If you’re looking to get a traditional publishing deal, a great query letter is a must.
But it seems like a dark art: what do agents and editors want to see in that first moment of contact? How do you cut through all the clutter and get the agent to actually read your note, instead of skimming and trashing it like so many others?
Most importantly, how do you get someone to request your full manuscript for review from just a teeny little one-page note?
From that perspective, a query letter is a marketing piece—it’s a 30-second written commercial for your book, reaching out and grabbing the editor by the collar to explain why they need your book in their life.
Although query letters are incredibly important when presenting your work, whether fiction or nonfiction, to an agent, editor, or publisher, they’re actually pretty simple when you get right down to it. A great query letter follows a fairly strict formula, and while the individual components can be hard to write, the overall format is straightforward.
That’s because agents and editors are swamped. They don’t have the time or brainspace to deal with a cute, clever query letter—they want you to cut to the chase, make it clear why they should be interested in your work, and leave them begging for more.
If you can make a tired, overworked editor who’s been reading submissions for the past 11 hours with no break sit up and take notice with a one-page letter, you’ve done your job.
Here’s how to hack your next query letter using the formula for success.
Personalization + Statistics + Hook + Synopsis + Bio + Closing = Query
Lead off your query letter by customizing it for the agent or editor you’re writing to. Do your research; show that you’ve spent some time figuring out who’s a good fit for your work and why.
Agents and editors know that you’re submitting to a dozen or more different places. That’s normal and fine. What they need to see is that you’re not spamming them—if they have no interest in historical romance but you send them an Edwardian bodice-ripper, you’re not only going to get nowhere with your query, but you’re also going to tick the person off. It might seem like that doesn’t matter, but you might have a project that’s a better fit someday and end up regretting having torpedoed that relationship by failing to do your homework.
Personalizing the query letter doesn’t have to be a lengthy thing. Just mention why you’re writing to this agent, editor, or publisher specifically. Here’s some examples:
- We met at the Willamette Writers Conference last year and you mentioned that you were looking for more books on health and wellness for single working moms. I just finished editing my new book, Yoga with a Baby Bottle, and thought immediately of you.
- I noticed that you’re currently seeking steampunk romance works. I recently completed Gears and Girls, an epic romance novel detailing the doomed affair between Jules Verne and an automaton, and wanted to reach out.
Mention any personal referral from another author or anyone in your network, whether you’ve met the agent or editor in person at a conference or workshop, if you’ve attended a speaking engagement they were at, or any other personal connection you might have.
None of those apply? No worries! Just mention that you know the person is interested in your specific genre—either from a listing on their website or because they’ve recently had success publishing something similar—and go from there.
Variable 2 in the query letter formula is the statistics for your book. Outline up front what the agent or editor can expect to deal with. This is simple: title, genre, approximate word count, and whether the book is part of a series.
Yes, you have to include the word count. Yes, the book has to be complete. You should never send out query letters before the book is done and has been revised at least once—if it’s not ready to go immediately, what will you do if the agent or editor requests to see the full manuscript right away? Look like a fool as you try to get around the request or ask for a delay without burning any bridges. Never a good situation.
If it’s relevant, you can also include no more than one or two examples of books that may have targeted a similar audience. Don’t fall back on the tired old cliché of “Dan Brown meets Jodi Picoult” here—use specific examples that show you’ve done your market research.
The statistics line in your query letter may look something like this:
- Roses Are Blue is a spy romance, complete at approximately 65,000 words. It’s the first in a planned trilogy, with Book 2 complete and Book 3 in progress.
- Tree Climbing for Beginners is a fully illustrated how-to guide. It is complete at 92,000 words.
- Wrath of the Tiki God is a 76,000-word magical realism thriller set in the South Pacific. It appeals to fans of American Gods and Kon-Tiki.
Next up in our formula is the most important bit: the hook. This is where you grab your reader’s attention with a one-sentence tagline explaining what the heck your book is about.
This may be the most important piece of marketing copy you’ll ever write for your book, so take your time and get it right. Distill the essence of your book into a single sentence (don’t worry, it can be a long one) and put it all out there.
- Odysseus thought life would be easy when he returned from the war, but his dreams of a quiet retirement were quickly derailed by horrific travel delays, worries about his wife cheating, and dealing with an obsessed fan—all brought about by a vengeful god he tried to cheat.
