What are the elements of a good query or cover letter? How long should it be? What does an agent want to know from a query letter, and what information is superfluous? Do Australian agents expect a query first, or is it sufficient to send a sample with a cover letter?
Query letters are one of my favourite things to blather about, because they're so often the difference between an author getting read - by an agent or a publisher - or not. When I submit a manuscript to a publisher, I do my own 'query letter' of sorts, to pitch it to the publisher; if the author has helped me by sending a great one of their own, I'll immediately want to read their manuscript.
Query letters are de rigueur in the US but haven't really made much of here by agents and publishers, but they should be. Query letters show us how you can pitch your own work. And before you say, 'But I wrote a novel - why do I have to do anything else?' consider this: you're a writer - ergo, you should be able to write a query letter that reflects the standard of your manuscript. And if you can't, that's a concern and will immediately raise a red flag to an agent.
So I was delighted to get these questions and the chance to talk about query letters; I'll answer them one by one (and there are some useful links at the bottom of the post).
1. What are the elements of a good query or cover letter? The query/cover letter should tell an agent (or anyone who reads it, for that matter) who you are and why you are writing to them; what your manuscript is about and why the agent would want to read it above all other manuscripts (but don't use the phrase 'I'm the greatest unpublished writer in the world' because you'd be surprised how many people try that one), and any information you think might 'sell' the manuscript or you as an author (e.g. 'I recently completed a LongLines program at Varuna'; 'this story is very topical because of XYZ').
2. How long should it be? Ideally no longer than one A4 page single-spaced. As most agents receive a lot of queries, they want to scan things quickly and sometimes turning the page doesn't make things quick ...
3. What does an agent want to know from a query letter, and what information is superfluous? We want to know, in plain language, why you have sent us your manuscript and why you think people should read it. Superfluous information is any biographical information that is not pertinent to your writing - if it's a memoir about Tibet, it's helpful to mention that you lived in Tibet for 20 years, but don't tell us where you went to school. Most importantly, be honest but don't puff yourself up with unnecessary adjectives. Other superfluous information (at query stage, at least) is a list of which magazines you think might want to interview you.
4. Do Australian agents expect a query first, or is it sufficient to send a sample with a cover letter? Each agency has its own submission guidelines, so it's best to check their website first or, if they don't have a website, call or email. If their guidelines are unclear, it certainly can't hurt to send a query first and mention that you weren't sure what their procedures were, so you didn't send a sample of the manuscript. And remember that agents aren't scary - they just have too much reading. It's not school, either - no one is going to yell at you if you get it wrong. So it's best to be honest and say 'I don't know what you need to see but I'd like to submit a manuscript to you please' and remember that it's not a combative situation. Agents aren't waiting to reject you - they want to find great writing. So make it easy for them.
Some handy tips on writing query letters can be found here: http://misssnark.blogspot.com/search/label/query%20letters
http://www.jennybent.com/letter/index.html – good sample query letter