Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, a query letter is one of the essential tools in your arsenal as an author. It’s an unarguable truth that your query letter is the first thing that will catch the attention of men in publishing houses. It buys you a testimony from those who might otherwise not even bother to pick up your manuscript out of sheer interest or boredom.
This post will cover everything you need to know about writing a query letter for book publishers, including tips for crafting a compelling cover letter to lure an agent or publisher.
What is a query letter?
A query letter is a short, targeted letter that a writer sends to an editor or agent to request consideration of their writing. The letter usually proposes a project or outlines the idea of a project. Query letters are not pitches. They’re not full-length manuscripts, and they’re not synopses. They’re designed to show editors and agents the potential of your idea, which is why they should be no longer than one page.
Query letters are important for writers because they can help open doors when you don’t have connections with publishing professionals. Query letters also help you get noticed among the thousands of other submissions across an editor’s desk every week.
If you want to become a published author and get your books into the hands of readers, you will need to write a query letter. Here are the top reasons why you should write one:
To save time
If you want to get your book published, you need to send it out to agents and publishers. The problem is that thousands of other authors have the same idea as you do! And these people are all competing for the same limited number of slots on publishers’ lists.
Every time someone sends out their manuscript unsolicited, they take away time from an editor who could be reading something else instead. So if an agent or publisher receives dozens of queries in a day, each query saves them time.
To establish your credentials as a writer
The query letter is the first step in the publishing process. It’s your opportunity to introduce yourself and your book idea to an agent or editor and get their attention. If you’ve done your research and honed your pitch, the query letter can be a very effective tool in securing representation. If you haven’t, it will likely fall flat.
To set up the rest of your proposal
The query letter is an important step in the book proposal process, but it’s often overlooked. Many aspiring authors don’t know how to write a strong query letter or even if they need one in the first place. After all, isn’t the proposal itself supposed to do all the selling? The answer is yes and no. On its own, a proposal can convince an editor that you’re talented and professional enough for them to consider publishing your book — but only if it’s written well and contains all the necessary information.
A good query letter can help sell your idea even more effective than just a proposal alone because it focuses specifically on the editor or agent reading it, making it easier to see how your book fits their list of titles and their audience’s interests.
To prime your literary agent to consider your ideas
A query letter is the first thing an agent reads from you — and it needs to grab their attention! The first paragraph of your query letter should set up the argument for why this book is different from anything else out there on the market. If you can show how unique your idea is and if it’s backed up by research, agents will be more likely to keep reading because they want to find out what makes it unique or different.
To receive feedback on your manuscript
Query letters are also a great way to get feedback on your manuscript so that you can improve it before sending it out again. If an agent or editor likes your work but thinks it needs some work, they may offer suggestions for how you can improve it before sending it out again. This is especially helpful if you’re starting as an author or recently completed another manuscript that didn’t sell.
Parts of a query letter
Query letters describe your work, so they require a great deal of attention. There are several key elements in constructing a query letter that can differentiate between effectiveness and futility in a writer’s quest for publication. Here are the essential parts of a query letter.
The hook is your chance to grab the reader’s attention. You have one or two sentences to grab their attention and make them want to read more. The first line of your query letter should be strong enough to convince an agent that your book is worth reading. It should be intriguing but not so enticing that you give away too much of the plot.
The hook is a great place to include an intriguing fact about your book or characters. If you can’t think of anything compelling, try asking yourself these questions: What makes my book different from others in its genre? What makes my protagonist special? What makes my story unique?
The hook is also known as the “elevator pitch” or “query letter hook” because it should be short enough to be said in an elevator ride. The hook should be quick and snappy, but it shouldn’t be misleading. Don’t create false expectations or hype up a book that isn’t ready for publication.
Biography and credentials
This is where you talk about your background as a writer and why your book is relevant. If you’ve published other books or have been featured in magazines that have reviewed your work, mention them here. You don’t need to go into lengthy explanations about how wonderful you are, but if you’ve got credentials that make your book more appealing or give it more credibility, include them here.
Keep it brief, but make sure you include:
- Your name and contact information (phone number, email address)
- Whether you’re a new author or have been published before (and if so, where)
- What kind of books you’ve written previously (i.e., romance novels, nonfiction books about dog training, etc.)
