Writing A Novel Query Letter

I’ve been reading up on the query process, and am compiling a list of tips I find most helpful, common questions and answers, and conjectures I’ve drawn in my own research on the making of an effective query.

Treat your query letter as if life (that of your book, anyway) depended on it. The query letter is your introduction. If it is weak, your synopsis and sample pages (if the agency even wants them with the initial query) won’t be read. Instead they’ll go to straight to the Slush Pile, AKA Manuscript Limbo.

You wind up here, you might as well be a veteran waiting for benefits.

Think about all of the work you give your manuscript: the revisions, the cuts, the rewrites, the trial-and-error, the air-proofing, the beta readers, the additional revisions, the polishing. If you want your query letter to gleam and sparkle the way your actual book does and be a strong representative of your writing, be prepared to give it similar efforts.

In one query blog I found, The Rejecter (let the name be a lesson), the eponymous literary assistant says she rejects 95% of what she sees based on queries. Aspiring novelists, ye have been warned.

There is no “right”/one-size-fits-all query letter.  Different sources and different agents have different opinions about the best approach to A or B or any given aspect of query letters. For example, Huffington Post says to open a query letter with the facts: “Please consider my [genre] novel of [word count] words about [your plot in a pinprick],” while many agents, in their critiques of actual queries, have praised effective “hook” openings. (I submit for your consideration exhibits A, B, and C— check out the Writer’s Digest Successful Queries series for more.) Different sources will also feel differently about what your author bio should consist of (or whether to include one at all!), where your book-classifying information should go, how to mention your book is the first in a series, etc., etc., etc. The good news: with the Powerful, All-Knowing Internet on your side, you can

Learn as much about the agent/agency you are submitting to as you can before submitting. This is probably a given, as you’ll have to match agents to your target genres and audiences anyway, but consider all that you might learn by scouring the internet: not only submission guidelines and the books an agent or agency has represented (information that is invaluable to you for personalizing each query and reaching/resonating with agents), but perhaps even what what a particular agent likes to see in query letters and pitfalls to avoid. That said,

The personalized query is an effective one. As Nathan Bransford says, efforts to personalize can go a long way. Research about the agent and the books they’ve represented gives you a better idea of how your book fits with them, then, mentioned in your query, will both pique the agent’s interest and demonstrate that you’ve done your homework. This makes the prospect of building a business relationship with you more appealing.

How long should a query be? Again, there is no magic “right” length or word count, but as Nathan Bransford and his statistic analysis of 180 queries received shows, between 250-350 words seems to be a lucrative sweet spot.

What should a novel query letter contain? Huffington Post suggests a formulaic approach to this with a clear four parts– opening, synopsis, author bio, and appreciation– but after all my background reading (again, check out the WD Successful Queries series, and countless other examples on The Boundless Information Hub) I’ve concluded that the parts of a query letter can really go in almost any order, if done effectively. That said, I would suggest a checklist for information/paragraphs your query should contain (again, not in any particular order):

  1. The hard information about your book: title. Genre. Word count.
  2. Who your target audience is (implied or stated directly); an effective synopsis can say it without, ya know, saying it.
  3. Possibly: comparative titles. (I was surprised by how few of the successful queries actually used them. But they are great for classifying tricky genres, giving the agent an idea of who your book might appeal to, and demonstrating that there is a market for your book.)
  4. Your novel’s setting (inside or outside the synopsis).
  5. If your book the first in a series, mention that. See relevant point below.
  6. The synopsis. Obviously.
  7. Your author bio (or not). See relevant point below.
  8. A simple thanks/gratitude to the agent for consideration.
  9. Standard contact information for reaching you.
  10. What’s enclosed (if relevant) and/or what you will be glad to send on (relevant to the agent’s guidelines) at the agent’s request.

Yeeeah, about that author bio. What if I don’t have any credentials? There are many takes on this question, but I like Noah Lukeman’s answer best. Lukeman suggests, rather than trying to fill space or spit shine some non-impressive accomplishments, that you don’t say anything. This might initially seem counter-intuitive, but think about it: in excluding a weak bio, you’re trimming excess content (a skill that agents value); saying nothing won’t draw any more attention to the fact that you have nothing to say than a few frill-filled sentences would (and makes a neater presentation); even Bransford’s Query Letter Mad Lib counts author credits as optional.

How should I present my book when it’s the first in a series? Again, answers vary. Chuck Sambuchino suggests a delicate, open-minded approach: wise phrasing can indicate both that the book could stand on its own AND has the potential to grow into something more. Present yourself and your book as options-open and there’s a much better chance that someone will want to form a work relationship with you. However, some agents like to see confidence, too.

Well– I think that about covers it for the basics in the contents of a query letter. What am I missing? What have you learned in your own research and/or query submissions? Feel free to share below!

8 thoughts on “Writing A Novel Query Letter

    • You’re very welcome. Thank you, Sky, for the good wishes!

      As to self-publishing: I am open-minded to it, but definitely my first preference is traditional publishing. There are people out there who have had great success with self-publishing, and I applaud them– but from what I understand there are certain advantages (having to do with promotion, expenses, distribution, etc.) to traditional. Plus– isn’t the dream to be able to walk into a bookstore and one day pick up your own book from the shelf? (Far less common with self-publishing as they tend to reach smaller audiences.)

      You know, traditional vs. self-publishing is something I should research more. If “Shifters” doesn’t take with agents, I’m certainly not calling it quits!

  1. Great post. I think the Query letter is so dreaded because it is your one and only shot at impressing an agent. What I keep hearing over and over again from agents who talk about query letters is that is had to have absolutely NO mistakes, because it is short they expect it to be perfect. And to address them by name – No, Dear Agent.

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