How to Write a Query Letter that Sells
If you’ve finally finished that manuscript and are ready to brave the world of traditional publishing, you’re going to need the right words to get you there.
While it’s important to have a quality piece of work that a publisher or agent will want to fight for, you have to get the chance to show it to them. Escaping the slush pile is no easy feat — with thousands of manuscripts being submitted, how will yours possibly be noticed?
The answer? A stellar query letter.
The query letter is probably the most important piece of writing you’ll do when it comes to getting published. According to Robert Lee Brewer’s Writer’s Market 2020: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published:
“The query letter is often the most important piece of the publishing puzzle. In many cases, it determines whether editors or agents will even read your manuscript. A good query makes a good first impression; a bad query earns a swift rejection.”
So how can you nail the query letter and have your reader begging for more? Today, we’re looking at the art of the query letter and how you can craft one in a few simple steps.
What is a query letter?
For those of you who may be unfamiliar, a query letter is a letter you write that accompanies your manuscript submission to a publisher or literary agent. This letter is basically an introduction to you and your book, giving the reader a little preview of what they can expect.
As professionals that receive thousands upon thousands of submissions, an agent or editor will not have the time to sit down and read your whole manuscript on a whim. Many employ first readers to sort through samples and query letters and only pass on the ones with the most potential. If you can’t boil down your book to its basic premise — what is it about and why readers will care — then chances are a first reader or their boss won’t be able to either.
Some works of nonfiction will require a proposal, which is a longer and more detailed version of the query letter (more on that at a later date). In this case, you will want to write the proposal before working on the full manuscript to gauge interest and market interest. Query letters, on the other hand, are written for manuscripts that have been written and fully polished, ready to go to the publisher.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Your Query Letter
While these are by no means hard and fast rules, I’ve compiled a list of the basic steps you should take when composing your query letter. Play around with the order if you like — whatever works for you while writing.
1. Start by addressing the editor or agent by name. No ‘To whom it may concern’ or generic ‘Dear Editors’ here — if you don’t put a little bit of effort to find out who you are writing to (or are using the exact same letter for all your queries), you can kiss any thoughts of a contract goodbye.
2. Get straight to the point. If you have a connection with the publisher or agent (maybe you met them at a conference or event, or perhaps you were referred by another one of their clients), mention it now. Otherwise, this is the place where you hook the reader by offering them a taste of the story: who are the people involved? What is the main conflict or topic? For more conceptual works, what is the thesis?
Try to condense the essence of your work into a sentence or two — what is known in the business as a logline. For some good examples, you can find the loglines of New York Times bestsellers here, and some past lists here. Look at your genre and draft a few loglines before coming back to your letter.
3. Give a summary of your manuscript. Break down the basic arc of the main plot. Depending on your text, you may want to give away the twist or ending; for others, you may want to keep this to yourself.
Make the case for why readers will be interested in your book: perhaps you’ve identified a gap in the market or have an interesting perspective on a certain issue or topic. It doesn’t need to be revolutionary, but there should be something that makes your book stand out.
4. Time for a bit of housekeeping: give the reader a working title (this will probably be changed sometime during the publishing process), word count, and genre. Comp titles can also be useful here; that is, similar books in either subject or tone. These don’t have to be bestsellers but can give your reader an indicator of the type of book and its marketability, as well as how it will fit on their current list.
5. Last but not least, a little bit about yourself, if relevant. If you have any previous writing credits or major writing competitions/awards, you can mention them here. If your book is informed by real-life experiences or your career, mention that too.
Neither? No worries. Focus on the story instead and let your personality come through in your writing.
6. Give your letter an edit and cut all the unnecessary waffle. Then edit again, and proofread one more time. You don’t want to be tripped up by a misplaced comma or typo. This is your first impression in a potential long-term working relationship — make it count.
· Your letter should never be longer than one page, single-spaced.
· The tone of your letter should be an extension of your manuscript. If it is a more serious academic text, piece of non-fiction, or memoir, you’ll want to keep it pretty formal. On the other hand, a work that is irreverent or more tongue-in-cheek may warrant a more casual tone. Give the reader a preview of what to expect when they read your manuscript.
· Avoid directly commenting on the quality of your work — let your words speak for themselves.
· Ensure your book and the publisher/agent align in terms of genre. If you’re writing fantasy and your reader only accepts literary fiction or nonfiction, you’re wasting both your time.
· Submission guidelines are gospel. If the agent or publisher you are submitting to has outlined exactly what they expect in terms of formatting or content, make sure you stick to this.
Above all, before you write the query letter and send your manuscript out into the world, make sure it’s airtight. Proofreading yourself is a must, but it may be beneficial to have a professional editor to look over your work and provide some insights.
Interested in having your work edited? I offer complimentary quotes and consultations for all my projects — feel free to reach out!