I created this blog to prioritize writing more so than publishing, but publishing is a MASSIVE reason why we write. So it would be super unhelpful of me not to discuss publishing at all. Whether you want to share your work, see your name on a bookshop shelf, or fund your writing habit, publishing most likely plays some kind of role in every writer’s journey.
I have plans to do a series of publishing posts over time. Since my experience is with traditional publishing (not self-published) I’m going to keep my focus there.
Now, let’s take a look at the query letter. First, some basics:
What is a query letter?
A query letter is a letter that writers send out to agents or editors explaining who they are, what their book is about, and asks either agents to represent them or editors to publish their book.
Who needs a query letter?
Pretty much every writer who wants to be traditionally published. Query letters are used to get the attention of agents and editors. If you’re hoping for a bigger publishing house (Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillian, HarperCollins, etc) you need an agent to get your book to an editor. However, there are some smaller houses will take submissions directly from authors–if that’s a direction you’re interested in going. Generally speaking, you’ll need a query letter either way.
If you can go right to an editor, then do you really need an agent?
As far as I’m concerned, yes. Yes, you really do. Sure, if you’re looking for a smaller house, you can sometimes query the house or editor directly, and if your only goal is to be published, then this is definitely an option for you. But if you’re looking to build a career, I wouldn’t recommend forging those waters without an agent (and I personally can’t imagine doing so). A good agent knows the industry and will put you in the best position to succeed. They will also protect you and make sure you don’t get taken advantage of. They’re basically a teammate. Additionally, bigger publishing houses won’t look at your work without an agent, so if that’s the kind of book deal you’re looking for, you won’t get there on your own.
Now that that’s out of the way, here’s the rundown for writing a successful query letter:
1) The Format
A basic query letter is going to be three paragraphs and consist of a hook, synopsis, and bio. It’s generally pretty straight forward and absolutely should not be more than a page. I’m going to walk you through each step, but as we move on, if you want to take a closer look/see some different examples here’s the format explained on AgentQuery.com, which was the source I used to write my first query letter.
If you do some internet searching, you may come across some formats that have the third paragraph first. If you want to format yours this way, that’s absolutely okay. I’ve seen plenty of successful query letters that were set up like that. However, my experience (and personal preference) is the hook, synopsis, bio sequence, so that’s what I’m going to walk you through.
Dear Mr./Ms. [Agent name] is a perfectly fine way to start your letter. Address the agent you’re querying directly and don’t over think it. (I definitely over-thought it).
3) Hook your reader
Once you’ve greeted your reader, you’re going to dive right in. This pitch should start immediately with the first paragraph, which is the hook.
I like to compare both this paragraph and the synopsis to what you would read on the back cover of a published book. Your hook should be it’s own 1-2 sentence paragraph that introduces your main character, hints at what makes your book special, and/or adds enough intrigue that would make your reader want to see more.
Once you have your reader hooked, you need to tell them a little about the story so they actually want to pick up the book and read it. Truth: I found this and the hook to be REALLY HARD! After spending a year writing the entire book and understanding the nuances of the main plot and numerous underlying storylines, condensing it all into nine sentences was painful!
If you struggle with this too, I suggest doing your very best to focus on the heart of your story. Who is your main character? What’s the main conflict? What does your main character struggle with internally and externally? What is a direct threat to the character?
You don’t have to give your whole story away in your query, but you want to entice your reader to open the book and read, just like the back copy of a book jacket would do. There may be several subplots that seem really important to you that don’t make the letter. That’s okay!! As long as what you’ve written captures the heart of the story, it’s a letter you can seriously consider submitting.
5) Add info about your book including title, genre, and word count
The third paragraph has two parts. Part One is about your book. Tell your reader the title, the age group (Middle Grade/Young Adult/Adult etc), the genre (thriller, fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, etc), and estimated word count. If you see this book as the start of a series, this would also be the time to mention that.
6) Say why you’re qualified to write this book
Part two of the last paragraph: Give the person your querying any background information that proves why you’re qualified to write this book. This can be writing related (writing classes you’ve taken, writing degrees you’ve earned, publication credits you have), and/or specific to the content of the book (for example, if you’ve written a book about a lawyer and you are a lawyer, that would be something to mention). Use anything and everything that can help you, but don’t lie!
7) Thank your reader and wrap up
Thank the agent for taking the time to read your letter, say you look forward to hearing from them, and get out. One sentence is enough here.
8) Revise until you have a letter you like, then polish the hell out of it.
