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 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Others use a generic ID (email@example.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.