How do you get your book the attention it deserves? If you want to get your book published by a mainstream publisher, you’re going to need a book agent, which means you’re going to have to write the query letter, a single page cover letter sent to magazine editors and literary agents that introduces you and your book (we’ll focus on book queries in this article). In all, the query letter serves three main functions:
One: To show off your superb writing skills to the agent
Two: To sell the concept behind your book
Three: To prove that you have the clout needed to get the job done and sell your work
If you’ll notice, the first function is based on the quality of your content, while the next two functions are all about the moolah—meaning, you need to prove to the agent that your book will be marketable. Here’s bestselling author Nicholas Sparks on selling yourself in the query letter:
Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write. It’s the first impression and will either open the door or close it. It’s that important, so don’t mess it up. Mine took 17 drafts and two weeks to write.
Take note of his advice before your start writing your query letter: The query letter is more about marketing than art. The primary function of the letter is to sell both your work and your skillset.
Finish Your Query Letter in Four Simple Steps
Step One: Research, Research, Research!
Start this task knowing that this step is going to take lots of long man-hours to complete. The most important part of the query letter is the addressee line–find out which agents in your literary genre would be receptive to your work. To get a jumpstart on this task, I recommend looking for agents through the Association of Authors’ Representatives agent listing. You can also go straight to the source by making a list of your favorite books in your genre and checking which agents represented those authors. You can do this by skimming through the acknowledgment sections in the back of the books. The last option takes a lot of work, but it will help you to get to know some of the agent players in your genre.
Next, you want to take the time to research the submission requirements of each agent. If you don’t take the time to give agents the letter (or email) pitches in the way that they prefer, you ultimately end up getting your bestselling manuscript tossed in the trash.
While you look for the right agents, you want to take the time to make sure that your dream agent doesn’t also work as a scam artist. Many agents claim to help unknown authors by charging them fees upfront—do not fall for this. Agents only make money after you get paid, and do not believe an agent who says otherwise.
Step Two: Use the Query Template
Every query letter should follow the same standard one-page format because that is what agents are using to receiving. The standard format is so important because the entire query process can be sometimes overwhelming for agents: Top-tier agents receive so many query letters per year that it is more efficient for them to weed out writers by basing their rejections on small formatting and grammatical errors than it is to wade through the varying writing styles of every letter that they receive.
Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency has said that her agency receives more than 150 query letters each day, while agent and blogger Nathan Bransford claims to that he receives close to 230 queries per week. Since its not likely that all of those query letter writers got book deals by Nelson and Bransford, it sounds like a lot of those letters manuscripts and ended up in the trash. That’s a lot of recycling!
Know the standard query letter style to avoid (or delay) getting rejected:
- First paragraph: Introduce yourself and your book. List the title, book genre and state if your book is complete.
- Second paragraph: Describe the book. Who are the characters? What makes your story unique?
- Third paragraph: Discuss your credentials. Where have you been published before? Remember, you have to sell yourself in the query letter more than you have to sell your writing idea. How are you qualified to write the book? Do you have the clout or name recognition needed to sell the book?
- Fourth paragraph: Thank the editor, leave your contact information and mention that you included a sample of your work. If you mailed your submission, include a sample (with a self-addressed stamped envelope, also called a SASE) that is at the most 5-7 pages.
Step Three: Find Your Voice
Show off your writing chops in your query letter by writing in the style of your work. For example, if your book is humorous, write an entertaining query letter. Let your writing voice come across in your letter and the agent will notice.
After you finish writing your letter, have at least two trusted friends review your query letter for grammatical spellings because a query letter riddled with spelling mistakes and formatting issues will promptly be tossed in the recycling.
Step Four: Send and Walk Away
Once you finish writing your letter, have friends review it. Next, mail it to the appropriate contact person, you’re going to have to walk away and hope that the agent contacts you if she’s interested. This step is often the hardest for budding writers because it involves completely walking from a project that they love so dearly. Here’s a sad tip: If you didn’t get a response, it is most likely because your work was rejected by the agent. When it comes to query letters, no response often means no, we’re not interested, and it is inappropriate in many agent circles for a writer to follow up on a query letter.
But don’t fret writers: Don’t focus too much on the rejection process. It may be helpful to hear rejection anecdotes from more established writers. William Saroyan received 7,000 rejection slips before selling his first short story. Alex Haley wrote every day for eight years before finding success. Remember that there are more agents out there who may be interested in your work, you just have to keep trying.