How to Write a Great Query Letter

Many authors approach writing a book proposal or query letter with as much nail-biting nervousness as a marriage proposal. Like any serious relationship, writing a book is an investment that requires commitment, hard work, and the occasional pint of ice cream to help get you through the rough patches. After all that, you don’t want to botch the proposal. Asking an agent to help publish your book is not something to half-ass. Luckily, we have some tips to coach you through the query-writing process to help you land those nine little words: “I do think your book is worth my time.”

Do Agents Actually Read Proposals and Queries?

Yes! Agents are always on the lookout for new talent. But they only respond to queries that pique their interest. To increase your chance of rising to the top of the pile, be sure to do your homework, read the agent’s website, and follow their guidelines. Send your proposal/letter to the appropriate agent. Some agents don’t work with fiction. Others specialize in cat mysteries or historical sagas about lusty barbarians. Peruse agency websites to help narrow down your list of potential agents that are right for your book.

Book Proposal or Query Letter?

If your book is nonfiction, then you will need to supply a proposal of 5–50 pages summarizing the book you plan to write. Did you catch that? You do not need to have written the whole book before sending a proposal. We’ll save the nitty-gritty details for another post, but in a nutshell, a book proposal should include an overview of the book’s contents, a section outlining the marketing plan, a description of the target audience, an analysis of competitive titles in the marketplace, a brief author biography, and a writing sample of the book’s content.

If you’ve written a book of fiction, then a query letter is in order. Write the book; then send the letter. Do not send a query letter until you’ve prepared a completed manuscript. And by “completed” we mean the best, most polished version you can possibly produce. This is no place for drafts.

How Do I Write a Query Letter?

A query letter is a one-page cover letter describing you and your book. It should include a well-crafted hook and marketing angle, a concise summary of the plot, and a flattering bio about yourself—in one page. This may feel as daunting as fitting a life-size ship into a bottle. But fear not, we’re here to help. Behold our three-paragraph formula to draft the perfect letter:

Paragraph One: The Hook

Introduce your book with an intriguing, succinct description of what your book is about. This is your elevator pitch. Boil your book down to its very essence, no matter how complicated the plot line, the depth of the historical framework, or the variety of scintillating characters. Here’s an example:

The Kite Runner An epic tale of fathers and sons, of friendship and betrayal, that takes us from Afghanistan in the final days of the monarchy to the atrocities of the present.

If you’re still feeling stumped, try using what agentquery.com calls the “when” formula: “When such and such event happens, your main character—a descriptive adjective, age, professional occupation—must confront further conflict and triumph in his or her own special way.” Example:

The Corrections When family patriarch Alfred Lambert enters his final decline, his wife and three adult children must face the failures, secrets, and long-buried hurts that haunt them as a family if they are to make the corrections that each desperately needs.

Paragraph Two: The Synopsis

What’s harder than writing a 400-page novel? Summarizing it in 150 words. So go pour yourself a stiff drink and wrestle it out. Then ask a spouse, a friend, an editor, or writing colleague to read it and critique it. Ask yourself and other people these questions: 1) Does it stay true to the story line? 2) Is it compelling to the reader? 3) Is it concise? The back covers of your favorite books can serve as good inspiration. Once you’ve written your synopsis, go back and revise, trim, and edit until you have 150 words.

Paragraph Three: The Bio

Phew! It’s smooth sailing from here. Now just tell the agent a little about yourself. Highlight your professional successes and credentials. Never been published? Didn’t earn a schmancy MFA? Haven’t won a literary award? No worries—at least your bio will be short, which will save room for your plot synopsis. If you have hobbies or experience relevant to your subject matter, mention them. If your scuba-diving hero spends most of the book braving the perils of deep-sea exploration, and you happen to be a marine biologist and certified scuba diver, include that. But don’t just throw that stuff in there for the sake of sounding cool. Finally, do you have a blog or other social-media platform that relates to your writing? Mention it. If you don’t, start one!

Your Closing

End your letter by thanking the agent for her time and consideration and, if you’re a fiction writer, let her know you have a full manuscript available upon request. Follow up once and only once if you receive no response. Give it a couple weeks in case the agent is behind on her e-mail. If you still don’t hear anything, move on.

Want to read an actual query letter before you write one? Check out examples at www.agentquery.com. Or, read Your Novel Proposal: From Creation to Contract by Blythe Camenson and Marshall J. Cook.