How to Write a Query Letter
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Writing a Query Letter and Book Proposal
Most publishers expect the book proposal process to begin with a query letter or e-mail, briefly stating what a proposed book is about, who the market is and why you're the author to write it. Publishers are more likely to actually read query letters than anything else you send precisely because they're short, so it's important to come across as a professional. Non-fiction publishers will take query letters seriously, even from unpublished authors, if they're persuasive and to the point. Let's say you want to write a book about how to be an American and you're looking to find a trade publisher willing to pay you an advance. The surest way to get your query letter thrown out is to write, "The market for this book is the nearly 300 million Americans, plus the six billion or so foreigners who either love or hate us." That's not a market, it's all of mankind. Books about being American are published and sold every year, and they all have a target audience. It could be a high school civics book, a grammar school reader, a manual for gun-toting survivalists or an apology for liberals. No sober acquisitions editor is going to believe you know how to write a book that will suit all these audiences. Even if you've written the next "Huckleberry Finn," you had better propose that the book will be attractive to young readers who live near water if you want to be taken seriously.
Whole books have been published on the subject of how to write query letters and book proposals, and when it's appropriate to combine the two. A query letter, and more recently, a query e-mail, is a quick check on whether or not an acquisitions editor at a publisher has any interest in publishing a title in the genre and topic you're writing about. In terms of length, don't go over one page in a query letter or two paragraphs in a query e-mail, and in both cases, get the basic book idea into the first few sentences. If you know that a particular acquisitions editor is actively acquiring books in your field, you can skip the query letter and send a proposal, but it should still get right to the point. Don't include sample chapters in an unsolicited proposal; it's not professional and the bulk may keep anybody at the publisher from bothering to open the envelope. Enclosing a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE) is a matter of taste, your phone number and an e-mail address are critical. Some acquisitions editors see SASE as the mark of the amateur or an invitation to rejection, while old school editors may be put off if you don't include it. Many of today's editors are more likely to pick up the phone or send an e-mail than to play post office.
The purpose of a query letter is to hook editors, and the job of the proposal is to reel them in. The book proposal size is inversely proportional to the fame of the author, so that an unknown author just learning how to sell your book manuscript (particularly in fiction) must submit a substantial package to be considered for publication while a big name may receive a contract for a concept. A description of the proposed book, including an outline or sample chapters, is almost incidental to a modern book proposal. The main challenge is to present a compelling case as to why a new book in the given genre, by the particular author, with a certain subject, will succeed in the market. Critical components of a proposal include: how the author will promote the book, an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of competing books, and what credentials the author brings to the table, either previous success as an author or name recognition in a professional field. Few continuously employed acquisitions editors have the authority or courage to publish a book just because it's well-written.
There's not even a discussion anymore over whether or not it's ethical to send query letters out to multiple publishers simultaneously. It is. Some old fashioned writers hesitate to send a full proposal to more that one publisher at a time, and some old fashioned editors will become indignant if you do. Just ask an acquisitions editor if they'll agree not to consider any other books while they're thinking about yours and see what you get for an answer. When a book proposal reaches the point of serious consideration, i.e., the acquisitions editor you contacted asks for more information and starts talking about presenting it to an editorial board, you can tell them if the book is being seriously considered by another publisher. Keep in mind that it's impossible to get offers from competing publishers without proposing the book to them, and competing offers are the only real way you can discover the market value of a manuscript.
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