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Query Letter Essentials

Updated on April 9, 2014

Who Ya Going to Call?

To write what is worth publishing, to find honest people to publish it, and get sensible people to read it, are the three great difficulties in being an author.

Charles Caleb Colton

No, this article is not about Ghostbusters, but it is about contacting agents and publishers, so I got a bit silly with the subheading.

I was reading an article the other day about Pulitzer-prize winning writer Gilbert King. “Devil in the Grove” tells the true story of four young black men falsely accused of rape in a Florida citrus town and the unbelievable events that follow their 1949 imprisonments. The Pulitzer committee called it “a richly detailed chronicle of racial injustice.”

I mention this all because “Devil in the Grove” was turned down by thirty publishers.

Thirty!

Thirty professionals received King’s query letter and did not find sufficient reason to publish what has since been called in literary circles a masterpiece.

Go figure!

If you are a writer only interested in publishing ebooks then read no further. If, however, you have visions and dreams of one day finding an agent or a publisher who is interested in your book, then this article just might help you. At the very least it should open your eyes and give you something to think about.

Thirty publisher rejected Mr. King’s manuscript based on this query letter. What his letter poorly written? I doubt that seriously. For whatever reason, that magic something was missing from his query letter the first thirty times it was read, but then when Harper-Collins read his letter that magic somehow appeared.

In other words, writing a query letter and having it noticed is an inexact science.

There are, however, some basic elements to a query letter that should appear in each and every one that you send out.

This is what a poorly-written query letter looks like.
This is what a poorly-written query letter looks like. | Source

Logline and Manuscript Stats

A logline is a one sentence summary of your book. It is essential and it better be good. If it is, the agent or publisher will then be willing to read the next sentence which will tell him/her the name of your manuscript, the number of words in it and the genre.

How You Found Them

Where did you hear about the agent or publisher, and don’t tell them that you are simply sending a random letter to all agents/publishers. Be specific and mention you read about them in Writer’s Market, or you read a short blurb about them in Writer’s Digest. Show them that they are more than just a name out of the directory.

Movie Trailer Version

Figure about two paragraphs (maybe three) hitting all the key points of your manuscript. This is not as easy as it may sound, especially since it also needs to be very interesting and appeal to the emotions of the one reading it.

Great care needs to be taken when writing your query letter
Great care needs to be taken when writing your query letter | Source

Main Characters and Why They are Cool

This is your chance….your only chance….to sell your book. If the characters are the engine of your book, then you need to show the agent/publisher that you have a V8 under the hood instead of a four-cylinder. Explain why your characters are fascinating, and I do mean fascinating. Why should the agent be interested in your characters?

Show Me the Conflict

If the characters are the engine then conflict is the transmission that takes your story from first gear to second, back to first, up to third and so on. Are you getting tired of this metaphor yet?

What are the main points of conflict in your story? In some literary circles these are called “sparks,” and depending on the length of your novel you might have two, three or four different main conflicts.

Brief Bio

One paragraph, please, explaining who you are in brief bio form. No, the publisher does not care about where you were born or who your parents were; they care about your writing background. If you have won competitions then include it in this section. Obviously, if you have been published before, now is the time to brag about it.

If you have done nothing at all then make that nothing sound interesting.

Indicate What Else You Have Included

If you have included a synopsis and the first three chapters then make sure you mention that so they are not missed. Many query letters are sent via email these days, and many agents do not accept attachments, so all enclosed materials are added in the email after the query letter. Make sure you mention that if that is the case.

Contact Information

Can you imagine a worse-case scenario than a writer sending a dynamic query letter, one that knocks the socks off of a publisher, and then forgetting to tell the publisher how to get hold of the writer? Include your phone number, email address, mailing address and website if you have one.

Thank You

Remember your manners please! Thank the agent/publisher for their time and consideration. Be sincere. The average publisher receives thousands of query letters each month. It really is a big deal if they choose to read yours.

And if they send you a personal response as opposed to a form response, then thank them for that. A personal response from an agent/publisher is like gold in the bank. It means they were interested enough to take a couple minutes to personalize their response.

Average Length of a Query

There are differing schools of thought about this, but I advise no more than one page for a query letter. The last thing I want to do is bore the publisher with the first communication they receive from me, so one page is sufficient provided it is well-written and covers all of the items mentioned above.

