Manuscript Query Letter: You Need a Finished Book

I often get questions about sending a manuscript query letter…without having a finished book to go with it. This may seem like a “duh” question to writers who are familiar with the publishing industry, but everyone learns new things at different times and new readers are always showing up, so I am happy to repeat more basic information.

manuscript query letter, finished book
You need a finished book to present to agents. They won’t offer you a contract based on a slice of your writing.

Sending a Manuscript Query Letter? You Need a Finished Book

When you’re a debut writer looking to publish in children’s books, you will need a complete manuscript 99% of the time (especially in the case of my readers, who are primarily fiction writers). That means that you’ll need a finished book when you’re sending a manuscript query letter for:

  • Board book
  • Fiction picture books
  • Nonfiction picture books
  • Fiction early readers and chapter books
  • Same for nonfiction (though there are fewer of these on nonfiction shelves)
  • Middle grade fiction and most MG nonfiction
  • YA fiction and most YA nonfiction

The only exception to this rule is if you’re writing older nonfiction, like something for the middle grade or teen age range or a reference book/textbook. And picture books from author/illustrators will, of course, need to have a dummy attached with some art sketches.

(Picture book dummy: A sketch version of what the book might look like in real life, with the art and text blocked out on 17 spreads/32 pages. Two or three of the spreads should be rendered like they’d be in a finished book…this is called a “mock finish.” The dummy should convey quickly, with the sketches, and in more detail, with the mock finishes, what the book will ideally look like. If you’re curious about dummies, this explanation is a great resource.)

Selling On Proposal

I bet you’ve heard about a lot of authors selling something “on proposal.” That’s a lot more common with adult nonfiction, a business or diet book, for example, or a cookbook, than it is with children’s books. And in fiction, writers only sell on proposal if:

  • They’re an established author
  • They’ve sold multiple books to this editor before
  • The agent decides the project is really, really strong and wants to entice an editor with a partial
  • You’re working with a book packager and have only developed a sample before going on submission

If none of this applies to you or you’re just starting out with some fiction ideas, I’d urge you to forget the word “proposal” and work on your full manuscript. A large part of the writing craft is reaching the end and starting the revision process. There’s nothing like it. You learn more from finishing and revising than you did from just writing the thing out.

Plug Away and Finish

If you haven’t had this experience once or several times before trying to approach agents or editors, you most likely will not have all the skills necessary to get edited and published. So plug away and finish. (Check out my post on how to finish a novel if you need some inspiration.) Besides, a strong, finished book is a much more convincing sales piece than just a partial that could potentially fall apart in the execution. When you’re sending a manuscript query letter, having a complete project works to your best advantage and is a huge learning experience.

I provide editorial services to writers at all stages and skill levels. I’d love to help you develop an idea, finish a draft, or polish a completed manuscript.

10 Replies to “Manuscript Query Letter: You Need a Finished Book”

  1. “You learn more from finish and revising than you did from just writing the thing out.”

    YES. I have found this to be true. With picture books as well as with novels! Thanks for bringing this up.

  2. I’ll second the comment about learning more from revising. It’s been quite an education revising my novels. Painful, but educational. Initially, I found it difficult to resist the urge to query BEFORE my novel was complete but since have discovered what wisdom that really is. Waiting can be difficult but submitting your work before it’s close to ready…just not worth it.

  3. It is so true that you learn from editing and revising your manuscript.

    I also love the inadvertent typo – “like something for the middle grade or teen age rage…” because it has a certain element of truth.

  4. This post should be required reading. There are so many interesting and unexpected and *marvelous* things that happen between outline and execution – and even more wonderful things that happen between draft #2 and draft #3 (not to mention, in my case, between draft #15 and draft #16).

    I don’t think I would have ever been able to sell my book based on a proposal – it was too odd. But as a full manuscript, it was snapped up a mere eight hours after my agent subbed it. It’s not the idea that matters, it’s the finished product.

  5. This echoes the above comments, but I have found that my first plot/character/scene idea is hardly ever the best one, even if I’m convinced at the time that it is. I’ve heard it many times and it’s true–good ideas are often murdered by better ones.

  6. This is so true. I still marvel at all I learned while writing my first ms. I am working on a 3rd one now and the education I continue to receive with revision and critique-then-revision is staggering.

  7. So true Mary. Great post. I’ve learned a heap revising, revisiting, and down right taking out stuff I thought needed to be there. Thanks for your constant truth on this blog…I HEART it!

  8. Susan Arscott says:

    Mary, thank you for the good advice. As an author of a young adult novel yet to be published your information is important to follow. Even though my ms is completed and I would love to get it out there, I plan on taking your advice and keep working on it until it’s a perfect as I can get it.

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