It’s time to get ready for that thrilling, nerve-racking moment when you approach an agent or publisher with your work. Every writer anticipates it, even the seasoned ones, but are you truly prepared with a query letter that will grab their interest? In order to get your foot in the door, you need a polished, professional query letter, and in this article, we will go through what exactly a query letter is, why you need one, and how to write it.
What is a Query Letter?
In the publishing industry, a query letter addresses the agent or editor in question about your specific manuscript in order to stimulate their interest in reading it. Whether for fiction or nonfiction, the letter needs three elements: a quick pitch, a short description of the book and why it’s interesting (imagine what you’d read on the book’s back cover), and a little bit about why you’re the author qualified to write it.
Basically, a query letter introduces yourself and your work. This is what makes it so important. Clearly and concisely, it should help you stand out from the competition in both content and presentation.
Before you start, research the literary agents and publishers that you feel will be a great fit for your book. Read their submissions guidelines carefully, and follow them exactly. If your book is romance, for example, you don’t want to submit to an agent that is seeking only science fiction.
How to Write a Query letter
Let’s compose the actual letter. Make sure your document has one-inch margins all around and that you’re writing in 12-point Times New Roman font. This is industry standard. Fancy fonts and other visuals are a surefire way to get rejected. Stand out only with your idea and your professionalism.
The 4 Parts of the Query Letter
- The Referral. First, address the person you are sending this to. The best way to do it is to research the publisher or agent and not generalize (no ‘Dear Mr.” or “Dear Agent”) but to use their name.
- The Hook. This is where you entice the agent. Here, you can write a short one-to-two-sentence summary of your book. Mention also the title and genre, as well as the word count.
- The Pitch. This is the body of your letter, where you discuss the content of your story in the way that back covers might: the protagonist/antagonist relationship, the setting, subject matter, theme, plot, and/or conflict. For a nonfiction book, you might outline the book’s content and specific demographic.. As this is the most important part, you should spend the most time on it. It’s also important not to make it too detailed—don’t clutter it up with unnecessary characters, situations, or explanations.
- The Bio. This part allows you to introduce yourself and show the editor your experience. You can mention anything else you have written, your academic background, the amount of research you’ve conducted, or things related to the topic of your education that’s connected to the book. Authors who are popular on different social media platforms can talk about their followers here. Publishers and agents appreciate knowing you can connect with a larger number of people. Don’t worry if you’ve never published anything before. Just tell the truth.
Finish with a brief, courteous closing, such as, “Thank you for your time and consideration.” If their submission guidelines ask for extra materials, such as a synopsis or the first few chapters, include all those items, as well, in separate documents.
You can change and adapt these items to fit your style, book, or agent. You don’t specifically need a comprehensive bio if you write fiction novels, and you don’t need a plot and characters if you are writing a nonfiction novel.
In terms of how all this might look as a finished query, here is a fiction example:
Dear (Agent Name / Editor Name),
I thought you might consider my 73,000-word urban paranormal novel Skunk Ape Semester, a road story involving strange phenomena that can be described as Kerouac’s “On the Road” meets “The X-Files.”
Zoology Professor Jeremy Fishleder is a closet Bigfoot researcher. His passion sparked long ago by an encounter with Florida’s “skunk ape” during his childhood. Then, prompted by a health scare and a need for change, he goes on sabbatical and enlists three students on a trip around the country to visit areas of strange repute. They bounce from place to place, encountering oddball cases (many drawn from real life) and eccentric characters as they discover more about themselves, one another, and the realms unknown. Eventually, the stories tie together in a unique, unexpected climax.
The book is loosely based on my own travels and interrogations. I have traditionally published eight novels, one book of short fiction, and almost twenty short stories in various magazines, podcasts, or ezines. I am also on the advisory board of the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society and managing editor of its publication, Literary Landscapes.
The full manuscript is attached. Thank you for your consideration.
- Get to the point. Be specific. Aim to hook the editor or agent immediately. Avoid vagueness and generalities.
- Know your agent or editor. Find out about other books they have represented in a genre similar to yours. Emphasize why this might your book a great fit.
- Don’t be arrogant or waste time: The agent doesn’t want to know how lucky they would be to represent you or how you feel like this book will be a bestseller. Let them find this out on their own.
- Follow submission guidelines: Different agents may have different requirements, usually some combination of the same items (query, synopsis, sample pages). While some may forgive deviations or mistakes, it’s best not to roll that dice. Follow their guidelines specifically.
- Elicit emotions: Try to match your letter with your book. For example, if you are writing a romcom, your letter should be somehow humorous and light-hearted. If you are writing horror, it should have a somber and gloomy feel. The query letter is their first window into your writing. Make it count.
- Check the spelling: Any grammar mistake or misspelled word can be a dealbreaker. Before you send out your query letter, make sure you triple-check for typos and errors. There is a multitude of great spell-checkers available, so take the time to download one and run your query letter through it.
Often, agencies and publishers have a policy that no answer means they’re not interested, so don’t follow up with them unless they state otherwise. If they’re interested, they will contact you.
A pass is an opportunity to keep trying. Send your query to the rest of the agents on your list. One “yes” is all it takes. If you want to publish, you must summon your love for writing, presumably the reason you’re in this position! Publishing is a difficult market, and a query letter is just the first step in partnering with someone who might just help you reach the next level.
Keep writing. Keep querying. Keep dreaming. If you are ready to pitch your manuscript, visit The Pitching Room in The BookFest Adventure.