Algonquin is one of a dwindling number of publishing houses that still accepts unsolicited queries, and we accept them only through regular mail. Since you’ve worked so hard already and may soon be adding a stamp and a trip to the post office to your list of Things You’ve Endured to Get This Puppy Out into the World, here are a few things to keep in mind when submitting a query:
Include a query letter. This sounds like a no-brainer, but a surprising number of authors omit this step. The query letter is your opportunity to advocate for your work, and all the blood, sweat and tears you’ve invested in it. Why wouldn’t you include a letter, to put your baby in context and give your reader a sense of the story’s path? It’s also a good place to let an editor hear your voice, so even if you start from a template, make this letter your own.
Include a sample submission. Research the submission guidelines for each organization you’re querying, but in Algonquin’s case, we specify a query letter and 15-20 pages of your project. It’s hard to tell from a query letter alone if your project is one we should pursue. We need to be able to see how you execute your narrative vision.
Include the FIRST 15-20 pages of your project. Please. We can’t stress this enough. Time and time again we receive query submissions that start halfway into the narrative, or start with the fourth chapter, or the eleventh, or the eighteenth. This doesn’t give your submission a fighting chance. Do you start watching a movie an hour after it started? Of course not. There’s a lot of world building, scene setting and character development that happens at the beginning of a story. A reader can’t become invested in your narrative if they’re plunked down halfway into it. And doing so suggests that you’ve deemed the first pages not to be strong enough to speak for your story, which tells us you haven’t really figured out your story yet, which tells us we probably need to pass.
Consider your font carefully. It may not be fair, but font bias happens. Certain fonts communicate messages you may not want your work to say. Comic sans, for example. (If you don’t know why, check out Comic Sans Criminal.) But also, old-fashioned typewriter fonts, fancy curlicue fonts, even certain sans sarif fonts can communicate inexperience or a lack of professionalism. Better to stick with a tried-and-true Times New Roman or other buttoned-up font and let your work draw all the attention.
Don’t address your query letter “Dear Sirs”. The majority of publishing industry professionals are actually women, and likely have worked hard to earn their positions. Unless you know for sure that every staff member who might possibly open your letter is male, don’t take the chance. Go for a more neutral “Dear Editors” instead.
Don’t put yourself down or betray your insecurities in your letter. “I’m sorry that this is only my first novel.” “Though I haven’t published anything anywhere . . .” It’s okay if that’s the case, but don’t call attention to it. Same for statements like, “I’ve been submitting this for years but . . .” or “Though I’m no high falutin’ New York City author, …” Don’t sound defensive, or downplay your unique experience and perspective. If it feels like a negative, better not to mention it at all. We want to know what’s great about you and your work.
Conversely, don’t be scary! This isn’t the time to demand that your talents are of such colossal caliber that financial ruin and a plague of locusts will no doubt descend upon the organization that doesn’t sign you.
Don’t compare yourself to epic greats. Be reasonable about your comparisons. Maybe you really will be the next Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, but when it comes to asserting your place in the literary canon, let your work speak for you. Similarly, it’s probably not a good idea to promise that your novel will make a blockbuster movie. Maybe it will. If so, that will come through loud and clear in the work itself.
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The end goal is to make it as difficult as possible for a publishing house to pass on your work. We don’t want to miss out on a great submission; help us see all that yours offers.
All we are saying is give your piece a chance.