Benefit From My Geekage, or: How Successful Queries Open, in Stats

Recently I asked for your take on opening a novel query letter. Today I want to talk more in-depth about the two tried-and-true approaches I mentioned before as well as present a few observations from my research into query letters. You know–in numbers.

Numbers Meme

A couple weeks back I discovered the Writer’s Digest Successful Queries series. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a collection of novel query letters that successfully led to agent representation and book deals. As I read through them I am learning whatever I am able– especially comparing openings, as that’s where the query starts, and that’s your first and most important chance at a foot in the door. If you think of your first sentence as your only chance to get an assistant, and then an agent, and then a publisher to read your manuscript– and of your goal each time as simply to get the reader to keep reading to the next sentence, and the next, etc. until they have read everything– nothing is more important than the opening of your query.

So just how does one open a query letter?

Well, Timmy, I’m glad you asked. After reading 58 successful queries, I was able to find roughly five standard ways that the letters opened:

  1. Relevant Bio. This approach is used mostly for memoirs, though sometimes for fiction, and involves citing specific life experience that somehow supports your novel. And when I say “somehow supports” really I mean “is a founding pillar for”. Frequenting a sushi place or drinking a Kirin does not make one uniquely-qualified to write a book about culture shock and international exchange in Japan. Living there as a student or teacher does.
  2. Referral/”We met when…” Obviously, this approach can only be used if you’ve met either the agents themselves or someone associated with them. (Hint: a good place to network is at writing conferences!) Drawing on a positive, established connection at the start can portray good things to follow.
  3. The Hook. “When Joe Snuffleumpakiss finds a glove inside his mailbox…” “In a dystopian future where all citizens have a computer chip embedded in their wrist…” “If Martin McCharacter thought an enchanted tornado was the worst thing that could bluster into his small Kansas cow farm…” This opening jumps right into the synopsis and the meat of the story.
  4. The Facts: “I am seeking representation for my [genre] book of [word count] about [plot in a nutshell].” Or some variation thereof. This oft-used introduction states the facts right away: what you’re bringing to the table, and that you are looking to do business.
  5. The Homework: “I read [on your website/in a recent interview/in LMNOP magazine] that you are looking for [demographic/genre] fiction.” or “As you represented [a similar title the agent has sold], I thought you might be interested in my novel.” In this approach you show right away that you have done your homework: you’re familiar with the sort of work the agent represents and are declaring that your work may have a place among it.

Which do you think has the best rate of success? I’ll tell you what I found…but why not have a guess first? Here are the five again:

  1. Relevant Bio
  2. Referral/”We met when…”
  3. The Hook
  4. The Facts
  5. The Homework

Out of the 58 successful queries I read in the Writer’s Digest series, here is what I found, ranked from most- to least-often used openers:

  • Most popular: The Hook at 22 queries, or roughly 38%.
  • Second: The Facts at 16 queries, or about 27%.
  • Third: The Homework at 8 queries, or 14%.
  • Fourth: Referral/”We met when…” at 7 queries, or 12%.
  • Last: Relevant Bio at 5 queries, or about 9%.

Now, that’s not to say they were all cut and dry: at least seven blended elements of different openings (e.g., a referral that used the facts, a hook that employed homework, etc.). And those that used relevant biographies to open were for memoirs in most cases, so that might skew the rankings a bit. But you get the general idea.

How about you? How does your query open?

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Book Queries: What’s Your Opening Line?

For today’s Forum Friday I want to talk about how we pitch our books, starting with our opening line in the query letter to agents. This past week I have been reading successful query letters, mostly from the Writer’s Digest Successful Queries series, and I have made several observations. I’ll talk about this more in detail in a later post, but the one I want to discuss briefly today– and get your take on– is this:

Of the two tried-and-true approaches to opening a query letter below, which do you prefer?

A) The Hook. Opens the letter with a point of intrigue or a question specific to your story. “When XYZ happens, what’s a Quirky-Details-of Main Character to do? Why, *charming/quirky/action-packed development*, of course!” There are many approaches to the hook, but what I’ve noticed is that it often reads just like a book jacket: it’s intended to pull the reader in and KEEP them reading (i.e., really sell your book).

B) The Facts. Opens with something along the lines of “Please consider representing” or “I am seeking representation for” and includes the title of your book, the genre/target audience of your book, and the novel’s finished word count. This is key information that the agent will be looking for and having it at the start can save the agent valuable time.

Alternatively– if you’ve already written your query letter– would you be so kind as to share the opening line with us? It’s educational for the writing community, and free promotion for you! 🙂

At present, between the hook and the facts approach I favor the facts. Reading through actual queries, those that said “Dear Ms. Agent: When…” struck me as unnatural openings and hard sells. Granted, I understand that the purpose of a query is to get the agent to make a book deal with you. It is, in fairness, a business relationship, and when an agent opens a letter from a prospective client there’s no guesswork as to what that person is seeking.

Still, I can’t help but feel that an agent should be treated as a person first, and not as a potential buyer. That may not the best approach from a marketing standpoint, but I think that’s the main reason I favor the facts over the hook. Opening with “I am seeking representation for” or “I’m writing because” still says (and outright!) that you are looking to do business, but is more personable, and also gives the agent that crucial classification data of genre, audience, and word count.

Let us know your thoughts!