How to Write a Query Letter
After a manuscript is finished, many writers face a harrowing question: What’s next?
The next step on the road to becoming published is to compose a well constructed and cohesive query letter to an agent or small publishing house. A query letter is a writer’s cover letter for their work, describing what they have to present, their qualifications as a writer, and contact information. Query letters can vary in length and format depending on if you are querying to an agent or a publishing house or if you are submitting for a particular genre.
TBL offers the unique opportunity to have an editor assist with the composition and recommendation of where to send your query letter once you have achieved the rank of Publisher. However, there are several different versions of query letters to consider when reviewing your work, and we’re here to help narrow down the decision.
Query Letter for an Agent:
Submitting your work for representation takes a good amount of research. You should narrow your research to approximately ten potential agents, paying attention to style, genre, and the authors they typically represent. For more on choosing an agent, please visit “How to Choose a Literary Agent.”
Your query letter should be broken into three paragraphs and follow four criteria’s:
1. Before you begin your letter, your contact information should be in the top left hand corner, including full name, address, phone number, and email.
2. Your first paragraph should be roughly three sentences that briefly convey your story (much like a 3. synopsis on the back cover of a novel.)
3. The second paragraph should be a more in-depth glimpse of your novel including, title, length, and genre that covers key elements and highlights of your story.
4. The last paragraph should list your qualifications as a writer including publishing credit, contests or awards you’ve won for your writing, education that pertains specifically to your writing, and why you are a match for this particular agent.
Following this strict formula will convey an air of professionalism and help you hook an agent. A query letter is often the only sample of your writing an agent initially sees, so you should present them with the best possible taste.1 Make it as strong, concise, and professional as possible. No one will even chance a glance at your work without confidence in your work as a writer. You can instill that confidence with a strong and well-worded query letter. If the agent likes what he or she reads in your query, you will be contacted to send in the entire manuscript.
While your first two paragraphs are strictly about your story, giving the agent a brief glimpse into your work, the third paragraph is a chance for you to convince the agent why you are the person they should represent. This is why it is important to research both your genre and the agencies you query to. After research is completed on an appropriate list of agents, you should do a little more investigating about each one. Address the agent directly to make each letter distinct rather than just composing a generic letter.
Include in your third paragraph a list of your qualifications and/or any applicable publishing credit you’ve acquired as a writer. Display why you’d be a good fit for this particular agent by referencing authors they’ve worked with that have a similar style or genre to yours. Mention publishing houses the agent has worked with that specialize in your genre of writing. This will show an agent that you are knowledgeable about their clientele and specific genre, rather than coming off as another writer just looking for representation.
For an example of a query letter to an agent, click here.
Keep a detailed log of all agencies you have submitted your query to and when. Give them two to three months to make their decision. If you haven’t heard back by then, send a simple note (whether electronic or by mail) with your name, email address, title of your work, and the date you submitted your query letter. Ask specifically for a confirmation that they have received your work.
Keep in mind that rejection from an agent is just as likely as rejection from a literary journal or publishing house. Many reasons can be attributed to an agent declining representation, but you should continue on and move forward with your search.
Querying for Unsolicited Publication:
Whether you seek professional representation from an agent or decide to strike out alone, you need a query letter to present your work to publishing houses or journals.
New writers should seek an agent for representation when soliciting their first novel, unless of course, if that writer is primarily focusing their publishing aspirations on independent publishing houses. Larger publishing houses do not accept unsolicited work, especially not from writers that have never published a novel or who lack appropriate publishing credit. (For more on building appropriate publishing credit, please visit “How to Build a Publishing Platform”). However, if you prefer to work without representation, then your query letter should follow these basic guidelines:
1. Include your contact information in the top left hand corner: Name, address, phone number, and email
2. Address your letter to the chief editor of the publishing house.
3. Include a brief three sentence synopsis of your story to hook an editor.
4. In the next paragraph, detail your novel in no more than 150 words. Include key characters and plot development, while also mentioning the length, genre, and title of your work.
5. Describe your qualifications as a writer and why you are a good fit for this particular publishing house. Reference other authors the publishing house represents and the matching style or genre.
6. End with a sentence that informs the editor that you have either included or can send the first three chapters of your novel.2
For an example of a query letter for representation, please click here.