- Your writing experience (if you have none, then say so)
If you’ve never written a book before, try to at least mention some experience writing for other publications or websites. For example, if you’re an expert on a particular subject, let them know.
This is where you introduce the book and discuss its premise. It should be no more than one paragraph long and should be written to make it clear why this book is different from others in its genre or category. If it’s a business book, tell them why they should care about this topic right now. What makes it different? What problem does it solve?
If it’s fiction or nonfiction, tell them what makes this particular story unique and compelling. The book overview is also where you’ll mention any word count or page length requirements — this is an essential piece of information for agents and publishers because they need to know what they’re getting into when they take on a new client or project.
The first thing you need to do is write a synopsis. It should be about 300 words long and include the following elements: the protagonist, antagonist(s), setting, inciting incident, and climax. It should be two to four paragraphs long and tell the story in broad strokes. Don’t get bogged down in details.
Instead, focus on how the story begins, what the protagonist wants, and what obstacles they face in their quest for it. Keep it simple, but make sure you include all the necessary information so that your potential agent can understand what makes this story unique and why they should represent it.
Include any major plot twists or surprises, but don’t reveal any spoilers! The synopsis should also demonstrate how your book fits into the genre you’ve chosen — so if it’s a romance novel, mention that it has a happy ending; if it’s a thriller, describe some action scenes or dangerous situations; and so on.
Here’s where you tell the agent or editor which platforms you’ve chosen for your book. You may have heard that agents and editors only want to see books exclusive to their agencies or imprints, but this isn’t always true. Some agents and editors prefer complete submissions.
Others will accept simultaneous submissions as long as you inform them of where else the book is being submitted (and have a good reason for why it is). Also, if you choose to submit to more than one agent or editor at a time, make sure that they all know about each other, so they don’t waste time telling each other they have already seen your book.
It’s the last line of your query letter. It’s an opportunity to leave a lasting impression on an agent or editor and sell yourself as the perfect candidate. You should write a closing line that summarizes your pitch and leaves them wanting more.
Unfortunately, many writers don’t take advantage of this opportunity, so here are some tips for crafting a killer query letter conclusion:
- Keep it short and sweet. Agents are busy people with dozens of queries in their inboxes every day. They don’t have time to read long-winded paragraphs about how awesome you are or love writing. As soon as you’ve made your point, stop talking!
- Give them a reason to request pages from your manuscript or proposal, or give them something else from your portfolio if they don’t want to request pages (such as a sample chapter).
- Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want! If an agent is interested in working with you, they’ll ask for more information at some point anyway. Why not make it easy on yourself by asking them directly?
You want this paragraph to be short and sweet so it doesn’t detract from what you’ve already written about your book and why it’s exciting. This paragraph aims to give the agent/editor one last reason they should request more information about your manuscript. You want them to remember you and want to learn more about your story!
Seven tips for writing a query letter
As you set out to write a query letter and get your manuscript ready for submittal, keep in mind these seven tips:
Get to the point
You only have a few paragraphs to tell the agent or publisher why they should represent your book in a query letter. You have to get to the point fast. Remember that agents receive hundreds of queries every week, so don’t write anything longer than necessary. Include only relevant information about yourself and your book proposal.
Be sure to include an introduction that explains what you want from the agent and why they should take on your project. Then tell the agent why you think their agency is a good fit for you and your manuscript. Don’t go into too much detail here — give them enough information to get interested—end by thanking them for their time and consideration.
Make them care
If you want to get an agent or publisher to read your book, you need to make them care. That might sound like an obvious statement, but it’s easy to forget that most people who read query letters don’t care about your book. They have a stack of queries in their inbox, and they need to sort through them all quickly to move on to the next one.
It’s not enough to tell them what happens in your book – they need to hear why it matters. You don’t have time for flowery language or long-winded explanations. You only have a few sentences at most, so use them wisely! If they don’t care about your book, they will not request and won’t buy it.
If they don’t buy it, they won’t promote or write reviews or blog about it or share with friends or family, talk about it on social media, or recommend it anywhere else. So before you start talking about yourself, make sure you sell your book first.
Know your audience
A query letter is a sales pitch, and you’re selling yourself as the author. You need to know who you’re writing for and what they want, so you can give them what they want. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What does your publisher publish? Do they have any specialties or genres? Do they have a list of authors that write books similar to yours? If so, who are they? Are there any titles by these authors that are similar to yours?
