What is a Query Letter for Getting Published?

by | Jan 10, 2024 | Book Publishing

Quick Reference Key Takeaways

  • A query letter is a one-page pitch to literary agents or publishers that introduces your book and entices them to request more material.
  • The letter must include a hook, a synopsis, and an author bio, showcasing why you and your book stand out.
  • Personalizing your query for each recipient and following submission guidelines are crucial for success.
  • A compelling query letter can be the difference between getting published or receiving a rejection.
  • Understanding the structure and purpose of a query letter is essential for any author looking to navigate the traditional publishing world.

Your Ticket to Publication: Demystifying the Query Letter

What Exactly Is a Query Letter?

Imagine standing at the gates of your dream. You’ve written your book, had it edited by a qualified professional book editor, proofread by a qualified book proofreader, and all that’s left is  getting published!

There’s a joke in the industry that goes something like this: “You think writing a book is hard, wait until you try publishing!” Thank goodness we can laugh about this today, what with all of the services we have available today under one roof, whether DIY (Do-It-Yourself) guidance or DFY (Done-For-You) services.

Still, this could be considered the eleventh hour of so much time, work, and expense. All you need is that one final step to making your book available to the world. This is the last play of the game. You’re inches from the goal line. And just like in football, you want to avoid some disastrous thing like fumbling the ball. Cringing and the thought! 

For traditional publishing—seeking a literary agent for a large publisher or reaching out to a small to mid-size publisher directly—a poorly designed query letter can make or break your chances of getting published this way. 

A query letter is your first impression; a one-page document designed to capture the interest of a literary agent or publisher. It’s your chance to sell them on your book and, by extension, on you as an author.

At its core, a query letter has three main objectives: 

  1. to introduce your book, 
  2. to explain why it’s a great fit for the agent or publisher, 
  3. and to demonstrate your own professionalism and writing ability. 

It is the equivalent of a job application cover letter, but instead of pitching your work skills, you’re pitching your storytelling/writing skills.

Sitting by a table. Doctor in formal clothes is writing in a book

Why Your Query Letter Is Crucial

Why all the fuss about a single letter? Because it’s often the only thing standing between you and your publishing dreams. A well-crafted query letter can make an agent sit up, take notice, and think, “I need to read more.” A poorly executed query can mean an instant pass. Think of it as the ultimate first impression—you rarely get a second chance to make one.

Most importantly, the query letter is your tool to avoid the dreaded slush pile—the stack of manuscripts that may never be read by an agent. It’s your foot in the door, and it’s got to be strong enough to hold that door open.

Breaking Down the Query Letter

Key Components of an Effective Query Letter

An effective query letter is made up of several main parts that come together to tell a compelling story—not just the story of your book, but the story of you as a writer. Here’s what you need to include:

  • The Hook: This is your opening line or paragraph, designed to grab the agent’s attention and make them want to read on.
  • The Synopsis: A brief overview of your book’s plot or subject matter that highlights what makes it unique and marketable.
  • The Author’s Bio: A short paragraph about you, focusing on your writing credentials and why you’re the right person to write this book.
  • The Closing: A professional sign-off that thanks the agent for their consideration and includes your contact information.

A Closer Look at the Hook

The hook is arguably the most important part of your query letter. It’s the first thing an agent will read, and if it doesn’t immediately intrigue them, it may be the only thing they read. Your hook should be a snapshot of your story’s essence, one that highlights its unique angle or the main conflict.

But how do you create a hook that’s both concise and captivating? Start with the main conflict or the most exciting element of your story. What is the thing that makes your book different from all the others on the market? That’s your hook.

Synopsis: Your Story in a Nutshell

After the hook, the synopsis is your chance to shine a spotlight on your story. Keep it tight, focus on the main plot points, and remember: this isn’t the place to reveal every twist and turn. Your goal is to provide a clear idea of the narrative arc, the characters, and what stakes are at play.

Remember, the synopsis should be a teaser, not a tell-all. It is designed to create interest. You want to leave the agent curious and eager to request your book proposal, and then your full manuscript. Because the synopsis is so critical, it’s worth spending significant time refining it. Ensure that it flows well, covers the essentials, and maintains the same voice and tone as your manuscript.

Know that it needs to be short. Part of its effectiveness is that you are not overwhelming agents or publishers with a time-consuming document. Understanding that these individuals are extremely busy, not to mention overrun with poorly written proposals and manuscripts sent by people who aren’t aware of the protocol

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The Author’s Bio: Why You?

Your author bio isn’t just a dry recitation of your writing history. This is not time to be humble. It’s a chance to show why you’re the perfect person to write your book. Include any relevant writing experience, awards, or expertise in the book’s subject matter. If you’re a new writer without many credits, that’s okay too. Focus on what drove you to write this book and any personal experiences that inform your writing. 

