Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Non-fiction query letter #1

Dear Publisher X

I am writing in the hope you may be interested in publishing a work of non-fiction that I am currently working upon. [This opening sentence is overly polite and not necessary - we know that you're writing the letter because you want to be published, so that doesn't need to be stated. You can simply say, 'I am working on a book that is XXX.'] The book is to be [don't say what it will be - say what it is, even if you're still working on it - but big tick for saying 'passionately' - it's nice when writers have passion!] a passionately revisionist history. The working title is:


This book tells the story of the choice for war in Britain in late July and early August 1914 in a new way. It aims to interleave two stories, the story of the forces urging a choice for war and the story of those forces resisting that choice. It argues for a reassessment of both forces. It does not accept that the war was simply inevitable, or that the British choice was irresistible and righteous. [Insert a paragraph break here - when publishers/agents read query letters over and over, the text starts to run together. While we don't necessarily care about the font size, we will care if there aren't enough para breaks. After an hour of reading submissions I usually end up lying down with my hands over my eyes because they get tired looking at all the words.] The book is intensely critical of the British choice for war, and of the role of Liberal and Conservative politicians, the Foreign Office and diplomats, military advisers and the Tory and popular newspapers. It shows how a non-interventionist majority in the governing Liberal Cabinet was manoeuvred into supporting the choice for war, and how leading politicians orchestrated that decision from behind the scenes with scant regard for democracy or parliament. It demonstrates also that there was a very significant opposition to the rush toward war. [Another break needed here.] This book, therefore, is not in the heroic tradition of so many British histories of the war. It is in the tragic tradition. It argues that British choices and British errors made their own contributions to the outbreak of the common European tragedy that was the Great War. The book aims to show that even nations very largely in the right – as the British people discovered in 2003 with regard to Iraq – can make terrible mistakes in a rush toward war.

I am hopeful that the on-going controversy surrounding Britain’s decision for war in 2003, and the intense interest in 1914 that will be generated by the approaching hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, will attract a large readership for the book I propose here.[Good - identifying your market.]

The book is based on a very large array of primary sources, the private papers of dozens of politicians, including leading Radical politicians and publicists, as well as contemporary newspapers, journals and parliamentary sources. Private papers have been consulted in the UK, Canada, the USA and South Africa. I have been researching for the book since 2000. The proposed book would be the most detailed, and the only trenchantly critical, account of the British choice for war in 1914 in print. [Again, good, you're establishing your solid factual background for your argument.]

I should offer some personal background. [This first sentence is redundant - just cut straight to 'I have previously published'.] I have previously published two academic studies in related areas with Oxford University Press. One was a study of internationalism on the Left before 1914, British Labour, European Socialism and the Struggle for Peace, 1889-1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) and the second was a study of the British response to the German Revolution of 1918-1919 at the end of the war, British Policy and the Weimar Republic, 1918-1919 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997). Both were well-received academic monographs. I have also published a very popular textbook for schools, Germany 1918-1945: From Days of Hope to Years of Horror (Sydney: Pearson, 1990-96).

But I should stress that I have recently retired [Why should you stress this?] from the University of Western Sydney where I was an Associate Professor in European History for 17 years. I am now most anxious to move forward from academic publishing and to seek a wider readership. [Don't say this - the publisher/agent doesn't want to be told that they're your conduit to anything.] I am hopeful that the book I am proposing here is written in a much more appealing way, in short chapters, with little knowledge assumed, and the whole story told with an eye to captivating the interest of the general reader.[Don't say this either - it sounds like you're unsure of your work.] I should explain I was attracted to Aurum Press after examining one of your recent publications in a similar field, namely Will Ellsworth-Jones, We Will Not Fight: The Untold Story of World War One’s Conscientious Objectors (London: Aurum, 2008). That book leads me to believe that Aurum is sympathetic to books that strike out in new directions and are positive with regard to peace history.[This last sentence is the only thing you need to say out of everything else in this paragraph.]

In the hope you are willing to consider the proposed book, I enclose a bound portfolio [Have you checked to see that they want to receive this sort of material in a submission?] containing:
a title page and chapter list showing the themes of the whole work;
a sample illustration – from the neutrality demonstration in Trafalgar Square on Sunday, 2 August 1914;
some sample chapters from the heart of the book, that is, from “Part V: The Choice for War: Tuesday 4 August to Thursday 6 August” .

I will be very grateful if Aurum Press would consider this Project Proposal for a contract leading to publication. [Don't include this first sentence.] I should indicate that the bulk of the book is complete, but in need of revision in places and some additional evidence is required. It is 150,000 words, and arranged in 34 chapters. If I were fortunate enough to be offered a contract I should be ready to submit a final manuscript by the end of 2011.

I should add that I am aiming to be in England for three weeks from XX July 2010. If there is any advantage in our meeting personally, I would be very pleased to meet you during that time. [Don't suggest this - it makes people nervous that you're going to turn up at their offices. You could say that you're planning to be in England for research purposes for that time - thus shoring up the research background to the novel - and let the publisher work it out for him/herself. If he/she wants to see you, they'll contact you.] I will be contactable via my email:
author@author.com [Put all contact details either at the start or end of the letter - again, they'll work it out if they want to contact you.]

Yours sincerely
Douglas N

Verdict: comprehensive but overly polite. This letter is an introduction from one potential business partner to another. Keep it businesslike and DON'T GROVEL. Publishers need authors, even if they like to pretend they don't. So while it's good to be polite, just don't be so polite that it sounds like you're begging them to take you seriously (which is what overpoliteness usually looks like). Your publishing and research background gives them plenty of reasons to take you seriously.

No comments: