In the United States, a query letter refers to a note sent to literary agents to gauge their interest in representing the author. In the UK and Ireland, they call such a query letter a “covering letter.”
These are not to be confused with a “query” or a “pitch” submitted to editors of magazines, journals or other kinds of publications. While both serve a similar purpose, which is getting a piece of writing published, they are different in structure and details. The former pertains to a book-length manuscript and the latter to a much shorter one, such as a journalistic or feature article.
In this article, we’ll discuss the query letter sent to literary agents and book publishers.
How does a query letter differ from a book proposal?
First things first, a query letter is a letter, not a full-fledged proposal. It contains only approximately 350 to 600 words designed to entice editors to read the accompanying manuscript.
We’ll discuss preparing a book proposal in a separate article.
Now let’s discuss the best practice in query letters that are key in increasing the chances of getting your manuscript published.
The elements of query letters
Identify where your book would fit into the publishing industry. Mention the genre or category, sub-category, word count, title, and subtitle. Providing this information allows the agent/editor to quickly grasp what the manuscript is about, especially where the title fits in the big picture.
You can include examples of best-selling or award-winning published books in that genre or category, but make sure not to sound overly pushy. Your query letters should sound as objective as possible. Remember, it’s a sales tool, yet it shouldn’t sound sales-y.
Next, include a hook, which is the meat of the query. Approximately 100 to 250 words will be sufficient. Then add a brief author’s bio.
Specific elements of a fiction query letter
Ideally, a fiction manuscript should be completed before you offer it to agents and publishers. In a nutshell, the word count is around 100,000. For a debut novel, anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 words is the norm.
A fiction query letter must hook the literary agent or acquisition editor with an engaging protagonist whose conflicts or choices are as impressive as the plot. When describing this, you can include some information on the “world” as well, if your story is set anywhere other than present-day reality.
Specific elements of a non-fiction query letter
To pitch non-fiction manuscripts, have at least three chapters and a book proposal ready to go. You don’t need to prepare the full manuscript in advance.
While being able to send the letter before completing the whole manuscript sounds less intimidating, querying a non-fiction manuscript has its challenges. In general, there are two types of non-fiction works: narrative-driven and information-driven. Each category has its specifics to adhere to.
Narrative-driven works include memoir, biography, autobiography, and narratives about an incident or event. Information-driven works include investigative journalism, how-to, self-help, business, reference, and illustrated books.
No matter the category, you should include the genre/category, word count, title and subtitle. Describe its unique selling proposition and the target readership, including their marketing persona(s) and other demographic information, like age, hobby, interest, and profession. Your author bio and credentials should also be included.
Ideally, before you have any book published, you will have a readership platform, which can be a blog, a YouTube channel, or social media accounts. Let’s say you have a blog with 230,000 newsletter subscribers or a YouTube channel with 125,000 followers. These are excellent platforms to market your books.
The importance of the “one-sentence summary”
The one-sentence summary is both the unique selling proposition and the “soul” of the book in one sentence. Include the specific thing that makes it unique among hundreds, or even thousands, of competing manuscripts.
In fiction works, the protagonist and his or her conflicts must be worthy of attention. The choices he or she must make in handling the central conflict, and the secondary conflicts, should make up exciting plots. The less predictable the plots, the better.
Include the “irresistible” conflicts and plots in the one-sentence summary whenever possible. If you can mesmerize the agent/editor, it will increase your chances of getting acquired.
For non-fiction works, the author’s social media accounts and blog are considered “platforms” to amplify the marketing effort. Thus, it’s a good idea to build a strong following before pitching the manuscript to a publisher.
Set your query apart with 500,000 social media followers, for instance. If you’re a YouTuber, you can collaborate with fellow YouTubers. If you have a podcast, start interviewing social media influencers. This can help you build your own following.
What a “strong introduction” looks like
A strong introduction includes both the one-sentence summary and the research you’ve done on the topic. If it’s a fiction work, you can tie it to classic or best-selling books with similar storylines and plots. If it’s a non-fiction work, include the market expectation or “hidden” and “overlooked” demands.
The key is stating an unpredictable narrative, or surprising facts or statistics. Anything unusual, or even shocking, will catch the agent/editor’s attention.
Other vital tips
The appropriate length of a query letter is approximately 1 to 2 pages, single-spaced. Tighten your writing and keep things simple. Conciseness matters as it’s an early indication of your manuscript’s quality.
Personalize the letter and make sure that it sounds genuine and professional. Avoid anything that would “cheapen” the overall tone, like being cutesy or overly humorous.
Be professional and use standard business communication to show respect. Use a polite greeting with the full name of the agent or the editor. If you’ve done your research but cannot locate their name, be polite and address the organization’s name. Close it by thanking them and include your email address and phone number.
Mention any books written by you that were previously published or represented by literary agents. However, do so with humility and a lot of grace. Refrain from bragging, even if you’ve won some awards, by using a neutral tone.
No need to mention that you’re querying simultaneously. You’re only obliged to disclose that you’re submitting to multiple agents or publishers when they request to see the whole manuscript (for non-fiction) or want to proceed to the next level (for fiction).
Things NOT to do
The above tips are what to do. Now let’s discuss things never to do. They’re often overlooked, so be aware of them.
The word count for fiction works is preferred to be 100,000 words or less. Any work of more than 100,000 can raise a red flag. For non-fiction work, you can mention the estimated word count. A business textbook, for instance, can be of hundreds of thousands of words.
Never mention your work history unless it’s directly related to writing fiction or the topic of your non-fiction work. For instance, if you’re an MFA professor teaching romance writing and you’ve written a steamy novel, mentioning your work boosts your profile. However, if you’re a project manager who’s moonlighting as a novelist, keep it to yourself.
Never comment on the quality of your manuscript. The query letter should show how good a writer you are. Praising your work is a big turnoff to many agents/editors, as it will be perceived as arrogant.
Never request a face-to-face meeting to an agent or editor. It will make you sound desperate and unprofessional. However, if the agent or the acquisition editor is coming to a conference or a book exhibition, you may mention that you’re attending. In this case, ask politely whether they have slots for scheduled meetings.
Never state “visit blog for more information” or something of that sort. Most agents/editors will google your name anyway and search for your social media accounts to locate what you’ve been discussing about and how popular you are.
Finally, being yourself in writing the query letter is always recommended. Agents and editors love authors who know their strengths and what they can offer to readers. Show them that your uniqueness is marketable and you are telling stories worth reading about. After all, all authors – both fiction and non-fiction – are storytellers.
Tell your stories right. Start with the query letter.