How to write a Query letter for your book?

I wrote several hundred query letters and sent them to a whole lot of literary agents and publishers. ‘Several hundred’ refers more to the variations of a basic format, rather than hundred distinctly different formats. It was more of an experimentation and fine-tuning process where I made minor alterations after every few submissions.

One of those query letters got me a great literary agent and subsequently a publishing contract with a top tier publisher. I can’t call myself an expert at writing query letters, but after having gone through the drill so many times, I can share some basics that you can use as a starting point to create variations that work for your book.

Read the Query Letter FAQ post first.

How long should a query letter be?

A good query letter will not be more than a page long. Literary agencies and publishers just don’t have the patience for anything that’s too long. For writers this can be a challenge. Completing a 60,000 word novel is quite different from writing a 1-page query letter as it requires a completely different mindset and skillset.

Why? While writing the book, you focused mainly on the creative aspects. For query letters, you’ll have to put yourself in the shoes of the publishing house or literary agency and think about why they would sign you up.

What should the query letter contain?

You could break up the query letter into the following sections:

Section 1: The ‘Why’ part

This is the hook for your query letter. So cut to the chase quickly and mention why you are approaching the agency or publishing house. Mention the genre, the word-count of the book and whether it is complete. The last point is important for fiction. Non-fiction publishers may be more receptive to concepts rather than completed manuscripts.

If there are other related projects in the pipeline, mention about them in short. Potential one-hit wonders are less attractive than authors who can churn out consistently good work over a longer period of time.

Many have special email IDs created specifically to receive query letters (query@literaryagency123.com). Others use a generic ID (contact@literaryagency123.com). So some prefer having ‘QUERY LETTER’ mentioned in the subject line of the email.

Section 2: The ‘What’ part

This is where you give the reader a sneak peek into your book. A short paragraph should capture the entire essence of your book. Take the hook from the previous section and build on it.

Keep it short, snappy and interesting. This can be the toughest part and there’s no formula based approach you can use here. You know your book better than anyone else. So start off with a draft, share it with folks who know you (and don’t know you, if you want brutally honest feedback) and then get back to the drawing board to update it.

Section 3: The ‘Why You’ part

It’s easy for many to write a book and label themselves as writers & authors. But it’s tougher to write a good book that will also sell. So give the agents and publishers the assurance that you not only have the talent, but you also know the publishing business well. AND a strong reason why your book will sell!

If you have had any experience in the writing field, if you’ve won competitions in a related genre or you have been published in a popular (or for that matter niche) magazine, these are good things to mention. Keep it short, though and don’t paste your resume in there.

Section 4: The ‘Thank You’ part

Words constraints need not mean that you skip being nice. Literary agents are busy folks and the good ones are trying hard to keep their existing authors happy. So thank them for their time.

Do not push them into a corner by giving deadlines to respond back. Once the query letter has been sent out, you don’t need to constantly chase them. Allow them time to go through their pending emails.

Getting the query letter right is the best thing you can do for your book. So start working on it early.

19 Comments

  1. I had a question. For the query letter, in Section 3 where authors needs to do a little bragging about themselves – what if you do not have any previous publications or anything outstanding about your writing career?

    I was reading a good sample query letter in the Writer’s Market 2012 and it seemed more geared for someone who is a member of writing organization and has published X-amount of books/articles and saved babies from a burning fire, you know? 🙂 LOL

    Any advice to us real newbies? They say not to mention that you are fresh meat but then they say to just skip the entire section if you have nothing fantastic to share.

    So what does one really say? Thanks in advance for any advice! I am so stuck at the query letter part that it’s giving me a migraine.

  2. Sameer says:

    Rebekah,

    I was exactly in the same situation. No track record whatsoever in the commercial writing field.

    I’d look at the query letter as something that tells the agent/publisher – who you are, what (relevant stuff) have you done, and what you can do for the book AFTER it has been published.

    So even if you haven’t got any articles or books published, you don’t necessarily have to leave the entire section empty. You could still mention about any platform (e.g. your blog) that gets you several hundred (or thousand) readers each month.

    For those who genuinely have nothing to say, then it’s better to skip that part and hope the reviewer sees tremendous potential in the writing alone and is willing to take bets on the market potential.

