If you’ve decided to go the traditional path to publishing, query letters are something you’ll have to master.
To say the thought of writing a query letter overwhelmed me is an understatement. It’s a scary step, and one that any Google search will tell you is vitally important that you get right.
Along with the “rules” on what a good query letter should contain, and how high the stats for getting a manuscript read based off a query letter can be (you know, just in case you forgot for a second how hard getting traditionally published is), my Google search led to enough good writing tips that I was able to craft a query that—more often than not—gets responses asking for more.
Based on this, my number one tip for crafting a query letter that works is that it needs to just be about the book.
While it might be obvious since you’re trying to sell your book that that is what your query letter should be about, what I’m taking about is making the query letter completely about the book.
Don’t open with “Dear So-and-So, my name is…, I’ve got a degree in this, I’ve been writing forever, please look at my book…”. Or telling them how your book is the next big thing and they’re getting a unique opportunity to read something great. Open the query straight on the book. Sell the book, not yourself.
Here’s the opening of the query letter for my YA supernatural series:
Dear (insert agent/publisher name),
They always felt so real to seventeen-year-old Josh Taylor, the dreams that haunted him after losing his parents in a car accident. Especially after the appearance of Kallie, a girl trapped in the nightmares with him. With her blood-stained hands she shows him the surreal; a blue glow that she says is magic. It’s an ancient power that she tells him they share.
Notice that it opens straight into the action of the book. From there, the query is a mini synopsis outlining other major aspects of the story, but not the ending—leaving the agent/publisher wanting more.
The query then closes with the title, genre, word count, and that a synopsis, sample chapter or full manuscript is available upon request.
The only changes I’ve made to this query letter since first using it over a year ago is to add a quote from an editor who assessed the manuscript, saying that it is: “An exceptionally strong draft with a well constructed, compelling story, engaging characters and absorbing writing.”
I’ve added this quote to show that a professional in the field thought the work was good, and that I’m serious enough about the book to have it assessed, lending some credibility to it. I have not and would not add any feedback that comes from family, friends or beta readers (no matter how great it is).
Every agent I’ve contacted with this query letter, bar one that gave no response, has asked to see sample chapters.
The beauty of this type of query is that it jumps straight in, gives a sense of wanting more, and doesn’t waste anyone’s time. The agent/publisher gets an immediate idea of what you’re pitching, what your writing style is like, and you don’t bore them with details they don’t need to know at this stage.
If you get them interested in the story or characters in the query, chances are that they will want to see more. Other ways to ensure that your query letter works is to…
- Write in your voice. Show off your writing skills.
- Ensure it’s formatted correctly and looks professional. No crazy fonts, colors or pictures.
- Offer more—sample chapters, whole MS, but don’t automatically include them as attachments unless specifically told to/asked.
- Check for any specific query directions, and make sure you include them.
- Don’t harass for a follow up.
- Follow up any rejections with a polite “Thank you for your consideration.”
- Always have another agent/publisher to move on to when you don’t hear back/are rejected.
- If you’re submitting to multiple agents at a time, keep track of who you submitted to.
- Make sure the agent you’re submitting to represents the genre of the book you’re pitching.
- Regularly review your query letter. If you aren’t getting any response at all, rework it.
- Have your full MS, sample chapters and synopsis updated and ready to go.
- Make sure the query is free of typos.
- Give yourself a time limit. Decide if you’re going to send off queries for a specific length of time or until you reach a certain number of queries. I spent one full year querying agents, and then switched to my current process of querying publishers.
- Keep your mind busy with other writing projects while you wait.
- Keep track of submissions using Excel, Word or Notepad. Note down the contact details, what was sent and the dates. You can then write down any rejections, and cross that particular agent/publisher off your list.
Finish off your query letter with a polite, “Thank you for your time and consideration,” and good luck!
– K.M. Allan