What is a Query Letter?

For authors looking to publish traditionally, query letters are a one-page letter used to pitch book ideas to agents and publishers, to get them interested in the work you’d like to send them. Most of the time, you’re sending a query letter for a manuscript you’ve already written, but sometimes, usually for non-fiction, you send one to know if you should write it. Essentially, it’s an introduction of you and your work.

This letter is what not only convinces the literary agent or editor that your work will interest them, but also that it will make them money and want to take it on. If they like your query, they’ll ask for more, so be prepared to send your manuscript, or just a few chapters—if that’s what they ask for; be sure to follow their instructions to a T! (Non-fiction writers, be prepared to send a proposal for the book.)

Why Write One?

Most editors and agents get hundreds of submissions to filter through. A query letter is what will help you stand out. This letter is a sales pitch. You want them to be interested in your manuscript before they even read it. For that to happen, your letter must impress them; it must be clear, concise, and captivating.

How to Write One

Step One—Research

Before even beginning to write your letter, you need to know who it is you’re writing to. Each agent is different, so targeting the right agent is crucial to getting published. Look for someone who will be interested in your book. You wouldn’t try to send a steamy romance novel to someone who specializes in historical biographies, would you? Poets&Writers[https://www.pw.org/literary_agents] and The Writer’s Union of Canada: Literary Agents[https://www.writersunion.ca/get-published/literary-agents] are excellent resources for finding editors and agents. Once you’ve found someone you think is a fit, learn about them. What about your book would most appeal to them? How do they prefer to be addressed? How do they like work to be submitted? What kinds of stories do they like? What do they not like?

Step Two—Writing

Armed with your new information, write a letter in which you sell your story to the agent you’ve chosen. Be direct and compelling. Don’t add fluff or unnecessary description. The best method is to imagine you’ve just stepped into an elevator with this person, and you only have 30 seconds to get them interested in your book.

  • Give basic information. Give them the title and genre that suits your book best. The title may change, but this information is key. You should give a one-sentence summary of the book and your manuscript’s word count.
  • Write a compelling hook. This is the bulk of the letter (100-200 words long) and is what’s going to convince the editor or agent to take you on. Include your characters, plot, and conflict. Focus on your protagonist and what they face, where and when the story takes place. Don’t give away the ending; you want them wanting more. Avoid mentioning minor details, plot points, or characters; they aren’t important right now.
  • Include a short bio. You can mention social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to highlight how you connect with your audience.
  • Write an effective closing. Politely thank the editor or agent for their time (they’ve read your letter, after all!) and let them know that you’re prepared to send additional material at their request. (They may ask for the first 50 words of your manuscript, the first chapter, or even the whole thing.) Sign the letter and include contact details at the bottom.

Step Three—Formatting

Formatting your letter correctly is extremely important because not only will it be easy to read, but it will show an attention to detail that editors and agents appreciate in an author.

  • Spell the name of the agent or publisher correctly and have an accurate address. Ensure that the location you’re sending it to is the right one; sometimes companies have multiple addresses.
  • Keep it to one page. They’re very busy, and some won’t even look at a letter that’s more than a page.
  • Format it to industry standards. This means white paper, black ink, and Times New Roman size 12 font.
  • If you’re sending the letter by mail, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) as well. This way an editor or agent can notify you when the work has been accepted or rejected.
  • If you’re sending the letter via e-mail, be sure your e-mail address is professional, and maintain this in your writing as well.
  • Include the date, the editor’s/agent’s name and title, the agency name and address, and your name and contact information (address, phone, and e-mail).
  • Address it to the right editor or agent. When in doubt, call the publisher and ask who to send it to.

How to be Successful

There is no way to ensure success, but there are ways to get you close. Maybe you’re just not a fit, despite the extensive research you’ve done. Maybe they’re just too busy. Maybe your book is just not quite ready for an editor or agent, and you need to revise and try again.

The important thing is to never give up. Doesn’t matter whether you’ve been rejected once, five times, or even forty-eight times. Keep looking, use the feedback to improve, and always keep your head up. You’ve already made it farther than most people who’ve said “I’m going to write a book!”

So, here are some tips to elevate your success potential:

  • Be specific and personal. Address the editor or agent by their name instead of the generic “Dear Mr. or Mrs.” Look up how they like to be addressed; they will appreciate the extra effort.
  • If you’ve met them before, reference that. If you’ve attended the same conference, you’ve listened to a presentation they’ve given, etc.
  • Be sure that you’re a good fit to the editor or agent before sending them a query letter. You may find people who initially look like a good fit, but aren’t, and if that’s the case, you are more likely to be rejected.
  • Look up the other authors the editor or agent has worked with. Is their work similar to yours? Are the books within a narrow interest margin, or more spread out? Does your book fit in with them?

A good query letter should show the agent or editor that you’ve done your homework. It should provide them with the key pieces of information they are looking for and get them interested in seeing more. And it should make them aware that you can send additional materials upon request. You’ve already come so far; good luck!

Related Article(s):
What is a Literary Agent?

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