Every aspiring author knows all about the submission process. Whether your manuscript is fiction or non-fiction, full-length or short, fantasy or suspense, your next objective after getting it written is to find a publisher or agent. Your book can’t sit on your coffee table forever, only being read by family members and friends, so how do you make sure your manuscript makes it to the front of the line?
Most publishers are not accepting unsolicited manuscripts, so your best bet is to go through an agent. Don’t panic, though! Agents only get paid when your book sells, so you don’t have to worry about any up-front costs. Check out www.aar-online.org for a list of excellent authors’ representatives.
The problem is that agents are as stringent, if not more so, as publishers. They are looking for manuscripts that are saleable, commercial, and well-written, and they aren’t going to talk to an author with whom they don’t feel they can create a mutually beneficial business relationship. So your job is to convince them that they should represent your book, and not by saying, “Pretty please.”
So before you send off your query letter, make sure that it accurately represents you and your book, and that it will get noticed by the agent. They receive hundreds, if not thousands, of queries every week, and yours must shine up from the stack.
Here are some simple guidelines to get you started:
Single space your letter.
A double-spaced letter will seem tacky to the agent, and will give the wrong aesthetic appearance. You want to make sure that your paragraphs are of different lengths so that they don’t look “boxy” and that you have used a professional header. Avoid using statements like “Your Name, Professional Writer” or “Your Name, Aspiring Author”. This will immediately label you as an amateur, and your manuscript will not be read.
Limit Yourself to One Page
Your query letter should never exceed one page, and really should only be about three quarters of a page, with font size no smaller than 10 point. The letter should be easy to read, with two to three paragraphs, and no special fonts. I use Arial, but Times New Roman is also acceptable.
Make Your Point
The agent does not want to hear your life story. Guaranteed. Don’t tell him or her how you came up with your idea, how it took two years to complete, how your dog peed on the first draft and you had to print another one, or how your Grandma Edna thinks it will make a bestseller. The agent doesn’t have time, and at this point, he doesn’t care! This is a business correspondance, and not the beginning to a beautiful friendship. Give a brief synopsis of the manuscript, a brief biography of yourself, and let your work speak for itself.
Use Spell Check!
Since you are a writer, chances are your spelling and grammar skills are considerable. But just in case, reread your query letter several times and use spell check to catch any errors that might have slipped your attention. If you know someone who is an excellent grammaticist, let them read it over to check for minor errors. The cleaner the letter, the better.
Use Unique Paper
I can already imagine the e-mails: “Laura, you said in your article to use unique paper, but my manuscript was declined when I sent in bright purple paper with yellow stars!” Please do not take this too literally! Agents receive hundreds of queries on starch white paper, so why not force your letter to stand out? Print on a pale yellow or pale pink piece of paper, but make sure it isn’t too dark. Even a slight difference from white will stand out just enough. Gray and Ivory work great, too.
It is very important that you follow up with the agent two weeks after he should have received your manuscript. If your package was lost in the mail, or if its been lost in the office, you will find out at this time. I do not recommend phone calls, as this will probably annoy the agent’s secretary, but a letter or a post card works nice for this purpose. Be sure to send SASE (self-addressed-stamped envelope) with your mailing so that the agent can reply with whether or not he has received your query and manuscript.