Keep the bio brief and to the point, and always write in the third person. This isn’t only about credentials and that you are qualified to be one of their author-clients—it’s also about establishing a connection with the agent or publisher.

Closing Remarks: The Professional Sign-off

Your closing paragraph is where you gently nudge the agent or publisher to take action. Here, you’ll want to thank them for their time and consideration, and include a call to action, such as requesting an opportunity to send your full manuscript or proposal. It’s also where you’ll provide your contact information, including your phone number, email address, and any professional website or social media profiles relevant to your writing career.

End your letter on a courteous and confident note. Remember, professionalism is key here. This isn’t just about being polite; it’s about showing that you’re serious about your craft and that you respect the publishing process.

Strategizing Your Approach

Researching Agents and Publishers

Before you send out your query letter, you need to know who you’re sending it to. Research is critical. Look for agents and publishers who specialize in your genre and are actively seeking new authors. There are many resources online, including industry databases and the acknowledgment sections of books similar to yours, where authors often thank their agents.

Understanding the tastes and portfolios of the agents you’re targeting can greatly increase your chances of success. Tailor your query to reflect this knowledge, showing that you’ve done your homework and that you’re approaching them because you believe they’re the right fit for your work.

Personalizing Your Query: The Do’s and Don’ts

Personalization is about more than just using the agent’s name. It’s about demonstrating that you understand their work and why your book could be a good addition to their list. Here’s a quick list of do’s and don’ts:

  • Do address the agent by name.
  • Do mention why you’re specifically interested in them.
  • Do reference any personal contacts or referrals.
  • Don’t send a generic, one-size-fits-all letter.
  • Don’t forget to change the agent’s name if you’re using a template.
  • Don’t make it too personal—stay professional.

Understanding Submission Guidelines

Every agent and publisher has their own set of submission guidelines, and it’s crucial that you follow them to the letter. These guidelines will often specify not only how to format your query letter but also how to send it (email or snail mail), what to include (sample chapters, synopsis), and any specific information they want from you.

Ignoring these guidelines is one of the quickest ways to get your query tossed aside. They’re in place for a reason, and following them shows that you’re attentive and respectful of the agent’s or publisher’s process.

Portrait of handsome Persian man with gray hair at the library inside modern building

Crafting a Letter That Stands Out

Captivating Openings: How to Grab Attention

The opening of your query letter should be as gripping as the first line of your book. Start with a strong hook that presents the central conflict or unique premise of your story. If you can evoke emotion or curiosity in just a few words, you’re on the right track.

Here’s an example of a strong opening hook:

“When a retired detective receives a letter from beyond the grave, he’s forced to confront a case he couldn’t solve—a case that may now claim his life.”

Building a Strong Narrative in Your Query

Your query isn’t just a dry pitch; it’s a narrative in its own right. The synopsis section should tell the story of your book in miniature, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It should highlight the stakes and give a sense of the characters and setting without getting bogged down in details.

Focus on clarity and momentum. You want the agent to feel compelled to turn the page—if only there were more pages to turn.

Language and Tone: Striking the Right Chord

The language and tone of your query letter should match the style of your book. If you’ve written a lighthearted romance, your letter can be breezy and warm. If it’s a serious historical novel, adopt a more formal tone. This helps the agent get a feel for your voice and the reading experience your book offers.

Avoid jargon and overly complex language. Clarity is your friend, and it’s important that an 8-year-old could understand what your book is about. Keep it simple, but don’t be afraid to let your unique voice shine through.

Prepping for Success Post-Query

Follow-Up Etiquette: Staying on the Radar

After you’ve sent your query, it’s a game of patience. But there’s a fine line between being persistent and being a pest. If the agent’s guidelines mention a response time, wait until that period has passed before following up. A polite nudge via email is usually acceptable, but always be courteous and professional in your communication.

Remember, agents are busy people, and a gentle reminder that you’re awaiting a response can sometimes be helpful. But if you’ve already followed up and still haven’t heard back, it’s best to move on and query other agents.

Handling Rejection: Resilience in Publishing

Rejection is an inevitable part of the publishing process, but it’s not the end of the road. Each “no” is a step closer to a “yes.” Take any feedback you receive to heart, and use it to improve your next query. Resilience is key; even the most successful authors have faced rejection at some point.

And remember, a rejection isn’t always about the quality of your work. It can be about an agent’s current workload, their list’s needs, or simply a matter of personal taste. Keep refining your query, and keep sending it out.

When They Say ‘Yes’: Next Steps

When an agent expresses interest in your work, congratulations are in order—but there’s still work to do. They’ll likely request a full manuscript or a detailed proposal, and this is your chance to shine. Make sure your manuscript is polished and professional, and send it out promptly.

