Writing and finishing a book is one of the most demanding, strenuous, and ultimately rewarding tasks anyone can do. Now that you’ve gotten through that first monumental hurdle, finding an audience for it is your next step. Usually to do that, you need to reach out to literary agents to represent you and your work, and to do that, you need to master the art of writing query letters.
Learning how to write a compelling query letter is a skill just like any other, and it’s not a hard one to learn, either. In this article we’ll guide you through everything you need in order to craft a query letter that’ll knock any agent’s socks off and get your story where it needs to be: in the hands of readers who will love it and share it with others.
Let’s dive in and learn how to write a successful query letter together!
What is a query letter?
In the publishing industry, a query letter is both a brief introduction to your book, and a request to the literary agent to consider partnering with you to represent you and your book to publishers. You’ll sometimes see query letters being called “book pitches” or “book proposals.”
Your query letter will introduce literary agents to your book, your writer’s voice, and your unique writing style. It’ll also give them an idea as to why your book is one the world needs to read, and why you think they should enter in to a business relationship with you to help your book get published.
Successful query letters should get literary agents excited about reading your work. If your letter is well written and engaging, it’ll make them feel like they have something special on their hands that readers everywhere are going to love.
Do you need to write a query letter to get a book published?
Writing a query letter is a huge part of the publishing process, but is it necessary? Not entirely, but it certainly will make your life a lot easier in the long run.
Finding a literary agent is the only way into the “Big Five” of traditional publishing—the major publishing houses that dominates most contemporary publishing.
If you go into a major chain bookshop like Barnes and Noble, chances are everything you see on the shelves came from a Big Five publishing house. And they all began with query letters.
However, if you’re looking to market a self-published book rather than sending your book to a traditional publisher, you won’t need a literary agent to liaise for you. Self-published authors are responsible for getting their book out into readers’ hands without any representatives in between.
There are also smaller, independent publishing houses that accept submissions directly from authors rather than (or in addition to) from agents.
However, dealing with publishers directly can be complex—a literary agent will ensure you get the best possible deal.
How to write a query letter to a literary agent
A query letter is a short, one-page letter: usually around 3—4 paragraphs. In the first paragraph you’ll introduce yourself, the second paragraph will introduce your book, and the closing paragraphs will convince the agent the two of you are a great match.
Try to keep your query from spilling over more than one page. Most agents get dozens if not hundreds of these every day, so brevity is your happy place. You’ll need to make your query letter shine and catch their attention quickly and succinctly if you’re going to stand out from the crowd.
The process if a little bit different if you’re a nonfiction writer; a nonfiction book proposal follows a different format than querying for fiction. Here, we’ll look at the essential steps to include when you begin querying agents for your first novel.
1. The agent’s name
Simple, right? And yet, many writers sink themselves right at this very first sentence. These days, most literary agents prefer to be addressed by their first name: “Dear Sarah.” Not, “To whom it may concern,” “Dear Agent,” “Dear XXX Literary Agency” (bonus life lost if it’s the wrong agency), or “Dear lucky winner.”
You’ll be able to find the name of the specific agent on their agency’s website (they might have their own, or they might be part of a larger company with multiple agents), along with the genres they represent. You can use this information to make sure that they’re a good fit for your work.
2. Where you found them and why you’d be a good match
There are many online resources for finding literary agencies to represent your work, like online agency listings.
Another good place for researching agents is the contact pages of authors who write in your genre—often contact pages will direct inquiries through the writer’s agent instead of going directly to the writer.
It’s important that you don’t cast too wide a net when you seek representation—even in the best case scenario where a grab-bag agent does take on your book, they might not have the best insight into the particular market you’re suited for.
More likely, an agent you picked at random will see that you didn’t do your research and politely decline. Try and get an agent interested who loves the kind of work that you do, then mention it in your query letter.
3. Your book title, genre, and word count
Your manuscript’s genre word count are two of the most important pieces of information the agent needs to know. You can include these specific details anywhere in your query letter—but make sure to include them!
A query letter without a genre or word count is going to go straight to an agent’s trash bin.
4. A one-sentence pitch that will make them want to read more
Think about what the tagline would be on the cover of your book. This sales pitch sometimes called the “hook.” Is your book “Star Wars meets Pride and Prejudice”? Is it “Ender’s Game reimagined with hippogriffs”? “If Game of Thrones took place in 1960s California”?
References to comparable titles are helpful for the agent to mentally place your story, but make sure you mention what makes yours unique (this is sometimes called your “unique selling point,” or “USP”).
This juxtaposition is what will hook a literary agent and make them consider your work more carefully.
