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 the type of agent you’re contacting and the genre of your manuscript. TBL offers the unique opportunity to have an editor assist with the composition of your query letter and help you decide where to send your query letter once you have achieved the rank of Publisher.
There are four primary types of query letters:
- Query for Representation for Fiction Manuscripts (sent to literary agents)
- Query for Unsolicited Publication (sent to publishing houses)
- Query for Nonfiction Book (sent to agents or houses)
- Query to Literary Journals and Contests (called Cover Letters)
Query Letter for Representation
For Fiction Manuscripts:
Submitting your work for representation takes research. You should narrow your search to approximately ten potential agents. Pay 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:
- Before you begin your letter, your contact information should be in the top left hand corner. Include your full name, address, phone number, and email.
- Your first paragraph should be your hook. Your hook is made up of one to three sentences (roughly 100 words) that tells an agent what your book is about, spotlighting what is unique and interesting.
- The second paragraph should be a more in-depth glimpse of your book. Include the title, length, and genre. This should be a mini-synopsis, no longer than 300 words.
- The last paragraph should list your qualifications as a writer. Include your 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. Make it as strong, concise, and professional as possible. If the agent likes what he or she reads in your query, you will be contacted to send sample chapters, a longer synopsis, or the entire manuscript.
While your first two paragraphs are strictly about your story and a glimpse of it, 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. Never send out mass queries. Make sure to address each letter to the specific agent and try to cater the letter as much as possible to him or her.
For Nonfiction Books:
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, cutting upfront costs such as accessing exclusive libraries or difficult documents.
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 book.
When composing a proposal, remember to include:
- A detailed description of your novel:
- A cover letter introducing yourself and the work that you have included.
- If chosen as an outline, include a: one page summary of each chapter, 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
- 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.
- 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.)
- Include marketing ideas you have for your work. The more prepared you seem to invest in a long-term, finished project, the more willing a house will be to work with you.
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, your email address, the 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 by an agent is just as likely as rejection by a literary journal or publishing house. There are many reasons why an agent might decline to represent you, but you should continue on and move forward with your search.
An Insider’s Tip:
Never state in a query letter that you have “just finished your manuscript.” A reputable agent is not looking for a fresh-from-the-first-novel writer. Make it sound as if you’ve completed your manuscript ages ago and have been perfecting it (in fact, this is what you should be doing). This displays a sense of dedication and healthy work ethic, and an agent will be more eager to work with you as a result.
Query for Publication
For an Unsolicited Fiction Manuscript:
New writers should seek an agent for representation when soliciting their first novel, unless of course, they are primarily focusing their publishing aspirations on independent publishing houses (larger publishing houses do not accept unsolicited work). Query letters for independent publishers are very similar to those written for literary agencies:
- Include your contact information in the top left-hand corner (name, address, phone number, and email).
- Address your letter to the chief editor of the publishing house.
- Include a brief three-sentence synopsis of your story to hook an editor.
- 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.
- Describe your qualifications as a writer and explain why you are a good fit for this particular publishing house. Reference other authors the publishing house represents and the matching style or genre.
- End with a sentence that informs the editor that you have either included or can send the first three chapters of your novel.
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 “How Independent Publishing Works.”) 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.
Check guidelines for individual agencies, but typically you should only submit a query letter—not a manuscript. If you have included a manuscript, include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) that covers the return cost of your manuscript.
For Literary Journals and Contests:
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. You should:
- Begin by addressing the editor directly and thanking them for considering your submission (include the title of your work).
- Follow with a one-sentence summary of your qualifications and/or publishing credit as a writer.
- 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. Double check the requirements for particular literary journals to find out what specifically needs to be included in their cover letter.
Formatting for All Types of Queries
Correctly formatting your query letter can make the difference between having your work read and having it tossed 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:
- For font, use 12-point Times New Roman
- All paragraphs and headings should be SINGLE SPACED and LEFT ALIGNED.
- There should be a double space 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 9×12 or 10×13 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.
Closing Notes about Marketing
When marketing your work, keep in mind that you can never over-solicit your manuscript. Throughout the process of submitting your manuscript to agents, journals, and publishing houses, continue to put your writing out there. Whether you’re 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 your status as an active author will further your career.
Dani Hedlund published her first novel, Threads of Deception, at the age of eighteen. Experiencing the difficulties of breaking into the market, she founded TBL in 2007 to help other new writers perfect and publish their works. Offering free writing coaching, editing, and publishing guidance, Hedlund expanded TBL into a global community of writers, editors, and artists. In 2010, she pushed the company to new heights, creating TBL’s literary journal, Tethered by Letters Quarterly Literary Journal which has since evolved into F(r)iction Series (published by Sheridan Press), a literary and art collection that pushes the boundaries of conventional storytelling.
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