If you decide to pursue representation by a literary agent or a contract with a publisher on your own, you will need two documents: a query letter and a book proposal. Both agents and acquisitions editors need to see a query letter prior to requesting a manuscript or a proposal. If written well, this letter will compel them to ask you if they can read more of your work. At that point you will send a proposal, a manuscript or both.
What Goes Into a Query Letter?
A query letter is a one-page description of your book and you. For most nonfiction, the contents of a query letter can be summarized in three points:
- Why this book?
- Why now?
- Why you?
For fiction, the contents of a query contain a brief synopsis of the book and information on the author.
To write a killer query, you need a letter with three basic paragraphs.
Paragraph 1: A lead or hook
Much like the first paragraph in a magazine or newspaper article or even the first page in a book, a query starts with an introduction that grabs the reader, in this case a literary agent or acquisitions editor at a publishing house. This first paragraph—or even the first sentence or two—must hook the reader and make them want to read on. I suggest you include the most compelling idea, attractive benefit or emotionally charged solution you will provide in your book. You might be able to do this simply by using the first paragraph of your book, if you have accomplished this same feat in the manuscript. You might also tie the topic of your book into a statistic that proves the market for your book. For fiction, you will need to set the scene or provide some sort of action that immediately brings the reader into the book and leaves them wanting to read more.
Paragraph 2: Book pitch
In this paragraph of your query letter, write a pitch for your book. For nonfiction, this should be 50 words or less that describe the essence of your book. (You don’t have to count the title of your book in the word count, and if you write nonfiction you may find the subtitle actually may work well as a description.) For fiction, this could be a bit longer. (It can be followed by a brief additional paragraph of synopsis.) Try to include the benefits of your book, if applicable. Consider comparing your book to one or two books, movies or authors you feel are similar. Include your book’s largest market, as well as the book’s actual or estimated length. You can also mention if someone has agreed to write the foreword, if you have cover quotes, the titles to additional books (if this is one in a series), and information on a self-published version (if you have sold enough copies to make the numbers attractive to a publisher).
Paragraph 3: Explain why you are the best person to write this book
Paragraph three contains a short bio explaining why you are the perfect author for this particular book. Include information on your education, expert status, your credentials, experience in your field, etc. Also, briefly describe what you are doing are have done to create an author’s platform, and include numbers if they’re impressive. You can add links to pertinent sites and written work online.
These three paragraphs make up the foundation of a query. Traditionally, a query should be one page in length; however, I’ve also heard good reviews for longer queries that offer more information.
You can include anything else in your query that will convince agents to ask to see your proposal. For example:
- a brief paragraph prior to the actual lead that mentions why you are contacting this specific agent or the name of someone who suggested you contact the agent
- an author who acknowledged the agent in a book
- where you heard the agent speak
- a conference where you might be able to meet the agent in the future or where you have met the agent previously
- if you met the agent at a pitch session and were told to submit a query mention that fact right up front
- a fourth concluding paragraph to thank the agent for his or her time and to say a proposal and/or manuscript is available upon request (mention the proposal’s length and how many pages of manuscript currently are completed)
This information can be included in the last paragraph of your query letter.
Here are four more tips you might find useful when sending a query letter:
- Be sure you edit and proofread your query letter; typos and misspellings will eliminate your chances of receiving a request to “see more.”
- Choose your agents and publishers carefully.
- Research how the agent or editor wants to receive your query; most prefer emailed letters these days.
- Only send simultaneous submissions to those agents who allow it, and consider whether or not this practice is one you want to pursue.
Last, know that many successful authors received many rejections letters in response to their query letters before receiving even one positive response. So keep a positive outlook and have tenacity. Remain objective and put all feedback to use to improve your project.