One page….about five paragraphs….and if you have written them well, and included all of the necessary information, there are still no guarantees.

How do you like them apples?

Now sit down and get busy
Now sit down and get busy | Source

And That Is All There Is to It

I am not trying to discourage although I’m sure I have done exactly that to some of you. I apologize for that.

I am, however, trying to paint a realistic picture of the odds that are against you as you attempt to attract a traditional publishing house.

In some perverse way I am encouraged when I read stories like Mr. King’s. He was, in many ways, the quintessential freelance writer before the Pulitzer came his way. He did ghostwriting for years. He wrote articles for obscure magazines for low pay, and his first nonfiction book was met with a resounding yawn by readers near and far.

Not to be discouraged, he spent four years researching and writing “Devil in the Grove.” Four years of his life went into that book and then it was rejected by thirty agencies.

And yet he persevered! He was determined to write the best book he was capable of writing. He said that he gave up on social media after about a week. He gave Twitter about ten minutes of his time. He stopped blogging. All of his efforts went into building a book he could be proud of.

And it paid off!

In a very real sense, your query letter is as important as your book. If you do not write a dynamic letter then no one will ever know just how brilliant your book is….and wouldn’t that be sad?

2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

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    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 3 years ago from New York, New York

      Bill, love how you say about manners being included, because I truly can't help, but include mine always whether for letters or just everyday life. But seriously, some wonderful tips and as usual thank you for sharing, my friend. Happy Wednesday now!

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      Another great one, bill! I shall certainly keep this by me for when the time comes. Succinct and useful, something all aspiring authors should read. User-friendly is the phrase that springs to mind when I read your advice-hubs. Up ++ & shared.

      Have a great day, bill! Ann

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Great hub! Informative, and useful to all writers.

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 3 years ago from Arizona

      As always you are so giving to other writers. There is so much to learn from you--even though writing is not a top priority for me now. Some of the many lessons you have shared fit in other venues of life.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Janine, it is so important to be polite in this world...and the business scene is no different. People remember rudeness....and people remember politeness. Which would you rather be known for?

      Thank you dear friend. Have a great day.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well good morning, Ann! Thanks for stopping by so early, and I hope your day is wonderful....and oh, by the way, thank you! :)

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you DDE!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Carol, thank you for being here even though you are not writing now....and your last remark is very accurate. Some of these principles can be applied to other venues of life.

    • Bk42author profile image

      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Some great tips! Thank you so much for sharing with us!

    • ocfireflies profile image

      ocfireflies 3 years ago from North Carolina

      Bill,

      You not only talk the talk, you walk the walk and so gracefully.

      Excellent hub with important information.

      Kim

    • Lisawilliamsj profile image

      Lisa Williams 3 years ago

      This is very interesting, and useful. I have often wondered what a query letter entailed. I will definitely file this away for future use! Thanks for sharing, Bill!

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 3 years ago

      Dear billy,

      Thanks for this information. I have so many books that discuss the query letter, but your tips are the best! Up, very useful and awesome.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It is my pleasure, Bk42author...and thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Hey Kim, good to see you again. I hope you are well, and thanks for the kind words.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Glad to hear it, Lisa! If you ever have any questions you know how to find me.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      breakfastpop, that is quite a compliment. Thank you so much.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      Great tips for those interested in traditional publishing routes. I wish you well with your book.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      Another keeper, Bill! How does the book movie trailer fit into the query letter? And is it necessary to have a movie trailer?

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 3 years ago from Northern California, USA

      As much time as we spend on writing the manuscript, writing a query letter to showcase the manuscript is so critical. Your tips are truly helpful and much needed. I have to keep in mind that editors are busy people and one page is more than enough space to entice them to read my manuscript. Thanks Bill. As always, you bring reality to this profession.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Flourish. I'm going to need a lot of luck. :)

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sha, it's just a figure of speech....you want a book summary of about three paragraphs that covers the main points of the book...like a movie trailers covers the main points of a movie.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Marlene, you can always count on me to give a realistic appraisal of our industry. The query letter is crucial. Without a good one, no editor or publisher will ever read our books.