Independent Publishing Houses:
As mentioned above, it is uncommon for a publishing house, especially larger publishing houses, to accept unsolicited work from a new writer. If you are working without representation, consider directing your query letter towards local or independent publishing houses.
Most independent publishing houses publish on a smaller scale and are willing to work with beginning writers. (For more information about smaller publishing opportunities, please visit “Independent Publishing.”) To submit to one of these houses, you will send the same query letter for unsolicited manuscripts, but often houses will have you send in samples of your writing as well. Check specific guidelines to be sure. Note that in contrast to many agencies and large houses, many independent houses only accept electronic submissions.
Depending on the genre, your book doesn’t need to be completed upon querying a house. This is true, typically, of non-fiction work that requires extensive and/or costly research. Some writers can even be awarded funding from a publishing house if their book proposal is accepted, greatly cutting upfront costs such as access to exclusive libraries or difficult documents to obtain.
In this case, you should compose a book proposal. A book proposal can run as long as twenty pages and details every chapter of your novel
When composing a book proposal, it should include:
1. A cover letter introducing yourself and the work that you have included.
2. On a separate page, include a detailed outline of your novel:
If chosen as an outline include:
Each chapter outlined in a one page summary highlighting key events, main characters, plot developments, and important settings.
If chosen as a preview include:
Up to three consecutive chapters that are polished and finalized.
3. Answer the question of why you are the most qualified person to write this book. Include specialized education that mirrors your work and awards or qualifications pertaining to your genre or topic.
4. Outline what it is you’ll need from the publishing house to complete the book (i.e. access to exclusive libraries or hard to obtain documents.)
5. Include marketing ideas you have for your work. The more prepared you seem about a long-term, finished project, the more willing a house will be to work with you.
When marketing your work, keep in mind that you can never over solicit your manuscript. Include in your cover letters to short story competitions, literary journals, or newspapers that your novel is being considered for publication by a specific publishing house.
Throughout the process of submitting your manuscript to agents, journals, and publishing houses, continue to put your writing out there. Whether it be submitting other work to competitions, updating your fan base about your progress on your personal blog, sharing work at a writers group, or submitting work for publication to TBL, maintaining the status of an active author will certainly further your career.
Query letters differ greatly from cover letters. Cover letters are submitted specifically to literary journals, magazines, or prestigious newspapers.
A cover letter is simple and follows three main points: 3
1. It begins by addressing the editor directly and thanking them for considering your submission (include the title of your work.)
2. Follow with a one sentence summary of your qualifications and/or publishing credit as a writer.
3. Sign with your name or pen name (state that it is your pen name if you include one), email, and mailing address.
A cover letter should be no more than four to five sentences and should not include a summary of your piece. Short fiction does not require a synopsis and is merely meant to introduce yourself to the editor and disclose any qualifications or past competitions you have won that would showcase you as a reputable writer.
For an example of a cover letter, please click here.
Correctly formatting your query letter is the difference between having your work read and having the agent or editing tossing it in the trash. Correct formatting streamlines the process for editors and agents and allows them to read through your work effectively.
These are strict formatting guidelines that should be followed:
Font: 12-point Times New Roman
All paragraphs and headings should be SINGLE SPACED and LEFT ALIGNED.
There should be a double space in between paragraph breaks.
Type your cover letter or query letter on white, 8 ½ x 11 bond paper (if not submitting electronically.)
PROOFREAD VERY CAREFULLY. There should be no grammatical errors, typos, or misspelled words. Have a friend read it over or consider hiring a freelance editor.
Print out your cover letter or query letter using a laser or ink jet printer.
Fold a one page cover letter or query letter into thirds and send in a business-size (#10) envelope.
Book proposals should be sent unfolded in a 9x12 or 10x13 envelope.
Include a return envelope (SASE) that is folded in half inside of the original envelope.
DO NOT send by certified mail. (Publishers will recognize this as unsolicited work from an amateur writer.)
1 Check guidelines for individual agencies, but depending on whether you can submit electronically or by mail, you should only submit a query letter. You should not include the manuscript.
2 If you have included a manuscript, include a self addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) that covers the return cost of your manuscript.
3 Double check particular literary journal requirements on what specifically needs to be included in their cover letter.