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Getting Past the Gatekeeper: The Importance of a Killer Query Letter

As an acquisitions editor for Ooligan Press, I’ve read and evaluated my fair share of query letters. We are a small press that is open to submissions year-round which means that sometimes we are inundated with queries and other times the pickings are slim. Regardless of the quantity at any given time, it is the quality of the query that matters. A strong letter hooks the reader and leaves them wanting more, but it is not as easy as it sounds, especially if a writer doesn’t understand what makes a query letter strong. Whether you are submitting your query to an agent or directly to a publisher, here is what you need to know.

Follow the submission guidelines. Agents and publishers each have their own rules they want you to follow when submitting to them. These rules are not arbitrary—or optional. They are there for a reason. Nothing will get your query letter passed over faster than not following the directions, so do your research and pay attention. Know who you are submitting to and give them what they’ve asked for. Unless they specifically ask for it, do not send your full manuscript. Rather, if they ask to see the first ten to twenty pages, send the first ten to twenty pages! And send them via their desired avenue. Ooligan, like many other publishing houses, does not accept submissions via email. We only use Submittable. Read the submission guidelines for each recipient and follow them.

Keep it under a page in length. Publishers are fielding anywhere from dozens to thousands of queries a year. Make yours succinct. Get to the point and provide the essentials up front. We want to see the title, genre, word count, and what literary agent Taryn Fagerness calls your “elevator pitch” for the book. This introductory hook should be attention-grabbing but not gimmicky or hyperbolic: you are selling yourself and your manuscript to a publishing professional, not a frivolous kitchen gadget on an infomercial at two o’clock in the morning.

Address the recipient directly if possible. It is okay to address the letter “Dear Editor,” but often with a little research you can find the editor’s name. If you have met this person previously, mention it! I’ve met writers at literary functions and encouraged them to submit a query to Ooligan if their in-person elevator pitch piqued my interest, and you can bet I’ll keep reading if they remind me. If you have no personal connection to speak of, explain why you are submitting to them specifically. What drew you to them? How did you find them? Do you and your writing align with their mission or backlist? Do they represent or have they published a writer you admire? Editors, agents, and publishers are people too, and a little recognition can go a long way.

Spill the beans in your book description. But, be brief and don’t get hung up on the minute details. As unromantic as it might sound, remember that publishing is a business and an agent or editor’s job is to acquire a book they can sell. In order to do that, we need more information than what a reader would find on the back cover. Give the premise of your story, but also tell us why yours is unique. Editor and former literary agent Mary Kole recommends that the author tell us how it ends, tell us who the killer is, tell us the plot twist. You can do it in a creative, suspenseful way to illustrate your storytelling ability but remember, we need to know exactly what we are working with and this is a single page document, so use this paragraph (or two) wisely.

End with a relevant author bio. Publishing industry expert Jane Friedman recommends including information like your previous publication credits, degrees you hold, and memberships to any professional writing organizations you may have. I would add any significant platform, like a large social media presence, as well as what makes you uniquely qualified to write the book. Did you travel with the circus and then write a novel about traveling with a circus? How are you connected to this project?

There are no guarantees in publishing, but following instructions and crafting your query with care can improve the odds of appeasing the first of many gatekeepers along the way.

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