I remember the moment like it was yesterday: I had just received news that I had not even placed in a big writing contest I had entered several months before, and I was crushed.
For months I had anticipated the Monday arriving when I would hear the results. For months I had wanted to see my name announced. I had no expectations of winning; I doubted my talent might take me that far. But still I had hoped and dreamed and stared at the circled day on my calendar, eager to see if I had placed.
Then I didn’t. I remember sitting down on the steps of my childhood home that Monday night and realizing I had a choice. To take this in stride as a disappointment not a failure and move on.
I’m not ashamed to say that I considered the latter option. What if I did quit? What if I gave up on my dream of becoming a published novelist? What if I threw in the towel, told no one, and just moved on with my life? I still had one year left of college, plenty of time to get a new dream before graduation.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that the novel I had written, the very one whose first three chapters I had submitted to this large contest and not even placed in, was the very one that would get me published.
So I stood up from the steps that night and made a plan to send a query letter to my dream publisher the next day.
Are you ready to write a query letter for your own book? Keep reading for tips on how to write a query letter that sells.
What is a Query Letter?
Have you ever asked someone for something? That’s essentially what a query letter is: a specific request you’re making of the literary agent or acquisitions editor of a publishing house to read your book proposal. You are querying to see if they might be interested in your book.
Sounds simple enough, right?
Yes and no.
Yes, a query letter is simple in that you are making a single request of someone: simply to read the book proposal you’re attaching to your email. But a query letter is never a simple request because you’re laying yourself on the line here. Chances are, you may have met this agent or editor before at a writer’s conference but most likely you’re cold-querying. Which means this agent or editor has no reason to grant your request or even fully read your query start to finish…
Unless you do two things:
Make that editor or agent want to tell you yes…
Your objective is to compel that editor/agent to keep reading your query, want to read your book proposal, and ultimately send you a book contract, right?
Well, that editor/agent’s objective is to empty his/her inbox.
Editors and agents receive gazillions of queries.
Because they receive so many query letters similar to yours, you want to make your query letter stand out. Here’s how not to do this:
- Use ALL CAPS in your query email’s subject line
- Bold the entire text of your email body
- Tell the editor/agent that they simply must read your book proposal because you’re going to be the next John Grisham or Janette Oke and if they don’t send you a book contract by tomorrow at noon (overnighted, of course) then they’ll be making the biggest mistake of their career.
Most likely, you knew all those wrong ways to write a query letter.
But if you’d like to know the right way to write a query letter, here are some pointers!
…by formatting your Query Letter to Industry Standards
So what are industry standards? Besides making sure you address the editor or agent by name (correctly spelled!) and use a professional tone, consider the following:
Tell Them What You’re Pitching
That means you should provide all the important details up front. Go ahead and mention your genre, your word-count, and status, or whether or not your manuscript is completed. This can best be done in your opener:
Thank you for taking the time to read about my 91,000-word contemporary romance novel.
Please find attached my book proposal for my completed manuscript, which is a Young Adult novel of 85,000 words.
The middle of your query is where you want to get into the good stuff and describe your book. You’re a writer, so write your best here! Give details and arouse curiosity, but don’t take too long. Short and sweet is best.
Think of this section as similar to what you foresee going on the back cover of your paperback one day.
Tell Them Who You Are
Toward the end of your query letter is a great time to mention any publishing credits you may have. Have you published a novel before? Maybe won any big contests like the one I mentioned?
If you don’t have any publishing credits yet, that’s fine. Instead, mention something about your platform, whether it’s the fact that you blog or that you’re active on Instagram or you host a large Facebook group just waiting to buy your book.
The Query Letter that Sold My Book
On that Monday night long ago, I decided not to quit my dream, and the next day I queried my dream publisher. This is what I sent:
Dear Ms. White:
Thank you for taking the time to read about my 96,000 word Historical Romance The Sound of Diamonds.
An independent Catholic maiden seeking refuge in the Low Countries finds herself at the center of the Iconoclastic Fury. To escape, Gwyneth Barrington must depend on the man who murdered her parents. In Reformation-era Europe, a converted rogue seeks to restore his honor. Running from a tortured past of his own making and an accusation that destroyed his life, Dirk Godfrey knows he has only one chance at redemption. But the road to redeeming his reputation takes a turn when he commits a good deed that will only further tarnish his name: abducting a lady.
Jaded by tragedy and forced to trust the man she hates, Gwyneth harbors little hope of ever returning home alive. Against her better judgment, she begins to trust the man intent on keeping her alive. She soon discovers her poor vision is not the only thing that blinds her; an Illuminator provides the key to a powerful, personal view of God, and her illusions shatter. But the home Gwyneth knew is not what she thought. When a dark secret and a twisted plot for power collide in a castle masquerading as a haven, will the saint and the sinner hold to hope…or be overcome? When Dirk’s plan fails, will all be lost?
Readers of Laura Frantz’s Love’s Reckoning and Siri Mitchell’s The Messenger will enjoy The Sound of Diamonds. My novel provides a foray into a forgotten time as well as a timeless message of hope. While Gwyneth and Dirk despair of breaking free from tragedy, they both come to realize redemption is never out of reach.
I am a graduate of the She Speaks 2011 writers’ conference and vice-president of my local Word Weavers chapter. I write regularly for a number of online publications, including Kindred Grace. If you are interested, I can send you the book proposal. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing your response.
What can happen when you know how to write a query letter…
One year after I sent my original query letter (yep, publishing is a long process!), I signed a contract with WhiteFire for the entire three-book series.
All because I sent one little email and refused to give up.
To help you write a query letter that sells, I’ve created the resource below, a quick cheatsheet that I hope proves helpful to you as you write your own query letter!
- Lessons from a Loser: What I Learned from Not Quitting – more about that Monday night
- Examples of Query Letters that Sold
- What Does the Perfect Query Letter Look Like?