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What the hell is a query letter?

January 26, 2010

C.J. has asked us for our experiences in trying to get our work published, namely by asking what we wish we knew before we sent the first query letter.

Well, my answer is the title of this piece.

Yes, I had finished the 22 chapters of my novel Land of the Blind and had e-mailed the entire thing, along with the synopsis, and some samples to Leucrota Press and DAW Books.

Both companies said to allow 6-8 weeks before hearing anything. Finally, DAW sent a reply saying I needed a query letter first. Two months to be told I forgot the query letter? I guess it could have been worse — they could have told me I didn’t put the query into the body of an e-mail.

(for those who were just wondering — a query letter is, according to http://www.agentquery.com:

“…a single page cover letter, introducing you and your book. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not a resume. It’s not rambling saga of your life as an aspiring writer. It’s not a friendly, “Hey, what’s up, buddy. I’m the next John Grisham. Got the next best selling thriller for ya,” kind of letter. And for the love of god (sic), it is NOT more than one-page. Trust us on this.

A query letter has three concise paragraphs: the hook, the mini-synopsis, and your writer’s biography. Don’t stray from this format.”

Truer words have never been spoken.)

Ironically, I didn’t do that and, while I got backhanded by DAW, I got read by Leucrota, a small press dealing with science fiction, horror and fantasy. The book was rejected, of course. The editor liked it but couldn’t quite get the main character’s motivations. He then mentioned that I should send a query letter with the rewrite.

Thus, I ‘d had my first real lesson in publishing — read the submission instructions. It has helped me avoid future instances (so far) of smugly waiting for a letter from a publisher who thinks I’m too stupid to follow directions.

On a side note, I was both perturbed and perplexed at the rejection.  I went back and reread the entire novel. When I finished, I said “Wow, this guy was being kind. This thing sucks.” So, then I felt worse. No query letter and my work blew.

So, I set about re-writing the entire novel (and adding four chapters, while borrowing liberally from Ghost in the Shell, Ghost in the Shell 2, Dark City, Minority Report and Children of Men). While I did that, I was busy in the online field, sending out short stories to lulu.com and createspace and putting stuff up on Writing.com. Richard Yee from Writer’s Bumpzine contacted me to put one of my stories into an anthology (hey, I didn’t need a query letter, so I accepted; it’s a rarity, so don’t get all excited like I did). Most recently, Spectacular Speculations has been posting my work (I submitted my work with a query, in the body of the e-mail, of course — oh, wait, I already used that joke; oh, what the hell, it’s still funny).

I also sent out a query letter for Hunters , my novel about vampire killers, to Mystic Moon Press. They were intrigued enough to ask for a sample and then sent me a contract (alas, they’ve gone belly up, but they were, technically, the first book publishers to send me a contract).

Oh, I’m sorry, there were the second. I’d heard about this publisher called PublishAmerica and thought I’d try them. Then, I wisely did what I advocated in last week’s blog — I researched and found some not-too-kind words about them.

Hoping to get some answers, I did up a lengthy query letter and sent it to them. But, I rushed it and it went out with all sorts of misspellings and grammatical mistakes, the kind journalists like myself feel really embarrassed about.

Well, I may have been embarrassed but PublishAmerica wasn’t.

They sent me a contract!

I think I burned it.

Would I still recommend PublishAmerica? I hear they’ve changed. My advice is to check their website and google comments about them. Sometimes beggars can’t be choosers.

Okay, back to my blog.  I decided to stick to my old way of doing queries. That lasted until C.J. told me how she was going bald trying to craft a query letter for Vampire Vacation. I suddenly had the urge to hide in the attic with the squirrels. I soon got over it (the squirrels kicked me out), partly because I knew that there was no way that C.J. Ellisson (no relation to Harlan) could not write a brilliant query letter if I’d once done one that lay somewhere between crap and average.

Another thing that made me feel better about query letters is that I found something scarier than writing one. And that is…

…finding the right publisher!

Oh yeah, no problem there, eh? All the big companies get inundated by thousands of would-be writers, so they’ve all but decided to accept no new manuscripts unless through an agent who most likely has enough paperwork on his or her desk to make a social worker  or parole officer feel lucky.

Thus, I’ve had to seek out the small presses like Leucrota (found through an ad on Writing.com). A quick look in the library also got me references to things like Fiction Publishers Directory, a listing by Wildside Press of agents who deal with first-time writers, and that old standby Writer’s Market. Beware, though, of Tor Fiction. They’re pretty good but they have this list of new writers and they call it the Dick List. A very good resource but, for God’s sake, don’t ask the librarian for it by name.

Note: be prepared. You’re going to find some rocks mixed in with your Halloween candy when looking for publishers, like I did with Mystic Moon Press. Some companies will be out to screw you, while others will mean well, but be overwhelmed by the industry. You’ll see groups like PublishAmerica, CreateSpace and WordClay that you’ll have to investigate before making a decision (though you should try CreateSpace’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award). And, of course, there will be the vanity publishers, who will require you to pay to get published (with packages ranging up to the thousands).

Just keep sending out the queries. Use your best judgment and, above all, live and learn. Don’t let the bad experiences or rejection slips get you down.

As I was saying, I scrolled through many sites online and through books at my local library (the ones that haven’t been closed) to find resources. I sent query letters to many of them, but heard back from maybe 5 percent. At first, I felt like Bill Murray in “Ghostbusters” when Sigourney Weaver makes fun of his compliment to her:

“I don’t have to take this abuse from you. I’ve got hundreds of people dying to abuse me.”

But then, I settled down and figured that nothing had changed from the day before. I wasn’t published the day before and I still wasn’t published. Now, it’s when you do get published and they start rejecting your later stuff that you know  you’re screwed (I call it the “M. Night Shyamalan” effect).

To sum up, I don’t dread the query letter anymore, though I wish I could have skipped the headaches I got from them. I know it’s all part of a package that the publisher wants — query letter, sample chapters, synopsis, etc. If I can’t sum up what my book is about in one page, then I don’t deserve to be published. It’s not like it’s a blog or something where I just ramble on and on. What counts more is that I understand the process of preparing my work to be sent to a publisher.

I don’t really even dread the publisher. Once, they all used to be giant, drooling monsters hovering over desk tops, stuffing SASEs with brightly-colored rejection slips. Then, I realized that I was just scaring myself needlessly and had gotten it all wrong — the rejection slips weren’t brightly-colored.

In all seriousness, it was kind of scary.

But, not as scary as not trying. For the readers, there might be some benefits to be found in not trying, in seeking safety with the masses. But, most of the time, that doesn’t work. There’s a certain portion of the population that likes to drag go-getters down to their “safe” level because they don’t have the chutzpah to do something outside the box. Those people are called human beings. We call them “the masses” for clarity.

If it helps you, do what I do (and I tend to do this a lot because there are too many people with my skin color who think science fiction is for white people). Think of the query letter as giving all of those naysayers the middle finger.

And when you get published, give them two, along with an autographed copy.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2010 9:46 am

    Lots of great info on publishers, Greg. I’m out of breath just reading it, being reminded of all the work ahead.

  2. January 27, 2010 7:53 am

    You know you guys all give me way more credit than I deserve, right? And the sad part is my query may have been good (not “brilliant” that’s for damn sure 😉 – but most of the agents aren’t digging my book. One will someday soon I hope!

    And I’m still unsure what the “Dick List” is (and no way in HELL am I googling that). Does that mean TOR keeps track of writers they don’t like? Maybe they were rude or queried dozens of times on the same MS?

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