Tips for Querying A Novel

Updated: Nov 17, 2018

Following my double-publication in Seedling earlier in the week, I've been feeling motivated. After a couple of set-backs with translators and the fact that my work-in-progress seemed determined to never squeeze itself to less than 90,000 words, I turned off all distractions and powered through with completing (hopefully!) my final draft of my novel.

Keeping that impetus, I immediately set about finding the perfect home for my manuscript. It's been sent off to a publisher that seems "just right" -- I can even picture it nestled among the other book covers on the website! -- but I'm expecting to wait a couple of months before I get a response.

Rather than simply telling you about my querying, I thought I'd share my top tips and tricks for sending out queries. I receive a lot of these while working at Stirling Publishing, whether that's for novels, poetry, short story collections, or combinations of the above (yep, it happens!). I know which query mistakes grind my gears, and I know which queries look so polished that I feel confident the author knows their stuff. There are a couple of basic hints to ensure the editor or assistant reading your manuscript is going in with a positive perception of your writing.

1. Check they are accepting submissions

Honestly, it's the first thing you should look at. There's no point in going through a site to check if they seem likely to accept your manuscript and to check for the staff details (more on that below) to draft the perfect query -- only to find that they're closed for submissions. On their "Closed" announcement they might give some indication of when they're re-opening, but this is pretty rare. But if you think that particular publisher might be a great fit for your novel, there's no harm in saving the link (and/or following them on social media) and checking in periodically to see if they're open again. Please don't send in a submission if they have announced that they won't be accepting them: it's a waste of your time when your email is going to be automatically deleted (and it doesn't look good on you if you re-submit when they do open again).

2. Make sure you use the right salutation

I can't tell you the number of times I've received a query addressed simply "Dear sirs." Dear sirs. For one thing, Stirling Publishing is an all-female publishing company, so I know right off the bat that the query has been sent without the author looking into us at all. The use of "sirs" in a general query also puts my back up, since it assumes that anyone in publishing is a man - which is actually extremely far from the truth.

It's fine not to know who will be reading your query. It's fine not to know the names of any of the staff at the company if there's no information about them on the website (publishers' websites often, quite naturally, feature their authors more prominently than their editors). But a simple "dear editors" or "dear editorial team" is preferable to the snub of automatically assuming only men are doing our job.

3. Personalise your cover letter

We can tell a general cover letter from one that has been specifically tailored to our own company. Although publishers realise that we're not authors' only option, a cover letter that specifically mentions why you'd like to work with us makes us more confident in your manuscript: you've considered the other titles we've published and genuinely feel that we might have a positive working relationship together.

4. Include your contact details

Don't assume that the email address your query was sent from will suffice. Your query may be downloaded to a PC or an external e-reader for reading later or printed off, and without your details included on the query it's going to be difficult to get in touch. Your name and email address are the most important details: ensure these are on every document you send.

5. Format your document as requested

Double-spaced and justified is industry standard, but some publishers will have extra requirements, such as sans serif fonts, PDF only or Word only, or extra indentations or spacing. Some publishers prefer to have all aspects of your query -- extract, cover letter, synopsis -- included in one document while others prefer it separate. Pay attention to the submission requirements: sending your query contrary to how the publisher has asked to receive it implies that either you didn't read the guidelines before submitting or that you're too stubborn to change how you want to submit.

6. Include the information asked for -- and nothing else

If a publisher or agent asks for three chapter, don't send the full manuscript. If they want to read more, they will contact you: don't force your novel onto them. If they ask for a 500-word synopsis, don't include a 2,000-word one. Some manuscripts, typically those entered in competitions, require all entries to go in blind, so double check your headers that no details are still lurking.

7. Track your Queries

If your queries are sent through Submittable, great! You have a way of tracking your submission and an easy way of staying in touch. However, must queries are sent through email, and some even require a hard copy to be sent through the post. If this is the case, then you're going to need a document to monitor where your submissions are and when you can expect to hear back from them.

Excel is good for the basic details -- name, date, response time -- but I prefer Word for a bit more detail. My standard format is something like this:

Publisher's name

Date: 06/10/2018

Response time: 6-8 weeks (can query after 1st December 2018). This is important, because you don't want to be hassling publishers within two weeks to ask if they've read your query yet, but if it starts to fall outside of their response time then it's worth following up to make sure it hasn't been forgotten or lost.


Where my query was sent, typically to an email address but sometimes through a form, which I'll include the link to.

I then copy and paste my cover letter or the answers I have on the online form. By the time publishers get back to you, you may have forgotten what it was you loved about them or why you thought you'd work well together: keeping a copy of your query is the best way to keep track of that.

8. Be patient

It can be frustrating waiting for a reply from the publishers you've queried. After all, it takes less than half an hour to read a query, right? The thing is, the majority of a publisher's time is took up with dealing with their existing authors -- whether that's editing, negotiating, promoting, printing, supplying, or any other aspect of a successful business -- and reading submissions is often done when they have some free time.

Pay attention to the publisher's response time and when you sent your query as in point 7. so that you have a distinct point when you can follow up.

The most important thing is to not wait around for some news, desperately refreshing your inbox. Once you've sent your manuscript out into the word, get started on your next. You don't need to wait for success before pushing on with your next project.

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