A basic rundown of an effective novel query format
If you look online, there are probably hundreds of query letter examples. Many of them are very brief, and you may be tempted to copy their format. I think this is a bad idea, however. Why? Because their query hit the perfect tone for that editor on that day. They lucked out. Querying a publisher with whom you don’t have a strong existing relationship is all about odds, and you want to do everything you can to raise those odds in your favor.
Remember, however, that the publication’s submission guidelines override all else!
I’ve said not to rely on a short, witty query letter, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t include such a thing in your query, among the other items that need to be there. By all means, start with a paragraph or two that ask an intriguing question, a make-you-think joke, or other witty opening line messages.
Your note must personally address the editor, however, so if you don’t know their name, call the publication and find out. Personally addressed queries perform better than “Dear Editor” queries. They’re only people, and everyone likes to know you took the time to find out about them.
That first paragraph or two should start with your “elevator pitch,” a brief sentence or two describing your novel’s premise and plot–the synopsis. But from here on out, my query method differs from most others…
Continue your letter with a statement of why that publisher would be interested in a story such as yours. Do they have a reputation for publishing excellent steampunk novels? That would be a good reason to query them for your steampunk novel. This short statement proves to them that you’ve done your homework and aren’t wasting their time. Most queries are a waste of their time, so if you stand out, you can improve your odds.
If you’ve followed my advice by beginning with a paragraph or two that includes your elevator pitch/synopsis, a statement of why that publisher is a good choice for your book and addressed the letter to a specific person, then you’ve already boosted your odds significantly!
If you’ve won awards or been published in this genre before, by all means, mention it here. I recommend against including professional creds unless you are a member of the SFWA and the genre you’re pitching for is science fiction or fantasy. I would not include your MFA, as the editor won’t care about it and may be put off by it. These days, MFAs are rarely worth mentioning unless you had a very prestigious author as your professor. Editors know that an MFA doesn’t mean you can write well.
Most authors stop there. You may get approved, but as I’ve said, your odds aren’t good. Stack the deck in your favor by including more than your competitors in your query. You’ll have to do a little homework.
- Find the top-selling novel at Amazon in your core genre (Romance, Steampunk, Fantasy, etc.). Open that book’s page and find their total All Paid Books ranking. It’s located about midway down the page. Make a note of that number!
- Go to SalesRankExpress.com and enter the book’s ISBN. You’ll be presented with information regarding sales in multiple formats. Note those numbers, too.
- Go to the Amazon Sales Rank Calculator (https://goo.gl/NCZ8Pn) and enter the Kindle sales ranking. It will reveal the number of books per day that it sells. This isn’t very accurate because sales ranking changes all the time (I have had a book in the top 500 for six months, but it has since fallen to the mid-300,000s due to the way Amazon weighs older books). Multiply by 30 to get the monthly sales number.
- Repeat this process for the top three books in the specific Amazon category you will target with your book. For example, “Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Post-Apocalyptic.”
In your query letter, you’ll want to begin a new paragraph by saying something along the lines of, “my chosen Genre, Romance, has a #1 book that has ranked XXX for all paid kindle books,” entering in the number you wrote down in step 1. Continue by saying that you believe this represents sales of XYZ units per month according to your research. This is the number you calculated in step 3 with the Amazon Sales Rank Calculator. You can mention sales in other formats, from Step 2.
What’s next? Simple enough. Begin a new paragraph and say that you’ve identified the top 3 books in your chosen Amazon Category. List all three from step 4, above. I like to use bullet points for this part. For each book, Include the title, author, publication date, category ranking, and total kindle sales rank, along with the Calculator’s estimate of current daily sales.
But here’s where you can really stand out. For each book you’ve bulleted, try to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses from customer reviews. What made it sell so well, other than the author’s name?
Then, using the weaknesses you’ve identified from reviews, differentiate your book. What I mean is this: if you read that one of the top 3 books in your category has a lot of people commenting that the world was vibrant and colorful, but the action was too slow, you could write something like, “This book is respected for the excellent world-building, a quality my book shares. However, many people felt the action was too slow. My book has a steady pace that I’ve put solidly in place during my outlining stage.”
If the complaint was that the lead character wasn’t likable enough, you could end your bullet point’s text by saying, “However, the general consensus was that the MC wasn’t likable enough, mostly due to his misogynistic viewpoints. My MC, while male, has a highly capable and respected sidekick who is female. He survives this story in part because of her ingenuity and skills. I believe both male and female audiences will respond well to this setup.”
End by asking the editor to please review the attached document.
Ending – The Attachment
If you are a pantser, you’re almost done with this segment of your query. If you’re an outliner, you have an advantage while querying because you can give the editor a solid preview of what to expect from your novel, even before it’s completed.
My go-to application for this is called Hiveword.com, for which I’ve written a solid user’s guide on my blog. Using Hiveword isn’t strictly necessary, though, because you can write out the same information in your query.
At the top of a Word .doc file, begin with your actual name and your mailing information at the top left, with approximate word count at the top right. Several lines below your mailing information, center your book title and put your writing name below it, also centered. This is the name that appears on your book, which could be your real name or a pen name.
Then, write a brief paragraph or two summarizing each chapter:
Chapter 1 – The MC is shown going through the motions of their boring, day-to-day life, unaware of the adventure about to come. The stakes are introduced.
Following this, do the same for each scene in your book. A good format is to lead with the chapter number, followed by the scene descriptions in bullet point:
- The MC is at school. He is taunted because of his poor clothes and sack lunch and feels powerless to stand up for himself.
- The MC is attacked by bullies while walking home. Other people pass by but do nothing to help. Some even laugh because he’s a “townie” and they cheer the “neighborhood kids” (showing he is an outsider both by income and by where he grew up before moving to CITY).
You can go longer if you like with each chapter and scene description, but the content should be concise. Cut out the fluff!
After your chapter summary and scene summary, on a new page, include the first chapter or first three chapters of your book. Leave a note that these have not yet been professionally edited. Don’t tell them that you self-edited it, but you absolutely should do that before sending. The segment you include should be as close to publication-ready as you are able to make it.
- NO TYPOS!
- Double check that you don’t have tense changes (shifting between the past and present tense on accident)
- No POV shifts mid-scene (each scene should ONLY be from ONE character’s point of view, usually the MC’s).
- Do not include the copyright notice at the bottom. Editors know what is copyrighted, and they know that you can’t copyright an idea, only your actual words. The consensus seems to be that including a copyright notice marks you as an amateur.
- Double check that your cover letter has your signature block before sending…
- Depending on the publisher’s submission guidelines, you may need to simply submit a .doc file. In that case, put your query letter in the document, before beginning your summaries on new pages within the same document.
- If a submission is by email, the query goes in your email and the summaries and example chapter(s) should be attached.
- I like to also include a Google Link to the attachment in my cover letter if a submission is via email.
Some authors I’ve spoken to suggest including the entire email cover letter in the attachment, not just in the email body. This way, they can post the file and anyone in-house who reads it sees the query and pitch, too. Put it at the top, with the “attachment” material starting on a new page.
Another fantastic idea (courtesy of Brent Harris in a Facebook group) is to include your brief marketing plan toward the bottom of your email. Publishers these days want to know what you’ll do to move units, whether that’s via your social media platform, book signing tours, etc. Gone are the days when publishers didn’t want authors to do anything for marketing without asking the Marketing Department first!
I hope this helps. If you have additional questions, feel free to ask.