If you have a dream to be a published author, you might feel like the whole endeavor hinges on “who you know” in the publishing world. The good news is this isn’t the case at all. Your dream of being a published author can come true without any special connections—but you do need to understand how the industry works. Many authors’ paths to publication began with the humble query letter.
What is a Query Letter?
A query letter is an introduction. It’s a one-page letter you send to literary agents—the folks whose job it is to get you a publishing contract. No major publishing house will look at works submitted without an agent’s representation, so working with an agent is crucial. That’s why your 300-word query letter is so important. Its job is to entice an agent, the industry gatekeeper, to ask to see more of your book, and, ultimately represent you.
What to Do Before Querying
First, if you’re writing fiction, you should have a completed novel. It should also be polished and ready for prime time, which means you’ve taken the time to revise and proofread it. You’ve also shown it to at least one reader for feedback. Next, you need to know exactly what you are selling so you can create the best one-sentence hook possible. The hook is the most important part of your query letter. It should introduce your protagonist, his or her conflict or choices (the stakes), and the sizzle. The sizzle is what makes your story unique.
For practice crafting a great hook, keep in mind that PublishersMarketplace lists book deals that were recently signed at major New York houses. These listings always include a one-sentence description of the book. Read these to get the hang of solid hooks.
The Traditional Query Letter Format
There is an industry standard for query letters, and it’s important to follow it. If you decide to deviate from the norm and try to stand out by being cute, chances are excellent your letter will be immediately dismissed. Format with your address at the top of the page, right justified. Then, place the agent’s address left justified. Used a personalized greeting, with the agent’s name. Keep the body of the letter to under five paragraphs. The first paragraph should hook the agent’s attention. If you’ve met the agent at a writing conference, mention it. If another writer or editor referred you to this particular agent, say so. Then share the title, genre, and word count of your book.
Summarize your story in paragraph two and add your bio in paragraph three. This is a good place to mention writing awards, notable bylines, or previous book reviews that you’ve received. Keep it short—three sentences should do it.
Submission Guidelines Matter
I used to work at a publishing house in graduate school, so I can tell you firsthand how very annoying it is when submission guidelines aren’t followed. The appropriate length for a query, for example, is one page. Check the guidelines for each individual agent you’re querying. Some only take submissions via email, some only via mail.
The wonderful thing about the query letter process is that it is open to everyone. Spend a lot of time on your query. It’s important that it reflect the same tone as the book you’re trying to publish. This letter is arguably even more important than your book! Remember—you’re not alone. If you need help, you can reach out to me at finaleditionllc.com.