I usually had to write my query letter at least twice until I had something that I felt like captured my book. The first draft was me writing down what I thought I needed (which was way more than I actually needed). The second draft was when I cut almost everything I’d written and reworked/expanded on what was left. Then I worked that until I was happy with it. Once I had a letter that I felt captured the book, I polished it until I felt like it read perfectly. Then I found other readers to catch everything I missed. If you have trouble, I definitely recommend talking to a friend or two you trust who has read the book and can give you some insight into which story points are really important and which aren’t. Once all of that’s done, it’s time to query!!
Here’s my letter that worked!
Now I’m going to share the query letter for Crossing the Line that got me my agent. Truthfully, I kind of hate the idea of sharing this! My book was a serious challenge to boil down into a couple paragraphs. Now that it’s published and I’ve seen how it’s been pitched by professionals, I think it could have been A LOT tighter. But none the less, this is the letter that got me my agent, which is why I’m sharing it with you! 🙂
North Korean intelligence agency KATO believes eighteen-year-old American spy Jocelyn Steely is under their control. And that’s exactly how Jocelyn wants it.
When KATO sends Jocelyn back to the American-based International Defense Agency she was kidnapped from as an eight-year-old, they see it as the perfect opportunity to infiltrate the ranks of their biggest rival. After ten years of brutal training, forced drug therapy, and a series of successful — yet traumatizing — assignments, KATO never considered the possibility that Jocelyn could still have a mind of her own. But she does. To her, this mission is not only an escape, but also a chance at revenge. The only problem is Jocelyn has never trusted anyone enough to have an ally, let alone a friend. In order to escape KATO, she’ll have to learn to rely on others — including former enemy agent Travis Elton. And to Jocelyn, there is nothing more difficult or terrifying.
CROSSING THE LINE is a young adult thriller complete at around 91,000 words. It is the first book in a planned trilogy. I have an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Rosemont College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in Communications and Media Arts from Neumann University, where I double minored in Writing and Journalism. My writing has been published in both the Neumann University Joust and the Philadelphia Inquirer. I have also spent the past three years volunteering with creative writing classes at a local high school where I assist in creating lesson plans and work with students on an individual and group level.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Bonus thoughts: Should you personalize each letter you send?
This is something I’ve thought a lot about–maybe too much–so I wanted to discuss it here.
I’ve read some posts that recommend writers take the time to research an agent’s list and give a pitch as to why they or their book would be a good fit. I’ve also read some thoughts from agents (not a ton, but some) that say they too really like when authors to do this because it shows them how serious the writer is. But honestly? I didn’t really personalize my queries beyond the agent’s name, and I think that’s kind of an unreasonable expectation to put on a querying writer.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I did my research and made sure I targeted agents I thought would be a good fit for my book. (I’ll talk more about that in my next querying post.) But I didn’t take the time to write my reasons out in each query letter I sent off.
Did this cost me some requests? Maybe. But here’s the thing; most of the agents you query are going to reject you. It sucks, but it’s true. And 99% of the agents who reject you are not going to take the time to give you a personalized response explaining why. If you get a response at all, it’s likely to be a form letter. They simply don’t have time to give you anything more. Their priority is to take care of their current clients. Most agents can’t afford to invest a lot of time in a response to someone they don’t represent. Their time is valuable. It’s important to be understanding of that, especially as someone who someday wants to be an agent’s client.
But your time is valuable too. Most querying writers are also working another job (or two), or going to school, or working and going to school, and hopefully writing another book, and making time for their families/friends, all on top of querying. And if you’re going to personalize every letter, that means you have to proof and polish and perfect every letter again before you send it off. In the end, I sent 111 query letters. Personalizing, proofing, and polishing 111 letters was, for me, asking for too much of my time for someone who may or may not represent me.
If an agent passed on me because I didn’t personalize my query, then I have to believe it was for the best. We probably wouldn’t have been a very good fit. As much as you need an agent to offer to represent you, it’s important to remember that once they do, the two of you are going to be a team. And considering most agents weren’t going to personalize a response back to me, I wasn’t so sure I wanted a teammate who expected more of me than they were willing to do themselves.
You definitely want to make sure you’re addressing the agent/editor you’re querying at the start of each letter, but personalizing beyond that is entirely up to you. I only personalized two query letters, and both were to agents I had interacted with in the past.
(Though, full disclosure: One of those personalized letters was to the agent I signed with. I personalized it because she had previously responded to a non-personalized query about a previous project. So yes, it was a personalized letter got me my agent, but that only happened after she responded to a non-personalized one first!)
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Now it’s your turn: What query letter tips have you come across or found helpful? Tell me all about it in the comments! You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.