A query letter is like a cover letter for your book. Just like there is a general recommended outline for cover letters (introduce yourself, your education, how your experience relates to the job, then a little conclusion about the company and how you’d fit in with it), there is also a general format for a query letter (summarize your book’s plot, state your book’s word length and comparable successful books, explain why you chose to query this agent in particular, then provide your own background).
Also like cover letters, query letters need to be geared toward your audience (in this case, the individual agent you are querying), and the format needs to be adjusted to properly fit your work and put it in the best light. The following is a general format for a query letter with specific tips and notes in purple to help you best succeed. While the layout is general, it is best suited for an unpublished author, so if that’s not you or you’ve got other unusual elements in your book, subscribe to my blog on the right to get a notification when I post advice for more specific circumstances, such as authors who have been published before or books with multiple perspectives.
As for length, a query letter should be three-quarters to one page long, under standard formatting. Your absolute maximum—do not pass Go, do not collect $200—is 450 words. Do not write more than 450 words. And, really, it shouldn’t even be that high. In the other direction, your absolute minimum is 250 words. If you’re writing less than this, then there’s no way you’re not missing information. A sweet range is 300-350, so try to stay in there.
Beyond that, here are the five elements, in order, of a query letter:
- Address the letter.
- Address it to the agent! There is no reason not to do this, as it only takes a second, but it makes all the difference for the agent. Generic “Dear agent” openers can feel impersonal and like the author doesn’t care enough about the agent to put forth much effort; and if that’s true, why would the agent put much effort into the author? I recommend the simple but effective “Dear [Agent’s full name]” (e.g., if I were the agent it would be “Dear Elanna Heda”). Do be careful not to make assumptions about things like whether you can use an agent’s nickname or what an agent’s gender is. Make it easy on yourself and just copy whatever name is listed on the agency’s website.
- Your first few paragraphs are your pitch.
- You’ve written your book, now hook ’em in! This should be one to three paragraphs explaining your book, but think flap copy (the type of summary that goes on the back or inside flap of a printed book) more than full-on synopsis.
- Your first few sentences should hook the reader in and entice them into continuing with your query. Your pitch is the real selling area, so don’t be afraid to convey the tone of your story through your writing style. Are you pitching a contemporary middle grade story with a snarky main character? A young adult sci-fi mystery? How about some straight-up erotica? The pitches for these three stories should not be written in the same tone! Don’t write neutrally here—save that for the black-and-white information sections below.
- People read for plot but they stay for character, so the most important things your reader should walk away with from your pitch is 1. your main character’s personality/motivation(s) and 2. the overarching plot. If they finish your pitch and are not given enough information to understand these two things, then it’s time to grab your red pen.
- Finish it off by leaving your reader wanting more. Do not give them the resolution to your conflict(s)—the point of your pitch is to get the agent to want to read the book, and giving them spoilers is not the way to do that!
- Next paragraph should be marketing information and why you’re submitting to this agent.
- This section needs to include: the title, the genre/age group, and the word count for your book. Then you should pick around two published novels that did well and are comparable to your manuscript. For an extra kick, explain why you chose those books: will readers of the successful books enjoy yours because the characters have similarly strong personalities? Because it’s the same style of horror? Because the magical rules in your universe are close to those in the published book? Every single sentence of your query letter is an opportunity for you to teach the agent something about you and your manuscript, so don’t just say here “fans of [published work] will enjoy [your title].” Use this chance to tell them new information! “Fans of [published work] will enjoy this novel because…”!
- You should also add in why you’re querying this agent. For help with this, look at their MSWL (manuscriptwishlist.com) and their list of published books. These are often on their agency’s website, but an agent’s personal site or even their Twitter account are great resources for this kind of information! If you’re struggling to find one to two sentences worth of explanation for why you’re submitting to this particular agent, then they’re not the agent for you (and that’s okay).
- Your final paragraph is about you!
- Tell them about what you studied and/or what you’re doing—even if it’s not literary or related to writing, and especially if it is somehow relevant to your book. Also, if you’ve been published in a magazine or something of the sort, name drop it! Don’t be afraid to show off!
- Thank them for their time and sign off.
- A simple “Thank you for your time and consideration.” and then a “Best,” followed by your name is all you need here. After that, though, if you’re active in any corner of the internet, include a link or handle for it! If they like your work, agents want to find you, so help them by dropping your website, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, LinkedIn (if relevant), etc. underneath your name.
Always, always, always read the specifications of the agent you are querying! If agents need you to provide them with specific information, they will list it on their website, and they have too many queries to look through ones for authors who didn’t even take the time to look through their submission guide. It’s common (and honestly easiest on you) for authors to keep a template query to adjust as needed and submit to multiple agents, but some agents/agencies are more particular than others, and not abiding by listed requirements for content or formatting is a surefire way to get your submission disregarded immediately.
Last but not least: Proofread your work. This technically should go without saying, but I like to say it anyway.
If you’re still struggling and you can afford it, get yourself an editor! They can look at your query with fresh eyes and give you specific, personalized advice on how to better represent your story now that it’s done. (My services are currently open, if you’re looking.)
At the end of the day and above all else, remember that you started this process because you love writing. Don’t let the struggles of the business side make you forget that.
Happy writing. You got this.