How to Write a Successful Query Letter
We all know how much work it takes to finish a manuscript. Sleepless nights, blank pages, running out of the shower to jot down a brilliant idea—it’s hard, exhausting, and demanding, but for some reason, you’re compelled to keep going because it’ll be worth it. One day, you put the last period in the last sentence, and suddenly, you’re done. You’ve written a book! Take a moment to celebrate. But wait… it’s not quite over yet. So now what? If you want to publish your manuscript, you’re just getting started.
First, you want to have your manuscript proofread by a professional. Don’t attempt this yourself just because you passed all the grammar tests at school. Even if you’re a grammar expert, it’s exceedingly difficult to proofread your own work since you’re too familiar with it. You absolutely need that pair of fresh eyes.
Next, you must decide whether you’re taking the self-publishing route or pursuing traditional publishing. If you choose the latter, your next step is querying a literary agent. Although it’s technically possible to publish traditionally without a literary agent, it’s extremely difficult, and many large publishers won’t even consider authors who don’t have agents.
After compiling a list of relevant agents (we can help with that, too), it’s time to put together your query package, whose main component is the query letter. You can write it yourself, use a template, or hire a professional to write it for you. No matter how you approach it, your query letter is arguably the most crucial element of your publishing journey besides your manuscript. So, let’s take a look at what makes a successful query letter.
What is a query letter?
Let’s start with the basics. Simply put, a query letter is like a resumé for your book—it’s a marketing tool used to sell your manuscript to a potential literary agent. It will be the first piece of writing they read when considering a new client, so it has to be perfect. Much like how the purpose of a resumé is to secure a job interview, the purpose of a query letter is to prompt the agent to request your full manuscript.
Do your research
Thorough research is one of the most important aspects of succeeding in the traditional publishing industry. As a writer, you have to know all about the agents and publishers you’re querying, be up to date with industry standards, and scope out the competition. Don’t just fire out a generic query letter to every available agent you find on the internet—confirm that your prospective agents work within your genre and style, make a note of their other clients, and check (and double-check) their submission guidelines. Explore their website if they have one, and peruse their social media profiles to glean some insight into their personality. You’ll be working closely with your agent, so you want to get along with them. Basically, you need to learn as much about them as you can to personalize your query letter and show that you know what you’re doing.
Knowing and understanding your own book thoroughly is also incredibly important as you need to prove that you are clued up on your target audience, have a grasp on the current market, and are capable of doing a good job of promoting your book once it’s published. You’ll include the genre and target demographic in your query letter, so you need to know what they are.
Keep it simple and to the point
Your query letter should reflect your style and ability as a writer, so if your book is narrated with dry humor, pull out that style (respectfully!) in your query letter. At the same time, keep in mind that it’s not a synopsis of your manuscript—that’s the other part of your query package. Query letters are meant to hook the agent with the first few sentences, so getting straight to the point in a professional and measured manner is your best bet. Agents are busy and just want to know what you’re pitching—they don’t need to hear your life story. So, don’t be verbose. Write in your style, but be concise.
Your query letter should be formal yet personalized (spell the agent’s name right, for starters), and it should subtly show that you are familiar with their work and trajectory. Look for ways you can personalize the letter and make connections to the individual agent. Needless to say, your query letter has to sell your story without a single typo or grammatical error. Mention the title, genre, length, and target audience of your book in as few words as possible, include an endorsement or a particularly memorable quote from your manuscript, and add any worthy comparisons to other notable books that will make your story stand out from the rest.
Your query letter should also include a short (very short) summary of your book—just the essentials, kind of like a movie trailer—and a short (really short) bio that relates mainly to your writing experience (in case you have any). If you have expertise in an aspect of your story (e.g., you’ve written a detective novel and you’re trained in forensic analysis), mention that as well. Again, you want to keep your letter simple and to the point, but it has to be persuasive and make the agent want to read your book and learn more about you.
Even the most successful writers have faced rejection, so don’t get discouraged if the first agent you pitch doesn’t take you on as a new client. Expect to be rejected initially—nearly everyone is—and be graceful if you decide to respond to any rejections (you don’t have to). Publishing is a highly competitive and saturated industry, and it might take a few tries to reach the right agent for your manuscript, but don’t give up! If, after several attempts, you’re still not going anywhere, it may be time to reevaluate your query letter and manuscript—feel free to reach out to us for advice.
To write a compelling query letter, create several versions of it before sending it out, look up examples online, or check out our query letter packages for traditional publishing to increase your chances of success.