- What other nonfiction books have this publisher published recently if your book is nonfiction? Have they been successful? If so, in what ways?
- If your book is fiction, do they publish works of a particular length or genre (mystery/thriller/romance)? What kind of reviews do the books get? Do readers like them and buy them after reading them?
Agents specialize in specific genres and age groups; some handle both adult and children’s books, while others focus on one. Some agents represent only traditionally published books, while others take on self-published books. You can find out what an agent represents by searching their name on Google or checking their website. You can also ask them directly via email or phone call if they have time to speak with new writers at this time.
Don’t make it about you
When writing a query letter to an editor or agent, it’s tempting to make the letter about you. After all, if you’re looking for representation, your name will be on the cover of that book. But the best query letters are about the story and why it deserves to be published.
A good query letter explains what happens in your book and why it’s different from other books out there. It also shows how much you know about the market and how hard you’ve worked on your book. Include information about yourself in the first paragraph only if it’s relevant to the story. If your main character is a librarian who loves kung fu movies, mention that in your bio. Otherwise, save it for later in the letter.
Keep it short! Editors and agents don’t have time to read long letters full of information they don’t need or want to know. Take care not to overwhelm them with details about your life or expertise — give them enough information to know who you are and what kind of agent/editor they should contact if they’re interested in reading more.
Follow the submission guidelines
The submission guidelines are the rules writers must follow when submitting a query letter. They can be as simple as “query only” or as complicated as “only send queries with the following information.” Follow the submission guidelines. They’re there for a reason. If you don’t want to follow them, don’t submit to that publisher.
If you want to submit but can’t because of their rules, then take it up with them. But whatever you do, don’t ignore the guidelines! It’s not just about etiquette. It’s also about professionalism and making yourself look good. If you’re going to submit your work to someone else, don’t make it harder on yourself by breaking the rules they’ve put into place for a reason.
Seek feedback when you’re done
As you write your query letter, you should always seek feedback. An excellent place to start is with other writers familiar with the genre and who know what’s selling today. They may be able to point out what’s missing or what doesn’t work. Ask them to read it over and give you specific suggestions on how they think it could be improved.
If you can’t find anyone who fits this description, try posting it on a writing forum or blog where other writers will leave comments and advice. If necessary, consider hiring a professional editor or proofreader to read through your letter and give their opinion on how it reads and whether or not it would catch an agent’s eye.
Frequently asked questions
Here are answers to some of your questions about query letters.
What are submission guidelines?
Publisher submission guidelines are rules that publishers use to determine if your book would be a good fit for their publication. The guidelines may be particular, such as the number of words in a story or the size of an illustration, but most publishers will have a general list of what they’re looking for.
These guidelines can include anything from subject matter to the quality of writing and illustrations. You can find publisher submission guidelines on their website or by directly contacting them.
What is a book proposal?
A book proposal is a document that outlines your idea for a book and the reason why you are the best person to write it. It’s essentially an advertisement for your book, and it should sell potential readers why they should buy your book over all others.
A good book proposal will convince an editor that your idea is marketable, that you have the experience necessary to write about it effectively, communicate with readers, and have something original or unique about your approach to the subject matter.
Do you need a literary agent?
At some point, you’ll need help from a professional. And that’s where literary agents come in. Literary agents represent writers’ work to publishers and negotiate contracts for them. They’re paid an advance against future royalties on each book they sell – typically between 10% and 15% of the sale price of every book sold.
Agents also help their clients by offering advice about publishing contracts and business matters and assisting them in building their careers through networking and connections with other professionals in the industry.
Agents are needed at every stage of publishing: novelists need agents to pitch novels to publishers; nonfiction authors need agents to pitch articles or books to editors at magazines or book publishers; while poets need agents to ensure that their works get noticed by the right people so they can be published successfully.
The query letter is not only a time-tested way to break into the publishing business. It’s also a disciplined approach to writing that forces you to think about what you’re saying and how to say it. You can use the same technique in many other endeavors, from making requests at work to asking for a date. Whatever the situation, excellent communication requires both clear thinking and strong writing. With a bit of thought and practice, your query letter can help you achieve both.