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Want REAL Photography Work? Query it!

A Guest post by Eric from Impermanence Photography.

I recently ran into this slight problem where I was pitching an idea to an editor and he said to me, “Eric, I can’t do anything for you without a formal query letter.”

Erm… what? I thought that’s what I was doing, bouncing emails back and forth sending proposals his way. Well, that’s not quite the whole story.

I decided to follow up with the editor’s second in command (who used to be the editor) and got this email back:

“Eric,

[The Editor] is the kind of guy who feels that if you are a professional, a submission should show up accompanied with a professional query letter…

…the best thing you can do is to not ask an editor to perform any special task in order to make that kind of decision…

…Give the editor exactly what he asks for and you have a better than even chance he will want to work with you. Anything short of that will probably result in a rejection.

Frankly, the whole freelance business is really bad because page rates are falling (!) while more people than ever are submitting work. Based on that, to succeed means doing it better and more professionally than everyone else.”

And there you have it. Right from the editor’s mouth. You have to be better than the next guy, in every way possible. Having good photos just won’t cut it anymore.

Selling yourself is half the battle these days and having professional language in a query letter will get you far. Here are a few tips for writing these types of letters to editors:

1. Use proper language and grammar.

Nothing will get you put in the “deleted” bin faster than a letter full of typos and colorful euphemisms.

2. Spell out exactly what you can do for them!

Understand that editors of magazines are busy people, they want to know exactly what you can offer them to make their life easier.

3. Send samples of your best work.

This ostensibly means your portfolio. You have one, right? Online? It better be. A website is a must here, your photos should right out front and not require a lot of load times or clicking through to get to your work. Portfolios should be your BEST work, not all of your work. Lead with the best and sell them early!

Addendum: You really should target your audience when you show your portfolio. If you are propositioning a gardening magazine, a bunch of portraits isn’t going to convince the editor. Tailor your portfolio to your specific market!

4. Provide contact information.

Not everyone does well via email. Give them options to contact you.

5. Sell yourself.

Your letter and portfolio need to scream “PICK ME!” and if you don’t have confidence in either of these, you’ll be passed up. Be confident and deliberate. If you can’t deliver what you promise, you won’t be picked next time. Be honest, but not a push over. Hyperbole here is your enemy.

6. KISS – Keep it short stupid!
Query letters should NOT be more than a page long, if you are then you are wasting your time. Editors are BUSY like I said, they want brevity. Be short and concise. How many other of these letters do you think they are getting per day?

This is a short list of things a query letter needs. These are just the basics and each letter needs to be made for each person you are propositioning, a basic form letter will not suffice here.

I’m rooting for you,

~Eric

See more from Eric at Impermanence Photography – making it in the world of commissioned work in a shrinking market.

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  • http://www.nekphotography.blogspot.com Jen at Cabin Fever

    I have never heard of a query letter! Could you please elaborate more on what it is and how its constructed? For someone “new” to the business the whole process seems oh so confusing!

  • taabitha

    Can you provide an example of a query letter? Too my mind, a query letter is something I write when I’m asking for information or a quote from another company – I can’t wrap my mind around how to “ask” an editor for an assignment without it sounding needy or like I lack confidence.

  • http://tylerwainright.com Tyler Wainright

    Am I right in assuming that this kind of format/letter would work for galleries or other places to showcase your work?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesmilstid James Milstid

    Ahhh… just Googled ‘query letter’. It’s like a cover letter that accompanies one’s resume. There are many examples if you Google it!

    Thanks for the advice!

  • Gen

    This is really helpful, thanks.

  • G. Monk

    “Nothing will get you put in the “deleted” bin faster than a letter full of typos and colorful euphemisms.”

    Then question 3.
    “A website is a must here, your photos should right out front and not require a lot of load times or clicking through to get to your work”

    I’m not being pedantic it just tickled me. lol

  • Victor Augusteo

    Wow, i havenever ever hears about query letter all my life. Thank you forthis information. Now hopefully the editor will have easier time making the decision to hire me :p

  • http://www.impermanence.kungphu.com/ Eric

    To answer some basic questions, I’ll see what I can do to help out.

