Publisher’s Anatomy 101: How to Write a Good Query Letter
Posted by Rachel Bell on
By: Mike Shymanski
Everyone knows that making a first impression is essential, but in book publishing, it may be the only one you get. Queries are the first form of contact between an unagented author and a publisher, and nailing this letter may put you in the next rounds of consideration for publication.
There are many pitfalls a writer can make in these query letters, so hitting the major points in a concise format will catch the editor’s eye—and probably their appreciation too.
We’ve outlined the four primary steps for a successful query letter below.
- Background: Start your query letter off by telling some of the basic information about your project here. The title, genre, and word count are really important, but also remember that you need to sell your book with a killer hook, telling us why it is unique and valuable to the market.
A good hook also should boil down the elements of your manuscript. I had a professor once say that if you cannot derive a simple summary in an enticing way and add why your story is different or urgent, you shouldn’t be pitching it anyway. Harsh words, but some publishers are even more brutal.
- An intriguing synopsis: Here you get to embellish a little and get into the heart of your story. Be sure to mention your character (and others of importance) but really the conflicts and questions that drive the story.
Don’t reveal the twists or the grand finale, but give the publisher a taste of the direction it’s heading in, as to make them curious. Think of it as writing the back cover copy of your book in a precise paragraph.
- Connection to the publishing house: Personalize, personalize, personalize. We’ve seen enough submissions slide in to know when authors are spamming presses and not looking into what we do well enough.
If the press has a mission, talk about how your manuscript aligns. If you looked at their backlist titles (and you should), mention how your manuscript will fit with those previous titles. (Also, you might want to check the masthead or the “About Us” section of the website and address the letter to someone from there.) The point being, a little research goes a long way.
- Your (brief) bio: Be concise here. Talk about who you are, where you’re from, where you went to school, etc. Flex your previous published work and any literary/writing awards here, and remember to mention any other publishing related details about yourself.
Biggest Mistakes People Make in Query Letters
- Ignoring submissions guidelines. Submitting a fiction novel to a nonfiction press? It’ll be in the trash before dusk. Doing the research on what they are looking for and the fine points (manuscript length, names/no names on manuscript, etc.) is the most basic starting point in avoiding any pitfalls.
- Tone. Some authors come in a little too hot with their amazing title. Adding a dash of charisma and humility goes really far for editors who see dozens of queries in a day.
- Titles with no market. Hit the goldilocks zone. Some titles we see are either far too broad or far too niche; or maybe we’re just not being sold right.
- Too verbose. Probably the most common mistake is the amount of time and wordage authors spend on their bio or their journey with their manuscript. Remember you’re submitting a manuscript, not yourself.
Other Pro Tips to Improving Your Query Letter
- Personalize the letter to the editors.
- Remember, you're selling something.
- Put brief biographical information at the end of the letter.
- Take the humble route.
- Keep it to one page.
- Control the urge to send the manuscript or sample chapters with your query letter.
Query letters are the first step into consideration for publication and can set the tone for a longer relationship with a publisher, should they choose to publish your work.
Being clear, concise, and honest as to what your manuscript is about will give you more of an edge than trying to bury the details.
And pairing that with a little research on the presses you're submitting to and personalizing your letter will give you the best shot with editors by putting you in their good graces. Happy writing!