The pitch might be the most important part of a query letter. It’s so important that whole writing conferences, like the New York Pitch Conference and (the now-defunct) Pitch Wars, have sprung up to carefully hone a writer’s pitch to an agent. Compose yours carefully—we’ll share some tips on writing great hooks below.
5. A quick summary of your book
Now that you’ve got their attention, you can dive a little deeper into what your story’s about. Briefly describe your tormented yet ultimately empathetic protagonist, the environment in which your story takes place, and the conflict that launches the story into action.
This is the sort of thing you might read on the back of a book or on an Amazon product page—short enough to be absorbed in about a minute, but clear enough to tell someone what to expect from your book.
6. Some background information about you
This isn’t a resume or a play-by-play biography, but it’s helpful to write just a few sentences about yourself and your writing credentials.
If you have a creative writing degree, or if you’ve had short stories published in literary journals or been recognised by any awards, this is a good time to mention them as part of your writing experience.
In addition to your writing credits, you can also mention any unique life experiences that give you a particularly powerful perspective from which to tell this story.
Remember: This should just be one or two sentences. Don’t overwhelm the agent with paragraphs of your whole life story. They don’t have time to read that, and most of it isn’t relevant to them representing your book.
7. Any other information the agent specifically asks for
Some agents may have special requirements for query letters addressed to them, like including the first few pages of your manuscript or a detailed summary of the entire plot.
If the agent you’re pitching has requirements like that, make sure to follow them to the letter. If you don’t, the agent will think your letter is a generic one sent to many other agents, or that you didn’t care enough to research them personally, and they’ll immediately trash your query letter.
Tips for writing a great hook in a query letter
We have an entire article dedicated to writing a great hook that you might want to check out. But here is some helpful advice to get you started.
To get an agent’s attention, you’ll need to have a effective and short pitch for your book—this is called “the hook.”
This is usually a catchy one-sentence summary. Whether you know it or not, you come across hooks every time you look at a story premise and decide whether or not you want to invest in reading it. If a book’s hook is successful, you’ll want to start reading immediately. If the hook isn’t successful, you’ll put it down and choose something else.
Your agent will make the same choice when they’re deciding whether to not to represent you.
1. Describe the protagonist and their conflict
Your hook should center around your protagonist and their immediate conflict, because that’s what drives a story’s plot.
You don’t need to recount the entire story, but you may include one or two extra characters if you think they give context to some of the choices your protagonist faces.
2. Include a plot twist to make it stand out
Make sure your hook pitches your story in a way that’s uniquely yours, so that it’s not a regurgitation of any old novel in your chosen genre.
The agent understands that your work will have been influenced by the stories you’ve read and loved, but they need to see that what you’re offering them is something new—something the world has never seen before.
3. Don’t make the hook too long
Hooks exist to catch an agent’s attention, not to summarize your entire novel—that’s what your book’s synopsis is for. If your hook is more than about 300 words, see if you can trim it down to the more essential details.
Remember that your entire query letter shouldn’t be more than one page.
An example of an effective hook
Consider the following hook:
Mortimer Folchart has a unique gift: he can read characters out of books and into the real world. The problem is that anytime something comes out, something else has to go in. When he accidentally reads a terrible villain out of a story and his wife winds up in the story world instead, he sets events into motion that will change his life—and his daughter’s—forever.
Sounds like a pretty great story, doesn’t it? It is, in fact, the hook behind Cornelia Funke’s bestselling fantasy novel Inkheart.
Here we see who the main character is, what makes them unique, and the stage for the central conflict of the story. In just a few words we understand what has already been lost and what he still has the potential to lose, raising the stakes even further.
The key to a great hook is to say just enough that the agent or the reader will want to keep reading, and to leave enough unsaid that we can imagine numerous possibilities for where the story might go.
4 mistakes to avoid in your query letter
See? It’s not so hard. But when we’re learning how to write a query letter for the first time, there are a few pitfalls that inexperienced writers can get caught on.
Here are three of the biggest mistakes to watch out for when writing your query letter.
1. Don’t stray from the formula
Agents get a huge number of query letters every day, so having each one follow this basic formula makes it easier for agents to get through all of their email.
Trying to get cute and doing something wacky and different isn’t going to make your query letter stand out—it’s going to make the agent roll their eyes and delete it, because they’re too busy for that kind of stuff.
Your query letter isn’t the time to be creative and different. Your agent is going to be your business partner, and sticking to the formula above will ensure that your query letter makes a professional impression.
Save your creativity for your manuscript.
2. Don’t CC twenty different agents on the same email
Imagine you’re using a dating app, and someone sends you a generic message—and you can actually see the list of twenty names at the top that the message went out to. Chances are, you’re going to think this person is only after one thing and doesn’t really care who gives it to them. Swipe left, please.
