How to Write a Query Letter That Works

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Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

If you want to pursue a traditional publishing deal, then the first thing you need to do is to get a literary agent . Like it or not, agents are the gatekeepers in the publishing industry, as most publishers will not accept manuscripts from un-agented authors.

So how do you get an agent? Well, one way is to go to a book conference and meet one and try to talk to them face-to-face. Many times, agents will tell authors they meet at such conferences and workshops that they can send them their manuscript afterwards.

If you lack the ability to get to a writers’ conference, then you’ll have to do what most authors do: query an agent via email or through a form like QueryTracker . In either case, an agent will require a query letter.

What is a query letter?

Although the contents of query letters are fairly standardized, writing a query letter that gets results is an art form — one that requires practice and feedback. And before we define what a query letter is, it is important to state this: Agents do not want you to send them a full manuscript right off the bat.

If you send an unsolicited manuscript, an agent will not read it. They get too many queries from authors every day and they don’t have time to open a random manuscript and start reading it. Instead, they want to know who you are and what your book is about. In short, they want to know if they can sell your book: Hence the query letter.

A query letter is simply a brief introduction. It quickly gives the agent the information they need to decide if they think they can sell your book. If they are interested in you and your book, they will contact you and request either a partial or full manuscript.

What should you do before you write a query letter?

Every agent is different — they all want different things. Not just different kinds of books, but they all want different things in their queries.

So, before you write a query letter, do your research. Go to sites like Manuscript Wish List and search for agents who are open to queries and actively seeking your kind of book. Once you find a bunch of these agents, go to their agency websites and make notes on what each agent wants. This will inform how you approach writing a query for each person.

How do you write a query letter?

There are a few standard elements that go into every query letter; however, every query letter is different. That’s because every author, every book, every agent, and every situation is different. And because there is so much pressure on an author to write a perfect query letter — and so much competing advice on how to do so — authors often lose sight of the purpose of this letter.

So, as you read on, keep in mind that the sole purpose of your query letter is to let the agent know two things: you can write and your book is marketable. That’s it. Whether you lead your query letter with the plot summary or the housekeeping or important information about you ultimately doesn’t matter as long as whatever you write immediately conveys that your book is marketable and that you are a great writer.

With that in mind, these are the elements that go into writing a query letter.

The greeting

Keep it simple and informal. Use the agent’s first name. “Dear Anne,” is perfect.

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Important personal information

If you met the agent at a conference, this is where you should mention that.

Dear Anne,
I met you at the SCBWI conference and you suggested I contact you after the conference was over.

If you have a mutual acquaintance — who is an industry figure — this would be the best way to begin your letter.

Dear Anne,
Rubin Sawyer at Shore Publishing suggested I contact you regarding my manuscript…

If this manuscript has won an award — a major award, not some local award that won’t have any meaning outside of your community — this would be a great way to begin your letter.

Dear Anne,
I am seeking representation for my novel, She Knows Too Much, which won the 2024 Prepublished Maggie Award.

If none of that is true, then proceed to the next element.

Housekeeping

This is a single sentence that includes your book’s title, genre, and word count (rounded to the nearest thousand).

Dear Anne,
I am seeking representation for my novel,
She Knows Too Much, an 82,000-word psychological thriller.

You do not have to begin your letter with housekeeping. In fact, the trend these days is to start with the plot summary and include the housekeeping as your final paragraph, but beginning with housekeeping is a perfectly respectable way to lead off a query — especially if the agent you are querying has mentioned that they are looking for your exact kind of book.

For example, if you found an agent (Anne) who said they are seeking a YA urban fantasy set in Boston and you have written just such a book, then do not bury the lede:

Dear Anne,
I am seeking representation for
The Mystics of Fenway, a 90,000-word YA urban fantasy set in Boston.

The book summary

This is by far the hardest part of writing a query. It’s where you explain what your book is about in as succinct and compelling a manner possible.

In your book summary , you need to convey:

Plus, you have to do all of this with strong writing that clearly expresses your voice, or at least the voice of your novel.

Oh, and you need to do all of this in 200-250 words.

On the plus side, you do not have to explain your subplots or your secondary characters. You do not have to do any worldbuilding, though you should mention the setting, especially if you’ve written a sci-fi, fantasy, or historical novel.

Here is a great example of a plot summary from a successful query for the book She Came from Beyond by Nadine Darling, which I found in this Writer’s Digest article .

In the span of one winter, Easy Hardwick, hostess of the popular public access sci-fi parody show “It Came from Beyond” discovers two things, that her new boyfriend, Harrison, has a wife and two children, and that she is pregnant with his twins. By summer, this accidental homewrecker is sharing her own nest with Harrison and his entire family, including Joan, his brilliant, fresh-from-the-sanitarium wife.

In this skewered ballad of the Chick-lit anti-heroine, Easy is forced to face the awkward and often humorous reality of her new life just as her TV show is picked up by the SYFY Network. She is hopelessly in love, overcome with guilt, slightly morning sick, and desperately, desperately determined to set things right in the end.

In just 122 words, Nadine Darling lays out protagonist, her conflict, the setting, and the stakes, and does so with humor and nice turns of phrase. No wonder this letter got her representation.

