Barbara Hunt: I recently heard you say that you spend vast amounts of time sifting through the query letters you receive and it’s a disappointment to realize that most writers are leery of drafting said query – and it shows! That said, how important is the query letter in the process of securing an agent or getting a publisher to read our manuscripts?
Drea Cohane: In term of its relevance to securing an agent, the query letter is just as important as a cover letter when applying for a new job. This is the first contact an agent is going to have with the writer,and the quality of the query is crucial in the kind of response the writer will receive from the agent. The writer may have produced a brilliant manuscript, but if the query is poorly executed, chances are the agent will never see that brilliant manuscript because they will have passed on requesting the material. Obviously there are degrees to just how poorly executed a query must be to be disregarded by an agent, as every agent is different in what they deem an acceptable query. For example, a query replete with grammatical errors and an ambiguous and/or poorly written synopsis will not rate very high on any agent’s radar.
BH: And it is important to follow the standard format for a query letter, is it not? Could you explain why.
DC: Yes, and no. Agents are looking for specific bits of information in a query. And so in that sense, yes, it is important to follow the standard guideline to a query. As for the standard format, in terms of structure, I really do not think it is necessary to follow a specific order when presenting the information to the agent. As long as the query contains the details we are looking for, that is the most important thing.
BH: An agent, such as yourself, will react differently to a well-crafted query letter than a poorly written one, right?
DC: Of course. As an agent, I am more likely to respond to a well-crafted query. With that being said, I am aware that producing a query can be an arduous task for a new writer. And you can generally sense when a writer is nervous, as it will shine through in their query. There can be query letters that are written haphazardly, but with the best intentions; and those are completely different than the queries that you will receive that show no effort on the part of the writer. I have received queries that have only included a synopsis and no other information, but based on that synopsis alone I have contacted the author and requested more material. It’s not to say that I will always pass on poorly written queries, as I understand for some writers the process is a scary one. I sometimes receive emails from writers asking what they should write to me in a query, and I always respond and let them know what I am looking for. But in terms of queries that are poorly written, and exhibit no real effort on part of the writer, I will typically pass on those.
BH: Could you give us one easy and simple suggestion for how to improve any query letter – something that should be a no-brainer fix?
DC: Present a catchy synopsis that is detailed, yet concise. There is no place for ambiguity in a synopsis. Be clear about the genre, and describe the overall plot. As an agent, we need to know what we are dealing with and if it is a genre we even represent, and where it could potentially fall within the market place.
Drea Cohane is planning her next query workshop for February 10th, 2013. To register or get more information, please contact her at email@example.com.