If you want to land a book deal, you will need a literary agent and a book proposal. If you want a particular agent, you need to write an effective query letter to convince that agent to represent you.
The average author might need to send 50 query letters before receiving one reply, but take heart. You can improve your query letter using this article — or you can switch to self-publishing using the myriad of articles available on this site!
Everything you need to craft a great query letter is in this post. Whether you’re selling your first novel or you have decades of writing experience, this guide will help you avoid the slush pile and secure a bona fide literary agent.
- Why a query letter is important
- 5 steps on how to write a query letter
- Dos and don’ts of query letter writing
- Sample query letter outline
- Tips on how to ready your manuscript for agents
Table of contents
Links in this article may earn me a small commission if you use them to purchase a product or service — at no extra cost to you. This has not affected my opinion. However, it helps me continue to write these awesome articles that anyone can read for free!
What is a query letter?
Let’s answer the first question. What is a query letter? A query letter is a concise one-page letter that authors send to prospective literary agents in order to secure their representation. Authors almost always need a literary agent to land a traditional book deal.
Essentially, a query is like a business letter between writers and agents.
Query letters are different from book proposals. When you find the right agent’s attention, they should help you create and send a 20- to 50-page book proposal to traditional publishing houses.
Before that happens, you have to send a successful query letter.
First off, self-publishing is more legitimate than ever. Don’t feel like you have to land a book deal with a traditional publisher to be a real author. (In fact, some self-publishers make more money publishing their own work on Amazon.)
Secondly, securing a prospective agent is incredibly difficult. If you have a larger platform, and you can guarantee 20k pre-sales just on your platform alone, you’ll probably find an agent within your first 50 query letters sent.If you don’t have a major platform, you could send 1,000,000 query letters and only receive rejection and empty silence in return. It’s fair to say your odds of landing an agent are 1 in 6,000.
With that in mind, you can decide if you need to write a query letter. If you’re still looking to go with traditional publishing, you need to write a stellar query letter to snag an agent. Representation by an agent is critical to securing a book deal.
If you’re fine with self-publishing, you will likely never have to worry about query letters.
Why are query letters important? Query letters are important because authors use these letters to show literary agents that an aspiring writer is talented and has a story worth telling.
Query letters can also demonstrate that the author has a platform with which they can use to sell more books and can follow directions.
What To Include In Your Query Letter
Every literary agent accepting manuscript submissions has submission guidelines that every submitting author must follow. You need to include everything they ask for and a little extra spice.
What should be included in a query letter? A query letter should include:
- Author name
- Title of book and subtitle
- Agent’s name
- The word “query” in the subject line
- Brief introduction
- Whether your book is part of a series
- Size of your platform (social media, WordPress, YouTube, previous sales, etc.)
- Publishing history (only if it includes anything successful or prestigious)
- Short story summary
- Long summary (if they require it in their submission guidelines)
- Chapter sample (whatever they require in their submission guidelines)
- A gracious outro
- Your phone number, email address, etc. in the email signature
Each agent has slightly different submission guidelines. Your query letters will look similar to one another, but with slight differences in layout every time.
For example, one agent may ask for a 2-sentence bio and the first 5 chapters of your manuscript. Another agent might ask for a 3- to 5-sentence bio and the first 2,000 words of your manuscript.
Occasionally, an agent might not request “query” in the email’s subject line, but I recommend you always include this word in the email header.
I’m convinced that literary agents are just trying to confuse new authors with unnecessarily complicated guidelines, hoping to arbitrarily weed out less experienced authors and favor writers who can hire a professional ghostwriter to craft their query letter.
Literary agents, unfortunately, serve as a medium between authors and traditional publishers — a remnant of legacy media’s heyday. Some might argue that agents are no longer needed, nor even traditional publishing companies.
Traditional media certainly haven’t adapted or evolved with the changing times. Why should they remain relevant?
Crafting Your Query Letter In 5 Steps
When crafting your perfect query letter, you always need to remember that each agent has slightly different submission guidelines.
How do you write a query letter? You write a query letter by following the submission guidelines, presenting yourself as a marketable author, and connecting with the agent through personalization and a compelling hook.
Below are 5 clear, actionable steps that you should take to craft your query letter.