From there, you’ll enter into discussions with the agent about representation. This is where you’ll talk contracts, expectations, and plans for your book’s future. It’s a thrilling step that brings you that much closer to seeing your book on shelves.

Man focused on writing in his planner, organizing tasks while working on his laptop in a home office setting.

Query Letter Template

Dissecting Successful Queries

One of the best ways to learn how to write a great query letter is to look at real examples that have worked. Another way is to have a template as a loose guide. Successful queries often share common elements: a strong hook, a clear and concise synopsis, and a professional tone. Analyzing these can give you a sense of what agents are looking for and how to format your own letter effectively.

Consider this template:

[Your Name]

[Your Address]

[City, State, ZIP Code]

[Email Address]

[Phone Number]

[Date]

[Agent’s Name]

[Agency’s Name]

[Agency’s Address]

[City, State, ZIP Code]

Dear [Agent’s Name],

I hope this letter finds you well. My name is [Your Name], and I am writing to you because of your reputation for representing talented authors in [genre or category]. After researching and admiring your work with [specific author or book], I am confident that you would be the perfect advocate for my debut novel, [Title of Your Novel].

[Optional: Provide a brief personalized connection, if applicable, such as having met the agent at a conference or hearing them speak at an event.]

[Include a concise and engaging paragraph about your novel. Highlight its unique premise, main characters, and the emotional journey readers will experience. Mention any relevant awards or writing credentials you may have.]

I believe [Title of Your Novel] aligns well with your literary interests, as it combines [elements of your novel] with a fresh perspective that sets it apart in the market. The story is [briefly describe the plot] and explores themes of [mention any relevant themes or topics].

[Include a paragraph about yourself, emphasizing your writing background, any publications, and your unique qualifications to write this particular book. If applicable, mention any writing groups, workshops, or degrees related to your craft.]

Enclosed, please find [a partial or full manuscript, or the number of sample pages requested in the agent’s submission guidelines]. I have also included [a self-addressed stamped envelope / a pre-paid return label] for your convenience.

Thank you very much for considering my submission. I am excited about the prospect of working with you and appreciate your time and attention to my query. I look forward to the possibility of discussing [Title of Your Novel] further.

Sincerely,

[Your Name]

– – – – –

This template can give you a blueprint for success, but remember to infuse your query with your own voice and style. Your book is unique, and your query should be too.

Learning from Common Query Mistakes

Just as it’s important to study successful query letters, it’s equally important to learn from common mistakes. These can include being too vague in your synopsis, failing to include a hook, or not adhering to submission guidelines. By avoiding these pitfalls, you’ll increase your chances of crafting a letter that gets noticed.

Keep refining, keep learning. If the opportunity arises, ask a rejecting agent or publisher how you might improve your query letter for future inquiries. You can get invaluable input from them. And above all, keep believing in your book. With a strong query letter in hand, you’re well on your way to publishing success.

Happy man posing with his arms crossed in front of a bookshelf at home

FAQ

Is a query letter the same for fiction and nonfiction works?

While the purpose of a query letter is the same for both fiction and nonfiction—to garner interest from agents or publishers—the content may differ slightly. Fiction queries typically focus on the narrative, characters, and plot, while nonfiction queries emphasize the author’s expertise, the book’s marketability, and its unique angle on the subject matter.

What are typical reasons a query letter gets rejected?

Common reasons for query letter rejection include a lack of a clear hook, a confusing or lengthy synopsis, a generic or impersonal approach, and not following submission guidelines. Other factors can be outside the author’s control, such as an agent’s current workload or their personal preference in book genres.

How long should my query letter be?

A query letter should typically be no more than one page long. This equates to about 250-300 words when formatted correctly. Keeping it concise ensures that you respect the agent’s time and increases the likelihood that they will read your entire letter.

Can I query multiple agents or publishers at once?

Yes, it is common and acceptable to query multiple agents or publishers simultaneously. However, you should always mention in your query if you are doing so. This is known as a simultaneous submission and is generally accepted in the industry, as long as you are transparent about it.

Should I include my entire manuscript with my query letter?

Absolutely not. This would breech protocol and have you seen as someone who hasn’t done their homework. You should not include your entire manuscript with your query letter unless specifically requested in the submission guidelines. Typically, agents will request a query letter first, and if interested, they will follow up to ask for more material, such as sample chapters or the full manuscript.

You have other options for publishing as well, including self-publishing and going with a small reliable publisher. Be alert to “vanity presses” as they are not traditional publishers and are outfits you need to stay away from. There are pros and cons to all publishing options, and you should know which one is best for you, based on your goals.

Feel free to reach out to us for consulting about your best publishing option here: https://writerservices.net/contact-us/ 

To your success!

Robert Nahas, Founder

Copyright 2024 by Robert Nahas. All Rights Reserved.

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