    A query letter is just that, a letter with a query…. asking for something… in this case; work. I’m not sure I could give you a reasonable example because as I mentioned, it has to be personalized to each individual case. Not everyone requires one, but if you decide to make one to submit it will enhance your chances of getting work.

    Mind you, this type of query I’m referring to is for commissioned work where original photographs are needed and stock photos just can’t/won’t work.

    James has it right, google what they are and some samples. It’s similar to a cover letter, but the major difference is that you are asking for specific work and skills you can provide the client.

    Hope this helps,

    ~Eric

  • http://www.travelsignposts.com Tony Page

    I was a travel photojournalist for some time. A query letter is simply a letter pitching a story or project to an editor in the hope that he or she will either give you an assignment or an undertaking that if you produce the feature (“on spec”) it will be published (providing it is of sufficient quality).

    If you haven’t worked for the editor before, you must at the very least include tearsheets of previous published work, your website address, etc., but obviously it is much more preferable if you can get in to see them. Editors are interested in reliability and ideas, if they don’t know you, your ideas had better be outstanding. They’ll be looking for a hook that will catch a reader’s attention, so give them one.

    Your pitch should show that you are familiar with the publication involved, and your query should obviously fit in with the publication’s content. Make sure you know the material specifications of the publication, and make sure you understand what rights you are giving them: first national serial rights was the old term, but nowadays may companies try and get you to sign over everything: don’t. You should aim at selling your story more than once, with current rates that’s frequently the only way you will come out ahead.

    Good luck and good shooting!

    Tony Page

  • http://karenstuebingsdailyshoot.wordpress.com/ Karen Stuebing

    Having never done this, I’m a little confused. I’m assuming you’re talking about a photo essay on a particular topic?

    So then you should either pick a topic nobody else will but is interesting or show why you’re superior to any other photographer covering a common topic?

    If anyone has an example of a query letter, I would love to see it. The comments do shed some light on this but it would be nice to see what one actually looks like.

    As for your website, do you change it every time you submit a query? Let’s say I want to do a photo essay on old barns in West Virginia which I’m sure a lot of people have done.

    Do I set up a separate gallery for these photos and point the editor to that?

    Judging from the comment about email, I’m also assuming this letter has to be sent via snail mail.

  • http://karenstuebingsdailyshoot.wordpress.com/ Karen Stuebing

    I found an informative link on this topic which includes a sample query letter, a sample email query and how to handle it if you don’t have clips to offer. There’s a lot of info on what to avoid as well.

    http://www.writing-world.com/basics/query.shtml

  • http://www.impermanence.kungphu.com/ Eric

    Tony has it right. That’s good information.

    Karen: Yes, typically the editor I’m tailoring my work to already has a story/article in mind. The more complete the thoughts and ideas, the easier it will be to get accepted. If I come with a half-cocked idea that needs cultivating, it will most likely be rejected. If I can come to them with a polished feature article, having them to do little to no work, then I’m golden.

    Topics really don’t matter all that much, only as long as it’s related to what they are doing. I wouldn’t pitch a Mopar feature to a Chevy magazine… even though they are still car features, it’s not the same thing, make sense?

    The website is a tricky thing, you want to show range but not over specialize. Show them what you are capable of. Most places don’t want the crazy off the wall stuff, but want to see that you CAN do that if called upon.

    Most of this is done via email, yes. Although on many occasions I will call the editors personally and get information. Phone contact is always better than email, but not always plausible.

    Does that help?

    ~Eric

  • http://karenstuebingsdailyshoot.wordpress.com/ Karen Stuebing

    Thanks for the answers, Eric. I had a look at your website and your talent and range is incredible. I can see why editors would be impressed.

  • hanifah siregar

    helpful, thanks

  • http://www.impermanence.kungphu.com Eric

    Thanks Karen for the kind words. Like I said, portfolios are hard because you want to show depth and range… in a really short time frame. Tough to do I think.

    ~Eric

  • http://www.alborrelli.com Al

    Yeah, an example of a query letter would be very helpful.

  • http://www.bvcphoto.com/photothis B

    “Having good photos just won’t cut it anymore.”

    When did it ever?