Step 1: Creatively Connect With the Agent
You need to connect with the agent in a great query letter. Agents’ eyes have been trained to spot red flags, incorrect names, robotic query letter template fodder, and overall bullcrap. Break through their thick skin with some personalization.
Refer to each specific agent by their name. If you copy and paste sections from another query letter, you may want to add a layer of protection by searching for other agents’ names and replacing them.
Tell the agent why you’re contacting them. Don’t say they were on a long list of prospects in the science fiction genre or employ another generic statement that doesn’t cultivate connection.
Instead, mention if you had a referral, or if you love the authors this agent already represents, or if you found their personal bio inspiring. (Don’t lie, obviously.)
You should only query agents who express interest in representing the same genre, category, and scope as your manuscript.
Do anything in your power to make this query letter not sound like you copied and pasted a template or a previous letter. Agents can tell.
Step 2: Draw Them In With a Dazzling Hook
Some query letter examples start with a strong hook from the story. Other query letters from bestselling authors may begin with an individualized connection between the writer and agent. A few may feature stunning bios in the first paragraph.
No matter what the hook of the letter, you need the hook to feature in the first paragraph, preferably the first sentence.
Examples of hooking an agent with the first paragraph:
- “Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond. Seven years later, violence is her native tongue in a time when an ounce of fresh water is worth more than gold and firewood equals life during bitter rural winters. Death wanders the countryside in many forms: thirst, cholera, coyotes, and the guns of strangers.” -writer Mindy McGinnis, accepted by agent Adriann Ranta
- “Saturday night, I was participating in a fundraiser for the King County Library System out here in the Pacific Northwest, and I met your client, Layne Maheu. He spoke very highly of you and suggested that I contact you.” -writer Garth Stein, accepted by agent Jeff Kleinman
- “I am a psychiatrist, published author, and expert for the national media seeking representation for my memoir titled, Queen of the Road: The True Tale of 47 States, 22,000 Miles, 200 Shoes, 2 Cats, 1 Poodle, a Husband, and a Bus with a Will of Its Own. Because you are interested in unique voices, I thought we’d be a good match.” -writer Doreen Orion, accepted by agent Mollie Glick
In the first example, the story hooks you right away. The second example establishes an immediate connection with the agent via a genuine referral. In the third example, Doreen Orion hooks the agent with impressive credentials, a bonkers title, and a personalized touch.
Your hook can be any number of elements, not just a story hook. However, whatever your angle, you need a hook.
Step 3: Create a Compelling Synopsis
Your compelling synopsis should connect the agent with your main character right away. I say character before story because character development has always been more captivating to readers than story. Remember, agents are like expert readers.
Your story needs to be intriguing as well. Don’t shy away from spoilers. Agents expect spoilers. Most agents dislike when authors withhold plot points from them in the name of maintaining the mystery.
Pro tip: Spoil your book to your agent, and don’t worry about spoiler alerts. Present the twists and surprises in your story as excitingly as possible within just a one-page letter.
Because the following details are seldom interesting, but they’re still necessary, include these manuscript facts near the end of your query letter:
- Whether this book is part of a series
- Genre or subject matter
- Subgenre, if applicable
- Word count
Check out this video on how to bring your characters to life. Subscribe to my YouTube channel if you want more videos on writing a great book and making it an author.
Step 4: Showcase Yourself In a Short Bio
Don’t be modest, yet don’t be arrogant. There is a middle ground where you can show how qualified you are to write a book and sell it, yet sound pleasant to work with.
You can include qualifications, such as a Master’s degree in Creative Writing, or a feature in a prominent magazine, such as The Atlantic.
You should not waste time including menial details like where you grew up, your family life, or your current source of income (unless it is vital to the subject matter of your book). You can also skip over what kind of books you love to read unless this specific agent represents those books.
When querying agents to represent a nonfiction book, your qualifications are almost as salient as your platform. A nonfiction query should sell yourself as the expert author more than a fiction query would need to.
Step 5: Close Graciously
You should close with grace and dignity — or maybe a little humor if it’s appropriate for your genre.
Instead of the cliche “Sincerely,” you can close with “Thank you for your time” and end with your email signature. “I look forward to hearing from you” is also appropriate. Whatever you choose, the closing should leave a good taste in the agent’s mouth.
If the agent’s submission guidelines called for attachments in the email, mention those attachments in the closing paragraph.
