Part One of a Two-part series of guest posts by Alec J. Marsh.
Hello, it’s me, Alec. I’m a new editor to Duck Prints Press and the resident corporate shill sellout. I love Duck Prints Press and their ethics (and will write an opinion piece soon on why they rock and you should submit to them). I also…. love traditional publishing.
I’m sorry! I know this makes me a trend-following sheep. I know it’s a hot take in the indie pub crowd. Traditional publishing absolutely has its flaws, and I could go on at length about them. I’m still aiming to get my novels traditionally published. I want to be able to find my book at a Barnes & Noble and be nominated for a Hugo. Sorry not sorry.
One of the worst parts of traditional publishing is the arcane hoops you have to jump through to participate. As anyone who has poked querying with a long, tentative stick knows, there are many requirements, and every agent’s website uses slightly different phrasing, and it’s a nightmare to navigate. It’s an extra nightmare if you’re neurodivergent and desperately seeking a clear, simple list of expectations. Unfortunately, the basic requirements are there for a reason. A GOOD reason. Learning the skills required to put together a good query package will serve you well, whether you want a ten-book deal with Tor, to sell hand-stapled zines at the local convention, or anything in between.
So let’s get into it!
The first thing you need in any submission process is a query letter. What is a query letter? In short, it’s a 3-5 paragraph essay about your book, yourself, and why a publisher should buy your work (and therefore why an agent should agree to represent you). You need to tell the agent the genre, the plot, and why this book is special. They are excruciating to write, because yes, you need to condense your book down to 300 words, maximum, and sell it at the same time.
But imagine, for a moment, that you’ve walked into Ye Olde Barnes & Noble. There, on the end cap, is a cool new fantasy book you’ve never heard of. The cover has a sword and a snake on it, and you like swords and snakes. But how is it different from the 20 other books with names like A Court of Swords and Snakes that have come out in the last five years? The first thing you do is pick the book up, turn to the back cover, and read.
You know what’s on the back cover?
Paragraph one: In a stunning tour de force, ACOSAS takes you through the glittering world of naga politics… (A teaser sentence)
Paragraph two: Princess Arya has always wanted to be a dancer. But when the evil northerners attack her kingdom… (A paragraph about the main character and the central conflict of the book)
Paragraph three: Alec J Marsh lives in the Pacific Northwest and has never seen a snake in the wild. (A biography of the author)
Guess what you just read? A query letter. In many cases, what’s in the blurb is actually pretty close to the exact query letter the author originally sent to their agent. Yes, really. Sometimes a query letter makes it from agent to editor to publicist to final copy.
They’re that important.
But Alec, I hear you say, I’m not planning to get trad published! Why do I need to do this? Well, indie and self-published people—you will need to write cover copy for your book. And you’ll almost certainly need to write it yourself. The good and the bad part of self-publishing is that you do everything yourself. Less meddling (good!), but less help (bad!). And here’s the hard truth: absolutely no one will spend a single one of their hard-earned dollars on “sex babes get pounded by space aliens” if the back cover says “lol I suck at summaries, I promise it’s good :)” It’s useless, and it’s disrespectful to the buyer’s time and money.
And that is why query letters are good, actually, for all writers, and are worth practicing how to create!
So go out there and sell your books, and you’ll accidentally write your query along the way.
In Installment Two…now that I’ve convinced you that you should write a query letter, I’ll go over how to actually, you know, do that. You can read part 2 here!