Comparable titles (optional)

Believe it or not, having a book that is completely original isn’t the selling point you think it is. Agents want to sell books, and it’s much easier to sell a book that is similar to other books than one that is wildly original. Think of how Amazon includes a “Products related to this item” section on every page. If your book is kind of similar to another book (or two), that’s actually a good thing.

As such, some agents will ask you to include two or three comparable titles (comps).

When it comes to comps, you want to cite recent books (in the last 3-5 years) that have been successful, but not huge bestsellers. You especially want to mention books that are first novels. (This also shows the agent that you know the market well.)

Do not cite classics: No Jane Austen, Dickens, or Lovecraft. Do not cite current giants like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Brandan Sanderson.

If you have put your housekeeping section at the end of your query, then this is the perfect place to include your comps:

The Source of all Her Woes is complete at 95,000-words and will appeal to fans of voicey thrillers like Sadie by Courtney Summers and dystopian romances like The Princess Trials by Cordelia K. Castel.

Otherwise, simply add it to your letter after the plot summary.

Bio

After your plot summary, you can either place your housekeeping or, if you already included housekeeping at the beginning of your letter, go straight into your author bio . As with your plot summary, less is more. Only include the most pertinent details: if you won a contest or if you have published other books, if you have a huge social media following, etc., these would be worthy of mentioning.

If you have experience that lends credibility to your novel, that would be worth mentioning. For example, if you are a paramedic and your book is about a paramedic, make sure to include that. The agent is unlikely to care where you went to school or that you have been writing since you were a kid. Keep it short and sweet.

Closing

End your letter with:

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Your Name

That’s it.

Things to avoid in your query letter

  • Do not write your query as if you are the main character. For example, “I just wanted to live forever. Little did I know I was doomed to be forgotten by everyone I ever met.”
  • Do not start your query with a question, like, “What if you could live forever, but you were cursed to be forgotten by everyone you met?”
  • Do not tell the agent they will love your book. “I saw you were looking for a book about a woman who makes a Faustian bargain, so I just know you’re going to love my book!”
  • Do not mention your years of hard work. No one cares.
  • Don’t mention your age. There is no upside.
  • Don’t oversell your book. Avoid saying things like, “This is sure to be a best-seller.”
  • Avoid cliches. This is probably the most important piece of advice.

How to send your query

Every agent wants something different. Although some prefer to receive their queries via email, most agents these days use services like QueryTracker. You do not have to be a QT member to submit a query.

If an agent wants their query via email, do not include the query as an attachment. Simply cut and paste the text directly into the email. And actually, your best bet is to paste the text into a plain text editor first and then cut and paste it into the email. This should remove any weird formatting issues from your word processor.

I have never seen an agent who wants to receive a physical query sent via snail mail. It’s possible they exist, but if so, they are in the very small minority.

What else goes in your query besides the letter?

Again, every agent wants different things. Some agents will want the first ten pages of your manuscript, or the first chapter. Some agents will also want you to include a synopsis — a single-page summary of the entire book, including your plot twists and ending. Once again, whatever your agent want is what you should give them.

Should you follow up after sending a query?

Most agents will respond to your query in 4-8 weeks. Some agents — as infuriating as it is considering how much time you’ve invested in querying them — will never respond. You may be tempted to follow up with them, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Not because it’s a breach of etiquette — even though it’s often seen that way — but because for me, if an agent can’t be bothered to get back to me, then I don’t want them representing me.

There are a couple of exceptions to this, however.

If an agent has requested a partial or full manuscript from you, and you haven’t heard back from them in three months, then it’s acceptable to politely nudge them. And yes, I know three months seems like a long time, but welcome to publishing!

If you receive an offer of representation from another agent, then yes, do follow up with an agent, especially if they are your dream agent. Give them two weeks to get back to you. In your email, be sure your subject line reads “NOVEL TITLE — offer of representation”

Another way to use a query letter

Before we go, I just wanted to throw out another possible use for query letters.

Typically, authors don’t start writing their query letters until they’ve finished their books, but I think this is a mistake.

Because a query letter is such an effective tool for distilling your book down to its most crucial aspects, I think it’s a great exercise to write a query letter before you start writing your book. After all, in order to write a successful query letter, you have to identify who your main character is, what they desire, highlight what problems they face, what the central conflict is, what’s going to stop them from succeeding, and what’s at stake. These are all the things you need to know before you start writing. By writing your query letter first, you are making sure you properly understand the most important elements of your book while setting it up to get representation once you’ve finished.

If you are struggling to write a query at this stage, then it means you don’t fully understand your story, which also means you’re probably going to have a hard time writing and/or selling your book down the line. It’s better to figure this stuff out at the beginning.

I’m not saying you can’t revise your query once your book is done. And I’m definitely not saying you should send your query out before your book is done. But I do think a query is a helpful tool to make sure you fully understand the story you’re about to write.

Resources

Here are some resources to help you write a great query letter:

“161 Examples of Successful Query Letters from Famous Authors” (QueryLetter.com)

Query Shark – Agent Janet Reid runs a fantastic blog where she offers query help to aspiring authors and posts her feedback for all to see. This is a great way to learn what works and what doesn’t.

Query letter alternatives

If you are not seeking to get a traditional publishing deal, you can simply avoid writing a query letter altogether and just go ahead and self-publish your book. The folks at BookBaby have several self-publishing packages that include everything you need to get your book into the biggest stores in the world.

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