Your email signature should contain pertinent contact information, even including your email address. If your query letter is a separate DOCX file or a snail mail letter, you may include your contact info at the top of the page, centered.
Dos and Don’ts of Query Letters for a Literary Agent
Besides these 5 basic steps of crafting a query letter, there are some dos and don’ts that you should keep in mind when querying literary agents.
- Mention any significant platform you possess
- List any impressive qualifications, such as an MFA or a previous bestseller
- Get to the point right away
- Start your query letter with a hook
- Start your story with a hook
- Introduce yourself in the letter
- Include your contact information in your email signature (or at the top of the letter)
- Proofread your query letter for typos
- Make sure the agent accepts manuscripts in your genre
- Address the agent by name
- Add a personal touch to individualize each agent’s letter
- Follow up a few months later (graciously, and only after the period of time they estimated it would take them to read your query)
- Ignore the submission guidelines
- Sound arrogant
- Mention how old you are
- Begin with “To whom it may concern:”
- Sell yourself, or your manuscript, short
- Send your full manuscript
- Send any portion of the manuscript without proper formatting
- Waste time with meaningless pleasantries (such as “I know how busy you are,” or, “I’m so excited to be querying a literary agent,” or, “I hope this letter finds you well, Mrs. Agent.”)
Sample Query Letter Outline
- Hook the agent. This can be a plot point, a fascinating personal fact, or even an interesting connection between you and the agent.
- Quickly introduce the book. If your hook is story-related, you can combine these two bullet points. If not, you need to briefly but intriguingly introduce your book, particularly your main character(s) and why the agent should care about them.
- Write the best synopsis you’ve ever written. In 3-5 paragraphs, lay out every central plot point from your story, focusing on how it affects your main character. Don’t leave any mystery unanswered. Agents expect to be spoiled.
- Insert bio here. Your author bio may include any impressive writing credentials, relevant publishing history, and author platform through which you mean to market your book. All your bio needs is a hook, like an interesting fact that invests the agent in you as the writer.
- Connect with the agent. Agents can tell when you copied and pasted a query letter template. Make every query letter personalized. Show that you’ve researched the agent. If you’ve read any of the authors that the agent represents, mention that you love their work. Referrals are probably the best method of connection, but those can be hard to come by.
- Say goodbye with professional dignity. Your closing paragraph can include boring but necessary details like word count and subgenre, mention any attachments you attached according to their submission guidelines, or simply, “Thank you for your time and consideration.”
What To Do After You've Submitted Your Query
After you've submitted the query, it can feel nerve-wracking to just sit around and wait for a response, but we want to make sure we don't get over-eager. Constantly peppering the agent for replies is the quickest way to get a good query letter thrown out.
Instead, wait. If the agent has a listed response time, wait for that amount of time. If not, wait one month, then re-inquire. If you submitted by snail mail, you might also want to include another copy of your query. If you don't hear back within another month, you should assume they have rejected you, and move on to the next possibility.
Watch out for agents that reply and ask for an exclusive read of your manuscript. If this is the case, it means that you can't submit to anyone else while they're reading your work. I would not agree to this unless it is a short waiting period, i.e. a month or less.
However, exclusive reads are uncommon, but you should let them know if you are submitting to other agents as well. If one gives you an offer, go to the second and let them know. You might be able to get a better offer from them.
A Note on Finding Publishing Companies
One of the best ways to find successful publishing companies is to analyze the genre for your book and see what other companies are publishing books in that genre.
If you're doing this manually, this can take a very long time, and you'll end up finding a lot of other companies that aren't really great.
Thankfully, there's a tool that makes it easy to see all of the major publishers for the bestsellers of any genre.
That tool is Publisher Rocket.
With Rocket's category analysis tool, you can easily find a list of publishers for any genre by doing the following:
- Finding your desired category/genre through the Category Search
- Clicking on the “Insights” link
- Hover over the “i” icon under the Large Publisher tile
- Find a list of large publishers in that genre
A lot of these publishing companies will be traditional publishers, so you can reach out to them if you want a traditional publishing deal. Or you might find some hidden gems, like lesser known but successful small publishers.
And if your manuscript is accepted, congratulations! Give yourself a nice pat on the back for all the good work and get started writing the next book!