What, How and Why of Writing a Query Letter for Manga

December 16th, 2012

From time to time here on Okazu I post opinion and perspective about publishing manga. If you are an aspiring artist or writer, please read this first: Top 7 Things Every Young Artist or Writer Needs To Know.

When you write to a publisher or agent with a proposal, hoping that it will get you published, what you are sending is called a “Query Letter.” Recently, I am once again reminded that the concept of the Query Letter is vague and ill-defined for aspiring manga artists.

There are a lot of reasons why most aspiring manga artists are confused when it comes to Query Letters. Let’s start with a few reasons why this is:

You are not a Japanese manga artist – Take a look at your collection. Do you see many non-Japanese names in your manga collection? You may well have some indie comic artists, and a few OEL from when Tokyopop was publishing them, perhaps a few bandee dessinee, but realistically, when manga fans are looking for manga, they mean stuff drawn and published in Japan. Because of this simple reality…

Few American manga publishers are accepting submissions for…anything. Most manga publishers license Japanese properties, and aren’t looking for anything outside that. Because of this…

There is no established path from amateur to professional manga-style artist in the West. We have no manga magazines, no apprentice path, no companies hiring artists. Because there is no formal path, there is no reason for artists to learn to write Query Letters.

What does this mean to you? It means that if you want your manga to be published you have incredibly limited options right now.

When people ask me about which company they should approach, I always say the same thing – forget waiting to be discovered.

Do it yourself – (The Advantages and Disadvantages of Self-Publishing Your Manga) You have unprecedented options in terms of self-publishing right now. Webcomics, Print on Demand, Pixiv and DeviantArt give you access and ability to create, promote and publish in ways that never existed before. Use them. Work on your art and build your audience.

If you’re looking to a publisher to be your springboard, you have pretty limited options for getting your work seen:

Portfolio Reviews – Some publishers do what is called “portfolio reviews” at events. Check out major comic and anime/manga events to see if a manga publisher is sending editors to do this. At the Overseas Festival portion of this past Comitia, the “Kaigai Festa“, several Japanese publishers were doing portfolio review for overseas artists. Portfolio reviews are your absolute best chance to get a manga editor to look at your work and tell you the truth about it. It might, potentially, be very painful. This pain can be life-changing. Don’t run from it. Learn from it, grow from it.

Japanese Magazines Looking For Overseas WorkMorning Magazine does a International Comic Contest every year. The caveat here is that they aren’t actually looking for manga-style art. They are quite specifically looking for your own unique style. Kochi Indies Magazine also did a contest soliciting overseas work. This kind of thing is still pretty rare, so you should take the opportunities where you can find them.

Which brings me to the Query Letter. When you are taking the initiative and writing a publisher with a pitch for a story, you are writing what is known as a Query Letter.

I have written an article about rejection. Why Your Story Was Rejected – The Query Letter Conundrum that discusses some of the main failures in query letters. In a nutshell, here is the major problem in most query letters I receive:

You have to sell yourself to me. The idea of a Query Letter is to make your work sound relevant and appealing to that publisher and profitable for them. It is, in effect your job interview with that publisher and your goal is to convince them that your story is good for their business.

(The other, unwritten, rule of Query Letters is that there is no magic formula. What will appeal to one person will put another off. The best you can do is to try and avoid being too clever. Just say what you have to say as compellingly and unpretentiously as you can.)

Here are some tips to writing a decent Query Letter – this is my perspective and may not work for other people at all. I invite other publishers, agents, editors to weigh in with your own preferences here!

Read and understand the publisher’s submission guidelines before you write your letter. Don’t write the publisher asking if you can be the exception to the rule.

Be polite, even (especially) if you are rejected – Nothing good will come of you writing in anger. Ever. Chances are I won’t read it anyway, because remember, you are trying to sell your story to me.

Be concise – Find the simplest, clearest, most compelling way to describe your story. Don’t give me hints, imply twists, or rest on cliched vagueness.

Be Complete – State plainly how many pages your story is, whether it is complete or in process, how often you are currently releasing it online, if that is applicable.

