Thursday, March 08, 2007

Can Your Query Pass the Seven-Second Test?

Before I became editor at Canticle, I worked primarily as a book editor -- most recently as senior editor at Servant Publications (before it was sold to SAMP). However, I've found some significant overlaps in the two markets -- and one of those is the importance of a good query letter.

A few years ago, I gave a talk at the Mount Hermon Writer's Conference called "Can Your Query Letter Pass the Seven Second Test?" It was picked up by Writer's Digest. For your reading pleasure, I'm going to place it here in hopes that it might inspire you!

Can Your Query Letter Pass the Seven-Second Test?
Seven pointers to help you catapult from the slush pile

In the Christian publishing industry, there are three facts about book buyers that marketing types have bandied about for years:

1. Women 35-60 years of age make 70-80% of all book purchases.
2. About two-thirds of those purchases are gifts for someone else.
3. It takes 7-12 seconds (on average) for her to decide whether to purchase a book once she sees it on a store shelf.

Studies show that her decision is largely based on author recognition, title appeal (remember, most books are displayed spine-side out), and cover design. If those three things hit what the industry refers to as a “felt need,” she will then look at the back cover summary, endorsements, table of contents, and interior design.

Perhaps not surprisingly, 7-12 seconds is also the average time it takes most editors to decide (on a slow day) about a query letter that passes their desk from the slush pile. If you overlook the details, you will spill far more ink in your “pitches” than in your actual publishings. See if you can spot ten of the most common mistakes in the following, based on an actual query letter (I kid you not) that once landed in my in-box.

XYZ Christian Publishing House
37 Big Bucks Circle
York, NY 10038

Two Whom It May Concern:

Did you know that Jesus went to the Martians before he came to save us? It’s true, because my Aunt Mabel was visited by one of these born-again Martians. He wasn’t “Left Behind…” He was “Sent Ahead.” This book will convince you, guaranteed. I’m enclosing a picture of Aunt Mabel. The Martian wouldn’t stand still for the photograph.

I would like Christian Brother’s Publishing to publish this book that God and my Aunt Mabel told me to write. It’s called “Aunt Molly and the Martian.” There is nothing like this on the market. Aunt Mabel says the style is just like Jeanette Oake, except that this story is completely true. It is 450,000 words long (Martians like to talk a lot). I will call you next week to find out the best way to get this EXCELLENT book into your hands.

My husband was just laid off from the plant again, and that is why God told me to send this to you. He said you’d pay me BIG BUCKS. $10,000 ought to get us
through the end of the year. Our 12 kids really go through the groceries.

Yours sinserly

OK, time’s up. How many did you spot? (The answers can be found at the end of this article.) All ten? Good for you! Now, while you’re still feeling like a winner, here are seven pointers to help you move from the slush pile to the top of the editor’s “present to the committee” list!

1. Title. This is potentially the most important element of the query, especially for non-fiction. Should address a “felt need” and express it in a way that is fresh and unique. Beware focusing on what the reader “should” do or think. Benefit to reader should hit them between the eyes. Subtitle should drive it home, and clue the editor in to the intended audience of the book.

Good: Experiencing God
Not So Good: 101 Things You Gotta Do If You’re a Christian

2. Packaging. Your query letter is a reflection of your professional abilities.

Good: Names specific (and correct) editor, and demonstrates a thorough understanding of the publisher’s market niche. Confident, but not demanding.

Not So Good: Is full of typos, hyperbole, or cliché. Demonstrates a lack of research about the publishing company to which it has been submitted.

3. Summary (Query Par 1). Can you describe the essence of your book in a way that highlights both its felt need and uniqueness, in three sentences or less? If not, back to the drawing board! A well-crafted summary paragraph is the mark of a professional writer.

4. Market Considerations (Query Par 2). Never, ever claim, “There is nothing like this on the market.” That sentence alone is enough to make many editors stop reading, even if the idea itself has merit. Do your homework. Read those trade catalogs. Haunt your local bookstores. Search and other virtual bookstores. How is yours better or more marketable? What other similar titles have been doing well? What has the publisher done recently that makes you think your idea is a good “fit” with their mission and market?