      Thank you dear friend.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      Ah, gotcha. I went to the courthouse today to pick up the docs I told you about. Totally screwed up my momentum and thought process!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 3 years ago from California

      So very useful! (An example maybe???) I am in this bucket now sending out submissions and my one paragraph just doesn't cut it!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Query letter? Sales letter? Same thing, of course.

      I guess you could call the logline your headline. It better grab 'em and get 'em to keep reading.

      The advice of telling the prospective publisher how you discovered them is sound sales practice. Cold calling (or querying) is cold and dead.

      More great stuff. Have a wonderful Wednesday!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sha, I'm excited that you are following up on that...good luck!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks, Audrey! In one of my earlier articles I gave an example....sigh...I don't know which one, however. :) Good luck with your submissions.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Heidi, I love how you draw parallels between the writing game and the sales game. Very similar indeed. Thanks for your valuable perspective.

    • Jo_Goldsmith11 profile image

      Jo_Goldsmith11 3 years ago

      Bill,

      This is just what I needed to know and thank you. It is going to really help me not trip over my words when I select the book agent for my novel. I very much appreciate your advice here. It gives me the outline of the do and don't of sending query letters. Shared, up for useful interesting and awesome! :-)

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm glad to hear it, Jo, and good luck. Making the query letter perfect is the greatest gift you can give to yourself.

      blessings always

      bill

    • mpropp profile image

      Melissa Propp 3 years ago from Minnesota

      I agree that in some perverse way, I find it encouraging when I hear stories about now-famous authors who were rejected so many times...If they went through it, so can the rest of us. Thanks for all the tips, I'd love to see some examples of query letters that were accepted (especially if they were from re-known authors).

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Hey Melissa, welcome back. Actually, I'd love to see those query letters as well. I'll have to do some research and see what I can find. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Think Spring my friend. It's bound to arrive sooner or later, right?

      bill

    • Diana Lee profile image

      Diana L Pierce 3 years ago from Potter County, Pa.

      Wow, thirty rejections I don't think I could be that strong. I'm glad Mr. King caught the right eye eventually. Thanks for sharing his story.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Diana, he exhibited more willpower than I have and that is for certain. Thanks for stopping by.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Why is it you've only just published this piece? There I was in 2008-2010 writing letters, e-mailing parts of my first book (according to the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook published annually here different agents have differing requirements and you're not advised to send MS' to publishers) to agents or just letters. I must have sent or e-mailed a couple of hundred covering letters etc, re-wrote them and 'jiggled' them about to suit.

      I deleted my covering letter after self-publishing the first time (- through Authorhouse, what a mistake!) and now I publicise my books through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as well as Hub-pages and my own web-site. I get a fairer deal through New Generation and might as well stick with them now. I publish through Amazon Kindle after the paperback comes out.

      TTFN Bill.

    • leni sands profile image

      Leni Sands 3 years ago from UK

      What a really interesting hub, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and digesting the content, this hub has been shared with my followers, bookmarked for future reference, voted up, useful, interesting & awesome.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 3 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      I am in the process of doing this now...this hub is sooo helpful. Thank you!!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Alan, blame it all on poor timing. The story of my life. :)

      We sometimes take the long road, don't we? I know I have.

      Thank you Sir! It's always a pleasure having you share your experience.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      leni, thank you for sharing this....I'm glad it was helpful.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      So glad to hear that, Genna. Best wishes on your query letter.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      Great advice as always billy, and I always remember another Mr. King having the same problems! Stephen King submitted a couple of hundred if I remember right, before he got accepted too! lol! voted up and shared, nell

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Nell, when I think about Stephen King, I just shake my head. Imagine how all those publishers who denied him feel now. LOL Thank you for the visit, Nell.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I can see why you have so many followers, you are helpful in every aspect of writing. I know many will benefit from your experience. Thank's for sharing...

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 3 years ago from Orange, Texas

      When I read the part about King being turned down 30 times after writing a masterpiece, I thought of Siskel and Ebert. I know it sounds weird, but that's how I think sometimes. I listened frequently to their movie reviews and if they liked the movie, I was pretty sure I wouldn't. If they gave a movie horrible reviews, I was pretty sure I'd like it. I was right at least 90% of the time. Those guys gave the original Star Trek movie a thumbs down.

