The unconventional query

How a rule-breaking approach might earn you a sale.

Unconventional Query
Sometimes breaking the rules can get your query letter read. Image by Eny Setiyowati

Whether you want to sell a magazine article, business book, or pretty much anything between, the formula is simple:

1) Send query letter.

2) Send manuscript.

3) Reap rewards.

But if you’re like me, you’re probably tired of the boilerplate, tried-and-true query letters that feel stilted, stuffed, and stuck in the 1980s. Can we ignore the “rules” about having to use the plug-and-play query structure? Can we ever bring a little creativity to it?

Absolutely. Here are just a few ways that your query can stand out and still get you the deal.

Size matters

After meeting an acquisitions editor at a conference in 2001, I followed up with a query and proposal combo for a poetry-writing textbook that was…wait for it…1½ pages long. Not the standard 20-30 pages most proposals click in with. And despite the compact size of my submission, I still included a query letter as well as a full TOC with competing titles, proposed contributor list, and marketing ideas. In less than two pages! That translated a few months later into a deal for Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes (Longman, 2003).

Years later, I asked my editor why she bought the book. She said, “In all my years of being in publishing, I’ve never seen someone pitch me something so succinctly.”

Humor works

Despite having 20 books under my belt, I found myself between literary agents this past year. So I queried prospective new agents with an email that began with this line: “It seems that searching for the right agent is a lot like speed dating, so here’s a zippy 411 on me.” It went on like this:

My Turn-Offs:
**Boring query letters
**One-and-done authors

It had other sections like “What I Like About You,” “My Dream Date,” and “My Recent ‘Relationships,’” which detailed my last five books.

I got a 95 percent response rate from the two dozen I sent, and nearly all responders praised my approach, saying it was the most attention-grabbing email they’d seen in a long time and/or that it gave them a good laugh. Quite a few invited me to send them something new anytime.

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The non-query query

Ask any editor or agent how many queries they get per week or during the course of a single conference, and you’ll immediately see their visceral reaction. A typical agent or editor receives an avalanche of queries that often blends together into a stew of requests so large that they’re actively looking for reasons to say “No!” just to trim down the volume.

So don’t ask. Don’t query. Refuse to participate in those mass rejections.

At writing conferences, I don’t query or pitch on the spot. Instead, I strive to have a good time when I meet publishing pros. Then later, I follow up and reference the good time. (“I was the one who swapped Star Trek one-liners with you outside Starbucks!”) And I still don’t query or pitch. I just thank them for doing a great job at the conference on their panel or during their workshop. Then I keep in touch.

Once in a while, our email exchange grows to the point where they say something like this: “By the way, do you have anything for the June issue on fashion?”

BOOM. You’re in. You didn’t query them – they queried you. You simply flipped the tables by not doing what every other conference attendee did.

This can work even without a face-to-face meeting to initiate things. A robust social media exchange or other excuse to send occasional pithy emails can create a relationship where the outcome is the same. They need something and you hear about it – or get offered – the opportunity first.

Matching voice and vision

Award-winning author Ruth Spiro shares the following about her unconventional querying experience:

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“When I began pitching my ‘Baby Loves Science’ series, the books were such a departure from traditional board books that I knew I’d have to make sure my submission accurately conveyed just what they were about. Each ‘manuscript’ came in at 85-100 words, so there was a good chance that my query would be longer than the actual text.

“Rather than using a traditional query letter, I crafted a one-page ‘Project Proposal’ and wrote it with the same voice and humor I’d used in the books. It had three sections: ‘What?!’ was followed by a three-sentence description of the series; ‘Are you serious?’ answered what I imagined would be the next question in the reader’s mind; [and] ‘Is there a market for this?’ offered suggestions of who I thought would be interested in the series. I submitted this document along with the text for three possible books.

“While I received many rejections, nearly every editor and agent replied to my submission. Some commented that my proposal was helpful in communicating my vision for the series, and a few wrote how much they enjoyed reading it. (Of course, the most important opinion is that of the editor who acquired it!)  I wouldn’t recommend writing an unusual query just to stand out, but if there’s a valid reason that works in tandem with your manuscript, I think it makes perfect sense to give it a try.”

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Finally, a word of caution: We’ve all heard about horror stories where “creative” why-the-heck-not? queries went wrong:

  • The New York book editor who opens a Fed-Ex package and finds a note: “This building will explode in 30 minutes…unless you wire $1 million to this account.” When the bomb squad finally gives the all-clear, the editor realizes it was simply a pitch for a thriller manuscript.
  • The writer who sends a birthday cake to a literary agency…with a query written in frosting.
  • The writer who slides a manuscript to an editor in the next bathroom stall.

Those are gimmicks. They’re stupid, silly, and unseemly.

The goal in your querying is to showcase your creativity, sure, but it’s equally important to prove that you’re a professional. If you really want to get noticed? Consider querying unconventionally in a professional fashion. Just fully consider the possible outcomes of your creative-yet-appropriate pitch. If you see more opportunity than downside, go for it. What have you got to lose? Just remember the following advice:

1.) Run your unconventional query plan by a trusted writer friend to ensure you’re not the likely star of a future Don’t-Do-This anecdote an editor or agent shares at a conference.

2.) If there’s more than a 1 percent chance that the cops will get involved, it’s a bad idea. Period.

Finally, if you decide to do something totally crazy and it works – or it totally goes down in a Hindenburg-flaming-BOOM – please share that story with us at [email protected]. We’d love to share it with fellow querying readers in the magazine.

 

Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books, and he runs the creative writing program at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. Web: ryangvancleave.com