5. About the Author (Query Par 3). One of the most recurring phrases in publishing today is “author platform.” A platform is what the author brings to the table that will assist the publisher in getting the word out about the proposed book. Do you have contacts in the media who would be able to help? Can you get a series of articles in key magazines, to draw attention? Have you been published successfully before? Do you have a newsletter, website, professional association, or other means to spread the word? The more you can do, the greater your chances of being published. This is not the time to be modest. Sell yourself!

6. Network Magic. This is the part of the author paragraph where you demonstrate your ability to market yourself within the industry. Do you attend writer’s conferences, and (even more importantly) do you know the editor to whom you are submitting this proposal? Remind her of the meeting, and demonstrate that you learned something from the encounter. “I appreciate your taking the time with me at CBA last year to talk about your needs. I remember that you were looking for devotionals for young adults. Perhaps this could be a good fit for your house. If so, let me know how soon you’d need the rest of the manuscript, and I will do my best to meet your schedule.”

Perhaps you have never met the editor, but you know (and have discussed your idea) with another author that this house publishes. Say so, but only if the author will both remember you and be willing to put in a good word, should the editor decide to push it that far. The publishing industry (like many industries) is about relationships. Anything that you can do to build your network, both within the industry and as part of your platform, is worth investing your time and resources. My first three book contracts were for compilations, given to me because an editor was willing to give me a break in the business. If you can’t actually get a job in a publishing house, get to know those who have!

7. Your Secret Weapon: Page Two. No, I’m not talking about money, scented teabags, or other bribes (although a little chocolate never hurt anyone). A standard query letter is one page long, single-spaced. However, if you really believe that you have done your homework and that the editor is going to go nuts over your query letter, you might risk adding a second sheet. This second page would contain the proposed chapter titles, to give the editor a sense of how the book would be structured. This only works if

· The chapter titles are insightful, provocative, and/or witty.

· The editor caught a vision for the project by the end of the first page.

· The second page is necessary to demonstrate how your idea really is different from the other books on the subject.

· The second page is as professional and intriguing as the first one.

In preparation for giving a talk at a writer’s conference last spring, I asked editors from nine different publishing houses the three most important things a writer can do to increase his or her chances of getting published. These seven tips came up one or more times on each of their lists. That means if your query letter does all these things, you may have a winner on your hands.

Errors in sample letter:

1. Address the person in the company who will receive your proposal. That person is generally not the publisher, but an editor.

2. After reading the first line of the letter, the editor will know this writer is an amateur. First, the writer did not research the name of the editor who should have received it. Second, she did not proofread the letter, and a competing publisher’s name appears on the first line (evidence that this is a simple form letter, another no-no). Always proof your letters carefully.

3. If you’re going to name-drop, it’s probably best not to use God’s or a relative’s (unless your uncle happens to be Matthew Kelly, and even then only after he has actually read it and is willing to recommend it). Neither is generally considered an industry “expert.”

4. The author shows bad judgment by sending this proposal to a conservative Christian publishing house (rather than, say, a house that specializes in sci-fi).

5. Starting a query letter with a provocative question is good. Starting it with a question that is offensive or delusional is not. Again, bad judgment.

6. Keep your query letter clean and clear of any unnecessary attachments. That includes photographs. (Although a photo of the Martian might have wound up on the office bulletin board, it wouldn’t have gotten this author published.)

7. For heaven’s sake, if you’re going to name drop, at least spell it properly. It’s Janette Oke.

8. Even if this were a good book, 450000 words is too much text. This is probably a typo – another no-no. (There’s another typo at the end, too.)

9. Never call an editor if you’ve never worked with her before, unless she specifically asks you to (this is not always true with magazine editors, but I still prefer e-mail to phone because it leaves an electronic "paper trail"). E-mail, if you simply must follow up, is best.

10. Never mention money, either in reference to an advance or for any other reason, in the initial query. Let the editor bring it up at the appropriate time.

Heidi Hess Saxton has ten years experience in the publishing industry, most recently as senior editor of Servant Publications. She has published five books, including With Mary in Prayer (Loyola) and Touched by Kindness (Servant). Her most recent book, Raising Up Mommy: Heavenly Virtues for Difficult Mothering Moments, is being published by Simon Peter Press. For more information about Heidi, go to


elena maria vidal said...

Very helpful! I wish I had had this information several years ago.

Margaret Mary Myers said...

It's great when you can help us to laugh and learn at the same time. Thank you!