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How To Write A Great Query Letter

Updated on March 30, 2013

Getting Your Foot In The Door

A query letter is, in most cases, the preferred method of presenting your idea to an editor to whom you would like to help publish your book.

The query letter is possibly the most important piece of the puzzle in terms of getting published. It is pretty much the determining factor of whether or not an editor or agent will even read your manuscript. This offers you a chance to make a good first impression and gain the readers trust. Write a bad query letter and the door will most likely be closed in your face without ever having a chance to present your idea.

You will want to be specific right away. You will want to sell your idea in the same sort of fashion that the topic of your book or article is going to be about. If your book is going to have a comedic premise then draft your query letter in the same sort of quirky way. If it is going to be more like a biography or something similar, I suggest you stick to the facts and be professional.

What to do, what not to do...

DO: Make your query letter professional. It should be short (one or one and a half pages max), direct, descriptive and businesslike, set up as a business letter.
DO: be certain you are targeting the right publisher, and have the right address!

DO: Address your letter to a specific editor (and make sure you've got the right one!). Find out who to send to by networking, getting information through writers' publications, or by calling the publishing house to get the name of the editor for the line you are targeting.

DO: Be sure to include your name, address, and telephone number on the letter!

DO: Follow what is a fairly standard format. First paragraph should introduce you and your book -- the title, projected word length, whether or not it is completed (or how far along it is), type of book and which line it is aimed for.

The second paragraph is the most important --it must summarize your book in just a few sentences, like a TV movie blurb or 30-second commercial. What is your book about? What is your theme? What is it that makes your characters different, what makes them and their conflict interesting, what will they learn, how will they be changed by what happens to them? Remember the basic fiction formula: characters plus problem = conflict; conflict plus action leads to resolution and change.

The third paragraph is about you -- your writing experience and credentials, prior publishing history, if any (of any kind, including articles, poetry, stories); professional memberships; any other relevant information -- expertise that helped you write this book, for instance, or another career...

Last, thank the editor and express your hope for a prompt reply.

DON'T: Confuse "sales tool" with "sales pitch." This is not the time to say how great your book is or how endearing your characters are -- that's for the editor to decide. Be straightforward.

DON'T: Tease by not revealing the facts of the story, hoping to entice the editor's curiosity.

DON'T: Neglect basics of spelling, grammar, clean presentation, clear and vivid writing. First impressions count! Your query letter itself functions partly as a writing sample.

DON'T: Indulge in a long story synopsis, or include an autobiographical essay about your writing or your children. Just focus on what makes your book special. Why do you love this story? Why did you want to write it? Why does it fit this publisher's line? Capture its essence in your letter and if it fits, the editor will be asking to see it.

Be Polite

In addition to selling your idea, you will want to include information on the availability of any photographs or artwork that you will have at your disposal. Include names of people, and their area of expertise, that you will have access to for interviews and direct quotes. Also include a working title and projected word count.

Biographical information should be included to inform the reader a little about your self but don't over do it. If you have been published before, make a note of it. If you have not, just don't mention it. You focus here is to suggest that you are the best person to write this piece.

Discussing pay rates and information of that sort is to come later. You do not want to mention these sort of things in a query letter. You will also not want to mention that your work is copyrighted, as this is common sense and will only make you come off as a rookie. Avoid using flattery but to inform them that you have done your research on their company and the publications they have made in the past. Publications similar to your proposed piece would be best. Also, if you have been rejected by other publishers or agents, there is no need of telling anyone. Treat each attempt as if it is your first.

Stick To The Format

When drafting your query letter, the format should be as follows:

Opening:

Skip rhetorical questions or flashy introductions. In the first few lines, agents are looking to get a sense of your book’s genre and marketability, not your sense of humor, and definitely not to ponder the answers to any broad questions.

Weak opening: Have you ever wondered what it would be like to star in your own reality TV show? What if you were the only one who didn’t know the cameras were rolling? Find out in my book.

Strong opening: Please consider my 60,000-word mainstream novel about a man whose seemingly ordinary life turns out to be the center of a well-crafted conspiracy

Synopsis:

Succinctly describe the plot of your story or concept of your nonfiction book. This should be one to two paragraphs and focus on the main plot, setting, and characters. Let the agent know where the story takes place, introduce no more than a couple of characters who are pivotal to the main plot, and vividly describe the arc of the story. Let the agent know what is at stake or on the line for these characters; give him or her something to get invested in.

Author bio:

Now that you’ve shared the outline of your manuscript, it’s time to tell the agent about yourself. Mention publication credits, writing experience and activities, and education. Any excerpts you’ve published in literary journals or magazines should be mentioned specifically, and any expertise you have in the subject you’ve written about should also be noted. If nothing relates directly to the book you’re presenting, list the writing conferences and workshops you’ve attended, general publication credits, or even hobbies unrelated to writing.

Appreciation:

Now that you’ve gotten this far, don’t forget to thank the literary agent for taking the time to review your query. And remember to offer sample chapters (if the agent does not accept sample chapters in the initial query) and/or the complete manuscript (only if it is finished, of course). If mailing your query, be sure to enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the agent’s response.

Use a normal font and typeface, such as Times New Roman and 10– or 12-point type.

Include your name, address, phone number and email address.

Use a 1-inch margin on paper queries.

Address a specific editor or agent. ( A phone call may need to be made to know the name of the appropriate editor or agent to contact with a query letter. Also, many companies have websites now listing their contacts and guidelines.)

Limit query letter to one single spaced page.

Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for response for post submissions.

Use block paragraph format (no indentations.)

Thank the editor or agent for considering your query.

Good luck and never give up!

Agent Query Letter I.E.

Above is an example of a query letter to an agent.
Above is an example of a query letter to an agent.

Another Example For An Editor

There is more of a focus towards an editor in this example.
There is more of a focus towards an editor in this example.

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