Writing a query letter sounds easy enough. You read some basic tutorials on how to assemble all the basic components, sit down to compose, and then your brain grinds gears and you spontaneously combust. Am I right?
In all my time helping authors through this harrowing process, I have come to expect complaints and trouble with the whole querying gambit. And though the concerns vary, it almost always boils down to the same three problems- finding comps, understanding pitch versus synopsis, and knowing how to address or connect with the agent.
So, I decided I should have a little chat with you about “the big three” and bring some advice to the table.
Comps (comparable books, or “readalikes”) take the number one spot as most complained about query task. Why? BECAUSE IT’S SO HARD. Between having to be recent, same genre, similar demographics, successful (but not TOO popular!), you could just scream.
It doesn’t have to be such a nightmare. Firstly, if your book rides a genre fence, is too unique to easily compare, or has more in common with books from another lifetime, then just skip the comps. Seriously. There is more damage to be done if you comp incorrectly, or badly, than there is to simply not comp at all.
I understand, though, that some agents require this bit of information and you may not be willing to cross off the agent just because of it.
Therefore, consider this advice-
Start with a positive perspective
Your attitude and mentality can go a long way. Yes, the comps may seem like a one way benefit here, where you have to agonize over your book’s place on the shelf so the agent doesn’t have to.
Wrong. It’s not fair to assume that everything to do with the future of your book is someone else’s problem. Your book’s best and most intimate chance of being understood and marketed lies within YOU, the creator. Regardless of representation and publisher marketing, you are your book’s most avid seller and you’re going to want to know how to present it. If someone walks up to you and asks to know about your book, are you going to say, “Oh you’ll have to talk to my publisher about that. I don’t handle sales.”
How often in conversation do we recommend things to people by means of comparison? “Oh, you should check out the new burger joint in town! It’s as good as if you pulled it off the grill yourself.”
Or how many times have you made an Amazon shopping decision based on “those who bought this also purchased…”, or enjoyed those nifty recommendations by Netflix on what you should watch next, based on your binge of Grey’s Anatomy?
Comparing products is something we do all the time in order to help make something appealing or to inform others of the best deal.
Why wouldn’t you want to use this tool for your own writing franchise?
Your comps are going to be much easier to come by and more fun to use if you have a positive understanding of just how useful they can be when you’re in the position of selling your product.
Use tricks to find comp titles
No writer has the time to be so widely read as to always have great comps in the recess of their memory. Therefore, finding comps takes some work.
Being smart with your resources will save you from making this task exhausting.
For one, learn to love your librarian. Librarians are so much more than ominous card scanners that tell you your account still shows a late fee. The library is their little kingdom and they know their subjects intimately.
If you want the scoop about best comps on the shelves, talk to a librarian (a bookseller works here as well!) Tell them about your story and ask them for advice on similar titles to check out. The more you read your genre and stories like yours, the easier it is to understand how you fit into the market you’re hoping to move into.
You can also ask Amazon. If you have one title in mind that is similar to yours, look it up and see what Amazon recommends as similar reading. The algorithms of the site are set to show you comps, as well as similar items buyers are purchasing. This isn’t always spot on, but it’s a great way to start a list of titles to look into.
Similarly, check out Goodreads. Not only does Goodreads give readalike suggestions, it has an impressive database of fan made lists. You can search the lists by genre or you can be creative and search for lists based on tone (ex- angsty teenage romance), plot device (ex- love triangles), or even mood (ex- books to read when it’s rainy).
Putting comps to use
Now, the best thing to do with all these comp titles you find is to start reading them. The only true way to fully understand how they compare to your book is to be familiar with them.
Obviously, not everybody has time for that. You can technically use a comp title without reading it. But it is a risk that you have to understand could come back to bite you if you’re wrong. So, play it smart.
Now, whatever path you choose, carefully plan your presentation of your comps.
Most often writers will opt for a simple “STORY ONE X STORY TWO” or “STORY ONE meets STORY TWO”. This is useful for Twitter pitches especially. It uses the least amount of characters and conveys your point concisely.
You should note, though, that this style speaks more to a specific concept. For example (and I’m going to pull popular titles here for sake of understanding), if I pitch HARRY POTTER meets HUNGER GAMES, it will be assumed that I’m speaking of a story concept of wizards playing a deadly and political game of last man standing.
If, however, you are using your comps to convey similar tone or style, then you should opt for the form of “For fans of STORY ONE and STORY TWO”. This presentation indicates that readers of each may be interested in your book, even if they don’t necessarily cross over into each other’s fandom.
Undoubtedly, there will be a point where you wonder if it’s okay to comp a movie or TV series. I say go for it. This is best used when at least one of your comps is still a book. I haven’t met an agent that has voiced a hard NO on this. But I would still reserve this kind of comp for when it is the absolute most applicable comp for you to make.