      This query letter also reminds me of the letter you should include with a resume. Grab them at the start so you get a call for an interview!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      That's sweet of you, Ruby! I hope you are right. Have a wonderful evening my dear.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ann, I had forgotten about those two. Many a night I sat and watched their show and just shook my head at the nonsense. LOL

      Thank you for being here; you are appreciated.

    • theBAT profile image

      theBAT 3 years ago

      Thanks for reminding how a well written "query letter" can mean success or failure of a writer. What is important is not to get discouraged in cases of rejection. I learned a lot from this hub.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      This puts things into perspective! I think it is not discouraging at all, but encouraging, especially after we know exactly how to write the perfect query letter, thanks to you! Yes, persevere for the reward. Them are some good apples indeed : ) LOL.

      Blessings

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      theBAT, thank you! Rejection is part of the life of a writer. We all need to grow accustomed to it. :)

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Faith, I love those apples. LOL It is all about perspective my friend. We all are rejected at times...oh well!

      blessings and thanks always

      bill

    • profile image

      Writer1975 3 years ago from Hoboken, NJ

      Some great writing advice and perspective here. But I'm wondering if the story about Mr. King's query rejections are accurate. If he's publishing books with one of the big 5, chances are he has an agent who is submitting on his behalf. I highly doubt King sent out query letters to publishers himself, which makes the rejections even more daunting. It likely means his agent sent out thirty non-fiction proposals that were probably read by editors, but generated little interest. And it could be that the subject of King's book (black history) played no small role in those rejections. That's not known as one of the more lucrative genres in publishing.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Bill, I've written few query letters and never remember saying thanks for response. Shame on me! Anyway, I'm referencing this article in case I get the courage to do it again. Thank you.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Writer, thanks for your thoughts. I honestly don't know....my impression was that he had no agent, but now you have me curious. Thanks for the visit.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Dora, I hope you find that courage. You are a good writer. We just need you to believe that. :) Have a great day my friend and thank you.

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 3 years ago from Hawaii

      Bill, I think all writers hoping to publish their work the traditional way will benefit from reading his hub. Thanks for sharing it!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I hope so, vkwok. This is important stuff my friend. Thank you!

    • Rebecca Furtado profile image

      Rebecca Furtado 3 years ago from Anderson, Indiana

      Interesting hub. I never would even try to write a novel. Good luck.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Rebecca, it definitely is not for everyone. Thank you! I'll need all the luck I can get.

    • Anna Haven profile image

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Really helpful advice. You clearly mapped out the structure which would be needed.

      That is exciting that your new novel is nearly at it's birth point. Good luck with your baby Bill and I am sure that the right publisher is out there. I am also sure you will find them. :)

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much, Anna! I'm not nearly as sure as you are, but I am sure this is the best book that I can write at this time. :)

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Great info once again Bill. I'm filing this one away for future reference as I am almost convinced that when I decide to try and have my work published I will be approaching 'real' agents, rather than self-publish an e-book. Thanks.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      John, you are swimming against the current for sure, and I respect that. LOL Good luck with those agents. Someone has to get one, right? It might as well be you.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks for the encouragement, Billy. You put it in such a matter-of-fact way, we can't help but believe that there is hope for each of us!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Denise, it by no means is easy, but it is doable. This is one facet we do not want to rush through. Make that query letter perfect before sending it....and good luck and thanks!

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Query letters-- I hate writing them, honestly, lol. It's like the pressure is on. You're such a wealth of great tips and information for writers. Thanks so much Billy!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Wiccan, I really appreciate you taking the time to read all of these hubs. Thank you!

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 3 years ago

      So..."Please read my book" isn't going to cut it. I have learned more about trying to get a book published from your articles than anywhere else. I guess it's a lot like a cover letter for a resume. So interesting Bill.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Exactly, Glimmer! That's a great simile and no, please read my book most likely won't get you anywhere. LOL Thank you!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for sharing the useful tips, Bill. This is another very helpful hub for writers. What a fine collection you are creating!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much, Alicia, and Happy Easter to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This all makes so much sense, and it should. A publishing agent has too much to do, so one HAS to stand out.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Indeed, Deb, and you better stand out in the first couple of sentences.

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