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Getting Published: What Is a Query Letter?

You might be asking, what is a query letter? If you’re an aspiring author, the answer is that a query letter is your first impression to agents and publishers.

The process generally works like this: A literary agent reads a query letter, and if the agent is interested in the manuscript, he or she will request a sample (such as a few chapters or the full book) from the author. If the agent thinks the manuscript has potential for strong sales, he or she may represent the author and, for a percentage of the author’s eventual earnings, work to get the book picked up by a publisher.

The first step, as you can see, is the query letter.

What makes an effective query letter?

In short, a query letter pitches your writing to potential publishers or agents. Query letters are used for all forms of writing, from magazine articles and short stories to longer pieces such as novels, nonfiction works, screenplays, etc. When writing a query letter, you can use the following questions as a checklist:

1. What is a query letter meant to look like? This is the basic format:

  • One-inch margins

  • 12 pt. font (if typed)

  • A single page

2. What is a query letter meant to contain? Obviously, you need to include your contact information, but most importantly, your letter should include three main components:

  • A hook. This is what piques the interest of agents and publishers. An effective hook will sum up your book in a single sentence.

  • Your pitch. This provides two to three paragraphs of supporting evidence for the hook. For example, the pitch for a novel might flesh out the story more, adding more details and descriptions. (You can read the blurbs on the back covers of popular books for good examples.) The pitch for a nonfiction book might outline the book’s content, show a need for the information, and provide a unique selling proposition.

  • Your bio. This describes your writing experience and your visibility as an author. It explains how you will be able to boost sales of your book through personal contacts, reputation, media contacts, etc. If you’re just starting, don’t feel compelled to embellish the truth. A one-sentence bio is acceptable if you have limited experience.

Don’t forget to include the title of your work, its word count (an estimate is acceptable if the work is unfinished), and its genre. You might also mention specific reasons why you’ve queried the particular agent or publishing house you’re writing to.

3. What is a query letter meant to achieve? The goal of your query letter is for publishers or agents to request more from you—sample chapters, a more extensive proposal, or even your entire manuscript.

If you need more guidance on crafting a hook, pitch, and bio for your query letter, we can help.

Things that don’t belong in a query letter

We’ve discussed elements of an effective query letter, but what is a query letter not meant to do? Here are some things to avoid in your communication with agents and editors:

  • How much you, your family, your friends, and your coworkers like your manuscript. Your writing needs to speak for itself.

  • The fact that you’ve never been published or that this is your first book. The recipient will assume this unless you say otherwise.

  • The revenue potential of your book. You can and should describe the target audience, but it’s up to the agent or publisher to judge how marketable your book is.

Sending your query letter

Your query letter will be more successful if you send it to the appropriate place:

  • For short stories, poems, and articles, send your letter to a magazine or online publication editor.

  • For fiction and nonfiction book manuscripts, send your letter to a literary agent or a book publisher.

  • For poem or short story anthologies, query literary agents and book publishers, though you will need a substantial portfolio of published work to get their attention.

Be sure to follow any specific instructions on the agent’s or publisher’s website when submitting your letter.

What is an appropriate tone?

Each literary agent, book publisher, or magazine editor will have a different idea of what makes an effective query letter. Most will prefer a letter with a professional tone. Others will respond to something more unique. Some will prefer letters that follow conventions, and others will reward those that don’t. A good strategy is to study many examples of query letters and find a style that feels authentic and genuine to you.

Querying literary agents

When you send query letters to literary agents, remember the following: First, make sure the agent represents the kind of books you write. If you’re a true crime writer, you don’t want to send queries to agents who deal in science fiction. Second, mention why your work is similar to work the agent has represented in the past (mention these books by name). This will let the agent know you’ve done your homework and that yours is not a blind query.

One caveat about agents: Authors should never pay agents up front. They earn their money by representing you and selling your book to publishers. Additionally, legitimate literary agents generally do not need to advertise, as they have more than enough submissions to keep them busy. Be wary of any agencies that run ads.

Let us assist you in querying agents and publishers. Order your query letter package today.



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