A query letter is part business letter, part creative writing exercise, part introduction, part death defying leap through a flaming hoop. (Don’t worry, you won’t catch fire and die during the query process though it may feel precisely like that at times).
In essence: it is a brief letter describing your book that will hopefully make an agent want to represent you.
There are as many opinions out on the internet about query letters as there are, well, opinions on the internet. You will find lots of dos and don’ts and peeves and strategies and formulas.
The important thing to remember about this is that everyone is wrong except for me. (Just kidding. The important thing to remember is that you will need to choose the ideas that work best for you).
Here’s how you do it.
How to write a query letter
Here are the basic steps for how to write a query letter:
- Start with a completely finished and polished manuscript (fiction) or a book proposal and 30-50 sample pages (nonfiction)
- Read examples of query letters that worked
- Hone your pitch
- Research agents so you can personalize your query
- Include your credentials (if you have them) and other key details
- Format your query letter properly
- Send it out and wait for a reply
Polish your manuscript and/or proposal
Before you even write a query letter, it’s absolutely imperative that you start with a completely finished and polished novel or a nonfiction book proposal with 30-50 polished sample pages.
A great idea alone is not going to sail you through the publishing process.
Before seeking representation, make sure to get good, quality feedback and get as far as you possibly can editing on your own.
Here are some resources that can help:
- How to write a novel (blog post)
- How to Write a Novel: 49 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel You Will Love Forever (my guide, which has the best advice I know)
- How to write a nonfiction book proposal
- How to edit a novel
- How to find and work with a book editor
- Can you query if you are an unpublished novelist and your novel isn’t finished?
Read examples of query letters that worked
Familiarize yourself with what works. Read examples of good query letters in order to get a sense of the rhythm and format.
Here are four good query letters to sample:
- Query Letter Sample #1 – My query letter for Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, which landed me a literary agent.
- Query Letter Sample #2 – Lisa Brackmann’s query for Rock Paper Tiger
- Query Letter Sample #3 – Emily Conrad’s query for The Boy in the Basement
- Query Letter Sample #4 – Michael Schreiber’s nonfiction query letter
Hone your pitch
Once you have a sense of what works in a query, it’s time write your pitch, which will comprise the bulk of your query (usually 2-3 paragraphs). This is extremely tricky to write, and it’s so important to nail it.
But you are in luck because I have a handy dandy mad lib to get you started. Just plug in the details of your novel into this query letter template and it will give you a basic query letter to start with. From there expand on it, personalize, and make it your own.
You are trying to accomplish two important tasks with your pitch:
- Make the plot/subject of your book sound awesome
- Try to show the agent that you write well
Especially for fiction, try as much as possible to write the query letter so that it embodies the spirit of your project. If your book is funny, write a funny query letter. If your book is written with beautiful lyrical prose, write your query letter accordingly.
As you’re doing this, be as specific as possible about the plot, rather than descending into generalities. Key details about your characters and setting will make it come alive.
For narrative nonfiction, my advice is similar to fiction. Make the story you want to tell come alive through details.
For prescriptive nonfiction, be clear about the problem you’re trying to solve and give the agent a sense of your authority and voice.
For further reading:
- Query letter template
- The key to a good query letter: Summarizing through specificity
- How to weave more voice into a query letter
- Everything writers need to know about pitching their book
- How to handle multiple protagonists in a query letter
- The “voice of god” from movie trailers is killing your query letter
- Remove the word “ensues” from your query and synopsis and light it on fire
Research literary agents
Make your query letter shine through personalization. To do this, you need to research literary agents so you can show them you queried them individually. You also need to follow submission procedures to the letter.
Here is a comprehensive post on how to research a literary agent. But the short version is that you need to do some research in order to:
- Figure out which agents would be the right fit for your work– Three basic things to figure out: a) does the agent represent your genre, b) do they represent something too similar to your project, c) do they seem like they would be a good fit for you. The answers should be a) yes, b) no, c) yes.
- Figure out the agent’s submission procedure – Submission guidelines are like snowflakes: no two are alike. Also they melt. (Not really.) You will need to Google the agent and/or the agency in order to figure out where to send the query (it may be through the mail or via e-mail or via an online form or via a query service) and what the agent wants included with the query. Follow these guidelines!
- Include a personalized tidbit about the literary agent in the query to show you did your research – Personalize the query! Show the agent that you put in the time and have targeted them in your search. Mention an interview or a book they’ve represented or that they seem inordinately attached to the color orange.
