Pitch Perfect

A Step-by-Step Guide to the Query Process

Querying your manuscript to an agent or editor can be an exciting, stressful, time-consuming, and all-around dizzying process. Thousands upon thousands of manuscripts hit publishing professionals’ inboxes each year, and only a fraction of those stories go on to become books.

So how do you set yourself up for querying success? Below I’ve outlined eight key steps to make your query stand out from the pack. Four steps will provide the basic elements of a good query, and four more steps will help you get comfortable with the process of querying and the expectations of agents and editors. And to get extra querying know-how, check out the links in the sidebar!


Elements of Your Query

1. Personalize.

Don't start your query letter off with To Whom It May Concern unless you really don't know the person you are emailing. Seeing a generic form letter is a huge turn-off because it shows agents and editors that an author is probably just throwing out dozens of queries and seeing what sticks. Do some research on the person you are querying, and be sure to include reasons why you’re interested in working with that particular individual. Do you like other books they have edited or represented? Did you hear them speak at a conference? Have you read their Manuscript Wish List posting? Is their Twitter account your absolute favorite? Include this kind of personal touch to the opening of your letter.


2. Pitch.

From sentence one of your query, make the reader fall in love. Tell them why the book matters, what will make it sell, and how the characters are going to jump off the page. If the pitch doesn’t make an agent or an edtior want to drop everything and read your book...well, then they’re not going to drop everything and read your book. Work on your pitch the same way you would a sales presentation. You should include the hook, a brief description, and why this book is unique and wonderful and deserving of a spot on a store's bookshelf. If you’re writing nonfiction, be sure to put together a complete book proposal.


3. Platform.

Platform is important for debut and established authors. The book market is incredibly competitive these days, so being an author with a following puts you ahead of the curve for editors, marketers, and sales folks. I always recommend having a website or blog as well as at least one social media site. Not everyone is great at Twitter or YouTube, so pick the social platform that suits your style best and do it well. When it comes to reviewing your query, an agent or editor doesn't have time to spend an hour searching for your website and social media pages. Include your relevant platform information in your query letter, either by linking to your website/blog where all your social sites can be accessed, or by providing links to each one. Learn more about the good, bad, and ugly of platform in this recent IP article.


4. Professionalism. 

Formality is still important in this day and age, so when you do send out a letter, be sure to follow traditional query letter guidelines unless otherwise specified by a publisher. Think of the query as your first interview for a job you really want, and put your best foot forward. Write in a way that is indicative of your style and that will impress the editor or agent.


Get to Know the System

5. Pay attention.

Remember to abide by the rules of submission as set forth by the person you are querying. If you don't have the right subject line, you could get sent to spam. Same goes for if you send an attachment when the text should be in the body of the email. And if you submit an adult suspense to someone who is only looking for picture books…you can guess what will happen. Following directions can make or break at the submission stage!


6. Polish.

The role of an editor or agent is to make sure you cross your t's and dot your i's, but that doesn't mean we want to see typos in your work just so we can fix them. Both your query and any sample chapters should be as perfect as you can possibly make them. The cleaner your work, the more likely it is to get through to an acquisitions stage.


7. Practice. 

Practice your query on your friends and family before sending out to an agent or editor. Then practice on your critique partners. Once you have a query in hand that catches the attention of your fellow readers and has been edited and reviewed by at least three sets of literary eyes, you will be ready! Until then, keep reading up on query and pitch success stories so you can utilize the other tricks and tips people have used to turn their publishing dreams into reality.


8. Patience.

The publishing world moves slowly. It can take weeks for an agent or editor to get through the submissions they receive in a single day. Constantly refreshing your inbox won’t move things faster (though we are all guilty of doing that!). If more than 6-8 weeks goes by without a response, check on the agent/editor’s response policy. Some folks can only respond to the queries they are interested in, but others allow you to resubmit or send a follow-up email. If silence means a no, don’t be discouraged. Head back to the drawing board and start fresh. Someone out there will be the right match for your story!


Jillian Bergsma Manning is a contributing editor for Independent Publisher. She loves reading and writing but not arithmetic. Follow her on Twitter at @LillianJaine or on her blog at www.editorsays.com.