After you finish writing your debut novel or nonfiction book, the hard work really begins. Getting a manuscript from your computer screen into the “New Releases” in a bookstore can be a competitive process. Most major publishers do not accept unsolicited submissions from unknown authors. That’s where a query letter enters into the picture. As publishing industry consultant Jane Friedman explains, “If you hope to see your book published by the likes of Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan, or Hachette, then you need to start an agent search.” In order to get published, you’ll need to introduce yourself to a literary agent by writing a query letter.
What Is a Query Letter?
A query letter is a 250-400 word email sent to literary agents in an attempt to secure representation. If your query is successful, the agent will ask to see a full manuscript. In the case of nonfiction projects, the agent may ask to see a book proposal in lieu of a finished manuscript. Experienced writers and people with large social media followings can sometimes secure a publishing contract without a completed manuscript; however, if you’re in the position to be querying agents, you should be ready to deliver a finished manuscript upon request for a novel or narrative nonfiction book.
A query letter contains information about your book’s genre, word count, and title. In addition, you should prepare a 150-300 word pitch, giving an overview of your plot. Most query letters also contain a sentence or two with biographical information about the author.
Model your pitch on the blurb you would see on the back of paperbacks. Briefly introduce the main character and the inciting event, writing in the third person and present tense. If your book is nonfiction, describe the hook. What makes your topic interesting and unique? Use your creative writing skills to evoke the tone and style of the book.
You should only include 50-100 words about yourself. If you have major publishing credits, such as a short story in the New Yorker or an award-winning poem, be sure to write about those. For anyone with an existing platform (15,000+ people), such as a large Twitter following or a popular blog, mention those audiences. Be specific about the total number of subscribers on each channel. You may also want to share your educational background, especially if you have an MFA in writing.
Don’t brag or say that your book is bound to be a bestseller. Even though you probably feel proud for completing a draft of your first novel, assume that you still have a lot to learn. A successful query letter leaves the agent feeling excited to work with you. No one wants to represent someone conceited. If you do sign with an agent, the traditional publishing process is going to involve more proposals, rewrites, and changes. It’s important to remain humble.
Do Your Research
Before you write your query letter, you need to do a significant amount of research. First, identify the literary agents who have published books like yours in the past. Once you’ve decided on the right agent, check LinkedIn to find out if you have any contacts in common. A personal introduction has more weight than a cold email, so take advantage of any connections you have. Looking at the agent’s list of clients, try to articulate why you would be a good fit. Most importantly, check the literary agency’s website to check for the best contact information.
When you write your query, you’ll need to get the agent’s attention within a few lines. Since you’ve already done your research, you’ll be able to use the agent’s name rather than “to whom it may concern.” Go on to explain why you’re writing to him or her in particular. You can mention a certain book deal that he negotiated or an article you read about her in a trade publication. Be specific, succinct, and well-informed.
Most literary agency websites have a tab that says something like “submission guidelines” or “submissions.” Follow the instructions for querying.
- You may need to name the specific agent in the subject line
- The agency could request certain formatting, saying something like, “Send us your query in double-spaced Times New Roman font as a Microsoft Word attachment”
- Make sure that the agent is currently open to queries in your genre
- Some agencies request a longer synopsis instead of a pitch
Many literary agents receive more queries than they can possibly read with care. Although they look through the “slush pile” of unsolicited queries now and then, doing so isn’t a high priority. If an agent sees that you haven’t customized or properly formatted your email, he or she may interpret that as a red flag—a sign that you lack attention to detail.
Before the computer age, authors sent printed query letters through the mail. Even then, typos and errors could stop an otherwise perfect query letter from succeeding. Nowadays, every email service offers spellcheck. You have no excuse for mistakes! A query letter, like most other business letters, needs to appear professional and polished. No literary agent wants to represent an author who can’t write an effective email.
Two weeks after sending your query, it’s appropriate to follow up with the agent. Simply ask for confirmation that he or she received your email.
Now you’re ready to begin querying. For inspiration, check out these query letter examples from Writer’s Digest.