- Make sure they’re reputable. – There are tons of scam artists out there, so do your research. No literary agent should charge you a fee upfront. Know your rights as an author.
If you can’t find additional info about a literary agent but know they are legit, just do the best you can to personalize.
For Further Reading:
- How to research a literary agent
- How to personalize a query letter
- Know your rights as an author
- Don’t get caught up in the rush
- Make an agent’s life easier
List your credentials (if you have them) and other key details
For nonfiction, it’s very important to give a sense of your level of expertise, your platform, and how much publicity you could bring to bear in the promotion of your work.
For fiction it’s totally fine to not even have a publishing credit to your name (just say confidently: “This is my first novel”). But do include a very brief bio and if you have, say, a notable social media presence, don’t be afraid to mention it.
Other things to include:
- Any previously published books, including books you self-published. List the publisher and the date of publication.
- The genre and word count (or estimated word count for nonfiction)
- If you think your novel could be expanded into a series.
- If you have comp titles you can include them here. Some agents find comp titles important, but for the most part they’re optional if you don’t feel that you have good ones at the ready.
That said, try as best you can to be brief and concise for everything apart from your pitch. Keep the focus on the project you are querying about, even if you’re a previously published author
For example, here’s my bio paragraph from my query letter Jacob Wonderbar (I had separately included the genre in the personalization paragraph):
JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW is 50,000 words and stands alone, but I have ideas for a series, including titles such as JACOB WONDERBAR FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSE and JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE VACATIONING ALIENS FROM ANOTHER PLANET. I’m the author of an eponymous agenting and writing blog.
For Further Reading:
- How and whether to mention your publishing credits
- All about pen names
- How to mention a series in a query
- How and whether to mention blurbs and referrals
- How to come up with good comp titles for your book
- Things agents don’t need to know
- Agent stats on personalization, credentials, comp titles, and more!
How to format your query letter
Don’t. Get Crazy.
Use block formatting. Double-space between paragraphs. Use a default font in a default size. Left-justify.
The amount of time you spend formatting, coloring, bolding, italicizing, and adding pictures to your query is inversely proportional to how professional it looks when you’re finished.
Altogether your query should be roughly 250-350 words.
For further reading:
Send it out
As the immortal Douglas Adams said, don’t panic! Write the best query letter you can, be yourself, don’t overthink it too much, don’t sweat it if you realize the second after you sent it that you made a typo or accidentally called an agent Vicky when their name is Nathan. If an agent is going to get mad or reject you over something trivial like that they’re probably not the type of person you’d want to work with anyway.
I highly recommend having query letters out with around seven agents at a time, which doesn’t leave you hanging endlessly with one agent, but also gives you some time to adjust course if you feel your query letter isn’t getting the attention you would have expected.
For further reading:
What happens next
After you’ve sent your query letter off into the great unknown, you sit back and wait for the literary agent to consider it. And wait. And wait some more.
Here’s what’s happening on an agent’s end: First they print out all the queries and stack them up. Then they spread them around the room until they’re a few inches deep. Next they lie down, wave their arms and legs, and make query angels.
Actually it works kind of like this.
What you want is a request for a partial or a full manuscript, in which case your query letter has done its job and you have moved on to the next step. If you’ve sent out a dozen or so queries and haven’t gotten so much as a nibble, there might be something wrong with your query letter and you may wish to tweak it a little and give it a second look.
Bear in mind that many/most literary agents have a no-response-means-no policy, so if you do not hear back after a couple of months you have your answer. It is not customary to follow-up if you haven’t heard back on a query letter.
Also please remember that literary agents are positively besieged with queries – you have one query you are worrying about, agents have 15,000 or more to answer in a year. Keep your cool, stay calm, and be professional throughout the process.
For Further Reading:
- How to respond to a partial manuscript request
- All about literary agent etiquette
- How to interpret rejection letters
- It’s not you, it’s the odds
- How to handle an offer of representation
You can write a successful query letter!
Query letter writing doesn’t have to be a horribly frightening experience. Just remember to be professional, do your research, and keep writing in the meantime. Don’t forget the 10 Commandments of the Happy Writer. And for a light-hearted version of this process, check out The Publishing Process in GIF Form.
And don’t forget, if you need help: reach out to me.
Hope you enjoyed this post on how to write a query letter. Happy Querying!
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Henryk Sienkiewicz i jego wizje by Czesław Tański