- When mild-mannered accountant Leopold Blum agreed to take on a new client, he never anticipated that it would lead to masterminding one of the greatest Ponzi schemes of all time—much less marrying a gorgeous Swedish actress and fleeing to Brazil.
The synopsis picks up where your hook line leaves off. In 300 words or less—a single paragraph—you now explain the who, why, and how of your book.
Who is your main character? What tantalizing situation do they find themselves in? What is at stake?
Describe the arc of the story as vividly as you can, but leave out secondary/tangential characters, side plots, and the ultimate conclusion—leave your reader aching to find out what happens so they have to request the full manuscript to get to the conclusion!
The best way to write a synopsis is to sit down and completely summarize your book, then start crossing stuff out. Whittle it down to 200-300 words, then get friends and colleagues to read your description. Find out what confuses them and what engages them, then revise accordingly.
It’ll probably take quite a few tries to get this right…but it’s a key part of the query letter formula. You need to give enough detail to show what sets your book apart from others—the sizzle and spark that makes it unique—but not so much that it bogs things down. Keep it lean, mean, and streamlined.
Include a little information about yourself and why you’re the best possible person to write this book. For nonfiction, this is particularly important—you want to show that you’re an expert in a relevant area and demonstrate your platform.
In fiction, you don’t need to worry so much about establishing your credentials. In fact, unless you have an MFA from a prestigious program or you’ve won some major awards, it’s often best not to bother with outlining professional credentials at all.
When in doubt, just include one or two basic bits of background about yourself and leave it at that. Unless you have a huge personal platform already, agents and editors are more interested in the quality of your writing than your 15 years as a kindergarten teacher.
Keep the closing short and sweet. Thank the person reading for their time and consideration, then mention that the full manuscript is available upon request. If you’re writing nonfiction and you haven’t completed the manuscript due to the volume of research required, mention that a complete pitch package is available upon request.
Sign off with a formal closing, like “sincerely” or “best regards” and you’re done.
Tips for Using the Formula
While the query letter formula gets everything you need out there quickly and efficiently, there are still a few other things you can do to increase your chances of success.
1. Use short, snappy sentences.
Publishing professionals never have enough time in the day. Skimming is a way of life. So make their lives easier by keeping your sentences short and streamlined and keeping paragraphs small. It’s easier to digest—and the agent or editor is more likely to remember what they’ve read.
2. Use a similar tone to your book.
Although the formula doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room and you should certainly never veer off into left field with an outrageously innovative query letter that, say, takes the form of an interpretive dance video, you have some flexibility in the tone you use.
If your book is a humor novel, lighten up your Personalization, Bio, and Closing sections a bit. If it’s a spy thriller, punch things up with more action. Just be sure that the essential elements are covered and you’re not spending too much time attempting to show how funny, clever, or smart you are. The query letter is about your book and its plot—nothing more, nothing less.
3. Don’t fluff things out.
There’s no need to guess at the audience for your work or anticipate their reaction. You’re adding nothing by injecting your opinions or hopes for how audiences will connect with your work—let it stand on its own merits.
Likewise, you don’t need to articulate the major themes in your work. You’re not writing to a college literature class—you’re marketing your book to an agent or editor. Restrict your description to the plot arc.
Examples of fluff include statements like “I believe young readers will connect strongly with my heroine” or “This book’s themes of everyday heroism and quiet self-confidence are perfect for our troubled times.”
4. Follow the submission guidelines.
I can’t stress this one enough: Follow the submission guidelines. Follow the submission guidelines. FOLLOW THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES.
Read up on the agent, editor, or publisher you’re submitting to. Do they want only a query letter? Do they want a query letter plus a certain number of pages? Do they want the full manuscript right away?
What format do they want any samples in: RTF, Word, pasted directly into the email? Should samples be double-spaced? In a certain font?
Do they have a preference for electronic or print submissions?
No matter what they ask, even if it involves standing on your head and whistling Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, if you’re interested in working with this person, do your best to follow along.
Follow this simple formula and you’ll be turning out great query letters in no time!
Personalization + Statistics + Hook + Synopsis + Bio + Closing = Query
For more on how to succeed in traditional publishing, read on:
- How Traditional Publishing Has Changed and What That Means to a Writer Starting Out
- How Advances and Royalties Really Work
- 4 Important Book Publications You May Not Have Heard Of