4 Critical Steps to Take BEFORE You Craft Your Query

Author Claudia Cangilla McAdam 2014
By Claudia Cangilla McAdam

So, you’ve finished that manuscript that’s sure to become a best-selling, award-winning book. Congratulations! Now’s the time to sit down and start writing that query letter, right? Wrong!

Too often, authors choose the “shotgun” approach of sending query letters right and left to potential publishing houses, and they are disappointed when the rejections flow in, or when months later, they’ve still heard nothing. Cue the chirping crickets.

With my last two sales of picture storybooks, each to a different publisher, before I sat down to write the query letters, I employed a deliberate, four-step approach of targeting what I determined to be the BEST publisher for each book. It takes time and effort, but the work proved to be most beneficial. In each instance, within four months of sending the query and manuscript, the book was purchased by the first publisher to which I sent it. And both books will be published this fall, just sixteen months after acceptance.

I can’t guarantee that every author will get the same results, but here are the four critical pre-query-writing steps I took and which I recommend:

4 “Must-do” Things

  1. Research the Right Publisher(s)
    • Get the newest edition of Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. Read it. I like to sit down and read every entry, noting which ones might be good fits for book projects I’ve completed or have underway. Utilize the subject index to find houses that publish the type of book you’ve written. Can you classify your book as “Adventure,” “Humor,” “Mystery,” etc.? Does it deal with “Biography,” “History,” “Nature,” and so on? Start there. Read the entries for publishers of that type of work. Keep a list of those publishers.
    • Go to bookstores. Look at books like yours. Who is publishing those kinds of books? Jot down the publishers. Cross reference with Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. These may be the best places to start querying.
    • Visit the library. Ask the children’s librarian about books similar in subject matter to yours. What books in this genre do they love? Is there a dearth of books on this subject? Librarians know what they like AND they know what kids like.
  2. Deeply Investigate the Right Publisher(s)
    • Once you’ve targeted a good potential publisher, go to that firm’s website. View their online catalog.
    • Read a few of the books that are in the genre of your story. You can check them out from the library, purchase or borrow them, or even get a good feel for the work by utilizing the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon.com.
    • Carefully read the house’s submissions guidelines. You are going to want to follow these instructions to the letter.
  3. Make Note of Works Similar to Yours or Whose Style You Admire
    • Choose two or three of that publisher’s authors whose style or subject matter is similar to yours. Remember, this publisher purchased those books because they liked them. It doesn’t hurt to mention them in your query.
    • If yours is a picture book, look at the publisher’s catalog for an illustrator whose style you envision for your book. There’s no downside in referencing this work in your query letter.
  4. Pull out Key Words or Phrases from Publisher’s Information
    • Read the publisher’s mission statement, or a description of the types of books they’re looking for. Pull out the phrases that apply to your book. Some examples: “innovative approach to nonfiction picture books” or “well-documented historical fiction.” You’ll want to use a phrase or two in your query to demonstrate that you a) know what the publisher wants, and b) are delivering it!

My Personal Experience

In looking for the perfect home for my book The First Christmas Tree: A Legend of St. Boniface, I targeted Christian publishing houses. Paraclete Press seemed like a great fit. I went to their web site and carefully read the firm’s submission guidelines. Then I read some of the books in their catalog (and read about others). I noted which ones gave me the feeling that my manuscript might be well-received. I jotted down what types of works they said they would consider. THEN I sat down to craft the query. Here’s the first paragraph:

In researching the ideal publisher for my 850-word children’s picture book, The First Christmas Tree: A Legend of St. Boniface, I was delighted to learn that Paraclete Press accepts queries for seasonal children’s picture books, including those related to Christmas. Not only does this book fit with Joyce Denham’s engaging stories of saints, it is of the ilk of Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s charming story Probity Jones and the Fear Not Angel, enhanced with Tim Ladwig’s beautiful illustrations.

I went through the same pre-query-writing exercise for The Mermaid’s Gift, and sent my one (and only) submission to Pelican Publishing. Here’s that query’s first paragraph:

Enclosed please find my 1100-word picture book manuscript, The Mermaid’s Gift, an exclusive submission. I believe this story is a natural fit for Pelican’s list of beautifully-illustrated books, including those with the feel of a folktale, similar to The Sandal Artist, the work of my good friend Kathleen Pelley.

If a publisher can tell that you’ve done your homework, that you know the kinds of books they publish, and that you’ve chosen that house for a reason, I believe you’ve already got a leg-up. But you’re not done yet! In a future post, I’ll detail the keys to writing an effective query. But for now, let the research into publishers begin!

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Door Closes, Door Opens

Denise VegaI was all set to write about the Teen Lit Conference this past Saturday, which I’ve attended the last few years as part of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Exhibits. This year I was planning to go as an attendee only and was looking forward to that role. And I was super psyched about the two authors–Andrew Smith and Wendelin Van Draanen. Andrew’s book, GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, was a Printz Honor winner and one of the most intriguing, imaginative, and emotionally honest books I’ve read in a long time. When I got the email that registration was open, I clicked right away.

It was already sold out! I was incredibly disappointed and half-heartedly added my name to the Waitlist. Why would anyone let their registration go?

So I pushed it out of my mind and a few weeks later, I received an invitation to speak at a conference the same day as the Teen Lit Conference. GenreFest was co-sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Colorado Humanities, and the Colorado Authors League and sounded fantastic. I was honored and excited to be invited to speak about a topic related to young adult lit. I did a two and a half hour workshop about developing an authentic teen voice and it was incredible. I had a small group–six writers–who were dedicated, creative, and thoughtful; writers who clearly had incredible respect and love for their teen audience and had ideas and stories that reflect the realities of the teen experience. I want to read all of their books  :-) .

