Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Writing 411: Picture Book E-Queries

by Cat Woods

Picture Book Manuscript? Check.

Targeted Agent List? Check.

Query Letter? Heck no!

We all know that writing for very young children is different than penning novels for older kids and adults. Make no mistake, writing a query letter for picture books is an equally unique process. It is also highly nuanced, making it necessary for writers to really research potential agents and their guidelines.

In my experience, more agents are open to receiving a full manuscript for picture books than for any other age group. In part, this is due to short word counts. After all, it is easier to enjoy a book by reading the book rather than by reading a summary of it. With picture books topping out at 500 words, manuscripts can be shorter than the query letters representing them.

Thus, e-querying agents for picture books falls into two distinct categories.

  1. Agents who accept manuscripts along with a query letter.
  2. Agents who do not accept manuscripts with a query letter.

You can figure out your targeted agents' preferences by visiting AgentQuery, Query Tracker, agent websites/blogs and market resources such as those found at and by Writer's Digest. Verla Kay's Blue Boards is another great resource, as is the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

For the sake of space, I will address only the first instance (with manuscript), as a cold query letter without a manuscript or sample pages is the same for picture books as it is for older novels. Additionally, the example provided below is not a MUST DO, but rather a guideline that I used when searching for my agent. My method is a conglomeration of info gathered on websites, via magazine articles, at writing conferences and my own personality.

Subject Line: Query: TITLE, picture book, 475 words (Capitalize your title.)

Method to My Madness: all my pertinent information is available at a glance. Agents immediately know I'm sending a query letter for a picture book within the acceptable word count. They should also get a feel for my manuscript based on my title. In this way, I'm not wasting anybody's time.

It also serves a secondary purpose. If an agent were to provide feedback and request a revision, a simple change to my subject line would keep Said Agent up to date on what is coming in, while remaining consistent and keeping my title in the agent's mind. My new subject line would look like this: Requested revision for TITLE.

Dear Mr. Agent Awesome: (Don't forget to double check spellings for names and end with a colon.)

(Very brief bio and/or a relevant blurb on why you chose this agent.)

As a library board member, a child advocate in the court system and a past preschool teacher, I recognized a need for stories about XYZ. I am a member of the SCBWI and a moderator on AgentQuery Connect. I have also presented at Young Writer's Conference across Southwestern Minnesota.

I follow your blog/met you at a conference/etc ... and feel TITLE may address your interest in XYZ (a tie into your bio would be nice). Per your guidelines, I have included the full manuscript for my picture book.

Method to My Madness: The agent will get to read my manuscript. It's pasted into the body of the text, and therefore does not require a blurb. In this instance, I feel it is a good idea to let the agent know who we are and what we're doing. This is our time to connect with the agent and let our personalities shine through.

But be brief. Agents have little time to wade through our backgrounds from infancy to old age. We should provide only those details that lend credence to our ability to write this particular story. Case in point, I said nothing about my pubbed works in the adult arena or that I have four children. Avoid telling the agent about the story. Again, Agent Awesome will have the opportunity to read our text as long as we don't bore him with our life histories first.

I appreciate your time and look forward to hearing from you.

Method to My Madness: I'm a people person. A warm thanks is my style. Some people may argue it lacks professionalism or that it sounds needy. I tend to believe it's a whole lot better than a sterile and abrupt end such as "Thank you" or a rude "Call me". The choice is yours, but know that agents don't reject a manuscript based on this line. And if they do, they're likely not the kind of agent you want.

Cat Woods

Phone number
Words From The Woods

Method to My Madness: with luck an agent will need to contact us. If we fail to provide this information, we may inadvertently slow down the process or fail to make a viable contact with an interested agent altogether. I do add my blog address to my writing correspondence, as an interested agent may google me. If you don't have one, don't fret. Blogs are not necessary to secure an agent.

Next, paste your manuscript into the remainder of the email—never, ever send agents to your website or blog to read it or send it as an attachment unless expressly requested by the agent—and check for the following things:
  • formatting: spaces, line breaks, etc. You want a clean copy for easy reading.
  • white space: you may need to adjust how your manuscript looks to make it easier on the agent's eyes.
  • italics should be capped or underlined, as some email servers don't support fancy schmancy text.
  • likewise, centered titles can be brought to the left margin for a clean look.
Finally, dip your fingernails in Tabasco so you can still answer the phone when it rings! There's no point in chewing your nails when you could be typing your next book.

Writing a query letter is not as difficult as it sounds, particularly when we can submit our manuscripts at the same time. When sending writing samples is not an option, my picture book query letters have two extra paragraphs: one for my hook and the second for my mini-synopsis. I also combine my bio and agent search info to make one small paragraph.

How about you? What tips do you have for writing picture book queries? What do you put in your subject lines and how do you close? Do you include a hook and mini-synopsis when sending your manuscript? If so, why? Do you tailor your manuscripts based on the agents you send to? If so, how? Lastly, where's your go-to resource for agent information?

Curious minds want to know!


KellieM said...

This is a great post Cat! I am struggling with what a query letter should look like for a chapter book. I don't have any writing credentials per se, so I have little to add about myself. Can you share your POV on what a 9000 word chapter book query should look like?


Rachel Brooks said...

Ah, query letters. What an exciting, fun, scary, and stressful part of the publishing process! ;)

Also, I’m a new follower— wonderful blog! Stop by my blog and follow me too? :)

katy said...

Love you Jo! All good stuff:) beautiful and talented...double threat!

catwoods said...


Again, it will depend on whether or not you can send the entire manuscript. Some agents/publishers are open to that for chapter books, though not as many as for full picture book manuscripts.

In the past I have framed my subject line as this: Query: TITLE, chapter book.

Generally, the first paragraph is my hook paragraph of 2-3 sentences, followed by a mini-synopsis paragraph. My last paragraph is my bio. If you don't have one, don't worry. At my last SCBWI conference, agents; editors and marketing alike all discussed how exciting it is to find new talent.

If you have specific connections to the agent--such as from a writing conference--I would put this in the first paragraph. Just a quick line such as: I met you/heard you speak at (conference name) and (some small tidbit on why you are subbing them in particular).

But, I'm also a firm believer that just as every story is unique, so is every query letter. I worry sometimes that we get so caught up in writing them "right" that we actually lose our voice and they become cookie cutter versions of everyone else's query letters.

My best advice is to write with the same style and voice as your story. This is the first glimpse into our writing. Flat and sterile are the last impressions we want to leave an agent with.

Best luck on your journey.


catwoods said...

Hey, Rachel. Thanks so much for stopping by. We appreciate your support and hope we are providing useful information to writers of all genres and age groups.

I will definitely check out your blog. Thanks for the invite.

warm regards~

catwoods said...

LOL, Katy.

Let a publisher in on that secret and I'll be indebted to you forever!

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