You’ve done the hard part.
You’ve spent ages researching, writing, and rewriting until you finally feel your book is ready to share with the world.
Not so fast.
Your next step is one of the most important. Writing a query letter can determine whether a literary agent asks to see more or sends you a cordial form letter intended to let you down easy.
It’s time to move from author to salesman.
You’re about to make a virtual sales call, and your query letter makes the first impression.
Nothing can be more important.
What is a Query Letter?
It was once customary for a bachelor to request permission to call on a woman by having his calling card delivered to her.
You’re courting an agent on behalf of your manuscript, and the query letter is your calling card.
This one-page letter must masterfully sell. Write it poorly and an agent will assume your book is also poorly written.
It must stimulate and intrigue to secure your all-important first date.
A Query Letter Format That Makes Agents Take Notice…
1—Speaks to a specific person.
Get the agent’s name and title right. You’re not sending this “To Whom It May Concern.”
It should be clear you’ve done your research and are targeting an agent who represents your genre and that you’re aware of similar books he has represented to publishers.
2—Presents your book idea simply.
Include a one-sentence summary. Here was mine for my first novel: “A judge tries a man for a murder the judge committed.”
3—Evidences your style.
Grab the agent with compelling writing. Briefly tell the plot of your novel or the purpose of your nonfiction book. Write with the same voice you’d use when telling your best friend about it. Your passion must be obvious.
4—Show you know who your readers are.
An agent needs to believe he can sell your book before he’ll ask for more.
Be specific about your target audience, and “everyone” doesn’t count. Agents know the business and cannot be persuaded that “everyone will find this amazing.”
Tell what you hope readers will take away from your book and why.
5—Clarifies your qualifications.
Briefly summarize why you’re the one to write this book.
The more you’ve done, the less you need say about it. Don’t emphasize your lack of experience, but resist the urge to exaggerate or embellish.
You need not list your entire resume. Instead, refer to a web page where an agent can find more details.
Better to just say something like, “I’ve been a professor of astrophysics for more than two decades, the last four years at Notre Dame.”
An amazing book idea can even transcend the need for a vast platform. So if you don’t have one, it’s all the more important to well represent the potential of your book.
6—Exhibits your flexibility and professionalism.
Keep it brief and express your ability to provide whatever is requested: proposal, synopsis, sample chapters, whatever. Conclude with a simple “Thanks for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.”
Be sure to:
- Include your book’s genre, title, and expected word count.
- Properly format: limit yourself to a single page, single-spaced, and use a 12 pt. serif type. The shorter your letter the better, but say what you need to.
- Follow the agent’s submission guidelines to a T, including how to send (via email attachment, not as an attachment, by snail mail [rare], etc.).
Query Letter Examples
- Here’s a great example with a breakdown of why it works, by Brian Klems of Writer’s Digest.
- Study Writer’s Digest’s list of successful query letters.
- Overselling—let your premise speak for itself.
- Gushing, flattering, or waxing obvious, like, “You’ll notice I got it to you early, because I’m so excited,” or “I hope you like it.” Represent yourself as more potential colleague than fan. Be professional.
- Submitting more than one page. Trust me, your query will be ignored if it’s too long.
- Querying only one agent at a time. Volume is your friend.
- Typos. Proofread! Then proofread it again. Even one typo in such a short document smacks of amateurism. Have someone read it with fresh eyes.
“I sent my query letter, now what do I do?”
Be patient. Occupy yourself with your next project idea.
Some agencies say that if you get no response after a certain period, assume they’re not interested. That’s rude, and sometimes you’re not even told whether they received it in the first place. In that case, wait six weeks and follow up with kind note asking about the status.
Best case: the agent reads your query and immediately asks for more. That’s rare, but it happens.
Agents get thousands of submissions, and they reject most of them within minutes.
Too many writers give them too many reasons.
My goal is to get you to where you’re seen as the next success. That’s why agents are in the business.
Despite how many ideas they reject, they’re longing to discover the next bestseller. Be the one who writes it!