The morning session was a three-hour presentation by author David Morrell and the time flew by as he shared wisdom, anecdotes, and nuggets of inspiration. He echoed a  lot of things I’ve been working on as a writer–being open and aware so that answers and ideas can come to you, making writing a priority, and asking yourself questions like: Why is this book worth one or two or five years of my life? What about it is something I absolutely must write?

I came away so psyched about my own writing and loved being around the energy of the other writers. The Teen Lit door closed and I was so disappointed at the time. But I’m thrilled the GenreFest door opened. (As a side note, a spot for Teen Lit actually did open up, but by then I was happily committed to GenreFest).

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” ~ Helen Keller

Always look for those open doors!

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A Famous Stranger

Photo of Randy Fraser


By Randall C. Fraser

I recently talked with one of the world’s most famous authors, while visiting my local pizzeria. But I’ll get back to that…

Over the years I’ve met several famous people, and no, I’m not taking this opportunity to name-drop. Quite the opposite really, since I’ve always tried to respect a celebrity’s right, at least in my opinion, to enjoy their private lives. On occasion, I have collected memorabilia from such celebrities while they were working. I do admit to owning several autographed golf balls—all of them from world famous players, and I have pictures standing beside two of my favorites. But they were obtained on the course, at public events. Whenever I saw a celebrity enjoying a salad or dessert, at a local restaurant, or say, walking on a dock after returning from deep-sea fishing, I left them to their private lives.

Back to the famous author… I was at the counter paying for my pizza when I noticed a man glancing at the book I left on my table. He looked up from the cover and having seen me regarding him with curiosity said, “Sorry, my mind was wandering.” Well, since I was done at the register, I meandered over and asked if he was a fantasy fan; fully prepared to offer a list of titles he might enjoy. His face lit up and his tired demeanor completely vanished as he told me about his favorite writer. No, he wasn’t into fantasy. After discussing his favorite “protagonist” he steered me to a local grocery chain, saying I could find the books there. I thanked him and sat back down. When I realized he used the word “protagonist” it occurred to me he was probably a writer. I took another look at him and put two and two together. As he walked toward the door, I said, “You’re a writer aren’t you?” He replied, as he reached the door, “I’ve written a few things.” Instead of simply saying enjoy the pizza or nice meeting you, I said, “Yes you have.” This I regretted as soon as the words left my mouth. His smile disappeared.

I realized he would have preferred to remain anonymous, simply enjoying our conversation about books without the encumbrance of his reputation or the inevitable discussion of his own work. Being a private person myself, even a bit reclusive, I understood. It made me realize the last thing I ever want to be is famous. I did check out his website to make sure my conclusion was correct. His picture stared back at me, though he wore a less worn expression. And I will admit that this time, had I realized sooner, and in a moment of weakness, I might have asked to take a picture.

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Whiney Writer and the Proliferating Possibilities

Whiney Writer


By Whiney Writer

Whiney stars in her own reality show!

As the magic camera zooms in on Whiney Writer’s computer desk, we see Whiney staring at her monitor. A few words show at the top of the screen. There is no sound in the room except the soft snores of her cat, Princess Fuzzy Butt.

Whiney’s keyboard rattles briefly then falls silent as she presses the backspace key. She turns from her monitor to stare out the window, and sighs.

“It’s a beautiful sunny day out there. Where’s a cold gray March day when you need one? If I go out for a walk to clear my brain, I won’t come back for hours. It’s be a shame to miss my neighbor’s crocus, though.”

She squares her shoulders. “No, I will write. Umm…what? I’ve got plenty of ideas. Maybe I’ll finish the story about the mutant blue hippopotami. No, I still can’t figure out how they could talk. How about the romance novel about a young duke who runs away to become an aeronaut and is shot down as a spy by his gamekeeper’s daughter? I could go kind of steampunk. I’d just have to find out how hot air balloons actually work. Why do all those articles have to be so technical? Or I could work on my mystery novel about the French princess who’s murdered her brother-in-law for trying to seduce her to provide an heir. I think it would have to be alternate history, though.”
Whiney squints at the sunshine and swivels to stare at the walls instead. “Ugh. Look at all those cobwebs! This isn’t a writing room, it’s the creepy library on a late night movie. I don’t suppose there’s any chance of a handsome brooding hero happening by? Didn’t think so.”

She climbs up on a low cabinet and spends a few highly aerobic minutes swiping at cobwebs with a tissue. Whiney bounces off the wall. Princess Fuzzy Butt flees.

“Oof!” Whiney hops down and goes back to her computer.

“Why can’t editors take uncompleted manuscripts from unknowns? We’re the ones who need the encouragement! I’d feel a lot more motivated to finish something if somebody had actually said they want it.” She twirls her chair a full 360 degrees. “And it would help me make up my mind.”

She frowns at the list of recent files. “Those ideas are all boring. They’re not worth my wasting any more time. Hmm. Thrillers sell really well, don’t they?”

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2 comments to Whiney Writer and the Proliferating Possibilities

  • Jane B.


    Yes, I kind of like that one myself. It spilled out into the draft when I was just trying to come up with absurd ideas, but, hmm…Just what I need. Another idea that would definitely have to be novel-length.

  • We’re all the hero of our own story…personally, I think the aeronaut shot down by the gamekeeper’s daughter had possibilities.

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