Be Valuable – Let the publisher know why you would be a great match for their business. You have a popular webcomic and will be bringing an established market to their publication, or you have great promotional efforts you’ve used in the past. A previous book sold well, you have a name in the industry, any awards, citations or achievements.

Now that we’ve covered some general tips, let’s take a look at the final piece of a Query Letter – the descriptive copy.

Today I came across an item online that had the most pretentious description I’ve ever read. I would never buy the item because by the time I was done reading the description, I still had no idea what it was – and because that kind of pretentious writing annoys the hell out of me.

Writing descriptive copy is not at all easy. If you love your story, it’s actually incredibly difficult. You know what happens, you know why. And now you need to tell me – and I don’t care. Until you make me care. You need to convince me that your story is worth reading and is worth publishing. Your description must include the following:

What is the story about? Ad copy usually ends with a question or an ellipsis, but the publisher needs to know what actually happens. “…chaos ensues” is not an adequate description. “…the rats take over the shop, but as they drive away from their past, the girl gets the girl” is better.

What makes the story unique? I’ve written 2300+ posts here, so you gotta assume I’ve watched and read a lot of anime and manga. And that’s not including stuff I read and don’t review here. I’ve pretty much seen every possible story ending, so what about your story makes it stand out from everyone else’s? Romeo and Juliet, coming out, Crime and Punishment; what’s your take on your story?

What are the most important elements of your story? Finish this sentence, “The most amazing thing about my story is….”   That’s what will sell a publisher, if anything. Nail that…or don’t send that letter.

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9 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    I like these times near the end of the year, because of your top tens list.

    I am anxiously awaiting for this moment to come. I just hope you really do a top ten Yuri anime this year, and mention those you didn’t in the past year.

    I mean, I know how you feel about Yuri in anime, but I watch most of my animes based on your lists, and it would be a shame having no animes to watch this upcoming new year. Please, pretty please?

  2. I love this article and plan to print it out and read it like 10 times just to soak it all up!

    Thank you for posting this information,!

    [huge grateful hugz]
    Delicious Vodka DeBlair

  3. @Anonymous – I’ve done my Top Ten Lists every year since 2004. There’s no reason to assume I won’t do them this year. ^_^ They tend to be published right before New Year. Keep you eyes peeled.

  4. @Delicious – Glad you found it useful. ^-^

  5. Anonymous says:

    “…Be polite, even (especially) if you are rejected – Nothing good will come of you writing in anger. Ever.”

    After all, this same publisher may *accept* your *next* work…unless you burn your bridges after they reject your *current* work.

    “Writing descriptive copy is not at all easy. If you love your story, it’s actually incredibly difficult.”

    What if you get someone who doesn’t love the work (like a field or relative) to read the thing and list a few points for you to describe, or a description for you to quote (and if you quote someone else’s description, give him or her credit!)?

    I just remembered a couple more possibilities for comics artists to try if they get rejected by you and ALC:

    Comics publishers that normally release stuff first written in English: skip DC and Marvel, but consider Dark Horse, Image, Drawn & Quarterly, smaller presses, etc.

    Book publishers that normally release stuff first written in English: Pantheon, Macmillan, etc. have released comic books before. Some smaller presses may also be interested.

  6. @Anonymous – It’s really not all that likely that Dark Horse, Image, D&Q or any of the other companies you’ve mentioned will just up and publish an unknown comic artist’s work. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try, I’m just suggesting having realistic expectations will make the process less painful. ^_^

  7. Anonymous says:

    Mm-hmm, that’s why I added “smaller presses” both times, ’cause I don’t know the names of the ones small enough to be more open to unknowns but I know some must exist.

    Basically, give some wider-focused venues a chance in addition to venues that focus specifically on comics artists and authors of a nationality that is not yours. :)

  8. Ana says:

    I took a path less taken and teamed up with a Japanese manga artist friend and started a manga series in Japan — “Marine Corps Yumi.”
    http://sai-zen-sen.jp/special/4pages-comics/marine-yumi/01.html#en

    Of course, it helped that I am fluent in Japanese and tapped into my rare military experience for story ideas, but hey, whatever it takes to open the door, right? (^_^)

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