What is a query letter and why do I need one?
A query letter is a letter of introduction that is sent to an agent for representation or sent to a publisher for solicitation to publish your written work. It is simply a mini-proposal intending to get the attention of an agent or an editor.
When should a query letter be used? A query letter is used if you are selling a novel, children’s books or a nonfiction book. Query letters are also used for soliciting newspapers or magazines to publish your articles. Query letters are “feelers” to see if an agent or an editor has further interest in your written material.
Writing a query letter does not necessarily mean that you will get your written work read, accepted or published. It does, however, provide an opportunity to have an agent or publisher review your work. Providing an agent or publisher with a query letter gives them an insight into who you are and what you have written. It may be that your query letter is not read; however, if you don’t submit query letters to agents and publishers chances are that you won’t get published.
Sending query letters to agents and publishers is all part of the publishing world. Unfortunately, it also goes hand-in-hand with rejection letters. It is all part of the overall game plan so don’t be afraid to get rejected. Even well-known authors have received rejection letters at one time or another.
Understanding what is to be included in a query letter is a must. There is a standard format known by the writing-publishing industry and it’s probably best that you don’t deviate too much from this method. You can do so but tread at your own risk. There are agents or editors that may like uncommon query letters but if they don’t you may have just blown your chance to getting your book published. It’s best that you stick to the standard format rather than try to come up with a quirky or unusual way to impress an agent or a publisher. More times than not, much deviation from the standard format is not readily accepted. It’s best to stick to what is more readily accepted in the industry.
So what are the main components to a successful query letter?
A query letter is comprised of at least 5 parts. They are:
- Hook – You should include a one-line hook such as defining a problem or situation, providing information that is conducive to a particular audience being targeted or it could begin with a question. You can write a one-line hook simply by stating the time and location it took place and then provide an overall detail that captures the essence of your book. You can also begin by stating your characters up front and then follow it through with the core details of what makes up your story. If you are not comfortable writing one-line hooks do a little research on how to best do this.
- Pitch – You should begin by clearly stating what it is that you are selling, the length of the book and also if the book is complete. If you are working on other projects it is okay to briefly mention those. Be cautious of mentioning other material that pertains to this book if you haven’t sold those items. If you mention those items, it could make an agent or editor wonder why those have not been published. Use your common sense as to what you should or should not include in this section.
- Body – This is an overview of your book or written material and it should be as concise as possible. It should give the agent or publisher a good insight and essence of the written work being submitted for their review.
- Credentials – You should provide a brief synopsis of your writing credentials. If you don’t have any credentials, it is best that you stay silent rather than provide things that may not pertain to your writing. Here is where you can include your background and experience; although, it is best to relate this to your writing career. Don’t provide details that do not give credence to your writing.
- Closing – As with any other letter, it’s important that you close the query letter with a standard closing. You might want to thank them for their time and also indicate that you hope to hear from them soon. Keep it short and simple.
A query letter should be no longer than a page and it should be written on good stationery. Refrain from using fancy color paper or stationery that may have colored borders and such. It’s probably best to use the standard white or crème colored stationery and keep your query letter as professional as possible.
Remember that a query letter is usually the first time that an agent or publisher may be hearing about you or your written work so it’s important to keep things very professional. Agents and publishers are busy people and are inundated with various written material to review. If the items submitted don’t fit the standard norm, many times the query letters may not get read. It’s best to stick with what has been proven to work.
Where you can get creative is in the synopsis of your book summary. This should be the heart of your query letter and many times this determines whether a query letter and submitted material is read or tossed.
It’s also important to ensure that you have the correct addressee names and titles included in your letter. Do some research and check your reference books. In addition, it’s also advisable to call the agency to verify that a particular person is still working for the company. Having the wrong name on a letter may or may not stop your material from being reviewed; however, don’t take any chances. Do your footwork. It indicates your professionalism and that you are detail oriented which could be a plus.
In addition, it’s also important to do some research as to what should be included in a query package for a particular agency before mailing out your material. Don’t waste your time or their time with unnecessary material. For the most part, most agencies do not want to see personal information submitted. Mostly, they just want a standard query package; query letter, written material being submitted and a First Class self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) for their reply.
When sending out your query letter, do your research and find out if this particular person or agency receives electronic versions versus hard copy. If they do, it is just as important to ensure that your material is completed with the utmost professionalism. The same standards apply to an electronic version as to hard copy submissions.
As agents and editors review letters, they look to see if you have a good understanding of grammar and spelling, whether your idea is in line with what they are looking to publish, if you have the credentials to write the submitted work and whether you can write effectively.
Note: It is also okay to submit query letters to more than one agency.