If you currently spend your time writing blog articles or fan fiction, publishing may eventually play a role in your career as a writer. When you do decide that publishing is the way to go, a query letter is the first step in attracting the attention of an agent or publisher. Your goal is simple: Provide just enough information to entice the reader to read your work. Your query letter should explain who you (the writer) are and what your manuscript is about and should include a request for the agent or editor to consider your work.
To give you an idea of what a successful query letter looks like, we’ve provided a query letter sample below, which you can use as a guide for writing your own. As well, here are a few simple tips:
Keep it short. Like the query letter sample, yours should be no longer than one page.
Stick to the point. You have three main areas of focus in your query letter: getting the reader’s attention, summarizing your work, and telling your reader a little about yourself (if relevant). Don’t get off on tangents or start talking about unrelated topics.
Give enough information. You’ll want to make sure you include some basic information about your book: the title, the word count (actual or estimated), the genre, and the intended audience.
Cater to your reader. Make sure you have addressed your letter to a specific agent or editor, not simply “To whom it may concern.” While we’ve blanked out these details for privacy in the query letter sample, addressing the letter personally is essential.
Edit, edit, edit! Remember that your query letter is the first impression of your manuscript. If your letter is replete with typos and grammatical errors, it’s not going to be received well. It’s always best to have a second set of eyes look over your work.
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Q. What’s the difference between an agent and an editor?
A. If you’re interested in publishing through a smaller publishing company, you will likely send your manuscript directly to the company’s acquisitions editor. If, however, you’d prefer to go with a bigger company such as Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins, you will want to address your letter to a literary agent, who will market your book for you. Your agent will be your companion along the publication journey, and a good agent will help you be successful and protect you from being taken advantage of by publishing companies. (Our query letter sample was directed to an agent.)
Q. How important is it to personalize your query letter?
A. It’s always important to personalize the letter. Make sure you address it directly to the agent or editor you’re reaching out to. How much personalization you do beyond that depends on the time you have available. For instance, the author of our query letter sample requested that we customize the letter to appeal to a specific agent based on the types of novels she generally represented, which was a great strategy. If you’re sending out 50 query letters, however, chances are that the time it would take to fully rewrite each one to give it that personal touch isn’t worth it.
The basic query letter format
Like our query letter sample, your query letter should be only a few paragraphs long and include some basic elements, although the order of those elements can vary.
Section 1: After your greeting, where you address your recipient by name, you should start off with a “hook” and summary. Your goal is to create an atmosphere that immediately draws the reader into your work. This hook might start with “when” and lead into an intriguing summary of your plot, or the main challenge your protagonist faces.
When you know your work as intimately as you do, you may struggle with trying to condense your entire story into a few sentences, so you may need to rewrite this a few times until you get something that accurately conveys the heart of your work. Think main character, conflict, internal and external struggles, and threats to resolving the conflict. Be careful not to give too much information, and never, ever reveal the ending of your book. You want to motivate your reader to open your book and delve into the story.
For example, see the summary from our query letter sample:
“Tunisia, 1983. As bloody riots engulf the streets, young Yasmine and her family flee for France. Naïve to the suffering she has left behind, she is enraptured by the sights and smells of Paris and the history of poetry and revolution that shapes the city. Over the following years, as the family returns to a more stable Tunisia, Yasmine feels torn in two halves: one trapped under the oppressive expectations of her mother, the other flitting between the boulevards of her memories. Seeking escape, she seizes an opportunity to return to Paris for university—but the reality of the city is disillusioning, and the xenophobia of her classmates, her endless financial struggles, and fleeting romantic attachments make her question whether she belongs in either society. As she faces the seeming impossibility of achieving her poetic dreams, a tragedy forces Yasmine to retreat to Tunisia once more. There, she must decide between her family and her future.”
Section 2: Your second section should include some basic information about your book—genre, intended audience, and actual or estimated word count.* You may also want to include some comparable titles from recent years to give the agent or publisher an idea of how your book might perform in the market. See the fourth paragraph of our query letter example:
“YASMINE (93,000 words) is a complete work of historical fiction, a story of mothers and daughters, and an exploration of how our dreams shape our legacies. Comparable titles are Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose and Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses.“
Section 3: Your final section should list any enclosures (synopsis, outline, etc.). A brief author bio can be included here as well if relevant. What is it about your experience and/or background that makes you qualified to write this book? Don’t be afraid to brag about your past relevant awards and publications here.
*A note on word count: In general, novels should not exceed 100,000 words. With few exceptions, agents will ignore novels longer than this.