I have struggled with this for a while because of how much the market has changed over the past decade. Are Query Letters still worth writing if all you have is your manuscript (no "platform"), or do you need to do all the leg work (self-promotion, building a platform) first before even pursuing a publisher?

Follow-up question: If you've already done all the work to promote yourself and build your platform, is it still worth pursuing a traditional publisher, or is self-publishing viable if you've (already) generated enough of a following?

  • Can you elaborate more on what you mean by "if all you have is your manuscript" and "leg work?" Are you talking about self-promotion? – Chris Sunami Aug 14 at 20:56
  • Yes, I’m referring to self-promotion. I guess from what I’m seeing, publishers seem to be more interested in sure things rather than promoting books. I could be totally off, that’s just the perspective of what I’ve seen – Rhettmartens Aug 14 at 22:02
  • Thanks, I've edited my answer to specifically address this. – Chris Sunami Aug 14 at 22:23
  • I really appreciate it! – Rhettmartens Aug 14 at 22:26
  • I'm confused by this question -- is this about query letters specifically, or the much-larger issue of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing? – Standback Aug 15 at 9:20
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Self-publishing is viable for all and only the people who are willing and able to personally sell every copy of their own book (or eBook). It's great for public speakers, relentless self-promoters, and people who love book tours and author's events. For everyone else, traditional publishing is still a better option. While even traditional publishers these days do expect you to put in a lot of your own work on promotions and platform-building, they have networks, relationships (with buyers, libraries, stores, other authors, reviewers, etc.), reputations and resources most self-publishers can't begin to match.

For people pursuing traditional publishing, query letters are a huge asset, because they're a big gatekeeping tool, but they're also a learnable skill. If you can write a great, compelling, typo-free query letter, your chances go from 1 in a million to 1 in a thousand.* I've personally gotten multiple reads and one actual sale from big-name publishers on the strength of good query writing. In terms of effort versus impact, it's one of the all-time best values for a type of writing.

Also, the questions you need to answer to write a good query letter are actually very helpful, (to the point that some people even draft a query before writing a manuscript!) Who is your audience? What are your qualifications to write this book? What is the book's main idea? Why should anyone want to read it? At this point, it's worth noting that whatever work you've already done towards self-promotion or platform-building are GREAT (and increasingly essential) bullet points to put in the bio section of your query.

*stats are not accurate

Query letters are absolutely worth writing.

I cannot say self-publishing is NOT viable, but I think the success rate is even more abysmal than finding an agent and getting "traditionally" published. You can look at other answers to "self-publishing" on the site; I've quoted before the average earnings are around $100 or something, and the majority earn zero.

The problem is the relatively new communications culture; we are drowning in hype, advertisements, and hundreds of venues with free stuff to read, much of it written by paid professionals (living off the advertising income).

This makes readers highly selective and numb to advertising; we just ignore them completely and 99% we never read, and of those we do read 95% we never even click out of curiosity. The same goes for spam.

But actual book sales are still going strong, and bookstores are nowhere near empty. Part of the response to the deluge of advertising and free information is specific attention in consumers; when they want to buy a book (or a car or tax help or whatever), they go looking for trusted vendors and shop there. But they are unlikely to find the fine website you built; for books they are more likely to use some kind of filter mechanism. A physical book store is one such mechanism; so are online sites like Yelp, or other lists filtered by book critics or fellow consumers.

Agents and traditional publishers are not dummies, they have learned to navigate this new sales environment as it has arisen, so they can get your book sold.

Of the two, agents are very much in the business of finding new authors and getting them published. So while they too are swamped by queries, and have to reject 90%+ of them out of hand (because they don't have the time to coddle or meet non-standard requests), they still read their queries (or at least start to read them until they find something dumb in the query letter), and will still read some pages of your story to see if you are a real writer, and will still read your book if you pass the first two tests, and if the book is good, they will do the work of trying to sell it for you.

Some publishers will take queries, but they have the same problem of being overwhelmed; and one filter they can employ, because it costs them nothing, is to listen to good agents that have done their job and only bring them viable works. The concentration of good material is far higher, the agent has filtered out 95% of the dreck.

Using an agent, you don't have to run a business of selling, contracting production, advertising, and negotiating with bookstores, or movie producers, or audio voice talent. You don't have to learn any of that, you can write books and sell them. You are far more likely to get a bestseller using an agent and traditional publisher than you are by self-publishing or selling e-books.

If you aren't good enough at query letters (or writing) to traditionally publish, I still wouldn't recommend self-publishing. I'd recommend you try to get better at writing!

  • I think you're a little overly pessimistic about self-publishing. Yes, anyway who thinks that is self-published book is going to sell a million copies is almost surely living in a fantasy world. I've seen several sources that say that the average self-published book sells about 250 copies in its lifetime. Certainly not the tens of thousands most new writers fantasize about, but at least better than zero. – Jay Aug 14 at 22:03
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    RE your last paragraph: I read an article by a publisher once in which he talked about getting query letters that were full of grammar and spelling errors or generally incoherent. "What makes these people think they can write a book," he wondered, "if they can't write a one-page letter?" – Jay Aug 14 at 22:05
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    @Jay Precisely. And I will note, that publisher is clearly using the quality of the query letters as a proxy for the quality of the writing; I saw a list of query letter mistakes publishers have seen that would make them reject an author. Obviously misused words ("perspective" instead of "prospective" comes to mind), mangled spelling, weird punctuation. (e.g. !! or !?!?), silly promises ("may sell a million copies overnight"), demands for deals ("...reduce your commission to 5%"), weird claims ("I've very carefully written a novel"). Two days of research puts you in the top 10%! Why not do it? – Amadeus Aug 15 at 10:45
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    "use query letters as proxy" Of course. It's like a job interview. For many jobs, there's no realistic way to test a job candidate on their ability to actually do the job. So you use proxies like, "can they describe how they did the job in the past in a way that makes it sound like they really did it"? – Jay Aug 20 at 19:26

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