We established last time that the first question that needs to be answered is not about how to write a query letter but abut why you need to write a query letter. If we figure out why we are writing the query letters, then the “how” will follow naturally.
I gave the first reason for writing query letters in part one of this series How to Write a Query Letter. I said the query letter is the way you introduce yourself to me. But here’s a second reason for writing a query letter:
2) You need to write a query letter to introduce your work.
Along with telling me who you are, you need to tell me what you’re trying to sell.
I often get queries from people who tell me they have some ideas for novels and they’d like to talk to me about those ideas.
Umm . . . No.
What you need if you have ideas you want to bounce around, is a writing coach. Not only are you not ready to talk to an agent, you aren’t even ready for a critique group. You have nothing for a crit group to comment on, and you have no project to pitch to an agent.
But let’s assume everyone reading this blog post has a manuscript to pitch. How are you going to pitch it? With a query letter.
So first your query letter shakes my hand and tells me who you are and I eyeball it to see if you look like a respectable person. And after I decide that you look OK, I go on to see if your project might be something I want.
Your query letter is a sales pitch.
It has to show me the main character and a bit about what happens in the story, but most importantly, it should convince me that I can make money from your manuscript.
I’m not independently wealthy and dabbling in children’s books because I like them. I can’t take on projects unless I think I have a reasonable hope of making money from them.
So drill this into your head: your query letter is a sales pitch. You have to meet me at my pain point and offer a solution to my problems.
I often get queries from people who won’t pitch their projects until I sign a contract, promising them that I won’t steal their ideas.
Umm . . . No.
I not only am not going to steal those projects, I’m not even going to look at them. I don’t care about them. Why would I care about a project I know nothing about? Why would I spend one minute thinking about these mysterious projects?
Let’s say there are fifteen car dealerships lined up in a row.
And let’s say all the dealers have their latest, shiniest models parked on pedestals with balloons tied to the antennas, begging me to slow down as I drive by. Begging me to give them a look. Urging me to think to myself, “Now that’s a gorgeous automobile. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a new car? Sure, my old car runs just fine, but look at the shiny colors and the sparkly chrome wheels on that baby right over there! Wow!”
Now let’s say one dealer, in the middle of that lineup, has no cars on display in his parking lot. Instead, there’s a sign saying, “if you want to see what I’m selling, come on in and sign a nondisclosure agreement, and leave your cell phones and cameras with the guard. Then we’ll take you back and let you see what we have.”
Dude! You are not making me curious.
Before I can finish reading through your stipulations. I’m past your dirveway and looking at the fire-engine red sports car on the rotating platform at the next dealership and thinking, “Wow. If I drove that to conferences all the people would think I was ultra successful and the writers would pitch me their best projects and the editors would want to get close to me so some of my success would rub off on them. Yeah. I need that red sports car!”
The moral of the story? If you want to sell me something, you need to show me the product.
I often get queries from people who don’t know they are supposed to pitch anything. They ask me to tell them how to get published.
Umm . . . No.
What do I look like? A librarian? An encyclopedia? A search engine?
Let me Google that for you. How can I get my book published?
I’m not sure where people get the idea that agents have time to chit chat. We’ve all learned not to write to doctors and ask them if they can meet us for coffee to discuss our bunions. But for some reason, people think that literary agents have time to tell people over and over how to be published. They don’t think about paying for a conference to learn. It doesn’t occur to them to read one of the eight million books on the topic. Why bother to read a book when you can call a literary agent, instead?
No, I’m not really offended.
I’m kidding around. It doesn’t bother me when people write or call to ask me how to get published. But I do let the calls go to voicemail and I do let my interns delete the emails or send a form letter in response. I’d love to chat about publishing with everyone. After God, publishing is my favorite topic of discussion. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to talk to all the people who are looking for help.
So when you query me, you need to sell me something.
You need to tell me what you can do for me, instead of asking me what I can do for you. You are approaching me, and you should look at me the same way you look at a doctor or a lawyer or a plumber or a heating and air guy. You either call me up and say, “I have a problem and I will pay you to fix it,” or you might say, “I have a new thermometer/billing system/pipe wrench/air conditioner that is going to make you money. You will be able to do ten times as much work and collect ten times as much money. Your customers will be begging for this new product. This is how it works. blah blah blah. Amazing, right? Do you want to see more? Can I take you to dinner to tell you more? How about a weekend at the beach? Would you like an expense paid vacation so you can test out this nifty product in peace? I want you to be relaxed and in a good mood and predisposed to say, ‘yes’ to me. How can I make that happen for you?”
Yes, I’m exaggerating.
No, not by much.
You really need your query letter to be a sales pitch and you really need to do all you can to make the agent and/or editor relaxed and happy so they will want to say, “yes” to you.
OK, I’m done for the day.
This long rant was brought to you by the number 2.
Yes, I know it’s hard to believe but this long, thrilling post has been about just one fascinating point: query letter = sales pitch.
Here’s a bonus tip: calling me up and telling me I’m an f-ing b— because you don’t like that I have interns screening my mail? Not going to make me relaxed and put me the mood to say “yes” to you.
For those of you who slogged through this long rant, here’s my question: Which ads do you click on from Amazon or on Facebook? Have you ever even thought about how people sell things to you and how you might sell things to others? Or is all this talk about selling distasteful to you?