In order to have a book published, you will likely need to know how to write a query letter. (And here’s more about me and my credentials, in case you’re curious).
Once you have followed the gentle suggestions in the How to Write a Novel post and/or my book How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel You Will Love Forever and you done gone and written yourself a novel, (or if you’ve written a nonfiction book proposal), it is then time to see what the world thinks of it. The first step in this process if you are seeking traditional publication is to find a literary agent.
Please check out this post on how to find a literary agent, since a query letter is not the only way of going about it. But chances are you will at some point have to sit down and write one of these beastly missives.
Here’s how you do it:
What’s a query letter?
A query letter is part business letter, part creative writing exercise, part introduction, part death defying leap through a flaming hoop. (Don’t worry, you won’t catch fire and die during the query process though it may feel precisely like that at times). In essence: it is a letter describing your project.
The first thing to know about writing a query letter is that there are as many opinions out on the Internet about query letters as there are, well, opinions on the Internet. You will find lots of dos and don’ts and peeves and strategies and formulas. The important thing to remember about this is that everyone is wrong except for me. (Just kidding. The important thing to remember is that you will need to choose the ideas that work best for you).
As the immortal Douglas Adams said, don’t panic! Write the best query letter you can, be yourself, don’t overthink it too much, don’t sweat it if you realize the second after you sent it that you made a typo or accidentally called an agent Vicky when their name is Nathan. If an agent is going to get mad or reject you over something trivial like that they’re probably not the type of person you’d want to work with anyway.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.
For Further Reading:
- Get the Big Stuff Right
- Can You Query If You Are An Unpublished Novelist and Your Novel Isn’t Finished?
- Why It’s So Important to Learn to Summarize Your Work
Read examples of query letters that worked
Familiarize yourself with what works. Read examples of good query letters in order to get a sense of the rhythm and format.
Here are three good query letters to sample:
Query Letter Sample #1 – My query letter for Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, which landed me a literary agent.
Query Letter Sample #2 – Lisa Brackmann’s query for Rock Paper Tiger
Query Letter Sample #3 – Emily Conrad’s query for The Boy in the Basement
Research literary agents
Make your query letter shine through personalization. To do this, you need to research literary agents so you can show them you queried them individually. Here is a comprehensive post on how to research a literary agent.
But the short version is that you need to do your best to:
- Figure out which agents would be the right fit for your work – Three basic things to figure out: a) does the agent represent your genre, b) do they represent something too similar to your project, c) do they seem like they would be a good fit for you. The answers should be a) yes, b) no, c) yes.
- Figure out the agent’s submission procedure – Submission guidelines are like snowflakes: no two are alike. Also they melt. (Not really.) You will need to Google the agent and/or the agency in order to figure out where to send the query (it may be through the mail or via e-mail or via an online form or via a query service) and what the agent wants included with the query. Follow these guidelines!
- Include a personalized tidbit about the literary agent in the query to show you did your research – Personalize the query! Show the agent that you put in the time and have targeted them in your search. Mention an interview or a book they’ve represented or that they seem inordinately attached to the color orange.
- Make sure they’re reputable. – There are tons of scam artists out there, so do your research. No literary agent should charge you a fee upfront. Know your rights as an author.
If you can’t find additional info about a literary agent but know they are legit, do the best you can personalizing, and send the thing.
For Further Reading:
- How to personalize a query letter
- Don’t Get Caught Up In The Rush
- Make an Agent’s Life Easier
- Don’t Fake a Personalized Query
- The Batch Querying Theory
- Taking a Chance on a Young Agent
Write your query letter
Ah, the fun part. Only not really.
Once you have determined who you are querying, then it is time to write it. You are in luck as I have a handy dandy mad lib to get you started. Just plug in the details of your novel into this query letter template and it will give you a basic query letter to start with. From there expand on it, personalize, and make it your own.