    I took it for granted that people would know what a query letter was, but I suppose if you’ve never tried freelancing in any capacity, it’s not something you’d run across. But I’d think it’d be one of the first things you’d figure out when trying to get professional photo work. Good info here for those making that leap.

  • http://www.myspace.com/Cherry_Club Cherry Darling

    Can we see an example query letter? I understand they will vary greatly but something to get the juices flowing? Thanks!

  • http://www.charlieselfonline.com Charlie Self

    Astonishing. I started my self-employed working life as a freelance writer. The absolute first thing I had to learn was to write a query letter. It’s difficult to understand how people can expect to sell any material for publication in magazines without knowing what such a letter is, and how to write it.

    For all of those who have never heard of such a thing, I suggest hitting, in the U.S. anyway, a library and reading parts of Writer’s Market of whatever year it is at the time. Do the same with Photographer’s Market. Pick up almost magazine, such as Writer’s Digest, aimed at would-be pro writers.

    All of those have samples and tips. A query letter is primarily a sales letter. It need not be complex. In fact, it’s better if it’s kept simple.

    If a query letter baffles all these readers, I’d love to see their reaction to pulling together a book proposal.

  • http://www.charlieselfonline.com Charlie Self

    Second shot: post “query letter” in Google.

    Or just open and read: http://www.sfwa.org/2005/01/the-complete-nobodys-guide-to-query-letters/

Some older comments

  • Charlie Self

    July 27, 2010 06:20 am

    Second shot: post "query letter" in Google.

    Or just open and read: http://www.sfwa.org/2005/01/the-complete-nobodys-guide-to-query-letters/

  • Charlie Self

    July 27, 2010 06:18 am

    Astonishing. I started my self-employed working life as a freelance writer. The absolute first thing I had to learn was to write a query letter. It's difficult to understand how people can expect to sell any material for publication in magazines without knowing what such a letter is, and how to write it.

    For all of those who have never heard of such a thing, I suggest hitting, in the U.S. anyway, a library and reading parts of Writer's Market of whatever year it is at the time. Do the same with Photographer's Market. Pick up almost magazine, such as Writer's Digest, aimed at would-be pro writers.

    All of those have samples and tips. A query letter is primarily a sales letter. It need not be complex. In fact, it's better if it's kept simple.

    If a query letter baffles all these readers, I'd love to see their reaction to pulling together a book proposal.

  • Cherry Darling

    June 10, 2010 05:41 am

    Can we see an example query letter? I understand they will vary greatly but something to get the juices flowing? Thanks!

  • B

    June 2, 2010 03:16 am

    "Having good photos just won’t cut it anymore."

    When did it ever?

    I took it for granted that people would know what a query letter was, but I suppose if you've never tried freelancing in any capacity, it's not something you'd run across. But I'd think it'd be one of the first things you'd figure out when trying to get professional photo work. Good info here for those making that leap.

  • Al

    June 2, 2010 01:30 am

    Yeah, an example of a query letter would be very helpful.

  • Eric

    June 2, 2010 01:09 am

    Thanks Karen for the kind words. Like I said, portfolios are hard because you want to show depth and range... in a really short time frame. Tough to do I think.

    ~Eric

  • hanifah siregar

    June 1, 2010 10:12 am

    helpful, thanks

  • Karen Stuebing

    June 1, 2010 02:54 am

    Thanks for the answers, Eric. I had a look at your website and your talent and range is incredible. I can see why editors would be impressed.

  • Eric

    June 1, 2010 12:50 am

    Tony has it right. That's good information.

    Karen: Yes, typically the editor I'm tailoring my work to already has a story/article in mind. The more complete the thoughts and ideas, the easier it will be to get accepted. If I come with a half-cocked idea that needs cultivating, it will most likely be rejected. If I can come to them with a polished feature article, having them to do little to no work, then I'm golden.

    Topics really don't matter all that much, only as long as it's related to what they are doing. I wouldn't pitch a Mopar feature to a Chevy magazine... even though they are still car features, it's not the same thing, make sense?

    The website is a tricky thing, you want to show range but not over specialize. Show them what you are capable of. Most places don't want the crazy off the wall stuff, but want to see that you CAN do that if called upon.