Synopsis versus pitch
Read between the lines
I see a lot of agents/publishers use synopsis and pitch in a synonymous way, which leads to a lot of confusion among writers. You do all your research and learn that a pitch is a couple paragraphs within the query that serves as a hook, and a synopsis is a separate full page that spills all the details. So, when an agent asks for a synopsis in a query letter, you’re thinking, “WHAT EVEN IS THIS?!”
No doubt, it’s frustrating. But if someone is using the term ‘synopsis’ within the context of a QUERY LETTER, you are safe to assume they are actually referring to a story pitch.
The actual synopsis
A request for a synopsis (outside the context of a query letter) can be understood as your one-page book “summary”.
I say “one-page”. Some agents request more. That’s cool too. But it’s better to get a good solid one-pager and add to it than to have three full pages and have to scale it down. Maybe consider preparing one of each kind so you’re ready for whichever.
But no matter your length, you want to be sure that it maintains a catchy narrative tone. One of the editing services I offer is synopsis critique, and one of the problems I routinely encounter is a synopsis with no tone or liveliness. Instead, it reads, “This thing happens. Then this. Character A responds by doing this. Character B does that. Then another thing.”
Please don’t drone.
Think of your synopsis as a miniature version of your story. It should still convey the character, the heart, and the tension.
How to write a synopsis
Well that’s too large a beast to slay here. Hopefully I can bring you a post about that soon.
But I will say, it is easier to start with your story pitch and expand it to include your ending. From there, you can add padding by bringing in the important details that didn’t make the cut for the pitch but are needed to grasp the story as a whole.
More often I see people start out by writing EVERYTHING that happens in the book, nearly like a book report. Then they agonize over how in the world to scale it down after realizing they just wrote five pages.
The point is not to make your story tiny. That’s the very opposite of how you should go into this. You should approach your synopsis with your core story pitch and think, “Now, what can I add to support this?” Start small and grow.
Last, but not least, you want to add that magical sparkle that convinces the agent you were meant to be together.
How do you do that with a complete stranger?
My philosophy here, and with any relationship, is- don’t coerce affection. Just tell the truth and be yourself.
It’s perfectly okay to say, “I found your profile on [blank] agent database. I saw that you represent my genre and it sparked an interest in learning more about you.”
For one, a lot of those databases are not free. It helps agents to know whether paying for the ad or membership is even bringing them any sort of clientele. It’s useful information for their marketing.
But for two, it’s the honest truth. If you are truly interested in learning everything you can about the agent, then sure, take a deep stalker plunge into the webs, and perhaps you’ll find some blog post or tweet or previous work that you can reference in your query.
The key here is- no matter your level of knowledge about them, be real.
There is this subtle, assumed idea that agents want you to know everything about them and expect you to praise them massively for all the greatness they achieved that interests you.
Think about that though. Isn’t that rather backwards?
What agents want to know about is YOU. This is your chance to tell the agent about yourself. Tell them your story, your process for getting this far, your achievements, what you like to do in your spare time.
Instead of focusing on what will flatter or kiss butt the most, focus on conveying who you are.
Think of online dating profiles. When you’re scrolling through, you can tell which people are trying to get attention and which ones are putting themselves out there in the most meek and respectful way. Those people aren’t trying to win you over with a photoshopped pic and bogus claims. They are just being them. And it’s up to you whether it catches your interest or not.
Same with querying. This is you putting your most honest, respectful, and humble foot forward, and it is then in the agent’s court to decide if they feel a connection with you or not. You can’t make someone like you. You can’t create chemistry where there is none. All you can do is keep being you and wait for someone to be drawn to your shine.
Value your bio
The best place in the query letter for you to let the agent know about you is your bio section. With so much thought generally put into trying to woo the agent, this portion usually comes up lacking.
Value the opportunity you have here to help the agent know more about you. Your qualifications or education or personal experience are all great to note.
But also think about communicating what inspires you, what you hope to achieve. Describe what you like to do when you’re not writing. Paint a picture for them that says, “this is me.”
Your passion and personality are intricately tied to your writing. Even if an agent finds weak spots in your pitch, any notes you make about your work ethic or industry awareness or enthusiasm for growth, may just push them to request after all.
Therefore, take advantage of the invitation to tell agents about yourself. I promise you that they are friendly, encouraging people who are eager to get to know you, not just your book.
Thanks for reading!
May this fresh perspective inspire you to write your best query letter and find the agent you’ve been waiting for. Remember- comp wisely, always start your synopsis with your very best story pitch, and don’t forget to be your truest self.
If you have any further questions, drop them in the comments below or feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.