Traditional publishing, Part 2: How do I approach an editor or agent about my book?

I had written this whole post when it got eaten in cyberspace. I think it was God reaching down and saying, hey, that’s boring. (Also, don’t forget to hit “save.”) So we’ll try a new format. I enjoy reading questions and answers. Maybe you do, too. Here goes.

I want to try traditional publishing first. I have found a publisher I think might like my book. How do I start?

First, read their guidelines. You can probably find them at their website, where you can also find their catalog and see if your book is a good fit. They will ask for a query, a proposal (nonfiction) or synopsis (fiction), a complete manuscript, or they will say they only accept submissions from agents. If it’s the latter and you don’t have an agent, either try another publisher or start working on getting an agent. Agents will also want to see a query, a proposal or synopsis, or the complete manuscript, so let’s start with the query.

How do I write a query letter for a book?

A query for a book is much like the query for an article. They are both short, usually one page. In a few paragraphs, you must grab the reader’s attention, tell about the book, explain who you are and why you’re qualified to write it, and why people would want to read it.

That first paragraph is the key. You may have heard the word “pitch.” This is a brief kick-ass summary that you will need every time you tell someone about your book, whether you’re trying to sell it to a publisher or agent, writing text for the back cover, or sitting at a book table trying to sell a copy to someone who pauses to peruse your cover. It needs to tell what kind of book it is–if fiction, what genre, if nonfiction; is it memoir, how-to, history, or what?–and what it’s about in a few sentences. If you can’t sum it up in a paragraph, you’re not ready to sell it, so take time to work on your pitch. For examples, look at catalog descriptions and the back covers of other books. Also look at the blurbs used to describe movies.

While you’re at it, tell them whether or not the book is finished and how long it is. Describe it in words, not pages. For example, “The book is complete at approximately 100,000 words” or “I have written 10 chapters and expect the finished book to be about 80,000 words.” With varying print sizes and the explosion of e-publishing options, your page numbers probably won’t match those of the finished product.

When telling about yourself, stick to the most relevant information. Unless your book is for children or is about parenting, they don’t need to know that you have three kids. What they do need to know is what you have published before, whether you already have an audience through classes, talks, blogs or other media, and whether you have special knowledge or training in your subject. If you are writing about dogs and you’re a veterinarian, tell them.

You should know what other similar books have already been published. If you can say there’s nothing on the market like your book–and you’re sure it’s true–that’s a plus. Otherwise, tell the reader what your book offers that the others don’t? Why will people buy it?

Finally, tell them you’ll be glad to send a detailed proposal or even the whole book, if they’re interested, and you look forward to hearing from them.

Ideally, they’ll respond quickly with a “Yes! I can’t wait to see it.”

How do I send the query?

Most publishers will accept emailed queries, but check the guidelines to be sure. Look for the name of the person who handles queries for your type of book and address your query to them by name. Use the word query in your subject line as in: Pit Bull book query. Don’t forget to include your contact information.

If the publisher prefers snail mail queries, it’s back to old-school methods. Type your query letter on good white paper, fold it in thirds and put it in a business-size envelope, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope for their reply.

If all they want is a query, keep it short and don’t send anything else.

Can I send my query to more than one publisher or agent at a time?

Yes. If they show interest and want more, than I personally think you should let them have an exclusive look, but you should definitely query more than one publisher or agent at a time because it takes so much time to get a response. Mention in your letter that you are querying others. Just make sure that you personalize each query. Don’t do a mass emailing; send each query separately.

Next week: the proposal



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One Comment on “Traditional publishing, Part 2: How do I approach an editor or agent about my book?”

  1. […] you’re writing and where it fits in the market. As discussed when we were talking about book queries last week, you really need to be able to sum up your book clearly and briefly in order to sell it, and indeed […]


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