Even though it wasn’t real, the most famous ‘query letter’ of all time has to be the one immortalized by the Beatles within the lyrics of their 1966 classic, Paperback Writer. But what if Paul McCartney (who wrote the song) really had been an unknown wannabe, trying to get an agent or editor to read his book? What kind of response would he have got if he’d sent a query letter like the one he sang about?
We’ll never know for sure, but here’s how I think Agnes Hardacre, former senior agent at The Write Good Read Literary Agency (who some of you may recall sent me feedback on my query letter for Dracula vs. the Daleks a couple of years ago), would have responded:
Dear Mr. McCartney,
With reference to your recent correspondence seeking representation for yourself and your novel, I regret to inform you that The Write Good Read Literary Agency will not be inviting you to join our client roster.
As someone who harbors ambitions of one day becoming a published author myself, I fully understand your desire to become a ‘paperback writer.’
I share the frustration we authors feel when our work is rejected with little or no explanation as to why it’s deemed unworthy. With that in mind – and please understand this is in no way a request for you to re-submit your work – I’d like to offer some observations about your letter of enquiry, along with some helpful advice which, if heeded, I believe will greatly increase your chances of getting past that all-important first stage of the representation process when you submit your work elsewhere.
1: DO YOUR HOMEWORK
You start your letter of enquiry with ‘Dear, sir or madam, will you read my book?’
To use the modern vernacular, I’m afraid you ‘Shot yourself in the foot’, not once, but twice, within your very first sentence. In this modern technological age, a quick call to Directory Enquiries would have gotten you this agency’s telephone number. Had you then telephoned our main office, a member of our secretarial staff would have gladly furnished you with the name of the person to whom you should address your letter of enquiry (in this case, myself).
A little extra effort would have gone a long way, believe me.
2: LEAVE OUT THE OBVIOUS
As for ‘will you read my book?’ of course you want us to read your work. Why else would you have sent it to us? To ask even once in a letter of enquiry is redundant, to ask twice, as you did, smacks of desperation.
3: LEAVE OUT UNNECESSARY INFORMATION
Moving on. A good book is a good book. Readers (and agents) don’t care how long you or any other author worked on a novel (even if it did, as you claim, take you years). In a similar vein, nor do we need to know about your current need for employment. It makes you sound desperate.
4: BE AWARE OF POSSIBLE COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT
You say your plotline is based on a book by another author – a Mr. Lear as I recall. You should be aware of the potential for a lawsuit if you’ve used characters created by another writer without his or her express permission.
5: GIVE MORE (AND BETTER) STORY DETAILS
Your covering letter tells me next to nothing about the novel you’d like us to represent, not even (and this is an enormous faux pas) its title .
All I could glean from it was that you’ve written a somewhat smutty story about an ill-groomed, unkempt man whose wife won’t give him space and doesn’t appreciate him (or his ambitions, I couldn’t tell which). This unnamed man has a son (also unnamed) who works at a newspaper, but (like you) harbors an ambition to write paperbacks.
It’s too vague. Give me a reason to care. Give me a reason to ask for more.
6: FINISH YOUR BOOK BEFORE YOU SEND IT OUT
When I read your offer to write extra chapters and/or rearrange the plot if we like your writing style, it became obvious that your book is still a WiP (a modern acronym which stands for ‘Work in Progress). We want people to send us finished work. Besides, at a thousand pages, your manuscript is already too long. I believe you should consider splitting it into two, or even three novels.
7: IT’S NOT OUR BOOK IT’S YOURS
It’s also a mistake to tender the rights to your work without pre-conditions. A less ethical agency might have taken you up on your offer.
8: DON’T MAKE WILD CLAIMS
I sincerely doubt that your (or any other unknown author’s) book would generate a million pounds for our agency overnight. It does you no good to claim otherwise. In fact, it makes you look unprofessional, which is never a good thing in the literary world.
9: IF YOU WANT THINGS RETURNED, INCLUDE POSTAGE
You state that if we must return your manuscript (or as we like to call it these days ‘ms’), we can send it back to you, but since you neglected to include the necessary three shillings and sixpence in postage stamps, I’m afraid that’s not possible.
On a final note, I detect a lyrical symmetry in the way you wrote your letter which makes me wonder if your efforts might find better reward in the field of poetry, or even songwriting. Perhaps you could set your letter of enquiry to music, though I’m not sure a song about wanting to write paperback books is exactly the sort of thing young people would listen to. These days, everything on the hit parade seems to be a variation on the theme of love.
I sincerely hope you find my comments and observations helpful. Wishing you the very best in your future endeavors.
Agnes S. Hardacre (Junior acquisitions editor)
For The Write Good Read Literary Agency
I think that just about covers it.
How about you?
What kind of reply do you think an unknown writer would have got?