Why My First Query Letter Failed

For most authors, query letters are right up there with required edits and enemas…they’re pains in the arse. In theory, query letters are easy; they’re straight-forward descriptions of your project peppered with a little marketing info and a few other nuggets. In reality, they’re all-important one-page documents on which the future of the manuscript that you’ve shed blood, sweat, and tears over rides. No pressure.

A little background on my first query letter

I wrote and illustrated my first book—a children’s fantasy book, when I was 20.  I had an idea for a series that I could easily see being commercialized into a cartoon show. It was the story I workshopped for my undergraduate creative writing classes and received feedback such as, “How is this different from that show, That’s So Raven?” I had no idea; I’d never watched That’s So Raven, which was for kids years younger than I was then. Duh.

Sign of impending failure 1: I’d neglected to do any research to see what my market already contained to see how my story stacked up. What’s more, I really couldn’t articulate—in publishing terms—the target age range for the story. There were plenty of illustrations, but there was also a lot of text. Was this story meant to be a first reader? Was it for kids ages 4-6? Grades 1-3?

What I should’ve done:

  • Investigate the market to see what was out there
  • Had a clear and focused sense of what was needed for the target age group for the story and made adjustments to the story as appropriate to ensure the proper vocabulary and quantity of words per page was accurate for the readership.
  • Analyzed whether my type of story was viable in the current marketplace
  • Investigated the publishing houses, editors, and agents who represented books / authors similar to mine and made favorable comparisons

Sign of impending failure 2: A peer also asked, “What’s the moral or lesson to the story?” Internally, I scoffed. She didn’t get it. This story was to entertain. That was the point; it wasn’t an Aesop fable. Actually, I was the one who didn’t get it. If my story’s point wasn’t translating, that was a problem. Secondly, it wasn’t just about entertainment; it was also about helping children understand that their anxieties and insecurities are normal and that it’s okay to laugh at ourselves when awkward or embarrassing things happen to us. I should’ve been able to articulate that (and it should’ve shown in the story).

What I should’ve done:

  • Been receptive to the critique and examined the manuscript to see how I could improve the story.

Six years after I wrote the manuscript, I found a variety of agents who published illustrated children’s fiction and queried them with my stories. My first mistake, which I mentioned in a previous post, was that I sent them all the same letter.  Most were kind enough to send a form rejection letter; one was even nice enough to send a personalized rejection that my graduate thesis director later explained was an invitation to revise and to respond.

Let’s break down the actual query letter

Note for the query, I’m going to borrow Carrie Bradshaw’s children’s novel pitched to Mr. Big’s ex-wife. I assure you, it’s not too far of a detour from my concept. Only the name and synopsis of the story are different from my original query.

Query Letter.jpg

Query letter content that needs to go

  • Details about the series (it’s okay to mention it’s part of a series but leave it at that).
  • The fact that the book was read to children and that they loved it.
  • Where I found the agent (wasted space)
  • That I have other genre interests (lacks focus)
  • That the story is unlike any other (not a salable point)

The few strengths are:

  • Letter format (#nailedit)
  • Referencing other familiar series to help the agent get a sense of the book’s tone
  • The description of the series isn’t bad
  • The conclusion is pretty nice

Query letter content that needs to be included

  • Market potential and insights
  • How I plan to / am already marketing the work or my children’s book author persona
  • The target age for readers
  • The number of pages, words, and illustrations in the story
  • The story’s genre
  • A concise statement of the overall point / theme of the stories
  • The story’s conclusion in the brief synopsis

In hindsight, it is easy to see why the query didn’t land an agent. While the story idea wasn’t bad, it wasn’t and isn’t obviously marketable or mind-blowing enough to override flaws and missing content in the query.

As writers, we all want our content to be so awesome that we don’t even need a query letter; however, as we know, even the greatest novel series of our day (Harry Potter) was steadily being rejected by every publisher who came across it until the child of a publisher happened to pick up and read the manuscript and insisted her father publish it (I hope Rowling gave her a signed copy of the series). Was it the query that kept editor and agent after editor and agent from pursuing Rowling’s manuscript?

Is it the query letter that keeps editors and agents from seeing the true brilliance of your writing?  Make sure it’s not by knowing your story’s purpose, doing your market research, analyzing your audience, and hiring someone to write, edit, or review your query if need be.

If your aim is traditional publication, then the importance of a strong query letter cannot be overstated. Writing isn’t a solitary process; by letting others help you with your query, you can impress more agents and editors and open more doors for your manuscript’s future.