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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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