You are trying to accomplish two important tasks with the query:
- Make the plot/subject of your book sound awesome
- Try to show the agent that you write well
Especially for fiction, try as much as possible to write the query letter so that it embodies the spirit of your project. If your book is funny, write a funny a query letter. If your book is written with beautiful lyrical prose, write your query letter accordingly.
As you’re doing this, be as specific as specific as possible about the plot, rather than descending into generalities.
For nonfiction, it’s very important to give a sense of your level of expertise, your platform, and how much publicity you could bring to bear in the promotion of your work.
I highly recommend having query letters out with around seven agents at a time, which doesn’t leave you hanging endlessly with one agent, but also gives you some time to adjust course if you feel your query letter isn’t getting the attention you would have expected.
Other things I would suggest:
- Keep your query letter between 250-350 words.
- Keep the focus on the project you are querying about, even if you’re a previously published author
- Be as specific as possible about plot details without overwhelming the literary agent with unnecessary detail (tricky balance, I know)
- Always include a sample of your work (5 pages is a good rule of thumb), even if the agent doesn’t ask for it. No one is going to reject you for this, so this is the one place where I think it’s permissible to break with submission guidelines. If you are e-mailing your query, be sure and paste this in the body of an e-mail. No attachments.
For Further Reading:
- Query Letter Template
- The One Sentence, One Paragraph, and Two Paragraph Pitch
- Query Letter Subject Lines
- The Key to Good Queries: Summarizing Through Specificity
- Comparing Your Book to Other Books in the Query
- Themes Schmemes
- Things Agents Don’t Need to Know
- How and Whether to Mention Blurbs and Referrals
- How and Whether to Mention Your Publishing Credits
- How to Mention a Series in a Query
How to format your query letter
Don’t. Get Crazy.
Use block formatting. Double-space between paragraphs. Use a default font in a default size. Left-justify.
The amount of time you spend formatting, coloring, bolding, italicizing, and adding pictures to your query is inversely proportional to how professional it looks when you’re finished.
Want to see this format in action? Click here: How to format a query letter
Working with literary agents
After you’ve sent your query letter off into the great unknown, you sit back and wait for the literary agent to consider it. And wait. And wait some more.
Here’s what’s happening on an agent’s end: First they print out all the queries and stack them up. Then they spread them around the room until they’re a few inches deep. Next they lie down, wave their arms and legs, and make query angels.
Actually it works kind of like this.
What you want is a request for a partial or a full manuscript, in which case your query letter has done its job and you have moved on to the next step. If you’ve sent out a dozen or so queries and haven’t gotten so much as a nibble, there might be something wrong with your query letter and you may wish to tweak it a little and give it a second look.
Bear in mind that many/most literary agents have a no-response-means-no policy, so if you do not hear back after a couple of months you have your answer. It is not customary to follow-up if you haven’t heard back on a query letter.
Also please remember that literary agents are positively besieged with queries – you have one query you are worrying about, agents have 15,000 or more to answer in a year. Keep your cool, stay calm, and be professional throughout the process.
For Further Reading:
- How to respond to a partial manuscript request
- The Five Stages of Query Grief
- All About Re-querying
- Why Agents Aren’t More Specific About What They’re Looking For
- Why I Can’t Answer Follow-up Question After Queries or Provide Referrals
- How to Understand a Rejection Letter
- It’s Not You, It’s the Odds
- Don’t Forget That Every Writer Gets Rejected At Some Point
And that’s it! Query letter writing doesn’t have to be a horribly frightening experience. Just remember to be professional, do your research, and keep writing in the meantime. Don’t forget the 10 Commandments of the Happy Writer. And for a light-hearted version of this process, check out The Publishing Process in GIF Form.
If you need feedback on your query or if you have further questions, there is a Query Feedback section in the discussion forums, and I am always happy to answer your questions in the Ask Nathan thread.
I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.
UPDATED: August 13, 2017
Art: De dorpstimmerman by George Offermans