If an agent sees a slew of other email addresses at the top of your email, they’re going to know that you didn’t do your research and are just spamming anyone with an email address.
To find the right agent for your book, make sure every query letter that you write is personalised to reach one particular agent and make a connection with them.
3. Don’t begin your query letter with “Dear Sirs”
We’ve talked about the power of first names, but it’s also important to realise how rampant sexism is in the publishing industry, even in this day in age. Starting your query letter without considering the agent’s gender will get your query letter binned so fast that you’ll feel the whiplash even across the country.
Instead of a generic opening like “Dear Sirs” or even “Dear Sir or Madam,” write the agent’s first name if you know it, or their last name if you don’t. It’s just as easy, and much more personal.
4. Don’t talk yourself down
As a new writer it’s understandable to feel uncertain about your work, especially if you’ve been brought up reading the great masters of literature. But be careful not to let negative attitudes towards yourself infiltrate your query letter.
It’s amazing how many query letters contain phrases like, “I wonder if there’s the slightest possibility you might be willing to represent my humble work?” or “I’d be eternally grateful if you could take a leap of faith on a hopeful first novel.”
Again, imagine a dating app. You’re not asking the literary agent for a favour—you’re offering them a mutually beneficial, collaborative business opportunity. Be confident in yourself!
5.Don’t query before your book is ready
One of the quickest ways to black-mark yourself in the publishing industry is to begin querying literary agents before you’ve finished writing your book—or even before you’re started!
Ideas are great, but they will never make you (or a literary agent) money. What you need is a saleable product.
Before you begin your query letter, make sure you have a polished manuscript ready to go that is completely free of typos, ideally one that’s been looked over by a professional editor. If an agent responds to your query letter asking to view a full manuscript, you need to be able to send it off right away—not in another six months.
Query letter example
Here’s a very simple query letter template for you to dress up with your own unique story and voice.
Dear [Agent’s first name],
I am seeking representation for my [genre] novel, [Title]. I came across your name [however you found them] and I think that my work would be a good fit for you. [Title] is a [your book’s word count] word novel about [your quick-and-dirty tagline that will make them want to read more].
[Your protagonist] is a [one-line description of your character] living in [your amazing setting]. But all of that changes when [your plot].
My previous work has appeared in [various magazines, literary journals, contests, etc.] and my unique experiences in [occupation, educational program, cool anecdote] have given me an insight into the lives of [something to do with your story].
Thank you for your time in considering my work. I look forward to hearing from you.
What to do if the agent doesn’t respond to your query letter
So you’ve sent your artfully crafted query letter. Now all you have to do is sit back and wait. And wait.… And wait. But what do you do if you never hear back? When is it okay to reach out again?
Literary agents are incredibly busy reviewing query letters, reading manuscripts, liaising with publishers, and securing book deals for their authors—all the things you’re hoping that they’ll start doing for you. It’s normal for them to take a while to respond to your query letter.
In general, expect to wait around three months before reaching out to them again.
After three months have passed, double check their agency website to see if their submission guidelines offer any insight into wait times. They might mention how many weeks or months they usually take to respond to a query letter, or they might note that if you haven’t heard back from them within a certain window of time, they’re not interested.
Not every agent will respond to let you know they’ve decided to pass on your work, but there should be a guideline to this effect on their website.
If it’s been at least three months, and their submission guidelines don’t answer your question, you can send the agent a quick, respectful message following up on your query letter. If they don’t respond to that, then they’re probably unable to represent you, and you should move on.
How to write a follow up to a query letter
A follow up to a query letter should be short and straight to the point, but with enough information that your agent can easily locate your original email. Here’s a simple template that you can use:
Dear [Agent’s first name],
I am writing to follow up on my email sent on [Whenever you sent it] regarding my [genre] novel “[your brilliant work]”. Could you please provide me with an update on my submission?
I appreciate your time in considering my work.
[Your cool-headed self]
In your follow up, you’ve included the date of your original message and the genre, which will help jog their memory so that they can track it down quickly. You don’t need to rehash your original query letter; they’ll be able to find it by looking through their mail, or if it’s been misplaced, they’ll reply asking for more information.
At this point you’ve started a conversation, which is always a great first step.
Knowing how to write a successful query letter can launch your literary career
If you want to get published, then writing a query letter is as much of an essential skill as writing a novel. Even when it seems like all the hard work is done when your book is finished, knowing how to write a query letter that’s effective and engaging can open the gates to the next stage in your writing career.
And when your query letter lands in the hands of the right literary agent, it may even create a rewarding professional partnership that can last a lifetime.