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The Query Letter: A basic overview

Publishing is a long road. But writers have to start somewhere.

Write, rewrite, repeat … then query.

As the final installment of my three-part series on the basics of publishing, I’m including a quick overview of the query letter. I’ll be following this post up with another on how to know when your work is ready to query.

The first part of my series covered the Three Tiers of Publishing. You can read about the differences between the Big 5 (or maybe 6!), small presses, and self-publishing by clicking the link here. I also wrote about the fundamental differences between editors, agents, and pr companies. You can read that post by clicking here.

Lastly, you can gain some insights into freelance editing, by reading my interview with freelance editor Andrea Karin Nelson of Allegory Editing by clicking the link here. And now, on to the query letter!

What is a Query Letter?

A query letter is a letter to an agent or editor stating your interest in working with them, their agency, or their publishing house. I’m using “editor” in this post to refer to small publishing houses that allow for non-agented submissions. Further, this post is primarily focused on novelists pitching fiction. Please be aware that non-fiction is pitched very differently. Non-fiction it typically pitched through a proposal. More on that in future posts. Memoir, though “true,” is usually pitched like fiction, because most memoirs (unless you’ve been president, sold out a stadium, or been seen on the silver screen) are sold based primarily on the quality of the writing and should be pitched as a finished, polished “story.”

What goes in a Query Letter?

Rule number one in writing a query letter is to follow the guidelines for the agent or publisher you are pitching. Below you’ll find some information about how to identify agents and editors. But first, there are some basic rules that will help you write a good query letter.

Query letters should be short and sweet.

Typically one page. Though most queries are now written in an email, a single page on a word document is a good way to assess the length of your query. For an email, you want a letter the reader doesn’t have to scroll to read. As different programs have different size/type of font, it can vary, but if you write it out on a word document first, you’ll have a good sense of appropriate length.

Query letters should include “comp titles.”

Comp titles: Usually for “comparable titles” though on occasion you will hear “complementary titles.” Regardless, it means the same thing, titles of successful books similar to your work. This is tricky, because you want to be honest without bragging.

Choose titles published in the last two years.

New York Times Bestsellers are great, but don’t compare your work to J.K Rowling or Stephen King. Choose authors that have solid track records but don’t choose George R. R. Martin.

This is the opportunity to show the agent or editor that you understand your genre. That you know what shelf your novel belongs on at the bookstore. Further, it’s a short cut for an agent or editor to know if you are pitching the type of work they represent. 

For example, if I were to pick comp titles for my Eddie Shoes Mystery Series, I might go with Eddie Shoes combines Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone with Janet Evanovitch’s Stephanie Plum. I could stay with the author/characters or choose the two most recent novels in the  series.

An agent reading that comparison would know immediately I have a female sleuth, that I use humor in my mysteries, and that the personal relationships of the characters are going to be important. I’m choosing very well known authors in my genre, who write similar novels with great track records. Y is for Yesterday came out in 2017 as did Evanovitch’s most recent book in her Plum series.

Query Letters should include a short synopsis of the book and contact information.

The synopsis usually covers the protagonist(s), the central conflict, and what’s at stake. Don’t include too many characters or plot points. Just hit the most important events or objectives of the protagonist. Do include the genre and subgenre if appropriate. For example, if you write a mystery, mystery is the genre. If you write a police procedural, that is the subgenre. Know your genre! Agents and publishers have genres they read, enjoy, and represent. Make sure the people you pitch are looking for what you write.

Don’t forget your contact information! Include address, phone number, email. Don’t assume that because you have sent the query in an email they “have” your email address. Queries can be forwarded, printed out, passed on etc. Include your email address with the contact information.

Query Letters can include a brief statement about you.

If it feels relevant or is requested in the guidelines. Keep this short. Typically include only traditionally published novels or small press/self-published novels that have sold thousands of copies or have won prestigious, legitimate awards. Include articles, short stories, or other relevant projects, such as inclusion in an anthology or placement in a story competition. Don’t list hobbies, degrees, travels, or other unrelated details unless it directly applies to the project or the guidelines encourage you to include personal information. It’s okay to mention platform if you have one. For example, if you write a novel about a soldier recovering from PTSD and you are a combat veteran with 10K followers on your blog about military service, that’s relevant.

Query Letters should be tailored to each person you submit to and follow the guidelines for that agent, agency, or publisher exactly.

So, how do you find agents and editors and what their guidelines are?

How do I find who to send a Query to?

Every agent, agency, and editor has different guidelines for submissions. The first rule in pitching is do your homework. There are a number of resources out there for identifying agents and editors willing to accept submissions. One of the most commonly used sources is  Writer’s Market, which is updated annually.

Writer’s Market lists agents, publishing houses, and other opportunities such as contests, where a writer can submit their work, usually through a query letter. Writer’s Market can be purchased online and at most brick and mortar bookstores.

There are other books on the market, such as Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishing, take a look through your local bookstore, library, or online and you’ll find multiple choices. Make sure it lists what genre the agent or editor wants and their website.

After you identify an agent or editor you are interested in querying, go to their website and confirm their guidelines. Agents and editors sometimes take a hiatus from accepting submissions or change their guidelines from when the source material was published. Always double-check the guidelines and what type of material the individual is accepting.

There are also online services that provide information about the industry, such as Publishers Weekly. It’s never too early to start educating yourself about the business of being a published author.

Lastly, there are a number of books on the process of writing a good query letter along with multiple articles and suggestions online. Go to the library. A lot of agents are on Twitter or Facebook or other social media. Read suggestions from agents and editors through these and other online sources. Do your homework!

Always make sure you spell the name of the person you are querying correctly. Don’t use Ms./Mrs./Mr. without checking on the gender of the person. If you are unsure about Ms./Mrs., use Ms. They also have interviews and profiles available online. Read through those to get a sense of what they like to read.

Keep in mind agents and editors receive hundreds of submissions each week. Be professional. Double-check your grammar and spelling. This is your first opportunity to make a good impression. If you can, have another writer read through your letter before you submit. You would’t send out a first draft of your novel for an agent to read, don’t send out the first draft of your query letter.

You get one chance to make a first impression. Don’t waste it!

But at some point, you will have to take that first step. Check back here for my post on how to know when you’re ready to take it!


Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.

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