or even (certainly) a handful of rejections along the way, there is also the chance an agent you’ve sent a query letter to will not respond at all.
This might be for a few possible reasons.
You’re not the only author in their inbox, and most agents seem to prioritize those they are already representing, corresponding with publishers, handling contracts, and many other duties that are just part of the job. For all the emails they send to you after taking you on, they’re doing the same for any number of other clients.
It may also be related to the query itself. If the agent’s submission guidelines are not followed or if the query letter seems haphazardly slapped together and unprofessional, the agent might decide it’s not worth their time.
Speaking of professionalism, the attitude of the query letter can also be a factor in its fate. As is the case aforementioned claim of guaranteeing a million dollars overnight, a query letter seeming to be written by someone who is overly aggressive or lacking tact in their approach is not going to be something an agent is likely to answer.
Think of it like a blind date. If you’re out with someone and they seem to be a genuinely unpleasant person, you’re not going to want a second date.
Keeping with the dating example, agents have a “type,” so to speak, specifically a genre or list of genres they represent.
If an agent has YA Fantasy, YA Science-Fiction, and YA Horror listed on their page, sending them a middle-grade nonfiction book about Jacques Cousteau will not reel them in and will instead cast your query aside (marine biology puns intended).
Some agents might give an approximate timeframe for when to expect a reply on their website, or post on social media if their inbox is especially inundated with queries.
While sometimes “no news is good news” holds true, that’s not always the case for query letters. If you do not receive a response, it’s more often than not a rejection.
On the chance you do receive a rejection, accept the fact and move on. Don’t fire off an angry email berating the agent’s decision or endeavor to convince them to change their mind (it won’t).
The attitude in “Paperback Writer,” though not snarky or rude, is not necessarily appropriate given the cockiness in claiming the book is going to be an instant bestseller that will make a million overnight.
So how does “Paperback Writer” hold up as a query letter?
Honestly speaking, it’s not bad as far as structure goes. The key elements are there in some regard, like the length of the book and a little bit of what it is about (even though there would theoretically be more information in an actual query), but there are also some problems with it.
Most of the issues are in the writer’s characterization, the confidence that comes across as cocky and lacks professionalism.
As far as a general overview of what a query letter does, it can be a good introduction to this step of the publication process, but it’s not a method to replicate when writing your own query letter.