First Impressions: What Makes or Breaks a Query

I recently had the pleasure of hosting an open call for submissions through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). In one month, I received over 800 submissions for picture books, middle grade, and YA.

I wanted to make sure I gave each book the proper time and attention, but 800 is a lot! I usually know within a few sentences of the email submission whether or not I am going to keep reading, which means first impressions are absolutely vital. In the end, I only brought about 10 manuscripts before my acquisitions board. For those of you with math skills like mine (meaning I had to use a calculator), that’s just 1.25 percent.

So how do you get into that 1.25 percent? How can you get your query to stand out to an agent, an editor, or a publisher? Well, look no further. I’ve created a handy, five-point system to help you get past the inbox and onto the acquisitions table.

1. Personalize. Don’t start your query letter off with To Whom It May Concern unless you really don’t know who you are emailing. Seeing a generic form letter is a huge turn-off because it shows me that an author is probably just throwing out dozens of queries and seeing what sticks. I want to know why you are emailing ME, and it should be a better reason than that you desperately want your book in print. Mentions about books I’ve acquired, authors I’ve worked with, or conferences I’ve spoken at show me that you’re invested and that you did your research. (And if you ever find yourself querying me, please don’t call me Jill. It isn’t my name or my nickname. In fact, it brings back terrible memories from second grade I’d rather not relive.)

2. 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. Also 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!

3. Pitch. From sentence one of your query letter, I want to fall in love. Tell me 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 me want to drop everything and read your book…well, then I’m 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 want some help getting the pitch down, Writer’s Digest is one of the many incredible resources out there to help you learn to write the best possible version of your query. Another fabulous site is Query Shark. You can also check out the post I did on querying agents here for more information.)

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. *BONUS!* Practice. Practice your first impressions 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.

4 thoughts on “First Impressions: What Makes or Breaks a Query

  1. Rachelle Sadler says:

    Thanks for sharing. Very helpful advice. Hope the manuscripts you chose experience resounding success and congratulations to those authors whose work fell into that 1.25%. Well done 🙂


  2. Sara says:

    Posts like this scare me and give me hope at the same time. Last summer, I started writing query letters for agents and publishers for a YA novel. The amount of trouble I had writing the pitch portion was actually what helped me figure out the book wasn’t ready to be seen by agents or publishers yet. A year later, I’m still revising both.

    Liked by 1 person

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