What is a query letter?
Basically, a query letter is a one-page letter of introduction sent to a potential publisher or agent that gives the recipient a succinct description of the manuscript you want to send him or her. You can send a query letter before finishing (or even starting) your work, or you can send it after completion along with a couple of chapters or your full text.
Your query letter is your best—and sometimes only—opportunity to create interest in your masterpiece and should be taken seriously. Even if you choose to include all or a portion of your manuscript with your letter, if your query letter doesn’t grab your reader’s attention, he or she won’t even bother with the enclosures. So what query letter format should you use to showcase your work?
Since your letter should be brief (no longer than one page) and to the point, you don’t want to mince words. We’ve put together an outline of the ideal query letter format, which gives enough information to pique the recipient’s interest in your work without giving too much away.
The best query letter format
If the agent you’re writing to has specific query letter formatting guidelines, those should always take precedence over any other recommendations. Your query letter should include the following four basic components, although the order does not necessarily have to remain the same.
1. Novel introduction
Here, it’s important to get straight to the point. In a few brief sentences, provide a clear description of your manuscript’s genre and the audience it might appeal to. This is not the place to make generalized statements, quote well-known authors, or be vague about your work.
Effective introduction: Included with this letter are two sample chapters of my completed mystery novel about a detective who is thrown into the investigation of a cold case that leads him to the center of a dangerous undercover operation. This book will appeal to young adult and adult audiences who enjoy suspense and action.
Ineffective introduction: As the famous writer Herman Melville once said, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” This is exactly what I have done in my novel about World War II. Read all about it in my attached sample chapters.
While you might include a longer synopsis or outline of your manuscript, you have the opportunity here to provide a brief outline of your story’s plot or your nonfiction work’s main idea. Remember that the best query letter format is two or three paragraphs, so limit your synopsis to a description of one or two of the main characters, the primary setting(s), and the basic plot outline. Describing some of the challenges the characters face will help pull your reader into your story. For nonfiction works, describe your main arguments and how they build on or challenge the existing literature on your topic.
3. Information about you
Once you’ve told your reader about your work, it’s time to talk about yourself a little. What makes you qualified to write this manuscript? Here, you can list your past publications, relevant education, and any life experience that relates to your work.
4. Expression of appreciation
You’ll want to close with a short statement of appreciation to your reader for his or her time in reviewing your query letter. If you didn’t include any sample chapters with your letter, you can offer to send those or your finished manuscript. You’ll also want to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope as a courtesy if you would like a reply.
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Tips to maximize the success of your query letter
1. Do your homework. Make sure you’re sending your query letter to the right person. If you’ve finished a science fiction novel, sending your letter to an agent who specializes in biographies probably isn’t going to get you anywhere. And remember to personalize your letter. Don’t address your letter “To whom it may concern.” Use the agent or editor’s name. If you’ve met the recipient, you can reference that meeting and tailor your letter for more personal appeal.
2. Use professional formatting. Your letter should be printed in black ink on white paper and use a standard font, such as 12 pt. Times New Roman. The standard query letter format includes the name of the recipient, the name of the agency or publishing house and its address, and your own name and contact information.
3. Include a word count. When you’re describing your finished work, include an actual or estimated word count. This gives your reader an idea of the length of your manuscript so he or she isn’t bombarded with a 300-page manuscript after expecting a brief 20-page article.
4. Set your work apart. Be sure to tell your agent or editor why your work deserves publication over someone else’s. What makes it unique?
5. Don’t give away the ending. Remember, your goal with your query letter is to hook your reader, not tell him or her everything that happens. Nobody wants to read a book after finding out the ending. Entice and excite, but don’t spill the beans.
The following is an example of the standard query letter format. Notice the letter’s brevity and the inclusion of a summary, a description of the genre and audience the book appeals to, information about the author, and a note of appreciation.