So, you have written the Great American Novel (or something like that). Only one word: great! But now you have to bring it to someone’s attention or it will never get further than your own back yard. The book, the writing, the story must sell itself in the long run, but in the short run there are major barriers to publication.
Publishers, those few that still have an active slush pile and accept works over the transom from unknowns, need a cover letter interesting enough to entice them to read the book. Agents need a query letter of the same quality. Even if you plan to self-publish, you will need a short, intriguing book summary or “blurb” to turn shoppers into buyers.
The heart of this “blurb” is what the story is about and the key to a successful one is the word, reduce. Somehow, it means taking a 100,000 word masterpiece and boiling it down to the essence – a few sentences, that’s all. A friend of mine suggests that if you can’t tell what your book is about in a sentence, you are not ready to market your work. I might not go that far, but certainly it needs to be expressed in a short paragraph or two, and these are the elements I feel are imperative.
1. The hook. The whole description should be a hook. I don’t mean ending with a cliff-hanger like some movie serial from the thirties in the hope that the person will want to see how it turns out. I also don’t mean a sales pitch. I mean the whole description should interest, entice, intrigue enough so the publisher/agent/buyer wants to read the work. It should be bold, new, different, fascinating, real, focused, or whatever word you want to use. Your story is unique. You want to describe it in a way that makes it stand out from the crowd and literally “hooks” the person into wanting to take a look at it.
2. The Main Character and their dilemma. Forget the sub-plots, the complexities of characterization and relationships, secondary characters and all that. Focus on who and what. For the most part, you want to save the how and why for the story.
Killers in Eden is about a man who corrupts the innocent people of another world. In order to save them he has to teach them about war, betrayal, revenge and how to kill.
Guardian Angel is about a woman who struggles to protect the trillions of parallel earths from invasion by people who are ambivalent about other worlds, and some who are hostile and some who are hardly human.
A Place for the Magic is about a thirteen-year-old girl who finds a magic wand that actually works.
3. Your Style. Whatever you include beyond the main character and their dilemma should reinforce the hook and at the same time it should show something of your writing, your voice, your narrative (whatever you want to call it). You want the publisher/agent/buyer to get some idea of what they may be getting into by reading the book. This is tricky, but doable in a sentence or three. And it is imperative. Brilliant story ideas have been conceived by people who cannot write, and sad to say in this present world publishers and agents do not have the time to do massive edits or teach writing.
Thus it is important that the book be complete and as perfect as you can make it before you begin the query process. There are ways to do this which I won’t detail here, only remember, the query is simply to get the book read. The book must then do the selling. No great query ever sold a bad book, but many a poor query stood in the way of many a good book.
Once you have the story in hand and it is as hook as you can make it, the rest of the letter is a business letter – not a chatty letter to a friend, not cute, not humorous or self-promoting. The business is not you, but the book. Keep it strictly business. That is the kind of relationship you should be seeking in an agent/publisher. Yes, it may grow into something more than that over time, but up front remember this is business.
These are the things I recommend including (not necessarily in this order):
1. Reason for selecting agent. We met at a conference. I know your sister. Writer X recommended you. I read your sales list and believe my work is a good fit. Indicate in some small way that you have done your homework and are not just a stabbing in the dark.
2. My qualifications: I work for NASA, I am an aerospace engineer, I did my doctorate in mythology and folklore. I have been published in The New Yorker. Qualifications are less important for fiction than non-fiction, especially for a first time author. It is most often better to say nothing.
3. The book is finished.
4. Genre = what shelf it will go on at Barnes & Noble. Don’t confuse the issue with humor elements, horror elements, mysterious, romantic etc. They will see all that when they read the work, and hopefully be pleasantly surprised.
5. Number of words = how thick the book will be. (some publishers, like DAW prefer over 80,000 words, but your agent can worry about that).
Thank you for your time and attention.
That is all you need.