    Btw, I got rejected by most publishers because I did not have platform. That’s when I realized, it’s no fun staying in a bubble and hoping that my MBA book would have takers purely on the basis of the content and writing quality.

  3. Smitha says:

    Hi Sameer,

    I am trying to put a Mangalorean cookbook together.

    I would really like to get the query letter spot on to pitch to agents as well as publishers.Can you help?

    Thanks
    Smitha

  4. Sameer says:

    Smitha,

    Apart from sharing my experiences on this blog, I’m afraid I can’t help on an individual basis.

  5. Sudesh says:

    I need to know, How much I have to pay to literary agent? I want to ask one more thing, Partridge india is asking for 50000 /- to publish my novel. Is that right? I contacted them directly without having any agent.

  6. Sameer says:

    Sudesh,

    You don’t need to pay Literary Agents. They get paid (by the publishers) only when you do.

    Traditional publishers won’t ask you to pay either. Only vanity publishers do.

    Read more about Vanity Publishers in various forms.

  7. Ankit Khandelwal says:

    Hi,
    Is there a sample query letter that you can share for our reference. We would be very glad if you could share your one as well that you must have send for the sake of guidance. i know i might be asking for too much, but may be i am really overwhelmed to see how graciously you have helped and guided people.

  8. Sameer says:

    Ankit,

    You can find several sample query letters if you do a Google search.

    The format / content could change based on the genre. So there’s no single best format that works for everyone.

  9. R. V. NAGARAJAN says:

    Dear Sameer,
    What is the difference between Query letter and Synopsis?
    Regards,
    Nagarajan R. V.

  10. Sameer says:

    Nagarajan,

    A query letter is a marketing proposal.

    A synopsis tells the buyer what the product is about.

    In the blog post above, the synopsis would be section 2 in your query letter.

  11. Subhajit says:

    Hello Sameer,

    Could you provide some insight on two publishers. Roli Books and Tara Books.

  12. @Subhajit: Sorry, I can’t provide publisher specific insights.

    You’ll have to do your own research to find how they are perceived in the market for the genre that you want to publish in. Reach out to authors published by them and ask relevant questions.

    Do they have a good editorial team to do justice to your topic? Do they have a good distribution network?

  13. swadeshna roy says:

    Dear sameer, I have written a sci fi dystopian world young adult novel. I want it to be published in the international market. Say u.s.a? How to make it work? Which literary agency to consider n publishing house to look for? Plz help thank you.

  14. @Swadeshna: Compared to the barely-existent literary agent scene in India, there are many literary agencies abroad. You’ll find databases with listing of agencies, their agents, their published works and contact details. Spend some time trying to find the agents who fit your genre and writing style.

  15. swadeshna roy says:

    Dear Sameer, could u please help me by recommending some names;I really need ur guidance. Thank u.

  16. R. V. NAGARAJAN says:

    Dear Sameer,

    I am in this situation:
    I submitted my proposal to almost 40 publishing companies in India three months ago; and I didn’t get any reply from any of them which meant they had rejected me, as they have mentioned in their acknowledgement reply saying, ‘If no reply from us, consider it a big no’….
    So, now I must understand that it is a big NO from all those 40 houses.

    WHAT MUST I DO NOW?

    I’m really stuck.
    Help me..

    [P.S.: I read somewhere that Amish Tripathi also had faced the same situation (got rejected by around 30 houses) for his ‘Immortals of Meluha’ and then he used his marketing techniques such as ‘Trailer’, ‘First Chapter Free PDF’, etc. and then he got a publishing house.]

    Regards,
    R. V. NAGARAJAN

  17. ISHA says:

    Hello Sameer, most of the publishing houses clearly mention that they require a proposal which includes a detailed synopsis and two/three chapters. Query letters are not mentioned anywhere. I was wondering whether query letters need to be sent along with the aforementioned documents or only when they have specifically asked for it? Sorry if the questions seem too obvious, I am a complete noob in the field of publishing. Thanks in advance.

  18. Reema M. says:

    Dear Sameer,
    Some agencies ask for chapter breakdown along with the query letter, synopsis, three sample chapters and the author bio.
    What comes in chapter breakdown? Can you please explain what should be the format of chapter breakdown. And do they expect chapter breakdown for all the chapters in the manuscript or for those three sample chapters?
    Plz, discuss this. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *