Publishing 101 with BJ Muntain, part two:Querying

So what is querying?

Querying is trying to sell an agent (or publisher) on your book. You do this by sending a query letter. Some agents only want the query letter, some want a synopsis, some want to see the first 5, 10, 50 pages. Send them what their guidelines say they want to see.

A query letter is a creative business letter. It’s a business letter because you want to do business with the agent. It’s creative because you are selling your creativity, and effective selling takes creativity. You want your query letter to entice the agent to read your novel.

When querying, DO:

  • Read and follow the guidelines.
  • Address the query letter to the agent’s name. Agents cringe at “Dear Agent”. You don’t want the agent’s first impression of you to be cringe-worthy.
  • Make a good impression.
  • Keep the query letter to one page, double-spaced. That’s about 250 words. Even if you’re e-mailing the query.
  • Hook the agent. Use the three main points: Character’s goal, character’s obstacles (conflict), and the consequences of their success or failure (what are they risking?)
  • Be polite and professional.
  • Write the best query letter you can. (More on that below.)


  • Never send attachments, unless they specifically ask for them. If they want to see pages, they’ll usually ask you to cut and paste your pages into the body of the e-mail.
  • And don’t send the same e-mail to a lot of people. If the agent sees a lot of other agents in the subject line, or if they see that they were bcc’d (and people can tell if you’ve bcc’d them), they’re going to find it easier to reject you.

Query letters are a skill that needs to be developed – a good skill, because they help you figure out what is important in your novel, and gives you focus.

Luckily, the Query Shark (a.k.a. Janet Reid) has been critiquing and helping people with their queries for years. Read all 270+ queries and critiques she’s done there, because each is like a tutorial on what to do and what not to do. She isn’t posting as much these days, because she only wants to cover new problems or ideas. So if you don’t see your problem in the archive, send your query letter to her, and see if she’ll cover it in a future post.

For general information and questions about the publishing industry, Janet Reid is generous with her time and advice. She’s been working in the business for quite awhile, and she has a very straight-forward and straight-minded view of the industry. Read her back posts – she posts every day. You can start with her Publishing 101 category, then go down the list of categories on the left and the topics on the right, and see if you can answer your question. Or, you know, ask her. If she hasn’t covered it already, she might cover it in a future blog post. I highly recommend her blog.

A note on rejections

Rejection is a fact of life in this business. An agent can get upwards of 100 queries per day. They will request to read the rest of the novel about 1% of the time. Of that 1%, they won’t even sign half of them. They already have clients who take up most of their time. Unless they’re new to the game, they’re very choosy over what other clients they will take on. Understand that you will be rejected. Try to gather at least 100 rejections before you give up. Expect them. Celebrate them, because a rejection means you were brave enough to query – then send out another query letter.

Some people get tired of the rejections, and that’s normal. Some will decide to self-publish instead, and that’s a valid business strategy – as long as they look at it as a business strategy. It’s not an easy way to make money. You work for every sale. But if you’re prepared to put in all the work, and to put out the best product you can, then it is one way to go. Here’s a good take on Yog’s rule for self-publishers, according to John Scalzi’s Yog’s Law and Self-Publishing: “While in the process of self-publishing, money and rights are controlled by the writer.”

Do NOT get discouraged. Don’t get desperate. Don’t grasp at straws. Those straws are most likely to be the scammers that prey on desperate writers. NO ONE can guarantee you a legitimate publishing contract. If someone does guarantee this, run away. Run away very fast. Because, most likely, they’re offering you something you pay for, and it’s not going to help one little bit.

Vanity presses (which are completely separate from self-publishing or other form of publishing, no matter what the vanity presses themselves say) will charge you to publish your work. Or they’ll force you to pay for marketing. Or they’ll insist you pay fees of some sort. You pay them, AND give them control over your work. In traditional publishing, YOU get paid. In self-publishing, you control everything you pay for. With a vanity press (and these are described on Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors), you pay them to control you.

Before using any services, check them on the websites above. In fact, check everyone through those websites before doing business with them.

Also: Never respond to rejections. Take note of them, keep track of them, then ignore them. Don’t even send a ‘thank you’. ESPECIALLY do not argue with the agent or otherwise insult them. That is not going to help you get published, and it might actually hurt your chances.

Some further thoughts on scams

Read that list of steps again. Just about the ONLY steps you can skip in this list are 2) and 3): querying agents and revising to their suggestions. It is possible to query publishers on your own. Don’t look for other ways to skip a step. Don’t look for an easy way. There isn’t one.

If you come across a service that will do your querying for you, run away. They’ll take your money, send off a few form queries, and get rejected 99.999% of the time BECAUSE they are a query service and not the author. Agents hate those ‘services’.

Or a ‘publisher’ that says they’ll put your book in front of agents or big publishers – sure, they can send the books to the publishers or agents, but they can’t force them to read them. And publishers and agents will not read books sent by those ‘publishers’. (This used to be a promise made by vanity presses.)

You CAN pay for editors yourself. That’s perfectly legitimate. Find a good one, check them through Preditors & Editors under Editing & Software, and ask for references.

The money flows towards the author. Remember that. If anyone tries to charge you something, take a step back and think about it. Incidentals like postage and photocopying on your behalf are okay (but only once you’re already that agent’s client). Anything else – check it out carefully.




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3 thoughts on “Publishing 101 with BJ Muntain, part two:Querying

  1. Hey, I think your website might be having browser compatibility issues.

    When I look at your blog in Ie, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping.
    I just wanted to give you a quick heads up!

    Other then that, excellent blog!


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