In my role as co-admin for the query critique forum on 12 x 12, I recently wrote a post on writing a picture book query. 12 x 12 is closed to new memberships for 2016 (they will reopen again in January 2017), but I wanted share the post here, too, because while there is a lot of information out there on writing regular query letters, information on writing a picture book query is much harder to come by.
At the end of the post you’ll find some tips from professionals and some helpful resources.
Remember, agents/editors can differ in what they expect/want from a query letter (or cover letter), so please always check submission guidelines.
How to Write a Picture Book Query – The Basics
The Layout of a Picture Book Query
When writing a query letter for a picture book you will basically have three main paragraphs, plus your sign-off.
- Make sure you specifically address the agent you are querying (use Mr. or Ms. [last name]). DOUBLE CHECK you have spelled their name correctly.
- Personalise to the agent. Why are you querying this agent with this story? Show you have done your research.
- You can also include here the TITLE of your story (in all-caps), the word count and the age-range. Age-range is super important, as it shows you know your target audience. Some people include word count and age-range after the pitch and that’s okay, too.
- The pitch.
- This is where you pitch your story. Think of it like a book jacket blurb—you want to entice the agent to read your story.
- Keep it short (this is a point universally agreed upon by agents—picture book queries should be short and simple). Try to aim for three sentences for the pitch. Five sentences at the very maximum!
- In a picture book query you should aim to tell your story in a nutshell, including the ending. You don’t have to give everything away—you can still keep a bit of mystery. There’s no need to tell how your characters get to that point—you still want to leave the agent/editor intrigued.
- Here’s a helpful template to help boil down your plot: “When [catalyst of your story happens], [main character] [takes this action], however [these things happen to prevent character reaching their goal]. In the end [this happens/main character discovers this].”
- It’s important to convey the tone and voice of your story in the query (this DOES NOT mean telling it in your character’s POV). Eg: Is your story funny? Make sure you convey that humour in the query.
- After the pitch, you might include any comparative texts or mention any relevant information/market research (eg: if it has crossover appeal or there’s a gap in the market or it has content/back matter appropriate for classroom use).
- Include any publishing credits or awards if you have any. (If you don’t, that’s okay!)
- You can also include any relevant tertiary degrees or professions (eg: you’re writing a book on dinosaurs and you’re a palaeontologist).
- Include if you are a member of SCBWI or 12 x 12 or any other significant/relevant associations.
- Sign off.
- Let them know if you have other titles available to view upon their request. (No need to include specific titles, just a generic “I have several other completed titles available upon request” is all you need.)
- Thank them for their time and consideration.
- Don’t forget to include your contact details under your sign off. (In emails, contact details go after your signature, rather than at the top as is usual in snail mail.)
TIP: Be sure to read your query aloud! Not only will this help you catch any spelling/grammar mistakes, but it allows you to hear how it sounds.
Tips from Professionals
From agent Mary Kole of kidlit.com
- Create an image in the agent’s mind.
- “Even if you’re only writing the text, give me at least one concrete image to walk away from the query with… Describe a scene for me in a sentence that’ll give me a mental picture.”
- Channel the voice of your book.
- Keep it short and simple.
- “Present the main characters, the main problem, and the resolution, then work in a hook.”
From picture book authors, and hosts of PB Lit Chat, Kathryn Apel and Karen Collum
- Capture the heart and tone of your story.
- Use a small section of text from your book. (eg: a line or phrase) This doesn’t mean quote a section of your story, but rather work the wording into your story description. Use the same fun words or slip in some of the imagery.
- Keep it short.
- Give the whole story in a nutshell, including the ending.
From agent Janet Reid of Query Shark
- “You should not describe how you want the book laid out or offer illustrations (generally).” This means, don’t include page breaks in your manuscript or send a dummy or tell them you already have an illustrator lined up or include illustrations (unless, of course, YOU are an author/illustrator).
- “Who is your audience? Who will buy this book?” ie: what age range is the book aimed at. Would this appeal to the parent of a child of this age range.
- “Give me confidence that you’ve done research on how the industry works.”
From Emma Walton Hamilton (aka The Query Whisperer)
- Make the agent feel as though you’ve done your homework.
- Focus on the theme (this refers to the essence of your story).
- Make it intriguing without giving away the whole
- Be succinct. Two to three sentences for your pitch paragraph.
- “Craft your sentences artfully—so that the query conveys both the strength of your writing skills and the spirit of your manuscript.”
- Conclude with what your character learns in the end.
From agent Danielle Smith of Foreword Literary
- Be concise—tell me what I need to know.
From agent Maria Vicente of P.S. Literary
- Keep it short—you should be able to tell the plot in three to five sentences.
- Know where your picture book belongs in the market.
As you can see there’s some recurring themes here:
**KEEP IT SHORT!**
**Know your audience/do your research.**
**Bring the tone/voice/theme/imagery/heart of your story into the query.**
You might also like to check out Julie Hedlund (12 x 12 founder) and Emma Walton Hamilton’s course: The Complete Picture Book Submissions System (though it costs to do the course, even when it’s closed you can pick up a FREE 7-Step Submissions Checklist, which has some helpful hints on crafting your query).
If you become a member of 12 x 12 you not only get access to the query critique forum, but you also get access to webinars from agents, editors and other professionals that sometimes focus specifically on writing picture book queries (there’s one coming up this month for members ‘Cracking the Picture Book Query’). Registration opens to new members in January and February.
Please feel free to share below any useful resources/links you have come across in relation to PB query writing. Or perhaps you’ve received or heard advice from agents/editors at conferences, etc. you can share.