Writing a query letter can feel as daunting as drafting an entire book. How can you distill all the beautiful complexities of your book down into just a few sentences? Will my query sit at the bottom of a slush pile forever? How do I stand out?
I’m an acquisitions editor, which means I get to read queries and submissions daily. I’ve also been on the other side of submissions. As an author, I have received 72 rejection letters, 2 partial requests, 5 full requests and 2 book contracts from my own queries.
When I sent my first query in 2015, I remember feeling nervous at how I would handle the inevitable rejection letters. Someone told me to expect 100 “no’s” before I got a “yes”. I told myself that I wasn't going to quit querying my manuscript until I got 100+ no's. So, each time I got a rejection, I took a tally and felt excited that I was getting closer to my "yes".
I’ll admit, rejection still hurts even with a good perspective. But, querying is a numbers game. Perfectly publishable manuscripts are rejected every day. Don’t give up on your book before it reaches the right hands. Agents and editors are rooting for you to become their next favorite author!
As I honed my own query over the years, I realized that there was definitely a recipe to crafting a submission. I found a wonderful book called "From the Query to the Call" by Elana Johnson. If you are in the querying trenches, this e-book is a must-have. It taught me what editors and agents are looking for and how to simplify your novel into just two paragraphs.
Now that I’ve read so many different voices in a variety of query formats, it’s easier than ever for me to see what makes a query letter stand out in the slush pile. In this article, I'll give you formatting and content advice, then I have a few wonderful volunteers who submitted queries for critique. I'll go through these (already solidly written) critiques and point out what they did right and how they could make it even stronger.
Let's get started.
After years of querying, when I finally got my first book contract, I heard something shocking: books are more work after you sign the contract than before.
I assumed they meant editing. Turns out, they meant promotion.
Wait, what did I even need a publisher for if not to take care of all the business and marketing? I wrote the next great American novel, so shouldn’t they earn their share of the royalties by doing all the sales?
The book market has changed dramatically. The days of passive authors showing up for the odd signing while the checks roll in are over… if they ever existed. Amazon and the Internet have forever changed publishing. Whether it’s better or worse now is entirely another matter. More authors get their books out, but fewer authors can live off their book sales. Whatever your opinion, the reality now is that readers are inundated with the constant white noise of book ads. The only way for a new author to make any sales is by doing it one book at a time.
That sounds harsh, but it’s just the nature of the modern publishing game. It’s not much different than if you were at a bookstore with a pile of paperbacks sitting in the middle of shelves full of books. Few if any of the patrons came in to buy your book. But some of them may have come in willing to discover a new world. And if you reach out and connect with them, it will probably be yours. E-book sales are no different. If you make a connection, readers will be willing to give your novel a try. If you just blast cover graphics and blurbs all over social media, few if any of those who actually see it will even give it a second thought.
How many random authors’ books you saw ads for online do you seek out and buy?
Releasing a novel is a bit like being sucked into a tornado while a bunch of people smile and wave at you. It's exhilarating, terrifying, and you can't always predict which direction you'll be thrown. With the expanse of online communities and personal networks available to authors these days, it's hard to know what to focus on when you're trying to self promote. Or how to self promote in the first place.
So, that's what I'm here to talk to you about. No more illusive talk, I'm getting down to the basics. It doesn't matter if you've never been published or have already published and want to grow your audience; it's never too early or too late to start self promoting.
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1. Brand yourself.
When you start self promoting, it's exactly that: SELF promoting. You are the business you are trying to sell, not a particular story. You want all of your other endeavors to succeed because you are the one responsible for them. The goal is to make your name recognizable, so you'll have to decide early on if you want to use your real name or a pseudonym. Once you decide, create all your social media accounts, online community profiles, websites, and business cards with the same name. You don't want to be @rachelhuffmire on one site and @rachiewrites on another. Keep them consistent and professional.
When I first started out, I heard an illusive term floating around: author platform. They told me it was important, but nobody really spelled it out for me. So here you go--- an author platform means all the places you'll be able to stand up and say "Hey! Look at this awesome thing I did!" The bigger the platform, the more people will hear about you and your novel. Your followers don't have to be restricted to writerly groups. If you have a following that watches your how-to videos on making felt finger puppets on YouTube, guess what! That's part of your platform! Figure out what niches you fit into, how you can offer people valuable content, and be friendly. Genuinely make connections, and you'll be surprised how quickly your group can grow!
A few things to think about... Your platforms need to be public, to draw people in. That being said, you need to decide how publicly you are going to broadcast your personal opinions and private life. For me, I decided not to post much about my kids, because, you know, weird people. But, I'm also pretty careful about staying clear of supercharged issues. My brand is not involved in politics, controversial events, derogatory speach, or anything explicit. That's the brand I've chosen. Whereas, some people's brands revolve exclusively around those things. Realize that you absolutely have to make some deliberate decisions about what you can be involved in online.
2. Develop a website.
When people hear your name, they need a landing zone. Your website is where you can tie all your platforms together into one big self-promoting mega machine. People might stumble across your latest tweet, or Instagram pic, but the people who visit your website are deliberate seekers of your brand. These people are coming with questions: What was her book called? Does she have any signing events going on? Can I sign up for a newsletter? I liked her book, I wonder if she wrote anything else.
A good website will have a short bio, blog articles, links to where they can purchase your products, newsletter subscription forms, and event information. You don't have to buy a domain yet, but as soon as you get that publishing contract, having a .com address will make you easier to find and look more professional.
After you get set up, do some research about how to improve your SEO (Search Engine Optimization). When people type in your name, you want to be the first google hit that shows up. It might be a little daunting, but I can promise you, having a polished website that is the first thing to show up on a google search will make all the marketing you do for your release day much more profitable. So get this step done early.
I wrote my first children's play in high school. It was about a little boy who found a watermelon and imagined it was a dinosaur egg. A nosy neighbor girl insisted it was a 'plain ol' melon' which caused the boy to doubt his sense of imagination. In a final climax, the two fought over the fruit and in the scuffle lost control as it rolled down a hill. The girl gave up on it, but when the boy finally found the cracked rind, he was able to find value in the 'ruined' melon by imagining the dinosaur inside had hatched and he resumed his game to find it.
My theater teacher chose my script to be performed in class. As I watched two actors portray the children, I realized the magic of script writing. The actors enhanced my story by adding vocal inflections, movement, and props. They used my creativity as a point to jump off from and created something all their own.
Now, I'm writing a full length musical. It's a bigger task, but the rewarding memory from high school keeps me chasing the dream. I've been working on this collaborative project for over a year now and I am amazed at how often script writing skills reflect on my career as a novelist. Here are a few reasons why I think you should try writing a stage play.
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.