My writing life focuses heavier on pitching articles than querying agents but I get asked how to write a query letter more than you’d think. For people who have a book in their head (or on their hard drive) and want to know how to get it to an agent or a publisher, you are asking the right question. If you want to publish you need to know how to write a query letter. And yes, I’ll help you figure out how.
Today I’m focusing on querying book ideas to agents or editors but much of this applies to querying article ideas and guest posts to magazines or websites.
But first, a story
In 2017 I had a goal of querying an agent with my non-fiction book idea so I had to write a query letter. While this isn’t my first query letter it is one I’m pretty happy with and will continue using.
I brought my query letter with me to a writing conference I attended but ended up giving verbal pitches rather than passing out my letter. This is normal, by the way, which leads me to my first tip.
Tip 1: When you meet with agents or editors you pitch. When you email agents or editors you query. There’s a difference
This is your first lesson: you need a query letter and a pitch. But before you stress out I have good news, the pitch is part of the query. Hooray!
Writing a query letter means you’re leaving the safe daydream world of being a published author and entering into the scary real world of selling your work. This is where you need to step back and start looking at your work as a product. Which leads me to my second tip.
Tip 2: You can’t be precious about your writing or your ideas. This is a tough industry
Writing is personal but professional writers learn how to let go of their work and let it take on a life of its own. They grow thick skin and aren’t threatened when their ideas are rejected or their writing gets shredded by critique groups or editors. Getting shredded, while painful, is good for you. It improves your writing. Because—news flash—you can always improve.
If you approach the query process with the idea that your book is 100 per cent finished and perfect just the way it is you are going to have a ROUGH time out there in the real world. So get past that sooner rather than later. Be open to edits. Be open to critique. Be open to improving.
How to write a query letter
There’s a lot of advice out there for writing query letters. What I’m outlining today is what I’ve found to be the most effective format for query letters and what I’ve heard the most agents ask for.
Think of a query letter as a one-page business letter with three paragraphs.
- Your first paragraph is intro. You’ll list what category your work falls under, its title, and estimated word count. You’ll also explain what your work is about. Keep it brief!
- Your second paragraph is your pitch. Here you’ll deliver a clear and immediate gist of what your work is about. The goal? Make the agent or editor want more. This is sales, razzle-dazzle, back-cover book copy magic. This is your BEST writing
- Your third paragraph is about you. Who you are, why you’re qualified to write the book, and what you have going for you. Yes it may feel a bit braggy but if you have 1,000,000 Instagram followers who will buy your book once it’s published…you want people to know
Your query letter has one purpose: to get the agent or editor to request your work. Keep it tight, keep it simple, and keep it focused on selling your work.
While this is a great formula for how to write a query letter, you can’t just one-and-done it. Which brings me to my third point.
Tip 3: Before you send your query letter, do some research
While you can create a general query letter, and you should, you should do some research on the agents and editors you’re querying before you send it to them. I have two reasons why.
Reason one: Many agents have specific submission guidelines and you should follow them. You can find these guidelines on their website—so do yourself a favour and put in a few extra minutes of research before hitting send.
Reason two: Not all agents or editors are looking for the same things. They’ll list what genres they’re interested in on their websites, they’ll Tweet what they’re searching for (#MSWL), and they’ll tell you to your face if they think it will sell. If you’re pitching a non-fiction book to an agent looking for paranormal romance…there is no point. You don’t have a chance. Increase your odds by finding agents and editors who are picking up what you’re putting down. Respect them by paying attention and doing some research ahead of time.
At the last writing conference I attended, there was one literary agent I wanted to meet. I’ve followed her on Twitter for years and didn’t want to miss the opportunity. So I did my research. I paid attention to what she was talking about on social media in the months leading up to the conference. I tailored my pitch to the exact metrics listed on her literary agency’s website (side note, this is a great template), and I researched other authors the agency represented in case there were any similarities to what I was pitching. When I arrived at my pitch appointment I was ready. I had researched, I had personalized my pitch, and I gave it my best shot.
Was it a lot of work? Not really, although it sounds like it when I list it all here. Mostly it just meant me paying attention and putting the work in rather than mindless scrolling and wishing. Could I do this for all the agents at the conference? No. So you want to choose with care. Which agents are the best fit for you? Which ones are looking for what you’re writing? Which ones do you believe will help your career gain momentum? Pay attention to those ones.
Put yourself in their shoes
Imagine if you were the agent getting 100 pitches thrown at you at a writing conference. Yes, you’re looking for new titles and new authors but not 100. You have 200 more queries waiting for you when you get home with more arriving every day. You’re looking for reasons to say no. So who will you say yes to? The authors who make it easy. The ones who make it personal to you. The ones who have done their research and are a great fit. The ones whose books you think you can sell.
I hope you feel a little less confused about writing a query letter. There is other advice out there and if you find something that works better for you, all good! But whatever you do, do your research and don’t get precious. And have fun!