Back before I became an author (or at least a published author, this was 2009ish) I spent some time working in acquisitions at a small press. I don’t think it’s any small coincidence that, even though I had been writing and querying for years at that point, my first novel was picked up a year later. It is a sad fact of life that being a good novelist doesn’t necessarily make you a good query writer—and just like I think working as an editor has helped improve my own writing, I think reading thousands of query letters over my time in acquisitions at least taught me some of what does and doesn’t work in querying.
1. Using “Dear Sir or Madam”
You’ve probably heard this tip before, but if all possible find a name for your query. Many publishers will have an “about us” which will include the acquisitions editor’s name—take the three seconds to check. If you have looked around and can’t find any name at all, I at least find it better to address the letter specifically to the publisher (“Dear 5 Prince Publishing…” or the like). At least then it proves you have taken the time to acknowledge whom you are contacting rather than cutting and pasting a form letter to everyone under the sun.
2. Not looking at publisher’s current list
Publishers like to know that you have taken the time to think about why you’re submitting to them rather than blanketing every submission email you can find hoping something sticks. It should go without saying, but make sure you are submitting to publishers who publish your genre before sending anything (more than I’d care to admit, there were automatic rejections due to people sending things like sailing stories to a fantasy/sci fi/horror press). You are only going to annoy whoever has to send out the rejection letters.
Beyond making sure the publisher publishes your genre, it’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the books currently listed as produced by the publisher you are querying. If you feel like your book would fit in well, you have a better chance of being accepted. Bonus points for being able to point to the books by name (Similar to [PUBLISHER’S BOOK] and [PUBLISHER’S BOOK], [YOUR BOOK] would…)
3. Grammar/Spelling errors
Another “more often than I’d care to admit” occurrence, typos are a big problem for query letters. If it doesn’t seem like you are a good enough writer to write a query letter properly, it’s likely the acquisitions editor won’t open your sample pages at all.
4. Overselling yourself
Ok, you’re supposed to “sell yourself” in your query letter (or at least sell your work) but you make no friends by overselling it. If your query letter talks about how you’re sure your books will sell billions or how everyone says you’re the next [BIG AUTHOR] take it out now. Publishing is a business, and so query letters are first and foremost trying to get the publisher to go into business with you. No one wants to work with someone who is unrealistic and/or egotistical.
5. Not letting your voice shine through.
While the golden rule of query letters is that it is a business letter, and should be treated as such, you certainly shouldn’t take “business” to mean “boring”. If you’re writing humor, it’s all right for your query to sound funny. If you’re writing horror, it’s ok for the tone to be a little scary (especially in your hook). Your query is your first foot in the door. Stay professional, but don’t feel as though you can’t have any personality in it. Certainly let that shine through.
Adela Tilden has always been more ambitious than her station in life might allow. A minor nobleman’s daughter on a failing barony, Adela’s prospects seem dire outside of marrying well-off. When Adela catches the eye of the crown prince, Edward, however, well-off doesn’t seem to be a problem. Thrown into a world of politics and intrigue, Adela might have found all the excitement she ever wanted—if she can manage to leave her past behind.
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Genre – Alternate Historical Fiction
Rating – PG-13
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