15 Jul 2011

On the art of query letters ...

“Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write.” Nicolas Sparks.

No pressure, right?
Query letters are letters that introduce you and your writing to a potential publisher or agent. Basically you write a few words about your self and your manuscript, and hope that you sound convincing enough for the publisher or agent to ask for sample chapters and a synopsis, hopefully followed by a request to see the entire manuscript, and then they will sing you praises and commission your book, making you rich and famous … It sounds so easy!
Now for those of us who are not English or American this is an odd exercise. The typical query letter in Norway is written to a potential publisher. Our market is far to small for agents, so you always send your manuscript to a publisher.
Usually it goes something like this:

Hi(insert name of the editor).
We've written a crime novel and we hope you will find it interesting.
Best wishes.
Anan Singh & Natalie Normann.

We never use «Dear sir or maam» simply because these forms fell out of use here some time in the sixties. Oh, and we never used the term Sir anyway.
If the publisher reads the manuscript and likes it, then they call you and you tell them whatever information about yourself they want. Mostly they're not interested. A publisher here will buy one book at the time and reserves the right to reject your next book if they don't like it.
But to write to an British or American agent is an entirely different cup of tea. Jeez. That's hard work!
Anan and I wrote a letter like this a few weeks back and we agonized over the content for ages. How much bio? What would be the one thing that would convince the person at the other end of how much they would regret saying no to us? Should it be formal, or more personal? How personal? How formal?
How the h... do you decide what's the right approach?
This is where we run into cultural differences. Anan is Indian, so formal is expected: formal and wordy. Being Norwegian, I believe that the fewer words, the better. We've got a lot of practice now, so we usually find a middle road. It helps knowing that a queary letter should only be a page long! Here's a hint: if your submission is done by e-mail, the query letter can be slightly longer. It's not like the Agent/Publisher is going to cut out the text from the e-mail and check! At least I hope not …
Any good book on writing will also give advice on how to write a good query letter. Just use your head and don't copy without thinking it through! What works for one person, doesn't necessarily work for someone else ...
This is how not do to it, in case you need to know: Slush Pile Hell

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