    Most of this is done via email, yes. Although on many occasions I will call the editors personally and get information. Phone contact is always better than email, but not always plausible.

    Does that help?

    ~Eric

  • Karen Stuebing

    May 31, 2010 09:04 pm

    I found an informative link on this topic which includes a sample query letter, a sample email query and how to handle it if you don't have clips to offer. There's a lot of info on what to avoid as well.

    http://www.writing-world.com/basics/query.shtml

  • Karen Stuebing

    May 31, 2010 08:45 pm

    Having never done this, I'm a little confused. I'm assuming you're talking about a photo essay on a particular topic?

    So then you should either pick a topic nobody else will but is interesting or show why you're superior to any other photographer covering a common topic?

    If anyone has an example of a query letter, I would love to see it. The comments do shed some light on this but it would be nice to see what one actually looks like.

    As for your website, do you change it every time you submit a query? Let's say I want to do a photo essay on old barns in West Virginia which I'm sure a lot of people have done.

    Do I set up a separate gallery for these photos and point the editor to that?

    Judging from the comment about email, I'm also assuming this letter has to be sent via snail mail.

  • Tony Page

    May 31, 2010 07:33 pm

    I was a travel photojournalist for some time. A query letter is simply a letter pitching a story or project to an editor in the hope that he or she will either give you an assignment or an undertaking that if you produce the feature ("on spec") it will be published (providing it is of sufficient quality).

    If you haven't worked for the editor before, you must at the very least include tearsheets of previous published work, your website address, etc., but obviously it is much more preferable if you can get in to see them. Editors are interested in reliability and ideas, if they don't know you, your ideas had better be outstanding. They'll be looking for a hook that will catch a reader's attention, so give them one.

    Your pitch should show that you are familiar with the publication involved, and your query should obviously fit in with the publication's content. Make sure you know the material specifications of the publication, and make sure you understand what rights you are giving them: first national serial rights was the old term, but nowadays may companies try and get you to sign over everything: don't. You should aim at selling your story more than once, with current rates that's frequently the only way you will come out ahead.

    Good luck and good shooting!

    Tony Page

  • Eric

    May 31, 2010 12:46 pm

    To answer some basic questions, I'll see what I can do to help out.

    A query letter is just that, a letter with a query.... asking for something... in this case; work. I'm not sure I could give you a reasonable example because as I mentioned, it has to be personalized to each individual case. Not everyone requires one, but if you decide to make one to submit it will enhance your chances of getting work.

    Mind you, this type of query I'm referring to is for commissioned work where original photographs are needed and stock photos just can't/won't work.

    James has it right, google what they are and some samples. It's similar to a cover letter, but the major difference is that you are asking for specific work and skills you can provide the client.

    Hope this helps,

    ~Eric

  • Victor Augusteo

    May 31, 2010 11:31 am

    Wow, i havenever ever hears about query letter all my life. Thank you forthis information. Now hopefully the editor will have easier time making the decision to hire me :p

  • G. Monk

    May 31, 2010 08:42 am

    "Nothing will get you put in the “deleted” bin faster than a letter full of typos and colorful euphemisms."

    Then question 3.
    "A website is a must here, your photos should right out front and not require a lot of load times or clicking through to get to your work"

    I'm not being pedantic it just tickled me. lol

  • Gen

    May 31, 2010 04:43 am

    This is really helpful, thanks.

  • James Milstid

    May 31, 2010 04:42 am

    Ahhh... just Googled 'query letter'. It's like a cover letter that accompanies one's resume. There are many examples if you Google it!

    Thanks for the advice!

  • Tyler Wainright

    May 31, 2010 04:21 am

    Am I right in assuming that this kind of format/letter would work for galleries or other places to showcase your work?

  • taabitha

    May 31, 2010 01:02 am

    Can you provide an example of a query letter? Too my mind, a query letter is something I write when I'm asking for information or a quote from another company - I can't wrap my mind around how to "ask" an editor for an assignment without it sounding needy or like I lack confidence.

  • Jen at Cabin Fever

    May 31, 2010 12:38 am

    I have never heard of a query letter! Could you please elaborate more on what it is and how its constructed? For someone "new" to the business the whole process seems oh so confusing!

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